This earnest, if sentimental, story is centered on a terminally ill dirigible-obsessed young boy named Alfred and the eccentric janitor, Enzo, who befriends him, regaling the boy with stories of a magical heaven-substitute he calls “Helium.” As an alternative to the Great Beyond, Enzo’s Helium is attractive to little Alfred – a place where the deceased go to be reunited with their relatives on private plots of land suspended in mid-air by giant balloons, evocative of the asteroid B612 from Le Petit Prince and visually reminiscent of something you might see on the cover of a Yes album. Enzo, having lost his younger brother to a terminal illness when the two were children, is determined to give Alfred solace, though he wonders whether the fact that his story is a lie should devalue the hope it is clearly giving to his young friend. In spite of his doubts, Enzo remains determined to continue telling Alfred his story, even if it is a bunch of hot air. This story – written by Christian Gamst Miller-Harris and Anders Walter, and directed by Anders Walter – is a sweet one, affectionately brought to life with visual effects that are impressive for such a small film and which go a long way toward selling the film’s fantastic premise.
The only star power in this batch of short films shows up in The Voorman Problem in the form of Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock, The World’s End, and so on, and so forth) and Tom Hollander (whose face you’ll probably recognize, even if you can’t place him in The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or any of the seventy-odd credits he has in film and television). Director Mark Gill’s professional debut – all dim, flickering lights and brain-warping dialogue delivered in hushed tones – might be the sort of thing you’d find on Netflix in the category “cerebral interrogation dramas involving delusions of grandeur.” Based on a section of the novel number9dream by David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas), The Voorman Problem plays like a particularly dry-witted episode of The Twilight Zone, with an imaginative premise and a twist ending calibrated to blow minds. Dr. Williams (Freeman) is a psychiatrist employed by Her Majesty’s Prison Service to examine Voorman (Hollander), who claims to be a god and appears to be a weapons grade solipsist (which “only has one l,” as Voorman very helpfully points out). But, as is often the case with stories like this, things are not what they appear, and Dr. Williams has tragically misjudged his patient (and his patient’s ability to make others do things “in a most involuntary way”).
“Avant que de tout perdre,” a 29-minute mini-thriller, written and directed by Xavier Legrand, could be a master class in cinematic storytelling and the virtue of restraint in building suspense. I was, going in, thankfully ignorant of the film’s premise, and so was unburdened by any idea of who I was seeing or why they were doing what they were doing. And yet, it didn’t take more than a minute to sense that something terrible was hanging over everything. Aside from two (or three) out of the more than twenty characters onscreen, everyone we see is complicit in the well-intentioned conspiracy that slowly unfolds. And by the time the villain appears, more than two thirds of the way through the story, we genuinely fear him, though he himself gives us no reason to. Even if we doubt his menace (or his guilt), we are immediately shown just enough to know who to trust. This is a film in which nothing at all is wasted; every image, every movement, every bit of dialogue is used in service of the story and its ever-mounting tension. And though in the film’s final moments we see our heroes narrowly escape, the film’s title (and the white panel truck exiting the roundabout and an early scene in which one of our heroes waits patiently under a bridge, playing with three little stones and a piece of driftwood) suggest that the ending might not be so happy.
Most viewers who manage to see these Oscar nominated short films will see them in a feature-length presentation, a collection of all five films shown in a small number of theatres between the time the nominees are announced and the Oscars are awarded. (Thanks to the interwebs, that feature-length collection is also available for download through the usual outlets – thanks, iTunes!) Of course, this ends up giving these films a lot more exposure than they might otherwise get, which is the obvious advantage. The disadvantage is that they likely won’t escape being judged against one another, with only the winner provided the opportunity to stand alone. In the case of “Aquel no era yo,” by writer/director Esteban Crespo, that can be a very unfortunate thing, as Crepo’s film does poorly almost everything that Legrand’s film does so well. If judged against the metric established in “Understanding Poetry” by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard PhD – Come on! You remember Dead Poets Society, don’t you? – Crespo scores rather high on the axis that measures “importance,” though comparatively low on the axis for “perfection.” A story within a story (though marginally so), it follows one disastrous afternoon in the lives of three presumably innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of a civil war in some unspecified African nation and the small army of child soldiers who become their captors and executioners. The film was produced “in collaboration with” (funded by?) Amnesty International, Save the Children, and a handful of other charities, and strays uncomfortably close to being a Public Service Announcement, which is rarely a good sign, regardless of how very valuable and worthwhile that public service might be. The film is gritty, in the sense of surface texture, and its methods are ham-fisted, the acting overly melodramatic. Forgive me for once again comparing Crespo’s film to Legrand’s, but I think the comparison is apt: In “Aquel no era yo” the guns (and the tanks and the bombs) are explicit, but their affect on the viewer is fractional when compared to “Avant que de tout perdre,” in which a gun is merely mentioned, but that mention has the force and impact of a real bullet to the head.
The only purely comedic entry here comes from Finland’s Kirsikka Saari (writer) and Selma Vilhunen (director), whose short is essentially a comedy of errors, minus the satire, in which mistaken identity is replaced with a mistaken date. The premise is plausible (and familiar) enough, but the characters mis-steps stray toward the implausible (or the absurd). Still, that is little more than par for the awkwardly-guffaw-inducing course with these things, and the end result is a well-executed and fairly enjoyable affair.