February 19, 2010

MOVIES: Oscar-nominated short films

Now playing in select cities, on two separate programs, are the live-action and animated short films that will be contending for this year's Oscar.

Children are always popular in the live-action films, and this year's selection includes two films about young boys in trouble. From India, Kavi tells the story of a 10-year-old living with his parents in slavery, working from sunrise to sunset making bricks; he dreams of being able to go to school and play cricket. Once the point has been made that Kavi's life is bleak and miserable, there's not much more to the movie, though the final image is a lovely one. Australia gives us Miracle Fish, in which Joe's 8th birthday is just as miserable as most of his days; he's bullied at school and doesn't seem to have many friends. He sneaks into the nurse's office for a nap and falls asleep wishing that everyone would leave him alone; when he wakes up, he finds the school mysteriously abandoned. The twist ending is a bit darker than the movie has led us to expect, but the young lead gives a nice performance.

The Swedish film Instead of Abracadabra is the longest of the bunch, at 22 minutes (the rest are between 15 and 18); it's the story of a 25-year-old aspiring magician whose father wishes he'd give up his hobby, find a real job, and move out of the house, already. It's a charming comedy, and the scary moments when Thomas's tricks seem to have gone horribly wrong are nicely mixed in. The Door, from Ireland, begins with a man skulking through a bleak landscape to break into an abandoned apartment building and steal a door; what looks at first like a post-apocalyptic fantasy turns into a moving story about one of recent history's great tragedies.

My favorite of the bunch, The New Tenants, is the only film set in the United States, though the director is Danish. It's the story of a bickering gay couple who've just moved into a new apartment; when they loan a cup of flour to the sweet old lady who lives upstairs, they find themselves caught up in the messy personal life of the previous occupant. It's a marvelously dark comedy, with a particularly fine performance from comic writer David Rakoff as a chain-smoking pessimist who opens the movie with a gloriously bitchy monologue about what a screwed-up world this is.

On the animation side, most of the films are relatively short (6-8 minutes) one-joke stories. From Ireland, Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty gives us a grandmother who can't tell a simple bedtime story without being distracted by her own emotional issues. France's French Roast is something of a shaggy dog story about a businessman who finds that he's lost his wallet and can't pay for the coffee he's been drinking. The Lady and the Reaper, from Spain, is my favorite in the field. It's the story of an elderly widow nearing death and the doctor trying desperately to save her; the battle between the doctor and the grim reaper turns into a marvelous farce, told with impeccable comic timing.

Logorama, a French film, is a bit longer -- about 15 minutes -- and is preceded by a "strong language and violence" warning. (The programmers have thoughtfully placed it last on the program so that parents who might have brought their children can enjoy the rest of the show.) It's set in a version of Los Angeles where the characters and landscape are entirely made up of commercial logos. The diner waitress is the Esso lady; Bob's Bad Boy is a juvenile delinquent, raising hell on a school trip to the zoo; and Ronald McDonald is a psychopath being chased by the cops, who are Michelin men. Once the basic joke is established, the film quickly starts to drag.

The longest movie on the program, just under half an hour, is A Matter of Loaf and Death, the latest Wallace & Gromit story. Wallace is working as a baker this time, and finds romance with Piella, the former spokesmodel for a popular bread company. But Wallace may be in danger, becuase there's a serial killer on the loose who's already killed a dozen bakers. This isn't as good as the earlier Wallace & Gromit films, and the climactic battle with the killer lacks the energy and creativity of, say, the classic penguin duel in The Wrong Trousers. But Gromit can still say more with a raised eyebrow than most cartoon characters can say with ten pages of dialogue, and the Academy has always loved Nick Park, so I think it's safe to put your money on this one being the winner.

Because the films are shorter, the animation program is filled out with three of the shorts that made the Academy's shortlist but weren't nominated. Runaway (Canada) tells of a distracted conducter, a frantic fireman, and a cow who combine to give a group of passengers a hectic train ride; The Kinematograph (Poland) is the story of an inventor whose quest for perfection leads him to ignore things he should notice at home; and Disney/Pixar's Partly Cloudy is about a stork who seems to get all of the worst baby-delivery assignments (it played in theaters before Up). Each of them has some nice moments -- there's a particularly lovely series of dissolves at the end of the Polish film that has something of a sand-painting effect -- but I'd say they deserve their runner-up status to the five nominees.

I don't think the overall level in either field is quite at the level it was last year, but it's always interesting to get a look at the nominees in categories we don't generally get to know much about. If you don't have time to do both programs, I'd say do the animation.

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