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Feb 26, 2010

Fletch's Film Review: The 2010 Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films

Despite living in the 12th most populous metropolitan area in the U.S. and being a mere six+ hours from Los Angeles, independent, foreign and/or art films aren't much easier to see in Phoenix than they are in Fairbanks, I'd imagine. In his last Matineecast, the Mad Hatter and guest lamented the not-much better situations in Toronto and even Los Angeles, destinations clearly more cosmopolitan, diverse and populous than the desert Southwest; if art house cinemas are closing there, what hope is there for rural Texas?

So it's with great joy that I can once again thank the ever-present Scottsdale, AZ-based Harkins Theaters for not only bringing in the two Academy Award-nominated Shorts Programs (Live Action and Animated), but showing them at their restored (in 2001) Valley Art Theater, a gorgeous one-screen former hole-in-the-wall now a shimmering example of what movie going should be. No, it doesn't have a monstrous screen or speakers so loud they'll blast your ears off - instead, what the Valley Art peddles most is charm, a chance to go back in time (to a time long before I was born even) to the days before multiplexes. The lobby can't hold more than 20 people without feeling cramped (as it was on Sunday), and the outdoor single-stall box office (the type you seen in the movies) is for show only, but the art-deco interior is gorgeous, the staff is courteous, and there's that whole "you can't see the movies they show anywhere else in town" thing going for it. So far as I know, the Valley Art is the only single-screen commercial theater in the Valley of the Sun, and it's most certainly the oldest.

Situated on Mill Avenue in the heart of downtown Tempe (aka Arizona State University central), the Valley Art has seen the street around it change even more than it had prior to restoration. Once a bustling road packed with hippie students, street preachers and more Mom-and-Pop businesses than you could count, Mill started its transformation to Gentrification Lane in the mid-90s, to the dismay of many a local. These days, while still bustling, the street is dominated by Urban Outfitters, Gordon Biersch, Hooters and other chains, but the Valley Art, which was built in 1940 (back when Tempe had a population well under 5,000), has managed to endure. This is thanks largely to Harkins' commitment to the art house crowd, being the only outfit able to keep such theaters in business for more than a blip over the last few decades. Ironically, the only other theaters dedicated to bringing such non-commercial fare to town these days is the upstart Madcap Theaters (which has screened The Room in the past), which is ironically housed in a recently closed Harkins multiplex just a few blocks away (Harkins moved that multiplex to a newer outdoor mall a few miles away).

Here are some capsule reviews of the films shown in the Animated Shorts program. I hope to catch the Live Action ones before Friday (since, being single-screen, most things last but one week). The first five are the Academy's nominees; the latter three, which come as a show-lengthening bonus, are labeled as "Highly Commended" and were on the Academy's short list for a nomination, yet didn't make the cut.

French Roast
As with most of the shorts in this program, this French production (shocker) clocks in between 6-10 minutes. It's practically a silent film, with no audible words spoken outside of a random "Monsieur" or "cafe" here or there. It centers on an uptight businessman who's settled down for a latte or three, only to discover he's come up short when it's time to pay. From there, it's a comic study on how looks can be deceiving, done with excellent digital animation that's reminiscent of stop-motion, but isn't. One of my favorites, though I think a long-shot to win the Oscar.

The Lady and the Reaper
This Spanish short hits you with a big name right in the credits - produced by Antonio Banderas. That's quickly forgotten, though, as we're greeted with a very Up-ish intro about a lonely old woman who misses her departed husband and wants little more than to reunite with him in the afterlife. However, her trip there with the Grim Reaper is interrupted by a vain (why?) doctor intent on saving her life (the bastard!). Quickly devolves into Scooby-Doo slapstick (the in-one-door-and-out-another is used, for chrissake). Far and away the worst of the group.

A Matter of Loaf and Death
This Wallace and Gromit-starred felt the most out-of-place in the bunch, for a few reasons. For starters, it clocks in at about a half-hour, with the second-longest film being less than twenty. Second, of course, is that most people (especially those with kids) are familiar with the lead characters and possibly even the filmmaker (Nick Park), while the rest are (right now) anonymous. But mostly, it's everything else - the style (claymation) and tone make Loaf and Death feel more like a lost episode to a Saturday morning cartoon than an Oscar-nominated short film. A good time, to be sure, but (possibly for all the wrong reasons) the one I'd least like to see win outside of Reaper.

Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty
The shortest film not surprisingly has the least story: a deranged grandmother tells the story of Sleeping Beauty to her adorably scared-to-death granddaughter. Yet this was one of the more interesting shorts by virtue of its mixed-media, employing both state-of-the-art computer animation with a more vibrant, colorful-yet-rudimentary version, making for a beautiful film. Pretty funny as well, and the grandmother's hair (it looks to be made of sticks, in case you can't tell) is priceless.

Not unlike Daybreakers, this film starts off with an interesting premise...and then quickly goes downhill. And yet I'd still highly recommend watching it. In case neither the title nor image shown give it away, the setting and characters all are entirely made up of corporate logos/icons. It's as if the imagined Planet Starbuck's from Fight Club have become a reality. It makes for a kitschy movie, and while the juxtaposition of brands with their alternate movie realities is fun (and funny - Ronald McDonald a criminal?), the fun ends when the "story" begins - the action and mayhem are as epic and nonsensical as anything Roland Emmerich could dream up.

Partly Cloudy
Though I enjoyed this short that was shown before Up, I thought it was a little bit weird back then, and I still kind of think so. Something about giving identities and emotions to clouds just doesn't sit with me as well as it does for rats, bugs, etc. It's charming, witty, and poignant, though, just like seemingly every other piece of work that Pixar puts its stamp on, and the stork cracks me up, so it gets a pass.

Mrs. Fletch's favorite. The highlight of this hand-drawn piece for me was the music - an upbeat, jazzy score played by low-fi characters in goofy hats. The movie plays to its slapsticky strengths, yet still manages to make some commentary about class economics. How many other sub-10-minute cartoons can say that?

The Kinematograph
I couldn't believe that this Polish film wasn't on the Academy's short list, as I found it to be the best all-around film up and down, telling the story of a man who invents a machine that can capture moving pictures, only to learn too late that he regrets not spending his time elsewhere. Sure, it's a story that we've seen told time and again, but not often as beautifully as this. Director Tomek Bagiński has quite a future ahead of him, I'm sure.

Information about the the Shorts International program (and where you might be able to catch it) can be found here. Whaddaya know - it's even playing in Yakima, WA!

Overall grade:
Fletch's Film Rating:
"Darn tootin!"
Shaky Cam Rating (details):LAMBScore:
Large Association of Movie BlogsLarge Association of Movie Blogs

3 people have chosen wisely: on "Fletch's Film Review: The 2010 Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films"

Who Is Tim Burton? Two said...

Hi!(Bonjour!) Fletch,
Nice round-up...being an artist,I most definitely,will be checking
out these animated short ...French Roast, Oh!oui,(Oh! yes,)...
...The Kinematograph and Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty.

Thanks, for the heads-up!
I also voted in your poll for Tarantino too!
DeeDee ;-D

Jimbob said...

You're right about Logorama. One minute you're watching a hostage situation playout, the next you're with a woman and a boy in a car trying to outrun an earthquake if that's even possible. Made zero sense but looked pretty cool.

Fletch said...

Thanks, DeeDee!

Jimbob - I can only hope that the Academy doesn't reward Logorama for its one-dimensionality, but I can't decide what I'd rather see win given the choices. According to my ratings, it'd be French Roast, but I can't see that happening; I seem to be in the minority on that one, and its length will likely hurt it.