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Mitchell Block Direct: Academy Nominated Live Action Shorts Reviewed

Mitchell Block Direct: Academy Nominated Live Action Shorts Reviewed

Vol. 1 Issue 9

This is a year where all of the live action short films are very good but none are great. It is ok not to be great. That’s a high bar.  The films are all very well made and include three American directors, one from an American film school (USC), one with an actor directing himself and lots of stuff we’ve seen before.  Two of the films deal with refugees in the third world, Somali and Afghanistan, one deals with old age dementia, one with death and unrequited love and one with a troubled (suicidal) young man.  The plots, except in one case, are predictable. All of the films should briefly get their filmmakers attention from agents and managers always hot for young or at least undiscovered talent.  The Academy has done its job and with more entries than ever, it wasn’t easy.  Some fine films didn’t make it.

The most imaginative work is Death of a Shadow. It is set in a place where a man is working to earn back his life by taking pictures of death. It is stunningly produced and well cast with Matthias Schoenaarts, one of the hotter Euro actors of the moment.  The two films set in the Third World deal with young people who have nothing or almost nothing in terms of worldly goods. Both are in apprenticeships and both are in careers they will become dead ends.  In Buzhashi Boys the young character is training to be a blacksmith as his country is about to enter the 21st Century and in Asad, the young man is being trained as a fisherman in a country that will likely stay in the 19th Century for some time but once peace comes, will also likely be unemployed.  While this is clearly coincidental, both films present pretty bleak pictures of the future.   

The self-directed performance in Curfew is really well done. The filmmaker successfully casts himself opposite a young actress who does steal the show, but he gets the last laugh. He is really good. Henry, while predictable, is stunning. It deals with memories and should appeal to many Academy members as the film shifts its scenes like cards being shuffled.  Like all of the films Henry is also beautifully produced.

This is the first year where ALL Academy members will be able to vote on the short films. All members received DVD screeners of the films. My only complaint with the Academy DVDs is that the films look very video, at least on my monitor, while the DCP versions looked far more cinematic at the Academy screenings.  Prior to this year, since the early 1970s, voters were required to see the films projected at special Academy screenings.  The rules were changed in the 1970s to require members to screen the films before voting since advertising seemed to influence the outcome in this category over members seeing the films.  None of the live action films have serious PR money behind them so the playing field should be even. (In Animation studios are behind a number of the films.) So may the best film win. 

Asad, Bryan Buckley, director, and Mino Jarjoura, producer 

Asad is set in a war-torn fishing village in Somalia, an all-Somali refugee cast stars in this coming-of-age fable of a Somali boy who is faced with falling into the pirate life, or rising above to choose the path of an honest fishing man. Directed by Bryan Buckley, who has been working as a television commercial director most of his career, this short film should help establish him in the theatrical feature world.  Later this year, Buckley will direct his first feature film, the comedy Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus for Lionsgate Summit, starring Reese Witherspoon, adapted from Dr. John Gray’s classic guide to relationships.

Asad is well done. It is slick, solidly produced and directed. The production is feature-film like, big, well cast and nicely shot. The large cast, lots of background and many locations give this work a nice patina. The actors are non-professionals and they give solid performances. The film is moving, at times terrifying. This is a thoughtful work that gets to our hearts.  

Length: 17 min.
Language:Somali with English subtitles.

Buzkashi Boys, Sam French, director, and Ariel Nasr, producer Fawad Mohammadi with director Sam French

Buzhashi Boys is set against contemporary Afghanistan and is about two best friends, a charismatic street child and a blacksmith’s son, who are struggling to realize their dreams in one of the most war-torn countries on Earth. Shot on location in Kabul by an alliance of Afghan and international filmmakers, Buzkashi Boys was produced through the Afghan Film Project, a non-profit foundation formed to tell Afghan stories while building the capacity of Afghanistan’s fledgling film industry.

The film has the slick look of a commercial, which is not a surprise since the filmmaker is a top commercial director. The camera glides, the shots are well lit and the film fits together like a Rubric cube.  Buzhashi Boys is fine start for someone who is a recent USC Cinema school graduate and has not been making films for lon. The film has solid production values including a massive game of Buzkashi or “dragging the goat,” in Farsi, which involves carrying a goat’s carcass in a polo like game which makes bull fighting look animal friendly. The film was written by Martin Roe who also went to USC.

Length: 30 min.
Language: Pashto
Country: Afghanistan, USA Production

Curfew, Shawn Christensen, director, writer and producer

A suicidal New Yorker, Richie’s attempt to end his life is interrupted by a call from his estranged sister asking him to babysit his niece for the evening.

Curfew starts with a bang and is both inventive and smart. Shawn Christensen’s directing debut is the film to beat. Curfew is about Richie, a young man who gets a phone call from his estranged sister, asking him to look after his niece for a few hours. The phone call comes moments before he is about to kill himself.  His sister is no less a treat to deal with. Estranged from her husband it is clear that her life is also on the rocks. 

The film has New York energy. It is sharp and original with a taut narrative arc that grabs us and continues for its entire length, from scenes in a rock and roll bowling alley to a visit to his former home where we think he is going to score some dope but he ends up with some flip books.   

The film has a non-predictable ending which in this group of films is rare. It is really well done and the production is not out of control.  The young girl actress is stellar.  Just enough attitude so we want Richie to abandon her but enough cuteness for us to want him to keep her safe. This is a year where calling the winner is pointless in print, even if you have a one in five chance of being right it is a race that could go any number of ways.

Length: 20 min.
Language: English

Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw),Tom Van Avermaet, director, and Ellen De Waele, producer

This highly produced sci-fi fantasy work is about a dead WWI soldier stuck in the limbo between life and death who has to collect shadows to regain a second chance at life.

Death of a Shadow, a Belgian-French co-production starring Franco-cinema’s star Matthias Schoenaarts, falls into that uncomfortable (for me) Twilight Zone-type film category. In a Twilight Zone-type film characters can walk on water, not follow narrative rules and have a surprise ending that is unpredictable because we’re not on this earth but in a parallel universe.  I am not a fan of this style narrative because there are no rules. It is designed to surprise us and after several decades of watching them I have given up. While I don’t mind surprises I am troubled by characters that don’t live in our world.  Perhaps I am jealous, because I require the characters in my films to be real?

This fantasy film is about a soldier whose job it is to capture the moment of death on a camera that registers shadows. The images are stored in a collection by the odd photography patron who may or may not be the devil. But who knows?  Anything goes, and it does.  Our character falls in love a woman called Sarah as he is about to be shot in what appears to a scene from a World War One film. My response on first viewing was to turn it off. I have since had the opportunity to see it a few times and, while I have not warmed up to it, I admit that it looks great. It has some solid special effects, nice production values and feels like a mash up of Martin Scorsese’s last film Hugo (in terms of the effects) and any number of other mechanical effect movies

Length: 20 min.
Language: German               
: Belgium

Henry, Yan England, director Gérard Poirier as Henry Marie Tifo as Nathalie

The Canadian French-language short Henry captures the confusion and terror of Alzheimer’s disease by looking at the 84-year-old character (Henry’s) struggle as his world moves between memories.  Played with authenticity by Gérard Poirier, this is a deeply moving work that shows the effects of Alzheimer’s when it is evident that Henry does not recognize his wife, played effectively by Marie Tifo.

In some ways it feels like the best picture nominee Amour.  The production, like all of the films in this category, is stunningly mounted. Yan England does a fine job directing this work and, if Academy voters behave as they sometimes do with this kind of material, England might go home with the Oscar. 

Length: 21 min.
Language: English
Country: Canadian
Credits: Editing by Jessica Just for SydneysBuzz

Mitchell Block specializes in conceiving, producing, marketing & distributing independent features & consulting. He is an expert in placing both completed works into distribution & working with producers to make projects fundable. He conducts regular workshops in film producing in Los Angeles and most recently in Maine, Russia and in Myanmar (Burma).

Poster Girl, produced by Block was nominated for a Documentary Academy Award and selected by the IDA as the Best Doc Short 2011. It was also nominated for two Emmy Awards and aired on HBO. He is an executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Carrier, a 10-hour series that he conceived & co-created. Block is a graduate of Tisch School and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. He is a member of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Television Academy, a founding member of BAFTA-LA and has been teaching at USC School of Cinematic Arts since 1979. Currently Block teaches a required class in the USC Peter Stark Producing Program.

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