Mixed Reviews

Today’s program: Live Action Shorts. Always the most inconsistent in quality, always good for at least one “who nominates these things???” moment, the year’s offerings  proved true to form.

The good news: the superb Raju, a German/Indian collaboration, and the freezer burn humor of Tuba Atlantic, from Norway. The first is shot in a dazzling, sun-bleached Calcutta, featuring a superb performance by Wotan Wilke Möhring as a man who, with his wife (an equally good Julia Richter), adopts and loses a child back to the mean streets in just a few short hours. Desperate to find his son, the man uncovers truths that are even more disturbing than his loss. Taut, beautifully shot, and directed with clarity and lack of sentiment by Max Zåhle (who co-wrote it with Florian Kuhn), Raju deserves its nomination.

So does Tuba Atlantic, from Norway, a chronicle of the final 6 days of a man who no one seems as if they will miss much. Brooding in his spare flat facing an unforgiving North Sea, he receives a surprising and unwelcome visit from a braces-clad teen on a snowmobile, who perkily introduces herself as his “Angel of Death.” While killing seagulls together, they form a bond believable only because it is so bizarre. It’s that Stick-Your-Tongue-to-a-Flagpole gall0ws humor at which the Scandinavians excel, and, like Raju, is memorable and perfectly paced.

Not so the other entrants. In the Oscar shorts that I’ve seen over the years, the French, Germans, and Scandinavians are making shorts much in the way that short story writers write their narratives: These are movies meant to be 20-30 minutes long and no more; they’re works of art in and of themselves. Anglo-Saxons seem to be aiming more for TV time. Of the two entries from Ireland, Pentecost is a cute but insubstantial comedy about a bumbling altarboy; it contains one rather priceless scene in which a priest pep talks the altarboy team with the earnest fire of a frustrated football coach. The longer The Shore feels like an episode in a “dramedy” series, humdrum and cozy despite being set on the outskirts of Belfast, with The Troubles entering only peripherally and not really troubling the very lovely landscape. There’s also a rather bad bit of casting of the one American in the movie, and it doesn’t help that her part is so gracelessly written.

While it’s hard to understand how either of the latter are competing with the two former, it’s downright mystifying to figure out how the American entry, Time Freak, made it. Clearly an audition for something bigger, this self-conscious exercise features shaky acting of a script that’s clever on about the par of a better SNL sketch from the last 5 years, and in case there’s any question, I don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s Groundhog Day boiled down to an ipod playlist, as a guy repeats 10-minute sequences in his life until he can make them marginally less awkward. If this one wins, the Oscars are even more fraudulent than we already know them to be.


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