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Review: The Oscar-nominated short films

February 20, 2010 - 9:37 am

There’s no shortage of people who do their damndest to see all of the movies nominated for Best Picture before the Oscar ceremony on March 7. They’ll have their work cut out for them this year, with the field widened to 10 nominees. But when folks ask me which movies they absolutely should not miss, I always point them to the short films. All 10 movies, both animated and live-action play for just one week, at the Ken Cinema, but it’s always a terrific event. Remember, every one of these pictures are nominated for an Oscar, and in the case of the animated films, there are several that were short-listed that are also on the bill to pad the running time.

I’ve watched all the shorts–my personal favorite is the animated picture Logorama–but I turned the reviewing duties over to Jay Drose, an up-and-coming young filmmaker who’s been assisting me the past few months. Here’s what he thought:

Live Action:

Kavi: The end credits of USC film school alum Greg Helvey’s Kavi tell us that 27 million people are still forced into modern-day slavery. More surprising, though, is the notion that such a single-note film can do anything more than force empathy through its depiction of Indian slaves. One of these slaves is Kavi, a young boy born under his fathers’ debt, forced to lay and move bricks with his parents. He watches and envies the kids at a nearby school, and runs into some journalists determined to free his colony. In the end, Kavi isn’t old enough to fully realize the all-too-common hopelessness of his inheritance, an unfortunate fact that Helvey overlooks by making his film more about completing the story than urging us to look at any of the reasons for it.

The Door: In what seems like another film about life inside a post-apocalyptic world, “The Door” is uncomfortably set in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. The film centers on a father’s illegal return to Chernobyl to retrieve one lone artifact of his family’s previously normal existence. Here we feel the cold, somber, desolate environment of an abandoned city, where families started their lives, and because of the absurdity of human mistakes, where many people had their lives ended.

Miracle Fish: Framed inside an elementary school in Australia, we follow a young boy through the ease and curiosity of an eight year old. Older boys bully him. He walks away and wanders off into the nurse’s office for sleep. When he wakes, the school is empty. He drifts around, eats candy bars, scratches on the chalkboard for a long, slow sequence. At this point, we wonder whether we are simply inside the imagination of an eight year old and have found that everyone has simply vanished. Alas, something much worse has happened inside this school and the film comes to a strange, uneven end.

The New Tenants: The best-acted film of the group, The New Tenants is as infuriating and pointless as any short film exercise. We meet a gay couple, the new tenants of an apartment in the city, passing time talking and smoking and arguing and teasing. They’re charming characters set inside glib screenwriting. They live, it seems, inside an apartment building with punctual psycho drug dealer visitors. The couple is polite enough to allow everything to happen to them, setting the film rolling down a hill of improbable circumstances. What can you expect when filmmakers use violence as a punch line and a crutch? Or more importantly, an excuse to roll the dance number?

Instead of Abracadabra: Save the best for last. The Swedish film, Instead of Abracadabra is by far the best film of the live action shorts. It’s the only comedy of the group and on top of that, it’s as clean and as charming any comedy you’ll see these days. In sixty seconds, we are introduced to an entire world, where we meet Thomas, a myopic, twenty-five year old magician who lives with his parents. They no doubt want him to get a real job but Thomas (magician name, “Chimay”) has a plan. He practices his craft on his poor parents and sends his mom to the emergency room while doing so. It isn’t so serious, so he stops off to talk to the new girl next door, Monika. There he’s invited to perform his biggest gig yet: a children’s birthday party. After a small success, Thomas makes a deal with his dad: he’ll get a real job as long as he can perform at his own fathers’ birthday party, we performs his small act with grace and surprise, just like the filmmaker does with the claustrophobic parameters of the medium, making something memorable out of mere minutes.

Animation:

Granny O’Grimms: Bouncing back and forth between CGI and flash animation, Granny O’Grimm’s is a story inside a story. In most framed stories, the more important message is the one told within the story itself. But this short doesn’t work that way, instead featuring a bedtime tale gone awry. There’s a nice voice performance from Granny herself (the writer, Kathleen O’Rourke) but the rest is nothing but something to send us to sleep.

Logorama: Ask anyone about his or her favorite animation and the answer will likely be part of the Pixar world. And for good reason. Those films are uplifting, allegorical animations are insanely box-office-successful. But here comes the humorous, raw, and symbolic animation Logorama. This is a world devoid of depth—nearly every object and person represented by a sign, logo, insignia, or brand. We take a short ride with some undercover cops (the Michelin Men, in all their puffy glory) going after a murderous Ronald McDonald in a Los Angeles that’s a consumer’s greatest fantasy and worst nightmare. Before you know it, Big Boy and the ExxonMobil girl are driving for their lives, a la 2012 as a major earthquake shatters all of Los Angeles and beyond. You can’t help think of what we might leave behind if the Mayans got it right: an endless array corporate logos.

The Lady and the Reaper: Animation, by its nature, relies on the power of its unique visuals. The Lady and the Reaper is doubly as inventive, with its carefully crafted soundtrack and sound design, supplanting the absence of dialogue. An old woman, on the brink of death, is at peace and ready to pass into the next life. When the white light comes, the Grim Reaper appears, but shortly thereafter, so does a hotshot doctor and his team of bimbo sidekick nurses, battling each other for control of the old woman’s fate, without considering what she might actually want.

Matter of Loaf and Death: The Wallace and Gromit stop-motion clay animation is shot and lit like most live action films. The camera moves as the music swells, and the edits follow eye lines. It’s good stuff in general, and there’s no question that it is a painstaking, tedious process, telling stories with clay. I just don’t get the intrigue and the cuteness of it all. In this one, Wallace falls for the girl of his dreams and Gromit becomes suspicious of the new catch. I, instead, start wondering how they get clay to look like beautiful baking bread, which probably wasn’t the director’s intention.

French Roast: A businessman sits drinking coffee in Parisian café. Having misplaced his wallet before paying his tab, he digs himself a hole by ordering more and more coffee, fighting time. He schemes to pay his hunchback waiter while an old bum walks by asking for money. A nun beside him sits with a wad of cash the size of a Vegas high roller inside her purse. The businessman goes for a bill while she dozes off. A cop walks by. So does the waiter. It’s light fare, but each layer unfolds crisp and tight, like any good café should.

There you have it folks. Tickets and showtimes can be picked up right here.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Adam Vieyra permalink
    February 22, 2010 - 2:34 pm 2:34 pm

    I was at the Live Action show Friday night. Good stuff. But I disagree with you about The New Tenants. I don’t think it’s at all pointless, I think it makes a charming statement about the dangers of caution and cynicism.

    Punch-line violence, sure. But Juachim Back shoves death into that living room time and time again for a reason: to convince his passive protags — and, by extention, his audience — that there’s more to life than cigarrettes and solitaire. “Stop bitching about the outside world!” he demands (with a smile). “Get off your asses and live! Dance! Make cinnamon buns!”

    I’m with you on Instead of Abracadabra, though. That film was great. Here’s to hoping Patrik Eklund’s victory speech contains at least one “Chimay!”

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