I spent the weekend watching Oscar shorts because I care about you and want you to win your Oscar pool. On Saturday at the Lighthouse, I spent 2.5+ hours watching the live action and animated shorts. On Sunday at MoMa, I watched 2.25+ hours of documentary shorts. None of them were so awful they made you jaw drop and wonder what the nominating committee was thinking, but most were not that good. Later this week, I'll do an Oscar ballot, but here are the picks in these categories followed by descriptions and reviews.
BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM -- The Danish Poet
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM -- West Bank Story
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT -- The Blood of Yingzhou District
ANIMATED SHORT FILMS
The Danish Poet -- ****
By far the best short of the entire weekend and it came first. This charming little piece is narrated (in English) by Liv Ullmann and tells the fanciful story of how our narrator's parents met. A Danish poet is so moved by the work of the famous Sigrid Undset that he asks her if he can visit in hopes of finding inspiration. He goes, but gets trapped in a farmhouse by rain, meets the farmer's daughter, but their love is thwarted (much like the love at the heart of Undset's masterpiece) and on it goes, in a gentle whimsical manner. The animation is simple and quite charming, reminding us of how most major animated films are so boring for employing the same photo-realistic look of the PIXAR films. Disney (ie Pixar) is very smart to keep making hand-drawn films. Animated movies should be made in every style: hand-drawn and computer drawn and stop-motion, luxuriously detailed or cheap and every sort of variation in between. The story here is filled with little touches, like watching our hero board a ferry, invariably followed by a crowd of boisterous party-goers who are tilted backwards with drink while vacationing college students are bent forward under the weight of their massive backpacks. It ends on a heartwarming (if not unexpected) note and is generally a sheer delight.
Lifted ** 1/2
What I can only term a typical PIXAR film. It looks great, has some good characters and a clever premise with the inevitable "button" at the end (a final joke or twist to make you laugh). So why did it seem so slight and pro forma? The story tells about an alien spaceship hovering over a house and trying to abduct the man sleeping there. But instead of floating out the window he bangs into the wall. It turns out the alien at the controls is under training and nervous, what with the massive and impassive crature grading his every move. Cute, but very familiar.
The Little Matchgirl * 1/2
A wordless, schmaltzy, very standard retelling of the story of the little match girl, a poor ragamuffin who is freezing to death in an alleyway but starts lighting matches to provide a little comfort. The animation isn't terribly interesting (only one transition from a Christmas tree to falling snow sticks in my mind) and the heart-tugging sadness of it all isn't earned. Remarkably, one website claims Disney forced the filmmakers to try two or three happier endings before letting them stick with the one in the original tale. I find that a little hard to believe since this is a short and would therefor almost never be seen, so who would spend money on alternate endings? And why would anyone make "The Little Matchgirl" with a happy ending?
Maestro -- ** 1/2
A one-joke short that got the most applause of any short after "The Danish Poet." It also has a surprise ending, which I figured out about 30 seconds into it. But it looks great, has all sorts of good detail and nice characterization along the way while showing a bird in his dressing room preparing for a performance. If there's an upset, this will be the one.
No Time For Nuts -- **
Scrat of "Ice Age" finds a time machine and ends up chasing nuts through various points of history. An okay Looney Tunes short, but this is about the hundredth time we've seen this story with small variations. I was always bored by the Roadrunner cartoons too.
LIVE ACTION SHORT FILMS
Binta Y La Gran Idea (Binta and the Great Idea) **
An ambitious -- or should I say muddled -- story set, I believe, in Senegal. We get a glimpse of Senegalese life: we see young Binta as she enjoys going to school; we see her friend Soda, whose father won't let her go to school; we see kids put on a play to shame Soda's dad into letting her get educated just like all the other kids and we see Binta's dad working his way through the bureaucracy of the gov't with an idea that amuses most everyone who hears it. Oddly, neither Soda's predicament nor Binta's father's plan are ever resolved. Looks good with acting that is rudimentary.
Eramos Pocos (One Too Many)**
When a fed-up mom takes off, her husband and slovenly son rush off to the nursing home to bring back the husband's mother-in-law in hopes that she'll feed and take care of them. Modest, kind of amusing, with the inevitable twist at the end. (Sometimes, I get the feeling that all the Oscar shorts are scripted by O'Henry.)
Helmer & Son **
Another not-bad story of a son headed to a nursing home to try and talk his aged father out of hiding in a wardrobe. Again, a modest twist ending with some decent confrontations along the way.
The Saviour ** 1/2
For me, the most ambitious short and the one that makes me want to see the director's first film. But it's gunning for a quirky tone that is too hard to pull off with the actors available to the director. In this Australian film, two Mormons are going door to door to proselytize. One of them (who has a deformed arm, oddly enough, a quirk that is never mentioned or explained but certainly adds to the Flannery O'Connor aura) falls for a woman and meets her on his own to have sex until she dumps him. The byplay between the Mormons and the revelation of what was really going on is all pretty interesting.
West Bank Story ***
"West Side Story" set in the West Bank and given a silly spin. The Israeli "gang" works at Kosher King, the Palestinian gang works next door at Hummus Hut. I could have done without the silly hats the employees are forced to wear. But it's good-natured and pretty amusing and the songs aren't bad. Sadly, the finale is an odd joke and NOT a musical number (big mistake) but this definitely was the most crowd-pleasing of them all.
DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECTS
The Blood of Yingzhou Distrcit ** 1/2
Through the lazy and incompetent practices of a company collecting blood from peasants for money, many people became infected with AIDS, leaving a generation of little children orphans and ostracized by their neighbors who are too frightened to go anywhere near the kids. Basically, we meet little kids shuttled from home to home, with the other children warned by their parents never to talk or play with them. (If they do, no one else will play with THEM). Basically, the short has one purpose: to show us how sad this situation is.
Recycled Life ** 1/2
Marginally, the best of the shorts, this shows the lives of people in Guatemala City who live literally on a toxic garbage dump where they scavenge recyclable material to earn a living. It tells a story and moves us forward, but this short has too many objectives: to tell us how miserable their existence is and urge the gov't to change it, to tell us their lives have dignity and deserve respect and to give historical and cultural context to it all, along with some tiresome talking heads that offer not a single observation worth hearing. Slightly hopeful, it then ends with a real downer. Like so many Oscar documentary shorts, it's a tale of woe. And the title is so dumb, I think it'll turn people off.
Rehearsing A Dream **
High school kids get to spend a week at "camp" with other talented kids pursing a career in the arts. Their disciplines include dance, theater, jazz, classical, photography, art, writing and so on. The Oscars love performing arts shorts, but there just isn't anything special enough to grab your attention.
Two Hands **
Director Nathaniel Kahn ("My Architect") gets credit for delivering the briefest short. It's 15 minutes long while the other three were 39m each. It tells the story of a classical pianist who had a minor slip-up carrying garden furniture that led to the breakdown of his right hand and the apparent end of his recording career. But not quite. A later operation for carpal tunnel syndrome gave him new mobility which led to a comeback. But the comeback was a "lie" in some ways since he didn't have true mobility, but botox injections have led him to better flexibility and more performances but he wouldn't trade his journey (which led to conducting and becoming a better teacher, among other things) even if he could. It all flits by so quickly and the changes in fortune rarely carry the weight they should.