Academy Award–Nominated Shorts

Also: Dear Frankie, Downfall, Nobody Knows, and Up and Down.

Academy Award–Nominated Shorts

Runs Fri., March 11–Thurs., March 17, at Northwest Film Forum

Two films about broken people and one about the power of a people united highlight this splendid mini-festival, which is divided into documentary, live-action, and animation programs. In addition to the three Oscar winners below, there are 10 more titles from a half-dozen countries.

Ryan profiles real-life artist Ryan Larkin, a Canadian animation pioneer of the '70s who fell into alcoholism and poverty. Animator Chris Landreth depicts Larkin as a literal shell of a man. He also makes himself a character who gently tries to pull the old man out of his grizzled nostalgia and back into filmmaking. In Ryan's surreal universe, everyone's psychic wounds are visible. Larkin's arms are nothing but spindly bundles of bones, his head a few hovering shards of scalp. Though he can't offer salvation, Landreth has rescued his idol, at least, from the mass grave of passé pop culture.

Andrea Arnold's live-action stunner, Wasp, takes an even bleaker view of the has-been life. Zoe (Nathalie Press), a British single mother in her early 20s, runs into a high-school crush and claims to be childless. They make a date. That evening, Zoe tarts herself up in a miniskirt and tank top, then leaves her four children in the local pub's parking lot. As the night wears on, her patience with the kids wears ominously thin. Yet Arnold doesn't demonize her; thanks to an excellent performance by Press, Zoe emerges as a brittle, desperate woman simply seeking escape. And when it's done making you squirm in your seat, Wasp tosses you a shred of hope—just enough to make the whole ordeal worthwhile.

The documentary Mighty Times: The Children's March movingly describes how over 4,000 black kids took to the streets in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 to protest segregation, helping lead to the Civil Rights Act. Though it sometimes resembles a classroom video, the film wisely lets the now grown-up marchers tell the lion's share of the story. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER

Dear Frankie

Opens Fri., March 11, at Uptown

Though set in present-day Glasgow, this small, not quite oversweetened Scottish drama takes place in a world where 9-year-old boys haven't discovered Nintendo, where cell phones don't exist, and where a strong, silent man shows up exactly when you need him. The gaping need for the Morrison family—two generations of women and one deaf, lonely boy—is for a father, but on a purely rental basis. Single parent Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) has perpetuated a letter-writing ruse between her son, Frankie (Jack McElhone), and long-absent husband, Davey, whom she represents to be a seaman never in port. Frankie's one of those precociously grave, self-contained sorts who shouldn't be fooled by the suspicious airmail envelopes, postmarks, and handwriting. In fact, he'd probably love the Internet, if only it had been invented. But, again, Dear Frankie adheres to certain conventions—like the antiquated look of dingy old Glasgow itself—that disappeared from the cinema about a half-century ago.

Still, the film stays within its bounds—predictably and effectively sentimental, without mopping the floor with tears. Neither Lizzie nor her mother is graced with a benevolent maternal halo. They're more like a nervous pair of fugitives, with Frankie as their loot. Frankie's wise little smile makes him seem the con artist in short pants; threatened with teasing at his new school, he immediately co-opts the lead tormenter with friendship. It's his ears, not his brain, that are defective.

When it appears that fictitious Davey's fictitious ship is due to dock on the Clyde, Lizzie goes out on a manhunt to rent a dad for the day. She wants someone with "no past, present, or future," which yields a stranger (Gerard Butler) willing to play the part. Though we never learn his name, you could practically call him Shane, since that's the effect he has on the Morrisons. Frankie is thrilled by his fake pa; Lizzie finds herself drawn to the surrogate; and even this mysterious imposter shows signs of genuine family feeling.

"Let him have this one day," Lizzie pleads for her son. Yet some may feel that Frankie is demanding a little more of our time than the situation warrants. We'd like to believe in the power of stamp collections, sea horses, and skipping stones on the beach. Father and son bonding over ice cream is well and fine, but our Nintendos and cell phones are waiting. Perhaps for that reason, the movie's main satisfaction comes when Frankie finally starts living in the present. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

Downfall

Opens Fri., March 11, at Guild 45 and others

Art Spiegelman's Holocaust epic, Maus, is subtitled "My Father Bleeds History." So does the screen presence of Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. In The American Friend and Wings of Desire, his sad angel's face seems freighted with ages of European sorrow. In the German Oscar nominee Downfall, playing Hitler hunkered in his bunker with the Russian army mere blocks away, Ganz skillfully captures his madness, raging at imagined betrayals and fantasizing about victory. But his distinctive contribution is Hitler's sadder, softer side. He dotes on his dog Blondi, his dirndled girlfriend, Eva (Juliane Köhler), his button-cute secretary, Traudl (Alexandra Maria Lara), and the 13-year-old soldiers he pins medals on. He compliments his cook on a fine last meal just before his cyanide-and- pistol suicide.

Germany has won praise for at last facing this aspect of its ghastly past with the film, which depicts SS death squads hanging innocent "deserters" in Berlin's moonscape ruins, Frau Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) murdering her children, Hitler condemning every last loser German to a social Darwinist death, raving, "Compassion is a primal sin!" Yet despite its firm rooting in Joachim Fest's Inside Hitler's Bunker and Traudl Junge's Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, it has a subtle moral blind spot. Downfall's downfall is its implicit compassion for the Nazis trapped in Hitler's sinking ship of state. Only a few isolated, robotic crazies (chiefly the skull-faced Ulrich Matthes as Goebbels) share Hitler's fanaticism. Most try to talk sense to him, or give up, get drunk, and join Eva's orgiastic dance party while bombs shake the Earth like giants dancing overhead.

The most conspicuous characters are heroes: a blamelessly misled boy soldier and his pacifist dad; generals doing their duty and protecting citizens; an SS doctor with wounded eyes who defies Hitler to tend the wounded; and the film's co-star, Hitler's innocent secretary, Traudl. When the real Traudl—filmed in a postscript before her 2002 death—confesses at the end that she should've seen through him, this only makes her more saintly.

The acting is superb, the sets and scenes authentic, but the story has no shape, the characters no arc or depth. Downfall is a 155-minute snore. (R) TIM APPELO

Nobody Knows

Runs Fri., March 11–Thurs., March 17, at Varsity

It's not difficult to make a social-issues movie about sex or violence or racism or drugs—the easy pathologies are always the most photogenic. Flesh, guns, and car chases can all be deployed to good purpose; there's no law that says an action movie can't have a moral or a message. But what about an issue that's entirely quiet, almost invisible, something without a dramatic outburst of flash and rage? The biggest transgression on the part of four Tokyo kids abandoned by their mother in Nobody Knows is a little petty shoplifting. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life) simply trains his camera on their churning washing machine, watches them prepare instant noodles, and follows their decline from tidy apartment-keeping to bathing in a public park after their utilities have been turned off. The effect is so lulling, you almost forget what the film is about. It's like a children's behavior study—often cute, often boring, with almost no reference to the world outside.

The elephant they're all tiptoeing around is their absent mother. She appears in the film's early scenes, reappears once or twice in the middle, then recedes in substance like the wrong telephone numbers 12-year-old Akira, the new head of household, dials to reach her. She sends money periodically, but he has no idea if the return address—in Osaka, maybe—is real. Did they ever have a mother? The four kids, each by a different father, are initially fine without her. The younger three dutifully remain in the apartment as their mother instructed; kept out of school, they actually do their own homework. Akira (Yagira Yuya, named Best Actor at Cannes last year) solemnly shops for groceries, counts their dwindling funds, and tries to keep his rebellious hormones in check—particularly in the presence of schoolgirl Saki.

Akira's siblings are obedient sister Kyoko, about 10; smiling ragamuffin brother Shigeru, about 8; and baby girl Yuki, about 5. They never complain or cry about their missing mom, but as the money runs out, they gradually turn feral. Perhaps as much as a year passes in this way: The seasons change; their hair grows longer; their clothing falls to tatters. Where are the authorities? Where are the anxious neighbors? Where are the adults in their kids-only world? Americans might balk at believing children could make their way through a big city unescorted and unobserved, but one of Kore-eda's points here is that nobody's looking for these minors. They don't make trouble, so everything's assumed to be OK.

Inspired by a true story, Nobody Knows is compelling—but hardly exciting—by virtue of its calm, claustrophobic behavioral focus. Dedicated filmgoers will require a high tolerance for ordinary kids eating, sleeping, playing, drawing with crayons, picking their noses, and so forth. Their routine is only remarkable because of the circumstances. Kore-eda deliberately ends his film with a freeze-frame recalling The 400 Blows. Anything but innocent, this is childhood today, he says: an unblinking, everyday horror movie. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

Up and Down

Opens Fri., March 11, at Metro

Up and Down is the first film by Czech director Jan Hrebejk (Divided We Fall) with a contemporary setting, and it combines two modes characteristic of current festival cinema. One is the mystical ensemble drama in which all of a movie's disparate characters are ultimately connected; the other is the spectacle of the new multicultural Europe.

Both modes evoke, if only superficially, the experience of globalism: Up and Down opens with the sounds of a Balkan brass band (and the words "Hello, America") and a couple of smugglers sitting around a Slovakian truck stop chewing over the disgusting memory of Thai deep-fried bat. Then they proceed to drive across the Czech border in a van crammed with illegal South Asian immigrants.

Up and Down features two families of different classes with new or returned children. An abandoned Indian baby is sold on the black market to the quasi-reformed soccer hooligan Franta and his desperately childless wife, Mila. Elsewhere in Prague, the bourgeois professor Otto collapses (while delivering a class lecture on immigration) and, facing a risky medical operation, stage-manages a reunion with his long-abandoned wife, Vera, and their son, the proprietor of a Brisbane surf shop, who has not communicated with his father in 20 years.

Up and Down is a movie of bilious light and cramped, cluttered spaces; its narrative is a matter of spiraling complications and absurd misunderstandings, many of them staged around the dinner table. Meanwhile, the two utterly different but equally unstable families head toward each other like ships in the night—the inevitable convergence occurring at the KFC where Franta works as a security guard.

American fast-food franchises are only one aspect of the new Czech social order. From Otto's excruciating riff on an African student whose Christian name is Lenin to the fellow hooligan who visits Franta and freaks when he sees the complexion of his friend's new baby, every other conversation in the movie obsessively returns to the subject of the country's newcomers.

Up and Down is not exactly the toughest movie on the block, but especially compared to most American comedies, it conveys a sense of scrofulous rue. As the Czech Republic struggles to find its place in the European free market, those who can escape to happier lands do so. The closest thing to a Czech national rebirth the film provides is the sterile idiot nationalism of the soccer hooligans. The only justice is the beating that Franta administers, unknowing, to the agent of his misery. Life goes on, as embodied by the collection of mechanical toys that Vera keeps on her shelf. (R) J. HOBERMAN

 
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