Wednesday, February 1, 2017

THE ACADEMY AWARD 2017 ANIMATED SHORTS ARE THE STRONGEST IN YEARS

Scene from PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES. 
The Oscar nominations were announced last week, including the Shorts categories, which are always a treat. Shorter form films are just as legitimate as any feature length, though they don’t get nearly the promotion or playtime, but thanks to the concerted efforts of Academy Shorts (http://bit.ly/1ee8kns) and movie chains like Landmark, audiences nationwide have been privileged to view them on the big screen since 2012.

In many regards, telling a story more concisely is more challenging. Time constraints always are. The Academy rules state that any short must run onscreen no longer than 40 minutes (http://bit.ly/2kVzB5r) so that is what most filmmakers entering the competition for Live Action, Animated or Documentary Shorts are up against. And when it comes to the Animated category, it’s always impressive how most of the entries actually tell their tale in less than 10 minutes. In fact, four of this year’s five superb Academy Award Animated Short nominees manage to do it in eight minutes or less.

Scene from PIPER.
The one that is bound to be the most crowd-pleasing, and therefore the likely winner of the Oscar when they’re announced on February 26, is PIPER. Directed by Alan Barillaro, it’s just six minutes long, but in that brief time it deftly tells the tale of an adorable baby Piper who battles and conquers the ocean's tide. The baby’s mother tries to teach her little one how to find food, and there are some wonderfully sly turns from a couple of snails that the little bird encounters that will remind you of how much personality Pixar brought to that cockroach in WALL-E. In fact, writer/director Barillaro worked on that film for Pixar in the animation department, as well as MONSTERS, INC., FINDING NEMO, and THE INCREDIBLES. 

This is a Pixar entry and they or Disney have been nominated in this category every year for six years, with Pixar having won twice. They took the statue in 2013 for PAPERMAN, as well as in 2016 for FEAST. Both were marvelous short stories, heartfelt and whimsically witty. The same is true of this year’s nominee. At moments in its six-minute running time, PIPER may feel a bit precious, but Academy voters tend to vote for animated stories with cute animal characters. Still, even if Pixar seems to be gaining an edge with that which is adorable, they never let their entries become twee. There is always plenty of humor, and even sarcastic humor at that, evident in all their work. This short is no exception. You will find a welcome flavor of tartness throughout to balance how smoothly the sweet goes down.

Scene from BLIND VAYSHA.
Perhaps the closest competitor PIPER has is one that swings in the pendulum the farthest away from it. The short that does that is BLIND VAYSHA, the Canadian entry directed by Theodore Ushey. This eight-minute story tells of Vaysha, a young girl born with two different colored eyes. One is green and the other is brown. Her left eye, the green one, sees only the past, while her right brown eye can only see the future. Whenever she encounters someone, say a male suitor, she simultaneously sees the person as a child and as an old man. Her green eye envisions the past promise of his youthful potential, and her brown eyes only can see the hobbled old man he’ll become.

Based on short story by Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov, and given wonderful narration by Caroline Dhavernas, this short serves as a brilliant metaphor about time and how we should live in the present. Too often we long for the security of the past or ideally cling to the hope of a better tomorrow, yet all we really have is the moment. It's a message worthy of a daily reminder, and this short serves up that lesson in a sharp and pointed way. The roughly drawn images, all outlined with a thick, black line gives this short a wood-cut look. It's a style that gives it an air of something from long ago, almost a grimmer fairy tale, if your will. (A horror short of a Poe story would be a perfect fit for this macabre rendering style as well.) 

Indeed, poor Vaysha is in her own personal hell, unable to see the world as it truly exists. We are all her. This is a short packed with razor sharp commentary as well as a blunt artistry.

Scene from BORROWED TIME.
Another short that packs a powerful punch, one that could be argued is even political, is BORROWED TIME. Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-L’hadi, two Pixar veterans, branched out on their own here. Their direction is as deft as you'd expect from men with such experience, and indeed, one of the cleverest aspects of this short is how it plays off of their Pixar style. It has that distinct Pixar character design, but here that style accompanies a much, much darker story than is the studio's norm. 

The story of this taut, 7-minute short focuses on two time periods. In the first, a weathered sheriff returns to the remains of an accident he’s spent his entire life trying to forget. It haunts him so because of the tragedy that occurred there on this desolate cliff when he was a young boy. The incident there changed his life forever and it's woven throughout as flashbacks. His memory of what happened with his sheriff father on a runaway stagecoach is juxtaposed with his mourning that plagues him well into his old age. 

It’s a heartbreaking work, without one wasted second, beat or breath. For some, it may be a bit discombobulating to see Pixar-esque characters enacting something that is so utterly tragic, but look they should. It's a must-see short, powerful in its skill and political commentary about gun violence. It worked in BAMBI in 1942, and it works in 2017 with BORROWED TIME.

Scene from PEARL.
Sometimes an animated short conjures more of a feeling than a strict A to B narrative, and that is what is so great about the fourth nominee entitled PEARL. Patrick Osborn directed this six-minute American short and it is a visually poem really to the spirit of the roads of America. The inside of the home of a traveling musician is his hatchback, and from there, the story is told. The audience follows that journey as the musician takes his young daughter with him on his journey criss-crossing across the country in pursuit of his dreams. 

Seeing the two of them age in such a fluid and breezy manner, all from the many perspectives from inside the auto, stands as a significant achievement of narrative as well as technology. The perspective work, showcasing every angle from the interior of all the various levels inside the car, is a marvel. All the more so because Osborn ensures his camera is constantly in motion. Low angles, high angles, through the windows, through an open door – we see their lives in every way from inside this car, yet it’s never self-conscious. 

And as the girl grows and follows in her father’s footsteps into a music career, don’t be surprised if a tear or two sneaks up on you. This short is subtle yet very potent, rendered as seamless as it is beautiful, and as pure animation, it may be the most accomplished of this year’s crop.

There are three other shorts accompanying the program from the Academy’s shortlist, though these didn’t make the final five. They are THE HEAD VANISHES, ASTERIA and HAPPY END, and as always, any of these could easily have been in the finals for the Oscar too. 

The last short shown in the program, comes after all of these, and it’s placed there because of its adult content. (In case, anyone brought young children or is going to be put off by R-rated content, this one comes with a warning.) And even if this short isn't for every audience, PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES stands as the standout animated short of this year.

Scene from PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES.
It's a Canadian entry, directed by Robert Valley, that is based on his graphic novel. The short may be too long for most Academy members to sit through at 35 minutes long, but they are doing themselves a great disservice if they do not as each moment of this one is utterly enthralling. It is a dark and foreboding tale, true, but it's presentation is gorgeous from first second to last. 

The story concerns a gifted teen named Techno who grows up to be one turbulent and troubled adult. He may have been the coolest kid in his Vancouver high school, excelling in sports and girls and swagger, but now, he's struggling just to stay alive. Like many bad boys from high school, the kind guys want to be like and girls want to be with, their rebellious leanings don’t translate to the real world of rent and responsibility.

Still, its Techno’s charisma that draws his high school friend Robert to follow him throughout life. The inciting moment comes when Techno is holed up inside a Chinese hospital, awaiting a new kidney, and Robert decides to fly over to help take care of him. Techno is a handful, ignoring his doctor’s advice, guzzling booze and sneaking smokes whenever he can. He's turned yellow from Hepatitis C, but that doesn't stop him from living on the edge. His liver isn’t the only thing faltering though as his reputation suffers too in Robert's eyes. Still, he wants to help his buddy return to his former self and the back  and forth of such a task is where the majority of this story exists.

Scene from PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES.
Valley’s story is brutally honest and even profane at times, and shows a bit of nudity too, but this artist/author/director isn’t afraid to weave in some whimsey and even some esoteric metaphors as well. A stray black cat that Techno has taken a shine to keeps popping up in his hospital room despite Robert's best efforts to remove the potential infection risk. The black cat is metaphor enough, but the fact that he seems to have nine lives certainly parallels the many times Techno has flirted with death and gotten away with it. It's one of Valley's cleverest running gags here. 

And Valley’s storytelling artistry is utterly enthralling in every single frame. Each shot of his noir-esque Asian story is framed, lit, and composed with the utmost of care. Every single shot is practically a work of art, yet it doesn't have a showiness to it like TREE OF LIFE had. This story is told as a remembrance, so of course all the moments are crystallized in tableaus.  

Adding immensely to this production is the brooding, cynical narration and the varied soundtrack of 18 plus songs, everything from Metallica to moody jazz. It may be a morose tale about a troubled man’s decline, but every inch of this short seethes with artistry and energy. It's a singular and stunning work. 


The Academy shorts will open throughout the nation on Friday, February 10, so treat yourself to this brilliant showcase of shorts. The animated ones are easily the most impressive of any collection I've seen since writing this blog. And be sure to catch my take on the Live Action Shorts in the next few days here at The Establishing Shot.

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