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I’m happy to say that most of the Live-Action shorts are more upbeat than their documentary predecessors. This crop of films come from a variety of countries (Tibet/France, Ireland, Israel, England and Switzerland) and cover a variety of topics. Most of them do a great job of pulling the cinematic equivalent of sleight of hand, leading us down one road only to pull the rug out from under us using our expectations against us. So let’s check them out.
A quirky little film, Aya grabs an idea that many feature films have explored before – happenstance. As Aya (Sarah Adler) waits for her boyfriend to arrive at the airport, a valet who is waiting for his client has to move his car and asks Aya to hold his sign until he comes back. The client, Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), arrives before the valet returns. Aya is left with a choice – tell him the truth, that she is just holding the sign for someone else, or actually drive Mr. Overby where he needs to go and see where the trip takes her. She obviously decides on the latter or there would be no movie. What transpires between the two is a back and forth in which each character gains knowledge about the other and perhaps themselves. I really enjoyed this one. While it had some fairly bizarre moments in it, the characters’ arcs were earned rather than forced. Directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis brought this one home. This is a film that deserved its nomination.
Boogaloo and Graham
From the outset of Boogaloo and Graham, you get the sense that something bad is going to happen. The film opens in Belfast in 1971. The camera follows British troops as they creep through an alleyway, residents of the flats that line watching them intently. If you know anything about Irish history, you’ll know that ’71 was a particular rough time during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. When the camera moves over a stone wall and we see a man (Martin McCann) huddled over a box, we expect the worst. We’ve been programmed this way as so many films point to an attack by the IRA or some other Republican paramilitary group on the British soldiers not five feet away. As the camera zooms in on the man, he pulls something from the box and we await the devastation to come…until it doesn’t. I craned my neck as if that would help me see what he held. What was it you ask? Not bombs, but two baby ducks for his sons, Jamesy (Riley Hamilton) and Malachy (Aaron Lynch). What unfolds after this tense moment is the story of how these two boys bond with their chickens, how they integrate them into the family despite the protestations of the boys’ mother (Charlene McKenna). This film is full of trickery on the part of director Michael Lennox, whose camera shots are witty and add great depth to an already fun story, as well as the script by scribe Ronan Blaney, which twists and turns your expectations. I loved this film and I hope the Academy does, too.
Butter Lamp (La lampe au beurre de yak)
Perhaps the most interesting of the five nominated films, Butter Lamp takes place in Tibet and features a revolving set of groups gathering to have their pictures taken using a variety of different backgrounds the photographers have brought with them in what amounts to an interesting pictorial ethnographic study of the different peoples of the area. Infused with a good bit of humor, writer-director Wei Hu is able to create a story where the is seemingly none. Equipped with the best final shot of all of the films nominated in this category, Butter Lamp is incredibly pleasing and a lot of fun. When thinking about feature length films (80+ minute running times), it would seem hard to be able to tell a coherent story in only 20 minutes like this film. Wei Hu, like the rest of the writers and directors in this category, makes it look easy. The final shot in this film is really incredible. Be on the lookout for it.
So, here’s where the films start get a little less humorous and venture into darker territory. Frankly, last year’s set were much more dark and even the last two films that are edgier in their material and approach still have their uplifting moments. Parvaneh fits that bill. A young Afghan girl (Nissa Kashani) living and working in Switzerland comes to a crossroads when her father needs money for an operation back home. As an illegal who is underage, she is not allowed to send money without proper ID, which she can’t get for obvious reasons. When she enlists the help of a girl, Emely (Cheryl Graf), she meets on the street to get the money sent, the story hits a crossroads – will it all work out or will it turn into a Dancer in the Dark-like spiral into crushing depression? Luckily for us, it’s the former. Writer-director Talkhon Hamzavi creates a relatively in depth portrait of immigrant life in a foreign land, something that is commonplace these days with so many people displaced by armed conflicts throughout the world.
The Phone Call
Almost from the outset of Mat Kirkby’s The Phone Call, you can tell that it isn’t going to be a cathartic, uplifting piece that leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy. This film runs you through an entire gauntlet of emotions and it’s easy to see why this film has garnered some serious accolades leading up to the Oscars. Anchored by a truly incredible performance from the always outstanding Sally Hawkins (twice nominate for Oscar) as Heather, a woman who works at a crisis helpline. When she arrives at work, she has trepidation written all over her face. She is skittish, perhaps because of her personality, but perhaps because of the job. Shortly after sitting down, her phone rings. On the other line is a voice, breaking up and crying. After a brief pause, Stan (Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent) begins to tell his story – his wife passed away years ago and he just can’t bear to live any longer without her. He has taken a large dose of pills and doesn’t want to die alone. Heather uses all of the training she’s learned to try and keep him from ending his life, to keep him on the phone until she can find out key information about him so that she can somehow save his life. As their banter continues over the course of the _____ minutes, Heather continues to engage him, learning more about him, his wife and their life together – all things missing from her life. So in her attempts to save Stan’s life, she, in a way, saves her own. This film is gutting and is very tough to watch. It expertly drills into emotional depths that few feature films are able to. Hawkins’ performance is flat out incredible and shows why she is one of the best actresses in the business. Known more for her quirky, funnier roles, Hawkins is absolutely devastating in The Phone Call. I have no doubts that this film will take home the Oscar and it’s hard to argue against it winning. Kudos to Kirkby and his co-writer James Lucas for creating such an emotionally lush and layered film.
So there’s the Live Action shorts lowdown. Stay tuned for my reviews of the Animated shorts coming later this week and don’t forget to check here for dates and locations where you can see all of the Oscar nominated shorts.