Oscar Shorts: Live Action nominees
For the first time this year, I attended all three Oscar short programs (at Cleveland’s great, historic Capitol theater). They are an investment in time (even though you think, “but they’re all short!”) but it was a great, truly fun experience and I hope I’m in a position to do it again next year. Reviews for the other two programs (nominated Animated Shorts and Documentary Shorts) will follow soon.
This one is Belgian and it has a real European feel to it: it’s laconic, a bit disturbing, set in a gorgeous Gothic castle. Basically, there’s this guy who collects people’s shadows at the moment of their death; he doesn’t do it himself, of course, he has a lackey who does it with this special camera. The lackey is apparently dead himself, or possibly just in limbo, and he’s working to reclaim his own shadow. He just needs to collect a few more and he’s free. I guess. They didn’t go to too much trouble explaining the rules here.
There’s a strange contraption that chooses and logs the guy’s victims, which is minorly steampunky. The guy seems to be contemporary to World War I era and wears that uniform. Or maybe it’s just because he keeps going back to 1917 to peer at this woman he likes. There’s a complication with the man who is her lover, and the shadow-stealing guy tries to manipulate it so that he gets the girl. It’s an interesting story, but I don’t know that the movie that was made of it is as compelling as it could be. In the hands of a more gifted director it might have been great. (No offense intended to the actual director, who is probably 20 years old and will learn more. Congrats on the nomination.)
This one was the most Oscar-baity of the shorts. It’s first set up like a thriller, where there’s an old man, and he’s looking for his wife, and he thinks she’s been kidnapped, but pretty soon we see that he’s in an institution and he’s fighting dementia. He keeps stepping back into previous moments of his life with the wife, including their first introduction, moments with their daughter, times when they played music together, etc. There are a lot of long shots of the dude being old, empty rooms, ticking clocks. The thriller elements of the narrative make it sound more entertaining than it is. The only thing about this movie that is in any way unusual or different is that it takes place in Quebec and they all speak Francophone French.
My favorite by far. This story opens with the darkest of dark humor—a guy in the bathtub has slit his wrists and then his phone rings. He considers, then picks it up. “Hello?” It’s his sister, and despite the fact that she thinks he’s basically the most unreliable reprobate who has ever lived, she needs him to watch her daughter for a few hours. “I know you’re not doing anything important.”
So he takes his niece out to the only approved location, the bowling alley. Said niece has long glossy hair, a perma-pout, and attitude for miles. This kid, Fatima Ptacek, is a damned star. (I looked her up on IMDb and apparently she’s been voicing Dora the Explorer for the last year. I want a People cover story for this girl, stat.) She and her uncle—played by a guy called Shawn Christensen, who is also the writer-director of the short—banter back and forth with sharp dialogue and great timing. They fight, they learn from each other. There is a John Hughes-style dance sequence, because why not?
The end of the story—where an uneasy truce is negotiated between him and his sister—is not unexpected, but it seems earned, and it’s all well-acted. An incredibly fun, dark little story that will probably not win an Oscar because of its edge, but which was, in my opinion, easily the best of the five.
Like Henry, a poignant and highly predictable story. There are two boys in a village in Afghanistan—one is the son of a blacksmith, subject to his dad’s whims at every second, and the other is a Dickensian street urchin, who apparently has no parents, and who spends his days snagging coins from people he blesses with a little smoky censer he carries around. The scene when they first greet each other is (unintentionally) hilarious, because they speak to each other like grownups. “How’s work?” “Oh, you know. How are you getting by?” “Just fine. Do you ever get away? Should we spend the afternoon together?” Not direct quotations, but it shakes out like that. Blacksmith Boy manages to get away from his dad and they take in a buzkashi match. (This sport looks like soccer, if the players all rode horses, and the ball was a limp goat body. Yes really.) They talk about their dreams and whether they will ever overcome their obstacles and achieve them. The Urchin climbs up onto the roof of a condemned palace; Blacksmith Boy is too afraid to follow.
The conflict between Blacksmith Boy and his dad is too by-the-numbers to be really affecting. Also, his moment of inner strength, when he climbs up onto the roof he was afraid to climb out to before is undercut a bit by the fact that there is a ladder leading up there and it’s really not the least bit dangerous as far as we can tell. No establishing shots of rotting supports or anything like that; it’s just a ladder that goes up really high. They couldn’t have had the boys shimmy up a drainpipe to prove their triumph over adversity?
So, this was the last one of the slate, the last one of my day, and I may have dozed off there for a bit, which is a shame, because it’s good and it’s someone’s work, and that sucks of me. But it wasn’t as sharp and great as Curfew and I had been sitting there for a long time.
Anyway, Asad is a boy in a fishing village in coastal Somalia. He wants to be a fisherman, and knows a lot about boats and tides and whatnot, but he’s still a little boy and for some reason that was never made clear, they believe he is bad luck for catching fish. Eventually, he gets a shot to go out into a boat, and that’s where I fell asleep, and awoke just a few minutes later to find Asad now on a yacht with a dead body (?) and a Persian cat, which he adopts and brings home to his village. No idea what happened there in the middle; I bet it was interesting.
There were some moments of humor in this one, which I appreciated after Buzkashi Boys—and which coming-of-age stories in Africa often lack. Early on, a fisherman gives a huge fish to Asad to bring home to his mother. Asad slings it across his back and carries it home through the marketplace. His friend is talking to him, and other people keep yelling, “Asad, did you catch that fish?”and he keeps yelling back “No, it was [Fisherman Guy]” and finally Asad’s friend is like, “Just tell them you caught it, it’ll be quicker.” And the dénouement, when he brings home the cat (which is meant to be his, because it looks like a small white lion and he is Asad (meaning “lion”)) and the fisherman tells him it’s the most amazing catch anyone in the village has ever made (as though he hooked the cat on his line and drew her into the boat), that’s funny. So, good on this one, and sorry I couldn’t make it through with my eyes open.
My Favorite: Curfew
Predicted Winner: (cynical choice) Buzkashi Boys / (hopeful choice) Curfew