Friday, February 15, 2008

Oscar Shorts 2007: Good things in small packages

Academy Award-Nominated Short Subjects (2007)
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: Unrated, but the equivalent of PG-13 for chaste nudity and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.15.08

We see tantalizing snatches of them — no more than a few seconds from each — during the annual Academy Awards ceremony.

Some look interesting; others look profoundly poignant. Some seem downright weird.
Peter and his pet duck stare longingly through a hole in their protective fence,
and out at the forest beyond, which looks like such a wonderful place to play.
But they'll soon learn that this glade has hidden dangers, in Peter and the Wolf.

I refer to the live action and animated short subjects, which for most of us are no more than a list of nominated titles and directors, followed by a gratefully enthusiastic acceptance speech that leaves us wishing for an opportunity to see these filmlets. Aside from an occasional flicker of recognition — Pixar has placed quite a few entries in the animated category, over the years — we're left to wonder about most of these shorts.

Well, wonder no longer.

Perhaps encouraged by the public's growing taste for feature-length documentaries, Magnolia Pictures has assembled the 10 Oscar-nominated live action and animated shorts — five of each — into a road-show package that will dock for one week at Sacramento's Crest Theater, starting today. And while my recommendations are cautiously qualified, you really shouldn't miss the chance to see this program at least once, if only to satisfy your own curiosity.

I say "qualified" because the menu is quite a mixed bag.

All five of the live-action entries are noteworthy: modestly amusing at the least (The Substitute) and impressively produced and acted at the best (The Tonto Woman). One of them, At Night, may well be the saddest short film you ever experience.

The animated entries are ... not so hot. Several represent the triumph of form over content; I can only assume that the individuals who selected the nominees valued animation style first, and storyline second. Not one entry has the brilliant blend of storytelling and rich animation that made prior Pixar entries such as One Man Band and For the Birds (the 2001 winner in this category) so entertaining.

Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman's revisionist take on Peter and the Wolf, a UK/ Polish co-production, is the most satisfying of the current bunch. The puppet-style animation is perfect for this adaptation of the familiar story, although you'll wonder for the first few scenes — which play to dead silence from the soundtrack — if you've stumbled into the wrong film.

But then Prokofiev's familiar anthems swell into life, and the saga of a boy, his duck, a bird, a cat and a hungry wolf unfolds as we remember it ... more or less. The charm of this adaptation, aside from the beautifully crafted puppets, comes from the ways in which Templeton and Welchman tweak the narrative. This is most definitely a post-modern Peter, and he comes of age with a live-and-let-live maturity far beyond his years.

At just over 32 minutes, it's also the longest animated piece, but the time passes without discomfort.

The same cannot be said of My Love, a 27-minute Russian entry from director Alexander Petrov that feels like watching paint dry. Actually, the analogy is apt; it looks like watching paint dry. The lifelike, rotoscoped style explodes like a series of watercolor paintings strung together; the result is gorgeous but also quickly tedious, because of the degree to which the animation technique overpowers everything else.

Not that the story is all that interesting in the first place. My Love is decidedly Russian: a dull, dreary saga of doomed romance that would be right at home with poor imitations of Tolstoy and Pasternak. I couldn't wait for it to end.

Even Pigeons Go to Heaven, a droll French entry from Samuel Tourneux and Simon Vanesse, gets points for wit and brevity. This piece, also puppet animation, concerns an old man who receives a very unusual visitor late one stormy night: a fast-talking fellow determined to sell our senior citizen hero on a specific version of life in the hereafter.

Unfortunately, the set-up builds to an anticipated resolution that never comes, the story instead detouring into an entirely different direction. (Frankly, I think my version — of an allegorical God and Satan dueling for the old man's soul — would have been far more satisfying.)

I Met the Walrus is an interesting curiosity: a 5-minute doodly, pencil-style visualization of an interview secured by 14-year-old Jerry Levitan back in 1969, when the boy sneaked into John Lennon's hotel room with a tape recorder. The result, animated here by Canadian director Josh Raskin, will prompt nods of recognition from those who remember the animation style employed in 1968's Yellow Submarine.

Indeed, I Met the Walrus feels like it could have been made 40 years ago, and I don't mean that unkindly; the simple, faux retro look is part of the film's appeal.

That leaves us with Madame Tutli-Putli — another Canadian entry, this one from directors Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski — about which the less said, the better. This stop-motion, puppet-style nominee clearly was selected solely for the craft involved, which is admittedly impressive ... but the film itself is unpleasantly weird and brutish: 17 minutes and 17 seconds of my life that I'd rather have back, thank you.

Happily, the live-action entries are much more impressive, both individually and as a body.

Even the weakest, Italy's The Substitute, is a giggle. Andrea Jublin's strange little comedy begins in a grade-school classroom, where a most unusual substitute teacher quickly wreaks havoc among the bewildered students; the action eventually shifts to a corporate boardroom, where we suddenly discover that playground social dynamics really do prepare one for life in the real world.

The Mozart of Pickpockets, from French director Philippe Pollet-Villard, also is a comedy, albeit in a more Dickensian mode. Pollet-Villard and co-star Richard Morgiève play a pair of low-rent criminals who operate as part of a pickpocketing team. Things look grim for our oddly fussy heroes when the rest of their gang gets pinched by the police, and their hand-to-mouth existence becomes even harder when a street urchin (Matteo Razzouki-Safardi) "adopts" them as surrogate parents.

But the boy proves resourceful in an entirely unexpected way, which leads to an amusing conclusion.
Although he has spent every spare moment during the previous two weeks
sharpening up his tango skills, the shy and somewhat bumbling André (Dirk
van Dijck) discovers that practice isn't anywhere near the same as dancing with
a sensual female companion.

Understated humor also is key to Tanghi Argentini, by Belgium's Guido Thys and Anja Daelemans. This one sneaks up on you: Dirk van Dijck stars as a mousy office employee who persuades a co-worker (Koen van Impe) to teach him some tango steps, in order to impress a woman at an upcoming dance.

The build-up is charming enough — a comic blend of bits from Shall We Dance? and The Full Monty — but the payoff, which you'll never see coming, is wonderfully clever. At just over 13 minutes, it's also the shortest live-action entry, which is even more impressive; Tanghi Argentini stuffs a lot of story into its economical package.

At Night, from Danish directors Christian E. Christiansen and Louise Vesth, is a beautifully assembled and acted film; it's also incredibly difficult to watch. At 40 minutes, it has the weight and impact of a feature-length movie, and it'll definitely leave a lasting impression.

Julie Olgaard, Laura Christensen and Neel Ronholt star as (respectively) Stephanie, Sara and Mette, three young woman who meet each other as patients in a cancer ward during the almost claustrophobically quiet break between Christmas and New Year's Day. All three are very sick; all are awaiting, or recovering from, various stages of treatment.

The film's intimacy is almost invasive: the mood grim and heartbreakingly brutal. And yet, despite the relentlessly overhanging cloud of tragedy, this ultimately is a saga of redemptive triumph. Doing the right thing can be very, very difficult, and these three actresses forge a bond that reaches beyond their characters ... indeed, beyond the screen.

At Night is the one time this film program shows actual teeth, so think twice before you invite casual acquaintances to share the experience.

Tanghi Argentini remained my favorite until The Tonto Woman, the final entry in this category. Like At Night, the 34-minute Tonto Woman feels like a full-length drama; indeed, this British entry from directors Daniel Barber and Matthew Brown boasts a level of sumptuous production design that would be the envy of many Hollywood features.

It's filmed beautifully — cinematography by Ben Davis — and shot on an authentic Western set that firmly establishes a sense of time and place.

The story, adapted from a 1982 Elmore Leonard short story — and you'll definitely detect the narrative echoes of his other work in this genre, such as 3:10 to Yuma — concerns a mostly honorable man named Ruben Vega (played by Francesco Quinn) who, despite his predilection for cattle rustling, believes himself a good person.

He's therefore appalled when he comes across a woman (Charlotte Asprey, as Sarah) who lives alone in a small wooden shack at the outskirts of the much larger ranch home owned by her wealthy husband.

The reason for Sarah's solitude lies in her past: When much younger, she was kidnapped by Tonto Apaches and ill-treated for 11 years. Her husband never stopped tracking her, and eventually rescued her and brought her home. Unfortunately, the woman's shame is impossible to put behind her; her faced has been tattooed in a way that identifies her status as an Apache harlot. Unable to bear the so vividly public shame, Sarah's husband has essentially "banished" her to an isolated life.

Ruben sees only a beautiful woman, and one who has been cruelly mistreated — far worse, in some ways, by her husband — and deserves better. And so he decides to do something about it.

The Tonto Woman has the rich psychological stamp of an Elmore Leonard story; each of the many character dynamics is fascinating. Directors Barber and Brown also elicit impressive levels of poignance and tenderness from Quinn and Asprey; the moments when she bares her soul — and her body — are unexpectedly powerful.

This one, too, will linger with you for awhile.

These films will be shown as alternating separate programs — live action, then animated — at the Crest. Catch them this week, and you'll have an informed emotional opinion on Feb. 24, when the white envelopes are opened.

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