As is often the case, the field of live-action shorts competing for the Oscar is thinner in quality than that of the animated shorts but still of interest. "The 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films -- Live Action" features five films, all from Europe, that include strong drama and amiable comedy.
"The Tonto Woman," from the United Kingdom, is an unexpectedly tender western based on an Elmore Leonard story. Francesco Quinn stars as a cattle rustler who encounters a woman (Charlotte Asprey) forced to live in seclusion by her husband after being held captive for 11 years by the Mojave tribe. Director Daniel Barber keeps an even hand on leveraging the inherent violence as an imminent threat throughout the film.
The stingingly earnest Danish melodrama "At Night (Om Natten)" focuses on three women (Julie Olgaard, Laura Christensen, Neel Ronholt) battling cancer in a hospital ward. It's a well-acted piece written and directed by Christian E. Christiansen, but at 40 minutes it feels either too long or in need of more drama to comfortably expand to feature length.
Of the three comedies, Italy's "Il Supplente (The Substitute)" has the most bite. An unruly classroom snaps to attention when an unorthodox personality shatters the students' expectations of what represents authority. Director Andrea Jublin satirizes the button down mind-set of conformity in praise of the need to cut loose once in awhile.
From Belgium comes "Tanghi Argentini," a diverting twist on the now familiar perils of Internet dating. Nebbish Andre (Dirk van Dijck) has met a formidable woman online and made a date to do the tango in two weeks. But he doesn't know how so he enlists unsympathetic co-worker Frans (Koen van Impe) to coach him. Writer Geert Verbanck and director Guido Thys put Andre through some predictable paces before unleashing some surprises.
"Le Mozart des Pickpockets" is a pleasant French riff on criminals softened by the presence of a child. Writer-director Philippe Pollet-Villard and Richard Morgieve play inept drifters who find a young deaf boy who turns out to be a boon to their fortunes. It's fairly broad and defiantly sentimental, but Mongieve has the malleably sad face of a silent film clown that makes it worthwhile.
"The 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films -- Live Action." Unrated. Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes. At the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., Westwood, (310) 281-8233; and Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.