Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Oscar® Shorts (narrative version) open at IFC-NYC, nationwide -- and in Mexico!

from Melnitsa Animation Studio's LAVATORY – LOVESTORY

Let's hear a shout-out for brevity. The Oscar® Shorts, those ten short films -- narrative category rather than documentary: five live-action, five animation -- that made the final cut for Academy Award-nominated status are rolling out theatrically in cities across the US and Mexico, starting this week and continuing to open throughout the month of February.

According to the press release, these shorts, now in their fourth year of availability to theater-goers, have charted a 223% increase in attendance since they began being packaged into a yearly single program back in 2005. This year's batch has a total running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes (for comparison's sake, that's exactly 35 minutes shorter than one of the Best Picture nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

There is also, about this batch, something -- talent, chutzpah, smarts -- that makes one wonder why anybody would even bother with a full-length movie when so much story, action, thought, emotion, wit and fun can be packed so neatly into films that range from three minutes (the shortest) to thirty (the longest). Then again, as is said to happen after finishing a meal from a large Asian country that will go unnamed here, an hour later you find yourself hungry again. In my case, as much as I loved each of these movies immediately post-viewing, their individual impact lessened considerably a day or two later. Perhaps, after all, more is more.

from Pixar's PRESTO.

I should think that, for those who follows the Academy Awards religiously (AA-night parties, xeroxed ballots, a prize or a money pool for the winner), seeing these shorts pre-Awards would be a "must." Many a prize has been lost due specifically to guessing incorrectly about these Oscar® Shorts. (Of course one can guess incorrectly, whether or not you've actually seen the shorts. But viewing them prior to the Awards allows you to at least make your guess an educated one.)

And now to the shorts themselves. Fortunately, there is not a clinker in the bunch. And if, to my taste, France comes out ahead of the pack -- hands down the best in live action, tied with Japan for animation -- all the countries and all the filmmakers do themselves proud. Let's start with the Live Action category....

From Germany & Switzerland comes AUF DER STRECKE (On the Line), directed and co-written (with Philippe Zweifel) by Reto Caffi in which a department store security worker has a crush on a young woman who also works in the store. Attraction leads to jealousy and from there to (in)action and guilt. The leading man, above, is graced with a marvelous face in which volumes can be read. At 30 minutes, this is the longest film of the lot and, though quite good, is the one film of the group that would probably make an even better feature-length tale.

Based on a Roddy Doyle story, Ireland's NEW BOY should whisk you back in time to your own school days, with all the attendant angst you felt then -- supplemented here by writer/director Steph Green with a keen perspective that also includes charm and surprise. All about "adjusting," the little movie pack into its eleven minutes an extraordinary amount of information and event.

Denmark brings us GRISEN (The Pig), in which director and co-writer Dorthe Warnø Høgh (with Anders Frithiof August, from a story by Lars Saabye Christensen ) offer up an ironic, funny little parable about prejudice and diversity set in a hospital room. The 22-minute movie makes its points cleverly, with a good degree of realism from all its characters, whom the actors capture in quick, sharp strokes.

Is The Holocaust ever far removed from the yearly Academy Awards? It would seem not. This year, The Reader fills in that slot for feature-length films, while SPIELZEUGLAND (Toyland) handles the "shorts" section. From Germany and directed and co-written by Jochen Alexander Freydank (with Johann A. Bunners), in 14 minutes including credits, this small but immaculately produced short does much of what the currently released Boy in the Striped Pyjamas manages -- in one-sixth the time and without, or so am I told (having not yet seen Pyjamas), nearly as much sentimentality. The use of music, boxcars, hands and much more is handled here with deft strokes and exemplary restraint.

On a beautiful sunny day, a young woman gets on her bike and pedals away down the street. We enter her life and that of her friends, lover and mother in a way that challenges us to think, feel and imagine life differently. Writers/directors Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont give us, to my mind, the gem of the bunch with this 15-minute movie from France, MANON SUR LE BITUME (Manon on the Asphalt). I can easily imagine this one as a full-length feature, but not as anything more compelling, precise and beautiful as what we have here.

As usual, the animated films are considerably shorter -- but no less accomplished -- than the live action:

Here's something different: From Russia comes a feel-good love story set in a city toilet. Using black lines on a white ground, with color doled out sparingly and appropriately for charm and humor, writer/director Konstantin Bronzit fills his ten-minute LAVATORY LOVE STORY with with delights aplenty -- and shows that simplicity never goes out of style.

Oddly enough, the shortest film on the program also has the most directors -- six of them: I can't imagine how the responsibilities for the three minutes of running time were divided. OKTAPODI is, in my opinion, tied for first-place with the Japanese offering (more of that below). Using a beyond-bright-and-beautiful color palette coupled to an ultra-speedy pace, these six French fellows give us an anthropomorphic love story/thriller/chase movie starring animated octopi. Zowie!

Those dark and dismal Brits are back with THIS WAY UP, a bleak -- and very funny -- tale of a funeral parlor duo trying ever so hard to bury their corpse du jour. Using an extremely subdued color palette, writers/directors Smith & Foulkes (with Christopher O'Reilly) make us giggle and shudder until halfway through their nine-minute film, when they explode in colorful anarchy. This one's terrific: as unusual as it is entertaining.

Would any animation group be complete without something from Pixar? Evidently not, as Doug Sweetland's PRESTO, from a story by Ted Mathot, offers five minutes of old-fashioned fun (a magician learns to respect his rabbit) gussied up with the best that today's animation can add to the mix. This is very good work, but against the unusually varied and interesting competition, it does seem a bit old-hat.

photo, including crop marks, courtesy of AMPAS

The single most accomplished piece of animation, not to mention concept and story line (it may call to mind Hirokazu Koreeda's After Life) comes from Japan via writer/director Kunio Kato and sports a French title: LA MAISON EN PETITS CUBES. Kato creates a kind of memory piece using rich, impressionistic drawings of a strange universe in which the past is literally undersea -- and meaning is not necessarily on the surface. Lost love/love remembered is one of the themes, and the manner in which the filmmaker gives this life is impressive and moving.

So. Does this program sounds PDG? If so, here's the schedule of theaters, cities and opening dates, If you're near any of 'em, make a bee-line for a screening:

For the U.S.

Spectrum, Albany, NY 02/20/2009
Guild, Albuquerque, NM 02/06/2009
Out, North Anchorage, AK 02/19/2009
Michigan Theate,r Ann Arbor, MI 02/06/2009
Midtown Art Cinemas 8, Atlanta, GA 02/20/2009
Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, Austin, TX 02/06/2009
Shattuck Cinemas 10, Berkeley, CA 02/06/2009
Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater, Boston, MA 02/12/2009 & 03/05/2009
International Film Series, Boulder, CO 02/08/2009 & 02/15/2009
Lakewood Ranch 6, Bradenton, FL 02/07/2009
Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline, MA 02/06/2009
Ballantyne Village 5, Charlotte, NC 02/06/2009
Music Box, Chicago, IL 02/06/2009
Cedar Lee Theatres, Cleveland Heights, OH 02/20/2009
YES Cinemas, Columbus, IN 02/06/2009
Red River 3, Concord, NH 02/06/2009
University of Miami, Bill Cosford Cinema, Coral Gables, FL 02/13/2009 & 02/20/2009
Inwood Theatre, Dallas, TX 02/06/2009
Chez Artiste, Denver, CO 02/13/2009
Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, MI 02/06/2009
Cinema Paradiso, Fort Lauderdale, FL 02/13/2009
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TX 02/27/2009
Fresno Filmworks c/o Tower Theatre, Fresno, CA 04/17/2009
Plaza Frontenac Cinema, Frontenac, MO 02/06/2009
Cape Ann Community Cinema, Gloucester, MA 02/20/2009
Hamilton Movie House, Hamilton, NY 02/09/2009
Real Art Ways Cinema, Hartford, CT 02/06/2009
Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu, HI 02/14/2009
Time and Space Limited, Hudson, NY 02/06/2009
University of Iowa, Bijou Theater, Iowa City, IA 02/06/2009
Cornell Cinema, Ithaca, NY 02/13/2009
Tivoli @ Manor Square, Kansas City, MO 02/06/2009
Lake Worth Playhouse, Lake Worth, FL 02/06/2009
Sundance Cinemas 608, Madison, WI 02/13/2009
Miami Beach Cinematheque, Miami Beach, FL 02/20/2009
Times Cinema, Milwaukee, WI 02/06/2009
Lagoon Cinema, Minneapolis, MN 02/20/2009
Harbor Theatre, Muskegon, MI 02/06/2009
Jarvis Conservatory, Napa, CA 02/21/2009
Criterion Cinemas 7, New Haven, CT 02/06/2009
New Orleans Film Festival, New Orleans, LA 02/10/2009
IFC Center, New York, NY 02/06/2009
Normal Theatre, Normal, IL 02/26/2009
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, OK 02/06/2009 & 02/20/2009
Maiden Alley, Paducah, KY 02/20/2009
Playhouse 7 Cinemas, Pasadena, CA 02/06/2009
Ritz at the Bourse, Philadelphia, PA 02/06/2009
Regent Square Theater, Pittsburgh, PA 02/13/2009
Hollywood Theatre, Portland, OR 02/06/2009
Little Theatre,, Rochester, NY 02/06/2009
Crest Theatre Sacramento, CA 02/06/2009
Santikos Bijou @ Crossroads 6, San Antonio, TX 02/06/2009
Ken Cinema, San Diego, CA 02/20/2009
Lumiere Theatre 3, San Francisco, CA 02/06/2009
Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael, CA 02/06/2009
South Coast Village 3, Santa Ana, CA 02/06/2009
Nickelodeon Theatres, Santa Cruz, CA 02/06/2009
The Screen, Santa Fe, NM 02/06/2009
Rialto Cinemas Lakeside 5, Santa Rosa, CA 02/06/2009
Proctors Theatre, Schenectady, NY 02/16/2009
Varsity Theatre, Seattle, WA 02/06/2009
Robinson Film Center, Shreveport, LA 02/13/2009
Moxie Cinema 2, Springfield, MO 02/06/2009
Avon Twin Theatre, Stamford, CT 02/07/2009
Tallahassee Film Society Inc, Tallahassee, FL 02/20/2009 & 03/06/2009
The Loft Cinema, Tucson, AZ 02/11/2009
Circle Theatre, Tulsa, OK 02/13/2009
E Street Cinema, Washington, DC 02/06/2009
Sunset 5, West Hollywood, CA 02/06/2009
The Landmark, West Los Angeles, CA 02/06/2009
Wichita Public Library, Wichita, KS 02/21/2009
Theater N at Nemours, Wilmington, DE 02/06/2009
Cinepolis, Guadajara, Mexico 02/19/2009
Cinepolis, Monterrey, Mexico 02/19/2009
Cinepolis, Mexico City, Mexico 02/19/2009
Cinepolis, Morelia, Mexico 02/19/2009

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