by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
The Academy Awards present something of a conundrum for critics, or even fans, of film. The show is an exercise in singling out what a particular group of experts believe to be the year’s best in the medium. Given our current era of Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and a never-ending stream of social media opinions, the idea of an elite and mostly anonymous few telling the rest of us what’s what seems almost quaint. Still, the Oscars give exposure to films many of us are unlikely to see otherwise, especially when it comes to short-form content. Right now, The Harvard Exit Theatre is screening a program consisting of every live-action short nominated for a 2014 Oscar and, as always, it’s the very definition of a mixed bag.
The Academy lumps all short film into three, broad categories: live-action, animated and documentary. In the two narrative categories, this means that comedies share the slate with dramas, the entire spectrum of foreign film has to be filtered through the lens of a mostly American panel ostensibly not considering the foreignness as a meaningful factor, and a film’s length becomes a deciding factor in whether or not it even qualifies. Whereas the feature-length categories allow 90-minute punches to live alongside contemplative three-hour dramas, short films by their very nature have to clock-in under 30 minutes or so. This often means that films get edited for length instead of content, sometimes to the detriment of the narrative flow.
This may very well be the case with the biggest, most ambitious entry in this year’s program (and quite likely its winner), Esteban Crespo’s harrowing war drama “That Wasn’t Me.” The film is a more or less non-stop flurry of war horrors through the lens of Spanish aid workers coming across a checkpoint in a war-torn African nation, being taken prisoner and interacting with child soldiers. One of those child soldiers, Kaney, also appears as an adult telling his story to a crowd some indeterminate time in the future. The proceedings fall somewhere between “Big Issue” movie territory and a bullet-riddled action movie that would benefit from a feature-length running time or collapse under its own sense of importance. It’s not meant to be fun, though, and it generally isn’t. “That Wasn’t Me” exists to raise awareness about the child soldier phenomenon and promote the political ideals of the slew of non-profit organizations behind the film, which includes Amnesty International, Save The Children and many others. This is the kind of current-events heart-string-tugger that the Academy loves to embrace.
There’s really only one straight drama in the entire short films program and it’s a solid movie, however unlikely it is to get the statue. Xavier Legrand directs a devoted cast in “Just Before Losing Everything,” the tense story of a woman using her supermarket workplace as a means of escape for her children and herself from her abusive husband. Legrand spends a lot of time just over his star, Lea Drucker’s, shoulder and keeps a lot of shots moving with positively Sorkinesque fleetness. The film is a marvel of editing and, more than any other movie in the program, makes great use of the short format’s economy.
Sitting through Dutch director Anders Walter’s “Helium” is reminiscent of another film, though it may take viewers awhile to pinpoint which one. The style and theme lead invariably to a comparison with Tim Burton’s “Big Fish.” Both are dream-driven stories of people using tall tales to distract from difficult realities. In the case of “Helium,” it’s a father telling a beautiful, distracting fiction to his terminally ill son, weaving an increasingly elaborate story of a floating world. The art design is a beautiful work of magic realism, and the script is a tearjerker, plain and simple.
The one pure comedy in the mix this year is the Finnish short, “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” by Selma Vilhunen. It’s, essentially, a peek into the madcap day of a disheveled family who is late to a wedding and who lets its deep quirks take over under the stress. Vilhunen relies on sight gags more than anything, which isn’t a problem as long as the idea of children going to a wedding in Halloween costumes is your cup of comedy tea. There’s nothing especially new or essential about this film, but it’s good to see both a comedy and an entry from a woman director on the slate at all.
The only English-language film in the program is the U.K. production “The Voorman Problem” by Mark Gill. A mind-bender of “Twilight Zone” proportions about a psychologist (Martin Freeman) treating a prisoner (Tom Hollander) who believes he’s a god. The film is interesting and twisty, leaning on its capable cast to carry a premise that would border on hackneyed in less adept hands. It’s apparently based on David Mitchell’s novel “number9dream,” though it seems to be more in philosophical spirit than actual narrative. Fans of the weird and heady will enjoy “The Voorman Problem” more than the Academy is likely to.
You can catch the Oscar nominated live-action shorts program all this week at The Harvard Exit Theatre.