The Live Action Shorts are funny because they almost always seem to follow a set pattern: There’s one about a kid, an ethnic one, an emotional drama, a American quirk-fest and a weird foreign comedy. This year, however, they’ve thrown convention out of the window and given us TWO ethnic ones that are also about kids! Crazy! All the others are there, though, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Let’s see what there is to see....
DEATH OF A SHADOW (Belgium/France) -- Nathan is a World War I soldier who was hit by the thunderbolt when he met Sarah... and then died, only to be given a second chance at life & love in return for an odd task: Using a special camera, he must collect people’s shadows at the exact moment of their death, for display in the mansion of an otherworldly collector. However, as the deal nears completion, it hits a snag when Nathan learns that his final target is, in fact, the man with whom Sarah has been in love all along. Tom Van Avermaet’s film is macabre, melancholic and beautifully shot with great visual detail that reminds me of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (particularly the creepy shadow portraits and steampunk-style machinery). It does succumb to some clichés in the end, but the overall originality more than makes up for it. An extremely enjoyable 20 minutes.
HENRY (Canada) -- Last year was a rough one for old folks in cinema. Michael Haneke’s AMOUR offers a devastating, clinical look at the harsh realities of old age. The Oscar-nominated documentary short KINGS POINT follows a group of elderly folks who are essentially waiting to die at a retirement home. And now this 21-minute film from director Yan England puts a genre-bending twist on the subject. Henry, a renowned concert pianist, goes for a walk one day, only to be informed that he is in danger and his wife has been kidnapped. Or has she? The mystery unfurls as Henry desperately tries to make sense of the situation, while flashing back to how he met the love of his life. Of course, things are not necessarily as they seem. You might pick up on the twist early but it still packs a serious emotional punch and provides another potent, heart-wrenching, deeply affecting perspective on the aging process.
CURFEW (USA) -- As this 19-minute dark comedy begins, Richie, a twentysomething New Yorker, is attempting to kill himself in his bathtub. Suddenly, the phone rings, and he is surprised to hear his estranged sister’s voice asking him to babysit his niece, Sophia. Despite the fact that he’s sitting there with blood dripping from his wrists, he agrees -- and thus begins a surreal adventure through a vibrantly-realized New York in which Richie & Sophia get to know each other and he rediscovers his will to live. Sophia is precocious, sassy and wise beyond her years and slowly breaks through Richie’s jaded façade. The film takes on a kind of AFTER HOURS-meets-Wes Anderson feel with all sorts of NYC weirdness -- most notably, a random bowling alley dance sequence that pushes the limits of quirkiness but somehow works. Fantastic work across the board from writer/director/star Shawn Christensen, with an underlying family message that resonates with me personally -- while I am unlikely to slit my wrists anytime soon, I do think it would be awesome to someday hang out in NYC with my niece!
BUZKASHI BOYS (Afghanistan/USA) -- My least favorite film of the bunch, this 28-minute entry from director Sam French tells a story of unlikely friendship between two Afghani boys -- a street peddler and the son of a blacksmith -- as they struggle to come of age and realize their dreams in their war-torn environment (the ultimate dream, we learn, is to become a superstar Buzkashi champion, which is a version of polo that involves a dead goat). While the two kids are fine, the film is thinly-plotted and an all-around bore. However, the story behind the production of the project is far more interesting: It’s a joint venture of Afghani and international filmmakers and one of the first major films to be shot entirely in Kabul, making impressive use of local scenery. That being said, in the end, it has an odd anti-“follow your dreams” message that makes me wonder just what kind of propaganda film (partially funded by the U.S. Department of State, I might add) this really is....
ASAD (South Africa/USA) -- Like BUZKASHI BOYS, this is another coming-of-age tale of a Somali boy named Asad who must choose between joining his peers and becoming a pirate, or becoming a fisherman as per his destiny. Unfortunately, Asad is not a very good fisherman -- but an eccentric old-timer nevertheless predicts that he will someday bring home the biggest catch their village has ever seen. The 18-minute film by director Bryan Buckley mixes humor and pathos to portray life in this run-down society -- plus, in an interesting bit of stunt casting, all characters are played by actual Somali refugees. In the end, we learn that the film is little more than an extended set-up to one ultimate punchline, which is wacky and amusing but not really worth the time it takes to get there.
I’M ROOTING FOR: My first instinct after the program ended was Henry because it packed such an emotional punch... but I’ve since changed my mind: Curfew is perfect.
WILL PROBABLY WIN: Curfew, because this is the one Oscar category where quirky is often king.
Next up: ANIMATION!