Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Recent Watches: The Oscar-Nominated Short Films

It’s great that the short films nominated at the Academy Awards are more available to the public now then ever before. Last year, I was able to see the nominated shorts at my local Alamo Drafthouse. (No, I won’t stop talking about the fact that Bum-Fuck Nowhere, Virginia got an Alamo Drafthouse.) Sadly, this year, the Drafthouse didn’t play the shorts. However, the shorts are available through paid OnDemand through my cable. Frankly, I think the shorts should probably be available for free streaming on the Oscar Shorts website, but, whatever. I’m just happy to see them.

Let’s start with the Live Action Shorts:

Pentecost” (Ireland): Set in the 1970s, this short mostly revolves around the idea of contrasting soccer and Catholic mass. A young choir boy made a big mistake at his church and gets in deep trouble with his Dad. However, by luck, he still ends up on his Church’s team.

The whole short builds up to the final image, a visual punchline that brings the film’s two ideas together rather literally. While Andrew Bennet is quite good as the main little boy and Eamonn Hunt has a funny part as a very couch-like priest, the story mostly plays bit like a Shaggy Dog story. It’s cute enough but I’m not sure what was good enough about it to get a nomination. (6/10)

Raju” (India): The premise of this short revolves around a German couple going to India to adopt a little boy. I watch too many horror films, so my first thought was that there must be something sinister about the little boy. The short doesn’t go in that direction, so my second thought was that this must be about rich white folk pretending to care about the poor parts of the world in order to make themselves feel more important. When Dad looses little Raju in the streets of India seemingly minutes after taking him home, I began to wonder if this movie was just about there being a lot of lost kids in India.

Turns out my second thought was the closest one, though there is something vaguely sinister about the adoption, it turns out. The biggest problem with this movie, besides white subtitles appearing over an overly brightly lit flick, is that almost no time is spent on developing the bond between Raju and his new foster parents. Over the span of this 24 minute short, maybe 4 minutes are devoted to the parents' relationship with their new son. So the audience has no emotional connection to the eventually lost boy nor his final fate. Further hindering things is the turgid pacing and overly self-serious direction. This one feels a lot longer then it actually is. (4/10)

The Shore” (Eastern Ireland): The second Irish short tonight. This is also the longest of the films, by a few minutes. It’s a soft, lightly dramatic, somewhat comedic story about family and forgiveness. A lot of mileage is gotten out of the beautiful Irish countryside. The very Celtic score is quite nice as well.

What really sells the film is its capable cast. Ciaran Hinds, who I just saw in a radically different part in “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” of all things, plays the main character. His old man features speak a lot and Hinds brings a soft melancholy to the role. Conleth Hill plays the old friend Hinds is considering getting back in touch with. After a bit of a protracted sequence, involving a horse chase over a beach, the two meet and talk for the first time in years. It’s a quietly touching sequence from a quietly touching film.

I’ll admit, this one was harder to get into because of all the very thick Irish accents on display. But once you get use to the broughs, it becomes a charming story of brotherhood lost and found again. (7/10)

Time Freak” (USA): Comprised of solely three cast members, this is a very funny sci-fi story. I do love me some time travel tales. This 11 minute short gets a lot of mileage out of its interesting take on the whole idea of time travel: That when you travel back in time, that one version of you is the only one that can visit in that timeline. This essentially means you can go back to the same place in time over and over again with no issues.

When placed in the hands of an incredibly neurotic scientist, played by Michael Nathanson, this means mostly going back to correct tiny mistakes over and over again. Oh, it’s a funny premise and the film sets it up fantastically. John Conner Brooke is very funny as the straight man in this scenario. “Time Freak” is mostly pretty light-weight but it is a clever, highly amusing slice of “what-if?” sci-fi. (7/10)

Tuba Atlantic” (Norway): At first, I was worried this one was going to lay the quirkiness on way too thick. On paper, it reads very wacky. It’s about an old man who suddenly discovers he only has six days left to live. This old man really, really hates seagulls and has a giant tuba overlooking the Norwegian coast in his backyard. That’s not even the crux of the story. The main point of the film revolves around the relationship between the old man and the teenage girl sent to his home by the local church, to be his personal “Angel of Death.” Got all of that? It’s pretty impressive how dense some of these shorts can be.

While that might all read like a bunch of trying-too-hard self-aware quirkery, the final result is surprisingly touching. Grumpy old man, Oskar, is quickly revealed to have some emotional trauma in his past and suddenly very little time to be at rest with it. His Angel of Death, Inger, actually isn’t very good at her job, since all of her previous cases lived. The two soon formed an odd friendship, as you’d expect. However, the performances by Edvard Haegstad and Ingrid Viken really make it works. The movie successfully creates its own, slightly strange little universe. The tuba ends up playing a really big part in the finale and the whole thing wraps up in a surprisingly touching way.

By the end, I think this ended up being my favorite of the nominees. (8/10)

So who will win? I really have no idea. There’s none of the politics involved with the shorts that are so heavily involved in all the other Academy categories. Furthermore, the majority of this year’s shorts are comedic, or at least light-hearted, in nature. The only one you can really rule out is “Pentecost,” which is just way too light-weight. Honestly, “The Shore” seems most like Oscar’s things, but I’m personally rooting for either “Tuba Atlantic” or “Time Freak.”

Now let’s talk about the animated shorts. Only four of the nominees where presented in the OnDemand package. Pixar’s “La Luna” is being packaged with “Brave” later this year, which is why I guess it’s not included here. :

Sunday” (Canada): This reminds me a little bit of the kind of animation you use to see on Cartoon Network’s “O Canada!” series. (In style anyway. Those cartoons were generally a lot more twisted.) It’s an odd little story about a little boy living in an odd town and the bad luck of the animals around him. There are a couple funny elements, like a mounted bear head who is actually just a bear sticking his head through the wall. But I’ll admit to not really getting the point of this one. Pretty animation though. (5/10)

A Morning Stroll” (UK): Set over three time periods, this is a funny little story about an unusual little chicken. What’s really interesting about this one is that each time period is done in a different animation style. The 1959 sequence is done in black-and-white traditional animation with simplistic, stick-figure style character designs. The 2009 sequence is done in CGI animation and full of vibrant, bright colors. The 2059-set scene takes place in a desolate zombie apocalypse.

This one seems to function under a simple joke set-up. Show a scenario twice through, with things going mostly the same way, while the third version of the scenario goes very differently. While it has a funny enough set-up and pay-off, there’s not too much more to this one. (6/10)

Wild Life” (Canada): Another Canadian short. The must striking one about this is its visual style. It’s animated with a paint-on glass style you see pop up every once in a while in indie animation. The effect makes the movie look like a constantly moving painting.

The story is an odd one though. It details a young British man with dreams of leaving his home country and becoming a cowboy. Where does he go to accomplish this goal? Canada. While that’s a funny enough set-up, and there’s some amusing interviews with the other people who live in the town, this one ends up not going much of anywhere. There are interstationals with scientific facts about comets throughout the film. This ties into the ending, but mostly comes off as unneeded. I wasn’t too impressed with this one. (5/10)

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” (USA):
Definitely the stand-out short. The beautiful CGI story, which looks a lot like Pixar, is a surreal little parable about the beauty and magic of books. There’s a bit that plays like “The Wizard of Oz” in reverse: Someone starts out in a world of color, before getting swept up in a tornado and winding up in a black-and-white place. Eventually he winds up in a magical book store full of books that act like living, breathing creatures. I don’t want to spoil too much about the story and instead recommend seeking it out.

I liked this one a lot. It’s lyrical, sweet, poignant, funny, and, for a book-lover like myself, admittedly left me a little weepy eyed. Totally check it out. (9/10)

In addition to the four nominees shown, three Highly Commended shorts where shown as well. “Skylight” was light, funny, and a bit on the twisted side. “The Hybrid Union” was a odd little story that might be a metaphor about hybrid car technology, I think? It’s funny and cute but didn’t really impress me. “Amazonia” was a bit like classic “Looney Tunes” style slapstick. It’s fun enough but the extremely bright visuals and fluffy character design set you back some. I would have liked to have seen a nomination for “Skylight,” to tell the truth. But the other two definitely should have been passed over.

Something I noticed about the Animated Shorts is that common themes run throughout the films. Each one has a nostalgic component in them or deals with death in some way. Animals are featured in three of them. (And two of the Commended shorts.) Sort of funny how that happened.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with the Live-Action Shorts but kind of disappointed by the Animated Shorts. Last year’s crop was superior.

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