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

BUTTER LAMP still - H 2015
Courtesy of Shorts HD

BUTTER LAMP still - H 2015

An engaging but rarely daring collection

Calls for help are always answered, say this year's short dramas

Strangers seeking help from each other predominate in the live-action dramas vying for this year's Oscar, with the sole lighthearted entry in the bunch going out of its way to hint that it, too, will turn dire. Though uniformly well made, none of these entries is as commanding as Xavier Legrand's Just Before Losing Everything, which lost last year's competition to the maudlin Helium. Still, there's just enough diversity of style and locale to keep viewers engaged and guessing which way Academy voters will lean.

Sally Hawkins, present in last year's animated-shorts nominee Room on the Broom, stars in what might be considered a favorite in this year's race, Mat Kirkby andJames Lucas's The Phone Call. Playing a crisis-line worker trying to help a suicidal caller (a never-seen, reliably excellent Jim Broadbent), Hawkins has one of those showcases that screams for awards. With a restless camera always tracking her character's anxiety (and snatching frequent glimpses at a ticking clock), The film gives Hawkins little room for the kind of unexpected choices seen in Happy-Go-Lucky and Blue Jasmine. Occasional moments of questionable sentimentality in the script don't detract much from the familiar but still effective tale, which gets a breath of fresh air when, for a moment, this man on the brink of ending his own life takes an interest in the dreams of the woman trying to talk him down.

The Swiss entry Parvaneh and French-Israeli coproduction Aya both offer two-handers in which an out-of-towner relies on help from a local with questionable motives. The former film, whose eponymous heroine is an Afghani migrant worker desperate to send money to her family back home, feels like a sketch for a feature-length film, revolving around a new friendship that might be more compelling if augmented by more observational detail to go with its connect-the-dots action. Aya digs deeper, spending most of its time in a car whose driver isn't who the passenger thinks she is. Having pretended to be a volunteer for a music festival sent to pick up a jury member (Ulrich Thomsen) from the airport, the hard-to-read young woman (Sarah Adler) spends the film's forty minutes keeping him, viewers, and probably herself in the dark about her motives as she drives toward Jerusalem.

Set in 1978 Belfast, Boogaloo and Graham also toys with the audience, dropping hints that The Troubles will intervene in the cute but not too-cute lives of two brothers. The boys have been given newborn chickens to raise, and grow predictably attached to them to their mother's chagrin. Voiceover narration solidifies the story's ties to a familiar breed of nostalgic Irish childhood tale, but on-target performances keep it from wearing out its welcome in fourteen minutes.

The program's most artistically daring entry, Hu Wei's Butter Lamp, is the only film here to embrace formal as well as temporal constraints, addressing its subjects in a way that would make less sense in a feature. A single camera set-up and a carefully controlled frame introduces a photographer who travels the Tibetan countryside making portraits of villagers who in some cases have never been photographed. With an arsenal of cheap backdrops depicting touristic scenes from Lhasa's Potala Palace to a Disney park and Beijing's Olympics venues, the film coyly comments on modernity's influence on traditional ways of life and conflict between China and Tibet. It's not the kind of thing Academy members often honor with their ultimate nod, but arthouse denizens in search of fresh voices will more than appreciate its inclusion on the shortlist.


Production company: Shorts HD

Producers: Carter Pilcher, Leif Nelson


No rating, 123 minutes