By Joe Bendel. Last year, Luke Matheny won the best live action short Oscar for God of Love and delivered the best acceptance speech of the night. He had respectable competition for the former but practically none for the latter. This year’s field also looks relatively competitive, but viewers can judge for themselves when the Academy Award nominated live action shorts program opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

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If this year’s Oscar nominated short form animation has a Canadian flavor, the live action shorts have a slight Irish disposition, at least according to some definitions. As it happens, one of the best contenders hails from North Ireland. Regardless of identity issues, Terry George’s The Shore (trailer here) is probably the film to beat. It hardly hurts that George is a highly regarded filmmaker, already twice nominated in screenplay categories. The Shore also stars an actor viewers will recognize: Ciarán Hinds, currently seen in finer theaters as “Soldier” in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

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Yes, The Shore addresses the troubles, but not in a polarizing context. Twenty-five years ago, Jim Mahon’s grandfather was spooked by the escalating violence and trundled the young man off to the American relations. He has finally returned with his grown daughter to make peace with his former best friend and the woman he jilted. Although it is more of a drama than a comedy, Shore has a wry, knowing sensibility that should appeal to popular audiences. Rather than dwell on Belfast’s battle scars, George captures the picturesque landscape of Northern Ireland. One of the great actors of our day, Hinds is perfect as the conflicted Mahon and Kerry Condon is appealingly smart and down to earth as his daughter.

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Unfortunately, the proper Irish contender is not nearly as rich. An incompetent choir boy is offered a chance to redeem himself in Peter McDonald’s slight Pentecost. However, the big mass plays out as a childish rebellion fantasy at the expense of the mean old Catholic Church.

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Though also relatively short, Andrew Bowler’s genre comedy Time Freak (trailer here) is easily the most entertaining live action nominee. An obsessive scientist has developed a time machine, but his regular guy best friend is alarmed by the self-defeating ways he has been applying his breakthrough. A very funny film, Freak is similar in tone to some of the original Twilight Zone episodes that played it strictly for laughs.

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There are not a lot of laughs in Max Zähle’s Raju (trailer here). There are not a lot of surprises where this international adoption morality play is headed either, but it is executed quite well, especially for a student film. Shortly after Jan and Sarah Fischer adopt the title character, he disappears under mysterious circumstances. However, as the German would-be father searches for Raju, he learns troubling facts about Raju’s circumstances. Filmed on the streets of Kolkata (a.k.a. Calcutta), it conveys a sense of the city’s teeming poverty and sets up the protagonists’ ethical dilemma rather effectively.

Another international award winning student film, Hallvar Witzø’s Tuba Atlantic offers an Academy-friendly blend of quirk and heart-string pulling. Given exactly six days to live, grouchy old Oskar Svenning sets out to contact his estranged brother in America via the monster tuba they constructed on the shore. Although he stubbornly refuses help, a young Evangelical Christian insists on acting as his “angel of death.” While innocent Inger might sound like a hopeless caricature, Ingrid Viken plays her with a fair degree of innocent charm. Granted, it is unabashedly sentimental, but the unrestrained war Svenning wages against the pesky seagulls is frequently quite amusing.

Either Time Freak or The Shore would be deserving Oscar winners. Both are thoroughly engaging and satisfying films. If not at the same level of accomplishment, Raju and Tuba are certainly perfectly respectable, falling somewhere on the spectrum between good and nice. Altogether, the 2012 live action Oscar nominees are a strong group, mostly recommended as films in their own right as well as for their Academy Award interest. They open this Friday (2/10) in New York at the IFC Center as part of the annual showcase of nominated short films.

Posted on February 9th, 2012 at 10:55am.

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By Joe Bendel. The Oscar field for best animated short film has a distinctly Canadian flavor this year. After Cordell Barker’s delightful short-listed Runaway fell short of a nomination in 2010, the National Film Board of Canada returned to Academy Award contention this year, netting two nominations for their short animated productions, bringing their grand total nominations to seventy-two in seventy-three years of operation. Both screen as part of the annual showcase of Academy Award nominated shorts, which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

While nature plays a role in Amanda Forbis & Wendy Tilby’s Wild Life, as well as Patrick Doyon’s Diamanche (Sunday), they also share a weird, off-kilter sensibility. One of the strongest nominees, Wild Life is ostensibly a fish out of water tale about one of the many British ne’er do well gentleman who came to Western Canada to seek their fortunes as ranchers. Most of them made poor cowboys and Wild’s protagonist is no exception. While the culture clash themes are cleverly addressed, there is a subtle undercurrent of David Lynchian menace that really distinguishes the film.

Shifting regions, Quebecois Patrick Doyon tells a relatively simply tale of a young boy, once again enduring his family’s Sunday rituals in Dimanche (trailer here). However, it takes a trippy detour involving a bear. It is strange and somewhat sad, just like childhood.

Perhaps the strongest nominee, coincidentally considered the frontrunner, also has a very strong sense of place, but in this case it is Louisiana. Produced entirely within the state, William Joyce & Brandon Oldenburg’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore begins in New Orleans with a scene clearly inspired by the recent hurricanes that have wracked the state. Like many New Orleanians, Morris Lessmore takes refuge, finding a new home in a literal world of books. Employing inventive fairy tale imagery, Flying is a sophisticated paean to literature, offering the greatest depth of the animated program.

In contrast, Grant Orchard’s A Morning Stroll (trailer here) is essentially a bit of hipster playfulness, but it is rather funny, depicting the changes wrought on New York City when a chicken takes his titular promenade in 1959, 2009, and 2059. While pleasant, Enrico Casarosa’s La Luna, from Pixar, is a rather standard fable about a young’s boy’s discovery of the family’s fantastical business. Indeed, this just does not seem to be the animation studio’s best year.

Ranging from nice enough to very good, the nominated animated shorts are a solid slate overall, with Flying Books and Wild Life ranking as standouts. In the past, the animated program has been supplemented with several films that made the shortlist, but did not ultimately get one of the five nods. Strangely though, this year instead of shortlisted films, several environmentally themed shorts will play along with the nominees. Frankly, unless the relevant rights were impossible to secure, this dilutes the “Oscar-ness” of the program and diminishes the value of the shortlist status. It also means a visually striking (and viscerally anti-war) film like Damian Nenow’s Paths of Hate was passed over in favor of the clumsily didactic Skylight.

Regardless, films like Flying Books, Wild Life, and Morning Stroll are definitely well worth seeing, especially on a relatively big screen. Recommended for at least four of the real Oscar contenders, the 2012 Academy Award Nominated Short Films open this Friday (2/10) in New York at the IFC Center.

Posted on February 9th, 2012 at 10:51am.

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Feb 092012

By David Ross. Devotees of Kerouac will remember his little homage to blind Anglo-American jazz great George Shearing in On the Road:

“Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer’s-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played […...]. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to ‘Go!’. Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. ‘There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!’ […...] When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. ‘God’s empty chair,’ he said.”

The above clip, a torrid version of “Lullaby of Birdland,” makes the theological point. Here’s another, very different version of “Lullaby of Birdland,” at once silky and propulsive, with Peggy Lee gamely gliding through Shearing’s harmonic obstacle course.

For more impossible pianism, see Oscar Peterson here.

Posted on Feburary 9th, 2012 at 10:43am.

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