Live Action Oscar Shorts: Strong quintet

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This year, the Academy has five impressive nominees in the category of best live action short. They have been packaged together as a delightful collection by the Short Movie Channel for theatrical release.

In “Parvaneh,” a female Afghanistani teenager (Nissa Kashani) is the titular character. For reasons that are not immediately evident, she is living in some sort of Swiss hostel. It eventually becomes apparent that she is working under the table as an illegal laborer. She is trying to make enough money to send her ailing father back home. Hopefully, this will enable him to receive requisite medical care. Initially friendless, Parvaneh has to navigate a perilous minefield of language barriers, xenophobia, and unwelcome sexual advances all by herself. She heads to Zurich, intent upon wiring her wages via Western Union to her home village. However, Parvaneh lacks any valid ID. In the age of paranoia over terrorism, the clerk refuses to accept cash from her for wiring. She approaches a punked out Swiss adolescent (Cheryl Graf). Will she help Parvaneh or rip her off? This short by Talkhon Hamzavi does fine job of capturing the challenges of a third world immigrant in a post-modernist European city.

In “Butter Lamp,” Chinese filmmaker, Hu Wei, depicts a group of nomadic Tibetans. Real life families are lined up by a team of photographers and posed in front of painted panels of various landmarks. The short is an indictment of the Chinese government’s oppression of Tibetans. However, for many, the film’s subtle iconography will prove inscrutable. However, the faces of the Tibetans and their naturalistic presence exude an undeniable resonance.

“Aya” takes an offbeat premise by Israeli filmmakers, Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, and develops it nicely. Aya (Sarah Adler from “Jellyfish”) is standing in an Israeli airport, minding her own business. A chauffeur has parked his car in an illegal zone and is summoned over the loudspeaker to move it immediately. As the driver rushes off, the man asks Aya to hold a sign with the name of his passenger on it until he can return. Aya reluctantly accepts the sign. The passenger, Mr. Overby, is an emotionally aloof, humorless  Dane (Ulrich Thomsen from “Celebration”). When he arrives, instead of telling Overby that his driver will be returning shortly, Aya impulsively pretends to be his assigned chauffeur. During an extended ride, an unexpected dynamic ensues between the faux chauffeur and her befuddled passenger.

Director, Michael Lennox, and his writing partner, Ronan Blaney, set “Boogaloo and Graham” in 1978, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. British troops in full battle regalia patrol the streets of Belfast, which is awash with armed conflict. A red-headed man squats unseen behind a wall. He pulls a package out from underneath his jacket. Is it a bomb? Is he an I.R.A. terrorist? The viewer is disabused of these concerns, when the ominous seeming package is revealed to contain a pair of baby chicks. They turn out to be gifts for the man’s adorable school age sons, James and Malachi. The lads confer the evocative names of Boogaloo and Graham on their new pets. However, mom is decidedly less than enthused over the prospect of having these chicks befoul her home with feathers and droppings. The badinage between the brothers and with their parents is amusing, yet touching.

“The Phone Call” may be the best of the group. It is certainly the one with the best known thespian talent. It boasts the likes of Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Blue Jasmine”) and Jim Broadbent (“The Crying Game,” “Topsy Turvy”). Hawkins plays a worker on a suicide hotline in England. Broadbent is Stan, a profoundly depressed caller. His long-term wife passed away two years before. The widower can no longer cope with life without her. He feels that his only solution is to commit suicide. With extraordinary sensitivity and empathy, Hawkins’ character delineates some other options. However, Stan remains adamant that he only wants to hear her comforting voice as he slips into a drug-induced coma. How will she deal with this challenge? As she has shown in other films, Hawkins is a superb actor.  However, I have never seen her so efficaciously embody a deep-seated sense of compassion. I was deeply moved by her performance. As the anguished widower, Broadbent is a fine complement to Hawkins. The film is lit with consummate expertise, unusual for a short. Co-writer/director, Mat Kirby, infuses “The Phone Call” with a remarkable sense of poignancy and narrative trajectory for a film of such brevity.

In many years, the Oscar contenders in the category of best live action short are uneven in quality. In 2015, the category consists of a strong quintet of entries. They are uniformly  well-crafted and moving.

**** No MPAA rating 118 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.



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