Friday, February 1, 2013

The 2013 Oscar Shorts: Small but mighty

The Oscar Shorts (2012) 
Four stars. Rating: Not rated, and suitable for all ages (animated) and older children (live action)
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.1.13

The Oscar-nominated live-action short subjects traditionally lean toward gloomy and often politically charged topics, but this year’s crop is relentlessly grim, even by those standards.

After viewing the first two or three, you’ll be tempted to go home and run a razor blade across your wrists ... but the act would be redundant, because the next film begins as a character does that very thing.

And that’s the only genuinely funny entry among the five nominees.

Mordantly funny, anyway.

But don’t misunderstand me. The themes may be ultra-heavy, and it’d be hard to classify the collective viewing experience as “fun,” but every one of these short films is sharply scripted, deftly directed and well acted ... in some cases, by inexperienced amateurs.

The five nominated animated shorts, I’m happy to report, are much lighter fare ... and no less engaging.

Indeed, I’ve often been unimpressed by one or two entries in each category, but all 10 films this year are quite strong.

Until quite recently short subjects were little more than titles and fleeting film clips during the annual Academy Awards broadcast; jes’ plain folks had no access to them. It wasn’t always that way; during Hollywood’s golden age, a “night out at the movies” was a lengthy evening comprising two features, a newsreel, a dramatic short and one or two animated shorts.

Let’s not forget that Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon was a short subject, when released back in 1956; it’s now regarded as one of the best little movies ever made.

Multiplexes and an economically driven desire to turn over audiences as many times as possible — thus maximizing snack bar sales — eventually spelled the end of double features, newsreels and short subjects. Happily, though, shorts once again hit our radar during the first decade of the 21st century, thanks to their availability online — via iTunes, YouTube and other providers — and packaged “road show” engagements at venues such as Sacramento’s Crest Theater.

This year’s live action category features entries from all over the world. Two focus on young boys; these also are the most politically provocative entries.

Writer/director Bryan Buckley’s Asad stars Harun Mohammed as the title character, a young Somali boy just now old enough to choose between two worlds: on the one hand, life as a fisherman, encouraged by a wizened old man who believes the boy is capable of catching “great things”; on the other hand, the violent option of joining the Somali pirates who prey on passing boats and ships.

Village life is harsh and often deadly, the latter in great part because of gun-toting thugs who take what they want, and cripple — or kill — anybody who resists. Danger hovers in every scene, and you’ll watch this film with breath held, as Buckley builds to an ironic conclusion that finds Asad making a most unusual catch while at sea.

The final dramatic wallop comes while reading the closing credits, when we learn that Buckley made his film in South Africa, with a cast of Somali refugees.

Director/co-scripter Sam French’s Buzkashi Boys, made in Afghanistan, also is a coming-of-age tale, this time about two boys: Rafi (Fawad Mohammadi), a blacksmith’s son; and his best friend, Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz), a street beggar who sells “blessings” to obtain enough food or small change to survive each day.

Rafi sees little in his future but the inevitable inheritance of the business run by his father (Wali Talash), a hard but loving parent who knows that they’re among the lucky ones: They have a livelihood. Ahmad, in great contrast, has great dreams of growing up to become a champion buzkashi rider: the rugged national sport of horse polo played with a dead goat.

Once again, we see a boy (Rafi) torn between two destinies: the grinding and pragmatic, or the fanciful and exciting. French and co-writer Martin Desmond Roe build their story to a conclusion that quite cleverly rewards both boys, although I’m hard-pressed to call it a “happy” resolution.

You’ll be utterly captivated by both young actors, particularly Paiz, whose cherubic little face is heartbreaking with the intensity of his dreams.

Tom Van Avermaet’s Death of a Shadow, a collaborative French/Belgian entry, is haunting, cryptic and quite fascinating; it’s also somewhat Out There. Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Nathan, who wields an odd-looking camera that captures the shadows of people who have died, whether violently, unexpectedly or simply from old age. These shadow “portraits” (souls?) then are mounted in a massive and creepy gallery supervised by a sinister “collector of shadows” (Peter van den Eede) who gives Nathan his marching orders.

The collector long ago made a Faustian bargain with Nathan: a contract soon to expire, when the photographer captures his 10,000th image. And ... then what?

The weird technology and Erwan Le Floch’s art direction are mesmerizing, and the story — which unfolds in tantalizing bits — is equally intriguing.

Yan England’s Henry, a Canadian entry, shares its theme — the shattering tragedy of age-related dementia — with Amour, the French feature nominated for five Academy Awards. Actually, the two films are remarkably similar, particularly with respect to the role that music plays in the lives of the respective characters. England simply covers the same ground more economically ... but no less powerfully.

Gérard Poirier stars as Henry, a great concert pianist whose daily routine is disrupted by the mysterious disappearance of his beloved wife, Maria (Louise Laprade), and the intrusive arrival of grim-faced attendants who ignore his pleas for assistance. Then, too, who is the kind and gentle woman (Marie Tifo) who does seem willing to help?

The story’s punch line probably won’t surprise anybody — England doesn’t try to conceal it — but Poirier’s expressive, increasingly frantic performance makes the journey heartbreaking.

Which brings us to Curfew, the U.S. entry from writer, director and star Shawn Christensen; he plays Richie, a thirtysomething introduced at the lowest point in his life, as he soaks in a tub and tries to slice his wrists. The phone rings; it’s his estranged sister, asking if he could briefly look after her 9-year-old daughter, and for once — just once — could he please do something right?

Christensen, blood dripping down his arms, remains silent for a long, perfectly timed beat, as we take in the absurdity of the moment. Then he simply says, “OK.”

The resulting drama gets much of its power from the initially prickly bond between Richie and his niece, Sophia, enchantingly played by Fatima Ptacek. She’s a smug, condescending little handful, but not without feelings; as we eventually learn, she has her own problems, although they’re mild compared to her uncle’s downward spiral.

In just 19 perfectly calibrated minutes, Christensen covers all sorts of emotional territory between these two, and builds to a pathos-laden finale that nonetheless will raise a smile. Oh, and he also finds time for a hilarious dance sequence that you’d think should be completely out of place, but perfectly fits the mood.

These live-action films may be an international affair, but we Americans rule the animated category, with four out of five candidates. The one exception is Head Over Heels, a claymation love story from the UK’s Timothy Reckart.

Well ... a sort of love story. Walter and Madge have grown apart after years of marriage, with an unusual result: He lives on the floor, and she lives on the ceiling. It’s the ultimate statement of quiet estrangement: an enormously clever metaphor that I’m surprised hasn’t been exploited until now.

Reckart’s directorial touch is gentle and delightful, and he imaginatively explores all facets of this unusual co-existence, up to a finale that’s simply perfect.

“Imaginative” also is the word to describe Fresh Guacamole, an enchanting stop-motion quickie by Adam Pesapane, whose nom de film is simply “Pes.” His off-camera chef (we see only hands and arms) employs unexpected everyday objects — baseballs, dice, poker chips and hand grenades (!) — to make a delectable bowl of, yes, fresh guacamole.

My only complaint is that, at two fleeting minutes, this work of genius is over before you know it. Be sure to check out his previous, quite similar 2008 effort — Western Spaghetti — which is easy to find on YouTube.

The next two entries may be familiar, since both were granted big-screen release in front of family films last year. Binky-sucking Maggie Simpson stars in The Longest Daycare, a hilarious entry from director David Silverman and a posse of writers that includes Matt Groening and James L. Brooks.

The youngest Simpson has a helluva time after getting dropped off at the Ayn Rand School for Tots, where a brain scan dumps her not in the posh “gifted area,” but in the scuzzy “ordinary zone,” laden with paste-slurping, booger-picking norms. Worse yet, she’s cooped up with Baby Gerald, a unibrowed psycho who loves to smash butterflies on a wall ... and she’s bound and determined to save one blue-winged insect.

Utterly priceless.

The laughs are gentler in Paperman, which comes from longtime Pixar animator John Kahrs. He makes excellent use of color — his film is all shades of gray, except for one significant splash of red — to depict the saga of an urban office drone who briefly bumps into a bewitching young woman, and then desperately tries to attract her attention when he sees her again in the window of a building across the street.

As we’ve come to expect from Disney/Pixar shorts, the characters are expressive, the concept droll and delightful, and the execution perfectly timed to the nanosecond.

Last up is Adam and Dog, a (ahem) pet project by Minkyu Lee, a young Disney animator who did character design on Winnie the Pooh and Wreck-It Ralph, fresh from his 2009 Cal Arts graduation. His lush, hand-drawn charmer takes place in the Garden of Eden, and explores how the mutually devoted relationship between First Man (Adam) and First Dog might have come about.

Let it be said: Lee must be a dog lover. Aside from having a solid sense of canine movement, expressions and behavior, he also builds his story to a reassuring climax that we all can take to heart: No matter what happens to us, individually or as a species, dogs always will be at our side. Which is as it should be.

And the final, most enchanting characteristic shared by all five of these animated nominees?

Every one tells its story solely through visuals, with no dialog ... once again proving that superb animation is truly universal, and can be enjoyed by viewers throughout the world, without fear of a language barrier.

The Crest is presenting these films in two packages, by category: the live-action entries in one group, and the animated entries in a second group (with additional titles added to build a reasonably long program). Additionally, the five nominated documentary shorts will be presented on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 16-17.

Good things truly do come in small packages.

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