The idea behind ‘Idea Thief’

University of Herfordshire Master student Dani Alva is an idea thief in his own way. He borrowed the idea for his and Juan Lozano’s three-and-a-half-minute animated UK short from a quote from fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin:

“I doubt the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, that child would grow up to be an eggplant.”

In “Idea Thief” (2015), eggplant-like men exist in the world — these rotund purple beings with pink bulbous noses. But eggplants still crave the imagination of children.

With a pair of binoculars, an eggplant burglar is drawn to boy with a bright incandescent light bulb above his head. He attempts to steal it, but some ideas can’t be stolen.

There’s no dialogue in Alva and Lozano’s animated short. There’s no need for it. Some ideas are universal.

“Idea Thief’s” been shown at many international film festivals, even winning the Sand Dune 1st Jury Award for Animation in India. Directed and animated by Dani Alva and Juan Loranzo based on Alva’s story, “Idea Thief” made its Western New York premiere at the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival. 

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‘Some Kind of Quest’ to maintain the largest model train set

“Some Kind of Quest” is about a man chasing windmills. Not literal windmills, of course, but the kind of thing that’s absurd or crazy.

Bruce Williams Zaccagnino’s windmill is Northlandz, the 52,000-square-foot miniature model train museum in Flemington, New Jersey. Track by track, he painstakingly designed and built this museum over 16-plus years.

Directed by Andrew Wilcox and filmed by Matt Clegg over half a year, their 11-minute documentary showcases Zaccagnino’s creation within Northlandz. More than 100 model trains run over 50,000 feet of rail road track over 400 bridges.

Zaccagnino’s quixotic quest began in the ’70s when he began building the model train set in his basement. Over the years, it grew and grew as Zaccagnino spent 17-hour days with his trains. Now, it takes about two and a half hours to walk through the mazes in Northlandz. Zaccagnino considers expanding.

Still, he’s erecting ephemeral monuments. Zaccagnino’s getting older and business is slow. There’s no plans for succession after he retires as the museum’s curator. And his hobby can easily put him in debt. His friends also think he’s an idiot for living with model trains as his companions.

Despite it all, Zaccagnino chases after that impossible dream — that quest to entertain somebody with his life’s work. For now, at least, if the windmills keep turning, Zaccagnino will keep running into them.

“Some Kind of Quest” was directed by Andrew Wilcox and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival.

A visual ‘Feast’

It was love at first bite. A single greasy french fry solidified the friendship between a man and his dog.

Directed by Patrick Osborne and written by Osborne, Nicole Mitchell, and Raymond Persi, the Oscar-winning animated Disney short “Feast” is an irresistible potpourri of colors and sensations. It’s four-footed star is an adorable gray and white Boston Terrier mix named Winston.

Osborne gives us a dog’s eye view as Winston eats his way through pizza, pasta and popcorn. However, Lady-and-the-Tramp-style dinners are quickly replaced by Brussels sprouts and cilantro when his human meets a waitress at a restaurant.

Winston reluctantly settles into being the third wheel, but as he learns, sometimes there’s more important things than pizza.

“Feast” was directed by Patrick Osborne and written by Osborne, Nicole Mitchell and Raymond Persi. The six-minute short won the 2015 Academy Award for animated short film.

‘Frozen Fever’ follows in footsteps of its predecessors

The Disney-Pixar merger’s become and more apparent with their last couple of theatrical releases. Pixar’s influence can be seen in recent animated shorts like Disney’s Oscar-winning short, “Feast” (which premiered before “Big Hero 6”), and “Frozen Fever” (which premieres before a live-action version of “Cinderella”).

Like “Frozen” and “Brave,” “Frozen Fever” focuses on a sweet familial love — in this case, the bond of sisters. The song, “Making Today A Perfect Day” (written by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck), is Elsa’s answer to Anna’s “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?”

In the short, all our favorite characters return to celebrate Princess Anna’s (Kristen Bell) birthday. Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Sven guard Olaf (Josh Gad) from eating the cake while Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) accidentally adorns an army of tiny adorable minion-like snowmen, whom Olaf takes under his wing.

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“We can’t all go as Elsa from Frozen.”

It’s a charming and irresistible and holds all the right notes, but it also smartly capitalizes on the “Frozen fever” we’ve experienced in supermarkets and toy shops. Even if our eight-year-old doesn’t want to see a live-action version of “Cinderella,” she’s going to want to see “Frozen Fever.”

“Frozen Fever” was directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and written by Lee, Buck and Marc Smith. 

‘Aya’ explores the mystery in moments

You think you’ve heard this one before: A woman drives a man in a car….

And then she’s raped or injured or (if you’re Flannery O’Connor) murdered.  

That’s not what happens in Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’ Oscar-nominated live action short, “Aya,” though.

You do expect something to happen — some sort of lesson or epiphany. Instead, the 39-minute French/Israeli short is filled with stretches of silence as a mysterious Israeli woman drives a complete stranger to a far-off destination.

Perhaps that’s the punchline. “Aya” certainly starts off like a comedy of errors. “Aya’s” opening scene resembles the British rom-com “Love Actually.” Instead of Heathrow Airport though, we’re greeted at Ben-Gurion — watching hugs and kisses and “I love you” balloons float to the ceiling.

Aya (that’s the Israeli woman played by Sarah Adler) looks sort of gloomy, talking on her cell phone, watching and waiting. Perhaps that’s why the cab driver feels comfortable approaching her when his passenger arrives. He hands Aya his colleague’s sign and after a series of mix-ups, Aya finds herself driving Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen) to the Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Jerusalem. (See, there’s promise of comedy, right? Or perhaps one of those nasty Uber encounters you’ve heard about in the news?)

Written by Binnun, Brezis and Tom Shoval, this short feels like a puzzle you’ve given up on. Aya’s full of fun little contradictions: the kind of gal who feels more comfortable in a crowd.  The mysteries of this chance encounter are strangely intimate and will leave you perplexed.

“Aya” was directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis and written by Binnun, Brezis and Tom Shoval. “Aya” was nominated in the 2015 Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short. 

Answering ‘The Phone Call’

Heavy breathing. A disjointed male’s voice. Crying.

“I’m scared,” the voice on the line finally says.

Mat Kirkby’s 21-minute Oscar-nominated Live Action Short“The Phone Call,” takes you through an emotional journey — evoking curiosity, wonder, helplessness, empathy and understanding.

The short stars the wonderfully expressive Sally Hawkins as Heather, a British Crisis Center worker. Hawkins carries the story, acting as your detective/journalist. With a pleasant, caring voice and a compassionate bedside manner, Hawkins reassures the reluctant man (voiced by Jim Broadbent) on the line, luring him to confide in her.

“We don’t trace calls, ever,” Heather says.

With those words, she navigates a mine field into one man’s past.

Kirkby and James Lucas’s poignant and engaging script has you hanging on to every word. Like NoMore.org’s Super Bowl spot about domestic violence, “The Phone Call” appeals to your pathos.

While we never see the person on the other line, “The Phone Call” reminds us that the invisible also have voices and stories to tell. They’re just waiting for someone to listen and share them.

“The Phone Call” was written and James Lucas and Mat Kirkby and directed by Kirkby. The 21-minute short from the UK was nominated for Best Live Action Short in the 2015 Academy Awards. 

Not a fowl note in ‘Boogaloo and Graham’

There’s a wonderful humor in Irish storytelling. This is apparent in “Boogaloo and Graham,” the delightfully “fowl” 14-minute Oscar-nominated Live Action Short written by Ronan Blaney, directed by Michael Lennox and produced by Brian J. Falconer.

The film is essentially a coming-of-age slice-of-life story taking place in the politically charged region of Belfast, circa 1978. The conflict is thankfully far off-screen as two chickens take center stage.

The hens I’m referring to are brothers Malachy and Jamesy. Their father (Martin McCann) gave them two baby chicks, which they raised to adulthood. Their names, as you may have guessed by now, are Boogaloo and Graham.

Malachy and Jamesy decide to fly the coop though when they find out their beloved birds are in jeopardy. Their Mother Hen (Charlene McKenna) says she’s nesting a baby and their chickens came first! 

Lennox directs lovely comedic montages, showing the boys walking their birds, sharing ice-cream as well as bathing them. If that doesn’t have you clucking and cackling with laughter, you’d be charmed by Blaney’s hilarious script and its eggs-cellent dialogue.

“Boogaloo and Graham” was written by Ronan Blaney, directed by Michael Lennox and produced by Brian J. Falconer. The 14-minute film from Northern Ireland was nominated for a 2015 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short and a 2015 BAFTA for Best British Short Film. 

Photographer grants more than three wishes in ‘Butter Lamp’

Wei Hu’s “Butter Lamp” begins with that iconic portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, hanging in front of Beijing’s Forbidden City. It’s only when a couple of poor Tibetan nomads stumble into frame that you notice the wrinkles in the backdrop.

Nominated for Best Live Action Short in the 87th Academy Awards, “Butter Lamp” provides plenty of modern commentary. Remember that Dutch girl that faked her five-month vacation to South East Asia?

Hu’s film reminds us of today’s Instagrammed culture and how our images are cropped, edited and filtered to perfection.

Like the Instagram and Facebook demographic, the villagers in Hu’s 16-minute French picture seek to invoke the illusion of wealth and affluence associated with Western culture. The changing backgrounds feature the Great Wall of China, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the streets of Chinatown, Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Potala Palace — a place an elderly grandmother dreams to visit.

Instead of Slumber, Mayfair or Nashville, the photographer adds his own “filters,” such as a large red ribbon, modern Western jackets and a motorcycle. (The photographer himself sports an Abercrombie shirt.)

In this way, the photographer serves as both the Genie and the “Selfie Stick,” granting the wishes of these Tibetan villagers. Out of frame: we can only imagine that these portraits will be framed and displayed proudly in their households —where these Tibetans can share their worldliness with unsuspecting visitors.

Their visitors will stare with envy, not knowing how manufactured photos can be. 

“Butter Lamp” was written and directed by Wei Hu. The film was nominated for Best Live Action Short in the 2015 Academy Awards. 

‘Parvaneh’ bridges the east and west

If you’ve been reading or listening to any of the analysis on the Charlie Hebdo shootings last month, you’ve come to realize it’s a very complicated and complex issue. The Kouachi brothers believed they were “defenders of the prophet” Muhammed, a reasoning they used to justify their actions against the cartoonists at the French satirical magazine.

“If someone offends the prophet then there is no problem, we can kill him,” Cherif Kouachi told French reporter Igor Sahiri. “We don’t kill women. We are not like you. You are the ones killing women and children in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. This isn’t us. We have an honor code in Islam.”

Kouachi’s warped worldview of Islam shows the immense schism between the East and West. Through our Western lens, hijabs and burkas are signs of oppression from men who want to cover up their women; however, some Muslim women may see head scarves as a sign of liberation, allowing men to see and hear them for what they say and think rather than what they look like.

Similarly, we see “Je suis Charlie” as a rallying cry for free speech while they see the same mantra as an attack on their religious beliefs. “Je suis Charlie” means that “I am Charlie” — that we stand with Charlie Hebdo. Most of us see Charlie Hebdo as a metaphor, supporting what Charlie Hebdo represents rather than the controversial content they publish. But if we’re the Peter Quills of the world, speaking in symbolism and metaphors, the radical jihadists are like the vengeful Draxes in “Guardians of the Galaxy” — questioning why he would want to put his finger on an enemy’s throat.

With all the negative press garnered by radical Islamist terrorists (from the Kouachi brothers to the Tsarnaevzs), it’s easy to forget that these world views don’t represent those of all Muslims. After all, jihadists are to Muslims as the Westboro Baptists are to Christians. Yet these Eastern cultures feel esoteric in our Western eyes.

Iranian-Swiss film director and screenwriter Talkhon Hamzavi reminds us that it’s possible to reach beyond the curtain of cultural misunderstandings. Her “universal mixtape” is the refreshing 25-minute Oscar-nominated short, “Parvaneh.” The film is about a young Afghani refuge in Switzerland.

When we first meet Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani), she’s talking to her mother on a pay phone. Her father’s hospitalized in Afghanistan and she promises to send money. So begins her trip from the cold and snowy Swiss apps (which looks like a scene from “Fargo”) to the bustling and equally hostile city of Zürich. When the Western Union bank refuses to send her money because she’s under 18, Parvaneh enlists and eventually bonds with a tough-looking blond (Cheryl Graf) with dyed pink hair, ripped leggings and a black leather jacket. 

Parvaneh’s coming-of-age excursion is a short story rather than a novel, following the footsteps of Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron.” Filmed by Stefan Dux and edited by Hannes Rüttimann, “Parvaneh” conveys how vulnerable and lonely a girl can feel. Each shot highlights Parvaneh’s isolation: eating alone in the dining hall, refusing unwanted advances from men, walking along the expansive snowy backdrop with just a backpack and some drab-colored clothing.

When a sales girl approaches Parvaneh in a Zürich cosmetic shop, it’s startling. It feels as if we’ve spent a lifetime traveling with Parvaneh in silence that we, too, feel foreign in a cosmopolitan city.

Hamzavi’s unique short film allows us to re-examine how we see things. Through Parvaneh’s eyes, what we find familiar seems foreign. Yet this hajj is one we all should take. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, showing us the East and West isn’t that far apart after all.

“Parvaneh” was written and directed by Talkhon Hamzavi. The film was nominated in the 2015 Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short Film. 

Former Disney animator’s lyrical ‘Duet’ displays life’s dance

Sometimes we need art to show us the immense beauty in the world. That’s what animator Glen Keane gives us with his breathtakingly beautiful three-minute short, “Duet.”

Directed and animated by Keane (whose credits include Disney’s “Paperman,” “Tangled,” “Tarzan,” “Pocahontas,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid”), “Duet” features the dance between a boy and a girl.

Their song is one with many codas. The boy and girl meet again and again (not in as many lifetimes as the characters in “Cloud Atlas,” but at different stages of their lives), circling the same axis.

The boy somersaults through the grass. The girl performs perfect pirouettes. He catches her when she stumbles, and can’t seem to let go.

Their’s a fluid simplicity in Keane’s animation. The boy and girl are outlined in a ghostly blue, yet their world is full of color. We see it in their movements. We hear it in Zack Lydon’s music. It makes our eyes spin around them with jealousy and admiration. If this is the circle of life, we want to be a part of it.