Friday, February 6, 2015

The 2014 Oscar Shorts: Petite delights

The 2014 Oscar Shorts (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.6.15

Much as I anticipate this annual opportunity to focus on big-screen “short stories,” the 2014 Academy Award nominees — as a group — are a bit disappointing.

To be sure, both the live-action and animated categories offer several strong nominees. But others are unsatisfying, even puzzling. The respective nominating committees sometimes focus more on form than content — chiefly with animated shorts — and that’s particularly true this year.

As a result, you’re unlikely to greet the entire road-show package with the same delight and enthusiasm generated by those from previous years; the 2014 nominees are noteworthy more for isolated pockets of excellence, rather than overall superiority.

To cases, then, starting with the live-action nominees:

Irish director Michael Lennox’s Boogaloo and Graham is charming, thanks to Ronan Blaney’s droll script and fine performances by the film’s two young stars. Riley Hamilton and Aaron Lynch play Jamesy and Malachy, the sons of working-class parents (Martin McCann and Charlene McKenna) who maintain an uneasy co-existence with occupational British soldiers in 1978 Belfast.

The boys have little to call their own, and therefore are thrilled when their soft-hearted father surprises them with two baby chicks. The boys name their new pets Boogaloo and Graham, and soon amuse their neighbors by “leashing” the birds and taking them for walks. But as the chicks grow into chickens, their mother becomes increasingly annoyed by the bother, and eventually issues an ultimatum.

The result of which leads to a particularly ingenious conclusion.

The British actually have a tendency to stand out in this category, with A-list stars often lending their talents; I still remember how much I enjoyed Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander, in last year’s The Voorman Problem. They’re matched this year by Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent, both sensational in director Mat Kirby’s The Phone Call.

Hawkins, Oscar-nominated for 2013’s Blue Jasmine, stars as Heather, a shy young woman employed at a telephone crisis center, where she can’t work up the nerve to chat with the good-looking guy (Edward Hogg) who handles one of the other phones. But such idle thoughts are forgotten when she receives a call from a distraught old man named Stan (Jim Broadbent), who can barely speak through his misery.

To Heather’s mounting terror, Stan admits to having taken an overdose of pills, but he refuses to divulge any helpful information regarding his whereabouts. We never see Broadbent: just hear his voice on the phone, or from a point within his home where he’s not quite in view ... but he’s easy to recognize, and he’s mesmerizing.

As is Hawkins. Kirby keeps her face in tight close-up, and the actress works this scenario with heart-stopping conviction. Her emotional intensity is absolutely shattering.

Kirby co-wrote this script with James Lucas, and they build their 21-minute film to a very powerful conclusion.

On the other hand...

Chinese director Hu Wei’s Butter Lamp is an odd little piece about a photographer who takes pictures of Tibetan nomads against various backdrops, some of them quite garish. The eventual point is an ironic commentary on China’s pave-the-world disregard for natural wonders, but it’s a minor “reveal” after a monotonous execution that grows tedious even at 15 minutes.

In terms of letdown, though, the Israeli-French production of Aya takes the cake. Sarah Adler stars as the title character, a young woman waiting at an airport, who impulsively collects an arriving music scholar (Ulrich Thomsen, as Overby) by pretending to be his designated driver. This “chance encounter” premise initially shows promise, and there’s a richly erotic moment when Overby accompanies a music CD by “playing” a keyboard passage on Aya’s leg ... but all this anticipation deflates at the film’s conclusion.

At 39 minutes, Aya is this category’s longest entry, and it’s a bewildering waste of time. I cannot imagine why it was nominated.

But let’s conclude on a high note, with Iranian/Swiss writer/director Talkhon Hamzavi’s Parvaneh, definitely the strongest contender. Nissa Kashani stars as the title character, a young Afghan immigrant recently arrived at a rural transit community for asylum seekers in the Swiss Alps. Wanting to send some money to her mother back home, Parvaneh runs afoul of ID restrictions and — in desperation — puts her faith in Emily (Cheryl Graf), a young punker who seems the last person worthy of such trust.

The resulting drama runs the emotional gamut — tense, worrisome, sweet and ultimately poignant — and speaks volumes about cross-cultural relationships. And, given the Academy voters’ fondness for material that addresses hot political topics, I can see Hamzavi going home with a well-deserved Oscar.

Moving to the animated shorts, the category wouldn’t be complete without the usual entry from Pixar or Disney, and Feast definitely earns its spot. Director Patrick Osborne’s enchanting little film follows the gastronomical escapades of a dog named Winston, who as a puppy is adopted by a laid-back guy who soon discards all manner of delicious table scraps in his canine companion’s bowl.

Alas, the fast-food chuck wagon vanishes when Winston’s owner falls in love with a woman who insists on healthy eating; suddenly, our canine protagonist is faced with nothing more exotic than vegetables. But this proves to be a passing phase, much to the young man’s mounting misery, leaving Winston with the choice of satisfying his stomach, or doing right by his master.

The eventual outcome is delicious.

Osborne worked as an animation head on 2012’s Paperman, which won that year’s Oscar in this category. Feast marks his directorial debut, and the animation style is intriguing for its shading and slightly “flat” appearance (as opposed to a more rounded, 3-D look). And, as has been true of many recent Disney/Pixar shorts, the story unfolds without dialogue, making its enjoyment a truly global experience.

Dutch filmmakers Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen have concocted a hilarious little fable in A Single Life, a computer-animated quickie that concerns Pia, a young woman who receives a mysterious vinyl 45. When played, the record has the unexpected power to move Pia through different stages of her own life, depending on where the phonograph needle is placed.

Unfortunately, Pia discovers that such power is hazardous, leading to a startling finale that makes this extremely short film — a mere 2 minutes long — an immediate candidate for repeat viewing.

That likely won’t be the case with British director/painter Daisy Jacob’s The Bigger Picture, an unappealing blend of 7-foot-tall animated characters, painted backdrops and life-size sets, all employed to tell the unsettling story of two brothers who struggle to care for their elderly mother.

The animation style certainly is unique, but it’s also ugly and unpleasant; the story can’t decide whether to be realistic or darkly comic, and winds up being neither. It’s just unpalatable.

Norwegian-born Torill Kove has achieved fame as a Canadian-based animator and film director, and she won the 2007 Oscar in this category for The Danish Poet, after having been nominated in 2000, for My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts. She’s obviously popular, and has been cited this year for Me and My Moulton, which completes an autobiographical trilogy based on her own childhood.

The whimsical story is told from the point of view of a young girl, one of three sisters, all of whom often are embarrassed by their somewhat eccentric parents. The young heroine longs for a bicycle — an ordinary bicycle — which she views as a means to establish herself as “normal” to friends and neighbors.

The 14-minute film boasts a charming and whimsical narrative, but the limited-animation style — while vibrantly colorful — is flat and childish: deliberately so, to be sure, but not very inspiring.

The opposite is true of veteran Pixar animators Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi, who’ve concocted a lush and visually gorgeous 18-minute fable with The Dam Keeper. This is their first collaborative effort as writer/directors, and the result is stunningly beautiful: a blend of hand-drawn animation and Tsutsumi’s painterly brush-strokes.

The ambitious and emotionally disquieting storyline, set in a desolate future, concerns a small town that has survived solely due to a large “windmill dam” that acts as a fan, and prevents surrounding poisonous clouds from drifting within. The young dam keeper, Pig, faithfully maintains the windmill to protect the village, despite being bullied by school mates and shunned by neighbors (all different species of animals).

The dynamic shifts one day, when Pig’s class welcomes Fox, a new student who seems kinder and gentler than everybody else.

What follows, though, doesn’t entirely make sense. Even as a parable, details, actions and consequences feel more contrived than convincing. The Dam Keeper is by far the most visually impressive animated short, but I fear its dark and somewhat clumsy narrative will propel Academy voters to the lighter, cheerier Me and My Moulton.

But that decision remains a few weeks away. As has become tradition, this Oscar Shorts package will play for the next fortnight at Sacramento’s Crest Theater. And while the overall field may not be up to par, the good ’uns are worth the price of admission.

No comments:

Post a Comment