Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Short Stuff: The 2013 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Of all the Oscar categories, the nominees for the Live-Action shorts may be the ones that are the ones likely to seem the least relevant to the average viewer. There are touring animation shows, and depending on the length, they may wind up shared widely on YouTube or getting some sort of home video release; documentary shorts often end up on PBS, HBO, or some other cable channel (though often edited to fit a certain length). Documentary and foreign-language features will almost certainly hit the boutique cinemas and streaming services. Live-action shorts? You might get reminded of the category's existence later when the director is credited as an Oscar Winner in an ad or on a DVD box, but seeing the actual movie can be unlikely.

That's why an Oscar nomination arguably means more to those in this category than anybody else - aside from a great line on the résumé, the package of live-action shorts is made available in cinemas and video-on-demand/digital download (starting from 25 February). Even aside from the fact that your film will likely be seen by a great many important people in the industry as they vote for the Academy Awards, just knowing that your short will actually be shown in theaters to audiences has to be something. Sure, festivals are great, but that's somewhat different.

The Nominees:
"The Voorman Problem"
"Just Before Losing Everything"
"That Wasn't Me"
"Do I Have to Take Care of Everything"


* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

It is, in fact, kind of a shame that "Helium" won't get a whole lot of play on the big screen aside from this; director Anders Walter and his crew will find ways to create impressive imagery despite the bulk of the movie taking place in an ordinary children's hospital, where new orderly Enzo (Casper Crump) quickly finds himself bonding with dying Alfred (Pelle Falk Krusbæk). The boy, it turns out, is fond of airships, as was Enzo's brother, leading Enzo to spin a tale of a land called "Helium", which sounds much nicer than Heaven.

"Helium" is the sort of story that gets told in short films fairly often - there's simple but powerful emotion at the center that would likely only be diluted if expanded past this movie's 23 minutes and burdened with subplots - and even if one doesn't see many shorts, it feels somewhat familiar as a result. Walter and his cast do fairly well by it; the picture does occasionally seem to jump straight from A to C, and the ending doesn't seem quite perfect, but the cast is likably earnest and form strong connections in a relatively short time, and that is the end goal.

"The Voorman Problem"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

Mark Gill and co-writer Baldwin Li adapt "The Voorman Problem" from a novel, and I suspect that rather than hyper-compressing David Mitchell's number9dream, they have taken something from the opening or a side-story and just shot that. It's hard not to feel that there's more to this story about a buttoned-down psychiatrist (Martin Freeman) examining a prisoner who claims to be a god (Tom Hollander) - and, most inconveniently for the warden (Simon Griffiths), persuaded many other inmates to buy into it - than this short has room to tell.

Even if Gill & Li (who also serves as producer and wrote the music) do constrain the scope of the story, they do squeeze plenty of good moments from it. The big gag is daffily absurd, and the cast each gets to play a British comedy archetype to near perfection: Freeman is the skeptical straight man, Hollander says outrageous things in a perfectly dry tone of voice, Griffiths is harried and fussy and just wants things back to normal. The short may just sort of stop after 13 minutes as much as it really concludes or particularly articulates a point, but it's got enough laughs to get away with it.

"Avant que de Tout Perdre" ("Just Before Losing Everything")

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

The slow burn is a tricky thing, but "Just Before Losing Everything" manages it in startlingly fine style. Writer/director Xavier Legrand kicks things off here with a little misdirection about what the film is going to be about, then keeps things vague not as a cheap trick to artificially build suspense but because the characters aren't going to artificially explain themselves to an audience, until finally confirming what we have more or less figured out ourselves naturally. As all this is happening, the short takes on the air of a high-stakes thriller even if the story is actually intensely personal. It is, after all, that sort of situation to the folks involved.

In the meantime, Léa Drucker is proving to be excellent as Miriam, the ordinary woman trying to escape an abusive marriage. Telling just this moment of her story lets Drucker and Legrand concentrate less on the entire psychology of abuse than the sense of urgency around this particular moment, letting us see that Miriam is not weak or culpable even if she is genuinely frightened. She's surrounded by a very good ensemble, from Milja Chatelain and Mathilde Auneveux as ther kids to Anne Benoît, Claire Dumas, and Stéphane Shoukroun as her co-workers to a covertly menacing Denis Ménochet. There's not a bad performance to be found, and they reinforce each other just as well as one would hope.

And even if Ménochet's late entrance certainly derails this somewhat, there's something unique about the atmosphere Legrand and company create here: It's dark material, and there's never a moment when the audience doesn't feel that, but the cynical hopelessness so many stories like this go for is reduced. The unity of purpose in the right direction doesn't detract, but actually sharpens the film; there's a feeling that Miriam has a chance, even if she has to deal with some around her being reluctant to acknowledge a problem.

"Aquel No Era Yo" ("That Wasn't Me")

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

In some ways, Esteban Crespo's "Aquel No Era Yo" ("That Wasn't 'Me") attempts to work the same template as "Avant que de Tout Perdre" - an initial feint, some thriller elements to help the serious business go down, a mix of horror and hope. It does all right by them, too, although it's not quite as elegant; its story of two doctors (Alejandra Lorente & Gustavo Salmerón) and their guide (Jose Maria Chumo) attempting to escape a country in the midst of civil war takes a nasty turn, and then Crespo could maybe use a little more focus

The flash-forwards are a bit of an issue - it's one thing to show that a character survives the life-and-death situation ahead of time, and even that this person is changed, but "That Wasn't Me" doesn't quite give us enough to be genuinely curious about getting from A to B. On the other end of the story, Salmerón plays his character as written almost too well; Juanjo seems more unaware of the folly of treating a child soldier as more child than soldier.than he should. The rest of the group is fairly great, though, especially Alejandra Lorente as the other escaping doctor and Khalil Diop as the child soldier in question. There's a great, exciting story in the middle of this short, and though it's not presented perfectly, the result is still quite good.

"Pitääkö mun kaikki hoitaa?" ("Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?")

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

Finnish comedy "Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?" is the last of the nominees and a nice change of pace, a seven-minute quickie about a woman and her husband (Joanna Haartti & Santtu Karvonen) who wake up late on the day of a wedding and scramble to do what needs to be done in time, only to often compound the problem.

It perhaps shouldn't be a pleasant surprise that the short doesn't go into "sensible woman deals with idiot husband" territory; Joanna Haartti's Sini is just as likely to make things worse as better. Haartti and Santtu Karvonen are both funny people, and both director Selma Vihunen and writer Krisikka Saari give them plenty of good material. It's just what it looks like, and that's a good thing.

This year's Oscar nominees are a varied bunch, which makes for an odd presentation when seen as a group. My personal favorite of the group is "Just Before Losing Everything", and I wouldn't be shocked to see that take the trophy. But depending on the whims of the Academy, any of them could win and be a worthy choice.

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