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 411mania » Movies » Film Reviews

2013 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts Review
Posted by Jeremy Wilson on 02.18.2013

Running Time: 115 minutes

It should speak to the overall quality of the five nominated Live Action shorts that when you read reviews or ask someone their favorite of the five short films this year, you're likely to hear any one of them mentioned. For the eighth consecutive year, the nominated short films have been theatrically released in theathers across the country and this year's program is another strong – if safe – group of short films.

The worst film in the program was Henry, a French-Canadian short which some have snidely labeled as “Amour-lite.” While that isn't a fair comparison, to either film, Henry does focus on the heartbreaking perils of growing old and losing what is most precious – your mind. Suffering from Alzheimer's (or some similar dementia-based disorder), Henry is a concert pianist who believes his wife has disappeared. Both Henry and the audience relive some of his memorable life events as Henry tries to pull the pieces of his memory and life together to figure out what has happened – only to find it slipping further and further away.

Unfortunately, we know what has happened. Clichéd from start to finish, Yan England's 21-minute film will either have you reaching for the tissues or counting down the seconds until its conclusion. I found it excruciating from the get-go; what is going on is never in doubt and it consistently feels mawkish. It attempts to cram in a feature film's worth of emotion and sentimentality into its truncated running time, which only serves to make it feel even more predictable and manipulative. It's incredibly boring and its shaky-cam style and dreamlike atmosphere is the ugliest and least effective of the five nominees. Admittedly, the short's conclusion is a tear-inducer, but that has more to do with your own experiences (who hasn't seen an older relative suffer physical and mental deterioration?) than what the film has achieved. It's cheap sentimentality and I couldn't wait for it to be over. Which probably means Academy voters will love it.

Thankfully, the program has nowhere to go from there but up and it doesn't disappoint. Death of a Shadow, a Dutch-language film from Belgium by Tom Van Avermaet stars Bullhead and Rust and Bone star Matthias Schoenaerts and centers on Nathan Rijckx, a soldier who died during World War I. Nathan has been given a second chance at life, but must photograph and capture the souls of a thousand different people in various forms of death (he gets to choose their death with the help of a steampunk-style, boiler room machine). The strange collector he works for has imprisoned Nathan's shadow but is less concerned with the manner of peoples' deaths and more interested in the composition of their final moment. Nathan agrees to do all of this for love; he wishes to meet Sarah (Laura Verlinden) again, the woman who showed him kindness and who he fell in love with before his death. However, what starts as an enigmatic and melancholic short film, soon turns bitter when Nathan discovers that Sarah was already in love with someone else. As jealousy clouds his mind and he nears his 1000th and final composition, Nathan makes a decision that has far-reaching and bittersweet consequences.

This is honestly the most ambitious of the nominated shorts and is also the most visually stunning. Tom Van Avermaset may get the biggest “bump” of any of the nomiinees; his visual style – frequently compared to the early work of Jean-Pierre Jeneut – is achingly beautiful, the most polished-looking of the program. It is an enigmatic film which strips away unnecessary exposition, requiring and rewarding audiences' patience with a haunting tale and look that is unlike anything else in the program. In fact, it is unlike much of what one sees in feature filmmaking nowadays. If there is one issue, it is the film's conclusion, a rather predictable and safe climax which doesn't fully pay off the stylish wonder that defines its buildup. If not for that, it may have laid claim to being the best of the bunch, and on a technical level, it would be a worthy winner. I would be shocked if Death of a Shadow didn't open doors and propel Van Avermaet into something a little more high-profile.

While Death of a Shadow comes close to hitting it out of the park, Curfew truly does. It is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch, a film that feels perfectly suited and structured for the format, but also one which you easily envision becoming the basis for a longer feature. Writer-director and star Shawn Christensen's film catches Ritchie, a former drug addict, at the lowest point in his life, depressed, lonely and contemplating suicide. Having just slit his wrists in the bathtub, Ritchie gets a call from his estranged sister asking him to look after his nine-year old niece Sophia (Fátima Ptacek). While the night gets off to an awkward start, the smart, sassy young girl cracks Ritchie's hardened shell, while he himself surprises and connects with her, as they both reach each other in a way neither was expecting. The film's conclusion is a perfect bookend to its beginning and acts as a powerful reminder of the power of love, the purpose that being needed and wanted gives to a life

One of the great offshoots resulting from the success and nomination for the film is the redemption of Christensen. The man at the center of Curfew was also the screenwriter behind the abysmally received 2011 Taylor Lautner film Abduction. The only thing that can be taken from Curfew in regards to Christensen's past work is that somewhere along the way, Abduction went through the same hellish torture that claims so many good ideas and creative scripts. Curfew is a powerful, genuine character study that features really great chemistry between Christensen and young actress Fátima Ptacek. Best known as the current voice of Dora in Dora the Explorer, Ptacek has a really eerie, mature confidence for someone so young – the kind of intelligent, sassy and funny performance that would feel perfectly at home in a Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach movie. These are great characters who feel real at every point, a testament to the actors and script. Utilizing New York City as the vibrant and gorgeous urban lanscape that it is, Christensen continuously gets the best out of every setting and exchange. Even an impromptu and slightly surreal bowling alley dance sequence – which could have landed with a spectacular thud in a worse film – feels organic and fitting. Neither overly depressing, nor too silly, Curfew is the clear standout in this year's field.

Buzkashi Boys, seems like it was made to win an Academy Award. That may not be fair, but the film – a U.S.-Afghan co-production shot in Kabul with a mostly Afghan crew – feels like the kind of very safe, yet timely story that could appeal io Academy voters. The film's story revolves around two boys living in Afghanistan, a blacksmith's son and an orphan living on the streets, who dream of competing as Buzkashi riders, becoming champions and elevating their status in the process. Buzkashi is the national sport of Aghanistan and is often compared to polo. Both are played with people riding on horseback, but where polo is played with a ball, Buzkashi uses a headless goat carcass and matches can last for days. While both boys dream big, the blacksmith's son's fate seems already set, as his father pressures him to learn the family trade. When tragedy strikes, the boy gains the courage he lacked before, growing up in the process.

There are some stunningly beautiful shots of the Kabul landscape and the film prefers a glossier, more gentle approach to the extreme poverty that can't help but bleed through every shot. Real locations such as a decrepit palace, a junk yard, a Buzkashi game and busy city streets are the film's greatest strengths, composed beautifully through Duraid Munajim’s cinematography. However the narrative itself is trite and feels like the filmmakers are trying to cram an entire feature film into 20 or so minutes. It also fails to gain much momentum, instead plodding towards its slightly deflating conclusion. After it ended, my father mockingly joked that the film's theme was like the Army's motto "be all you can be...except in this case it's be the best blacksmith you can be." It wasn't as maudlin as Henry, but it was a relatively weak, if still pretty, entry.

The program concluded with probably the funniest of the Live Action shorts (even if it is still rather dark in its setting and story), Asad is a 25-minute short from South Africa featuring Somali refugees comprising the cast. The film centers on young Asad, a boy torn between competing lifestyles in his small Somali village. Asad has befriended the village's crankly fisherman, a loner who tries to teach the boy about fishing, the sea and an honorable lifestyle worh pursuing over the more popular and dangerous pirating that most of Asad's friends engage in. In the face of extreme poverty, hardship and tragedy, Asad also is thrust into the deep end as he fulfills his destiny and brings home the most spectacular catch in his village's history.

Asad is a tough, but funny coming-of-age fable that is anchored by the performance of a winning youngster. Played warmly by young Harun Mohammed, the character is really easy to like and root for, especially given what – and who – is around him. It's a bit of a trifle compared to the more compelling and weightier films around it in the program such as Curfew and Death of a Shadow, but the film's charms and consistent humor make it hard to resist. The recurring gag involving the boy's fate to bring home the most spectacular catch the village has ever seen is especially set up well and pays off...well, it's one of the best moments found in any of the nominated shorts. Writer-director Bryan Buckley – one of the most prolific and successful TV commercial directors in recent years – acquits himself nicely here and it is easy to see how some of the comedic sensibilities found in his commercial work pay off in Asad. It's not the best nominated short films, but it's a winner and a good fit among the more serious and high-minded films playing around it.

This year's group of nominated live action shorts are another strong batch and well worth your time and money. If you can, seek them out in theaters playing across the country or check them out through VOD services such as iTunes.

Final Individual Ratings:

Henry: 3.0
Death of a Shadow: 8.0
Curfew: 9.0
Buzkashi Boys: 6.5
Asad: 7.5

Jeremy Wilson can be reached at Jpwilson1984@gmail.com and on Twitter @Jpwilson1984

The 411: This year's field of Oscar-nominated live action shorts is another strong group of films. While none necessarily push storytelling or visual boundaries, most are still worthy of being nominated and all are worth seeing (seriously, watch more short films!). Shawn Christensen's Curfew is the cream of the crop, a touching and genuine character study about a suicidal former drug addict tasked with looking after his 9-year-old niece in New York City. Tom Van Avermaet's Death of a Shadow is not far behind, a film with a unique visual style and enigmatic story. Asad is a highly entertaining short film featuring Somali refugees that surprises with its consistent (mostly dark) humor. Buzkashi Boys is a beautifully shot film about two boys living in Afghanistan who dream of becoming champion Buzkashi riders (akin to polo). The film's cinematography features breathtaking and stark shots of Kabul's landscape and landmarks. Yan England's Henry is the most frustrating of the noinnated shorts, a mawkish tale about a concert pianist whose mind is breaking down. As he relives past events, Henry also attempts to find his missing wife and understand what is happening. Overall, it's a strong group of nominees and worth your time. Recommended.
Final Score:  8.0   [ Very Good ]  legend


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