On the academy's short list

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.

Tomek Baginski's lush, moody Polish entry, "The Cathedral," vividly imagines a cathedral actually formed by living trees with their branches meeting in the manner long believed to be the inspiration for Gothic architecture. In this eerie six-minute film, anyone entering this cathedral is in for a surprise as to how truly alive it is. In Chris Stenner and Heidi Wittlinger's eight-minute -- yet somewhat overlong -- "Rocks" ("Das Rad"), from Germany, two rock creatures observe millenniums of human activity from a mountain perch only to discover that they have indeed gathered moss.

With "Mike's New Car," from Walt Disney-Pixar, Peter Docter (with Roger Gould) has done a three-minute, 46-second follow-up to the popular 2001 feature "Monsters, Inc." In this ultra-succinct vignette, the diminutive Mike (voice of Billy Crystal) takes his big furry pal Sulley on a ride in his new six-wheel car, only to have the vehicle turn on them in ways ingenious and brutal.

With a setting similar to an old "Stars Wars" sequence, Eric Armstrong's "The ChubbChubbs" finds a little monster mopping floors in a crowded oasis nightclub on a desert planet, dreaming he is up on the stage performing when circumstances find him facing down a phalanx of gigantic, mace-wielding, armor-wearing alien creatures. A lot of jaunty violence ensues in the tradition of vintage cartoons, and this was surely a crowd-pleaser when it was shown in theaters last summer with "Men in Black II." A full-length feature from this first digitally animated short film produced by Sony Pictures' Imageworks seems indicated.

All four of the nominated documentary shorts are strong, socially conscious celebrations of the human spirit. In the summer of 2001, "Law & Order" executive producer Dick Wolf assembled a crew to produce a reality pilot about New York's Emergency Service Unit, but this footage now has become the basis instead of "Twin Towers," a stirring 33-minute tribute, directed by Bill Guttentag and Robert Port, to the 14 men of the unit who lost their lives on Sept. 11.

The focus centers on affable Joe Vigiano, 34, his older firefighter brother John, and their father, one of the most decorated heroes in the history of the FDNY. John Jr. heeded the call to the World Trade Center, as did his brother. John Sr. understands that, like himself, his sons found meaning serving in a dangerous profession and stoically notes that he taught his sons never to go off to work without saying goodbye to their families with love, because "You never know if you're coming back."

New Yorkers are also seen at their best in Alice Elliott's poignant 34-minute "The Collector of Bedford Street." When his mother died in 1968, mildly retarded Larry Selman was taken in by his uncle, who by 1971 found him a small apartment near his own in Greenwich Village. Over the decades Selman dedicated his life to collecting funds for various charities, but now his uncle is 81 and Selman is 60. Since Selman had the good fortune to be living in an increasingly upscale neighborhood of much sophistication and civility, he became a matter of concern to prosperous neighbors who took the unusual step of setting up a trust fund to provide him with security for life. The film also reveals the limits of the concept of IQ; Selman's may be only 62 and he may be childlike in some ways, but he is nonetheless an articulate, perceptive and reflective man.

In another part of New York, also lined with well-kept old apartment houses, chic, attractive Erslena Jacob, who resembles Diana Ross, makes an all-too-familiar remark: "I've raised two children, and here I go again." Roger Weisberg's 27-minute "Why Can't We Be Family Again?" is a compassionate portrait of how Erslena and her two grandsons, 14 and 11 when we meet them, with the support of Erslena's staunch mother and brother, try to deal with her daughter Kitten's seemingly hopeless drug addiction. A fine example of cinema-verite, realistic in regard to Kitten and hopeful for her sons.

Robert Hudson and Bobby Houston's 40-minute "Mighty Times" focuses on another strong black woman, an American institution who may not be as familiar as we thought.

Rosa Parks may have been weary after working all day as a seamstress, but when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., what she was really tired of was the indignities of segregation and had already been exploring how she could help do something about it. That Parks was an attractive, refined woman above reproach and that Montgomery had a newly arrived 27-year-old pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. with Gandhi-like notions about nonviolent resistance and that they attracted staunch supporters across the color line made it possible for black Montgomery to stand fast and mount a 381-day bus boycott that launched a civil rights revolution.

Hudson and Houston's visually dynamic film, rich in archival materials, reveals a stunning irony: The bus driver who had Parks arrested for disturbing the peace for not yielding her seat in the black section to a white man years earlier had forced her to enter through the rear door rather than walk past whites, and he was also at the wheel when Parks boarded a bus the first time after the boycott ended -- to sit up front.


Where to see them

'The 2003 Academy Award-Nominated Live Action and Animated Shorts Program'

Where: Fairfax Cinemas, Beverly Blvd. at Fairfax Ave.

When: Multiple showings daily, starting today, for two weeks

Contact: (323) 655-4010


'The 2003 Academy Award-Nominated Short Documentaries'

Where: Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica

When: March 14-15, 22-23, 11 a.m.

Contact: (310) 394-9741

Where: Theater Palisades, 941 Temescal Canyon Road, Pacific Palisades

When: Sunday, 7 p.m.

Contact: (310) 459-7073 or www.palisadesfilmfest.com


DocuDay: A marathon screening of the nominated documentaries, long and short, presented by the Independent Documentary Assn. and Sundance ChannelWhen: March 22, 10 a.m.

Where: Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive. (at Wilshire Blvd.), Beverly Hills

Contact: (213) 534-3600 or www.documentary.org

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