Monday, February 22, 2010

Oscar-nominated shorts

By Elise Nakhnikian

Watching a well edited set of short movies is like having tapas for dinner. You get to sample a wide range of styles and stories, including some you might not come across much in your regular movie viewing. And the ones you don’t like so much don’t last long enough to leave a bad taste, while the ones you love leave you wanting more.

You’d think that would be the ideal form of movie watching for our ADD age – after all, what is YouTube but a free online video store that stocks nothing but shorts? – but Hollywood has trained us to ignore short movies. With a few exceptions, like the Pixar short that always precedes a Pixar feature, pretty much the only way you can see a short in a theater is to go to a film festival – and even there, they’re kicked to the curb while features hog all the attention.

Ironically, only the run-up to the Oscars, that orgy of self-celebration created to hawk Hollywood's most commercial products, can get regular theaters to showcase short movies. Two sets of Oscar-nominated shorts are now showing near you, one animated and one live-actions. The 13 films (the 5 nominees in each category plus three animated shorts that didn't quite make the cut) are distinctive, generally memorable, and always intense. They come from 11 nations and represent even more, since several are not set in their country of origin.

Logorama, an animated short directed by France’s H5 – Franςois Alaux, Hervé de Crécy, and Ludovic Houplain – is a sharp-eyed spoof of American culture and consumerism. Set in a Lego-like version of LA whose primary colors and aqua sky exaggerate that city’s bright eternal Now, Logorama is a sea of logos peopled by characters from ad campaigns. The plot, such as it is, is also very Hollywood: A pair of tough-guy Michelin Man cops chase down a rogue Ronald MacDonald, spraying gunfire, obscenities, and curt catch phrases (“the clown’s all mine”) as they go and dodging natural as well as manmade disasters.

The New Tenants is from Denmark, but it’s set in New York. A series of people, each more terrifying than the last, knock at the door of a gay couple who have moved into an apartment. A wannabe Tarantino movie in miniature, director Joachim Back’s short comes off a bit too much like an acting exercise. Still, it’s bleakly funny and well paced until the too-long ending, yo-yoing nicely between suspense and irritated banter.

A Matter of Loaf and Death, the latest Wallace and Grommit movie, is a not-so-short (30-minute) comic gem from England’s Nick Park and Bob Baker. This time around the sweet but hapless Wallace and his solemn, all-knowing dog, Grommit, are shook up by the news of a killer who’s targeting bakers – like them. With 12 dead so far, you have to wonder, this being a Wallace and Grommit movie: Who will make it a baker’s dozen? Filming Claymation figures in stop-motion doesn’t deprive the filmmakers of any emotional range – the characters’ faces are amazingly expressive, and the voice acting is terrific – but it allows them to include wonderful sight gags, like a bomb with the world’s slowest fuse or the Rube Goldbergian contraption Grommit uses to dress Wallace and bake bread in the morning. There’s also plenty of word play, as always. And one of our heroes finds true love, though I won’t spoil it by telling you which.

I also laughed a lot at Irish director Nicky Phelan’s Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty and Instead of Abracadabra, a Swedish answer to comedies about self-deluding misfits like Flight of the Concords, The Office, and Napoleon Dynamite.

Granny O’Grimm is a one-joke story beautifully told. The whole thing takes place in the bedroom of a cow-eyed little girl who can’t sleep. Things only gets worse when her Granny, a terrifying sight with her huge breasts and belly, towering hair, and enormous eyes behind magnifying lenses, insists on telling her a bedtime story, putting her own bitter twist on the tale of Sleeping Beauty.

Director Patrik Eklund marinates Instead of Abracadabra in that Swedish combination of humanism and black humor that made Let the Right One In and Together work so well. Its “hero” is Tomas, a 25-year-old dweeb still living with mom and dad. Tomas is a not-very-good magician who’s convinced that his brand of “up-close, Goth, death and mayhem” hoodoo is sexy and impressive. His endless capacity for self-deception and the reactions of his onlookers, which range from terminally bored to terrified, are almost painfully funny.

All that and an abortive romance too may sound like a lot to pack into just 22 minutes, but it works. And why not? After all, a good short film contains a whole world.

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