Sunday, February 10, 2013

Short Stuff: The Oscar-Nominated Animated and Live-Action Films

I joke about this every year, but if you get into an Oscar prediction contest (like the eFilmCritic Oscar Pick' Em), especially one that weights every category evenly, a little knowledge of the more obscure categories - documentaries, shorts, and sound - can make a big difference between runner up and having someone ship a ridiculously large box of DVDs to your door.

Happily, the short films are one of the easier categories to bone upon - the various groups are put together into feature-length packages which can be seen at theaters, online, or on demand via one's cable/satellite system (as of this writing, they are already playing selected theaters, with the other distribution methods coming on the 19th of February - check ShortsHD's website for more information on the easiest way for you to see them in your area; in Boston, that's the Coolidge and the Kendall, as of right now). So far, I've seen the animated and live action shorts; both are well worth checking out not just because they might give one a leg up in predictions, but because they are filled with solid, entertaining movies.

And isn't that what awards are for - giving folks a reminder that good stuff is out there?

The 2013 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animation

Seen 5 February 2013 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run, digital)

Animated shorts tend to take the "short" part seriously, and as a result, the "Animation" package is seriously filled out - not just by segments with "hosts" William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, who won last year's Oscar in the category for "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" (and which seems more like a repurposed interview than hosting, as it never actually references any of the included movies), but with three "Highly Commended" honorable mentions, one of which takes up roughly a third of the package's run time. Fortunately, there is truth in the idea that good things come in small packages; although some of these move very quickly, those tend to pack a lot of wit and invention into their short length - especially considering that none of the nominees feature dialogue!

For example, "The Longest Daycare", a Simpsons short starring baby Maggie, is only five minutes long, but generally doesn't go more than a few seconds before a new gag comes along, and once things get going, it's probably pretty exciting for the youngsters who were half its target audience when it played in front of the latest Ice Age movie last summer, with the jokes related to how Maggie gets the short end of the stick at the "Ayn Rand School for Tots" aimed at the adults in the audience.

A Hans Zimmer score helps with that, and it's just one example of how director David Silverman, who previously directed The Simpsons Movie and many episodes of the series, has some nice studio resources at his disposal. The picture is bright and colorful with smooth motion, and the credits indicate it was originally produced in 3D. It's a very capable short, generally pretty funny; exactly the sort of thing one would want to attach to the front of a celebrity-voiced franchise movie.

"Adam and Dog", meanwhile, is the opposite in many ways: Relative newcomer Minkyu Lee's colors may be lush where the detailed backgrounds are concerned, but the title characters are simple browns and fleshtones, making them a bit smaller than the world they inhabit. Writer/director Minkyu Lee also doesn't mind letting scenes stretch out for a bit to give a setting a certain feel - this pre-historic forest is idyllic, but also features just enough danger for the dog and the human he meets to come together so that the former becomes the latter's Best Friend.

Given the title, it's not hard to figure out where Lee is going with this; an Eve does eventually show up and complicate things, with Genesis eventually being more directly referenced as opposed to alluded to. Lee makes the transition there nicely, maintaining the dog's point of view throughout but changing the color palette and atmosphere enough that the attentive viewer can see what happens. It's a nifty trick, one which makes up for how the pacing can sometimes be a little too relaxed.

Where Lee may not have a long filmography, PES (the nom de film of Adam Pesapane) certainly does; anyone who has seen an animation program at a film festival or a touring show like "Spike & Mike" or "The Animation Show" has likely seen one or more of his quick stop-motion bits which recast familiar objects in new contexts. That's what "Fresh Guacamole" offers, starting with avocados in the shape of hand grenades and going on from there. Fans have seen similar things before - it's a follow-up to "Western Spaghetti" - but the fact that PES has been nominated for an Oscar will surely make them smile.

There are actually voices credited for Timothy Rechart's "Head Over Heels", but I don't believe they say anything particularly articulate. That's sort of the point, after all - that after decades of marriage, Walter and Madge may live in the same house but don't communicate much, living separate lives to the extent that each seems to live on the ceiling relative to the other. It's an arresting visual that I suspect works better here than in upcoming feature Upside Down, as it's allowed to be almost purely metaphorical rather than something that has to make sense physically.

It makes for a fun little movie, too, as Walter attempts to win her back and both must figure out what to do when their house that was spinning in space makes landfall. The stop-motion animation is very well-done indeed, and Reckart and cinematographer Chloe Thomson make good use of their ability to shift perspectives - I'll bet a lot of live-action filmmakers must envy their ability to literally turn their set upside down, although the limited space to work with these miniatures in an environment that frequently needs a full complement of walls and floors/ceilings must make up for it. They certainly come up with a cleverly-constructed world that they use for humor and pathos; it's one of the strongest from a strong field.

But is it strong enough to overcome "Paperman"? John Kahrs's seven-minute short got a lot of attention when it was released to theaters attached to Wreck-It Ralph; I'm sure a few people said it was worth the price of a ticket on its own (though I imagine most eventually said staying for the feature was far from a hardship). The funny thing is, it really is that good, and I actually found myself enjoying it more on a second viewing.

Maybe it's because I wasn't seeing it in 3D this time (along with the different context), because where I marveled at some of the technical feats before - it really is an amazing example of computer-rendered imagery managing the expressiveness of hand-drawn while still retaining its solidity and working in the third dimension - this time had me amazed by just how well everything worked together: The style, the simple storytelling, the Christope Beck score, the almost purely visual bits. Indeed, some of the things I found a bit of a weakness the first time are among my favorites now - the way the paper airplanes dance when they first start moving with a will of their own just strikes me as so early Disney, like they wouldn't be out of place in Fantasia or a Silly Symphonies short. That encapsulation of the company's entire history is kind of wonderful, and part of the reason I wouldn't bet against Kahrs coming home with a statuette in a few weeks.

All five of the nominees are quite worthy, although it's a little bit easier this year to see why the three "Highly Commended" shorts also included with the program don't quite make the cut. "Abiogenesis" by Richard Mans, for instance, is gorgeous - its visuals of a robot terraforming ship arriving on a barren planet and kickstarting the processes of life are beautifully rendered and frequently very creative - but it's undeniably chilly; the robots are such pure automatons that the audience can't help but feel the lack of humanity, especially after all the expressive characters in the previous shorts. As awe-inspiring a sequence as the five-minute short is, it feels like it should be part of a longer piece so that it can have some context within a story. Somebody get Mans signed to do an animated sci-fi feature so that can happen.

The next honorable mention, Leo Verrier's "Dripped", also suffers a bit in context; it looks like it was created to primarily be viewed on computer screens; blown up to be shown on the multiplex's main screen, the visuals seem kind of low-res. It's also weird, featuring an art thief who steals paintings to eat them, taking on their traits as he does so, and not knowing what to do when the manhunt makes it hard to replenish his supply. I think Verrier's onto a clever idea here - literalizing the idea of consuming art, letting it change you and influence your own process of creation without necessarily reproducing it - but it's not communicated very clearly, and his own cartoony style does not always mesh well with the artists he references.

The finale short in the program - and by far the longest, at 27 minutes - is "The Gruffalo's Child", a sequel to a nominee from two years ago, "The Gruffalo" (reviewed here, as part of the 2011 package), and like its predecessor, it is a solid piece of work with a very nice voice cast (Helena Bonham-Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Rob Brydon, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, and James Corden all resume their roles, with Shirley Henderson joining as the title character). It's even got a clever idea for a twist, with the Mouse being described as a terrifying creature of legend to the young Gruffalo, rather than the other way around as in the first short. The air is let out a little, though, as the audience members already know what a mouse is (heck, they likely know this mouse), so it's a bit difficult to build up the same kind of danger and surprise.

The three honorable mentions are all still worth seeing, though, and in their being very good but not quite brilliant manage to emphasize what a strong group the nominees are. If I were voting for the award, the part of me that wants to recognize impressive young new artists would be pulled toward "Adam and Dog" or "Head Over Heels", but "Paperman" is probably too good to deny, and I would not be surprised at all if the Academy went the same way.

One more thing worth noting: While the package is rated PG-13 and I would generally have little problem recommending it for all-ages (and kids will really enjoy several of the shorts), there is nudity in both "Adam and Dog" and "Dripped". It's not meant to be titillating and seems harmless to me (said the guy with no kids), but don't come crying to me if you freak out when watching with the little ones.

Also posted to eFilmCritic in a slightly modified form.

The 2013 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live-Action

Seen 5 February 2013 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run, digital)

As much as we've all seen movies that don't really justify the eighty minutes, minimum, that a film has to run to make the ticket price charged if it's to be released in theaters seem reasonable, the cold fact of the matter is that there's very little place for live-action shorts in America today. Animated shorts can be done as a calling card or with a small enough crew that a director can count on a dedicated fanbase for money (or can do these labors of love around commercial work), documentary shorts can sell to PBS or cable stations, but where do live-action short films fit in today's market?

Not very many places, which is why when one goes to the short programs at American film festivals, most of the things on display are likely student films, or from a foreign country where arts funding helps with this sort of thing. Still, enough get made that the Academy Award nominees are often an impressive-enough slate, and the brief clips seen during the ceremony are often some of the most intriguing parts of the program, representing as they do ideas too peculiar and non-commercial to be financed by a Hollywood studio.

Take "Death of a Shadow"; it hails from Belgium and even features Matthias Schoenaerts, star of last year's foreign-language nominee Bullhead and recent boutique-house release Rust and Bone. It's got an offbeat premise, with Shoenaerts playing a photographer of sorts, who captures a person's shadow at the moment of his or her death for his mysterious master (Peter Van Den Eede) so that after 10,000 he can be returned to life with the woman he loves (Laura Verlinden). The visuals and the steampunkish design are certainly memorable.

I must admit, though, that it sort of rubbed me the wrong way. Like a lot of steampunk or contemporary dark fantasy, its world seems too obviously set up to tell this particular story. The character arcs follow a well-worn and predictable path of romantic tragedy, and while Schoenaerts, Verlinden, and filmmaker Tom Van Avermaet make them work surprisingly well, it's never quite fantastical or romantic enough to make up for the film's artifice.

"Henry", meanwhile, comes from Quebec's Yan England and follows its title character - an elderly pianist played by GĂ©rard Poirier - as he starts what seems like a typical day only to have things thrown into turmoil as it becomes clear that things aren't what they seem. Over the next twenty minutes, the audience follows him into his youth and his rather uncertain present.

It's another theme that has been milked pretty thoroughly, but there's a reason for that: It provides a great showcase for older actors who can bring plenty of experience to bear with every line on their faces, and Poirer certainly does not disappoint (neither do Louisa Laprade as his wife Maria or Mari Tifo as the woman trying to keep him in the present as his mind drifts back to when he first met Maria). An elderly relative or friend's disintegration is a heartbreaking story that almost everybody can relate to, and England and Poirer hit their targets a lot more often than not.

Writer/director/star Shawn Christensen also starts out in a fairly dark place in "Curfew", but it soon gets into much funnier territory, as Christensen's suicidal character Richie gets a call from his sister asking him to babysit his nine-year-old niece Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) for the night. Neither mother or daughter consider Richie particularly trustworthy, with a demanding Sophia tending to look down at her uncle.

Naturally, of course, Richie will seem to grow and Sophia will soften, and the way that happens is actually really impressive, as Christensen is able to frame it as being the result of changing perspectives as personal growth. He does a nice job of injecting humor, dark and offbeat as well as conventional, into the story without ever actually pushing the darkness back - indeed, making things funnier and Sophia more kid-like makes everything feel more well-rounded and real. "Curfew" may be the lightest film of the group, but that doesn't make it any less sophisticated than the others.

Kids also figure prominently in the stories of the last two films of the program, which both take place in foreign lands. In "Buzkashi Boys", the setting is Kabul, Afghanistan, with beggar-boy Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz) convincing his friend Rafi (Fawad Mohammadi) to leave his father's blacksmith shop to go watch Buzkashi, a polo-like game where men on horseback compete to drag a goat carcass across the field. As we watch the kids, it's apparent that Ahmad seems more optimistic about his future than Rafi, despite having much less.

We hear a lot about Afghanistan in the news, but this view of it is fascinating; director Sam French and cinematographer Duraid Munajim do an exceptional job of capturing the stark beauty of the Afghani landscape and even making Kabul look appealing from certain angles and distances, only to pull in or shift position and suddenly see just how much damage an inhospitable environment and endless series of wars has done to the place. There's a sort of solidarity with the people there, though - the film never asks for the audience's pity, even as it acknowledges the utterly random danger of life there and the very limited options that the people there may have. French also gets great work out of youngsters Paiz and Mohammadi; though both were more or less recruited off the streets, they are excellent and form the movie's heart and soul.

The title character of Bryan Buckley's "Asad" (played by Harun Mohammed), on the other hand, lives in a coastal Somali village where the pirates do a better job of providing for the people than fishermen like old Erasto (Ibrahim Moallim Hussein), and this barely-teenager thinks he may make a better captain than some of the others. He may not be wrong; he thinks on his feet quickly to help an injured friend when rebels come to town and Erasto, at least, recognizes that he has great instincts as a navigator.

Shot in South Africa with a cast consisting almost entirely of Somali refugees (and there's an argument to be made that the one exception doesn't count), "Asad" has an almost indisputable authenticity to it, and in a way that seems to justify an ending that feels less conclusive than that of the other shorts: Life in this place means being at the whim of randomness and chaos, and the combination of horror and humor that makes up the end of the story almost feels like a survival mechanism, where one has to look at the bright side to avoid despair. Longtime commercial director Buckley puts his experience in shooting quick and professionally to work; he and his crew make a sharp-looking picture and get good work out of their amateur cast, with Harun Mohammed proving surprisingly capable of carrying the movie.

It's an enjoyably strong and varied line-up, one which I think any could win without much in the way of complaint (even the weakest, "Death of a Shadow", can at least capture the imagination). If I were trying to predict a winner, it would likely be between "Henry" (the majority of Academy members are actors and this is the nominee that most showcases acting) and "Curfew" (the most balanced entry; it's mainstream and quirky, featuring good performances and direction). Still, it's never a good idea to underestimate the importance of importance to voters in these categories, which could give "Asad" and "Buzkashi Boys" legs up.

Also posted to eFilmCritic in a slightly modified form.

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