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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Oscar' a Mostly High-Quality Group

March 04, 1994|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Oscar Shorts '93," composed of the three short documentaries and four of the five live-action shorts nominated for Academy Awards, opens today at the Monica 4-Plex.

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The quality of the documentaries is so high that it will take the wisdom of Solomon to to pick a winner among them. The live-action entries are another matter: only two were available for this program, and one is as outstanding as the other is dreadful. Those not shown are: Susan Seidelman's "The Dutch Master," Didier Flamand's "The Screw," and Peter Weller's "Partners."

Steven Cantor's 30-minute "Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann" explores the predicament of Mann, a gifted and acclaimed photographer who has incurred the wrath of some because some of the countless photos she has taken of her three young children have depicted them in the nude. (The children, age 6, 9 and 11, insist that their mother has never asked them to disrobe to be photographed.) Intent on standing up for her right of freedom of expression, Mann is clearly a serious, responsible artist, articulate in her own defense. There is nothing suggestive or titillating in her stunning, poetically beautiful work.

Elaine Holliman's warm and engaging 22-minute "Chicks in White Satin" introduces us to two young lesbians who have been lovers for eight years and who decide that they want a traditional marriage, with both of them wearing white gowns. This warm, graceful film becomes a dual portrait in courage as the women face rejection from some relatives and who, most important, must win over one of the women's mothers, who feels uneasy at the prospect of the ceremony.

It would be hard to imagine a film more effective in raising consciousness about the plight of battered women than Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich's 30-minute "Defending Our Lives," which intercuts the remarks of human-rights activist Stacey Kabat, herself a battered wife, with interviews with eight women who recite with absolute conviction their harrowing existence as the wives of husbands physically abusive to the extent of endangering their lives.

The film points up how ineffectual police can be in protecting such women; Kabat states that in the United States, there are three times as many shelters for animals as there are for battered women. As fine as this film is, it would have been even stronger had it delved, even briefly, into the reasons why men brutalize women.

The presence of such pros as Jason Alexander and Edward Asner in Stacy Title's "Down on the Waterfront," a talky, boring 27-minute drama about a pair of young filmmakers meeting with union officials, is of no help whatsoever.

On the other hand, German filmmaker Pepe Danquart's 12-minute "Black Rider" is a miracle of wit and economy, as a black man (Paul Outlaw) comes up with a deft, amusing revenge upon his streetcar seatmate, an older German who spouts nonstop hatred and contempt of Turkish, Italian and, especially, African immigrants.

Also being screened is last year's live-action short Oscar winner, Sam Karmann's eight-minute "Omnibus," which deals with a harried office worker (Daniel Rialet) who boards his usual commuter train only to find that the schedule has changed, a surprise he regards as catastrophic. No wonder this gem walked off with a top prize at Cannes as well as an Academy Award.

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