Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Recent Watches: 2014 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts
It’s always interesting comparing the live action shorts to the animated shorts. The animated shorts tend to gravitate between cartoony and experimental. The live action shorts, meanwhile, are frequently burdened with “importance,” as if the only way to get the Academy’s attention is too be super-serious and depressing. This year, the live action shorts are especially affected by this attitude. Three of the nominated films, all of them stretching over twenty minutes, deal with depressing topics, making the experience of watching all of them together something of an ordeal. What positive details can I parse out of this year’s collection?
Depressing topic number one: Sick, dying kids! “Helium,” a Danish film, concerns the friendship that forms between a hospital janitor and a young boy stricken with some unnamed, terminal illness. The boy, infatuated with balloons and zeppelins, is bored by the traditional idea of heaven. Counteracting this, the man invents Helium, a magical place where homes float on balloons in the sky, the night sparkles like crystals, and sick children are always healthy. As you’d expect, the boy's condition gets worse and the fantastical afterlife the man has invented is soon the only thing giving him hope.
“Helium” is Spielberg-ian in its ambitions, coming dangerously close to being mawkish. From the beginning, the movie never lets the audience forget that the little boy is going to die. The heaven of Helium is presented as something between “Avatar’s” Pandora and a Hallmark card. However, the short has enough emotional honesty to prevent it from becoming overly sentimental. Lead actor Casper Crump, as the storyteller, seems honestly invested in the boy. He provides a little humor and keeps things from getting too soul-crushingly sad. I’ll admit, the ending left me weepy-eyed. Does the movie pluck at your heart-strings? Definitely. Yet it’s well made and well-acted enough to keep from being annoyingly manipulative. I don’t mind a tear-jerker when the tears are jerked properly. [7/10]
The Voorman Problem:
“The Voorman Problem” is one of two lighter shorts this year. A British production starring Martin Freeman, it concerns a psychiatrist tasked with analyzing a prison inmate who claims to be God. As the story progresses, the doctor is forced to recognize the possibility that the inmate’s delusions might be true.
“The Voorman Problem” is very slight and ends right when it gets interesting. However, the short makes great use of Martin Freeman. Freeman’s unbelieving frustration is more-or-less the only thing powering the “Hobbit” films. He gets to march it out again here, fantastically, especially in a scene concerning Belgium. It’s funny, has a surprisingly moody direction, and seems to be reaching at something more. However, the short winds up not exploring its topic in a satisfying manner over the course of its brief thirteen minute run-time. [6/10]
Just Before Losing Everything:
Avant que de tout perdre
Second depressing topic of the evening: Spousal abuse! “Just Before Losing Everything” takes a while to unfold its premise. We see a boy walking away from school, hiding under a bridge. His mother picks him up before finding his teenage sister, who shares a tearful good-bye with her boyfriend. The family, pulling a large bag from the trunk of the car, gather at the woman’s workplace. She has to leave her job while her co-workers make cryptic references to some traumatic event, the woman remaining silent. As the film goes on, more details are revealed in understated, natural ways. The best moments are deliver quietly: The boy makes reference to his father pulling a gun on his mother. As she undresses, we see bruises lining the woman’s body. The deliberate pacing is frustrating at first but moments such as these wind up having more of a effect because of it.
“Just Before Losing Everything” builds to a great moment, slowly becoming a thriller of sorts. I won’t reveal the exact details but the final sequence generates a lot of suspense. You wind up becoming very invested in these characters’ lives over the course of the thirty minute running time. Lea Drucker is strong in her silence, rarely cracking and holding it together when we know all she wants to do is weep. Especially compared to the next short, its careful, detached approach proves very effective. It’s not my favorite of the nominees but it’s the best of the ones that might actually win. [7.5/10]
That Wasn’t Me:
Aquel no era yo
As I said, this year’s crop of nominees is an especially maudlin lot. The evening’s depressing atmosphere peaks with “That Wasn’t Me,” a super-heavy short that really wants you to acknowledge just how heavy it is. Third depressing topic of the evening: Child soldiers and the atrocities in Sudan! A group of aide workers, attempting to rescue kidnapped boys, do not succeed in escaping a warzone. They are abducted by the local warlord and faced with boys, some of them no more then toddlers, brandishing machine guns and covered in war paint. Things escalate quickly. Two of the attempted rescuers are shot. In the struggle, one of the boy solders is shot in the leg. Having no use for a cripple, the warlord forces the child to shot the wounded boy in front of every one. The woman is abducted and raped, all of it shown in sickening detail. The camp is attacked by a random helicopter, young boys shot in cold blood, their mangled bodies tossed through the air by explosions. The woman makes her escape and, despite reason dictating otherwise, drags one of the boys with her. Though she wants to kill the vicious little shithead, she instead merely wounds him, forcing him to lead her to a peaceful region.
I really, really hated “That Wasn’t Me,” a self-aggravating piece of misery porn and the longest thirty minutes of my life. We know nothing about the aide workers before they are thrust into the hellish arena. The grimy, shaky-cam visuals are tired and uninspired, regurgitated from numerous other sources. Awkwardly introduced midway through the film, the story is actually shown as memories from one of the abducted boys. (How he remembered things he wasn’t present for, I don’t know.) The film presents real world atrocities not to raise attention but instead to shock. “That Wasn’t Me” is basically a cynical exploitation movie, utilizing real world horror for its own slobbering needs. There are ‘70s rape-and-revenge flicks with more internal integrity then this hateful thing. Sadly, this is exactly the kind of self-serious tripe the Academy loves and it’ll probably win. [2/10]
Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?:
Pitaako mun kaikki hoitaa?
After the drudgery of that last short, the light-hearted, quick-witted “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” was really appreciated. It’s a hilarious short hailing from Finland and clocking in at a speedy 7 minutes. A mother and father oversleep for a wedding they’re invited too. Quickly, they have to prepare, throwing on their clothes, rushing through brushing their teeth. The husband and kids don’t take the rushing very well, hilariously stumbling through. The problems pile up, a wedding gift forgotten, a high-heel shoe cracking, a plant vase shattering. To reveal too much more would spoil the punch-line but, suffice to say, the film wraps up on a hilarious note.
The film packs a lot of laughs into its short run time. Little things like alarm clocks and gift cards wind up leading to fantastic visual jokes. The climatic three minutes deliver some real hilarity, the family having to pay for their unpreparedness in an especially awkward fashion. “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” has no pretensions but presents a world as detailed and realistic as any feature. It’s absolutely lovable, screamingly funny, and, unlikely as it may be, I’m rooting for it to win. [9/10]
Unlike the obnoxious framing devices the animated shorts were hassled with, the live action shorts are bordered by interviews with previous winners. Shawn Christensen, who won last year for the excellent “Curfew,” which I’m happy to discover is being expanded into a feature, has some insightful advice. The other filmmakers do as well but that advice is undermined when you realize their feature credits include such films as “She’s Out of My League” and “What Happens in Vegas.” Also, Matthew Modine shows up for some reason and shares some amusing Kubrick anecdotes.
Over all, I wish the collection of shorts here were a livelier bunch. Some of the films are good, and at least two are excellent, but the collective watching experience this year was a serious bummer. This is why February is the only time I generally explore “serious” cinema. Movies like this can be a real bummer and for all the wrong reasons.