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Balls to the Wall: Lionel Bailiu's film 'Squash' is part of the Academy Award Nominated Shorts program at the Rialto.

Salt and Bitter and Good

Something for everyone at Oscar shorts

By Gretchen Giles

The short films typically nominated at the Oscars couldn't be more radically different from that three-piece monolith The Lord of the Rings that swept the awards these past years. Running less than 30 minutes each, these shorts aren't usually seen in theaters, are always low-budget by Hollywood standards and sometimes act less like the narrative force fields of their longer brethren than as small, imagistic poems.

Once the ceremonies are over, the glitz swept away and Billy Crystal presumably installed in other work, the last juice of the spectacle is nicely squeezed by a compilation release of the short films nominated for consideration. For the fourth year, Rialto Cinemas Lakeside in Santa Rosa screens those films that are available (of the 10 nominated, only five are in release) on April 2-8.

The marvelously aimless Harvie Krumpet, which won the Best Animated Short Film category this year, is an Australian tickle of stop-frame claymation. Fans of Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit series will immediately recognize the elastic plasticity of this type of animation, modestly starring Harvie as a nowhere man born in a small Polish cabin in 1922 to an insane mother and a lumberjack father who has hands "like shovels."

Narrated by actor Geoffrey Rush, the film traces Harvie as he escapes the Nazis only to arrive in Australia and live the ho-hum life of a city dump worker, underwear-lint inspector and cigarette smoker. Love amazingly comes into his life, as does a child. He discovers a fondness for nudity, he learns how to be free within his own rules, he gets old, he dies. Not exactly uplifting in sketch, Harvie Krumpet nonetheless is a slight, lovely slice in which many bad things happen, some good is celebrated and it all slips naturally enough away in the end.

Also animated is Canadian filmmaker Chris Hinton's four-and-a-half minute sweetie Nibbles. A father takes his sons on a fishing trip. They eat on the way there and eat on the way back. A fish is caught. Period. But Hinton's seriously good drawings and overamped soundtrack make this a thrill-ride of a day, encapsulated into less than five minutes.

The Best Live Action Shorts are more serious fare. Germany's Red Jacket follows a Nike soccer coat from a bereaved German father's waste bin to a Red Cross distribution center to the arms of an urchin in Sarajevo. Whether the jacket inflicts bad luck or causes good is to be seen, as the coat affects the wearer in surprising ways.

Slovenia's entry, (A) Torzija, is also set in the terror of war-torn Sarajevo. There, a choir on its way to the safety and swank of a Parisian appearance, await passage through a tunnel as bombs explode around them. A farmer whose cow is having trouble giving birth enlists the group to sing the calf into existence.

Speaking of swank Parisian safety, France's entry, Squash, is a psychological thriller set in the claustrophobic plane of a private squash club. As an employer and his underling pound the ball off the walls, they emotionally joust over job and affections. Tightly shot and powerful, this 27-minute sketch would make Mamet proud.

Running less than two hours total, the Academy Award Nominated Shorts program is a visual buffet of different treats, salt and bitter and good.


Academy Award Nominated Shorts program plays Friday to Thursday, April 2-8, at Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. $5.50-$8.50. For showtimes, call 707.525.4840.

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From the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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