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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Reviewing the Shorts: A Conversation

The "shorts" categories (live action, animated, and documentary), are often the most mysterious for viewers of Oscar night. Few have seen them, and in order to vote Academy members must see all nominees. Luckily, my friend Rebecca and I were both able to catch the shorts and had a nice conversation about them. Check out Rebecca's blog (with lots on her awesome book reading project) as well!

Without further ado, here is our conversation. Maybe it will help you with filling out those last spots in your Oscar pool! I've also embedded several of the animated shorts which are available on YouTube.

Animated Shorts


I didn't notice right away how much this year's nominees are about death and violence, probably because the tone tended more towards dark humor and. 'The Lady and the Reaper' is about an old woman who wants to die, but is filmed as a slapstick battle between the grim reaper and a heroic doctor for her soul. 'Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty' is a fairytale turned into a rant about old age. 'Logorama' features a murderous Ronald McDonald taking Big Boy as a hostage, as well as an earthquake ripping part of California off of the coast. 'A Matter of Loaf and Death' is about a serial killer who murders bakers, and Wallace might be the next target. 'French Roast' is the only short that doesn't deal directly with death - it's about a guy who forgot his wallet sitting in a cafe.

First things first: I love the look of stop-motion so much more than computer animation, it's hard for me to be unbiased about 'A Matter of Loaf and Death.' There's so much character and nuance that comes out of stop-motion, whereas the computer animation in 'French Roast', 'The Lady and the Reaper', and 'Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty' starts to all look the same. 'Logorama' was an eyesore, but that's part of the point, as everything is constructed out of corporate logos.

I enjoyed 'Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty', 'French Roast', and 'The Lady and the Reaper' (in descending order). In addition to the similar CG visual styles, they all consist of a simple concept made into a humorous short film of 6-8 minutes. The reason 'Granny O'Grimm' was my favorite of those three was the great vocal performance at the center of it, and the visual contrast in styles between the grandmother/child framework and the Sleeping Beauty story itself. 'French Roast' and 'The Lady and the Reaper' were enjoyable enough, but didn't really stick with me.


I definitely noticed the death right away in the movies right away. It's interesting because I wouldn't say that this year's Best Picture nominees are any more interested in death than past nominees. What's with all the animators?

I completely feel your affection ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death.’ I loved the facial expressions of all the characters, especially the nervous love-interest poodle. For me, my favorite was a tie between this and "The Lady and the Reaper." I thought it was pretty involving and clever. How many other movies can make a suicide of an old woman into a funny and crowd-pleasing ending? ‘Granny O'Grim's’ was also a lot of fun. The vocal performance of the old woman was terrific, and I also liked the combination between the storybook animation and the computer animation. "French Roast" was also pleasant to watch, but I didn't think it was exceptionally special.

At first, I thought ‘Logorama’ was going to be cool, but then it just sort of annoyed me. It is fun to notice all the logs at first, but it gets old pretty quick. After that, I was less impressed. The movie didn't really seem to have much of a point. That we live in a corporate culture? That it's bad? I also wondered how they were allowed to use all their logos without getting sued.

Did you get to see the 3 commended films as well? I was frankly a little surprised that two of them weren't nominated. ‘Partly Cloudy’ (which I had seen before "Up"), detailing a stork with a tough job, is a really charming Pixar short. ‘The Kinematograph,’ a story of a man obsessed with creating color film and his sick wife, was beautifully animated. The characters' skin seemed to have a sort of wood grain to it. The story is fairly predictable, but it was touching and if it had been nominated I probably would have guessed it as the winner. "Runaway," on the other hand, I really disliked. It's a story of a train and the people on it gradually being destroyed just seemed kind of mean-spirited to me.

What do you think will win? ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’ definitely has the most (and by far the longest running time) going for it.


I agree about 'Logorama.' It was a fun concept, but stretched out for too long. If you have a concept for your movie, keep it short - like 'The Lady and the Reaper.' I also agree that 'French Roast' wasn't particularly special, although I felt the same way about 'The Lady and the Reaper' - I think I liked it more up until the point where the symbolic battle for the lady's soul turned into a physical chase, complete with crazy music and zany hijinks, like an old-school Warner Brothers cartoon. It redeemed itself when she took things into her own hands.

I did see the 'highly commended' shorts (I had also already seen 'Partly Cloudy'). I'm surprised 'Partly Cloudy' didn't make it, especially since I think it avoided the pitfalls of CG animation - Pixar really goes to great lengths to give their productions, shorts and features, the kind of texture and detail that is lost with a lot of CG animation. 'The Kinematograph' was pretty good, I especially liked the first and last longer tracking shots through the streets. I liked the hand-drawn animation of 'The Runaway', but agree that it was mean-spirited.

As for 'A Matter of Loaf and Death', I don't like it quite as well as some of the other Wallace & Grommit shorts, but I don't see it losing on Oscar night. First of all, if you look at the winners from the past few years, they tend to be stop-motion or hand-drawn, not computer animation, often leading to surprises in the awards. Whoever is going to those screenings and voting appreciates the hand-made touch. Secondly, although some folks have predicted that voters will feel that Nick Park has been awarded enough, there's not a clear alternative that I think will pull enough votes away. Some people are predicting 'Logorama', but I think (and hope) that is not the case. I think it's not the case because it's computer animation, and not pleasant to look at, and also because, as I was leaving, I overheard some folks complaining that it was 'too violent'. I hope it's not winning because I think the concept of the film was played out well before it ended. However, it could end up winning if voters decide it's edgy to point out that we live in a corporate culture.

I'm going to go with: will win - 'A Matter of Loaf and Death', should win - 'A Matter of Loaf and Death', and possible spoiler - 'Logorama'.


You're right about ‘The Lady and the Reaper’. The chase scene was definitely not up to the beginning or end of the movie. I guess I just liked the concept well enough overall that the movie impressed me. I also agree that my favorite parts (at least animation-wise) of ‘The Kinematograph’ were the tracking shots, although I'm a sucker for a good tracking shot in live-action films as well (Magnolia, Atonement, Children of Men).

It's interesting to think about ‘Logorama’ being "too violent." I myself am not too squeamish about violence in live-action films. It did seem overly graphic to me in this movie, maybe because most animated films don't really aim for quasi-realistic, blood and guts violence. I think it can work in a movie like "Waltz with Bashir," where the movie has a clear point, but otherwise I myself am a bit put off by it.

For me, I'm going to agree with you on the will win/should win for "A Matter of Loaf and Death." I do think they'll reward Nick Park with his third award in this category. I'll break a little and say the possible spoiler is ‘The Lady and the Reaper.’

Live Action Shorts


OK, so I finally made it to the live action shorts as well. On the whole, I was fairly disappointed. I saw them last year and, as a group, they were much stronger last year than this year. That said, I did enjoy seeing some different interpretations with what can be done with 20 minutes of screen time.

So, they were pretty dark and bleak. Every single one has some sort of violence or death (at least imagined death, in the case of the true comedy of the bunch. My favorite was definitely Miracle Fish, about an 8-year-old schoolboy is a bit of an outcast at school. He gets upset, sneaks into the nurse's office to take a nap, and wakes up to find an empty building. This was definitely the only one of the films where I couldn't predict where it was going. While it probably had the lowest production values of any of the films (it seemed a bit blurry to me), it had the most compelling story.

After that, my favorite was ‘Instead of Abracadabra,’ a sort of Swedish Napoleon Dynamite about a 25-year-old amateur magician who still lives with his parents. This was shown last, and you could tell the audience ate up the chance for some laughter.

Kavi’ and ‘The Door’ were well-made, but not surprising or all that interesting. Kavi actually seemed a touch too reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire. I think it even had a song by the composer from Slumdog. The Door, about the Chernobyl disaster and its affect on one family, was beautifully made but, again, a little familiar.

‘The New Tenants’ started out strong, with some funny repartee between the gay couple who just moved into an apartment. It gets a little too "wacky" for me, though, and I hated the ending.


I also hated the end of 'The New Tenants'! I had mixed feelings about all of them except for 'Instead of Abracadabra', which I liked all of, and 'The Door', which I liked none of.

'Kavi' and 'The Door' suffered from being just about miserable circumstances, with no interesting perspective on what was going on. They were issue movies that beat you over the head with a message, and nothing else. 'The Door' didn't give me any reason to care about the characters, and I felt like it was a real failure that it did not explain the significance of the door that the father went back to steal. I enjoyed the scenes with Kavi's family at home, and I liked Kavi's final act of resistance when he was walking on the clay bricks. I wanted the movie to have more of those elements in it - something to make the characters interesting people rather than tools for a lecture.

I liked the relationship between the two main characters in 'The New Tenants'. From that opening speech, with the set-up arriving after the punchline, their relationship was portrayed so clearly - these two people who love each other dearly but find each other insufferable sometimes. The other aspects of the film I could take or leave, and I suppose they had to have a plot in there, but I was not crazy about it. As I said, I hated the ending, but I appreciate it in a way because they obviously did not know how to end it and decided to go with something completely off the wall and fanciful.

'Instead of Abracadabra' was great. I was thinking of GOB from 'Arrested Development' throughout the whole thing, not only because a bad magician was the main character, but because the way they used the cuts to add humor reminded me of 'AD' and '30 Rock' a bit. I also liked the tail end with the flower bouquet - reminding us that he's a bad magician made it less formulaic than just having a heroic ending where the anti-hero ends up triumphant.

I didn't love 'Miracle Fish' as much as you did. I appreciate that it went in unexpected directions, and the ending (from when he hears the phone ringing and goes to answer it on) was fantastic. I did not find it very compelling up to that point, I didn't really feel like I had much reason to care about the kid. I like the unpredictability, though, and the end was definitely emotional.


OK, you summed up my thoughts on 'Kavi" and 'The Door' quite well, although I perhaps liked 'The Door" a touch more than you did. The final image of the bricks was certainly the most powerful part of 'Kavi.' But yes, they both screamed issue movie to me. At least the other 3 were trying something different. As for 'The Door,' I saw that it was well crafted and I was interested in the first few minutes before we really found out the topic of the movie. When it came to the sad scenes, though, I had almost no emotions and actually felt kind of guilty. I think this is a failure on the part of the filmmakers in not making the audience care about the characters.

I also thought of Gob while watching 'Instead of Abracadabra.' The movie had a really great tone, where you cared about the character but it was really unsentimental at the same time. I can see your point about the beginning of 'Miracle Fish' but I actually liked it the whole way. While the ending was definitely the best part, I was intrigued to see where the movie was headed the whole time.

What will win? I hate to say it, but I think it will be "The Door." It's well-made and about a serious subject. Isn't that the Academy's cup of tea? You could say the same about "Kavi," but I think they might not vote for it because it does seem so similar to "Slumdog." It would be awesome if they went for "Instead of Abracadabra," but I don't think comedy is their preferred genre. As for "The New Tenants," I don't really see it winning, but maybe I'm wrong. I do think "Miracle Fish" might have a shot. It wouldn't be absolutely shocked to see any of the movies win.

Will Win: The Door

Possible Spoiler: Kavi

Should Win: Miracle Fish


'Miracle Fish' is definitely the one that has grown most in my mind since seeing it, and I would like to see it again. I would like to see it, or 'Instead of Abacadabra' win. I know I'm being harsh on 'The Door', but it was just so self-serious it almost played like a parody of a Oscar's tastes.

I'm having a hard time getting a handle on predictions for this group. I could see any of them winning, really. 'Kavi' and 'The Door' have the serious issues, and we know that Oscar likes Big Issues better than interesting filmmaking or inventive stories (see last year's win in this category - 'Toyland', the least interesting of the bunch). I could see 'The New Tenants' getting in because it's supposedly edgy, and the fact that it features some recognizable faces doesn't hurt. I think 'Instead of Abacadabra' and 'Miracle Fish', our respective favorites, are not really in contention, though, unless some vote-splitting happens.

I do hold out some hope that this category could reward good filmmaking, since Martin McDonagh and Andrea Arnold have both won for shorts in the past, and you have to go to a screening to actually vote. This year's group is just fairly weak, and even though I liked 'Instead of Abacadabra' a lot, I don't think it can overcome 'The Door's Oscar baitiness.

Will win: 'The Door'
Possible spoiler: 'The New Tentants'
Should win: 'Instead of Abacadabra'

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