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New films: Oscar Shorts, Warm Bodies, and Bullet to the Head

Oscar Shorts

Even for most dedicated film goers, the shorts categories at the Academy Awards are often some of the most obscure, with short films that have primarily been seen in various Academy sanctioned film festivals (with one or two exceptions, typically among big name animated films that sometimes play in support of a mainstream feature film). However, despite their relative obscurity, the shorts are subject to some of the fairest final voting in the entire competition.

(And I make that distinction between final voting and nominations, because there are always wonderful short films out there that weren’t seen in regular theaters and which might have won in festival competitions, but not necessarily the festivals that the Academy monitors.)

One of the recurring complaints about the awards process is that there’s rarely any indication or any way of ensuring that voters have actually watched the films they’re voting for. Or that they’ve watched the other films in the same category. As I mentioned previously in this column, nominations in most Academy categories are made by Academy members who work within the same category as the award being considered (i.e., editors nominate films for editing awards, directors for directing awards, makeup artists for makeup awards, etc.). But final voting in most categories is open to all members of the Academy.

The exceptions to this are the short film categories, precisely because of the obscurity of the films. The Academy holds special screenings of each set of short films, and only those who view all films in a category can vote within that category. In other words, the final voters have actually watched the films.

This year, the Crest Theatre is continuing its tradition of giving local film lovers the same opportunity to watch all of the short films in special screenings, with the live action and animated narrative shorts both opening today in a regular release schedule, and the documentary shorts playing over two days, two weeks from now (with reviews coming prior to their opening).

Live Action Shorts
This year’s live action narrative shorts are a darker set than in some recent years, with all of them being dramatic in content rather than, for example, comedic. They cover a range of life situations and lessons, from childhood, through old age, to death, with coincidental themes of hope and loss. (There’s no significance to the sequence of the following list and running times are approximate.)

Death of a Shadow (Directed by Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele, Country of Origin: France and Belgium, Language: Dutch, Running Time: 20 minutes) A tragedy in which a young soldier is sub-contracted by Death to reap souls in the form of shadows cast in the last moment of life, in return for an opportunity to live again. It’s an interesting counterpoint to “Curfew” in looking at the desire to live versus the desire to die.

Henry (Directed by Yan England, Country of Origin: Canada, Language: English, Running Time: 21 minutes) An interesting take on the subject of senility and dementia, taken from the perspective of the person suffering rather than from the perspective of family members, as is more often the case. “Henry” tackles the sense of confusion and fear accompanying a condition like Alzheimer’s.

Curfew (Directed by Shawn Christensen, Country of Origin: USA, Language: English, Running Time: 19 minutes) “Curfew” opens with a young man sitting in a bathtub of his own diluted blood, having cut himself, when the phone rings and he’s invited back into a family world that he had previously been excluded from. See the above note regarding “Death of a Shadow.”

Buzkashi Boys (Directed by Sam French and Ariel Nasr, Country of Origin: Afghanistan, Language: Persian, Running Time: 28 minutes) Set in a vision of everyday life in Afghanistan, which we rarely see, “Buzkashi Boys” features the lives of Rafi, the son of a third-generation blacksmith, and his friend Ahmad, a street beggar and occasional thief. Ahmad has nothing and nobody in his life and dares to dream big, whereas Rafi has just enough to be stable and fears losing that.

Asad (Directed by Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura, Country of Origin: South Africa, Language: Somali, Running Time: 18 minutes) Asad is a young Somali boy who wants to join the local pirate crew, rather than being a fisherman, a profession he has little aptitude for. But he also has a family to feed.

Among this group, “Curfew” felt like the most fully realized story and would be my personal pick, although Academy voters are sometimes drawn to bleaker tales of strife and the conflicts in Somalia and Afghanistan certainly add those themes to “Asad” and “Buzkashi Boys.” “Henry” is well done, with a sense of thriller or mystery for the patient and of great loss for somebody close to him, but it probably focuses on the most well visited topic here, especially within the scope of short films I’ve seen in recent years. “Death of a Shadow” is almost claustrophobic in its limited locations but also has perhaps the best art direction of the five. Conceptually, “ Buzkashi Boys” and “Asad” are attempting to tackle the biggest open-ended questions, with the former looking at ambition and risk in making life choices, while the latter is trying to give us a sense of a place where morality and is so confused and choices are so limited that a young boy can in one moment sense the wrong in lying while also desiring the notoriety and opportunity in piracy (where piracy is more of a business model than a crime).

Animated Shorts
Two of the five animated shorts are essentially “ringers” in this company, with a Fox produced short featuring Maggie Simpson, which played in theaters with “Ice Age: Continental Drift” (and which was better than the feature), and a Disney produced short “Paperman” that played in theaters with “Wreck-it-Ralph.” As with prior animated shorts programs, the running times here are generally brief and the program contains additional films, although these were not available for review. (There’s no significance to the sequence of the following list and running times are approximate.)

Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare’ (Directed by David Silverman, Country of Origin: USA, Language: English, Running Time: 5 minutes) Marge Simpson drops Maggie off at the “Ayn Rand School for Tots” (a joke that would have been funnier if it hadn’t been repeated), where she’s assessed as being average and is left to fend for herself, denied the benefits afforded to the “gifted” children.

Adam & Dog (Directed by Minkyu Lee, Country of Origin: USA, Language: No dialog, Running Time: 16 minutes) Set in the Garden of Eden, “Adam & Dog” provides simple insight into the relationship between man and ‘man’s best friend.’

Fresh Guacamole (Directed by PES, Country of Origin: USA, Language: English, Running Time: 2 minutes) The briefest and perhaps the most innovative, “Fresh Guacamole” might have been called “Diced Vegetables” as it mixes claymation, stop action human hands, and clever use of other objects, most notably dice.

Head Over Heels (Directed by Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, Country of Origin: UK, Language: English, Running Time: 11 minutes) There are multiple metaphors in life about couples growing apart, no longer seeing eye to eye, and regarding relationships requiring effort to maintain and keep alive. “Head over Heels” tackles those themes through an elderly couple whose existences have become about as separate as possible while still remaining in the same house.

Paperman (Directed by John Kahrs, Country of Origin: USA, Language: English, Running Time: 7 minutes) A young man is immediately attracted to a young woman, who he then sees again from his office window. But his attempts to attract her attention are unsuccessful until they are taken out of his hands.

There’s no denying the polish and production values in “The Longest Daycare” and “Paperman,” with “Paperman” being the fresher of the two. But my pick of this group is “Head Over Heels” which takes a look at the way relationships change over time, with a wonderful running visual metaphor and a sense that the world it creates has been a long time in the making. “Fresh Guacamole” is quick and cute, but feels more like an exercise or an animated visual pun, and “Adam & Dog” feels lightweight and overly long in this company.

 

Bonus Moviebriefs

Warm Bodies
This is probably my favorite genuine 2013 release so far (excluding the late 2012 award season movies that are still trickling out). It’s also one of the freshest feature length takes on the zombie genre for a few years. “Warm Bodies” is not only a zombie love story, but it’s a zombie love story told from the perspective of the zombie. I’ve seen this before in a neat festival-circuit short film called, simply, “Zombie Love” – but that was also a musical, where “Warm Bodies” is a clever, funny consideration of what it means to be trapped in the body of a zombie, yearning for brains but also for so much more. It stars Nicholas Hoult, who’s been acting since he was three and is perhaps best known as the boy in “About a Boy,” the younger man in “A Single Man,” and the big man on campus in the first two seasons of the UK version of “Skins.” He’s excellent here as “R” (which is as much of his former name as he can remember) and is well supported by Rob Corddry as a fellow zombie and John Malkovich as the leader of the uninfected humans.

Bullet to the Head
Coming so soon after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s poor performing “The Last Stand,” it’s hard not to draw comparisons with Sylvester Stallone’s new “Bullet to the Head.” But, aside from being action films from aging action stars and friends, they’re quite different in tone. Where “The Last Stand” acknowledged and had fun with Arnold’s age and somewhat diminished physical condition, “Bullet to the Head” wants us to keep thinking of Sly as an indestructible, fighting machine, virtually regardless of circumstance or opponent. It’s also far more brutal and casual in its depictions of violence, with less apology, albeit that the actual body count is probably lower. In fairness, the attempts at witty one liners in “Bullet to the Head” feel more true to the character and less tacked on, but it doesn’t have the weight to be truly suspenseful and fails to provide the lighter entertainment of “The Last Stand,” which wasn’t a great movie but was more fun than this.

 

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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