Friday, January 31, 2014

The Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts: 2013

From worst to best:

The worst of this year’s live action short Oscar nominees, “Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me),” descends directly from 2011’s “Na Wewe” (itself rightly passed over for Luke Matheny’s “God of Love”). That short, about child soldiers manning a gate crossing, at least drew strength from the specificity of its setting in the Burundian civil war. In this year’s entry, all we know is that we’re somewhere in Africa, seeing the story through the eyes of a Spanish couple, both doctors performing humanitarian aid. He gets shot and she gets raped and, bizarrely, the kid responsible later goes on a lecture tour of college campuses, where his confessions are met with applause and approbation. Talk about your white guilt.

I also didn’t like “The Voorman Problem,” starring Martin Freeman of “Hobbit” fame as a prison psychologist asked to deal with an inmate named Voorman (Tom Hollander), who believes (and has managed to convince all the other cons) he is God. No, not a god, God. This short starts out on an interesting tack – there’s a great bit about Voorman doing away with Belgium (“Even the Belgians won’t miss it”) – but ends (in 13 minutes) abruptly, with a twist from left field that could have worked but would have required a lot more buildup.

The biggest laugh in the set comes in the exceedingly minor “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?”, about an oversleeping Finnish family’s farcical misadventures in attempting to get to church for a friend’s wedding. The kids wear Halloween costumes; Dad’s in a dress shirt with a huge coffee stain and comically mis-tied necktie; Mom ripped her dress and her knee’s bleeding. They show up, a scribbled card and uprooted plant in hand, only to find a funeral in progress. When the younger daughter places the card on the casket and the subtitle reveals how it reads, hilarity ensues.

My second-place vote would go to Denmark’s unabashedly maudlin but undeniably effective “Helium,” about Alfred, a patient in a children’s hospital, and Enzo, the orderly who, after hearing Alfred describe heaven as boring and lonely, tells him about the much better place, Helium, where he’ll be going to “gather his strength.” It’s a world of castles suspended on clouds, with crystalline air that glows in the night, full of Alfred’s beloved balloons and dirigibles. This is a movie with one aim and one aim only: to put an enormous lump in your throat and a tear in your eye. And damn if it doesn’t succeed.

The most promising of this year’s crop of live action shorts is Xavier Legrand’s “Avant que de tout perdre (Just Before Losing Everything),” about Miriam (Léa Drucker), a clerk in a French emporium reminiscent of the Czech hypermarkets in 2004’s great “Český Sen.” Miriam is a battered wife – we see fleeting glimpses of the bruises left by her husband, Antoine (Denis Ménochet) – and has finally decided to leave, bringing her kids to work with her and asking her sister to pick her up. Antoine shows up just before Miriam has collected her final pay – he tells her she has his checkbook – and her former colleagues help – or don’t – in her potentially life-or-death attempt to pass it off as another ordinary day. In half an hour, Legrand, an actor, shows command of perspective, the escalation of tension, and the injection of urgency, and finds one of those endings that catch everyone else off guard but I always seem to intuit – the kind where it has to end, even without closure, because it’s exactly right.

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