' Cinema Romantico: Oscar Nominees: Best Live Action Short

Monday, February 09, 2015

Oscar Nominees: Best Live Action Short

The 2014 batch of Oscar nominees for the Best Live Action short are far and away a stronger group as a whole than last year’s even if none of the quintet reaches the heights of the incredibly tenacious “Just Before Losing Everything.” That was a film resistant to the sentimentality that so often pervades this category, and while there are moments of mawkishness sprinkled throughout this year’s group, they also allow for at least a few drops of real world tonic. In the end, though, the category is defined by one film and one performance, so much so that Cinema Romantico wishes the Academy could tell “tradition” to go the way of the Academy Juvenile Award and give a Best Actress In A Live Action Short.


We’ll start, however, with “Boogaloo and Graham”, running in a swift fourteen minutes. It’s undoubtedly the most sentimental of the lot, attempting to offset that sentimentality at least a smidgen with its setting – 1978 Belfast in the midst of the troubles. The troubles, though, aren’t really the point, even though a death is haphazardly worked in to underscore Death as opposed to Life. Life is represented by the two baby chicks a father bestows upon his two sons who learn what it means to nurture and love. Their mother is sort of presented as the one to squash all the fun, telling boys to stop being boys, but there is an everyday exhaustion in the demeanor of Charlene McKenna playing the role that suggests more emotional complexity than the whole rest of the film.


Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’s “Aya” checks in at nearly 40 minutes despite being an old fashioned two-hander. It’s sort of like an alternate universe version of the “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry and George take the limo assigned to a mysterious “O’Brien.” Here, however, Aya (Sarah Adler), while waiting for someone at the airport assumes the role of a chauffeur for a Danish music instructor, Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), bound for Jerusalem. Even if their conversation involves specifics, it still feels mysterious, alternating between confusion and mystical connection. We never quite understand who the titular character is but then that seems the gradually emergent argument – a woman slipping out of her own life to try on another. And though the closing shot involves her smiling, it’s difficult to detect if that curl of the lips is for checking back into reality or wistfully reminiscing what just was.


“The Phone Call”, a swift-moving UK entry, involves Jim Broadbent in voiceover-only performance placing a, uh, phone call to a crisis center which is answered by Sally Hawkins who offers companionship as she struggles to make precise sense of his situation. His reason for dialing, as you might surmise, is less than good, but while another actor might have played more toward the drama of eliciting his obligatory revelation, Hawkins hones in on the reassurance, mollifying him as much as trying to save him. The crisis draws you in, sure, but so does Hawkins, and she does amidst a series of fairly basic shots that don't emotionally cheat. She draws you in and holds you. And while the film appears headed for a heartbreaking denouement, its coda actually arrives about thirty seconds later, thirty seconds which are comprised of Hawkins wielding her nervous energy to marvelously effect someone who has tip-toed through an emotional minefield and wound up as a brightly lit human being in the black and white landscape of Springsteen's "Reason to Believe."


A less successful tale of unlikely friendship is “Parvaneh.” It’s not that it’s unsuccessful, per se, but it’s just sort of utilitarian, sweet if unchallenging and unenlightening. Young Afghani Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani) lives and works in a Swiss refugee center, keeping to herself, trying to earn some scratch to send back home. When she does, she attempts to send it by Western Union, and when she is denied, she finds herself thrust into a tentative relationship with another teen girl, Emely (Cheryl Count). The latter is predictably introduced as potentially being less-than-generous only to slowly reveal a genuine beating heart beneath her punkish exterior as we are reminded it’s a small world after all. It’s harmless, I suppose, but a more interesting story seemed buried up in the mountains of Parvaneh’s refugee center, one of a migrant’s isolation that seemed even more worthy of telling.


In Tibetan culture the Butter Lamp is a symbol of awakened wisdom, and true to meaning Hu Wei’s French-Chinese film “Butter Lamp” is thirteen leisurely if masterful minutes of wisdom slowly awakened. It documents the professional repetitions of a Chinese photographer in a small Tibetan village as he photographs people sitting or standing or kneeling before a series of fake backdrops – The Great Wall, Disneyland, the Potala Palace. The camera is unmoving, pointedly never getting anywhere, a stationary perspective, aesthetically and emotionally. Perhaps the final shot reveal is one “you can see coming” but it blunts none of the quiet magnitude of the moment, one that made me think of the time I was on Hawaii’s Big Island and a couple in floral print shirts asked if I could take their picture in front of the cruise ship from which they just disembarked. “The cruise ship?” I thought to myself. “The whole Pacific Ocean is out there and you want your photo taken in front of the Carnival freaking Breeze? LOOK WHERE YOU ARE!”

So give “Butter Lamp” the Oscar, I say, while remembering to take a moment and revel in the righteousness of Sally Hawkins.

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