Friday, February 10, 2012

The 2011 Oscar Shorts: Tiny sparks, mighty flames

The 2011 Oscar Shorts (2011)
Four stars. Unrated, but certainly suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.10.12

Oscar season — just a few weeks to go! — means that it’s time for another cherished part of the annual ritual: the road-show program of Academy Awards short subjects.

A little boy enters a most unusual family business, in Pixar's thoroughly
charming "La Luna."
Until quite recently, access to these short films remained limited; a few popped up randomly on PBS or cable/satellite channels, but for the most part we never saw more than the glimpses afforded during the actual Academy Awards broadcast. This changed five years ago, thanks in great part to the increased marketability of feature-length documentaries.

Folks take notice when films such as 2005’s March of the Penguins rake in just shy of $80 million in the United States alone, and when nonfiction cousins such as Spellbound and Young @ Heart out-perform mainstream alternatives. We also mustn’t overlook the popularity of efforts by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock.

And so, thanks to the involvement of art houses such as Sacramento’s Crest Theater — and what I imagine must be nightmarish contractual arrangements, with 10 different films involved — we now have the opportunity, each year, to savor cinema’s answer to the novella and short story.

In some cases, the short-short story.

Beginning with the live-action nominees, Norwegian director Hallvar Witzo does wonderful things with scripter Linn-Jeanethe Kyed’s Tuba Atlantic, a droll study of how 70-year-old Oskar (Edvard Haegstad) handles some rather unsettling news from his doctor. The prognosis: only six more days of life. (“That’s very precise,” Oskar mutters.)

Oskar (Edvard Haegstad) hates seagulls; their shrill cries are upsetting his
precious few remaining days of life. Young Inger (Ingrid Viken), assigned to
help him "prepare" for his fate, scarcely understands this old coot, but she's
determined to make a difference as his moral hourglass runs out.
Oskar’s a cantankerous coot, living alone at the edge of the bitterly cold ocean. He has embraced novel methods — involving a machine gun and dynamite-filled fish — of killing the raucous seagulls that make sleep impossible. His beloved isolation is invaded by the inappropriately cheerful Inger (Ingrid Viken), a bubbly teen with a mission, as a Jesus-preaching “Angel of Death” assigned to help Oskar through the “five stages” of accepting his fate.

Both these characters are captivating misfits, forever living in the shadows of more successful siblings. Inger suffers the humiliation of braces, while her sister dates two boys; Oskar long ago lost touch with his brother Jon, who moved to the United States. Oskar initially wants nothing to do with Inger’s “ministrations,” of course, but events — and a huge, rather peculiar “something” concealed beneath a massive tarp, and pointing out toward sea — will conspire to build a most unlikely relationship.

This film’s one shortcoming: The white subtitles, often projected against the setting’s snow-white background, can be very difficult to read. Do your best; the effort is worthwhile.

Unusual technology also is at the heart of writer/director Andrew Bowler’s Time Freak, the hilarious saga of a regular guy, Evan (John Conor Brooke), who discovers that his best friend and roommate, Stillman (Michael Nathanson), has developed a working time machine.

Rather than indulge his long-gestating desire to check out ancient Rome, though, Stillman has grown obsessed — much like Bill Murray’s character, in Groundhog Day — with replaying the events of the previous 24 hours, in order to perfect his encounters with a dry-cleaner and an attractive young woman (Emilea Wilson).

Bowler’s film is superbly paced and impeccably edited; the payoff, in the final scene, is priceless.

That’s also an apt description of Pentecost, Irish writer/director Peter McDonald’s droll account of 11-year-old Damian (Scott Graham), a soccer-loving alter boy whose “incense burner malfunction” during one Sunday service finds him banished in disgrace. Worse yet, Damian’s humiliated father enacts a three-month ban on soccer, knowing full well that the boy’s beloved Liverpool FC are playing their first European Cup final in two weeks.

Happily, Damian earns a shot at redemption, as a last-minute replacement altar boy for an important Mass involving the Archbishop.

McDonald’s “gimmick” here is treating this Mass like a soccer match, with the parish’s kindhearted Mr. Quinn (Andrew Bennett, whose melodious brogue will be remembered from his narration of 1999’s Angela’s Ashes) delivering a pre-service pep talk that sounds just like a zealous coach’s locker-room exhortation. Indeed, Damian’s entire experience unfolds like a soccer match: one that builds to a climactic moment that demonstrates, as often is the case, that boys will be boys.

Writer/director Terry George’s The Shore, also set in Ireland, offers similarly light moments while focusing poignantly on the long-estranged relationship between two former best friends. Jim (Ciarán Hinds) left Ireland years ago, establishing a life — and family — for himself in the United States. In the process, though, he jilted Mary (Maggie Cronin), the woman he left back home.

Jim’s best friend, Paddy (Conleth Hill), stepped into the breach; he and Mary became husband and wife. Now, decades later, Jim has returned to his home town, where he’s enthusiastically greeted as the long-lost prodigal. But Paddy and Mary are conspicuously absent, and Jim is afraid to seek them out, fearing their anger over his bad behavior all those years ago.

George’s narrative unfolds with a larkish tone often associated with Irish sagas; mistaken identify briefly plays a part in these events, with quite droll results. But the drama itself is key, and the professional cast — Hinds, in particular, will be recognized from numerous film roles — capably brings these engaging characters to life.

The Shore is the most polished and professional of these filmlets, and likely the favored front-runner for an Oscar.

Finally, things turn more serious with director/co-scripter Max Zähle’s Raju, which concerns a German couple — Jan (Wotan Wilke Möhring) and Sarah (Julia Richter) — that has traveled to India to adopt an orphan. At first, everything is wonderful; the 4-year-old Raju (Krish Gupta) seems genuinely delighted to have found a permanent home.

But then the boy disappears, and Jan discovers that all is not as it appears ... and that he and his wife are an unwitting part of a very serious problem. This puts the man in a terrible bind; subtle evidence suggests that his emotionally fragile wife — who likely wanted, but couldn’t have, a child of her own — has placed far too much importance on this adoption.

What, then, is the appropriate moral response?

All five of these films are engaging, well acted and directed, and thoroughly absorbing; alas, that’s not the case with the program’s other half.

Canadian animator Patrick Doyon’s hand-drawn Dimanche concerns a little boy forced to endure another in a long line of grey Sundays spent with relatives who scarcely notice him. Unfortunately, Doyon’s visual style is as dull and unpalatable as his young protagonist’s afternoon, and the story never goes anywhere.

Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby’s Wild Life, another hand-drawn Canadian entry, is even stranger. The “story,” set in 1909 Calgary, concerns an Englishman who moves to the Canadian frontier, apparently obsessed with a cowboy’s life but wholly unable to actually inhabit such a role.

Again, the animation style is clumsy and unappealing; while I credit Forbis and Tilby with taking this approach deliberately, that doesn’t make their film any easier on the eyes.

Doyon lards Dimanche with a vague metaphor involving coins crushed by passing trains; Forbis and Tilby intercut their story with text screens that describe an approaching comet. In both cases, your raised, skeptical eyebrows will get plenty of exercise.

Grant Orchard and Sue Golfe’s A Morning Stroll is flat-out weird. An introductory screen explains that their 7-minute film is “based on a true story entitled The Chicken,” apparently published by Casper G. Glausen in a 1986 issue of The New York Literary Review. I can only hope that essay was more absorbing than this on-screen adaptation, which seems little more than a bizarre riff on various chicken-crossing-the-road jokes.

We watch the same brief sequence unfold three times, in 1959, 2009 and 2059: A city pedestrian stops, stunned, as a chicken rounds the corner, ambles along the sidewalk and up some steps, before pecking on a door and being admitted inside. The animation style reflects each era, with black-and-white stick figures (1959) yielding to fully dimensioned computer animation (2059).

But the third and final act is gross, in addition to being grotesque ... and the final punch line scarcely justifies the build-up.

I was reminded, after enduring this misanthropic trio, of John Lasseter’s timeless quote regarding the importance of narrative, and the emotional pull of characters who face adversity while changing for the better: “No amount of great animation will save a bad story,” Lasseter sagely observed.

No surprise, then, that one of 2011’s short animated stand-outs is Pixar’s La Luna, written and directed by Enrico Casarosa. This utterly adorable fantasy concerns a little boy whose father and grandfather take him to work for the very first time: a rite of passage cemented by the gift of a Gatsby-style cap just like they wear.

But Dad and Grandpa have very different approaches to their quite unusual profession; the story’s charm comes from all the little ways that the boy tries to imitate both older men while favoring neither, and eventually developing his own solution to their nightly job’s unexpected dilemma.

Michael Giacchino’s captivating score also has much to do with this little film’s power.

Having been blown by a hurricane into a fantasy land where books have souls
and the means to move about, Morris Lessmore finds a new calling when he
accepts responsibility for the care and distribution of the tomes in a huge —
and quite unusual — library.
This category’s Oscar, however, definitely belongs to the final candidate: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, a blend of styles — miniatures, traditional and computer animation — orchestrated by award-winning author/illustrator William Joyce and co-director Brandon Oldenburg.

The story hearkens back to the days of Hollywood silents, and of their physically graceful stars such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Mostly, though, this is a heartfelt ode to books, and of the curative power of narrative: the notion that no problem is so great that it can’t be solved — or at least put into perspective — by a good book.

Our city-dwelling, book-loving protagonist is blown one day — by a hurricane wind that transports him, much as Dorothy was whisked to Oz — to a land where books have personalities and souls, and can fly about by flapping their hard covers. Mr. Lessmore, who conveys his moods and thoughts by the tilt of his porkpie hat, enters this land as a monochromatic figure; he’s transformed into a richly colored individual when he enters a huge, mansion-esque library.

He subsequently becomes the local “doctor,” healing other, similarly monochromatic people by prescribing the perfect literary solution. The message, presented with angelic grace, is timeless: Books themselves need to be cared for, just as they care for us.

Joyce builds his story to a poignant and unexpectedly powerful climax, and don’t be surprised if tears spring to your eyes ... encouraged, in great part, by John Hunter’s moving orchestral score.

With far more hits than misses, this year’s Oscar shorts program is certain to send you home with a smile ... if perhaps a wistful one.

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