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MOVIES | PATH TO THE OSCARS

On the academy's short list

The batch of nominated shorts, both animated and live-action, show a variety of strengths despite their lengths.

March 14, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

The five Academy Award nominees for live-action short represent solid calling cards for their makers, and Apollo Cinema is offering the general public the chance to see four of these venturesome, engaging works in a theatrical setting.

"The 2003 Academy Award-Nominated Live Action and Animated Shorts Program" opens a two-week run today at the Fairfax and will then tour key cities. Apollo will also be presenting "The 2003 Academy Award-Nominated Short Documentaries" at 11 a.m. at the Monica 4-Plex Saturday and Sunday and again the following weekend.

Martin Strange-Hansen's alternately amusing and stinging "The Charming Man," at 29 minutes the longest of the films presented at the Fairfax, cleverly reveals Danish racism directed at immigrants through romantic comedy. A young man signing up for a government job-training program finds his identification number mixed up with that of a Pakistani trying to sign up for a Danish-for-foreigners class taught by a lovely, liberal-minded woman from the young man's high school days, with whom he is immediately smitten. He thereupon disguises himself as that Pakistani and attends her class, with myriad consequences.

Three others depend upon sharp, imaginative reversals. In Australian filmmaker Steven Pasvolsky's 17-minute "Dog," set on a large South African farm during the later decades of apartheid -- and which could just as easily be set at an ante-bellum Southern plantation -- a young Xhosa boy bonds with a playful boxer puppy only to be forced at gunpoint by his farmer-master to participate in a cruelly diabolical ploy to turn the animal against blacks, an act that will have ironic consequences a decade or so later. Pasvolsky rightly allows time to establish mood for this psychological drama.

Both Belgian writer-director Dirk Belien's seven-minute "Gridlock" ("Fait d'Hiver") and French director Philippe Orreindy's four-minute "I'll Wait for the Next One" ("J'Attendrai le Suivant"), which Orreindy wrote with Thomas Gaudin, turn deftly on dark humor. In the first, a young man caught in traffic calls home on his cell phone and tells his daughter he wants to speak to her mother, only to have the child reply, "Mama's upstairs in the bedroom with Uncle Wim...." In Orreindy's film, a pleasant-looking young man of 29 with a good job announces to the passengers aboard a Paris train that he's tired of being single and has tried all the usual methods of trying to find a woman with which to share his life and invites any woman aboard between the ages of 18 and 55 who might be interested in him to slip off at the next stop.

Lexi Alexander's "Johnny Flynton," the longest of the five Oscar-nominated shorts at 38 minutes, is an acutely sensitive and expressive story about a young couple (Dash Mihok, Michele Matheson) in a small Southern town who are deeply in love and profoundly grateful they have found each other, both having come from dysfunctional families. Mihok's Johnny, a promising boxer but a gentle man outside the ring, is bothered by the thought of being perceived as a brute, yet is vulnerable to rages and inarticulateness. Alexander, who wrote the film with Fabian Marquez, brings her perspective as a former karate and kickboxing world champion to bear upon her compassionate portrait. Unfortunately, the Fairfax is not equipped to show the effective wide-screen Super 35 format in which cinematographer Alexander Buono shot the film.

All five of these shorts are fine examples of straightforward narrative, but when it comes to the ability to tell an emotionally engaging story with absolute economy and a knockout punch, Orreindy has the edge.

Different approaches

There are, however, radical differences in style and tone in the animation category, with one extreme being a delicately dazzling and highly original work from Japan and the other being two hard-driving, highly commercial vignettes from Hollywood that feature a sharp, state-of-the-art three-dimensionality with sure-fire appeal to youngsters.

Koji Yamamura's luminous, flowing, 10-minute "Mt. Head" ("Atama Yama") is head and shoulders above the competition. It's a wry parable on the perils of extreme thriftiness with the exquisiteness of a watercolor. It involves a solitary, roly-poly middle-age man who lives in a junk-filled hovel and is so obsessed with wasting nothing that he feels compelled to eat the nuts inside some cherries that fall his way -- with the result that a tiny cherry tree sprouts atop his bald head. Yamamura takes this droll improbability to inspired heights.

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