Monday, February 18, 2013

2012 Live Action Short Film Oscar Nominees: The Reviews

2013 Academy Award Nominees:
Live-Action Short Films
Asad, Buzkashi Boys, Curfew,
Death of a Shadow, Henry

It's now customary to sit through a half-hour if not more of commercials for various things before a film starts.  I've sat through ads for television programs, community colleges, upcoming films (not trailers, mind you, but little commercials for a yet-unreleased movie), businesses such as Subway and GEICO (I love the food and the pig that goes 'wee', but didn't pay to watch commercials), and more than once suffered the indignity of watching a spot for a plastic surgeon touting breast implants. 

Modern audiences don't think anything of it.  It's curious that while audiences have no problem watching a heavy-set woman subtly suggest to her befuddled husband she wants bigger boobs (rather than the liposuction that would be of greater benefit), they would be horrified to watch a mini-movie ranging from 18 to 28 minutes (some with subtitles) play before the main feature.

For now sixty years the Academy Awards have had a Best Live-Action Short Subject category to honor films that run under thirty minutes.  It is because in the 1930s through the 1960s audiences would watch short films, some that became popular series of shorts (even at times, more popular than the actual feature).  The Laurel & Hardy classic The Music Box for example, was the first Short Subject Oscar winner, and The Pete Smith Specialties, a series of comic short films narrated by, as the billing went, "A Smith Named Pete" with Smith's distinctive nasally voice, were wildly popular with wartime audiences. Two of the 150 short films he made, (Penny Wisdom and Quicker'n a Wink) would win Oscars, as would Smith himself with an Honorary Award for his body of work.

However, as time went on short films were eventually weeded out of the program.  Short films were no longer being played with the feature presentation.  I suspect part of the reason was because in the 1950s and 60s movies were getting larger, bigger, and longer, thus a need to cut out anything that would take out space.  Also, with the demise of the studio system which produced the short films, the slack was picked up by independent filmmakers with smaller budgets and thus fewer outlets to screen them.  Once short films started disappearing from general circulation, being relegated to niche art-houses, the category became a puzzle to most audiences.  Why should they care about short movies they've never seen or heard of?

They are right about the not-caring bit, but wrong about the not-caring bit.  The five nominees for the 2012 Live-Action Short Film Oscar are all well-made films ranging from comic to tragic to artsy, and if they were shown before the main film, audiences would be treated to actually better stories.  Certainly any of these films in their original form (or even in a feature film adaptation) are smarter and better in every way than things like Green Lantern or The Hangover Part II (films with bigger budgets, bigger stars, but bigger disasters).   I was privileged to see the five nominees and now I present my short reviews for the Short Films and my prediction for the winner.  Reviews are by order of presentation.

Death of a Shadow (20 minutes)
Languages: French & Dutch

Death of a Shadow involves Nathan Rijckx (Matthias Schoenaerts).  He is forced to photograph shadows in their exact moment of death by the Shadow Collector (Peter Van Den Eede) with a special camera.  The twist is that Nathan is himself a shadow, and the Shadow Collector will grant him his freedom after a certain set number of shadows are caught.  Nathan has fallen in love with Sarah (Laura Verlinden) a nurse from World War I, but she is in love with Daniel (Benjamin Ramon), a soldier.  Now he has a chance to collect him as his final shadow, and the Shadow Collector will not only release him but he can be brought to life in any time in history.  Nathan chooses Sarah's time, but Sarah, devastated by Daniel's death, has gone mad.  Nathan tries to return Daniel's shadow but the Shadow Collector must have one there.  With that, Nathan makes the sacrifice to bring Daniel and Sarah together again.  In the end, Nathan is shot in World War I and Sarah dies of old age, their shadows together.

Death of A Shadow is an inventive and original story that provides twists upon twists.  It is well-acted, bringing a sense of tragedy to this bizarre story.  It is odd in its plot but Death of a Shadow is one of the most unique films, capturing the tragedy of Nathan's dilemma.  He does not enjoy capturing shadows at the moment of death, having to stand quietly as they become part of the Collection.  Now having a chance to be with the woman he has fallen in love with, he opts to sacrifice himself for her happiness.  A beautiful film.

Henry (21 minutes)
Language: Canadian French

The title character of Henry is an old man, once a pianist.  He was married to a violinist and by all appearances things are going well.  However, it is soon clear that Henry is suffering through dementia: unaware that his wife is dead and not recognizing his daughter.  His younger self urges him to keep remembering and Henry flashes between how his long romance with his music-loving wife and his present are colliding.  Eventually, Henry appears to accept that he is losing more than his memories.

What I found about Henry was that in some respects it is a mini-Amour.  The themes of death and loss that Amour tackles are also here. The performances, especially by Gerard Poirier as the title character, are all excellent.  It is a moving film, but I would say a bit predictable.  I suppose it wasn't meant to be a mystery that Henry was suffering of dementia or that the woman he was talking to was known to him.  The mixing of Henry's past and present are effective but I'd argue a bit obvious in what Henry was trying to say.  Still, a well-made film. 


Curfew (19 minutes)
Language: American English

Curfew involves Richie (writer/director Shawn Christensen), who is depressed and starting to kill himself when his estranged sister calls.  She is desperate for someone to watch her daughter Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) for a few hours, so desperate that she calls the last person she'd rather see.  Richie covers up his slashed wrist and goes for Sophia.  His niece has a list of things they can do or there'll be 'hell to pay'.  The only thing they can do is a bowling alley.  Over the time Richie and Sophia bond, where Sophia learns the reason for the estrangement and Richie finds a glimmer of a reason to live.  His sister however, who appears to be suffering from domestic abuse with a restraining order, doesn't want him around.  Richie goes back to his place and is going to pick up where he started, even pulling out the telephone cord to stop it from continuing to ring.  Just as it's all about to come to an end, he quickly plugs the phone back in, where his sister asks if he could watch Sophia on Friday afternoons. 

Curfew came from the same man who wrote Abduction (one of the worst films of 2011).  I therefore figure that Abduction must have been made for the money, because it is amazing that something so wonderful as Curfew could come from the same mind that brought us something so awful as Abduction.  Shawn Christensen just emerges as a wonderful actor (he reminds me of Mark Ruffalo), a first-class director (he appears to be drawing inspiration from Wes Anderson but with more wit in his whimsy...the musical number in the middle of Curfew is a delight), and an excellent writer (we're ready to forgive Abduction).  This is one of the best calling cards not just for Christensen but for Ptacek as well, who brings a weariness and innocence to Sophia.  If it were expanded to a feature-length film, it would be a wild success, and at nineteen minutes the story is compact.  It is also funny, sweet, clever, original, touching, heart-warming/breaking, and redemptive.     


Buzkashi Boys (28 minutes)
Language: Dari (Afghan language)

Buzkashi Boys is about two friends: the orphan Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz) and Rafi (Fawad Mohamedi), son of the local blacksmith.  Rafi's father does not care for Ahmad but tolerates both him and his son wishing to go out with him for a few hours.  In that time Ahmad takes Rafi to watch a buzkashi event (an Afghan sport akin to polo except it involves a dead goat being carried to certain spots for points).  The boys dream of being buzkashi players but Rafi knows he is destined to be a blacksmith like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, etc.  Ahmad, being a resourceful lad, manages to get a horse to begin his dream of greatness, but tragedy strikes.  Rafi is at first angry but then accepts how things are, his buzkashi dreams now being deferred like a raisin in the sun.

The film is a devastating experience.  We perhaps should expect what occurs but it doesn't take away from how emotional it gets for the audience.  Buzkashi Boys is a glimpse into a nation devastated by wounds both external and self-inflicted.  We do get some sense of hope that perhaps Rafi's son will not be relegated to put away his own dreams for his own future.  The two children are wonderful, showing that children everywhere have dreams.  In short, Buzkashi Boys has a mix of hope and despair for Afghanistan.  My only argument against it is perhaps that it might be a bit long.


Asad (18 minutes)
Language: Somali

Asad is the main character of Asad.  He lives in a devastated Somalia, a fisherman (or fisher-boy) who has had bad luck catching anything.  Mentored by Erasto, a wise old fisherman, Asad stays apart from the pirates who make a good living.  One day, Erasto has come back with a large fish, and he asks Asad to take it to his mother.  However, soldiers from Mogadishu come, threatening Asad's friend Ali (who has a clear limp).  In exchange for Ali's life Asad must give the fish up.   Later, Asad finds Erasto injured by those same soldiers and he tells Asad that he must go catch fish.  Asad believes he can't due to his bad luck but goes anyway.  To his surprise he finds a yatch whose occupants, including his pirate friend, are all dead.  Asad does find something, something unique: a Persian cat.  No one in his village has ever seen an animal like this, and Asad (whose name means 'lion') decides to call this new catch Lionfish and takes him to the village, where everyone now recognizes Asad's luck has finally changed.

Asad is a little odd in that one can't believe a yatch would be sailing around this rather dangerous part of the world and in this world being so isolated that a Persian cat is unknown, but it also has two great things to it.  First, it has a great sense of authenticity due to the fact that all the people in Asad are non-trained actors who are all Somali refugees (even the small parts of Asad's mother and sisters).  This is all drawn from their personal experiences, so this story is real to them (and makes it real to us).  Second, it has a sense of hope and optimism: perhaps the luck has changed not just for Asad but one hopes for Somalia and its long-suffering people.


First some notes.  Asad at 18 minutes is the shortest of the five nominees, while Buzkashi Boys is the longest at 28 minutes.  Of the five nominees, only one, Curfew, is in English.  The five films have a certain similarity in that all of them deal with loss of some kind, whether of identity and love with Death of a Shadow and Henry or interpersonal connection as shown in Curfew or Buzkashi Boys.  Curiously, only two of those films, Curfew and Asad, end with a sense of hope and optimism.  None of them are comedic and only one, Curfew, has anything that can be considered light moments.

In terms of length, they go from Asad, Curfew, Death of a Shadow, Henry, and Buzkashi Boys.  In terms of storytelling, it is a credit to all the nominees that they could all tell such wonderful stories in such a brief period of time, putting other films to shame that they can't tell a story in two-plus hours. 

At last, here is my prediction for the Best Live-Action Short Film:

Curfew ran all the emotions, was brilliantly acted, written, and directed.  It was reminiscent of what Wes Anderson tries to do (make films about people in the midst of crises) without drowning in its own cuteness.  You had moments of fantasy that worked (how else to have a dance number that didn't look ridiculous) and moments of great drama, and two brilliant performances by Shawn Christensen and Fatima Ptacek (who both should get more jobs out of this if there is any justice on this Earth).  I'd be happy for any of them to win, but Curfew should be and I think will be the winner (with only the inventive, moody, and dark Death of a Shadow giving it a run for its money). 

Finally, my rankings:

Death of a Shadow
Buzkashi Boys

Next time, the Animated Short Films.                  

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