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Grade: B- Oscar shorts a decidedly mixed bag

The five live action and five animated short films nominated for Oscars screen at the Alamo South

Chris Garcia
A strong performance from Sagar Salunke carries the 18-minute 'Kavi,' a sharp look at slavery.

In "Kavi," the best film of the 10 short narrative films nominated for an Oscar this year, a little boy in contemporary India is trapped in an abusive life of slave labor to help pay off his father's debts. The boy only wants to go to school and play cricket, but his lot, making bricks crouched on his haunches all day in the hot sun, promises a future of squalor and enforced misery.

Told unflinchingly, in hues of blazing orange, "Kavi" ineluctably evokes "Slumdog Millionaire," last year's best picture Oscar winner, which will work in its favor during balloting. But the 18-minute movie, written and directed by Gregg Helvey, stands on its own. It's a swift jab of a story about class despair, violence and hope told with grim, sometimes brutal urgency, owing equally to the social realism of Satyajit Ray and Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay!" Carried by young Sagar Salunke's marvelous central performance — you ache and root for him — the movie is both art and a rattling bulletin about human slavery occurring worldwide.

"Kavi" screens with four other live-action shorts nominated for Academy Awards at the Alamo South. The five Oscar-nominated animated shorts are playing on a separate bill at the venue.

Among the live-action movies, "The Door" is an oppressively dour true story about the deadly effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster on a young family. It plays like a terrible fable, swathed in desaturated colors, as if, aptly, drained of blood. "The Miracle Fish," from Australia, shrewdly addresses the phenomenon of school shootings and the innocence they shatter. Its abundance of heart doesn't quite compensate for its air of incompleteness.

While the sparkly Swedish comedy "Instead of Abracadabra" successfully pays homage to the camp-happy surrealism of "Napoleon Dynamite" — it features an equally socially inept protagonist who happens to be a feckless magician — the American entry "The New Tenants" is a ghastly misfire. Co-starring indie stalwart Kevin Corrigan and Vincent D'Onofrio, who appears to be in alarming bad health, the caustic short belabors its dark humor and New York-hipster cred while being ostentatiously unfunny. A wasted Oscar nomination.

Animated shorts historically provide more immediate satisfaction, but this year's crop left me mostly bored and bereft.

Nick Park's beloved clay buddies Wallace and Gromit star in what will surely take the Oscar, "A Matter of Loaf and Death," a murderous, bakery-set thriller bursting with sophisticated comic action worthy of the silent greats. Still, it's more charming than hilarious — the title reflects the laugh quotient — and a bit too long at 29 minutes.

A cantankerous old woman tells a terrifying version of a classic bedtime story as her spaghetti-headed granddaughter pulls the sheets over her face in "Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty," a droll diatribe against elder abuse.

To save face, a proper Frenchman orders cup after cup of espresso when he realizes he's forgotten his wallet in the Pixar-ish "French Roast," and a surgeon plays tug-of-war with the Grim Reaper over a dying woman's soul in the Spanish entry "The Lady and the Reaper."

The French-made "Logorama" deftly skewers Hollywood action and disaster movies and their fancy for flagrant product-placement. In a metropolis slathered in name-brand everything, cops (played by Michelin men) are in pursuit of a psychotic, Joker-esque criminal (played by Ronald McDonald). The mustachioed Pringles guys, the Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Clean and others pop up in this visually ingenious if conceptually thin parody.

Get a sneak peek at the shorts at www.shortshd.com/theoscarshorts.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649

Rating: Unrated. Running times: Various. Theater: Alamo South.