2007 Oscar nom shorts

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For a third consecutive year, the 10 Oscar-nominated shorts hit the theatrical circuit thanks to Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International.

They're nearly all films whose craftsmanship and detail fill the big screen, and to varying degrees their stories compel. The shorts arrive in about 50 cities today, with the Rain Network providing digital distribution.

Among the five live-action nominees, three deal in some aspect with the everyday world of work. Italy's "The Substitute," by Andrea Jublin, is a spirited 17-minute collision between a typically self-absorbed group of teens and the strangely confrontational man who's subbing as their teacher -- and who has a hidden agenda that's as much about his own needs as theirs. For all its energy, the film is more concerned with an idea than characters and leaves the least impression of the bunch.

But the office drones in the Belgian film "Tanghi argentini" are vividly drawn. Before his date with a woman he met online, nebbishy Andre (Dirk van Dijck) enlists the help of an aloof colleague (Koen van Impe) for tango lessons. Elegantly lensed and crisply edited, the 14-minute tale unfolds with wit as the unlikely duo perfect terpsichorean flourishes amid the filing cabinets. The film by Guido Thys provides a nice twist.

For the hapless protagonists of "The Mozart of Pickpockets," the workday involves city streets and acts of petty crime. French writer-director Philippe Pollet-Villard co-stars with Richard Morgieve, and their terrific sad-sack chemistry as these clownish thieves gives the half-hour its punch. Their luck changes after a homeless deaf boy latches on to them, but it's a less-than-convincing narrative element.

The two most affecting live-action entries are the spare Western "The Tonto Woman" (U.K.) and the heartrending hospital-set drama "At Night" (Denmark). The former, based on a story by Elmore Leonard, centers on a high-plains Hester Prynne (Charlotte Asprey), a woman physically marked by her Mojave captors and ostracized by her community after her release. She finds unexpected human connection in the form of a Mexican drifter (Francesco Quinn). The half-hour film by Daniel Barber uses archetypal widescreen desert vistas to strong effect.

In a far different setting, three young women have formed a community within the coolly lit rooms of a cancer ward in "At Night." The 43-minute film by Christian E. Christiansen is direct and intimate but never maudlin. Restrained performances by Julie Olgaard, Laura Christensen and Neel Ronholt -- and Henrik Prip as one girl's father -- have a devastating emotional power.

The animated contenders deliver an array of imaginative narrative filmmaking. "I Met the Walrus" (Canada) is the exception in the sense that it's a documentary snippet. Josh Raskin uses audiotape of John Lennon, recorded in 1969 when 14-year-old Jerry Levitan sneaked into the Beatle's Toronto hotel room and coaxed an interview out of him. In its brief five minutes, the film free-associates line drawings and other playful 2-D visuals to Lennon's down-to-earth intelligence and subversive humor.

Offering its own brand of playful subversion is France's "Even Pigeons Go to Heaven," by Samuel Tourneux. A wily priest-cum-huckster, brandishing a list of his would-be customer's sins, urges an old man to buy a contraption built of "celestial titanium" that's guaranteed to transport him to heaven.

A mood of dark mystery pervades another Canadian entry, Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski's "Madame Tutli-Putli." The silent claymation fantasy unfolds on a night train, where a woman in cloche and pearls, surrounded by her precariously stacked belongings, faces her fears. The imagery is rich with texture and atmosphere.

Four-time Oscar nominee Alexander Petrov (who won for "The Old Man and the Sea") takes a classical approach in "My Love," a fever dream set in 19th century Russia, where a pampered 16-year-old boy is attracted to his glamorous neighbor and his family's good-natured servant. At 25 minutes, the piece feels a bit long, and its melodrama is not always absorbing, but with their watercolor shimmer and nightmare depths, the impressionistic visuals are fluent.

Most successful is "Peter & the Wolf" (U.K.-Poland), by Suzie Templeton, which fills its affecting half-hour with a delightfully rendered array of human and animal characters. Precisely choreographed and edited to Prokofiev's music, the piece is a ballet both comical and poignant and a triumph of CG personality.
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