Once again, Magnolia Pictures has snapped up all of the short films, both live-action and animated, that were nominated for Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards and is parading them around the country in one big marathon of goodness.
Reviewing these annual collections is just the tiniest bit pointless. After all, each and every one was nominated for an Academy Award. What more can I add to that? Even if you end up liking one or two of the shorts more than the others, you can rest assured there’s nothing on the order of Witless Protection hiding in this rarified bunch.
The films have been split into two obvious categories: The animated films make up one bundle, while the live-action shorts comprise the other. The animated films usually attract more attention, because who the hell doesn’t love cartoons? Taking viewers on a quick tour around the world, The 2007 Academy Award Nominated Shorts (Animated) makes stops in France, Russia, Canada, the U.K. and Poland.
“Même les Pigeons Vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven)” is a computer-animated film featuring some amazing tech. The story, about an old man who gets swindled by a priest into buying a machine that will give him a sneak preview of Heaven, is an amusing enough joke. But it’s the animation that shines here. Every surface in this film glistens with reality, surpassing even the work of Disney’s Pixar Studios at times.
“My Love” goes the more traditional route, offering up a beautiful oil painting-style interpretation of a young Russian boy’s obsession with a romantic novel by Turgenev. If you didn’t major in 19th-century Russian lit in college, the subject matter’s a bit esoteric, but the lovely, Degas-inspired art and the theme of young passion give it an international resonance.
From a stylistic standpoint, the Canadian film “Madame Tutli-Putli” is the standout in this collection. The technique is nothing less than arresting. Painstaking stop-motion animation (à la the Quay brothers) is employed, and the level of craftsmanship is daunting. Real human eyes are superimposed over the exquisite puppets, giving each an eerie semblance of life. The existential (and entirely wordless) story is on the elusive side--something about a timid woman in ’20s flapper attire boarding a mysterious, luggage-clogged Night Train. But the Carl-Jung-meets-Fritz-Lang imagery is indelible.
The Oscar winner here also employs stop-motion animation and a lack of dialogue to interpret Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter & the Wolf.” The traditional musical fairy tale gets a somewhat modern take, thanks to British director Suzie Templeton and a team of Polish animators. They end up spinning the story far away from the sanitized Disney version and emphasizing what appear to be some heady political overtones to the children’s story.
“I Met the Walrus” is a fun visual lark from Canadian Josh Raskin. As a teen in 1969, Raskin snuck into John Lennon’s hotel room and interviewed the music legend. Raskin takes his own brief tape recording of the encounter--in which Lennon philosophizes on the nature of war, peace, rebellion, government and youth--and adds some appropriately psychedelic ink drawings that turn the whole thing into a multimedia art project. The Walrus would surely approve.
The 2007 Academy Award Nominated Shorts (Live-Action) are an equally worldly selection. The opening short, an Italian-made comedy called “The Substitute,” is sort of a letdown. In it, a man shows up at a classroom full of troublemaking teenagers and proceeds to berate them in a wacky Roberto Benigni manner. Even with the mild twist ending, it isn’t all that funny.
Things pick up quickly, though, with the Belgian short “Tanghi Argentini” about a middle-aged office worker who enlists a grumpy colleague as a dance teacher when he makes a tango-centric date with an online hookup. The film hops on the same sort of middle-aged tango-lust trend as Shall We Dance?, Assassination Tango and several others, but the O. Henry twist ending provides a far more fitting coda than the previous film’s.
“At Night” follows the story of three Danish women stuck in a cancer ward over the Christmas holidays. It’s not nearly as sentimental as the premise would indicate and provides quite a bit more drama than the other lighthearted offerings. It’s not surprising to learn this minimalist tearjerker was produced by Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa Entertainments.
The prizewinner in the live-action grouping is the French short “The Mozart of Pickpockets.” In it, two hapless conmen find themselves in dire straights when the rest of their thiefly gang is busted. Fate throws them a lifeline in the form of a mute little moppet who proves to be preternaturally adept at picking pockets. The film manages to ape the cute-kid-saves-grumpy-adults genre (Kolya, Central Station, Kikujirô, King of Masks) without getting too cloying. The only drawback is that it feels like the opening few scenes of a much longer work.
Closing out the live-action shorts is “Tonto Woman,” a romantic Western (lensed by a British crew in Spain) about a Mexican drifter who discovers a woman living a solitary existence in the middle of the desert and becomes determined to uncover her sad story. It’s based on an old pulp Western from Elmore Leonard and fits in perfectly with the year that gave us neo-Westerns 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
There you have it: 10 films, 10 Academy Award nominations. Buy a ticket and get to watching.
The Academy Award Nominated Shorts (Animated) opens Friday at Guild Cinema. The Academy Award Nominated Shorts (LIve-Action) opens Tuesday at Guild Cinema.