Oscar Watch: Reviews of Nominated Shorts

by Anne Thompson
February 24, 2008 7:07 AM
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Oscars

[Posted by Peter Debruge]

2008 Oscar Animated Shorts

The trouble with watching the Academy's animated short nominees (which you can do in theaters or online now, thanks to the efforts of Magnolia Pictures, Shorts International and iTunes) is that it practically forces you to think about these five exquisite entries in competitive terms-- which is best? which will win? -- when in fact, this is the strongest and most diverse crop I've ever seen in the category. From stop motion to CG to paint on glass, the techniques reflect the full range of possibility open to animators today, and I strongly encourage anyone to seize the opportunity to see them not as Oscar-season rivals but as a diverse medium's collective best efforts.

I Met the Walrus

The wars change, but John Lennon's message remains the same: "Piss for peace, smile for peace --but whatever you do, do it for peace." It's been nearly four decades since 14-year-old Jerry Levitan snuck into John Lennon's hotel room with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and grilled the Beatles legend on topics ( as Juno puts it) way beyond his maturity level, but today, the pop prophet's words seem more relevant than ever.

Rather than make a traditional documentary about the event, Canadian helmer Josh Raskin edits the 40-minute interview down to a punchy, five-minute collection of soundbites, animating the session in what looks like a cross between Terry Gilliam's gonzo Monty Python style and Lennon's own doodles. Raskin's interpretation is amusing, maybe even ingenious in spots. The only problem: He seems to be doing it for laughs, not for peace, and the images frequently overwhelm the message.

Levitan, no doubt bewildered by the opportunity, is reduced to a slack-mouthed hand puppet, while Lennon's ideas explode like firecrackers around him. It's a technique better suited for parody than reverence (as evidenced by J.J. Sedelmeier's recurring "TV Funhouse" sketch on Saturday Night Live), but the essence of Lennon's message survives intact.

Madame Tutli-Putli

Of all the filmmaking arts, animation comes closest to dreaming -- a sensation I've seldom experienced with the head-over-heals delirium Madame Tutli-Putli accomplishes as it shadows a rather overburdened Virginia Woolf type on a supernaturally tinged night-train ride. That dreamlike quality comes down to creating not just hallucinatory images (in that department, Japan's anime titans reign supreme) but a certain porousness between the real and the impossible (such as the sight of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray playing chess on the luggage rack). And while the result is probably too dark for the Academy's taste, this was far and away my favorite of the entries.

The magic of Madame Tutli-Putli is in the eyes, a finishing touch Jason Walker added to Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski's already impressive stop-motion work (the moving train effects are particularly astonishing). Using Adobe After Affects, Walker composited real eyes onto the mannequins' crude, hand-sculpted faces, bringing an uncanny level of performance to the title character and her fellow travelers. But Mme. Tutli-Putli's performance comes through every bit as strongly through her body language as it does in butterfly blinks and nervous glances. Not since Aardman's first Wallace and Gromit short has the medium impressed me so much.

Meme les Pigeons Vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven)

Funniest of the entries is this droll French bit about a greedy priest who rescues his careless parishioners from death, then turns around and tries to sell them an elaborate contraption that will ensure the pour souls' passage to heaven. Interesting, too, that the year's only computer-animated entry was actually designed to look like stop-motion; in fact, it may even take your eyes a few seconds to realize that French animator Samuel Tourneux rendered everything virtually. But I suspect it was the story, not the technique, that attracted the Academy to this comic parable.

Though the concept supports some amusing character animation between the crafty priest and skeptical peasant, a last-second twist makes clear that Tourneux's entire scenario exists primarily to set up its final punchline. In that way, the short reminds me of last year's Maestro (in which a bird prepares backstage for a concert performance, only to be launched from a cuckoo clock at the last minute), although Pigeons is more consistently entertaining -- not to mention more impressively animated. Even Hollywood's top toon studios haven't mastered CG humans, yet character design comes naturally to Tourneux, who claims to have taped and studied real actors to get the performances right.

My Love (Moya Lyubov)

Oscar vet Alexander Petrov returns with another stunning literary adaptation rendered in his luminous paint-on-glass style (nominated three times before, Petrov won in 2000 for his take on Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea). But gorgeous as My Love appears, Americans don't know Ivan Shmelyov's A Love Story and may even be taken aback by this vintage Russian tale of a 16-year-old boy, Tonichka, torn between the shy, lower-class maid who works for his family and the mysterious, more mature beauty who lives next door.

It's easy to identify with the premise, about a youth who overlooks the suitor right in front of him for some fanciful ideal of perfection, but the key moment when he realizes his error doesn't quite translate (as it turns out, the neighbor woman's alluring blue spectacles hide a freakish deformity, the discovery of which sends Tonichka into a near-fatal fever and triggers the story's final tragedy). And yet, Petrov's artistry is simply breathtaking, like witnessing an impressionist painting come to life-- the gestures so natural, the faces so tender, I could've sworn I was watching some trick done with live-action footage rather than the crowning achievement of a master animator.

Peter and the Wolf

If I had to predict a winner, this would be it. Over the years, many storytellers and animators have tried their hand at adapting Sergei Prokofiev's classic, and Suzie Templeton's rich, textured stop-motion take is the first I've seen to do away with the narration and let the image and music tell the story. Unlike the Disney version you undoubtedly remember well (in which Peter looks more than a little like Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits with his non-threatening popgun), Templeton's interpretation seems to favor the animals and even features a mushy new twist: after capturing the wolf, Peter lets the misunderstood beast go free, revealing the hunters as the true villains of the story.

Kids'll love it, and Templeton's animal-friendly instincts certainly make the central showdown engaging, as bird, duck, cat and wolf interact in perfect harmony with Prokofiev's score. She fleshes out the world with splendid detail, from her creatures' fur and feathers to the raw wood and rusty metal environments, and yet the human characters seem curiously inanimate (although big, bejeweled eyes that half-excuse the fact that their faces don't move). Still, it's a strange choice, considering what an important element body language is to stop-motion animators like Henry Selick and the Tutli-Putli crew.

Though not as consistently top-notch as their animated counterparts, Oscar's live-action short nominees still offer a more consistently entertaining experience than any feature release you're likely to find in theaters this season. The big surprise here is that none of the nominees are American, and four feature subtitles (keep that in mind when picking your seats, as big heads butted into our viewing experience), but the sheer variety is astounding. Though a better crop overall than previous years, this year's batch features no obvious frontrunner. The cynic in me can see the Academy going for At Night, although it would make my day to see France's The Mozart of the Pickpockets win.

More of Debruge's reviews of the live action shorts and documentary shorts are on the jump.


At Night

Three young ladies celebrate New Year's Eve in the cancer ward of a Danish hospital in a short that's every bit as depressing as it sounds. Of the five films in this category, this is the one that feels most like an "Oscar movie" — it tackles an Important Topic and presents it in a polished, compelling way. And yet, something struck me as false from nearly the first frame, as director Christian E. Christiansen immediately relies on the score to tell us how we're meant to feel.

But who can argue with cancer? Though they would never be friends under normal circumstances, the trio discover in one another a connection they don't necessarily feel among their family and loved ones on the outside. I appreciate that sentiment and recognize the poignance in their situation, which acknowledges the fear that seizes anyone forced to consider her own mortality so young, but the film's final message perturbs me: Every life deserves someone to mourn its passing. Christiansen is playing God here (or maybe just Paul Haggis), manipulating his characters' fates for maximum emotional impact rather than allowing these fascinating personalities and the unique dynamic between them to lead him to an organic place.

Il Supplente (The Substitute)

When the teacher's away, a classroom of unruly kids raise hell, and it takes an unconventional authority figure --one willing to treat the troublemakers on their own terms — to whip the little tyrants into shape. In creating the character, writer/director/star Andrea Jublin seems to have borrowed a page from Roberto Benigni's book, telegraphing his "wild and crazy" behavior in broad, self-conscious strokes. First, he picks on a chubby student already targeted by the class bullies, then he moves on to humiliating the resident brown-noser -- and so the torture continues until the real substitute arrives, at which point the impostor jumps out the window and returns to his dreary office job across the way.

Funny how subtitles seem to be a liability with the Academy in every category but short film (not a single American entry made the cut this year). I suspect The Substitute would be cringe-inducing in English, and yet, in its native Italian, the daffy sketch nearly works. There's enough physical comedy to warrant comparison to old Three Stooges routines (those guys even managed to snag a nomination in the category's third year). Still, I doubt the Academy will ever recognize Jublin again, much less honor him this year.

The Mozart of Pickpockets (Le Mozart des Pickpockets)

Charlie Chaplin would be proud of this charming little comedy, which observes two inept Parisian pickpockets who meet their match in a deaf-mute young street urchin. Though a fair amount of the laughter is dialogue-based, the funniest bits employ good, old-fashioned silent-movie tactics (as in the scene where one thief distracts the suspicious hotel clerk, while his partner attempts to smuggle the child through the lobby in an oversize shopping bag). It helps that Matteo Razzouki-Safardi, who plays the wide-eyed kid, is so appealing.

Try as they might, the two crooks can't seem to communicate with him, and yet the duo — who seem even more poorly suited to parenting than they are wallet snatching — insist on treating him like their own son. With no wisdom to impart beyond their dubious profession, they teach the boy that he should take what he wants from life instead of begging. Using a child to such ends might seem a cheat if it weren't so integral to the whole equation, and creator Philippe Pollet-Villard handles the balance just right. The Mozart of Pickpockets boasts its share of surprises, but it doesn't depend on them, putting characters first. Unassuming in its pleasures, yet universal in its appeal, Mozart gets my vote.



Tanghi Argentini

After a schlubby office drone meets a curvaceous tango enthusiast online, he must convince an anti-social co-worker (who also happens to be an excellent dancer) to teach him the moves. As short films go, this Belgian confection makes a darling little Valentine. Though savvy audiences may see its twist ending coming a mile away, your mother or grandma certainly won't (keep in mind, most Oscar voters watch movies with roughly the same eyes as your dear old nana, so it has that going for it).

Personally, I think the concept would have made a perfect 60-second TV commercial, and I'm not sure why it took director Guido Thys 13 minutes to make his point. Still, I rather enjoyed the montage in the middle

as the two men overcome the awkwardness of practicing their steps together, united by their evident passion for the dance (a similar gag occurs in Shall We Dance?, which isn't nearly as noxious a movie as you must imagine, by the way). Tanghi Argentini is like one of those shorts made for that On the Lot reality show earlier this year-- watching it, you can't help but wonder what Thys might do with a feature.

The Tonto Woman

From Out of Sight to The Big Bounce, Elmore Leonard's novels have made for shockingly hit-and-miss screen adaptations, but British commercials director Daniel Barber does (mostly) right by one of the writer's favorite short stories with The Tonto Woman, about a Mexican outlaw who falls for a white lady with a traumatic past. Rarely do Westerns feature such a resilient female character as this: After being held captive for 11 years by Apaches, red-headed Sarah remains defiant and uncorrupted-- a dramatic reversal of the scenario presented in John Ford's The Searchers.

Our hero, Ruben Vega, first spies Sarah bathing topless outside her cabin, but it's the tattoos he sees up close that truly inspire him.Rather than settling for the Apaches' customary "green dribble," Sarah challenged her captors to go "all the way." Her husband and peers (none of whom can act worth a damn, unfortunately) view the resulting markings like a scarlet letter, treating Sarah as a disgraced pariah since her return --only Ruben recognizes the courageous woman beneath. Though his compositions look like secondhand Sergio Leone, Barber handles the love story with genuine sensitivity, privileging character over the conventions of the genre (the only shootout occurs off camera).

2008 Oscar Documentary Shorts

The documentary shorts rank among the most difficult Oscar nominees to track down -- unlike the live-action and animation categories, this batch hasn't been packaged for theatrical distribution. The good news is that at least two of them have been acquired by HBO (La Corona and Salim Baba), which means you'll have a chance to see them eventually, and a third (Sari's Mother) is readily available on DVD. I don't know where

you'll find Freeheld -- my favorite, and the likely winner on Oscar night -- but it stands an excellent chance of reaching audiences before long, as the category's only English-language nominee. However, considering how difficult these films currently are to find, I offer my thoughts on them below.

Freeheld

Will you think any less of me if I confess to bawling through Cynthia Wade's Freeheld? The astonishing thing about this powerful short is how the Freeholders (the elected council that determines policy in conservative Ocean County, New Jersey) can remain so impassive when confronted with lung cancer victim Laurel Hester, a 25-year veteran of the police force who uses the last of her energy to fight for domestic partner benefits so the woman she loves will be entitled to the same privileges the state would give a heterosexual spouse.

As compelling as Laurel's case is from the outside, there's something a little fishy in the near-unanimous community support Freeheld implies (after all, democracies tend to be slow in embracing equal rights for minorities). However, observed with this remarkable level of intimacy, Laurel and her partner Stacie's situation put sympathetic faces on a controversial issue, smothering whatever objections the Freeholders (and by extension, much of the country) have to equal treatment for gay citizens-- this, if I understand correctly, is precisely what those "sanctity of marriage" folks are afraid of, and yet none can make a convincing argument to justify their discrimination. Fortunately, in Laurel's tragedy lies the foundation for change.

La Corona (The Crown)

Those South Americans sure love their beauty pageants --so why should being incarcerated for robbery or murder stop half a dozen young latinas from competing for a tiara? Turns out, it doesn't. Every year, the women's penitentiary in Bogota gives its prisoners a brief taste of freedom by hosting a beauty contest behind bars. If it sounds like one of Quentin Tarantino's fetishistic movie pitches, rest assured, directors Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega approach this potentially outrageous scenario with more social-minded intentions, using the beauty pageant as an opportunity to examine the type of women represented in the Bogota correctional facility.

On stage, the questions posed to the contestants may sound corny and insincere ("Imagine it's your last day alive. Who would you ask forgiveness from?"), but in private, the women offer such insights with total candor. Overall, their responses suggest these once-dangerous criminals have seen the error of their ways -- probably too rosy a conclusion, considering that the winner has since been murdered. But the filmmakers' point is what the pageant can do for the prisoners' self esteem, not the harsh reality of everyday life, and though heavy-handed editing meddles with whom to root for, the contest itself is a real eye-opener.

Salim Baba

An unlikely celebration of the power of cinema, Salim Baba opens with a contraption that looks no more sophisticated than your average hand-cranked classroom pencil sharpener: using auto lamps for light and a cheap palm reader's magnifying glass as his lens, Salim Muhammad projects scraps of discarded celluloid for the children of Calcutta. To watch, the kids pay a few rupees and peer into a plywood box, where the image flickers against a wall. The apparatus is like something out of another century, but for these wide-eyed audiences, the experience is as potent as a trip to the local movie palace (where Salim collects these discarded trailers and old Bollywood film reels).

Since 1946, Salim has been a fixture on the city's streets, inheriting the rickety cinema cart from his father. Now, as director Tim Sternberg discovers him, Salim is beginning to think about retirement and hoping his children will carry on the family tradition: He shows them how to splice clips (using only rusty scissors and invisible tape) and shares his philosophy on the proper ratio of action to drama to dancing -- a charming reminder how, as kids, we seek out cinema not for stories but the sheer magic of it. Sternberg delivers both.

Sari's Mother

A splinter that didn't quite fit James Longley's Iraq in Fragments (a 2007 feature doc nominee that captured three facets of post-war Iraq through the eyes of everyday citizens), Sari's Mother concentrates on a 10-year-old Mahmudiyah boy coping with AIDS and the healthcare system ill equipped to handle his case. Like Iraq in Fragments, this short eschews much-needed narration in favor of an elliptical, observational style. We see Sari's mother working the fields, while his siblings pretend to blow up American tanks they've sculpted in clay. Every so often, occupation aircraft storm by overhead, forcing their eyes skyward.

In this environment, the impoverished mother fights for her son's health. She administers painful injections at home, but nothing helps, so she takes her case back to the nearest hospital, where an official informs her there's no medicine for immune disorders -- despite the fact Sari's infection stems from a blood transfusion. Longley resists manipulating these verite glimpses into a traditional viewing experience, leaving Sari's story conspicuously incomplete (probably best suited as an extra on the Iraq in Fragments DVD, where Longley supplies his commentary). For a more dramatic treatment of a similar tragedy, I recommend investigating Yesterday, the 2005 Oscar foreign language nominee from South Africa.

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

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