Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review | The 2012 Oscar Nominated Live Action Short Films

BY CHARLES LYONS


PENTECOST
(Ireland, Dir. Peter McDonald)

As exemplified by its employment of a radio-friendly rendition of "Ode to Joy," Peter McDonald's cutesy, largely unsuccessful Pentecost is all about the intersection and disparity between youthful, pop sensibility and seemingly archaic, stuffy values. Pity that, in tracking a young Irish boy and rabid football fan's (Scott Graham) potential redemption after a few near-disastrous and half-assed goes as an alter boy for his local church, director Peter McDonald fails to properly define his characters on either end of the dichotomy at the movie's center. Both our pint-sized lead, Damien, and the traditionalist men that oppose him—including his father (Michael McElhatton) and priest (Eamonn Hunt)—are reduced to cursory, hastily-assembled sketches. Unfortunately, the filmmaker doesn't choose express this key juxtaposition visually either, though we are baited with fleeting glimpses at what might've been a striking use of shadows and frames had they been further exercised. The dashes of quirk that punctuate the film are unnecessary and dull; a headache-inducing clash between the busy designs on Damien's pajamas and pillowcase/bedsheets is like something out of Garden State, and the way in which McDonald very unsubtly draws a parallel between Damien's big day at the altar and an important athletic event via crowd cheers on the soundtrack recalls some of the clunkiest moments in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. Any thematic traction Pentecost had accrued throughout its all-too-brief 10-minute runtime is then casually disposed of in favor of a lousy, unfunny punchline in its final moments.

GRADE - C-


RAJU
(Germany, Max Zähle)

Max Zähle's Raju is a strange bird, intermittently enticing (mostly on an aesthetic level) but also highly problematic and questionable. The film skirts impressionism yet veers dangerously into sensationalistic conspiracy thriller territory—it boasts both a high-stakes foot chase and a heated encounter that cynically incriminates corporations while victimizing the Indian race. Though its sometimes shocking treatment of a foreign culture begs comparison to Kevin Macdonald's heinous The Last King of Scotland, this story of a presumably upper-class German couple's foray into India in order to adopt the titular orphaned four-year-old isn't quite the "wide-eyed hayride" through India's impoverished communities that Last King was through Idi Amin's atrocities, but it certainly commits some crimes of its own. Among them is a boneheaded characterization of its (few) Indian characters, whom it portrays as either conniving roadblocks in its lead characters' paths to moral righteousness or still-salvageable tots to be fawned over, neither of which are bothered to be given much of a personality beyond their larger purpose within the movie's screenplay. 

Still, for a brief few minutes in the middle, Raju promises to be some sort of probing anti-thriller that turns the tables on its principle characters, taking to task wrongheaded, self-righteous globe-trotters like those found in The Last King of Scotland or Blood Diamond, questioning their actions and intentions. Zähle even goes so far as to somewhat meaningfully evoke the feeling of being overwhelmed and subsumed by the knotty moral decisions that plague us through a few effective editing flourishes and series of fitting shots that look down on the tangled, congested Calcutta streets. Ultimately, however, impoverished India is just another thoughtlessly selected playground for a couple of white characters' moral palettes to be cleansed, and the landscape to be exploited for lurid, thrill-seeking purposes only.

GRADE - D+


THE SHORE
(Ireland, Terry George)

Perhaps the best of the five, but nonetheless milquetoast, Terry George's The Shore is enjoyably fleet yet rote stuff. In light of some unfinished business—and a possible betrayal—in their past, two middle-aged friends try to patch things up in modern day Ireland, one a now-successful businessman living in the U.S. (Ciarán Hinds) and the other a happily married fisherman (Conleth Hill) still living in the homeland. Hinds in particular does his best to invest the proceedings with some cozy, lived-in pathos—and George at the helm mirrors the actor's cadence with some success—but The Shore lacks vitality in conception and execution, settling for a mostly dull-edged, if pleasant, 30 minute runtime. I will say I am intrigued by Slant Magazine's reading of the film as an expression of "Irish unease post-Troubles," but I will also admit to that piece of possibly key subtext not occurring to me upon first viewing. (One distinctive fade goes a long way toward suggesting Slant might be right: a black and white photo of the film's leads gives way to the a wide shot of the Irish countryside.) To say the least, it wouldn't be a surprise coming from George, the politically-charged filmmaker behind Hotel Rwanda and In the Name of the Father. Perhaps a second look down the road will yield hidden treasures beneath The Shore's ineffectual surface.

GRADE - C+


TIME FREAK
(USA, Andrew Bowler)

Another nominee that might fair better after a revisit is Andrew Bowler's ramshackle Time Freak, a high-concept quickie about a 20-something named Evan (John Conor Brooke) and his roommate, Stillman's (Michael Nathanson) DIY time machine. Largely purposeless and aesthetically nondescript, the film exists solely to traffic its one joke and nothing more (in this way it recalls Pentecost, but at least that short had a little more on its mind, even if those notions weren't well realized). The first time through I found Time Freak flimsy, wooden, self-satisfied, and, most unforgivably, unfunny, but, upon questioning myself an hour or so later, I returned to it. While watching bits and pieces, to my surprise, I didn't reject it entirely, even finding myself occasionally tickled. Though a readjustment of expectations is certainly in order, it's possible there is enjoyment to be had on a purely elemental, sketch comedy level, granting Bowler and co. their indulgences and lack of ambition. Upon initial consideration, though,  Time Freak was basically intolerable, but with some distance I feel willing to be more charitable, especially when held up against some of its more immediately off-putting fellow nominees.

GRADE - C


TUBA ATLANTIC 
(Norway, Hallvar Witzø)

Are we to take Tuba Atlantic's distinctive tone and cadence as an abrasive front or an unordained exertion of its own lead character's scabrous aura? An unnamed writer at Slant deemed Hallvar Witzø's peculiar debut "repulsively Scandinavian," though I have to wonder if Witzø intended the elements the writer references—namely the gruesome slaughter of seagulls by machine gun—to be an expression of Oskar's (Edvard Hægstad) rejection of charity or compassion of any sort. When the elderly man learns he will die in exactly six days in the film's opening scene, he shows some mild signs of remorse (lack of sleep, a cautious phone call to an out-of-service number) but largely seems to push forth with his daily routine. That is, before a teenage girl named Inger (Ingrid Viken) arrives at his doorstep a la Russell in Pixar's Up—a film that more incisively explores old age and regret, it should be said—sent to Oskar on behalf of her "Jesus Group" in order to act as his Angel of Death. As his final day fast approaches, the man comes to terms with his estranged relationship to his brother, with the help of an oversized incarnation of the eponymous instrument (natch). Whether the dashes of morbid humor are meaningless or not ultimately doesn't matter; either way they come off as crass and pungent eccentricities trying to pass off as endearing whimsicalities, the film they exist in a glib approximation of the passing of a life, and one who isn't bothered to be explored with any depth beyond a few broad strokes. Though formally striking in some instances (even locationally and atmospherically textured and detailed), Tuba Atlantic lacks insight, as well as profundity.

GRADE - C-

The 2012 Oscar Nominated Short Films are now playing in theaters nationwide. You can read the reviews of the Animated Shorts by Jesse Taylor here, and the Documentary Shorts by Matthew Lucas here.

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