Oscar Short Action Films Not a Strong Category

2013 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts (2014)
113 minutes, Not Rated
* * *

Those who don’t live within easy commuting distance of a major film festival seldom get to see the shorts, documentaries, and animated films that get nominated for Academy Awards. One can only applaud the recent trend of packaging these for theatrical release even, as is the case this year’s live action shorts, the films are more mundane than magnificent.

The challenge for live action shorts, as we are reminded ad infinitum by the intercalary comments linking films, is to convey an entire story or narrative within a very short period of time. That’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation and the commentary is a major drag on this year’s collection of shorts. Remarks from directors such as Matthew Modine, Steve McQueen, and Anne Rosellini are little more than padding to stretch the program to nearly two hours. Far too often, their comments have nothing to do with the films at hand. Modine, for example, tells us that Stanley Kubrik didn’t have an ending in mind when he began shooting 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s an interesting story, but what a nearly three-hour film has to say about shorts is never revealed. In like fashion, we are told that short films often rely upon humor or irony to convey their point. There’s not much of that among the 2013 nominees! Synopses follow in reverse order of how I assess their merits.

Do I Have to Do Everything? (Directed by Selma Vilhunen and Kirikka Saari, Finnish with subtitles). This film shouldn’t be here. It’s a funny, but very slight, seven-minute film about a disheveled , disorganized family of four ruled by a discombobulated mom who thinks she’s the only thing that keeps it from disintegrating into chaos. Everything that can goes wrong as she rushes to get everyone off to a wedding. I was glad it was there given the heaviness of three of the films, but it’s little more than the clown leading the circus crowd to the exit.

That Wasn’t Me. (Directed by Esteban Crespo, 23 minutes, Spanish with subtitles and some English). This is probably the odds-on favorite to win given Hollywood’s penchant for honoring ‘important’ films. It deals with two Spanish doctors somewhere in war-torn Africa–think Mozambique or the Central African Republic–who have the misfortune to be taken captive by child soldiers and their abusive adult general. It centers on Paula, one of the doctors, and Kaney, a boy-soldier. I found it both horrifying and unrealistically manipulative. The last quarter of the film is mechanistic.

The Voorman Problem. (Directed by Mark Gill and Baldwin Li, 13 minutes). This one has a recognizable star, Martin Freeman (Dr. Watson in Sherlock), who plays a psychiatrist called into a prison where a man claiming to be a god has the place in an uproar because the inmates believe him. Is he? This is a mildly amusing film, though there’s nothing terribly original about the not-who-we-think-he-is setup.

Just Before Losing Everything (Directed by Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras, 30 minutes, French with subtitles). This is a very creepy film about a woman named Miriam who is trying to flee an abusive husband with her young son and daughter in tow. To accomplish this, she needs to complete severance paperwork at her work and wait for her sister to pick them up. The clock is ticking, but not as loudly as nervous hearts in the theater.

My favorite film was Helium (Directed by Andres Walter and Kim Magnusson, 23 minutes, in Danish with subtitles). It takes place in a hospital for terminally ill children. Enzo is only supposed to clean up around the place, but he meets Alfred, who knows his fate and isn’t much mollified by promises of Heaven. He does, however, draw great solace from magical stories of the after-death realm of Helium, which Enzo spins from Alfred’s love of airships. Some may find it mawkish, but I was touched and charmed.

One last gripe about the packaging: If you’re going to tout the artistic freedom of short films and how an individual director has total control, don’t spotlight five films whose sponsors, credits, and contributors list is longer than Hannibal Lecter’s rap sheet.

Rob Weir

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