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Friday, January 30, 2015

Review: 2015 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts




Let's talk Oscars. While many of us will go out of our way to see the Best Picture and Best Director nominees, the short films often escape our attention, in part because... well, not many theaters show shorts anymore. Still, there's often a considerable amount of enjoyment to be found in a particularly excellent short film, and since Harper talked yesterday about the charms of the animated short films, I wanted to run down the Oscar Nominated Live Action Short Films for 2015.


Aya

Directed by Oded Binnun & Mihal Brezis

Aya is a French-Israeli short that follows Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), a judge at a piano competition in Jerusalem who mistakes a young Israeli woman named Aya (Sarah Adler) as his driver. Curious about the man and wanting to get to know him better, Aya goes along with his mistake and decides to drive him to his hotel. The two bond during the drive as awkward conversation slowly turns warmer and more confessional, but what will happen once they reach his hotel?

The film, with its increasingly intimate back-and-forth between a pair of strangers bonding after an unlikely run-in, reminds me a bit of Abbas Kiarostami's remarkable Certified Copy, but writers/directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis lack Kiarostami's poeticism - and Adler, while good, lacks the magnetism of Juliet Binoche. Aya is, ultimately, a largely incident-free film. Its two leads have reasonable chemistry, but their conversation only sporadically rises to be genuinely gripping. It's interesting, but flat.


Boogaloo and Graham

Directed by Michael Lennox

Michael Lennox opens up Boogaloo and Graham with a pretty purposeful fake-out. In Belfast during the Troubles, the heavily-armed military roam the streets. They slowly pass a darkened alley, a man crouched over a cardboard box, hiding its contents from view. "You ready boys?" he asks someone off screen. Silent assent. Pan down to reveal... a pair of baby chicks, gifts to his two young sons.Thus the focus of the film shifts; they may be living with the military hanging over their heads, but to these two young boys, the only things that matters are their family and the two pet chickens, Boogaloo and Graham, who will grow up with them.

Boogaloo and Graham often seems slight, but Lennox manages to slip in a few weighty moments examining life under occupation. Lennox never lets the darkness overwhelm the lively, lived-in family comedy, though. Boogaloo and Graham isn't the type of fare you typically imagine when you think 'Oscar-winning', but it is undeniably charming. It's a sweet-natured slice-of-life story of 1970s Ireland, well worth seeking out, and Lennox gives the film a relentless energy and warm, family-oriented comedy that will stick with you.


Butter Lamp

Directed by Wei Hu

A young man has a business photographing Tibetan villagers. To simulate travels they haven't gone on and likely never will, he has a whole range of paintings he can pose them in front of, giving them the illusion, however briefly, of having visited exotic locales. Butter Lamp has charm, but I have to confess: This one wasn't really for me on any level. Though I appreciated the film's subtle, lightly absurd humor, I never really got the feeling that there was any meat to this one at all. Those looking for something a bit off the beaten path will likely be won over, but Butter Lamp only sporadically came alive for me.

Parvaneh

Directed by Talkhon Hamzavi

Talkhon Hamzavi has a winning, heartfelt short film in Parvaneh. The movie follows a young Afghani girl named Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani) who fled her home country into Switzerland, where she scrapes by earning money to send home to her family. On her first trip into Zurich to try to wire money home, she finds that she needs the help of a native, where she meets rich, rebellious punk girl Emely (Cheryl Graf), who agrees to help for a cut of the cash. The pair end up bonding, attending a party, fighting off a robbery, and chatting long into the night, two very different outsiders bonding over a surprise relationship.

Parvaneh is probably the most conventional of the short films presented here, a simple, narrative character study. Nissa Kashani is endlessly winning as the lead, playing off the pricklier Graf well, and Hamzavi understands the importance of understated tenderness. This is a crowd-pleaser, plain and simple, and Hamzavi's film undeniably worked its magic on me.

The Phone Call

Directed by Mat Kirkby

Heather (Sally Hawkins) works at some sort of Crisis Center/Suicide Hotline, and shortly after sitting down at her desk, she gets a call from a man named Stan. Stan is nervous, frightened, jittery - and quite possibly slowly dying of an overdose of pills. In his own words, he just wants someone to talk to as he goes. Can Heather talk him down in time? And what will this call ultimately mean in her own life?

The Phone Call is intense and nakedly emotional, headlined by a pair of genuine stars in Broadbent (Cloud Atlas) and Hawkins (Blue Jasmine). Far and away the most approachable of the films on the list, this will almost certainly end up being the popular favorite. I totally get why, too, as Kirkby has crafted a simple, powerful short that should speak to anyone who has encountered loss and loneliness, but that never wallows in its misery. It's also an effective reminder of the immense talents of Sally Hawkins, should anyone out there need reminding.

While I don't think this is a terribly strong set of short films, there is something in here for pretty much everyone. For me the experimental Butter Lamp remains the odd man out and Aya felt flatter than it should have, but The Phone Call, Parvaneh, and Boogaloo and Graham are all immensely winning entries, accessible and engaging to audiences everywhere.

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Short Films will be playing in a variety of independent theaters across the country in the coming days, and opens today (January 30th) at Atlanta's Midtown Art Cinema.
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