Sunday, February 9, 2014

Oscar-nominated Live Action Short Films Review

After three years now it’s safe to say I have made a tradition of seeing the Oscar-nominated short films at IFC Center in New York. And I have the same observation this year that I had last year about the live action shorts. There’s something so refreshing about short films. It’s like being freed from the confines of what’s involved in a two hour plus feature. You know with each one that the resolution will come quickly and that there won’t be any subplots. It’s also fascinating to realize that many short films could very easily be expanded to feature length. Therefore the converse must be true and suddenly you start thinking about all the features that might have been better as restrained short films. This year’s crop of five nominees represent not only five different countries, but also very different subject matter and styles of storytelling.

First up in the program is the Danish film Helium, a whimsical tale of Alfred, a young boy in hospital with some undisclosed terminal illness directed by Anders Walter. Alfred befriends Enzo, a janitor whose own brother died many years earlier. Alfred’s fascination with balloons and zeppelins prompts Enzo to recount a story of children not going to Heaven – where, according to Alfred, it looks boring – but to some other magical world called Helium. This was probably my least favorite of the group if only because this sort of fantasy realism as it pertains to the easy button to push of dying children is really uninteresting to me. It didn’t move any real emotion in me at all.

The Voorman Problem, directed by Mark Gill, was easily my favorite and the only one with recognizable actors. Martin Freeman plays a psychiatrist summoned to a prison to examine one of the inmates – Voorman (Tom Hollander) – who claims to be a god. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, the warden says, except he’s convinced the entire prison population he is. The sardonic wit of this film comes in short bursts throughout its brief thirteen minutes and takes it to surprising places. This is what Bruce Almighty would look like if written by someone with a sense of irony and a ripe comedic voice.

From France comes Just Before Losing Everything, written and directed by Xavier Legrand, which was interesting in the way it could be a thirty minute segment of a feature film. There’s so much that takes place before the action opens that we’re not privy to and potentially a lot after the close and several directions the story could go. It is filled with terrible tension that sneaks up on you after a serene opening finds a boy leaving his house and walking to school, but stopping by a small creek under a bridge. A woman picks him up and they drive, in silence, and come to a bus stop where they pick up a teenage girl obviously saying a last goodbye to a boyfriend. This family is on the run from an abusive husband. They remain holed up at the mother’s place of work in a supermarket until they can safely leave. Here you can see a bit of Michael Haneke’s influence on the way Legrand uses his camera to build a sense of dread and anticipation. This is a clear example of a story that could go on as a feature, but functions in a really unique way as a short.

Next up is an example of a story that is certainly broad enough for feature length, but was kept mercifully short. That Wasn’t Me is a Spanish film by Esteban Crespo. It is a classic social problem film about child soldiers in Africa. The country goes unnamed, which is either a convention of short films to excise details that could add to the film’s length, or a way of making all of Africa generically similar for the purpose of making a point. The film opens with a scene of almost unbearable tension as a young Spanish couple, being driven by a local guide, attempt to make safe passage outside a war zone, first having to pass through a barrier manned by two armed children. They are soon caught and things just go from bad to worse. The story is told by one of the child soldiers as an adult from a position of newfound understanding of humanity, brought to him by a great merciful gesture. The film ends up going from a simple story of two doctors trying to get home to an action stunt spectacular with a terrified woman playing the action hero. It becomes more absurd by the second in the final moments.

The final film, Selma Vilhunen's comedic lark from Finland called Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? In the film’s very brief seven minutes, a family wakes up late, Four Weddings and a Funeral style, for a wedding. In the chaos of getting ready, the bumbling idiot dad who can’t manage anything in the household gets coffee spilled on his shirt, the girls put on Halloween costumes in lieu of the dresses they can’t find, they take a potted plant to take the place of the gift that is missing, etc. It’s a frantic scene that ends with the disheveled group arriving at the most unlikely and unfortunate of events (they got the wrong date for the wedding). This really reminded me of  the style of a zany animated short film, but filmed as live action.

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