Saturday, February 20, 2010


Miracle Fish

A question many people have, even if only fleetingly, when watching the Academy Awards is: Where can I see the short films? Usually, the answer would be “You can’t, outside of a film festival,” but for several years now, the Academy will host a shorts program in select theaters around the country in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. You may have to do some research to find where they are playing, but if the program is showing near you, and you’re feeling a wee bit adventurous, it’s worth a look. They’re not all good, but they’re all watchable and chances are you’ll find something to love.

As usual, the shorts program is split between animation and live action. The live action shorts are harder to take all at once, with several types of misery and cruelty explored throughout. It starts with Gregg Helvey’s Kavi, which follows a young boy who, along with his family, are slaves in India, forced with several others to make bricks for a cruel task master. Helvey swiftly brings the audience into the situation and presents a bleakly hopeful portrait of the human spirit. Its light on plot and heavy on message, but Helvey never lets either get in the way of making the short compelling.

Next is Joachim Back’s The New Tenants, a strange wallow in gallows humor that actually worked for me more often than it didn’t. It follows a gay couple who have just moved into an apartment with a nasty secret. The cast is remarkably strong delivering rat-a-tat dialogue with convincing flair and it isn’t distracting when seasoned actors like Vincent D’Onofrio and Kevin Corrigan show up, a feat all the more surprising when you see that Corrigan seems determined to play it like Christopher Walken. It’s often very funny, but sometimes it’s a little awkward.

The strongest live action short of the program is next, Luke Doolan’s Miracle Fish. I won’t say any more than that it’s about a bullied 8-year-old boy who hides in the nurse’s office at school, falls asleep, and wakes up to find the building empty. But it’s still day time. And why are all the backpacks still there? It’s a small, suspenseful short that could have taken a turn towards exploitation, especially when you see what it’s all about. That it doesn’t is just one reason to love it. There’s confident editing, pacing, and cinematography on display here and it all builds to a gut-wrenching, heart-pounding, surprising conclusion. It’s not perfect, but it’s a gem nonetheless.

Following that is Juanita Wilson’s The Door. Maybe it wasn’t best to have it follow such a dynamic piece, but this short, about a dying little girl in the aftermath of Chernobyl, is slow, thoughtful, and elegiac. It’s deeply sad, but there’s something slightly chilly and off-putting about it. Maybe it’s just because of the setting, or its placement in the program. In any case, it’s a strong effort.

The live action concludes with Patrik Eklund’s Instead of Abracadabra, the only comedy of this half of the program. It’s Sweden’s answer to Napoleon Dynamite, except it’s actually funny and, at only 20 minutes, never wears out its welcome. It’s about a 25-year-old socially awkward, slightly incompetent amateur magician who is more than a little embarrassing to his parents, especially since he still lives with them. This is a real crowd-pleaser with some very big laughs. It’s nice to send the crowd home laughing.


This year’s animation program starts unassumingly and unpromisingly with a dull six minute piece from Fabrice O. Joubert called French Roast. It follows a proper French gentleman in a proper French café who realizes he has misplaced his wallet. To maintain his dignity, he decides to stall paying the bill by asking for ever more refills on his coffee. It’s a quiet piece with little to remember. The CG animation is stiff and the sound design is thin. It’s cute, but even at six minutes it wears out its welcome.

Luckily, the next short is a spry and stylish exercise in cartoony exuberance. The Lady and the Reaper, from Spanish director Javier Recio Gracia finds a very elderly widow the source of a loopy tug-of-war chase between an easily frustrated Grim Reaper and a pompous doctor with a gaggle of bodacious bobble-headed nurses. At its best, the piece plays out like a classic piece of Chuck Jones level inventive absurdity. The woman desperately wants to be reunited with her dead husband, a thought that’s sweet at first, but leaves a strange aftertaste once you reach the punch line. This is a quick and funny little short.

The centerpiece of the animated shorts program has to be A Matter of Loaf and Death, a new 30 minute Wallace and Gromit short from Nick Park. It’s as charming and delightful as you’d expect, sparkling with crackling British wit and a sharp eye for visual puns and giggles. It doesn’t necessarily break new ground in terms of the Wallace and Gromit experience and never quite reaches the heights of their previous shorts or the feature film. Even so, it’s pure enjoyment to see these wonderful characters alive and well and getting into all kinds of contraption-related and assisted mayhem.

The shorts program also features Nicky Phelan’s Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty, a sweet and slight one-joke short about a grandmother telling a terrifying, self-indulgent bedtime story to an awfully frightened little girl. To make you feel like you got your money’s worth, the program features some shorts that weren’t nominated but that came close: Cordell Barker’s Runaway, a comedic allegory more interesting in concept than execution. Tomek Baginski’s The Kinematograph, a short of beautiful imagery and weak dialogue, and Partly Cloudy, the wonderful Pixar short that ran before Up.

Finishing up the animated program is the final nominee, Nicolas Schmerkin’s Logorama. It’s quite simply the wildest, craziest 16 minutes of cinema 2009 gave us. It’s a nail-biting L.A. cop movie with shoot-outs, hostages, exploding collateral damage, squealing tires, snipers, helicopters, and non-stop profanity and crude humor. It’s also made up entirely out of corporate logos. Most simply, the short follows Michelin Men cops chasing down a crazy robber Ronald McDonald who escapes into a café and takes Big Boy hostage. It’s a biting social satire about the corporatized wasteland America can (or maybe has) become, but it’s also just a really exciting animated action movie. I laughed all the way through, even as my pulse was pounding. I’m not sure this could ever have a legitimate release since the thousands of companies represented would never sign off on the use of their logos, so take this chance to see a great short film. It’s my favorite of all the shorts represented in both programs and a great sign of strength for a ghettoized area of film.

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