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Oscar-Nominated Shorts

At Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge

March 15 to 20

Although Harrison’s Flowers doesn’t open with the infamous phrase “based on a true story,” the film strives mightily to emit a docudrama vibe. Nonetheless, in recounting the adventures of a loyal wife who recklessly ventures to gore-smeared Croatia to rescue her newsmagazine-photographer husband, the movie tiptoes around the matter of its source material. It identifies its inspiration as a book by Isabel Ellsen, a French war-zone photojournalist, but who’s playing the Ellsen character? Not Andie MacDowell, who has the part of Sarah Lloyd, the steadfast wife. Nor David Strathairn, who plays missing spouse Harrison Lloyd. And not Adrien Brody, Elias Koteas, or Brendan Gleeson, who all impersonate other combat photogs. There is a female photojournalist character who may be French, but the script pushes her to the margins of the story. Which is also roughly what it does with history.

This isn’t the first Western European film to exploit Yugoslavia’s national meltdown as the backdrop for a fictional tale of noble foreign journalists. Welcome to Sarajevo did much the same thing, although that movie did seem to be fueled in part by genuine outrage. Harrison’s Flowers suffers no such pangs of conscience. Director Elie Chouraqui, a veteran French filmmaker whose work is rarely exported, uses battleground-video techniques (handheld camera, long takes) and full-frontal brutality to conjure the horrors of the struggle for Vukovar. Yet the only casualties that register on the film’s moral seismograph are those of American and European news photographers.

Two events introduce Harrison and his at-home world. First, the Newsweek photographer becomes reacquainted with his family after a long absence, greeting Sarah with a stand-up quickie. (The couple’s two kids are presented a few seconds later.) Then it’s off to a Manhattan ballroom, where Harrison presents a prize to colleague and friend Yeager Pollack (Koteas). In the men’s room, edgy fellow lensman Kyle Morris (Brody) snorts coke and protests that Harrison doesn’t care enough about small-time freelancers who take the same risks as photojournalism’s stars. Exactly what Harrison should do for these un-Pulitzered guys is unclear, but the angry restroom exchange—like the upright sex—is meant to establish the characters’ passion and grit.

Harrison tells his boss that he’s retiring from high-risk assignments; an avid gardener, he wants to exchange the killing fields for the budding life of one of the film’s two oversymbolic greenhouses. Yet he agrees to one more job, which will take him to what then seems a minor geopolitical sideshow: Yugoslavia in 1991. Sarah works at Newsweek, too, and soon after Harrison’s departure, she arrives at the office to find everyone strangely hushed. “He’s not dead!” Sarah insists.

Armed with this intuition and a TV-news image of the back of a man’s head, Sarah flies to Austria and rents a car. Almost immediately, she finds herself in a war zone, where she befriends a young Croatian man—who quickly dies to demonstrate how dangerous the country is for Americans. Dazed and almost violated, Sarah is rescued by a woman photographer, who takes her to Kyle. After telling her that she can’t possibly go to Vukovar, he agrees to accompany her. Joined by Irish photog Marc Stevenson (Gleeson), they negotiate their way through the carnage, shouting the magic acronym “TV” (although none of them are shooting video footage). Eventually, they’re joined by Yeager, who also tries to convince Sarah not to head for Vukovar but then joins her quest.

Filmed in the Czech Republic, the battle and aftermath scenes are convincingly grisly, even if their principal motive is to show Sarah’s resolve, not the suffering of Vukovar’s inhabitants. Italian-bred but Hollywood-seasoned cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, who shot Rules of Engagement, certainly knows his way around a bogus battle site. But the slaughter also serves another dramatic purpose: to distract from MacDowell’s extremely limited ability to deliver a line. A movie that requires its heroine to weep and dodge explosions suits her skills far better than one with a lot of, you know, acting. (Besides, Brody acts enough for the entire cast.)

Harrison’s Flowers is the latest example of a strange hybrid, the English-language French film. Understandably, the makers of such movies hire international stars, tend toward genres that don’t rely heavily on dialogue, and take their stylistic cues from such visually oriented cinema factories as Hollywood and Hong Kong. The results are usually campy, even when they don’t mean to be—and even when, like this film or Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates, they’re set in earthly hells. Chouraqui obviously means well, but at its core, Harrison’s Flowers seems all wrong. In the midst of horrifically compelling circumstances, the film wastes its time inventing banal interlopers.

For every La Jetee, Chris Marker’s exceptionally influential 1962 short, there are thousands of such nonfeature films that will be seen only by friends, parents, collaborators, and film-school professors. That applies to Academy Award-nominated shorts, too, but L.A. distributor Apollo Cinema has recently begun circulating a package of these entries. This year’s compilation plays for six days this week at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge; eight of the 10 films were made available for preview.

Half the entries are animated, and anyone who’s seen one of the traveling animation showcases knows the limitations of the contemporary art-‘toon form. Many of them are based on a visual idea that barely supports a narrative, such as Joseph E. Merideth’s Stubble Trouble, the tale of a hapless caveman who tries to get a close shave to attract a Stone Age glamour girl; the (nicely rendered) pictorial stratagem is to make the drawings look like cave paintings, with the texture of stone peeking through.

Stubble Trouble is also an example of another familiar gambit, the circular tale, in which permutations of the same indignity repeatedly afflict an unlucky character. So is Ruairi Robinson and Seamus Byrne’s Fifty Percent Grey, in which the solitary protagonist awakes in an empty white and off-white world, with only a TV and a VCR to deliver variations on a disconcerting message.

Cathal Gaffney and Darragh O’Connell’s Give Up Yer Aul Sins is also Irish and theologically themed. This short, however, is based on a real audio source, a best-selling recording of schoolchildren reciting stories from the Bible. Set in a Dublin elementary school, it introduces a young girl who tells her version of the tale of John the Baptist, a fractured narrative that the animators then proceed to illustrate. It’s all rather Reader’s Digest, although the nonbiblical images convincingly evoke the less fashionable side of Dublin.

Of the four animated films, the sharpest is Cordell Barker’s Strange Invaders, the tale of a lonely couple who become guardians of a creature from outer space. Though some of its quirks are extraterrestrial, in many ways the newcomer is a typical hell-raising toddler—which gives the Earthlings a nightmarish new perspective on the supposed joys of parenthood.

Of the four previewed live-action films, two are conceptually similar to the ‘toons: Their premises are simple, and their emphasis is mostly visual. In Johannes Kiefer’s Gregor’s Greatest Invention, a young man rescues his wheelchair-using grandmother from a nursing home by creating a fanciful device to help her walk. And Virgil Widrich’s Copy Shop is the nifty Kafka-meets-Xerox tale of a man whose copiers begin to create human facsimiles; this Austrian film’s toner-smeared black-and-white images are as visually inventive as any of the animated films.

The other two live-action shorts feature more involved scripts and bows to earlier traditions. Although set in Poland, Slawomir Fabicki and Bogumil Godfrejow’s A Man Thing recalls Italian neorealism. It’s the vivid, if unsurprising, tale of a surly 13-year-old boy who hates school and his father, and forms his strongest emotional bond with an old dog that’s scheduled to be euthanized. Kalman Apple and Shameela Bakhsh’s Speed for Thespians, by contrast, is more playful and more verbal. The latter quality is explained by an opening credit: It’s an adaptation of Chekhov’s short play, The Bear, albeit transplanted from Czarist Russia to a New York City bus. Chekhov’s text handily upstages the film’s gimmick, demonstrating that sometimes a short can have plenty to say. CP