The Live-Action Short Films actually covers a very wide selection of films. This year is a multinational affair, with films from Germany, France, Afghanistan, and South Africa filling up the nominations, with only a single English language short. They cover a wide range of genres and tone, from fantasy, tragic, tragi-comic, slice-of-life, from downbeat to light-hearted. That’s more variety then you find in Best Picture. Anyway, let’s get on with it.
Death of a Shadow:
One of the perils of the short form is that you have very little time to establish characters. “Death of a Shadow” has a lot to unpack in its twenty minute run time. It follows a lost soul stuck in some sort of purgatory where he has to snatch people’s shadows away from them at the time of death, something he does with a wacky magic steampunk camera. The shadows are then plastered on canvas for the enjoyment of some vaguely sinister authorities figure. (You know this because he’s a creepy guy in a suit.) He has to do this for a thousand days until he is then freed back into the world of the living, somehow. Also, you can read people’s past by touching their shadow. And there this wacky machine where you can look up people by method of death and first name. Plus, the shadow-snatchers can explore all time and place, apparently.
Got all that? Cause the movie still has to get to the character’s main emotional motivation. There’s a girl, a lost love, a new love, personal sacrifices, not to mention World War I. Why the movie does a better job of putting this all together then I probably make it sound like, the concept is still overstuffed and convoluted, with thin characters without any audience investment. I suspect “Death of a Shadow” got nominated more for its moody production design then anything else. [6/10]
In the same year that brought us “Amour,” we also have this short, another film about old French people dying. From fairly early on, it’s easy to see where it’s going. When you’ve got an old man, looking for his wife and daughter, locked up in a mysterious institute, persecuted by a mysterious conspiracy, the inevitable twist ending is blatantly obvious.
The movie has decent production design. I especially like a sequence where a hallway goes dark around a character. However, other potentially effective sequences are undone by the movie putting too fine a point on it, like the elderly man remembering when he first met his wife. And what is it this year with movies that have a character directly explain to their audience in broad details? First, “Life of Pi” breaks down a its allegorical content bit by bit and now “Henry” has a young man telling us the details of the fairly obvious twist ending. “Henry” overall is gripped by melodrama, in scenes like husband and wife reunited or senile father breaking down in front of daughter. Apparently, the film is based off the director’s own experience with his ill father. I guess you can’t understand subtly when grieving. All this overblown emotion means “Henry” will probably win the Oscar. [5/10]
Now this is more like it! Hey, stodgy live-action short films, here’s some effortless energy and spunk. “Curfew” has a funny set-up, with a suicidal man deciding to postpone his suicide when his estranged sister calls to ask him to babysit his niece. It’s clear Richie is a fuck up, with a pretty clear drug problem the film doesn’t waste time focusing too much on. No, this film is about the relationship between Richie and Sophia, his smart, precocious, nine-year old niece. Over the course of the evening, the two discover a connection neither was aware of before.
The film has a deft balance of tone. Its settings and visual are grimy, dirty, and gritty, with the cast’s misery visible on the walls. Aside from the suicide and drug abuse, we’ve got a shady apartment and a battered wife. However, “Curfew” never overdoes, balancing the pathos with the humorous. A child’s tears are quickly defused by a light-hearted action. A moving, direct monologue from Richie at the end goes in hand with an early hilarious moment, where he winds up yelling out to clueless women. The movie possess real energy too, most obvious in the awesome, infectious, inexplicable dance sequence midway through.
Perhaps the short wouldn’t work so well without its two lead performances. Fatima Ptacek, who is apparently the voice of Dora the Explorer, is a talent to watch, with a natural energy and charm. Shawn Christensen is never a helpless sad sack, instead masking his bitterness behind some sarcastic humor. Of all the shorts, “Curfew” is the only one that could easily be expanded into a feature. It’s also easily the best of an overly maudlin lot. [8/10]
“Buzkashi Boys” at least has a decent start. Set in Afghanistan during the winter, something you don’t see a lot, the film follows two different boys living in the slums. One is the son of a blacksmith who has a strained relationship with his dad. The other is an orphan and a street urchin who spends his days panhandling for cash. As you’d expect, dad doesn’t approve of the friendship. The blacksmith’s son manages to sneak away for a day and the two friends spend the after watching a buzkashi game, some wacky Middle Eastern sport where guys on horses toss a dead goat around.
This is another short with strong young actors. Fawad Mohammadi and Jawanmard Paiz both give good performances and the film gets some mileage out of watching two young boys dream about their uncertain futures. The movie seems to wrap up with a speech from the Blacksmith that shows he’s not a total asshole. But then the film continues on to the next, dragging on for another unnecessary ten minutes before crawling to a downer, needlessly bleak ending. At twenty-eight minutes, it’s only the longest short by a whole minute but it feels much longer. Despite a decent start, “Buzkashi Boys” reveals itself to be a real downer. [5/10]
While it has the same maudlin tone as the rest of the shorts, “Asad” also has a few moments of humor to keep it from being a total drag. Set in one of the slums of Somalia, it follows a young boy who is deciding wither he wants to be a pirate like his older friends or earn an honest life as a fisherman, like the old man he respects. The movie treats the crime, violence, and starvation of the Somalian Mogadishu as an everyday fact of life.
Despite the dark subject matter, there’s quite a bit of humor in the interaction between Asad and his best friend. The ending features several dead bodies let pays off with a funny reversal of an earlier scene. So while it might look like “Asad” has the same sad sack tone as the majority of the other nominees, it actually displays some light, young-hearted humor. [7/10]
The nominations are hosted by Luke Matheny, the director of 2010’s winner “God of Love.” Matheny shares some funny stories about what it’s like to be both a nominee and a winner. It doesn’t have much to do with any of the shorts presented but it is amusing. Out of the shorts, I’m hoping “Curfew” wins though I doubt its odds are all that good. Either way, it is nice to be able to see all of them in one easy stop.