Friday, February 19, 2010

Academy Award Shorts: Good things in small packages

Academy Award Short Subjects (2010) 
Four stars (out of five). Rating: not rated, but with considerable profanity and adult subject matter
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.19.10

I cherish well-crafted short fiction.

Any creative typist can 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: particularly these days, as the markets for short stories  magazines and anthologies  become ever-more-endangered species.
Wallace, left, and his faithful canine companion, Gromit, load their delivery
truck with the delicious bakery products for which their new business,
Top Bun, has become known. Director Nick Park's "A Matter of Loaf and
Death," his fourth Wallace and Gromit short adventure, is nominated for this
year's Best Animated Short Subject.

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, the cartoon 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 see these nominated mini-movies? And if only a select few get to view them, then why bother with the Academy Awards categories?

Typical short-term thinking (pun intended).

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, back at the beginning of this decade, the Academy quite wisely began to market the 10 nominated shorts in a road-show package aimed at arthouse venues; Sacramento's Crest Theater got on board, and now everybody can see what the fuss is about.

The 2009 nominees split into two camps, somewhat according to medium. The animated shorts are, with one exception, very entertaining and frequently hilarious. The live-action entries, with one exception, are emotionally brutal and quite grim ... but never less than compelling.

Starting, then, with the latter:

The standout is Juanita Wilson and James Flynn's "The Door," an Irish production set in Russia in 1986, and based on a book by Tatsiana Aliaksiejeva. The 17-minute drama begins with neither explanation nor backstory, as a man evades security patrols in order to sneak into one building in an utterly deserted village.

Thanks to brief flashbacks, we discover that this used to be his family's home, but this doesn't answer the big question: why this man risks arrest  or the possibility of getting shot  in order to steal the apartment's front door.

Savvy viewers will figure it out before the denouement, but that won't lessen the film's impact; it's a true throat-grabber.

The most provocative entry is Luke Doolan and Drew Bailey's "Miracle Fish," set in modern-day Australia, which concerns 8-year-old Joe (Karl Beattie), whose birthday  this day  is much less than ideal. Money is tight, his father is in the hospital, and his school mates pick on him unmercifully.

The boy's only gift, from his parents, is an odd little gimmick: a jelly-like "miracle fish" that, when placed in one's palm, reacts in one of several ways. An explanatory key then assigns something of a fortune, based on how the fish has moved (or not moved).

Underwhelmed by this "birthday present," tired of being persecuted by the other kids, Joe sneaks off into the nurse's office and falls asleep. When he wakes, some undetermined time later, the entire school is deserted and eerily quiet. Is it merely after hours ... or something else?

Doolan and Bailey don't tip their hand until the very end, and the result is an emotionally roller coaster.

On a much lighter note, "Instead of Abracadabra"  from Patrik Eklund and Mathias Fjallstrom  is a wry Swedish comedy about Tomas (Simon J. Berger), a slacker still living with his parents, who resists getting a job in favor of fulfilling his dream to become a stage magician.

He's somewhat inept at this calling, to put it mildly, and an early effort  involving a cramped cabinet, his mother's willingness to volunteer and a very sharp sword  ends ... not so well.

Undeterred, and wanting to impress the cute young woman who has just moved in next door, Tomas arranges for a very public performance at his father's 60th birthday party. Everything builds to a clever climax, and the last scene is perfect.

Joachim Back and Tivi Magnusson's "The New Tenants" is a savagely dark comedy that mines Quentin Tarantino territory. The cranky Frank (David Rakoff) and the more laid-back Peter (Jamie Harrold) have just moved into a new apartment; they sit, surrounded by boxes, to rest briefly before starting to set up their new home.

In short order, their new digs are invaded by a series of neighbors, all gradually revealing their apartment's increasingly shocking history. The payoff is a bit anticlimactic, but the build-up is hilariously tasteless.

Gregg Helvey's "Kavi," finally, is a bit of advocacy cinema that depicts the tragedy of exploited labor among India's poor. Sagar Salunke has the title role, as a young boy forced to help his parents make bricks when he'd rather be playing cricket. Alas, Helvey's film has a didactic, preachy quality, and the absence of a proper resolution leaves a dissatisfied taste.

The animated nominees are as rich with humor as they are with varying technique.

Fabrice Joubert's "French Roast" depicts the trauma of a businessman who, enjoying his daily cup of coffee at a cafe, suddenly realizes that he's left home without his wallet, and cannot pay the tab. The poor fellow's increasingly desperate efforts to solve this problem are as amusing as the Charles Addams-esque animation style.

"The Lady and the Reaper," from Spain's Javier Recio Gracia, has the snap, creativity and fast-paced action of a classic Warner Brothers cartoon. The story concerns an elderly woman who, quite ready to take the Grim Reaper's hand and join her husband in a happy afterlife, is repeatedly brought back to life by a meddling doctor.

Both "French Roast" and "The Lady and the Reaper" quite cleverly eschew actual dialogue, instead employing grunts, mumbled nonsense syllables and facial expressions to advance the narrative. Subtitles therefore aren't necessary.

"Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty," an Irish entry from Nicky Phelan and Darragh O'Connell, concerns a little old lady who spins a rather frightening bedtime story for her terrified granddaughter. The little girl, trapped in bed, can do nothing but widen her eyes and shrink behind the covers as this bent version of "Sleeping Beauty" spins out of control.

Nicolas Schmerkin's "Logorama" obviously earned a nomination on the basis of its clever premise: an animated world constructed entirely of familiar (and not so familiar) product logos. Thus, two Michelin men appear as cops who chase after a vicious Ronald McDonald, who takes the Bob's Big Boy kid as a hostage.

But the film is unrelentingly violent and profane: off-putting and offensive on every level  to no real point  and, at 16 minutes, much too long.

Happily, the best is saved for last: Nick Park's newest Wallace and Gromit adventure, "A Matter of Loaf and Death," which finds our hapless inventor and his faithful dog embarking on new careers as bakers. Alas, the world of bread dough proves unexpectedly dangerous, as somebody has been systematically bumping off all the bakers in town.

The film is laden with Park's signature gadgets  every one a hilariously complicated Rube Goldberg contraption  and builds to the pell-mell climax we've come to expect from these productions.

How could any of the other entries compete? "A Matter of Loaf and Death" may not be quite as perfect as "The Wrong Trousers"  which garnered Park an Oscar in this category in 1994  but it's still by far the best of the lot here.

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 any beyond the first three or four. Far better, I think, to savor them in twos or threes  particularly since several 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.

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