Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: 2012 Oscar Shorts Round-Up

Flying books, last year's devastating Japanese tsunami, and an actress who famously kissed Elvis only to soon after become a nun figure into the unusual mix of subjects that constitute this year's Oscar-nominated short films. Thanks to Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International, moviegoers in Los Angeles, Orange County and New York at least have the opportunity starting today to view them prior to the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26th. Some are also available online.

Whereas each year's Live Action Short and Animated Short nominees have been released theatrically for several years now, this is only the second year that the candidates for Best Documentary Short have been made available. Alas, two of the latter -- God is the Bigger Elvis and Saving Face -- weren't available online beforehand for review. I am most interested in God is the Bigger Elvis, which recounts the vocational journey of Dolores Hart. Hart co-starred with Elvis Presley in 1957's Loving You and the following year's King Creole, and she made several other movies with such leading men as Montgomery Clift, Robert Wagner and George Hamilton. She left Hollywood, however, in 1963 in order to become a Roman Catholic nun. Today, Hart is better known as Reverend Mother and Prioress of her abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Interestingly, she remains a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and is therefore the only nun who gets to vote for each year's Oscar winners.

The standout for me among the 2012 nominees for Best Documentary Short and, I believe, the likely Oscar winner is The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. Directed by Lucy Walker, it opens with devastating, first-hand video footage of the tidal disaster that swept coastal Japan on March 11, 2011 and killed an estimated 23,000 people. As one family took refuge on a nearby hillside, they recorded houses, school buses and neighbors being washed away. Subsequent accounts by survivors and rescue workers reveal their still-fresh grief, less than a year later. As one man tearfully states, "I lost everything that I lived for," including the best friend he watched die.

But the film also shows the re-growth that has already begun even as bodies are still being recovered. Intriguingly, the local cherry trees (many of them well over 100 years old) weren't destroyed and bloomed as usual soon after the tsunami. The trees and their beautiful blossoms, gorgeously photographed here by Aaron Phillips, serve as a potent metaphor for the impacted communities' recovery. Also featuring a Phillip Glass-ish score by alt rocker Moby, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom is undeniably moving and impossible to forget.

Among the nominees for Best Live Action Short is Pentecost. I couldn't avoid checking it out, drawn as I was by both its religious-themed title and plot. It is a very funny tale from Ireland of potential redemption from a Catholic perspective, as a young boy wrestles with his love of soccer and his responsibilities as an altar server. When the local archbishop comes to town for the titular holy day, preparations for Mass are likened to an athletic competition. Catholic liturgists will especially enjoy this one.

Due to a sometimes-weak Internet connection, I was unfortunately unable to watch the remainder of the Live Action Short contenders by deadline. On the plus side, though, I did view all five of this year's nominees in the Best Animated Short category. Disney/Pixar scored their now-seemingly obligatory nomination for the charming La Luna, although the studios' 2011 feature Cars 2 was notably excluded as a Best Animated Feature candidate. La Luna (which will screen with this summer's Pixar release Brave) spins a dialogue-free fantasy in which a boy's father and grandfather teach him the tricks of their unusual trade. As usual with Disney/Pixar, it is beautifully animated.

A Morning Stroll is an enjoyable, stylized romp that spans 100 years and involves zombies (both a phone app version and the real deal) as well as a wily chicken. In the process, the film transitions from black & white to color as well as from hand-drawn to CG. Canada's Dimanche (Sunday), meanwhile, is hand-drawn in a fairly simple style as it follows a child's weekend drive with his parents to church and then to his grandparents' house. Before returning home, he receives an unexpected lesson in the value of life.

This year's Oscar winner will most likely be either Wild Life (also from Canada) or The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (which, the filmmakers proudly proclaim, was made entirely in the great state of Louisiana). The former, subtitled "A Western," follows an Englishman with dreams of becoming a rancher to Alberta, 1909. This bittersweet saga by the talented Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby features lovely watercolor work in addition to frequent usage of Gilbert & Sullivan's classic tune, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General."

The CG exercise in surrealism that is The Fantastic Flying Books... plays like something Salvador Dali and Ray Bradbury might have dreamed up. A withdrawn young man finds himself whisked away in a storm to a magical land populated by, yes, airborne works of literature. There, he finds himself tutored in the ways of life and love by Humpty Dumpty (who, curiously, also has a major role in the Best Animated Feature nominee, Puss in Boots). Touching and nicely scored by John Hunter, the short might just fly away with an Academy Award before all is said and done.

Reverend's Rating: A-

Los Angeles Release Date: February 10, 2012 Animation and Live Action at Landmark’s The Nuart Theatre, West LA and Regency Theatres’ South Coast Plaza, Santa Ana.

Los Angeles Release Date: February 17, 2012 Documentary Shorts at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3.

New York Release Date: February 10, 2012 Animation, Live Action and Documentary.

Note: Separate admission required for each program.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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