The spectre of Hollywood hangs heavy over 2014's live-action Oscar shorts

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The spectre of Hollywood hangs heavy over the five live-action filmlets nominated for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Mark Gill’s “The Voorman Problem” stars Martin Freeman as a psychiatrist assigned to a straitjacketed prisoner who has managed to convince guards and inmates that he is a demonic god. The latter is played by Tom Hollander, familiar from British films and TV series, and a frequent voice on American Dad. When Voorman makes Belgium disappear to prove his power (“Not even the Belgians will miss it”), he sets more amusing trouble in motion.

The 13-minute short feels like a steampunky trailer for a longer work. (Indeed, it was adapted from a novel by David Mitchell, the guy responsible for Cloud Atlas.) Large career ambitions also mark Anders Walter’s smarmy “Helium”, a 23-minute Danish effort that feels far longer. When a shy, bearded hospital janitor meets a terminally ill boy, he brightens the lad’s nights with tales of an afterlife filled with wondrous, extraterrestrial sights, occasioning an overkill of black-velvet CGI work. Everyone learns a valuable lesson.

More education happens in Esteban Crespo’s “That Wasn’t Me”, about an African child soldier’s violent run-in with Spanish aid workers. The half-hour tale is well-staged, but its preachy nature and supposed twist ending give it a commercial calling-card gloss. Same goes for “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?”, in which a Finnish family has unusual struggles getting to a wedding. Its seven goofy minutes are easy to take, but pointless except as evidence of Selma’s Vilhunen’s comic directing skills.

The only innovative, award-worthy effort here is the half-hour “Just Before Losing Everything”, about a working-class woman trying to rescue herself and her children from bad trouble. New director Xavier Legrand (a child actor in Au Revoir, Les Enfants) uses no music or other sweetening devices to control the viewer’s responses to a tense character study that unfolds in exactly the right way, Hollywood be damned.

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