Film Review: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2015: Live- Action

This year’s program of Oscar-nominated live-action short films is longer on character and short on cute.
Reviews

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences votes each year for their favorite live-action short films, it can often seem as if they’re aiming for a smorgasbord appeal: something serious, something off-the-wall, a couple of snippet comedies, and at least something in black-and-white. The 2015 program, now a reliably audience-pleasing fixture on the art-house circuit, chucks that template in favor of more thought-out offerings that for once downplay the quirk.

The first film, Talkhon Hamzavi’s Parvaneh (24 min; Switzerland) is a case in point. The title character is a teenage Afghani girl (Nissa Kashani) living in a refugee center high in the Swiss mountains. She keeps to herself, quietly working illegally and avoiding the come-ons of the Arab men hanging around the center. Like most stateless young people, she’s adrift and trying to find something to hold onto while struggling to help out those back home; in this case, it’s her mother needing money for her sick father. Unable to send a cash transfer with her refugee ID, she approaches seemingly homeless punk girl Emely (Cheryl Count) for assistance. When Emely, who demands a percentage for helping, turns out to be a slumming rich kid and takes Parvaneh out to a nightclub, the film seems to be setting us up for a Neil LaBute-style exercise in humiliation. The resulting story of discovery and friendship is not just fresh and surprising for being told from a different perspective (usually this story would involve Emely broadening her world, not Parvaneh) but for the quiet thrill of discovery hiding beneath its surface.

In Hu Wei’s fascinating Butter Lamp (16 min; France and China), the foreigners are off-screen but their presence is felt throughout. The film is essentially moving portraiture. It’s shot by an unmoving camera from the perspective of a studio photographer in a small Tibetan village who swaps out one mainland Chinese backdrop (the Forbidden Palace, the Great Wall) after another for the series of nervously smiling families who parade through. The critique of Chinese occupation permeates every seemingly mundane frame, even before the scene where a new backdrop of the grand Potala Palace (the Dalai Lama’s onetime residence) is lowered and an old woman has to be restrained from continually bowing before it. A delicately oblique but powerful political statement, this short is by far the most memorable of the lot.

The most obviously dramatic film of the collection is Mat Kirkby’s affecting The Phone Call (21 min; U.K.). Sally Hawkins plays Heather, a crisis-center phone-line worker who receives a call from Stanley (Jim Broadbent), an older man on the brink of suicide. The voice on the other end of the line is wearied and sobbing and alone, at the end of his tether. The camera stays almost exclusively on Hawkins’ face as Heather cycles through every tool in her kit to steer him away from death. Although Broadbent and Hawkins do phenomenal work (particularly Hawkins, whose overgrown child demeanor is particularly effective here as the frantic negotiator), the film’s lugubrious pacing and one-note approach don’t help to add much depth to this simple but strikingly photographed story.

Another story of unexpected connections, the strongest theme in this anthology, is Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’ Aya (40 min; France and Israel). Sarah Adler plays Aya, a young woman who is waiting for an arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport when a hired-car driver driver asks her to briefly hold a sign for “Mr. Overby.” She agrees. When Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen) appears, she keeps up the pretense and starts driving the stiff older Danish man to Jerusalem, where he is supposed to judge a piano competition. As with any film of this sort, there’s a suspension-of-disbelief issue where it can be difficult to buy such an illogical move by this woman we know nothing about. But Adler plays Aya with such a strong undercurrent of sly mischief that we can get past the why and focus on the curious interplay between Aya and Overby. The bulk of the piece is set in Aya’s car, as their fitful conversation vacillates between mild flirtation and bafflement at the half-aggressive questions thrown out by Aya, who seems to be undergoing some kind of low-intensity breakdown. The simmering tension and anxiousness between the two strangers helps power this slightly overlong film through some underwritten passages where it seems as unable to decide what it wants to be as Aya.

Rounding out the anthology is its shortest, most comedic and overall weakest entry. Michael Lennox’s Boogaloo and Graham (14 min; U.K.) starts with a fraught scene in Belfast, 1978: On one side of a wall British soldiers are on patrol, while just on the other side a man digs meaningfully in a box. The reveal is that he’s not pulling out weaponry, but a pair of chickens for his grateful young boys. They promptly name the chickens Boogaloo and Graham and treat them with all the attention due a beloved dog or cat, to the consternation of their at-wit’s-end mother. The scenario is sweet-natured enough, but even the boys’ bounding energy can’t compensate for the narrative’s rather tossed-off feel. Setting its family comedy against the backdrop of the Troubles is likely meant to add some grit to the proceedings, but it comes off as more arbitrary than anything else.

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