Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Movie Review: Oscar Shorts

Back Off, Randy Newman
Short films have good reason to live

Like endangered species confined to captivity for their survival, short films usually stay caged within film festivals and college campuses and only roam the wild briefly around Oscar time. A shame, considering the tiny, tasty treats are often among the most delightful delicacies.

An annual tradition, the nominees in both the animated and live-action short categories at the Academy Awards are shown in two condensed blocks at Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater (filmstreams.org). And, in what has become The Reader’s annual tradition, we grade each entry and explain what should and will win come Oscar night. It’s a short job, but someone has to briefly do it.

Animated Short Films

Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty
Director: Nicky Phelan
Writer: Kathleen O’Rourke

Alternating between shoddy CGI and more pleasing 2-dimensional animation, a classic fairy tale is retold to an insomniac child from the perspective of a curmudgeonly, mean-spirited grandmother. Unfortunately, the only point seems to be that, if mistreated, the elderly will haunt you while you sleep. Although pleasant, this one-joke endeavor isn’t lush enough visually nor clever enough in concept to be anything more than a decent way to spend 10 minutes.

Grade = B-

Writers/directors: François Alaux, Herve de Crecy, and Ludovic Houplain

Hands down the most refreshing of the bunch, this cel-shaded parody of a blockbuster movie features a Los Angeles created with and entirely populated by corporate logos. When a sociopathic Ronald McDonald goes on a gun-toting violent rampage, only an unforeseen collapse can stop him. Part vulgar and rambunctious goofing and part insightful commentary, Logorama is the epitome of what shorts can do that full-length features can’t.

Grade = A

The Lady and the Reaper
Writer/director: Javier Recio Gracia

The second story among the nominees that deals with comical AARP-style vengeance, when welcome release (in the form of the Grim Reaper) comes for an aged woman, her spiritual journey is thwarted by a fame-seeking doctor who keeps reviving her whether she wants to live or not. The back and forth battle is “Keystone Cops” meets “Tom and Jerry,” only the stakes are actually life and death. This may be the cutest argument for euthanasia in history.

Grade = A-

French Roast
Writer/director: Fabrice Joubert

Sporting the finest CGI among the nominees, this quickie about shenanigans surrounding a businessman who forgot to bring his wallet to a ritzy café over-relies on sight gags and a wacky resolution. Visually alive but script-dead, this ultimately forgettable endeavor is the weakest of the bunch. Thankfully, it’s also among the shortest.

Grade = C+

Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death
Director: Nick Park
Writers: Bob Baker and Nick Park

It’s almost unfair that the long-beloved claymation duo of sad sack Wallace and his loyal and mute dog Gromit is entered here, having appeared in various forms for more than 20 years. Faced with a nefarious, plump serial killer, the pair engage in Marx Brothers-style tomfoolery in what is easily the most lovingly hand crafted short considered here. Whether this is your introduction to the boys or a blissful reunion, it’s more than worth the price of admission on its own.

Grade = A

Although Logorama should win for its ribald genius, the longevity and joy of the claymated Wallace and Gromit will snag Oscar gold in one of the most competitive years.

Overall grade = A-

Live-Action Short Films

Writer/director: Gregg Helvey

Reminding the world that slavery both still exists and still really sucks, this story of a young boy (Sagar Salunke) forced to work at a brick kiln in bonded labor is pretty much what you’d expect. Stopping short of melodrama, the experience of watching an adorable child who just wants to play cricket being forced to haul and lay bricks is every bit as disconcerting as it sounds. Relevant but not inspired, this one is a dark horse for the big trophy.

Grade = B

The Door
Writer/director: Juanita Wilson

Alarming and ambiguous, the film opens with Nikolai (Igor Sigov) stealing a door, a bizarre act that carries severe weight as its purpose is revealed in the final frames. Inspired by the events at Chernobyl, the literal and metaphorical significance of the short could have sustained itself at full length, which is perhaps why Wilson is next moving into that format. Disjointed but never confusing, The Door is a minor challenge to watch and a major accomplishment.

Grade = A-

Miracle Fish
Writer/director: Luke Doolan

Like a miniature version of The Hurt Locker, Miracle Fish may be the most relentlessly tense short film ever shot. After getting bullied on his birthday, 8-year-old Joe (Karl Beattie) wakes up in the nurse’s office only to find himself disarmingly alone at school. It would ruin things to explain further, so let’s just say what happens is not okay…very not okay. It achieves its purpose so precisely, it’s damn near perfect.

Grade = A+

The New Tenants
Director: Joachim Back
Writers: Anders Thomas Jensen and David Rakoff

As odd as it is fascinating, violence and abstract comedy are merged into a pointless blend of bizarre. Frank (David Rakoff) and Peter (Jamie Harrold) move into an apartment and meet an interesting cast of characters, including the manic Jan (Vincent D’Onofrio), and the drug-dealing homicide enthusiast Zelko (Kevin Corrigan). Like a term project in a Tarantino class, this is as weirdly watchable as it gets.

Should win: B

Instead of Abracadabra
Writer/director: Patrik Eklund

Like a one-eyed, Swedish, grown-up Napoleon Dynamite, Thomas (Simon J Berger) is obsessed with magic to the point of injuring himself and others. With outfits as ridiculous as his alternative to the word abracadabra (“chimay”) and a budding romance, Hollywood execs will likely remake this into a Will Smith vehicle faster than you can say “leave it alone.” This gem will be the biggest crowd pleaser.

Grade = A-

Miracle Fish is a complete triumph, but grim and twisted, so good money is probably on the abstract-but-topical The Door. Although not quite equal to the animated gang, this year’s live-action entries have nothing to hang their heads about.

Overall grade = B+

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