Award-winning short films from around the world.
Warner follows up a classy first volume of international shorts with a lackluster second volume. Who was asleep at the wheel on this trip?
Starting with the same music and menu graphics from International Release 1, this volume of the Short series seems much shorter than its predecessor. Although, admittedly, that is because its two hour running time is half swallowed up by an hour long documentary. As always, the disc is divided by genre. Production notes are included with each segment.
Animation: only one short here, from a UCLA grad student. "Kite" blends cell animation and computer graphics in a brief, impressionistic exercise inspired by painter William Turner. The art is nicely textured, but there is little more to this piece than nice atmosphere. A director's commentary, composition test (showing the layering of effects), and a computer model are included.
Music: Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, a quirky Welsh pop act, is the only featured band. The interview/performance segment is the same as that included on Circuit 7 and mostly consists of the band talking about why their name does not mean anything. Oh well, at least they don't take themselves seriously either.
Interview: Pierce Brosnan and Gabriel Byrne are featured in a series of short (30-90 seconds, half a dozen apiece) clips in which they talk about being Irish actors. No filmographies or clips of their work are included, and the individual segments must be selected separately from the menu—you cannot watch them straight through.
Fiction: there are two reasonably interesting shorts in this section. "Kaal" is the work of a French director working in Bombay. In shimmery black and white, with almost no dialogue (a brief voice-over sounds like Hindi, but is untranslated, so I have no clue what it says), we watch the passing life of a cobbler in the streets of Bombay. He makes brief contact with his customers, straightens thread for hours (a sign of his steadfastness and sense of purpose), and cheerfully fixes shoes. Time wears on him, and soon he grows old and dies. Then a young apprentice takes over, and the cycle starts again. The director's commentary appropriately focuses on the philosophical distinctions between India and the West (how the cobbler—played by a real cobbler the director found working in the street) accepts the rigid social position into which he is born. Unfortunately, the director's commentary only lasts the first 5 minutes of this 13 1/2 minute short! The rest is silence.
"Gabriel" is filmed in widescreen, 35 mm, with an obviously high budget for a short film. Shot in English (although a Flemish production), it tells the surreal, sepia-tinted tale of a small boy raised by nuns. He believes he is an angel waiting for his wings to grow. Encouraged by one of the nuns (of whom he remarks, "She is not a human being, because she is a nun"), he builds his own wings and jumps off the roof to his death. Beyond the surface, this film seems to suggest a struggle for gender-identity and power between the boy and the nuns, who are always trying to dominate each other. But it is sorely missing a director's commentary or other supplements.
Documentary: two pieces here. The first, a four-minute clip from the PBS documentary series "First Person Singular," features "post-modern" architect I.M. Pei, best known in America for his controversial pyramid entrance to the Louvre in Paris. I remember Pei best, because he designed the dorms where I went to college. The short clip focuses mostly on Pei's Bank of China building in Hong Kong, which is notable for its use of equilateral triangles in its visual design. Pei also talks about the important of travel to one's education. The segment ends with a plug to buy the full video—is this little more than a fancy commercial?
"Portrait: Jane Campion and The Portrait of a Lady" runs nearly an hour. As you can guess from the title, it is a "making of" documentary that focuses on Campion's recent production of the Henry James novel. Campion (best known in America for The Piano, her sharp deconstruction of 19th century marriage) tends to be a low-key director, scrutinizing James' critique of romance "seriously yet dangerously." She tends to work closely with actors, particularly the volatile Nichole Kidman. Of particular note are the sequences where she calmly destresses Shelly Winters (who was suffering from extreme pain and frustration due to health problems during the production) and a long, rainy scene with Barbara Hershey. Much like a Henry James novel, all the tension among the cast and crew tends to bubble under the surface in this documentary, which is shot in an almost washed-out color palette (occasional clips from the finished Portrait of a Lady are shown in widescreen and full, rich color). This is a solid examination of Campion's work on this film, but it says little of her work overall. It seems more suited for inclusion on the Portrait DVD itself—which it oddly enough is not.
Finally, two trailers for jazz-themed films, Round Midnight and Bird, are included on the disc. Nicely moody, but apart from the fact that the director of Round Midnight is French, why are these here?
All always, technical details are respectable: the transfer and sound are solid. I just wish they had used some new graphics, rather than recycle the ones from the first volume.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The problem with including the Campion documentary on this disc cuts right to the heart of all the problems with International Release 2. Because it takes up half the disc's running time, there are too few shorts here. In previous volumes of the Short series, you could always count on one genuinely good film per section, adding up to three or four shorts to make the disc worth a look. But this particular disc feels like leftovers from the first International Release (which you may recall I gave a somewhat positive review), even down to the same menus and music. Three of the five sections are pretty forgettable, the two fiction pieces are marred by brusque or non-existent supplements, and the I.M. Pei documentary is not really a documentary at all but a clip. And finally, the real meat of the disc, the Campion documentary, is not meant to stand alone, but requires viewing alongside the finished film it chronicles.
This disc is too weak to recommend. It feels like the second-tier stuff that did not make it onto the previous volume of International Release. The whole production feels lazy, like Warner's lost interest and did not feel the need to put forth much effort.
The court recommends avoiding this disc, unless you are a fan or scholar of Jane Campion (in which case, the documentary segment on her will make a fine companion piece to The Portrait of a Lady). Go buy Intrnational Release 1. Warner Brothers is sentenced to some educational travel in order to search out a better and more comprehensive selection of international short films (and include more classics next time too!) for the next volume of this series.
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