Sunday, June 01, 2008

Film Review #161: 2007 Oscar Nominated Shorts
DVD released & distributed by Magnolia Pictures

Once I had a roommate enthusiastically preoccupied with the study of karate and getting ready to test for the black belt. Late-night shopping at Wegman’s during this period often involved sudden high kicks and startling whirls in the course of delivering bags of frozen peas or heads of lettuce to the shopping cart. I thought fondly of those moments while watching Tanghi Argentini, one of the five live-action short films nominated for the 80th Oscars that were awarded in February.

Just 14 minutes long, this Belgian film by Belgians Guido Thys and Anja Daelemans, relates how an office nebbish named Andres (Dirk van Dijck) gives his imperious colleague Franz (Koen van Impe) a most unusual Christmas present in the form of the tango-dancing blind-date Suzanne (Hilda Norga). But first the irritated, unsuspecting Franz must consent to do Andres the favor of teaching him the tango in two weeks’ time – hence several impromptu mini-sessions down a row of dour gray file cabinets – then tag along to the date for moral support and take over when the two-left-footed Andres manifestly isn’t up to the task.

Tanghi Argentini did not take the Oscar – that went to France’s Philippe Pollet-Villard for The Mozart of Pickpockets, in which he also stars as one of two hapless thieves who adopt a deaf-mute Arab boy – but it easily might have. If not for Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International, it’s unlikely most of us would see either one. For the third year, Magnolia has distributed the Oscar-nominated shorts together – five live-action films and five animations - first a brief outing in some 50 US theaters some weeks before the Oscars ceremony, just recently on DVD and beginning two weeks ago, another limited theatrical run around the country through late August. (Alas, no far not in Central New York.)

The neglected orphans of mainstream movie audiences, short films are gaining new attention in the US with such DVD collections after confinement to gallery and museum spaces and the film festival circuit. The Syracuse International Film Festival’s shorts program has consistently been strong throughout its five years – this year showing 25 live-action short fiction films and another 31 in a combined animation/experimental category. Even so, for scheduling reasons, SIFF usually splits up its shorts to fill out the feature film time slots instead of showing them together. As SIFF’s offshoot DVD distribution project gets rolling, let’s hope a selection of Best of Fest shorts joins the features roster.

Magnolia’s Oscar shorts DVD is just the tip of a very large iceberg cruising past mall multiplexes. For example, the Washington Post reported that this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which ended Sunday, screened 2,148 short films. The “big” feature-length entries at Cannes screen in the 2,300-seat Grand Théâtre Lumière to an audience in formal dress. Meanwhile, at the festival’s Short Film Corner, you watch films “in a cubicle, alone, like at work, on a computer,” or – at their official premieres – in a nine-seat screening room.

The 2007 Oscar live-action shorts are consistently excellent – well-written, deftly acted, crisply shot and – more than many a meandering feature – superbly edited. Live-action nominees also include Denmark’s somberly wrenching At Night, by Christian Christiansen and Louise Vesth, about three college-aged women who share late night confidences, New Year’s hopes and family secrets, not in a campus dorm but a cancer ward. From the UK, there’s Daniel Barber and Matthew Brown’s The Tonto Woman, adapted from an early Elmore Leonard Western story about a cattle rustler who befriends an outcast woman. That stars Francesco Quinn, son of Anthony, an actor to look out for. From Italy, Andrea Jublin’s succinct and hilarious The Substitute.

Of the animations, Suzie Templeton’s new treatment of Prokofiev’s classic Peter and the Wolf – a joint UK-Poland production – took the Oscar. A stop-frame animation reminiscent of fellow Brit Nick Park’s hit Wallace and Gromit series, this new version successfully eliminates dialogue and voice-over narrative. Stop-frame animation was also used for the two fantasies, Samuel Tourneaux and Simon Vanesse’s Even Pigeons Go to Heaven (from France) and Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski’s Madame Tutli-Putli (from Canada). The Canadians have long been animation masters, so it’s no surprise they’re represented a second time here with Josh Raskin’s I Met the Walrus, a cartoon-collage illustration of a 1969 recorded interview with John Lennon by a 14-year-old Toronto fan. From Russia, Alexander Petrov’s lush and gorgeously painted romance of youth, My Love. Take a break from the mall and discover something new and wonderful in small packages.

This review appears in the 5/29/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not enjoy a theatrical opening in CNY and older films of enduring worth.