Once again, the good people at Shorts HD have assembled the 15 short movies nominated for Academy Awards in three categories – Animation, Live Action, and Documentary – and once again given us the rare treat of watching shorts in a movie theater and being reminded that there are other ways to tell a cinematic story than as a two-hour Hollywood-style narrative.
Customarily, I find the live action shorts to be weaker than their animated compatriots, and this year is no exception, even when the animated films were, on the whole, a bit on the droopy side. At least the live action slate isn’t so parochial: where four of the five animated nominees were American (and the last from the United Kingdom), every one of the live action films hails from a different country, even if two of them have some U.S. money behind them in what feels awfully like a “Hey, Americans, this is what the whole world looks like!” goodwill propaganda effort.
Asad (Bryan Buckley, South Africa/USA)
And indeed, that turns out to be exactly the case with the first of the nominees, alphabetically (but the last screened in the Shorts HD slate). It ticks off pretty much all of the boxes for this category: about a kid, has a Serious Message about the World Today, but there’s just enough humor to keep it from getting unpleasantly dark. The kid in question is Asad (Harun Mohammed), a Somali child trying to find his way in a ravaged land. On the one side, all the cool kids he looks up to are turning to the country’s only remaining industry, piracy; on the other, a pleasant old fisherman is teaching him the tricks of the trade.
Let’s not mince words: the point of this film is to raise awareness about the dire state of Somalia, and then, only peripherally, to be a movie. The tipping point comes during the end credits, when in addition to dedicating itself to the refugees forced to flee that country, the film mentions when each member of the cast left Somalia for South Africa and relative safety, a “there are consequences in the real world that movies know nothing about” gesture that ends up giving the film more impact than anything we see onscreen (most of which is draped in an oh-so-sober coating of grey). Because, really, there’s not much onscreen to write home about: if your sole interest is in watching charismatic children being darling, I suppose it gets the job done, but I like to think that we can ask for more out of even short cinema than that. And while there’s a definite sociological interest in the first two-thirds, or so, the film’s jokey final sequence is so tonally out of sync with anything even vaguely implied either by the beginning or by the sense of self-importance that hangs around the project like a shroud, that whatever writer-director Buckley could have had in mind, I don’t know that I care for it very much. 5/10
Buzkashi Boys (Sam French, Afghanistan/USA)
Another story about dew-eyed children, another odd US co-production, another film bathed in a sheen of unforgiving Important Cinema greys. But while Asad‘s biggest sin is switching from sobriety to goofy visual jokes without figuring out a way to do it, Buzkashi Boys suffers instead from knowing exactly what movie it wants to be, and pursuing its goals with unyielding certitude. At 28 minutes, it’s the longest of the ten fictional shorts nominated for an Oscar, and every one of those minutes is designed with laser-directed purpose: to make you, presumed white American viewer, feel absolutely heartbroken about the fact that children in Afghanistan suffer.
It is, aye, a cloying attempt to package Third-World suffering in a way that makes middlebrow audiences feel like they have made the world a better place just by watching it; a genre of considerable tradition, really, and no stranger to getting Oscar nominated. But that doesn’t mean we have to feel any better about the pornographic grimness of the whole thing, watching as Rafi (Fawad Mohammadi), the son of a smith, and Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz), a homeless orphan, make plans for how they’ll become famous playing the popular Afghan sport buzkashi (which, in the film’s depiction anyway, looks basically like polo played with a dead goat for the ball), and generally act all cute and grime-covered. It is unabashedly manipulative, and while there is something to be said for a movie that knows how to pull on your heartstrings with skill and purpose, there’s really no upshot to a movie that does it as smugly and aggressively as this, and with no deeper thought in its head than making us feel sad, and with a grinding, repetitive plot to drive it all home. 4/10
Curfew (Shawn Christensen, USA)
Only in a slate this dire could this film be, fairly unambiguously, well in front, quality-wise: it fills the now-customary “quirky, hip American indie” slot that two years ago was filled by the ultimate winner God of Love. Once again, we have a story about a darling child, though little Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) isn’t the actual protagonist, so much as the device through which main character Richie (director Christensen, who also pulls writing and editing duties) learns to be a better man.
It’s not as disgustingly sugary as all that, given that as the film opens, drug addict Richie has just cut open his wrists and is sitting in a tub full of water, waiting to die. It’s at this moment that his addled sister – addled with what, we never learn – begs him to take care of his niece for a few hours, having her home at 10:30 on the dot, thus giving us the curfew of the title. Why, exactly, this ticking-clock scenario exists other than to give the film said title is a little unclear; it’s one of several details that seem to be attempting to flesh out the characters, but instead feel like relics from a somewhat longer and deeper version of the same story, kept on to add a bit of flavor. At any rate, efficient screenwriting it ain’t.
Still, the air of melancholy and depression doesn’t ever leave the film, even after its apparently happy conclusion, and that helps it get by; so does Ptacek’s acidic, decidedly anti-cute performance of a character that could be totally unbearable in any number of ways. It’s certainly not a groundbreaking thing, with its visual aesthetic cribbed from Wes Anderson, all fussy center-framed compositions and people staring at the camera acerbically, and a “life only has meaning with children” message that I, for one, am not remotely sympathetic to. But the sour black humor is enough to put it above its generic trappings. 6/10
Death of a Shadow (Tom Van Avermaet, Belgium/France)
Clearly the best in show here, if only because it has anything going on visually, even if what it has going on is little more than liberally borrowing from the 1990s fillms of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro in service of a concept that is far more imaginative than it is coherent. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Nathan Rijckx, who’s something of an Angel of Death; in a creepy old mansion full of weird little machines, he is employed by a man wearing menacing sunglasses (Peter van den Eede) to go back and forth through time, photographing people at the moment of their death, and capturing their shade for the man’s collection of shadows. In this way, Nathan himself will be able to “pay off” his own death, and return to life.
A lot of concepts are either elliptically and confusingly expressed (apparently, this process causes deaths, not merely records them, but that is hard to say for certain), or simply ignored outright (is the sunglasses man actually Death, or just a time-traveling soul collector?), but Death of a Shadow is far less interested in the mechanics of its plot than in what those mechanics permit: Nathan crosses paths with a pretty woman in WWI, Sarah Winters (Laura Verlinden), and sets himself to using his abilities to win her for himself, with the expected twisty consequences. It’s not terribly innovative, but it gets the job done.
Better, by far, are the stylistic flourishes of it all: the bodiless shadows we see wandering the streets in Nathan’s travels, his imposing, steampunk soul camera, and the hallway of collected death shadow portraits, a creepy and sorrowful image of real potency. Bugs it has in abundance, but at least it’s vivid and memorable. 7/10
Henry (Yan England, Canada)
I have definite problems with Michael Haneke’s dementia chamber drama Amour, but it is a timeless, medium-defining masterpiece next to this puddle-deep exploration of the same topic. Henry (Gérard Poirier) is an old man with a loving wife, Maria (Louise Laprade), who finds himself plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare one morning, after crossing paths with a woman (Marie Kifo) at his local café. Soon, she and a cadre of men are tracking him down and apparently stealing his very life away in the process – for it quickly becomes apparent to Henry that reality itself is breaking down around him – but before too very long, we’ve figured out that it’s Henry, and not the world, that is falling apart.
There is, anyway, some novelty in seeing a story of an old man losing his memories presented from his own point of view, with the attendant lack of linear cohesion that would imply; it is considerably less easy to defend the fact that his POV thus adopts the perspective of a ’70s paranoia thriller. But regardless, Henry suffers from a generally slack and mechanical approach to its topic: more concerned with putting a younger version of Henry (Hubert Lemire) and Maria (Ariane-Li Simard-Côté) in period dress than in grappling with the emotions they feel at any age, more concerned with putting its plot through a striptease of letting the audience know piecemeal what’s happening, than actually doing right by the central character and his suffering. Poirier is appealing and engaging, but the part is so shallow in its conception that there’s really nothing the actor can do to elevate the plot. And, in keeping with Asad and Buzkashi Boys, the whole thing is shot in enthusiastically funereal greys that are more like a parody of artistic cinematography than an example of it. 4/10