Film Review: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2012: Live-Action

A time-travel satire is among the highlights of this program of Oscar-nominated live-action shorts.

Two outstanding live-action shorts in the Oscar competition this year are also very different films: Raju is about a German couple who adopt an Indian boy, and Time Freak is a riff on time-travel movies. The other three ply familiar territory, male coming-of-age and aging, and would have benefitted from the intervention of a skillful film editor. Two have notable performances, including veteran Ciarán Hinds (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and newcomer Conleth Hill (Whatever Works) in The Shore, and Ingrid Viken in a co-starring role in Tuba Atlantic.

Last year the Oscar in this category went to God of Love (Luke Matheny), an adolescent romantic fantasy, although in the last ten years the award has alternated between socially conscious dramas and comedies. In each case, charismatic characters dominate, as well as films that put a new slant on an established genre, such as 2009's The New Tenants (Joachim Back and Tivi Magnusson), a black comedy whose subtext is everybody’s fear of moving to a new home. Its winning edge was a wonderful performance by Vincent D’Onofrio. While Tuba Atlantic, another black comedy, would seem to fit the bill this year, Time Freak is far more accessible and will appeal to a wider audience.

Pentecost (Ireland)
Peter McDonald’s short is about an Irish teenager’s dream of becoming a footballer. The sport (soccer in the U.S.) is so much a part of everyday life in Ireland that the deacon at Damien’s (Scott Graham) church describes the boy’s altar boy duties in football terms. When the film opens, Damien is on suspension at church for hitting a priest with an incense burner, and grounded at home for embarrassing his father because of it. Then the parish learns that the bishop will be visiting, and Damien gets a reprieve; he’s still the best incense guy on the altar boy team. Dad responds by allowing Damien to watch football on TV, which seems to please the boy more than the parish’s call to duty. A good performance by the young lead overcomes Pentecost’s shortcomings, mostly a story that does not justify 11 minutes of screen time.

Raju (Germany/India)
Right from the rather jumpy start of this short, shot on location in Calcutta, director Max Zähle creates a sense of unease. It’s there in the handheld camera, as well as in the awkwardness of the German couple (Wotan Wilke Möhring and Julia Richter) who are in the city to collect Raju (Krish Gupta), an Indian boy, from an adoption agency. They obviously harbor doubts about the choice they have made, although the wife argues that they must move past them. Raju disappears on an outing, and the couple, desperate for help in finding him, reach out to the police and then, unknowingly at first, to an NGO who finds the parents of displaced children. Zähle’s short was his graduation project at film school, and he said in an interview at Sundance that it took him a year to research the project. His inexperience is evident in his direction of the actors whose performances are uneven, but his camerawork, his sense of timing and his competently written screenplay more than compensate, and make this 24-minute dramatic short a standout.

The Shore (Northern Ireland)
This short, set in Northern Ireland, is by two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter Terry George (In the Name of the Father, Hotel Rwanda). Since its story of reconciliation is set against past historical events, a favorite genre at the Academy, it might just pick up the Oscar in this category. A strong performance by Ciarán Hinds as Joe anchors an uneven cast—especially Kerry Condon (The Last Station) in a deadpan portrayal as Patricia, his daughter—and a screenplay that spends far too much time spinning a predictable story. When Joe immigrated to America during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, he left behind a friend and a lover. Now that he is home again, Patricia persuades her aging father to find them. George, a Belfast native, knows this geographical and emotional landscape well, but rather than a drama what he delivers is a 30-minute valentine.

Time Freak (USA)
Director Andrew Bowler and wife-producer Gigi Causey’s hilarious short, a satire on time travel, features a wonderful performance by Michael Nathanson as Stillman, an obsessive inventor. (Nathanson had a walk-on in Young Adult.) Stillman uses his time machine to go back to recent events in an effort to correct, for instance, a disastrous meeting with his ideal woman. Time Freak is the model of a well-written, well-edited live-action comedy short, 11 minutes spent with a character who finds himself in an untenable situation. Only in retrospect does it suggest broader themes, a hallmark of great comedy since the silent-film era. Reminiscent of early Woody Allen movies in its psychological overtones—that an obsessive personality is New York normal—Time Freak pokes fun at the fantasy that wrongs can be revisited and made right. Hollywood thrives on this myth, but in less time than it takes Stillman to rev up his time machine, Bowler cleverly dashes them.

Tuba Atlantic (Norway)
Inger (Viken), 70-year-old Oskar’s (Edvard Haegstad) “death angel,” is the real star of this clever dark comedy. Soon after Oskar finds he has six days to live, Inger arrives to smooth his passing. Oskar lives by the sea in Norway, and is not a likeable guy; he begins each morning by slaughtering seagulls with a machine gun. He is annoyed by Inger’s naivete, and she by his brutality, but soon Inger burrows under Oskar’s skin and convinces him that he can sound the giant tuba he and his estranged brother built as boys. The structure stands tall in Oskar’s yard. His brother lives across the Atlantic in New Jersey, and since his phone number has changed and Oskar does not have time to find him before he dies, his hopes hang on the sound of the tuba reaching across the ocean. This is Hallvar Witzø’s debut short, and while its subject matter is grim and its 25-minute length unwarranted, it benefits from an unusual setting and Viken’s performance.