Film Review: "87th Academy Award Nominated Live Action Shorts" - 5
An Assorted Array Of 5 Extremely Different Films Were, In Equal Parts, Captivating, Energetic & Daring
Short Film # 1: "Parveneh" (Switzerland),Written & Directed by Talkhon Hamzavi
Review: The series of shorts kicked things off in fine fashion with a deceptively simple story about a native-born Afghan refugee teenager living in Switzerland, desperate in her need to send money to her ailing relatives, who enlists the help of a random but very streetwise of-age Swiss girl to help her. Initially, the Muslim girl, who goes by the name Parveneh, is stopped at the pass when she tries on her own because she lacks a legal form of ID, and, to make matters worse, is just shy of her 18th birthday. After spending, what appears to be at least an hour or two in the blistering cold peddling to passersby her cause and that she isn't homeless and that she is well-intentioned, she stumbles upon a Swiss girl who befriends her and decides to take up her situation. After trying to negotiate a percentage pay cut with Parveneh, they come to an agreement that, for her help, Parve will pay her 10% of the money she's sending. It may seem like a total scheme at first, but she no less agrees and the two, from there, form an unlikely but inseparable friendship as the night and early morning wear on.
For my money, this is definitely the film out of pretty much all of this year's nominees that scream Oscar bait. And, that is not necessarily a terrible thing at least in this film's case. The film, just by having our main protagonist be an Afghan refugee who needs to send money to her impoverished family, is, on its own, a very favorable and redeemable trait for Academy voters. The performances - all very subdued, are grounded in reality and Parveneh, played well by newcomer Nissa Kashani is, at first, slight and very innocent but throughout the film's short duration comes into her own and displays shades of defiance, independence and spark. This is especially the case when she confronts a possible rapist at a club who believes her to be submissive when, in reality, she is exactly the opposite. It is a well-executed scene that speaks volumes about the nature of oppression and subordination of women typical of war-torn and 3rd World nations. Parveneh's reactionary response is profound and her unsuspecting onlookers were many.
The cinematography and direction were crisp, clean and somewhat stark. The well-trained camera frequently focused on Parveneh's many facial expressions with her big, exacting eyes and milky skin. Several supporting characters in the film comment on her complexion, a word that she was not familiar with. These characters gave her the impression that she exudes a natural beauty and many in most developed nations the world over get surgery or other procedures to produce the effect that she was gifted. Parveneh does not agree as the culture clash becomes extremely evident in her exchanges. Several highlight shots that I can recall are of Parveneh and the Swiss woman running across a bridge frantically trying to get to the bank before it closes. The club scene with all its high-contrast visuals and quick camera work were riveting even though our main heroine sat at the bar and watched on as her counterpart partied. Several humorous asides included her "experimenting" by pouring herself multiple glasses of sangria which was an alien beverage to her. All in all, I really enjoyed the film and felt that it was consistent in tone and character.
Short Film # 2: "Butter Lamp" (China), Written & Directed by Wei Hu
Review: This film was definitely one of the entries I enjoyed the most. It is virtually all character-based and plays for comedy almost exclusively. The film doesn't have a central plot or even much of an arc, as it encompasses a photographer and his assistant setting up a series of portraits of Tibetan villagers in front of well-known backgrounds. To call this experimental would be accurate as all it depicts is the photographer and his assistant prepping each shot and interacting with the villagers. The delight of the film comes from the totally candid exchanges which seem improvised and all of the villagers range from different ages, backgrounds, and even occupations. Some, like the older grandparents who are depicted, are barely unaware that they are being photographed or that the backgrounds aren't legitimately real. The photographer becomes insistent and occasionally frustrated and his determination to get the shots factor in seamlessly with his interactions with the diverse cast.
As I said at the top, this is a comedy all the way. We don't get much in the way of an inkling as to why the photographer is doing this and it is in this regard that the film suffers from a lack of an identifiable plot. As we all know, creative people oftentimes have no reason to create or to embark on a project other than to find enjoyment out of it and to keep themselves from stagnating in their craft. We get the sense, at least from the early going, from this film that this is the case here. However, toward the end it is revealed that there is a rather important reason for all this and to say it here would spoil it completely. In the case of this flick, it is the progress of getting there, the destination ambiguous, that propels the artist's journey. The jokes come fast and frenetically and since it is in Chinese it demands that you keep up with all of the overlapping dialogue. At one point, there is some 15-20 actors in the frame all at once and for those film-goers not accustomed to ensemble casts, it could prove a bit hard to follow.
Not much can be said for the production of the film. It is just a tripod-mounted camera and a single medium-wide shot with a crew who changes the backgrounds every shot, assembles the villagers and positions them appropriately, and the lead photographer counts to three each time. Very simple, effective, and not reliant on anything in terms of narrative for the most part. Definitely a great watch for the sheer organization of the whole thing and for the hilarity that ensues throughout its very brief 15 minute runtime.
Short Film # 3: "The Phone Call" (England, UK), Written by Matt Kirkby & James Lucas, Directed by Matt Kirkby, Starring Sally Hawkins & Jim Broadbent
Review: It might not be a mere coincidence that both Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent also co-starred in the animated hit of the year "Paddington" which was released earlier this year because their chemistry was so spot-on in this suitably grim short. This was one of my other favorites of the lot. It is definitely poised to put Hawkins even further on the map as her dramatic instincts are already very spot-on as evidenced by her turn as Cate Blanchett's sister in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine". Enter Broadbent, who plays a clinically depressed middle-aged man on the other end of a phone line, and you have a one-two-punch of dramatic heft and emotionally stirring storytelling. Most film school professors, especially those whose specialty is screenwriting (that me and my friends have studied under) deride the use of the phone-call mechanism for extended periods because they believe it is a static tactic and that is amateur. Well, I suppose the notion that those who can't, wind up teaching instead of practicing, should take a hard lesson from this film which uses this technique exceedingly well as it inter-cuts from Hawkins's perspective at a helpline call center and Broadbent who spends the film at home on the edge of a genuine breakdown.
Hawkins, believably tries to talk down Broadbent who, she gleans, is suicidal after he reveals that his wife had passed some time ago. The stakes take a bit of a while to come out in full force but the two actors really give it their all and Hawkins's sincerity and her compassionate showing here counterbalance with the raw and fractured state of mind of Broadbent's character. Broadbent initially doesn't want to reveal anything but would rather just here the sound of her soothing, commiserating voice on the other end. After some non-invasive probing, he gives up that he's been struggling with depression since his wife died of complications from breast cancer and that he has been abusing anti-depressants. Hawkins, quick and decisive to react, believes he needs medical attention since he has overdosed. Watching this play out is gut-wrenching to watch but is capably anchored by these two and is a master-work of acting. Hawkins has a way of using her diffident appearance to great effect in most of the roles she has played. Those dough eyes and nervous but expressive smile work wonders for her. Broadbent is never actually seen on camera at any point here, but his muffled voice through the earpiece is haunting and appropriately painstaking.
The film is tightly edited to be sure. The cross-cutting technique used really gives the viewer a distinct understanding of both locations. The only element that seems questionable is the inevitable "death sequence" where we see Broadbent's wife, looking alive and well, strolling merrily through the door of their home. It is implied that Hawkins's attempts to reach him were unsuccessful as his body is whisked away but that he has rejoined her in heaven. It is a sweet moment of quasi-silver lining that is a nice sentiment to end on even if it somehow feels a tad overly-sentimental. Regardless, the buildup and overall handling of the weighty material was well-carried out and in the hands of Hawkins and Broadbent was a robust watch.
Short Film # 4: "Aya" (France/Israel), Written & Directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
Review: This film was one of those entries that I didn't entirely connect to. While it was well made, and the set-up was pretty original, a good majority of it left me feeling somewhat distant. Stop me if you've heard this before: A young, attractive woman picks up a polite, older gentlemen at a way-station. At this juncture, the two take off on an adventure that challenges their dynamic as well as what they will face down their path. In this case, that "way-station" is an airport and in the most unlikely of scenarios, the woman named Aya fakes being a livery cab driver if for no other reason than to do something silly, wild, and possibly dangerous. The man, with his salt and pepper hair and staunch British accent, charms her and the film begins to hit all the standard-issue romantic drama points in rather predictable fashion. The real highlight of the movie was the dialogue and the performances were a pleasure to watch. I just didn't entirely understand or believe Aya's motive especially since she completely inconvenienced herself. What about the fact that she missed her flight on purpose? Or because she was waiting for someone to come off the plane did she leave her loved one in the lurch just to take this trip? The film never answers these questions and Aya seems aloof and easily won-over by strangers.
In any event, the witty banter of both Aya and her accidental passenger is breathtaking and, for its part, you never feel as though the film drags. Afterall, it is just two people driving down long stretches of an interstate headed to Jerusalem with plenty of aerial shot camerawork, lens flairs reflecting off of the car windows and little artistic flourishes. And oh, did I mention there is a jazz score running throughout? If there was any movie in which the score served a prominent purpose, it is here. It may not be the rushing operatic symphonies of Hans Zimmer or John Williams, but what it is the music of jazz man Glenn Miller. The British passenger reveals to Aya that he is a music reviewer and has supplied the Glenn Miller disk that he needs to review. At first, he'd rather tune her out by placing his gigantic Beats by Dre-looking headphones on insisting that he needs to work and focus during the ride. But of course, Aya slyly gets him to open up and put the disk in her car CD player. She then asks him a very out-there request: if he could "play piano" on her fingers by tapping on her knuckles. As soon as he does, you can really feel the sexual tension building to a crescendo.
The film ends on a very anti-climactic note with Aya deciding to desert her suave British guy at the hotel he needs to stay at. He invites her to come in and she gives him every reason to believe that she'll join him. But, in an unplanned turn of events, she returns home to her husband and child because Aya was never invested in the man for superficial sex. All in all, a solid film but not one which truly resonated with me.
Short Film # 5: "Boogaloo & Graham" (Ireland, UK), Written by Ronan Blaney, Directed by Michael Lennox
Review: Boogaloo and Graham was, out of all of the other nominees, the most lighthearted. The story revolves around a family in Belfast in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s. Featuring a young couple with two young sons, they are a well-put together bunch as they do chores together, enjoy family time and plenty of bonding. The plot forwards when the husband, to his sons' delight, brings home two Chiclets for the boys to raise and to play with. But, pretty soon, the mother points out that the animals have become a nuisance despite the boys' best efforts to tend to them themselves. It is a SUPER small story told on a small scale and the sentimental moments are never in short supply. The chemistry between the sons and their parents is remarkable and the kids themselves are some of the most lived-in and personable kids put to screen in quite some time. Every time they are badgered by their mother, you feel their pain but they reply in flippant and often very funny retorts that are really funny and give them dimension.
The other noteworthy element of this short is the period detail. While not as over-stylized as shows like AMC's "Mad Men" are, as the budget for this is far less, the filmmakers and the costume designers definitely give one the accurate impression of the 1970s. With bell bottoms, mutton chops, and even a few shots of vintage cars, the sense of place and time is well-established from the get-go. But, this is not a film for those audiences looking for a time jump. It is a total character study from start to finish. The film is blessedly only 14 minutes but, to me, I feel it could have been longer. While a lot happens in this time, there is definitely room for narrative expansion. The film hints at the sectarian violence going on at the time with several shots of army motorcades steam-rolling through. Obviously, the film wasn't created to make a political statement but it could have tapped into the era a bit more and offered even some additional exposition about the parents and their history. The short belongs to the sons' who walk around town with their pets on leashes to the astonishment of any passersby. They make repeated jabs that chics aren't the conventional type of pet and at one point the dad offers an alternative that they'll get a dog instead.
In any event, this was a very slight film that I did enjoy but can't totally recommend.