Darkness, disaster, and a bit of humor

Posted: February 19, 2010

Darkness and disaster loom large in this year's selection of five Academy Award-nominated live-action shorts.

Maybe it's the glum mood across the land, and around the world, or just a reflection of the prevailing temperament in the Academy committee's screening room, but try this on for size: child slavery in India ("Kavi"), nuclear contamination in Russia ("The Door"), surreal desolation Down Under ("Miracle Fish"), dead bodies in a New York apartment ("The New Tenants"), and a bumbling magician sticking swords through his volunteers ("Instead of Abracadabra").

Nevertheless, there are glints of humor here, especially in "The New Tenants" and "Instead of Abracadabra," and some exceptionally good technical filmmaking, too.

The Oscars will be announced March 7 and among the not so funny entries is "Kavi," a short from USC Film School grad Gregg Helvey that follows a young Indian boy (Sagar Salunke) working for no wages in a brick factory. His parents, in debt to the proprietor, toil away too, while Kavi, laboring to fill a wheelbarrow, steals wishful glances at the school kids across the road, playing cricket in their uniforms. The hard-luck story certainly has echoes of Slumdog Millionaire, and Helvey, who won a student Academy Award for the short, is looking for backing to turn the project into a feature. An Oscar wouldn't hurt his chances.

In "The Door," from Irish filmmakers Juanita Wilson and James Flynn, a Russian family struggles with the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The 17-minute piece was filmed in Ukraine, with Russian dialogue, and boasts a poetic punch line of an ending.

"Miracle Fish," directed by Australia's Luke Doolan, centers on a boy (Karl Beattie, looking to be about the same age as "Kavi's" Salunke) who gets bullied at school and wishes everyone would disappear. And then it happens, and he's the only one left, wandering the empty halls, an empty world. It's a surreal, pip-squeak I Am Legend.

In "The New Tenants," from commercials director and Copenhagen-to-Brooklyn transplant Joachim Back, two men just moved into an apartment have to contend with raging neighbors, threatening intruders, and a drug dealer looking for a bag of cocaine. Vincent D'Onofrio is characteristically wild-eyed as one of the visitors, and indie regular Kevin Corrigan also appears. It's black comedy, slickly packaged - or just another typical tale of New York City real estate woe.

And for anyone who knows the goofily ironic pop poetry of Swedish songster Jens Lekman, "Instead of Abracadabra" is its cinematic equivalent. Swedish director Patrik Eklund sketches a whimsical portrait of a bumbling magician (Simon J. Berger) who is too old to still be living with his parents, but does - and who stabs himself in the eye with a trick flower and, worse yet, has serious difficulty staging the old running-the-swords-through-the-box-with-the-person-in-it trick. It's kind of a love story, and kind of sweet, even if Tomas, the magician, borders on the deranged.

Oscar Shorts

The nominees for the Oscars' live-action and animated short films are playing at the Ritz at the Bourse, 400 Ranstead St. Information: 215-925-7900.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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