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Loft screens Oscar's short-subject contenders

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Film Review

Loft screens Oscar's short-subject contenders

Live action comedies delight; animated shorts fall flat

Every year The Loft hosts the Oscar Shorts program – all ten nominees for Best Live Action and Best Animated Short Films – and it’s always a blast; one of Tucson’s best cinematic events of the year.

Though the strength of the program varies from year to year, its nevertheless always rewarding. Especially since we get so few chances to see shorts as they’re meant to be seen: on the big screen, with an appreciative audience. And the Loft’s audience provides at least 30% of the fun, all enthusiasm and good cheer. The event usually sells out.

Starting last year, The Loft decided to split the event into two nights: during the week prior to the Oscars telecast, Tuesday evening features the live action shorts, and Wednesday evening has the animated. You also have the chance to vote for the winners, and if you guess both correctly your voting ballot will be submitted into a raffle to win various Loft prizes (free passes and such).

This year was another great two-night short film sampler. Like any compilation, some films are stronger than others. That eclecticism is part of makes the event so enjoyable: you may not connect with every piece, but there’s a thrill to encountering so many varied aesthetics in one sitting.

For Tuesday’s Live Action nominees, the two comic films scored big with the crowd, while the three more somber dramatic turns felt flatter.

Patrick Eklund and Mathia Fjellström’s “Instead of Abracadabra” told the story of a 25-year old layabout still living at home with his parents, to their bemusement and irritation. He’s an aspiring magician, specializing in “gothic” tricks involving swords and setting gerbils on fire, but he’s hapless and clumsy in his showmanship, all enthusiasm and no talent. The story involves the magician’s attempts to woo a beautiful new neighbor by performing at his father’s upcoming birthday party.

The other comic film is darker and more self-conscious, but still a romp. Though it’s made by Danes Joachim Back and Tivi Magnusson, “The New Tenants” takes place in New York City, is all in English, and boasts performances by “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” vet Vincent D’Onofrio (who has gained considerable weight, now resembling his former self from Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”), and Judd Apatow regular Kevin Corrigan. It’s a single-set premise: a neurotic, hyper-verbal gay couple are relaxing in their new apartment when an increasingly bizarre series of visitors knock on their door and disturb their quibbling.

The three dramatic shorts were less effective, mostly because they all relied on putting a child protagonist in danger in order to establish tension and inspire pathos. It’s a cheap trick, especially egregious in the evening’s worst short, Juanita Wilson and James Flynn’s “The Door,” which involves children with cancer, Chernobyl, and a lot of dour expressions.

Better was Gregg Helvey’s “Kavi,” which still felt overly simplistic and didactic. It follows the plight of a child living in indentured servitude in India, while he stares yearningly out at the prep school boys who get to play cricket and be kids. It’s all handled with zero subtlety or nuance.

Luke Doolan and Drew Bailey’s excellent “Miracle Fish” was the best of the dramatic shorts, an exercise in show-don’t-tell restraint in which a put-upon elementary school boy in Australia falls asleep in the nurse’s office and wakes up to a surreal and inexplicable set of circumstances. It helps that the young boy at the center of “Miracle Fish” behaves like a child, and less like a clumsy metaphor as in “Kavi” and “The Door.”

The Animated Shorts were less eclectic. It’s a bit disappointing that almost all of the films had the same basic aesthetic: the hyper-sterilized computer animation we associate with Pixar.

Fabrice O. Joubert’s “French Roast” (about a stingy coffee shop patron getting his comeuppance), Nickey Phelan and Darragh O’Connell’s “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty” (about a bitter grandmother repurposing the story of Sleeping Beauty to suit her agenda), and Javier Recio Gracia’s “The Lady and the Reaper” (in which a mock-heroic doctor fights with the Grim Reaper over an elderly woman who’s eager to die so she can be reunited with her husband) all look essentially the same, despite minor stylistic differences.

Animation is a place where a set of very particular choices can create unique worlds, yet it seems like the Pixar look has overrun the industry. Is no one doing 2D animation any more?

Last year’s shorts featured both Kunio Kato’s gorgeous impressionistic (and non-computer-generated) “La Maison en Petits Cubes” and Konstantin Bronzit’s “Lavatory-Lovestory,” done in stark black-and-white line drawings.

This year’s 2D short was Nicolas Schmerkin’s gimmicky “Logorama,” which takes place in a world built out of and populated by advertising logos and characters. Mr. Peanut and the Bic Pen people mingle with yellow AOL silhouette-men; a psychotic Ronald McDonald features prominently. It’s got good gags, but it’s actually pretty lurid without being at all provocative.

Oh, and then there’s Nick Park’s “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” the latest Wallace and Gromit adventure that had me shrinking uncomfortably down in my theater chair from its explicit misogyny. The plot concerns a gaudy, over-plump formed bread model who steals Wallace’s heart but may very well be a serial killer rubbing out bakers all over the city. Gromit is adorable and lovely, but Wallace is such an insufferable dolt, and the gender politics of the film are so draconian that it was sort of unbearable to watch.

All in all, I can’t say I know which two of these will win their respective categories, but I’ve got a good sense of who shouldn’t win. It’s one of the big boons of Oscar season that The Loft hosts this program for us. If you missed the show this year, be sure to show up in 2011.

Sean Bottai is a Tucson-based novelist and journalist. He teaches at the University of Arizona.

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