Continuing our look at this year's crop of Oscar nominated shorts with the live action nominees.
Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn't Me)
The serious subject of child soldiers is treated as fodder for an unpleasant exploitation film in Esteban Crespo's misguided short, which depicts two European medical aid workers being taken hostage by a guerilla army in the African wilderness. While the power-mad adult general in charge of this outfit rants and raves, his squad of youthful killers (one of whom is glimpsed in occasional flash-forwards confessing his sins in front of a packed auditorium) menaces the victims with guns and threats of rape. Crespo seems to think he's exposing the horrors of life as a child solider, but instead he turns them into generic action movie boogeymen that torment our (white) heroes, to the point where we're almost encouraged to cheer for their deaths. It's an ugly dramatization of an ugly real-world issue.
Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
A superb exercise in sustained tension, this 30-minute domestic thriller opens with a mother of two turning up at the Walmart-like super-store where she works with her kids in tow as well as a garbage bag filled with clothes. Turns out, today's the day she's decided to leave her abusive husband, but her exit strategy is complicated by bureaucratic procedures (like getting her last paycheck) as well as the sudden arrival of the man she's fleeing, who can't be allowed to realize that this isn't just an ordinary workday. Applying the stripped-down style of the Dardenne brothers to a classic escape narrative (albeit, one that has a social conscience), directors Xavier Legrand and Alexander Gavras (son of the Greek director Costa-Gavras) come up with a film that's, in many ways, as gripping as any of the feature-length Best Picture nominees. Here's hoping we see more from them and soon.
Thanks to Denmark, the requisite "dead child" entry is present and accounted for. While lying in his hospital bed wasting away from an unspecified illness, a young boy is treated to tales of a gravity-defying world called "Helium" courtesy of his nighttime janitor, where adventure-minded children like him go after they depart this particular plane of existence. Not content to simply tug at your heartstrings, Helium would prefers to rip that beating organ out of your chest through mawkish music, bluntly sentimental dialogue and beatific images of the dying boy living it up in this non-Heaven heavenly wonderland. Parents: plan your bathroom break accordingly.
Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
The only out-and-out comedy of the bunch hails from Finland of all places. On the morning of a big wedding party, a harried mother struggles to get her husband and two daughters out the door in one piece, only to encounter one setback after another. Even if some of the gags (including the climactic twist) are too-clearly telegraphed, directors Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari display solid comic timing and most of the laughs are genuine. Also, neither of the kids die, which is a big bonus.
The Voorman Problem
Everyone's favorite Everyman, Martin Freeman, headlines Mark Gill and Baldwin Li's clever (perhaps too clever) short, which comic book readers will identify as a twist on Watchmen's famous sixth issue containing Rorschach's prison interrogation by the out-of-his-depth Dr. Long. In this case, Freeman plays the kindly psychiatrist tasked with analyzing a problem inmate, Voorman (Tom Hollander), who is under the perhaps-not-mistaken impression that he's a god. Although the punchline is a doozy, the film's drier-than-toast sense of humor makes getting there a bit of a slog, even with Freeman's always appealing presence.
Will Win: Just Before Losing Everything
The ticking-clock premise makes it play like the last 30 minutes of Argo, which is the main reason that film won Best Picture in the first place.
Should Win: Just Before Losing Everything
It's the obvious standout in a generally weak field. If it somehow loses, it'll be one of the biggest upsets of the night.
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