Thursday, February 10, 2011

2010 Academy Award Shorts: Stars of tomorrow?

Academy Award Shorts (2010)
Four stars (out of five), as an average. Unrated, and also a mix, with most entries worthy of a family-friendly G, while others slide into PG or PG-13 territory, for dramatic intensity or sexual candor.
By Derrick Bang

In anticipation of Feb. 27’s Academy Awards ceremony, the “Oscar Shorts” package once again is making road-show appearances across the country; here in the Sacramento area, the program will play at the Crest Theater starting Friday.

As always, the 10 short films – five live action, five animated – demonstrate impressive talent and technical skills. Indeed, they’re all exceptional in the latter respect; several of the live-action entries boast strong acting and production values that would be the envy of many feature-length films.
David (Samuel Peter Holland, left), although dying from cancer, retains a
cheeky candor and has no qualms about sharing his rather inappropriate
"secret desire" with a compassionate priest (Jim Carter), in Wish 143.

I am, however, dismayed by the dearth of foreign-language entries. Four of the live-action nominees hail from the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland; the fifth, although set in Burundi, is made by a Belgian. Two of the animated entries are American, and two are UK co-productions – with Australia and Germany, respectively – while the fifth, although set in Madagascar, is helmed by a French director.

These exclusively American and Western European sensibilities are ... well, regrettable, at the very least. No noteworthy Asian entries? African? Middle-Eastern? All the creative talent available in the world, and four out of five of the live-action shorts concern white characters speaking English?

I’d hate to think the Academy voters were overly seduced by the aforementioned slick production values present here; I’d have welcomed a few more alternative viewpoints, even if the films themselves had been a bit rougher around the edges.

Particularly when, as is the case with the first live-action entry, the story is such an infuriating puzzle.

Director Tanel Toom’s The Confession concerns two Catholic schoolboys – the quiet and sincere Sam (Lewis Howlett) and his trouble-making friend, Jacob (Joe Eales) – who face the prospect of their first Confession. Jacob, intrigued by the notion of getting a free pass for all his sins – and we can imagine there are many – finds the concept “cool.” Sam, alternatively, is worried because he can’t think of anything worth confessing.

Jacob hits upon a solution: a prank that will give Sam grist for his chat with the priest. But the prank goes horribly, horribly awry, much to Sam’s horror. He immediately wants to tell everybody what happened – not just the priest – but Jacob grimly insists that they should keep quiet.

Okay, it’s an intriguing moral dilemma, and young Howlett is achingly persuasive as a young boy wrestling with his conscience. But before he can come to grips with the initial crisis, Toom hits the kid with a second ghastly calamity ... and then brings his film to a maddening conclusion. We’re left to wonder what the hell Toom and his co-writer, Caroline Bruckner, expected us to take away from this unsettling little drama. That they enjoy torturing children?

Director Michael Creagh’s The Crush, also set in a grade school classroom, is much more satisfying. Young Ardal (Oran Creagh, the director’s son), hopelessly in love with his teacher, Miss Purdy (Olga Wehrly), is dismayed one day to discover that she has become engaged to a sports-loving boor (Rory Keenan). Convinced that this jerk isn’t worthy of Miss Purdy, Ardal takes matters into his own hands ... and the surprising climax is both clever and satisfying.

The heartbreaker among this quintet is director Ian Barnes’ Wish 143, which also features the most impressive cast. David (Samuel Peter Holland), a terminally ill teenage cancer patient, has little use for the “charity wish” offered by a benevolent agency. They can’t offer him the one wish he wants most: to lose his virginity.

David rather cheekily goes public with this desire, with awkward results. Worse yet, the girl he has long worshipped from afar (Chanel Cresswell) has taken up with another fellow.

As time passes, David becomes increasingly desperate, much to the chagrin of the kindly priest (Jim Carter) who likes the boy and has become something of a surrogate father. An eventual “solution” of sorts comes courtesy of a “working girl” named Maggie (Jodie Whitaker), but – again – the conclusion isn’t precisely what we expect. It’s better.

Carter, a veteran British character actor immediately recognized for his ongoing role as Mr. Carson, in the miniseries Downton Abbey, makes a wonderful priest. Whittaker, also a busy actress, will be remembered as the brash teenager who turned Peter O’Toole’s life upside-down in Venus.

Mostly, though, I admire the sensitivity of Tom Bidwell’s script. The little touches are achingly poignant, as with the way David compares his worsening plight with pieces of fruit. When we meet him, his tumor is the size of a kiwi. Then an orange, and then...

Wish 143 is very, very powerful.

So is Na Wewe (You Too), albeit for different reasons. This drama, the nail-biter in the bunch, is set in Burundi in the mid-1990s, during the genocidal clash between the Hutus and Tutsis. A chatty white Belgian businessman and his black associate are rescued, after their vehicle breaks down, by a busload of black travelers. Alas, around the next corner, they’re all stopped by a band of gun-toting thugs who order everybody out of the bus.

The passengers are confronted, one by one, with the intention of singling out and slaughtering any “Tutsi lice.”

But the subsequent interrogations take a surprising turn, as the nature of “identity” proves unexpectedly complicated. Director/co-writer Ivan Goldschmidt clearly intends to demonstrate the idiocy of those who arrogantly believe that heritage can be distilled to a single element. As the Belgian businessman’s companion says, with a smile, as the film concludes, “It is complicated, isn’t it?”


Writer/director/star Luke Matheny’s God of Love, finally, is a disposable giggle: the comedic saga of Ray, a lovestruck, lounge-singing darts champion who one day receives a box of darts capable of making anybody pricked by them fall in love with the nearest warm body ... for six hours. Although the weakest entry, this light-hearted film is a welcome alternative mostly because – as usually is the case – most of the live-action shorts are either serious or depressing.

As an Academy voter, I’d go with Wish 143, but the strong socio-political subtext of Na Wewe will make it hard to beat.

Moving to the animated fare, the hands-down stand-out is The Gruffalo, crafted with meticulous love by directors Max Lang and Jakob Schuh, from Julia Donaldson’s popular children’s book. The film’s animation style is impeccably faithful to Axel Scheffler’s delightful illustrations in the book, and the story retains Donaldson’s sing-song poetic style, as well.
A clever mouse is distressed to discover that a ferocious creature, which he
thought existed only in his imagination, expects to turn him into an
afternoon snack, in The Gruffalo.

With one difference. This film adds a framing device, which allows a mother squirrel (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) to tell this story to her two children. The saga concerns a resourceful mouse (voiced by James Corden) who avoids being eaten, in turn, by a fox (Tom Wilkinson), an owl (John Hurt) and a snake (Rob Brydon) by inventing a most unlikely dining companion: a gruffalo.

Consider, then, the mouse’s terrified surprise when this fictitious, fearsome beast, sporting all sorts of icky enhancements – from terrible tusks and turned-out toes, to a poisonous wart at the end of his nose – pops up in his path (voiced, and marvelously so, by Robbie Coltrane).

Will the tiny mouse be up to this new challenge?

I must agree with the pull-quote placed on the poster that publicized this delightful little film across the pond: Richard Vine, writing in The Guardian, noted that “It’s hard to think that there’s anything better to watch with your family.” You betcha.

Australia’s The Lost Thing, however, wins top marks for creativity. Directors Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan employ a marvelous CGI style to tell of a boy who finds a most unusual, ah, creature on the beach one day: utterly ignored by everybody else, despite its crazy-quilt unlikeliness. The boy, uncertain what to do with his new companion, eventually finds the perfect solution.

This film is both whimsical and slyly subversive, hinting both at the need for inclusiveness, and a “Puff, the Magic Dragon”-esque lament over the fact that, eventually, we all outgrow our childhood sense of wonder, and stop seeing miracles.

Geefwee Boedoe’s Let’s Pollute is a hilariously satiric jab at all those useless public-service shorts made in the 1950s and ’60s, in many cases offering “advice” later proven to be both foolish and pointless. (Remember “duck and cover”?) In this case, we’re exhorted on the best methods of increasing our wasteful ways, most notably by following “the twice rule”:

Always buy twice what you need.
Never use the same thing twice.
Waste twice as much as yesterday.
Never think twice about it.

You’ll laugh constantly, albeit from horror; rarely has a six-minute short made its point as effectively.

Bastien Dubois’ Madagascar A Journey Diary is the most interesting entry, as it employs an animation technique I’ve rarely seen before: more specifically, at least a dozen different animation styles. Dubois and his team toss in a little bit of everything, from line art and rotoscoping to replacement animation. The colorful, cacophonous result does, indeed, evoke a travel diary come to glorious life.

Finally, Pixar’s Day & Night, directed by Teddy Newton, will be recognized by filmgoers who saw it paired with Toy Story 3 last summer. The odd story concerns two creatures – one “revealing” daytime images in our world, the other nighttime images – and their initial mutual suspicion, which gradually warms to friendship. Although starting with a clever premise, and offering a welcome theme of inclusiveness, this entry isn’t up to Pixar’s usual standards; the conclusion, as well, is rather flat.

As I’ve noted during previous years, when reviewing these road-show packages, it’s a shame that patrons must watch them all at once. That can result in overload; like well-written short stories, the best of these filmlets deserves lengthy consideration. Presented simultaneously, the experience of any single entry tends to be diluted by the overall package.

Even so, this beats the alternative. For far too long, we had no means of seeing any of these Academy Award nominees; we therefore can be grateful that shorts, like documentaries, have become an increasingly visible part of Hollywood’s entertainment pipeline.

We’re always richer for such diversity.

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