Friday, January 31, 2014

The 2013 Oscar Shorts: Great things in small packages

The 2013 Oscar Shorts (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: G, PG and R, depending on the film

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.31.14

Much as I always enjoy the annual Oscar short subjects, I’ve noticed over time that many of the live-action nominees tend to be ... well ... quite depressing.

So when this year’s entry from Denmark, Helium, opened on a little boy in a hospital bed, I couldn’t blame my Constant Companion for shooting me a decidedly reproachful glance.

At first blush, animation entry Get a Horse! looks and sounds like a late 1920s-era
Mickey Mouse cartoon; the historical "impersonation" is remarkably authentic. But
things take a wonderfully unexpected turn about a minute in, when Mickey
"breaks the fourth wall" quite spectacularly.
In fairness, director Anders Walter’s 23-minute fable is equal parts charming and poignant, despite building to a sad-yet-triumphant conclusion that you’ll anticipate 30 seconds in. And you’ll be right ... but you won’t be prepared for the gut-punch that comes with the quick final scene.

It’s an imaginative film, with Walter drawing expressive performances from young Pelle Falk Krusbaek, as the dying little boy in question; and Casper Crump, as the eccentric hospital janitor who concocts a progressively wild tale about the much more interesting, kid-oriented alternative to heaven that awaits true believers.

Be prepared, though: Walter’s film packs quite an emotional punch.

That’s also true of Spanish director Esteban Crespo’s That Wasn’t Me, which is likely to leave an intense mental scar long after the lights come up. Helium, for all its gentle power, is a work of fiction; Crespo’s film is ripped from today’s grim headlines regarding the cruel indoctrination and subsequent exploitation of child soldiers.

Spanish aid worker Paula (Alejandra Lorente) has naively followed her boyfriend Juanjo (Gustavo Salmerón) into an unspecified African country, hoping to Make A Difference. Based on their larkish demeanor, things have gone well thus far; that changes abruptly at a checkpoint, when a thuggish rebel army general (Babou Cham) decides to use these interlopers as human targets, in order to “blood” his young conscripts.

One of the latter is Kaney (Juan Tojaka), an adolescent with a fondness for soccer.

What follows is grim, graphic, tautly edited and heart-stopping; Crespo doesn’t let up for a moment, and — for a time — we’ve no idea where this 24-minute film is going. The complexity of the filmmaker’s vision becomes clear once we move toward the climactic third act, and the realization that Crespo wants us to understand that these young boys, no matter how bestial, are just as brutalized as the victims they’ve been brainwashed into fighting. Only as the film ends do we understand and appreciate its title.

It’s a thoughtful, harrowing drama: quite possibly the winner in this category.

Not that the competition isn’t stiff. French director Xavier Legrand also does excellent work with Just Before Losing Everything, a drama whose mere title makes us fear the worst (particularly given the reputation of these live-action shorts!). The opening sequence is deceptively bucolic, with young Julien (Miljan Chatelain) heading off for an average school day.

Except that he doesn’t.

Contrary to what he has just told a passing teacher, Julien is collected in a car driven by his mother, Miriam (Léa Drucker), who then pauses at a bus stop in order to summon his older sister, Gaëlle (Anne Benoît). The three proceed to the large department/grocery store where Miriam works. They leave the car, Miriam grabbing a stuffed trash bag from the trunk. Her co-workers in the corporate offices above the store seem to understand what is happening, some of them apparently having been coached beforehand.

I hesitate to say more, not wanting to spoil the mounting suspense. Suffice it to say, this isn’t any sort of other-worldly fantasy or exaggerated thriller: merely a well-mounted slice of real life that builds to a gripping finale.

This marks the writing and directing debut for Legrand, an occasional actor best known for his appearance in 1987’s Au Revoir Les Enfants. With his shift behind the camera, Legrand demonstrates a skilled approach to screw-tightening suspense that Alfred Hitchcock would have admired; it’s an impressive piece for a first-time filmmaker.

Dr. Williams (Martin Freeman, right) has been assigned to analyze an oddly persuasive
prisoner (Tom Hollander) who insists that he is God, and seems to have quite
reasonable answers for every objection the baffled psychiatrist raises. Things come to
a head when the crafty patient offers to "prove" that he is, indeed, God.
It's perhaps necessary, at this point, to assure everybody that Oscar's live-action shorts aren't all as serious; some of the best-remembered entries, over the years, have been droll, clever or both. That's definitely the case with British director Mark Gill’s The Voorman Problem, which packs considerable whimsy into its 13 minutes.

You’ll immediately recognize star Martin Freeman, recently on view in The Hobbit and as Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes on TV’s Sherlock, starring here as Dr. Williams, a psychiatrist summoned to examine a man, Voorman (Tom Hollander), imprisoned in a rather severe penitentiary cell. Williams has been tasked with determining whether the prisoner’s rather peculiar affliction is the result of lunacy or fakery.

Voorman, it seems, insists that he is God.

Not just any god, mind you, but our God. The one who created Earth and the universe nine days earlier. (Yes, nine.)

Cumberbatch tends to get the lion’s share of attention for Sherlock, which is a shame, as that minimizes Freeman’s equally fine work. Watch his face work during the first interview with Voorman, as poor Dr. Williams struggles to digest what he’s hearing.

The questions are obvious, of course: Why would a god allow himself to be straitjacketed in a prison? And what has any of this got to do with Belgium?

The final live-action entry, sadly, is little more than a trifle. Finnish director Selma Vilhunen’s Do I Have to Take Care of Everything, which follows a disorganized family’s effort to arrive at a wedding on time, is an inconsequential 7-minute comedy sketch: mildly amusing, but hardly worthy of its four category competitors.

Turning to the animated entries, the UK scores again with Max Lang and Jan Lachauer’s Room on the Broom, a charming 25-minute adaptation of the children’s picture book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Folks who follow Oscar shorts will recognize the animation style; Lang co-directed The Gruffalo, which was nominated in this category in 2011.

This delightful new film features voice talent by an impressive roster of British actors, starting with narrator Simon Pegg. Gillian Anderson stars as a kind-hearted witch, whose cat (Rob Brydon) grows frustrated when his mistress grants space on their small broom to an expanding menagerie: a dog (Martin Clunes), a bird (Sally Hawkins) and even a frog (David Walliams).

No creature ever is superfluous in a fairy tale, however, and each of the witch’s new friends comes in handy when our little band encounters a rather nasty dragon (Timothy Spall).

Regardless of this film’s fate come Oscar night, adoring children will guarantee eternal home-video afterlife, as was the case with The Gruffalo.

At first blush, American director Lauren MacMullan’s Get a Horse! looks like a long-lost early Mickey Mouse cartoon unearthed in the Disney vaults: a primitive black-and-white short very much in the mold of 1928’s Steamboat Willie or 1929’s Plane Crazy. The squarish aspect ratio is the same, as are the rinky-tink music and the tinny, barely there sound effects. The broad sight gags similarly hearken back to that era, and animation historians will recognize early supporting players such as Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar and the contemptible Peg-Leg Pete, who forever lusts after Mickey’s gal Minnie.

Indeed, everything looks perfectly and appropriately vintage ... until Pete angrily grabs Mickey and Horace and then hurls them toward us, in the audience ... and the screen bulges. Then breaks. Suddenly, a full-color Mickey is in our world: a world of nachos, cell phones and anachronistic double-takes.

The rest of Get a Horse! unfolds with the manic intensity and genius split-second timing of a frenzied Warner Bros. cartoon, while brilliantly exploiting every aspect of the animated medium, from film strips and frame assembly to gags involving sound effects, color and, yes, dimensionality.

(Aside from MacMullan’s loving tribute to early Disneyana — complete with an eye-blink cameo by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit — her concept echoes Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones’ classic 1953 Daffy Duck short, Duck Amuck.)

No surprise: Get a Horse! is executive produced by Pixar’s John Lasseter, and Mark Watters supplies an energetic score. You’ll love this one. And it looks even better in 3D, as viewers who saw Frozen already know; this short preceded that animated feature.

Luxembourg’s Mr. Hublot is equally impressive, albeit for entirely different reasons. Director Laurent Witz’s 11-minute film, his first professional short movie, is something of a teaser for Wilfred, the debut full-length film soon to come from his animation company, Zeilt Productions Luxembourg. Fingers crossed, Wilfred should be out in 2015.

Meanwhile, we can marvel at Mr. Hublot, computer-animated in a fascinating style that feels like the love-child of hand-painted cels and steampunk. The title character inhabits a retro-futuristic world of mechanical marvels and rather drastic notions about urban renewal. He suffers from OCD, forever straightening photos and flipping light switches, and can’t bear the thought of leaving his protective apartment...

...until he spots a robotic puppy wailing on the opposite street corner, trying its best to avoid the rather disturbing creatures that haul trash away.

Mr. Hublot’s eventual decision reminds us of the folly of good intentions, but rest assured: Witz and co-director Alexandre Espigares don’t let their hero down. The result is funny, poignant and utterly fascinating to watch; I can’t wait for the ability to stop-motion through this film, one frame at a time, to better appreciate the extraordinary detail crammed into every corner.

Japanese director Shuhei Morita’s 14-minute Possessions takes its premise from a rather unsettling “ancient record” that warns that, after 100 years and long disuse, tools and instruments attain souls and haunt the unwary. The story, set in the 18th century, concerns a traveler who loses his way while traversing some mountains during a storm; he takes shelter in a small shrine and is startled to discover that umbrellas, kimonos and other spectral discards come to life and menace him.

Our hero proves quite resourceful, however, and his various “solutions” are as inspired as they are entertaining.

Morita’s visual approach is a blend of animé styles, from the brooding character art of samurai manga to the lush watercolor backgrounds typical of Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli productions. The result is a treat.

I can’t say the same for American director Daniel Sousa’s Feral, a grim 13-minute drama that goes out of its way to be weird and unsettling. Every year, at least one of the five animation nominees sacrifices coherent storytelling in favor of a truly unique (not necessarily in a good way) stylistic approach. That’s certainly the case here.

The bare-bones story, a riff on the “feral child” fable, follows a hunter who finds a wild boy in the woods, and attempts to civilize him. The off-putting visuals — which Sousa likens to “states of mind” — build to a puzzling and wholly unsatisfying climax.

These 10 shorts, assembled in live action and animated programs, open today and will play for only one week at Sacramento’s Crest Theater. They’ll be followed, for one day only on Feb. 9, by two programs of the five Oscar-nominated documentaries. This is a shorter window than in years past, so don’t delay.

Bear in mind, as well: Although all the animated films are a family-friendly G or PG, That Wasn’t Me is a graphic R, for profanity, violence, torture and rape.

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