February 17, 2007

MOVIES: Oscar-nominated shorts

This year's program of live-action short films struck me as significantly weaker than last year's, with most of the nominees being marred by excessive sentimentality.

Javier Fesser's "Binta and the Big Idea" crams too many stories into too little time, and all of them wind up slightly muddled. The central theme is the importance of education to poor communities (this one happens to be in Africa); the film is produced by UNICEF, and has more than a whiff of sanctimonious condescension.

Borja Cormeaga's "Eramos Pocos" and Soren Pilmark's "Helmer & Son" both deal with adults and aging parents; each is pleasant enough, and "Eramos Pocos" has a surprising twist ending, but neither short is particularly memorable.

I'd put my money on Ari Sandel's "West Bank Story" to win; it's a broadly comic musical about an Israeli-Palestinian Romeo & Juliet, set against the backdrop of feuding fast-food joints (Kosher King and Hummus Hut). For my money, it too often crossed the line from gently mocking ethnic stereotypes to wallowing in them.

My favorite of the group was Peter Templeman's "The Saviour," an Australian fim about a pair of missionaries and their relationship with a young couple in need of a miracle. The characters are more complex, and the story contains more surprises, than I'd have expected in so short a film; I think there's easily enough material here that this could be expanded to feature length.

The animated films are a much stronger group. Even the weakest of the group, Geza M. Toth's "Maestro," is an attractive bit of computer animation with a clever punchline; it does, though, go on a bit longer than that punchline can justify.

Roger Allers' "The Little Matchgirl," based on the Hans Christian Anderson story, wants desperately to make us weep; despite the loveliness of its images and the marvelous use of a Borodin string quartet as score, it never reaches the level of pathos to which it aspires.

Pixar's "Lifted," directed by Gary Rydstrom, is a very funny short, in which we are reminded that on-the-job training is a bitch no matter what your job, and that for some jobs, such training can lead to enormous amounts of collateral damage.

There are two standouts in the field. Chris Renaud and Michael Thurmeier directed "No Time for Nuts," featuring Scrat, the squirrel from the Ice Age movies, whose discovery of a time machine makes his perpetual acorn quest even more complicated than usual.

Torill Kove's "The Danish Poet" is a charming meditation on fate and the improbable chain of events that leads to each of our births. The animation isn't especially sophisticated -- more than anything, it reminded me of the Schoolhouse Rock shorts -- but the jokes are perfectly timed, and Liv Ullmann's narration has just the right tone of wistful wonder.

The five nominated shorts only run about 45 minutes in total, so there were five extra shorts on this program; the only one which came close to the nominees in quality was Bill Plympton's "Guide Dog," in which a very eager dog is frustrated by repeated failures in his chosen career.

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