[THE OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS OF 2012 screens Friday August 17th at the Cleveland Museum of Art.]
Review by Bob Ignizio
Once upon a time, short films of both the live action and animated variety were part of the normal movie going experience. All those Warner Brothers, Disney and MGM cartoons and live action 2 reelers like Little Rascals and Three Stooges that show up on TV? They used to play before the feature films at theaters. Nowadays, the best you get is some corporate Entertainment Tonight knockoff that takes you behind the scenes of the latest would-be blockbuster or TV show in between ads for Coke and cell phones. But short films are still being made, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still hands out awards to filmmakers working in the format. These days, though, with very few exceptions the only way you'll be able to see these films is by attending special programs like this one.
Let's start with the animated shorts, or as they used to be known, cartoons. This year's crop of nominees are a curiously somber, at times dreary bunch, with not a single one featuring funny animals dropping anvils on each other. Morning Stroll agruably comes closest to that scenario, featuring a seemingly immortal chicken who walks the streets of a big city from 1959 until the zombie apocalypse a century later. Different eras are depicted using different animation techniques. It's good for a chuckle or two, but in the end feels more like a demo reel designed to show what the animators are capable of than a fully realized work.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore uses 3D computer animation and Keatonesque silent comedy gags to illustrate the power of literature. Not just the power of books to lift up their readers, but the power of readers to rediscover old and forgotten tomes and bring them back to life. The animation looks great, I like the message, and this is easily the most upbeat of the shorts in this category. Even with stronger competition this one would be a solid contender.
Traditional cell animation gets its due in Diamanche/Sunday and Wildlife, both from Canada. The former is a drab and joyless meditation on humanity's callous disdain for animal life (at least that's what I got out of it), while the latter deals with a chapter in Canadian history I've never seen addressed before, when Brits immigrated to the “Great White North” with dreams of being cowboys and things didn't always go as planned.
Rounding out the nominees is the obligatory Pixar short, La Luna. It's up to the company's usual high standards as far as the computer animation goes, but the slight tale of a multi-generational trio of fishermen harvesting fallen stars from the moon just didn't resonate with me.
The animation work in all these shorts, regardless of the techniques used, is fine. None of the films are bad, and I imagine hardcore animation buffs will find them interesting. Still, I have to think that more casual audiences will be wishing for one of Aardman's (Wallace and Grommit) claymation confections or even a darkly funny Plymptoon to lighten the mood.
Overall, the live action nominees fare somewhat better. In the British entry Pentecost, a young altar boy screws up mass by accidentally knocking over the priest. With an important mass coming up and not enough altar boys to serve, he gets a chance at redemption. At just around 10 minutes it's cute and sort of funny and doesn't overstay its welcome.
Packing more of a punch is the German short Raju in which a childless couple adopts the titular character. The day after the adoption clears, the wife takes ill and her husband and Raju go out to see the sights of India without her. Raju gets lost, and while searching for him the husband discovers that the adoption agency they used is more than a little shady – Raju has parents who are looking for him. The police find the boy while the husband is out searching and return him to his adopted mother. When the husband tells her about his discovery, she doesn't want to give Raju up, leaving the husband with a difficult moral decision to make. Of all the shorts, this is the one that feels to me like it would most have benefited from being a feature length film. It's fine at its present length of almost a half hour, but I could definitely see this going into more depth.
Time travel stories often result in complex conundrums. The problem facing the time traveler in Time Freak is that he becomes so wrapped up in getting every little detail of one mundane day in his life just right, that he ends up trapping himself in place like a self-imposed GROUNDHOG DAY. His only hope is the one friend he has confided in about his invention (and his obsession). It's funny and clever and just the right length to make its point. This would make a great warm-up for a summer sci-fi flick if such things were still done.
The most satisfying of the nominees for me was the Irish film The Shore. It involves two estranged best friends. One left for America to avoid “the troubles” in Ireland leaving behind his girlfriend, while the other stayed behind and eventually married the girl himself. Now years later the expatriate returns with his daughter, happy to see his homeland but reluctant to reconnect with those he once loved best. This is a fully realized film with a gripping story and plenty of genuine emotion. Like a good short story, it's just as long as it needs to be (about 30 minutes), and dragging it out to feature length would be pointless. My money would be on this one for the win, but then again last year my least favorite entry took the prize, so what do I know.
Norway's Tuba Atlantic concerns a curmudgeonly old man who finds out he has only 6 days left to live. He decides to die at home rather than in a hospital, and spends his remaining time killing seagulls and waiting for the wind to change direction so he can try to contact his estranged brother in New Jersey with a giant tuba the two of them built years ago. Since the law forbids anyone from dying at home alone, an “angel of death” from the Jesus Club named Inge arrives to look over the old man. He's less than thrilled with having this young girl around at first, but of course eventually warms to her. Nothing you wouldn't expect in this dark comedy, but I did get a few macabre laughs out of it. No real gulls appear to have been harmed, but some animal lovers will likely find the avian carnage a bit much.
Armstrong's story is probably one that is worth telling, but I kind of felt as if this short documentary lost focus on its subject. We get a lot of the usual civil rights history lesson material, but not nearly enough about Mr. Armstrong himself. Not bad, but in the end it feels like a bit of a lost opportunity.
Last but certainly not least are the documentary nominees. I only saw three of the four films in this category (Saving Face being the one I missed), but on the strenght of The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom alone, this is the program most worth seeing. The voices of onlookers can be heard in disbelief and horror as The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom opens with incredible footage of the Japanese tsunami of March 11, 2011. A month later we hear from the survivors, interspersed with more footage of the disaster and its aftermath. Many survivors find hope in the cherry blossoms, or sakura, that signify spring in Japan. The cherry blossoms mean many different things to many people. To many here, they signify hope.
This is an excellent film that is as much about the culture and character of the Japanese people as it is about the disaster that has befallen them. The survivors somehow manage to see a positive future, not in some blind Pollyanna way, but in a more practical sense. If the plants are hanging in there, as one man says, then the humans had better do so as well.
Incident in New Baghdad tells the story of Ethan McCord, a soldier suffering with PTSD. On July 12, 2007 group of people in streets of Baghdad were machine gunned down bu U.S. Apache helicopters, some of them civilians. McCord was there, one of the first men to arrive on foot and see the results of the helicopter attack. It was McCord who found two seriously wounded children in a truck and managed to get them medical assistance.
After the incident, McCord no longer believes he is doing good in Iraq. He feels guilt and only wants to survive and make it home to his own children. When he asked for mental health treatment to deal with his issues, he was told by the Staff Sergeant to suck it up or face repercussions. And so he did, leading to problems at home. Some will no doubt feel this film is leftist propaganda. To be sure, the filmmaker has a slant, but this is one man's story told as he sees it.
James Armstrong is an 85 year old barber and long time civil rights activist profiled in Barber of Birmingham. He's one of the “footsoldiers” in the civil rights movement whose sons were among the first to integrate in public schools with white students. As this film was being made, he has lived to see the election of Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States of America.
All in all, I think last year's batch of shorts were marginally better, but there's still enough here worth seeing. 2 1/2 out of 4 stars for the animated shorts, 3 out of 4 stars for the live action shorts, and 3 out of 4 stars for the documentary shorts.