Oscar-Nominated Short Animation

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If you get a chance, by all means see or rent the DVD of the Oscar-nominated short animation films. It’s circulating as an hour-forty-one-minute compilation; the five nominees bundled with three honorable mention selections. Below is a synopsis in order of quality (in our judgment, of course).

Logorama (France, in English, 16 minutes): This is totally subversive stuff and is unlikely to win, not because of its coarse language, but because of its relentless anti-corporatism and its skewering of American shallowness. It takes place in a dystopian future in which all of Los Angeles has been redone in corporate logos and the company mascots have come to life—Michelin men are cops and Ronald MacDonald is a terrorist. This long-overdue attack on materialism is too bitter to bear Oscar fruit, but it’s the class of the lot.

The Kinematograph (Poland, in English, 12 minutes): What does it profit a man to win the world but lose the soul of his beloved? This moving and gorgeous film is not a nominee, but it should be. It takes us to a small Polish village in the days just before Edison and the Lumiére brothers, and into the mind of an obsessed inventor who sacrifices all to discover the secret of moving images.

A Matter of Loaf and Death (England, 30 minutes): This was the selection that was the most fun--the latest installment of Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit. This time quirky inventor Wallace is running a Rube Goldberg-like bakery that lands him in hot water. And, of course, the lovable Gromit is the brains of the dynamic duo. The plot is pretty similar to previous Wallace and Gromit escapades, but I never tire of Gromit and his cheese-loving, dimwitted sidekick.

Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty (Ireland, 6 minutes): This is wicked fun—Nicky Phelan’s take on the grandmother from hell spinning a horrific bedtime tale for her granddaughter that exorcises more than a few personal demons.

The Lady and the Reaper (Spain, in English, 8 minutes): A sweet old lady ready to pass to the other side confronts an arrogant doctor determined to keep her around. With the reaper on her side, it’s two against one in this madcap romp that’s like a grimmer Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd caper.

Runaway (Canada, 9 minutes): This eccentric cartoon is a spoof on every runaway train film you can think of and has the old-fashioned line-drawing look of a late 40s cartoon, complete with a quirky small jazz combo soundtrack. It’s also a subtle satire of class privilege and affected gallantry. Not a nominee, but superior to…

French Roast (France, eight minutes): This nominee touches some of the same social class bases, but is a one-trick pony. A snobbish bourgeois man brushes aside beggars, until he realizes he’s without cash and can’t pay for his espresso. Rather than admit his mistake, he orders espressos for the rest of the day…and night. Mayhem occurs.

Partly Cloudy (USA, 6 minutes): In many parts of the country this Pixar short ran before the animated feature Up. Who knew that babies of all species were fashioned by personified clouds and handed off to personal storks? This is a sweet film, but a bit too wholesome for our tastes. It’s no Logorama, that’s for sure!


National League Central Preview

Not the Big Red Machine, but maybe enough to win the NL Central.

There are no great teams in this division, just some okay ones. This means it may well be the most competitive division in baseball and should be fun to watch. Five of its six teams have a shot at winning. (Will somebody please move the Astros to the AL West and restore balance to the leagues?) Here they are in order of their 2009 finish:

St Louis Cardinals: They have baseball’s best player in Albert Pujols but they don’t have much to go with him, unless you buy into the Matt Holliday hype, which I don’t. Skip Schumaker, Ryan Ludwick, and Yadier Molina aren’t bad, but they’re not great either. Pitching could be a problem, especially if Chris Carpenter gets injured again. Adam Wainwright is a burgeoning ace but after that it’s stiffs like Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse.

Chicago Cubs: On paper they’re much deeper than the Cardinals. A staff of Zambrano, Lilly, Dempster, Gorzelanny, and Randy Wells isn’t bad. Carlos Marmol needs to mature as a closer, though. The Cubs’ problem is that they simply can’t predict what to expect from the mercurial temperaments on this club. The only steady guys are Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot. Is Zambrano an ace or an ass? Are Aramis Ramirez or Xavier Nady healthy? Is Derek Lee a fraud? Is Alfonso Soriano Milton Bradley without the good glove? The only thing known for certain is that Fukodome is a bust. Time to eat that contract and give the job to some kid who might be decent. If I’m the GM, this roster gets a half-year look and it’s not working, I blow it up.

Milwaukee Brewers: A lot of people like this team. Not me. How can you get excited about a team that projects Jeff Suppan as its top starter? And don’t try to tell that Randy Wolf is the answer. The rest of the staff consists of guys with losing records and ERAs of around six: Dave Bush, Doug Davis, Manny Parra. Look down the roster and you’ll see more mold than a wine cave: Greg Zaun, Craig Counsell, Trevor Hoffman… Yes, they have Prince Fielder (overrated), Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, and Corey Hart. Not enough.

Cincinnati Reds: If healthy—a bif if—this is easily the best pitching staff in the division and among the best in the NL. It’s headed by young studs Edison Volquez and Johnny Cueto, and is fleshed out by Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang, and Homer Bailey. Francisco Cordero is (sometimes) a very fine closer. The everyday lineup, however, inspires far less confidence. Jay Bruce is a typical mash-it-or-sit-down guy. Alas, he’s more the latter, but he’s still the best outfielder the Reds have. First baseman Joey Votto needs to prove the hype and Scott Rolen needs to silence those who say he’s done. Brandon Phillips is solid and Orlando Cabrera can still pick it, but there’s no one on this team who’s so consistent that you’d pitch around them.

Houston Astros: If you think the Brew Crew has retreads, check out the ‘Stros: Brian Moehler, Brett Myers, Kuzuo Matsui, Pedro Feliz. They’ve even tossed the ball to Mike Hampton, who probably dropped it on his toe and broke it. What gives the Astros some hope is a pitching staff that’s headed by Roy Oswalt (if healthy) and Wandy Rodriquez, and a terrific outfield of Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn, and Hunter Price, the latter two of whom can burn the base paths.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Another hundred loss season is in the offing for a season whose only open question is whether the Pirates will win more games than the Padres. Hopefully the Pirates will trade the three guys who deserve better: outfielder Andrew McCutchen and pitchers Zach Duke and Paul Maholm. Special GM Dummy Award for picking up two busts, Bobby Crosby and Ryan Church, and for throwing dimes at three guys who are never going to amount to much: Lastings Milledge, Delwyn Young, and Jose Tabata. Consumer Tip: Don’t’ pay MLB prices to see these guys. Wait eight weeks, then drive an hour east to Altoona and watch them play in the AA uniforms they’ll be wearing by then.

*Predicted Order of Finish*

(1) Reds, (2) Cardinals, (3) Astros, (4) Brewers, (5) Cubs, (6) Pirates


Oscar Nominated Shorts

Kavi--Slumdog without the millions.

This year’s Oscar-nominated short subject films are testaments on how to tell a good story compactly. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with a theater showing these, it would be well worth your time to view them. Otherwise, rent the compilation disc—there’s not a dog among them. In alphabetical order the films are:

The Door (Ireland, in Russian with subtitles, 17 minutes, directed by Juanita Wilson): The film opens with a man clamoring across a ruined amusement park and breaking into an abandoned tenement. Quickly we learn that it’s Chernobyl and the man’s former apartment. This heartbreaking tale reveals why he’s there what he wants, and why he wants it.

Instead of Abracadabra (Sweden, subtitles, 22 minutes, directed by Patrik Eklund): This wacky little film focuses on a twenty-something live-at-home slacker who fancies himself a magician. He’s bad—really bad. Dangerously bad! This film’s surreal qualities suggest what the Junot brothers might have done as film students.

Kavi (India, subtitles, 19 minutes, directed by Gregg Helvey): If you think slavery is a thing of the past, think again. A young boy, Kavi, and his entire family are under the thrall of a brick maker. Kavi’s moment of awareness comes from seeing boys his age playing cricket while he’s hauling waste. Director Helvey crams a lot into nineteen minutes and is especially skillful in thinking about the things that rock a pre-teen’s world.

Miracle Fish (Australia, 17 minutes, directed by Luke Doolan): Eight-year old Joe comes from a broken home and other kids pick on him. When he slinks off the playground for a nap in the nurse’s office, he awakes to an abandoned school in which he can do as he pleases. Eerie silences and haunting sequences reveal why Joe’s alone. Another film in which the director knows how to get inside a child’s head.

The New Tenants (Denmark, in English, 20 minutes, directed by Joachim Back): Two gay men—one a rat-a-tat-speaking cynic and the other a long-suffering listener--have just moved into a new apartment that has way more history than even the cynic can imagine. And talk about neighbors! This hysterical black comedy is a cross between Barton Fink and My Dinner with Andre.

And the winner will be? Our favorite was the wickedly snarky The New Tenants, but Kavi probably has the inside track. Think Slumdog Millionaire without the happy ending; the combination of a weighty topic and a cute kid is Hollywood irresistible. But really, any of the films except the Swedish entry would be worthy. The latter isn’t bad, merely fluffier than the rest.


AL West Preview

The Mariners might be good enough to pack Safeco field with rabid sleepless in Seatle fans.

This year features something new: the first time in recent memory in which the Angels aren’t expected to win the AL west. The breakdown, according to last year’s finish—

Los Angeles Angels: They lost their ace and two top offensive players in the offseason. To win a lot of things need to go right. Scott Kazmir and Jared Weaver need to stop being head cases. Joel Pinero needs to prove he can pitch in the AL. So does Brian Fuentes. Fernando Rodney has to stop being a stiff. Erick Aybar needs to become the star he’s supposed to be, not the clueless kid he was in the postseason. Brandon Wood must fill Chone Figgins’ shoes. Kendry Morales’ 2009 season cannot be a fluke. Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, and classy pickup Hideki Matsui must stay healthy. That’s a lot to ask and if Mike Scioscia can make all of that happen, forget the Hall of Fame—canonize him.

Texas Rangers: As always, the Rangers will score runs in bundles. Their lineup is anchored by All-Stars Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, and Josh Hamilton. They added Vlad Guerrero. Waiting in the wings to blossom are kids like Nelson Cruz and Elvis Andrus. In Saltalamacchia and Teagarden they have the best catching duo in baseball. This lineup is flat-out menacing.

Also as always, it’s all about pitching for the Rangers. On paper it looks very good: emerging ace Scott Feldman, Rich Harden, and some guys who have great stuff—Brandon McCarthy, Derek Holland, and lefty Matt Harrison. The latter three need to step it up, though, especially McCarthy, who has carried the can’t-miss tag for so long that it looks like a misspelling. The joker in the deck is the weather—hale, plump pitchers get turned into raisins by the hot Texas sun.

Seattle Mariners: The Mariners are on a lot of lists to steal the West and with reason. Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee are certainly one of the best 1-2 staffs around. If Erik Bedard is healthy, the Mariners are going to be awesome. Look also for a good year from the underappreciated Ian Snell.

Opposition catchers are going to have nightmares contemplating a lineup that has Ichiro and Chone Figgins at the top. The rest isn’t as scary as the Rangers, but guys like Casey Kotchman, José Lopez, Franklin Gutiérez, and Jack Wilson feast on pitchers who take them for granted. Ultimately the Mariners need to get production from some guys who haven’t exactly been breaking output quotas. This would be the time for Ken Griffey Jr. to put whatever he has left on the table. Eric Brynes needs to transition from promising to productive, and Milton Bradley is down to his last chance; if he implodes or underachieves in Seattle no one will touch him in the future.

Oakland Athletics: Oakland was last year’s sexy pick. Not this year; it’s time to stop calling Billy Beane a genius as Oakland will be lucky to avoid a hundred losses in 2010. It looks very bad right at the top. The two guys being counted upon to anchor the rotation, Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer, have medical histories so long that no one else wanted them for scratch-and-dent prices. If either of them goes down, there’s not much lurking on the depth chart.

As for the lineup, there’s not much there either. Eric Chavez can thump the ball, but his health makes Sheets seem like an iron man. Mark Ellis is serviceable at second and Kurt Suzuki is a decent catcher. Jack Cust hits them out of the park, on those rare occasions when he doesn’t whiff. Then it’s NL wash-outs Jake Fox and Kevin Kouzmanoff. The outfield’s keystone is the horribly overrated Coco Crisp, who is surrounded by youngsters who hit about what Crisp did last year: .228. The best that could happen is if Crisp got off to a good start and Beane can trade him before he reverts to bumitude.

Predicted Finish:

My brain tells me the Rangers win, but I’m playing a hunch. If I’m wrong, the Mariners slip to third:

(1) Mariners, (2) Rangers, (3) Angels, (4) Athletics.


National League West Preview

Pick: The Giants. Enthusiasm? Little.

Let’s start the 2010 MLB preview with the division the fewest people care about: the National League West. There simply isn’t a dominant team here; it’s debatable if there is even a “good” team among them. The Dodgers will hit, but they can’t pitch. The Giants pitch, but can’t hit. The Rockies do a little of each, but not a whole lot of either. The Diamondbacks seem to be adrift, and the Padres flat out stink. Here’s the break down, listed in order of last year’s finish.

Los Angeles Dodgers: They did not have a good Hot Stove league and are considerably weaker. And who knows what the final toll of the McCourts’ divorce will be? With Ethier, Kemp, and Manny the Dodgers have one of the best outfields in baseball. Other guys can hit too: Casey Blake, James Loney, Russ Martin. They’ll need to. Let’s just say that a staff of Billingsley, Kuroda, Padilla, and Schmidt aren’t Koufax, Drysdale, Podres, and Craig. George Sherrill can close, if he gets the chance.

The Dodgers can win if they club their way to the top. That means that Manny has to care, that Furcal isn’t (as I suspect) done, and that everyone else stays healthy. Look for lots of 9 to 7 games in Chavez Ravine.

Colorado Rockies: The Rocks remind me of recent Angels’ teams in that their staff is filled with 3-4 guys. Cook, Francis, De La Rosa, and Jiménez are decent, but they don’t induce fear. Closer Huston Street can be great; he can also cause heart attacks.

The lineup isn’t scary either, though shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is a gem. Todd Helton is on the downward slide and he’s backed by Jason Giambi, who has already fallen off the cliff. Brian Hawpe is steady and may become a beast. Then again, he might be a pussycat. Melvin Mora should help solidify the lineup.At the end of the day, though, they can only win the way they did so two years ago: if the rest of the division loses.

San Francisco Giants: They needed a couple of big bats. They got super-utility man Mark DeRosa and castoff Audrey Huff—not exactly Mays and McCovey. They’d better hope catching prospect Buster Posey is the real deal as one day Bengie Molina is going to break down. (He’s got to be 103 by now.) Freddie Sanchez, if healthy, is a monster but who is going to protect him? Aaron Rowand? Edgard Renteria?

But the Giants could pitch their way into the postseason. Matt Linceum is probably the best pitcher in MLB right now, and the guys who follow are pretty good: Cain and Sanchéz. If Barry Zito ever looks at his backside in a mirror and discovers his head peeking out, this staff could be lights-out.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Who knows? This is the most-puzzling organization in baseball. They gave up promising players in a three-way trade over the winter that yielded only Edwin Jackson, a number three pitcher, and Ian Kennedy, a pitcher the Yankees bailed on who is coming back from an aneurysm. Maybe D’backs management are geniuses, but it’s just as likely they got sucker- punched. Dan Haren is solid, but will Brandon Webb make it back from the disabled list?

If the pitching falters, the Diamondbacks will be a very bad team because their everyday lineup raises a single question: Who? Stephen Drew looks to be as overrated as his brother, and Mark Reynolds holds a record no one wants: the single-season strikeout mark. Oh yeah, they have Adam LaRoche. How could they win? A transfer to the Pacific Coast League would help. But they won’t finish last.

San Diego Padres: Ouch! They might be the worst team in all of MLB. Let’s put it this way, the projected ace of the staff would be Jon Garland. You’ve never heard of the rest of these guys and most of them are listed on the program as starting/relief pitcher. Translation: Mop-up guys with ERAs closer to double digits than to Cy Young.

The only guy you’d go to the park to see is Adrian Gonzalez and nobody thinks he’ll be there by the end of the trade deadline. After him all you have is curiosity pieces: Tony Gwynn’s kid, two guys named Hairston, a catcher who answers to Yorvit, and Chase Headley, whose claim to fame is that he doesn’t suck.

Predicted 2010 Finish:

You can flip any of the top three, but here goes:

(1) Giants (2) Dodgers (3) Rockies (4) Diamondbacks (5) Padres.



Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?
By Brian Fies
New York: Abrams Comicrats, 2009
* * * *

Remember those old science fiction movies and comic books that were loaded with flying cars, household robots, rocket packs, and routine travel to distant galaxies? In Brian Fies’ provocative graphic novel, the future disappears before it even arrives. That’s because it was shanghaied.

Fies opens his story with a young boy and his dad on their way to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, whose theme was the very “World of Tomorrow” borrowed for the book title. Fies is does a wonderful job of capturing a young boy’s wonderment, especially when he cleverly overlays drawn images on archival snapshots to make his cartoon characters into “real” spectators. His is a story of a boy, Buddy, his worshipful love for his father, and his unbridled fascination with science and progress. Buddy lives in a psychic world in which the lines between hard science, science fiction, and fantasy are as thin as hobo soup. Fies brilliantly chronicles this in the delicious reflexive maneuver of embedding a comic within a comic. Buddy and his father aren’t just actors in historical time; they are also the superheroes Cosmic Kid and Cap Crater who do intergalactic battle with the evil Dr. Xandra. The talismanic phrase “ad astra per aspera” unlocks the world of Space Age Adventures, one Fies gives us on comic book stock embedded amidst graphic novel glossiness.

But this is also a tale of Buddy’s disillusionment. As World War II ends we see Buddy helping his father build a bomb shelter. We slowly learn that Pop buys into McCarthy-era fears and is an ardent right winger. Young Buddy buys into this as well, and each cheer the building of interstate highways, the development of nuclear technology, and the creation of NASA as both building the world of tomorrow and keeping ahead of the Russians. Imagine Buddy’s disappointment when the lad who idolized astronauts comes to learn that it was really only about the latter. Fies’ book is an indictment of the military-industrial complex. Buddy’s world is shattered when he realizes that science isn’t pure, that dreams are held hostage to militarism, and that NASA is reduced to pauperism once the Cold War winds down. Buddy moves further from his true-believer father and Space Age Adventures grow increasingly archaic before, in the 1970s, it’s put to rest.

Fies captures the look and Zeitgeist of his sixty-year-plus sweep of history in everything except the drawing of his two main characters. For example, in the late 1960s Buddy looks to be in his late teens and his father in his late forties. If Buddy attended the 1939 World’s Fair, however, he’d need to be at least in his mid- to late-thirties. When Buddy’s a father himself at the novel’s end and singing the praises of computers and miniaturization, he still looks to be around 35 and his gray-haired father a trim 60 or so. This doesn’t quite work, nor does Fies’ giddy faith in the micro-future. After all, he’s just spent 170 pages telling us that tomorrow gets hijacked by those who use science for cynical ends. The book’s final thirty pages come off as the kind of tacked-on happy ending that Hollywood might force upon an edgy director.

These reservations aside, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is a captivating waltz across the decades. Its very title raises questions that are worth discussing and Fies gives us plenty of fodder through which we can filter the debate. It is a worthy successor to his Eisner Prize-winning Mom’s Cancer.