2012 Oscar live action shorts find the familiar all across the globe

curfew

“2012 Oscar Shorts — Live Action” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:47.

This year’s crop of five live-action short films take us from a retirement home in Quebec to a beach in Somalia, from a junkyard in Afghanistan to a bowling alley in New York.

Where several of the films struggle, however, is in finding something interesting or new to say once they get there. While the animated short nominees this year are uniformly strong, the live-action shorts this year play it awfully safe. In particular, in having seen a few years’ worth of these films, I’m getting awfully tired of films set in Third World countries — often made by Western filmmakers — that tell some sort of fable or parable, rather than an honest depiction of how life is lived there. It’s like the films want credit for bringing attention to this troubled regions, but want to tell a tidy, uplifting story that won’t turn off Western audiences.

For example, “Asad” has noble intentions, with a cast entirely made up of Somali refugees, telling the tale of a young boy, Asad, who daydreams about joining the pirates raiding luxury yachts off the coast, and is loathe to settle for the simple, unglamorous life of a fisherman. The boy who plays Asad is very affecting, but the story is weak, and the twist ending involving Asad’s mysterious “catch” from visiting a boat raided by pirates is just weird, and in rather poor taste.

Much better is “Buzkashi Boys,” a gritty and cinematic look at two boys living in Kabul, Afghanistan. One boy is shy, quietly chafing at the prospect of becoming a blacksmith like his father, while his brash friend daydreams of playing buzkashi, a brutal sport that’s sort of like polo, but with a dead goat as the ball. The film has a striking, even terrifying beauty as it uses the bombed-out locations of Kabul, in particular a junkyard full of buses, stacked high on top of each other, that seems like something out of a nightmare.

Standing out from the pack is the Belgian steampunk thriller “Death of a Shadow,” in which a time-traveling photographer (Matthieu Schoenarts of “Rust and Bone”) is dispatched with a special camera that can capture a person’s shadow at the moment of their death. He brings these shadows back to a creepy collector, who sticks the shadows to the canvas like a lepidopterist pinning butterflies. It’s an idea rich with haunting possibilities, and unfortunately the film seems to rush ahead rather than pausing to explore them a little more.

The French-Canadian “Henry” is a rather wan attempt at trying to get inside the mind of a patient with dementia, using cheap cinematic tricks in the vein of a paranoid thriller to try to make us guess what’s real and what isn’t. Movies like “Away With Her” and “Amour” have explored the same territory with more feeling.

Finally, Shawn Christensen wrote, directed, edited and stars in “Curfew,” playing a suicidal artist whose humanity is awakened after he babysits his niece for a night. Christensen is a talent behind the camera, and the film is full of lyrical touches, like a surreal dance number at a bowling alley. But the screenplay is a thinly-conceived redemption story, with cookie-cutter characters, and the film ends up not earning the emotional uplift it’s stretching for.

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