The films, in the order in which they appear in the program:
"West Bank Story." Directed by Ari Sandel. United States. The winner of this year's Live Action trophy, "West Bank" tells of the endless dispute between the employees of Kosher King and Hummus Hut, two rival fast food joints in the Holy Land. Wouldn't you know it, a Jewish soldier and a Muslim waitress fall in love. And it's a musical! The comedy is often quite broad, often referencing itself as a parody, but most of the time it works. The stereotypes are drawn in large, comical strokes (Kosher King is "The Chosen Restaurant," the Hummus Hut waitress greets customers by firing a rifle in the air), but in the clever thought of boiling down international conflict to something as silly as a fight over falafel, Sandel delivers some sharp satire. (1.85:1 flat letterbox.)
"The Savior." Directed by Peter Templeman. Australia. A Mormon missionary is having a daytime affair with a housewife, and pretty soon the other elders are wondering why he's making house calls by himself. Darkly hilarious yet endlessly uncomfortable, this is a comedy about a ball of lies that grows far out of control, and the one-damn-thing-after-another approach to the storytelling makes for some deliciously squirmy moments. (1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.)
"Helmer & Son." Directed by Søren Pilmark. Denmark. A man is called to a nursing home to talk to his father, who is refusing to come out of a closet. It's an oddly touching piece, with characters coming to terms with their own desires in a few quick minutes, while the ending supplies the picture with a heartwarming sense of humanity. (1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.)
"Binta and the Great Idea." Directed by Javier Fesser. Spain. Two stories get told here: a young Senegalese girl thrills at the idea of attending school and hopes her cousin can one day do the same; the girl's father, meanwhile, concocts a brilliant idea for a peaceful future and winds up taking it all the way to the governor. With respects to "West Bank," "Binta" is the best of the five nominees. It's a genuine charmer with a vast supply of positive messages (the film was co-produced by Unicef), and the way it quietly suggests a change for the better is on the horizon leaves the viewer smiling. The father's letter, outlining his simple idea, is in its own way a powerful document of hope. (1.85:1 flat letterbox.)
"One Too Many." Directed by Borja Cobeaga. Spain. When a housewife walks out on her family, the father and son are left struggling to care for themselves - until the father decides to visit his mother-in-law and convince her to come home and do the cooking for them. Despite some sharp performances throughout, the picture doesn't really pick up steam until its final scene, a sly punch line that makes us grin at the thought of the men's situation. (1.85:1 flat letterbox.)
"The Danish Poet." Directed by Torill Kove. Norway/Canada. Winner of the Animated Short Oscar and narrated by Liv Ullmann, "The Danish Poet" is a not-so-simple story of how Kove's parents met - the notion being that all of our existences are the result of coincidence, fate, and/or dumb luck. Animated in a lush yet simple traditional 2D, the tale, which focuses mainly on a young poet's love for a woman in another country, is an extravagant fairy tale of sorts. As a simple love story, it overflows with sweetness and a gentle heart, but then it adds even more, with its wise, delicate explanations for our own lives. This is a beautiful work. (1.85:1 flat letterbox.)
"Maestro." Directed by Géza M. Toth. Hungary. Essentially a one-joke movie, but despite its predictability, the one joke is a real kick. A well-dressed bird prepares for his moment in the musical spotlight, as the camera swivels around and around, circling his dressing room and showing off its great detail. It's the attention to all this set-up that makes the punchline so terrific. (1.85:1 flat letterbox.)
Magnolia allows you to play all the shorts in one long stretch, play them all in groups (live action, animated, and bonus), or play them individually.
Video & Audio
Naturally, the video quality varies from film to film. The animated works look marvelous. "West Bank Story" has a crisp, clean quality to it. The other live action efforts reveal their low budget roots with less-than-stellar photography - although it's never a distraction, considering. There are no digital problems to mess things up. All of the films are presented in their original aspect ratios, as listed above. The non-anamorphic presentations of most of the shorts would normally be an issue, but I assume this is the best Magnolia was given.
The soundtracks all come in a solid Dolby stereo. Films not in English are provided with non-optional player-generated subtitles; no subs are offered for the English-language productions.
To make up for the three absent shorts, Magnolia is including six bonus films (five animated, one live action). They are:
"The Wraith of Cobble Hill." Directed by Adam Parrish King. An inner city youth abuses a storekeeper's trust, stealing at night after the old man gives him the keys to the shop. Filmed in clay stop-motion animation, this is a thoroughly somber affair filmed in grainy black-and-white, offering an effectively bleak slice-of-life. (1.33:1 full frame.)
"The Passenger." Directed by Chris Jones. A young man encounters a strange goldfish on a city bus. It's a horror spoof with a wild knack for visual comedy (emphasized by the complete lack of dialogue). Very, very funny. (1.33:1 anamorphic, windowboxed for widescreen TVs.)
"A Gentlemen's Duel." Directed by Francisco Ruiz and Sean McNally. Another wildly funny entry. Two pompous gents wooing a beautiful lady wind up facing off in a duel unlike anything you've seen before. Like the short that precedes it, this is old school cartoon comedy mixed with modern CG animation and a fast wit. (1.85:1 flat letterbox.)
"Guide Dog." Directed by Bill Plympton. A sequel of sorts to Plympton's brilliant "Guard Dog," this one finds the clueless, hyper mutt applying for the job of guide dog to the blind. The horrible events that follow are pure Plympton goodness. Not as twisted as "Guard Dog," but still full of several hilarious moments. (1.33:1 full frame.)
"One Rat Short." Directed by Alex Weil. A street rat finds his way into a laboratory run by a ruthless robot, falling in love with one of the lab rats along the way. It's a wonderfully strange mix of action and romance, all told from a rodent's point of view. The animation is stunning - look at that mouse hair! - but it's the story that hooks you. (1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.)
"Surviving the Rush." Directed by Sean Farley. The biggest movie of the summer is somehow only opening at one theater in Michigan: a lowly independent one-screener. This live action comedy is hit-and-miss with its jokes; gags involving various lousy customers and lousier blockbusters are right on the money, while an extended interlude involving the rival "Infiniplex" doesn't quite work. Still, it's enough to remind you to hug your theater manager once in a while. (1.33:1 full frame.)
The only other extras on this disc are two trailers, for "Fay Grim" and "Diggers," both of which play as the disc loads; you can skip over them.
These compilation discs are a major help to small-time filmmakers (whose work would otherwise go unseen) and a great treat for film buffs (who would otherwise never be able to find these smallish gems). Recommended to anyone who's ever caught the short film portion of the Oscars and thought, "hey, I think I'd like to see that."