Monday, February 23, 2015

Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action

Butter Lamp
In keeping with my desire to actually watch all the short film nominees this year, I'm following up this post on the animated shorts with this one on the live action ones.

This category was as a whole much, much weaker than the animated one, with only two or three films that I'd say were generally good. Below you'll find them ranked from best to Aya.

Butter Lamp (dir. Wei Hu)

The difference between the two best films in the category was surprisingly small, and really Butter Lamp won out more due to issues with the second place film that I'll go into in a moment. However, Butter Lamp is a funny film that packs a surprisingly emotional punch in its final moments.

Hu's film consists of several short scenes in which the camera remains fixed in place while a pair of Chinese photographers try to arrange a group of Tibetans so that they can take a series of photos in front of cheesy backdrops. The film ekes a lot of laughs from this set up as some of the younger participants run around and mess up shots while an older woman who has never been photographed before gets distracted by a beautiful backdrop. At the end the film reveals a deeper political subtext that raises it up from being just a charming comedy, but for the most part in functions wonderfully on that level.

Parvaneh (dir. Talkhon Hamzavi)

My main problem with Parveneh was that I spent the entire running time feeling incredibly anxious as I anticipated something awful happening to the title character. A young Afghani girl who has sought asylum in Switzerland, Parveneh finds herself stuck in a terrible situation when she is prevented from sending money back home to her parents due to a lack of Swiss identification. Distraught, she asks another girl if she will transfer the money for her, and the two wind up becoming friends.

The film is actually pretty heartwarming, but the helplessness of Parveneh's situation creates a sense that she is about to get robbed, raped or murdered at any second. Considering her precarious situation as an immigrant in a new country, that sense of fear and isolation feels natural, but it made the experience of watching the film really uncomfortable to me, and undermined what was actually a really sweet story about the way that small acts of kindness can have a profound impact on someone's life. Go in knowing that nothing too bad is going to happen and it's a much more positive experience.

The Phone Call
The Phone Call (dir. Mat Kirkby)

This short very nearly succeeds on the strength of Sally Hawkins' central performance as a helpline operate desperately trying to help an old man (Jim Broadbent) who, in a moment of utter despair, has taken pills in an attempt to kill himself.

Apart from confirming my suspicion that Broadbent is actually a spirit who is summoned every time a British person picks up a camera, the film never really builds up much tension, and what little it does create is blown on an ending that feels like a massive shrug. Hawkins is great, though, and she demonstrates both an ability to wring tears and laughs out of thin material and rocks a Sarah Lund jumper like a fucking champ.

Boogaloo and Graham
Boogaloo and Graham (dir. Michael Lennox)

This '70s set comedy about two Irish children who get given a couple of chickens as pets, chickens named…well, you can probably guess, is diverting and funny, but not much more. It didn't help that Vimeo had subtitles running over the clear and understandable English being spoken by the two young boys.

Aya (dir. Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis)

Oof. This one was interminable. Despite a pair of winning performances from Sarah Adler and Ulrich Thomsen, the plot is so contrived and cliched that it never gets off the ground. Adler plays a young woman waiting for a friend at an Israeli airport who decides to drive a Danish man home after a misunderstanding leads him to believe that she is his driver. It's the sort of rom-com plot that would have been openly mocked by critics and made $100 million if it starred Julia Roberts 15 years ago. I can only assume that it was nominated because at least part of it isn't in English.