Movie Reviews

A fine field of Oscar-nominated shorts | 3½ stars

Updated: 2014-01-30T02:26:19Z

By STEVEN REA

The Philadelphia Inquirer

(The Oscar-nominated short films will be presented in two separate showings at the Tivoli Cinemas: animated and live-action. The documentary short films are scheduled to open there Feb. 7.)

Animated shorts

In “Possessions,” one of five very fine entries for the animated short Academy Award, the ghost spirit of a broken old umbrella springs to life, causing a night of splendid havoc for a weary Japanese traveler. A gorgeously realized homage to the concept of “Tsukumogami” — that after 100 years, tools and instruments attain souls and self-awareness — Shuhei Morita’s toon works as a metaphor for the process of animation itself: Whether the artist is using pencil and paper, or spacewarp software, the inanimate is transformed into something alive and vital. Imagination takes flight.

Flight is the idea behind “Room on the Broom.” Adapted from Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s children’s book, this British-German featurette, narrated in whimsical rhyme by Simon Pegg, is about a witch, her cat and her broomstick — which acquires a new passenger after each of a number of mishaps. By the end, the soaring sorceress is joined by a veritable Airbus-load of companions — a dog, a frog, a bird — all of them pursued by a lumbering, fire-breathing dragon.

The CG animation has a bright, picture-book quality, and the voice talent reads like the cast of a promising parallel-universe film: In addition to Pegg, there are this year’s supporting-actress nominee Sally Hawkins, plus Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon and Timothy Spall.

Also adapted from, or inspired by, an outside source, “Mr. Hublot” is a steampunk fantasy that brings Belgian artist Stephane Halleux’s mechanical sculptures into a sublime 3-D animation realm. The titular star of Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares’ 12-minute gem is an accountant whose orderly world is upended by a stray, doglike robot.

The characters are stitched and soldered from gears and dials, clockwork mechanisms, metal and leather, and the cityscape has a retro-futuristic Industrial Revolution charm.

“Feral,” from the Rhode Island School of Design’s Daniel Sousa, reimagines the “wild child” story of Francois Truffaut’s 1970 film, making it something more primal and fierce. The pencil animation casts a noirish sheen over this wordless tableau, in which a boy, living among wolves in the woods, is discovered by a hunter and brought to the city to live. The customs and crowds do not sit well with this edgy urchin.

Linking past with present, tradition with new tech, and starring that iconic squeaky-voiced rodent Mickey Mouse, the Disney short “Get a Horse!” takes the conceit of Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo” — that characters from films can step off the screen into the theater and vice versa — and has a slam-bang romp doing so.

Joining Mickey in the fourth-wall fray, which toggles from ink-and-paint black-and-white to vivid CG hues, are assorted vintage Disney figures: Minnie Mouse, Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar and Peg-Leg Pete as the road-hogging lug trying to get Minnie in his greasy mitts.

“Get a Horse!” is the short in front of Disney’s megahit “Frozen,” so it is far and away the most seen of these five Oscar contenders. Whether it’s the most deserving is another matter.

See them all and decide. You won’t be sorry.

Live-action shorts

Two great reasons to see these live-action shorts: one dark and funny and wickedly existential, the other a nail-biter of a domestic drama, filled with dread.

The former stars Martin Freeman, alias Bilbo Baggins, alias Dr. John Watson (opposite that Caldecott Bumbershoot fellow in PBS’ “Sherlock”). In the British short “The Voorman Problem,” Freeman plays a psychologist dispatched to interview a prisoner who claims he is God. The warden needs certification to put him away. Problem? His fellow inmates have come to believe that the straitjacketed Voorman (Tom Hollander) is indeed who he claims to be.

The other exceptional entry hails from France. “Just Before Losing Everything,” from actor-turned-director Xavier Legrand, offers an impossibly suspenseful 30 minutes of uncertainty and menace, as a woman (Léa Drucker) plots to flee her violent, abusive spouse, taking her young son (Miljan Chatelain) and teenage daughter (Mathilde Auneveux) along.

The day begins in typical fashion, with the kids heading to school and the wife to her job at a large chain store; it ends in anything but typical ways. Taking a cue from Michael Haneke, Legrand closes with an ambiguous final shot. Pay close attention to the cars in the traffic circle, and think about where this story may continue to go.

“Helium,” from Denmark, is an accomplished but sentimental story of a boy with a terminal illness and a newly hired hospital worker who comforts the dying child with stories of an afterlife, based on the boy’s obsession with blimps and balloons. Cut to scenes of floating islands and crystal particles that light up at night.

From Finland, Selma Vilhunen’s one-joke (but extremely satisfying joke) “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” follows a husband and wife as they wake up late for a wedding, running through a series of comic mishaps as they try to make it to the church on time, pip-squeaks in tow. Never mind the dysfunctional family, this one is discombobulated. Hugely so.

Spanish director Esteban Crespo bites off more than he can chew in “That Wasn’t Me,” a grim, gratuitous story about three European social workers caught up in an African conflict, where kids with automatic weapons are being trained to fight, and kill, by a charismatic, sociopathic revolutionary.

The sense of fear and finality experienced by the Spanish couple (Gustavo Salmerón, Alejandra Lorente) and their friend feels real enough, but the story’s past/present narrative device and redemptive climax do not.

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