2007 was a complete knockout for Academy Award-nominated short films ... exclamation point. From three of the darkest, most engrossing animated films I've seen this side of Tim Burton, to the incredible range of dramatic and comedic integrity with the live-action films, I was thoroughly involved with the entire range of these pieces - so much, in fact, that I soaked them all in one after the other in one sitting. Here, with Magnolia's A Collection of 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films disc, they're all enhanced for widescreen televisions and shining with, in general, very solid transfers. Here's the line-up:
Animated Short Films of 2007:
Peter and the Wolf (UK / Poland)
Winner, Best Short Animated Film
Retelling the classic Russian orchestral fable from Sergei Prokofiev, Peter and the Wolf follows a young boy as he is locked up by his grandfather for playing by a lake (frozen for this telling) with his animal friends, a duck and a blackbird. Shortly after he is throw "behind bars", a wolf surfaces from the woods and causes a scene with the animals around the lake. Once the wolf grows more and more violent, Peter takes it upon himself to act out revenge upon the evil beast. No fear exists in Peter's eyes, especially when revenge is at stake for his friends.
Symbolism runs rampant in Peter and the Wolf, ranging from the veracity behind the wolf's place in this conflict to Peter's imprisonment for simple activities. But that's neither here nor there, as most people have some bearings on the tale; Suzie Templeton's rendition, however, adds so much potent emotionality behind each other characters, especially Peter, which it takes the timeless fable and infuses it with a modern sensitivity. The animation adds a haunted, painful visage to the "prisoner", while also creating an overwhelmingly strong link between the audience and Peter's animal friends. Plus, the stop-motion achieved in crafting the movement of the wolf is phenomenal. Peter and the Wolf, at just under 30 (thirty) minutes in length, is an emotional and sensory tour de force that packs a fluid punch inside and out.
Madame Tutli-Putli (Canada)
Silence has never been so smarmily engulfing. Madame Tutli-Putli takes a darkly horrific look into one woman's trip on an overnight train ride. Laden with all the ornaments and trinkets of her past, she boards this rickety, cluttered train with a pen and paper in hand as her only distraction. As she gazes around her cabin, she's confronted with a very masculine environment, including two men playing a haphazard game of chess and a lewd passenger with a passionate agenda for our heroine. Once the lights begin to go out on the train and glowing green chaos starts to flood inside, the madame herself must cope with its frightening atmosphere.
Directors Chris Lavis and Maceik Szczerbowski have intricately pieced together an honest, terrifying ride with Madame Tutli-Putli, one which utilizes its lack of spoken words as its strongest asset. Instead of listening to a story, the film makes your eyes dart to the elaborate details scattered across the cabin to piece together atmosphere and mood. And, to say the least, this piece is drenched with intricate, engulfing details, from the jumbled chess match between passengers to our heroine's time glancing outside of the train's window. The most compelling element about Madame Tutli-Putli, though, is the heroine's eye movements and expressive gestures. Watching her move about the cabin and react to her environment, especially once the haunted train begins to emit a ghastly aura, can sends chills down your spine. Through some inventive symbolism (significance of a flailing chessboard and pieces, "baggage" that the woman is carrying, etc.), Madame Tutli-Putli oozes with atmospheric charm and thoughtful concentration.
Even Pigeons Go To Heaven (France)
Care to take Heaven for a test drive? That's the motivation behind a money-hording hermit named Moulin with a penchant for well-aged liquor. Working off of a tip he received from an intercepted dispatch, a priest zooms to Moulin's house just as the older man is fumbling off of a stacked support to grab his bottle. After the priest knocks on the door and introduces himself, he introduces the idea of a vessel that'll take Moulin to heaven, no matter the sins he's acted out in his life. Through some muscle and trickery, Moulin becomes interested in the priest's pitch ... until the truth comes knocking at his door.
Even Pigeons Go to Heaven follows a common situational framework, but it takes a slightly pensive turn as it introduces the idea of Moulin's minute sins and whether he honestly believes that they'd land him in The Netherworld. He has plenty of personality within his quirky and inquisitive innocence, which is good considering our priest doesn't have much more than a singularly focused energy. Their sales "meeting" is intriguing, though mildly played out; once Moulin is allowed the "test drive", however, the short starts to sprint towards the finish line with an enjoyable energy. Seeing the portrayal of Heaven in Moulin's eyes is a beautiful little slice of animation. Speaking of which, the level of visual complexity and richness within this computer-generated piece is outstanding - especially once the blurry car-and-bike race kicks into gear right at the start. It's a little familiar for my tastes, but Even Pigeons Go to Heaven captures some bright flashes of thought and emotion within its cat-and-mouse nature.
Live-Action Short Films of 2007:
The Mozart of Pickpockets (France)
Winner, Best Live-Action Short Film
Living off of noodles and scraping the barrel for their thieves' income, Phillipe and Henry are struggling to make ends meet as their middle men unjustly cut them out of their fair share. Eager to shift up, the two pickpockets go out to a crowded market and make a few moves to boost a few people on their own. When the police arrive, however, they play it cool in a corner of the market to camouflage their ways - only to find a deaf panhandling child holding their hands. Realizing that they can't just dump him for identification reasons, they take him into their cramped home. It's only once they start to talk it over with the boy that they realize he might become useful to their plight.
The Mozart of Pickpockets finds influence from several sources, ranging from the classics like The Bicycle Thieves to modern works like Matchstick Men. It simplifies the narrative, however, which also strips everything else bare for easy consumption of its humor and earnest emotional context. The dynamic that strikes between the elder pickpockets and their new accomplice quickly escalates to that of jovial support, as to be expected. All this clusters together into a sweet, simplistic manner that comes to a close much quicker than anticipated. One of the best things about this short, however, is the questionable analysis that the young boy strikes when you try and figure out if he's a con or not. Some questions are best left unanswered.
At Night (Denmark)
Dramatically heartbreaking and gloriously acted, At Night quietly finds its way into the cancer ward of a low-key hospital. It focuses on three women, all stricken with similar illnesses at different stages in their progression; Mette is bed-ridden with an advanced form of the disease, Sara has recently discovered the root of hers and is contemplating a potentially fatal surgery, while Stephanie seems to be a relative newcomer to the problem as she seems the healthiest and most virile. While they go through their daily struggles in coping with their illnesses, during the evenings they gather together in Mette's room and piece together as common of a bonded relationship as they can.
In so many words, At Night is a phenomenal meditation on death, suicide, illness, relationships, and the meaning of perseverance within each element. Sounds like a lot to cover in a short, right? Interestingly, this piece is the longest of the bunch at forty (40) minutes, and is probably my personal favorite of the live action works. Not a minute is wasted within At Night; amidst its icy cold interiors, the bravery these women exhibit on a day to day basis aches within their weakened personas. Once they gather together, especially in celebration of New Year's Eve, however, their energy bands together to form one of the most radiant connections between three individuals imaginable. It doesn't go down Ya-Ya Sisterhood-esque routes, thankfully, but instead opts to brim with realistic frailty and haunting humanity. At Night is an emotional powerhouse filled with both inspiration and temerity.
The Substitute (Italy)
As its camera follows down a normal middle / high school hallway, passing conversations about attractiveness and popularity all along the way, The Substitute finds its way into an unaware classroom of soon-to-be tortured students. In walks the substitute teacher for the day, a wild-eyed, electric man in a suit with a fiery focus on humiliating the socially shackled 6th graders. Spouting out orders in almost possessed fashion, he has his substitute students act as closely as possible to animals like goats and snakes - and it's not even known whether this is an acting session or not. Once the dust settles, the class will soon discover why the substitute teacher has arrived.
The Substitute's conclusion is about as foreseeable as they come, especially since its all but announced as the crazed man walks without warning into the classroom; however, what makes the film worth absorbing is for director / actor Andrea Jublin's absolutely electric portrayal of the wayward substitute teacher. He pinpoints specific stereotypes from the class and exploits them to their core, from the class suck-up to the unfocused jock, somewhat like tossing a salad around just for the sake of adding flavor. The lines of dialogue pouring from the substitute's mouth are outrageously entertaining when paired with his performance. Then, once the dynamic shifts and we're forced to see Andrea Jublin's character in a constrained fashion, it makes for a twitchy, fantastic event. The Substitute embraces this shift and allows echoes of reflective thought, ones that show people of all ages and social steps can learn from one another just by breaking the mold and standing with a defiant, "No".
Tanghi Argentini (Belgium)
Late one night as Andre conducts some "research" in a dark basement at his office, he feels the urge to take on his "Bing Crosby" persona and hop into an online chatroom to find a late night love connection. He finds a woman with an unsatisfied desire for a night of passionate tango footwork with a gentleman, something Andre lacks knowledge of in the slightest. The kicker? He's got two weeks to learn before the two meet. Desperate, he hunts down his co-worker Frans, a tango aficionado in his own right. With some persuasion, Andre is able to win Frans over for a wham-bam training session that spirals all the way until the big night at a tango bar.
Tanghi Argentini, a beautifully shot and earnestly acted short romantic comedy, is a sublime and surprising work that illustrates the wonders of humanization and the search for happiness. There's so much joy loaded into its short 14 minute time span, but the rewards that it offers once it concludes steal the show. Andre's character is the cornerstone of Tanghi Argentini; watching him assimilate himself over that two-week period is a real pleasure to watch. The dynamic that he and Frans develop as they work towards tango competence in an office environment is equally as priceless. Our real show stealer, however, comes when Andre and Frans arrive at the tango event, bathed in deep red fabrics and intimate lighting, and discover the tango goddess herself. As the accumulation of Tanghi Argentini's efforts boil to a head, it transcends into a tale of overwhelming heart and unquenchable delight.
The Tonto Woman (UK)
Riding on the coattails of another gritty emotional western, The Proposition, Daniel Barber's The Tonto Woman takes on a similar visual and emotional tone - then infuses the formula with the moving, poignant presence of a ravaged, spurned woman. Sarah, married to a dangerous local businessman, was captured and traded about by Native Americans at a young age. Once her husband located her after 11 years, he closed her off in a far-away cabin for her protection. Now, Sarah's the object of onlooking cattle runners and other assorted cowboys, namely an interested Mexican man who develops a caring eye for the marked outcast. He's destined to remove her from her plagued existence at any cost, even if that means defying Sarah's scornful husband.
The Tonto Woman's strongest asset comes from the writhing, disparate energy pouring from Sarah, masterfully crafted by Charlotte Asprey. She earns the focus that the film gravitates in her direction, if for nothing outside of the ghostly gazes pouring from her shackled, mangled emotional state. As to be expected form the title, she's the one to watch; the rest of the film encapsulates her, from the desolate, dusty settings to the rugged supportive cast that includes a nice scattering of Western typecasts. The instant attraction and gravity between Sarah and her Mexican savior provides just enough of an escapist element to bring out her pain and engulfing energy. Once Charlotte's Sarah gets going and her eyes light up, she tears down emotional barriers and almost stretches ethereal arms from her presence to be grabbed and pulled out from her internal prison. The Tonto Woman is a scathing character study, one that reaffirms the rejuvenated fluency that the modern Western has achieved over the past few years.
Magnolia presents A Collection of 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films in a standard keepcase presentation with green coverart that spills over into the menus for the DVD.
NOTE: According to Oscars.org's list of nominees and winners, two of the Short Animated Film nominees are not included with this collection: My Love, and I Met The Walrus. I can only assume that they did so because of space restraints: The total runtime for ALL the material on this disc stretches over 3 hours and 10 minutes! To include any more would probably be harmful to the digital quality of the other pieces on the disc. However, it's still a slight shame to not have the option to view the entire slate of nominees.
As can be seen by the screenshots above, each film is presented in an array of different aspect ratios, ranging from Madame Tutli-Putli's 1.78:1 standard widescreen to The Tonto Woman's 2.35:1 letterbox presentation. Possibly the neatest thing about this disc, however, is that each film is presented in a widescreen format ... and each and every item is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. As mentioned above, there is a lot of material on this disc; because of that, the quality fluctuates a bit on the features.
Digital noise and compression burps can be seen, quite noticeable in At Night during darker scenes when you get that "dancing pixel" look against pitch black backdrops. Edge enhancement also pops up intermittently, especially within The Tonto Woman during light outdoor scenes. Some digital comb effects can also be seen when motion gets a little quick in The Substitute.
However, for the sheer amount of material on this disc, I was rather impressed with the overall care that the 2007 Short Film Nominees disc was given. Color clarity and strength were both outstanding, as was overall frame solidity. The levels of detail also surprised me frequently, especially with Peter and the Wolf and Tanghi Argentini. Magnolia has done a fine job in providing an exceedingly solid transfer that overcomes some expected digital glitches to really shine in presentation.
As the credits rolled on a few of the pieces, I saw a Dolby Digital symbol here and there which leads to the idea that a more dynamic sound design probably exists for these films outside of the universal Dolby 2.0 Stereo tracks. Without addressing every single film, the collection as a while sounded quite good. Musical accompaniments during Peter and the Wolf and At Night were stellar, while the oomph that could've existed behind Even Pigeons Go to Heaven didn't show its head. Overall, the aural presentation isn't nearly as accomodating as the solid visual treatment, but its standardized quality and clarity of verbal dialogue did each film in the collection due justice. Each film's native language is the only available audio option, while subtitles are either non-existent or burnt-in English subs.
The only supplement, and it really is a nice supplement to add, is an option to stream each and every one of the films of each category in one viewing via a "Play All" function. Outside of that, you can view a simplified list of Credits for the films, and that's it.
If you enjoy short films, then A Collection of 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films is a no brainer - essential material through and through. However, even if you're not a big fan of shorter pieces, I'd still give this gathering of work a look; Each and every one of the three animated works are outstanding achievements in computer graphics and stop-motion wizardry, while every single one of the short live-action pieces offer some undeniably impacting themes and dramatic turns. Whether the winners should've won or not is completely subjective; what isn't, however, is that the range of films in A Collection of 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films stretch across a broad array of flavors and tones that make the whole she-bang a Highly Recommended affair.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site