2014 Oscars – Live Action Shorts

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Here are reviews of all 5 nominees for Best Live Action Short.

Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)

Spanish relief workers in an unnamed African country encounter many, many…many unpleasantries after being captured by rebel forces. There’s murder, rape, a firefight, and more. That’s a lot of suffering for a short film, and most of it is committed by children.

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These type of African-set stories, like last year’s nominee War Witchare so tiresome at this point. If feels like tragedy on top of tragedy without much purpose and absolutely zero context. Showcasing bad things is not sufficient dramatization. An awkward flash forward device is introduced to say something about ending violent cycles, but it’s pretty dumb. The short doesn’t even work on a visceral level. It’s saying nothing so there’s no suspense or menace. It’s inauthentic in every way.

 

Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)

This one starts off really slow. It was 10 minutes in before I figured out what the story was, but it’s actually my favorite of the group. A son casually waits for his mother to pick him up. She arrives and all seems normal. Then they pick up his older sister, and something is off. The teenager is tearfully saying goodbye to her boyfriend. Why? And what’s with the garbage bag in the trunk? In its own good time, the film clues us in. There has been domestic abuse from the father. A line was crossed and now the mother is getting her affairs in order before she skips town with her children.

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I’ve never really seen this kind of story approached in this way before. Most of the time the focus is on the abuse and the suspense is waiting for the victim to break away. Here, the decision has been made but there are other logistics to figure out like work and money. The film builds tension until the end when physically walking out the door becomes a harrowing minefield. It’s superb in its control and dramatic without feeling trivial.

 

Helium

If the tragic African narrative is tired, then the dying child tale is near catatonic. A terminal boy with a fondness for airships expresses his boredom at the idea of heaven. A friendly janitor invents a fiction for the boy that’s more hopeful and in line with the child’s tastes. At times this alt-heaven and the comfort it imparts does manage to maneuver past sentimental trappings thanks to some solid performances.

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But then we’re treated to a CG rendered montage of the place and the film falls flat. It’s such an unnecessary touch. The only way it would work is if the sequence was cinematically sophisticated. It needs to inspire. Instead, it’s a cheap effect. It’s the opposite of what this inherently sappy story needs. The short format and the missteps make it hard to be carried away on what should be built-in emotion. There needs to be something else here to justify the overworked subject matter.

 

The Voorman Problem

Adapted from material by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, this is a dry and absurd little film. Martin Freeman is a psychiatrist tasked with diagnosing a prisoner, played by Tom Hollander, who claims to be God. The best part is when the “crazy” inmate says he’ll make Belgium disappear in order to prove his omnipotence. And so he does.

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Most of the film indulges in this kind of randomness. It’s kind of like a Monty Python skit directed by Kafka. Like most skits, beyond the premise there aren’t many places for it to go. Some of it does start to feel like an exercise. But that’s okay because it’s short enough to work and the two stars have a good time digging into their roles.

 

Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)

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There’s not much to say about this one because it’s so short it barely registers. It feels like an extended Super Bowl commercial. A family wakes up late for a wedding and rushes to get out the door. The punchline is predictable and mildly amusing. But the film is well made. If it was selling me something it’d be remembered fondly. It just isn’t anything I’d consider worthy of laurels.

 

The shorts open in theaters January 31st and VOD February 25th.

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