Short subjects have all but disappeared from regular movie theaters, yet there remains a substantial audience for these concise and sometimes overwhelming films.
This year’s Oscar-nominated animated and live-action shorts — opening Friday in separate programs at the Tivoli Cinemas — are less about conventional storytelling than about establishing a mood that sticks with us after the lights come on.
This year’s offerings mostly ignore the funny and frivolous in favor of brooding, insightful tales. That’s especially true of the animated program, where laughs are in short supply while very real human emotions dominate.
But if there is little Bugs Bunny zaniness here, the display of serious themes and visual beauty is capable of moving us in unexpected ways.
Not rated | Total running time: 1:17
“Me and My Moulton” ☆☆☆1/2
(Canada; 14 minutes)
A grown woman recalls her childhood in Norway with two sisters and parents whose artsy eccentricities (for example, unstable three-legged dining room chairs) are a never-ending source of humiliation to their daughters.
The girls envy the utterly unremarkable family living below their apartment, especially the bicycles ridden by that family’s children. Mama and Papa finally agree to buy a bicycle, but not just any bike. It’s an English-made Moulton, a high-end contraption that guarantees the girls will never quite fit in.
Torill Kove’s film is filled with such specific detail you just know it’s based on fact, and the overall feel — childhood grievances viewed from the perspective of adulthood, seasoned with wry humor — makes it seem very real, despite deliberately crude animation that is just a few steps up from stick figures.
(U.S.; 6 minutes)
Disney does it again. Patrick Osborne’s “Feast” is the story of a dog’s life.
He begins as a dumpster-diving puppy (think a younger version of “Lady and the Tramp’s” Tramp), and is rescued by a young man (whom we see mostly from the knees down) who shares with the doggie the man’s favorite foods — pizza, popcorn, meatballs, waffles … whatever.
But when the man falls for a woman, the dog’s eating habits change. The delicious junk food is replaced by … Brussels sprouts?
Initially our doggy hero is thrilled when the lady friend stomps out and his master empties the fridge for a massive binge. But it doesn’t take the canny canine long to realize just how miserable his owner is. It’s up to him to get these humans back together.
Remember the celebrated photo album sequence early in Disney’s “Up”? This short does pretty much the same thing, condensing an entire life into potent, emotion-filled images. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reaching for a hankie.
“The Bigger Picture”
(U.K.; 7 minutes)
Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees’ film employs an unusual visual style — flat, hand-painted characters interacting with real 3-D environments — to tell a sobering yarn about parenthood, responsibility, and death.
Nick is a middle-aged man who serves as caregiver to his senile mother. While he gets the dirty job of spoon-feeding Mama and changing soiled bedclothes, his more outgoing brother Richard shows up only infrequently, preferring to concentrate on his gallivanting lifestyle.
Orchestrated to a twangy ’50s rock ’n’ roll guitar, “The Bigger Picture” paints (literally) a moving portrait of a situation most of us will inevitably experience. It could easily have been done as a live-action piece, but animation somehow allows the filmmakers to telescope the depicted events into a concise seven minutes.
“A Single Life” ☆☆☆
(The Netherlands; 2 minutes)
A whole life crammed into a two-minute movie? Well, yes, in a way.
In “A Single Life” a young woman receives in the mail a 45-rpm record called “A Single Life.” Once it’s on the turntable and playing, she realizes that it has the power to alter time.
If she puts the stylus down at the beginning of the record, she finds herself a little girl. At other stages she’s a young pregnant woman, a mother, or an old lady in a wheelchair.
Dutch filmmakers Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen offer a playful story (the computer animation mimics Claymation) with a “Twilight Zone” twist. Whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy is up to the individual viewer.
“The Dam Keeper” ☆☆☆
(U.S.; 18 minutes)
Upon the death of his father, a child (a pig, actually) inherits the family duty of maintaining a huge dam that protects a town from being inundated by … water? smoke? black clouds?
Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi’s film follows our young dam keeper as he attends school, where because he’s a “dirty” pig he is ridiculed by the other children (who are sheep, bunnies, alligators, etc.)
At long last he strikes up a friendship with a new girl, a fox, and together they find escape drawing pictures that make fun of the other kids.
“The Dam Keeper” is sad and filled with unhappiness. But it is elevated by some spectacular visual effects — it looks like pastel drawings come to life, and contains some sublimely beautiful passages marked with astonishing lighting effects.
In addition to the five Oscar nominees, the animation program offers some extras:
▪ “Sweet Cocoon” (France; 6 minutes): Too plump to fit into its cocoon, a caterpillar gets help from a cockroach and a weevil in its transformation to butterfly.
▪ “Footprints” (USA; 4 minutes): Animation auteur Bill Plympton — offbeat, satirical, surreal — delivers an environmentally themed comedy executed in ballpoint pen.
▪ “Duet” (USA; 4 minutes): Glen Keane’s film tells the how the individual paths in life of Mia and Tosh weave together to create an inspired duet.
▪ “Bus Story” (Canada;11 minutes): Writer/director Tali based this comic short on her misadventures as as a school bus driver in rural Canada.
Not rated | Total running time: 1:57
(Switzerland; 25 minutes)
Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani) is a young refugee living in a group home in Switzerland. Stymied in her attempts to wire money to her parents in Afghanistan (she lacks the proper government-approved ID), she asks for help from a teenage girl she encounters in the street.
With her deliberately torn hose, leather jacket and punky makeup, this Swiss miss (Cheryl Graf) is in full teen rebellion. At first she attempts to take advantage of the naive newcomer, then thinks the better of it and invites Parvaneh to spend the night at her family’s home. In the morning they’ll wire the money.
But first they have a party to go to. The sweet, clueless Parvaneh drinks from the spiked punch bowl and loses the money. The girls spring into action to recover the lost funds.
Despite a few tense moments, Talkhon Hamzavi’s film is sweet and hopeful in its depiction of the friendship growing between two radically different young women. And it has just the right dash of leavening irony to make all the disparate elements go down easier.
“Boogaloo and Graham” ☆☆☆
(U.K.; 14 minutes)
In the best tradition of Irish storytelling, “Boogaloo and Graham” (directed by Michael Lennox, written by Ronan Blaney) is a childhood anecdote told by a now-grown narrator.
Belfast, 1978. While armed British troops patrol the streets, two young brothers (Riley Hamilton, Aaron Lynch) are presented with a pair of chicks by their dad (Martin McGann), who’s been working on a farm.
The boys dote on their birds, which they name Boogaloo and Graham. Ma (Charlene McKenna) is none too thrilled — chickens aren’t house-trained and meal-planning is a pain. Thanks to their new pets the boys have declared themselves vegetarians, but they see no contradiction in their intention to someday become full-fledged chicken farmers.
The grownups declare that Boogaloo and Graham must go into the stewpot, but before the executions take place a miracle occurs … or is it?
Moving from whimsical to laugh-out-loud funny (with a brief, tense digression into sectarian warfare), this one plays like an old family yarn revived at every holiday reunion.
(Israel, France; 39 minutes)
The winner of the Israeli Oscar for short films, Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’ “Aya” reminds me of the chaste eroticism of the British classic “Brief Encounter.”
Aya (Sarah Adler) is in an Israeli airport awaiting an arrival. A limo driver asks her to hold a card with a passenger’s name — Mr. Overby — while he moves his car.
When Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen) deplanes he assumes that Aya is his driver … and she doesn’t tell him otherwise. The film takes place almost entirely in Aya’s car as she drives Overby to Jerusalem where he is to judge a classical piano competition.
Overby is Danish, which is to say emotionally reserved. (“I don’t want to get into personal things. I just want to be a passenger.”) But Aya has a desperate need to talk.
This is a tale of opposites attracting. Before their drive is over the Dane is playing a sonata on Aya by tapping her knuckles as if they were piano keys. Now that’s a novel approach to foreplay.
Why has Aya flung herself into this impromptu adventure? Not everything is clearly explained, but as these two begin to connect, the film drifts slowly from its initial uneasiness to establish an atmosphere of quiet aching.
“Butter Lamp” ☆☆☆
(France/China; 15 minutes)
“Butter Lamp” is a terrific idea that falls apart in the end.
Hu Wei and Julien Feret have given us a “gimmick” film in which everything is seen through the camera lens of a commercial photographer making portraits of local folk in rural China.
A series of backdrops (the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, Disneyland) are dropped into place while the subjects (an extended family of yert-dwelling nomads, an engaged couple, a kids’ soccer team, an ancient crone who has never before been photographed) assemble in front of the tripod-mounted camera.
Occasionally the young photographer (Genden Punstok) steps into the frame to arrange the subjects and hand out props and clothing accessories. Each vignette ends with a blackout as the picture is taken.
The setup and the characters provide a sly commentary on modernization and tradition, capitalism and communism in the new China.
But in the very last frame “Butter Lamp” drops the ball by employing a visual gimmick that comes off as patently fake. I wish I could say more … but that would betray the big reveal.
Think of this one as a missed opportunity.
“The Phone Call” ☆☆☆☆
(U.K.: 21 minutes)
“The Phone Call” finds Brit actress Sally Hawkins as Heather, a drab, clumsy, shy young woman who, oddly enough, works a crisis hotline.
Receiving a call from a weeping man, this mousy girl turns into a psychological dynamo. At first she’s there just as an accepting ear. But when she learns that Stan (the unseen Jim Broadbent) is a grieving widower who has swallowed a fatal overdose of anti-depressants, she springs into action.
“The Phone Call” is practically a procedural on how to deal with a suicidal caller. Heather uses various ploys to get the groggy Stan to give up his address so that an ambulance can be dispatched.
And when he won’t reveal his whereabouts, Heather’s approach shifts from rescue mode to fellow human being. What Stan needs in his last minutes is a friendly voice. The crisis hotline is now a hospice.
There are moments of such emotional intensity here I found myself gasping. If Hawkins had given this performance in a feature film, she’d be up for an Oscar (mostly writer/director Mat Kirkby points his camera at her face … and that’s all that’s needed).
Then, after 20 minutes of stark, gut-churning realism, “The Phone Call” delivers a bit of cinematic poetry that will break your heart.
Not rated | Time: 2:45 (includes one 5-minute intermission)
(Poland; 40 minutes)
Joanna Salyga is a young wife and mother with a solid marriage and a terrific relationship with her son Jan, 9, precocious and often terribly funny.
At first you may wonder what’s going on with Aneta Kopacz’s documentary. We get scenes of mother and child interacting, and while it’s all very pleasant, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
And then we realize that Joanna is dying. She has some sort of cancer and has been going through chemo — that explains her gaunt look and boyish haircut.
This film follows her in her final months.
Sounds almost too painful to contemplate, but Joanna is such an upbeat person — no self-pity from her — that she makes it easy on all of us.
She threatens to use her blog to advertise for a new wife for her husband, Piotr.
“I’m not afraid to die,” she says. “I’m afraid to leave you by yourselves.”
Most of us would just as soon not contemplate our mortality. “Joanna” is a good place to start.
(Poland; 27 minutes)
Filmmaker Tomasz Sliwinski and his wife, Magda, are a young Polish couple whose son, Leo, was born with Ondine’s curse (congenital central hypoventilation syndrome), a condition that will require him to be on a ventilator whenever he sleeps lest he stop breathing. For his entire life.
In an astonishing act of self-revelation, Sliwinski set up cameras around their Warsaw apartment to record Leo’s arrival home (after months of hospital care) and the difficult period of adjustment as the new parents learn to deal with the special needs of their son.
Folks, if this film doesn’t leave you sobbing it’s time to see a cardiologist to make sure your heart is still ticking.
“Our Curse” starts out like a horror story (Tomasz wonders if once he becomes self-aware Leo will turn suicidal; the respirator wheezes perpetually through their nights of interrupted sleep and beeping alarms; the couple’s first attempt to change the baby’s throat vent is traumatic) and ends on a grace note of love and acceptance that is, well, overwhelming.
It’s hard to watch, yes, but “Our Curse” leaves us feeling a whole lot more human.
“White Earth” ☆☆1/2
(U.S.; 20 minutes)
J. Christian Jensen’s student film is set in and around White Earth, N.D., a once-sleepy burg of 60 souls now bursting at the seams with a population of 500, thanks to the oil and gas boom.
It’s less conventional documentary than impressionistic survey.
Jensen employs as his main narrator a 13-year-old boy who’s none too thrilled with how his town has changed (“Why should we take away all the beauty of the landscape?”); he also takes us to a fourth-grade classroom where the kids talk of a “Grapes of Wrath” lifestyle, living in RVs and campers while their fathers work in the oil fields. Some longtime residents describe many of the newcomers as “scary” and say they rarely venture out for walks anymore.
Ultimately “White Earth” tells us that on one hand the oil boom provides desperately needed jobs, and that on the other had it’s dirty, dangerous, ugly work fueled by greed.
Well, duh. Less artsy stuff and more information, please.
“The Reaper (La Parka)” ☆☆☆1/2
(Mexico; 29 minutes)
A film of beautiful images of an ugly place, “The Reaper” is set mostly in the Mexican slaughterhouse where Efrain Jimenez Garcia has been killing cattle for a quarter century.
Filmmaker Gabriel Serra Arguello begins with isolated shots of steel corral doors clanging shut, of chugging cogs and conveyor belts, of knives being sharpened. There are bloody puddles, and sides of beef swaying on hooks.
Garcia provides the narration. He’s a simple guy who sometimes speaks in near poetry. He does the job because his seven kids couldn’t survive without the money it generates.
He tells us that being this close to death has made him doubt an afterlife: “Hell is what I go through every day.”
It’s not particularly interesting work. “Everyone can kill. It’s all about experience.”
“The Reaper” isn’t a vegan polemic. It simply observes with a painter’s eye. The rest is up to us.
“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1”☆☆☆1/2
(U.S.; 39 minutes)
Some heroes carry weapons and fight in battles. Other heroes clean up the mess after the last shot has been fired.
American veterans are taking their own lives at the rate of one per hour. Ellen Goosenberg Kent’s doc eavesdrops on a national crisis hotline where responders provide around-the-clock counseling for veterans at riskconsidering taking their own lives.
For reasons of confidentiality we only hear half the conversation. But it’s astonishingly easy to intuit what’s happening on the other end of the line.
“Do you have any weapons in your house besides yourself?”
“Can you talk to me about the images in the dark?”
“So the bodies are face down in the water. You can’t help the bodies. There are too many. You know, it doesn’t mean that you failed.”
Between nail-biting phone sessions, these astoundingly calm mental health workers describe their own emotions. Sometimes they talk about the sessions that didn’t have a positive outcome.
Surprisingly enough, “Crisis Hotline” is terrifically cinematic, even though it consists mostly of people talking somewhat dispassionately on the telephone. But then, few things are more dramatic than the thin line between life and death.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
The Oscar-nominated animated, live-action and documentary shorts open Friday at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport. Go to TivoliKC.com for ticket prices and showtimes.