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Short Stuff: The 2012 Oscar-nominated Live-Action Shorts
by Jay Seaver

As much as we've all seen movies that don't really justify the eighty minutes, minimum, that a film has to run to make the ticket price charged if it's to be released in theaters seem reasonable, the cold fact of the matter is that there's very little place for live-action shorts in America today. Animated shorts can be done as a calling card or with a small enough crew that a director can count on a dedicated fanbase for money (or can do these labors of love around commercial work), documentary shorts can sell to PBS or cable stations, but where do live-action short films fit in today's market?

Not very many places, which is why when one goes to the short programs at American film festivals, most of the things on display are likely student films, or from a foreign country where arts funding helps with this sort of thing. Still, enough get made that the Academy Award nominees are often an impressive-enough slate, and the brief clips seen during the ceremony are often some of the most intriguing parts of the program, representing as they do ideas too peculiar and non-commercial to be financed by a Hollywood studio.

Take "Death of a Shadow"; it hails from Belgium and even features Matthias Schoenaerts, star of last year's foreign-language nominee Bullhead and recent boutique-house release Rust and Bone. It's got an offbeat premise, with Shoenaerts playing a photographer of sorts, who captures a person's shadow at the moment of his or her death for his mysterious master (Peter Van Den Eede) so that after 10,000 he can be returned to life with the woman he loves (Laura Verlinden). The visuals and the steampunkish design are certainly memorable.

I must admit, though, that it sort of rubbed me the wrong way. Like a lot of steampunk or contemporary dark fantasy, its world seems too obviously set up to tell this particular story. The character arcs follow a well-worn and predictable path of romantic tragedy, and while Schoenaerts, Verlinden, and filmmaker Tom Van Avermaet make them work surprisingly well, it's never quite fantastical or romantic enough to make up for the film's artifice.

"Henry", meanwhile, comes from Quebec's Yan England and follows its title character - an elderly pianist played by Gérard Poirier - as he starts what seems like a typical day only to have things thrown into turmoil as it becomes clear that things aren't what they seem. Over the next twenty minutes, the audience follows him into his youth and his rather uncertain present.

It's another theme that has been milked pretty thoroughly, but there's a reason for that: It provides a great showcase for older actors who can bring plenty of experience to bear with every line on their faces, and Poirer certainly does not disappoint (neither do Louisa Laprade as his wife Maria or Mari Tifo as the woman trying to keep him in the present as his mind drifts back to when he first met Maria). An elderly relative or friend's disintegration is a heartbreaking story that almost everybody can relate to, and England and Poirer hit their targets a lot more often than not.

Writer/director/star Shawn Christensen also starts out in a fairly dark place in "Curfew", but it soon gets into much funnier territory, as Christensen's suicidal character Richie gets a call from his sister asking him to babysit his nine-year-old niece Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) for the night. Neither mother or daughter consider Richie particularly trustworthy, with a demanding Sophia tending to look down at her uncle.

Naturally, of course, Richie will seem to grow and Sophia will soften, and the way that happens is actually really impressive, as Christensen is able to frame it as being the result of changing perspectives as personal growth. He does a nice job of injecting humor, dark and offbeat as well as conventional, into the story without ever actually pushing the darkness back - indeed, making things funnier and Sophia more kid-like makes everything feel more well-rounded and real. "Curfew" may be the lightest film of the group, but that doesn't make it any less sophisticated than the others.

Kids also figure prominently in the stories of the last two films of the program, which both take place in foreign lands. In "Buzkashi Boys", the setting is Kabul, Afghanistan, with beggar-boy Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz) convincing his friend Rafi (Fawad Mohammadi) to leave his father's blacksmith shop to go watch Buzkashi, a polo-like game where men on horseback compete to drag a goat carcass across the field. As we watch the kids, it's apparent that Ahmad seems more optimistic about his future than Rafi, despite having much less.

We hear a lot about Afghanistan in the news, but this view of it is fascinating; director Sam French and cinematographer Duraid Munajim do an exceptional job of capturing the stark beauty of the Afghani landscape and even making Kabul look appealing from certain angles and distances, only to pull in or shift position and suddenly see just how much damage an inhospitable environment and endless series of wars has done to the place. There's a sort of solidarity with the people there, though - the film never asks for the audience's pity, even as it acknowledges the utterly random danger of life there and the very limited options that the people there may have. French also gets great work out of youngsters Paiz and Mohammadi; though both were more or less recruited off the streets, they are excellent and form the movie's heart and soul.

The title character of Bryan Buckley's "Asad" (played by Harun Mohammed), on the other hand, lives in a coastal Somali village where the pirates do a better job of providing for the people than fishermen like old Erasto (Ibrahim Moallim Hussein), and this barely-teenager thinks he may make a better captain than some of the others. He may not be wrong; he thinks on his feet quickly to help an injured friend when rebels come to town and Erasto, at least, recognizes that he has great instincts as a navigator.

Shot in South Africa with a cast consisting almost entirely of Somali refugees (and there's an argument to be made that the one exception doesn't count), "Asad" has an almost indisputable authenticity to it, and in a way that seems to justify an ending that feels less conclusive than that of the other shorts: Life in this place means being at the whim of randomness and chaos, and the combination of horror and humor that makes up the end of the story almost feels like a survival mechanism, where one has to look at the bright side to avoid despair. Longtime commercial director Buckley puts his experience in shooting quick and professionally to work; he and his crew make a sharp-looking picture and get good work out of their amateur cast, with Harun Mohammed proving surprisingly capable of carrying the movie.

It's an enjoyably strong and varied line-up, one which I think any could win without much in the way of complaint (even the weakest, "Death of a Shadow", can at least capture the imagination). If I were trying to predict a winner, it would likely be between "Henry" (the majority of Academy members are actors and this is the nominee that most showcases acting) and "Curfew" (the most balanced entry; it's mainstream and quirky, featuring good performances and direction). Still, it's never a good idea to underestimate the importance of importance to voters in these categories, which could give "Asad" and "Buzkashi Boys" legs up.

But, that's only worth remembering if your goal is to win a contest like our Oscar Pick 'Em. What's more important is that this is five pretty good stories told in the length of an average-length feature, in a format that doesn't get in front of us as audiences too often. It's well worth checking ShortsHD's website to see what the most convenient way to see them is, since even if one isn't to your taste, there's a good shot that the majority will be.

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originally posted: 02/10/13 17:44:31
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