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Sundance Shorts: The magnificent seven

Most of us think about short films only when it comes time to fill out our Oscar ballots, and even then we have to resort to various eeny-meeny-miny-moe methods to distinguish among nominees we haven't actually seen. But shorts are an art form of their own, capable of doing things in 10 or 20 minutes that many feature films fail to pull off in two hours. And if you'd like proof of that, you might want to check out the collection of short films now being screened at Sundance Cinemas. As various as you can imagine, these seven films were all part of last year's Sundance Film Festival. And although most or all of them have been commercially available on the web, I'm betting you haven't gotten around to seeing them yet. Neither had I.

But I have now, and I'm happy to report that there's not a weak one among them. Rather than describe them in general, I decided it would be more appropriate to provide short reviews of each one. I only wish I had these young directors' ability to distill and refine, tell a whole story in the time it takes the average Hollywood director to say "Once upon a time."

Death to the Tin Man: Ray Tintori has taken Book 12 of Frank Baum's Oz series and reimagined it as a sci-fi love story akin to The Fly. We're definitely not in Kansas anymore, but instead of wizards and witches casting their spells, we've got evangelicals casting theirs in what appears to be a nightmare version of the American South circa 1930. Plotwise, a lumberjack named Bill loses his heart to a girl named Jane and then proceeds to lose everything else, his entire body turning from flesh to tin. What it all adds up to is anybody's guess, but Tintori sure knows how to put on a show, moving from one shot to the next like there was a flock of flying monkeys on his tail.

Peace Talk: From Swedish director Jenifer Malmquist, a chamber piece about a couple of young girls whose playtime together seems straight out of Genet's The Maids. They're so intensely focused on each other, so bound up in games of dominance and submission, that the freaked-out mother of one of them winds up sending the other one home. "Can't there be peace, now?" she asks her daughter, who may not get around to answering her for 10 years or so. Rarely has Girl Power been so bluntly presented on screen. These kids rule.

King: Another chamber piece about dominance and submission, only this time the struggle's between a "woman of a certain age" and the rent boy she's hired to get her through the night. That she's old enough to be his grandmother (and kept reminding me of Louise on The Jeffersons) only accentuates the ever-shifting power dynamic between them. And the result is a film that's both touching and sad, but also something of a turn-on.

Salt Kiss: On an island near Rio de Janeiro, we meet Rogério, King of the Hot Tubs. Still good-looking but going to seed, Rogério's basically a boor, propositioning every woman he meets, most of whom accept. But a visit from an old friend, who brings along his new wife, stirs up some trouble in paradise. And director Fellipe Gamarano Barbosa extracts every ounce of juice from this Hemingway-esque duel in the sun.

God Provides: Not long after Hurricane Katrina blew through Louisiana, documentarians Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky toured the wreckage and came back with this quirky little film about the role religion plays in such disasters. Did God do a Sodom and Gomorrah number? Or is He the only reason anyone survived? You may not get a straight answer from the people Cassidy and Shatzky talk to, but a large hand-painted sign in front of one house tells us all we need to know about the Ten Commandments: "Trespassers Will Be Shot."

Everything Will Be OK: Animator Don Hertzfeldt puts a stick figure named Bill through all sorts of trials and tribulations, from those awkward moments when we pass somebody on the street and utterly fail our part of the exchange to a mysterious illness that brings on bouts of psychosis and sends the film to the Land of Experimental Cinema. The observational humor alone is worth the price of admission, everything accomplished with the barest of means, but Hertzfeldt also has a real knack for evoking the sheer terror of life's utter banality.

Happiness: Finally, this delightfully sad vignette from director Sophie Barthes in which a lonely Russian woman who does quality-control work at a condom factory purchases a "Box of Happiness" that may or may not be what her Slavic soul really craves. We never learn exactly what's inside the gift-wrapped box, but by literalizing such a notoriously vague concept, Barthes has given her film a metaphysical dimension. If money could buy happiness, would we all be willing to turn over the cash?

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