2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Drama, Awards, Shorts with tags on February 19, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live action, documentary) available to audiences around the world. To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar© Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Live-Action

The Shorts (live-action and documentary specifically) have a reputation for presenting only the most depressing subjects for public consumption.  I’m sorry to say this year is no exception.

The unintended theme is “boys in peril” and – as my friend Jonathan Van Dyke observed – you’re likely to need a therapist after watching all five of these bleak nominees.

I’ve ranked each one in order from best to worst.

 

SKIN
USA/20MINS/2018
Director: GUY NATTIV
skin
This allegorical drama of just desserts plays out like a 1960’s Twilight Zone episode.  The film’s overall subject is the oft detailed theme of racism.  However, this tale is unique in that you initially meet the child’s father through his supportive eyes.  He appears to be a warm and loving parent at first.  Then a fateful encounter reveals the man to have deep-seated personality flaws.  Tales of revenge are morally questionable but they can be cathartic too.  This particular saga is an efficiently told chronicle with an ultimate twist of comeuppance.

 

FAUVE
CANADA/16MINS/2018
Director: JEREMY COMTE
fauve-film-court-metrage-jeremy-comteRather disturbing tale of two boys’ (Félix Grenier and Alexandre Perreault) game of one-upmanship.  Their back and forth play culminates in a shocking event at an open pit mine.  The story ultimately devolves into terrorizing consequences.  It’s one of those portraits detailing behavior that critics conveniently describe as “toxic masculinity”. That assessment is far too facile.   There’s a lot more at work here that begs deep contemplation.   I was shook.

 

MARGUERITE
CANADA/19MINS/2017
Director: MARIANNE FARLEY
margauritte
This is the story of an aging woman who is being taken care of by a younger caregiver. Marguerite comes to learn that her female nurse, Rachel, has a girlfriend. This becomes a stepping off point for our lead to reflect on her life.  She too longs for a woman in her past.  This is a poignant tale.  Particularly interesting because it’s the only nominee that’s uplifting and diverges from the theme of “boys in peril” that defines every other nominee.   Perhaps that’s why pundits have picked this as the odds on favorite to win.

 

MADRE (MOTHER)
SPAIN/19MINS/2017
Director: RODRIGO SOROGOYEN
live_2
A parent’s worst nightmare. The story concerns Iván, Marta’s 7-year-old son, who calls his mother while vacationing at the beach with her ex-husband.  The entire drama takes place over the duration of one phone call, interrupted by a disconnection at one juncture.  We never see the little boy at the other end, but we do see the mother’s response.  Her terror as she comes to realize the intimate danger that her son faces is palpable.  Loses major points for having absolutely no resolution whatsoever.  This feels like a snippet taken out of context from a much longer horror film.  Frustratingly unfinished.

 

DETAINMENTT
IRELAND/30MINS/2018
Director: VINCENT LAMBE
06_B-2
Detainment is far and away the most controversial all the shorts nominees.  Inspired by the real-life Liverpool murder of James Bulger,  it concerns two boys who kidnapped, then subsequently tortured and killed a 2-year-old child in 1993.  The incident was so stomach churning that despite their young age, the assailants were tried and convicted as adults in the UK.  This particular nominee has attracted dubious attention because Denise Fergus, the actual mother of James Bulger, was “disgusted and upset” by this film.  She’s not wrong.   The narrative is tolerant of the antagonists since it is done from their perspective.  The account seeks to solicit sympathy.  The attackers break down and cry as they come to grips with the severity of what they did.  The short itself is not graphic, but if you’re acquainted with the substantive case, the sympathetic point of view to the aggressors’ situation is extremely unsettling.

02-16-19

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2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Drama, Shorts on February 18, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live action, documentary) available to audiences around the world.  To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar© Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Animation

Last year Dear Basketball – a fawning piece of hagiography that worshiped at the feet of Kobe Bryant – won.  Even my least favorite of this year is better than that egregious work as far as I’m concerned.  Regardless of who wins, we’re guaranteed to top last year in this category.   That’s good news!  Interestingly 4 of the 5 shorts this year explore the very the same theme: child/parent relationships.  That makes this lot feel kind of samey.  None of them are revolutionary,  but they all still offer modest delights.  I’m a little surprised that Bilby, a computer-animated short from DreamWorks Animation, didn’t garner a nomination.  It’s worth checking out.

I’ve ranked each one in order from best to worst.  (They’re all enjoyable.)

 

BAOUSA/8MINS/2018
Director: DOMEE SHI
bao-rgb-s110_19c.pub16.172_wide-fac99c3e9c47382001ee1db485313d5fe8a4a35f-s800-c85 (1)
Pixar is on a roll.  They’ve received a nomination every year since 2015’s Sanjay’s Super Team. Their annual tradition continues with their first female-directed short.  This was originally shown right before Incredibles 2 so if you’ve seen at least one of these nominees, chances are it’s this one.  This is an amiable little delight that details a mother’s love for her son and her resulting feelings when he leaves home.  Back in June 2018 when I first saw it, I didn’t’ fully grasp the allegorical nature of this account, but over time it has gradually grown on me.  I now understand it as a depiction of “empty nest syndrome”.  Given it’s from Pixar, you already know it’s visually stunning.  Even comprehensive food research went into depicting the art of dumpling making.   My most treasured of the five nominees and also my pick for the likely winner.

 

WEEKENDS
USA/15MINS/2007
Director: TREVOR JIMENEZ
Weekends
The story of a little boy who must divide his time between his recently divorced parents. Weekdays are with mother in Ontario.  Weekends are with his father in Toronto.  Director Trevor Jimenez draws on his own childhood.  His unique take clearly has the authenticity of someone who has actually lived through this experience.  That’s not to say the other nominees don’t as well, but his approach to this subject is especially unique.  We get a really nice depth into the life of each parent.

 

LATE AFTERNOON
IRELAND/10MINS/2017
Director: LOUISE BAGNALL
Late
Profile of an elderly woman (voiced by actress Fionnula Flanagan) who copes with dementia.  There’s also room for the adult daughter that cares for her.  The production comes from Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon who brought us the feature films The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner.   All three are beautifully animated gems.  It’s a touching – if simplistic – portrait.   Memories of the past can often be recalled by way of their association to day-to-day occurrences in the present.  This chronicle has a moving conclusion.

 

ONE SMALL STEP
USA & CHINA/8MINS/2018
Directors: ANDREW CHESWORTH and BOBBY PONTILLAS
Srep
Produced by Taiko Studios, this is the story of a father and his daughter who longs to explore space by becoming an astronaut.  Little girl Luna and her loving father Chu have a close relationship that’s worth celebrating.   It’s a saccharine sweet connection for people who like extra syrup, powdered sugar and chocolate sprinkles with their pancakes.

 

ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR
CANADA/14MINS/2018
Directors: ALISON SNOWDEN and DAVID FINE
Animal
This was released in French as Zoothérapie and that’s actually a more clever title.  This is the only one not about children.   Interesting – albeit meandering – take on animals visiting the psychiatrist in a group therapy session.  They seek to rid themselves of innate behaviors that have become a problem in their lives.  For example, a praying mantis can’t keep a man because she eats her mates.  Some chuckle-worthy moments, but it drags after a while.  I suppose the underlying subtext is that we as humans are animals as well.

02-13-19

Alita: Battle Angel

Posted in Action, Adventure, Romance, Science Fiction with tags on February 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

alita_battle_angel_ver2STARS3.5Alita: Battle Angel is an immersive sci-fi fantasy that plunges the viewer into an imaginary world.  I really enjoyed this production, but no amount of complicated exposition can disguise the fact that it’s essentially a cyberpunk update of 1975’s Rollerball.  It certainly doesn’t start out that way.  It’s the future (naturally) – 2563 to be exact and a cyberphysician (Christoph Waltz) who repairs people with android parts discovers the discarded remains of a female robot in a junkyard.  He takes the head, which houses a still active brain, back to his laboratory and rebuilds her.  He names her Alita, after his deceased daughter.  She is of youthful age and this only cements the fatherly attachment he forms to her well being.

Alita: Battle Angel is based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga series Gunnm. The titular cyborg is portrayed by Rosa Salazar.  The actress is in her thirties but she is made to look like a teenager here.  Her appearance is actually a mix of CGI and human performance.  With her somewhat vacant uncharacteristically wide eyes, she resembles a Margaret Keane painting.  She’s got a spark to her personality though.  Her burgeoning attraction to Hugo (Keean Johnson) is more captivating than what you’d expect out of the obligatory love interest role he fulfills.   Hugo also functions as her introduction to this gladiator-style game called Motorball which is a mishmash of football, basketball, and roller derby.  Turns out Alita has quite the talent for the game.

This is fundamentally a martial arts/sci-fi B-movie but it’s given vibrant life with an A-list cast.  Christoph Waltz is the fatherly Geppetto, er uh I mean Dr. Dyson Ido, a cybernetics mastermind.  The seemingly ageless Jennifer Connelly is his ex-wife Chiren, who now works for a nefarious businessman named Vector played by Mahershala Ali.  Fashion-wise he makes a very strong case for a Blade reboot.  Vector hires malevolent cyborgs for the Motorball matches in an attempt to kill Alita for reasons I didn’t completely understand.  His identity is somewhat ill-defined.  He’s definitely a villain and that’s apparently what they do in a dystopian society.  CGI is liberally used to re-imagine scenery and in many cases, the actors as well.  Many figures in the movie are a mix of both organic and fabricated elements.  Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Jeff Fahey, Edward Norton, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jai Courtney all appear.  Some more recognizably human than others.

The screenplay by James Cameron (Avatar) and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) is fairly standard issue.  When good people do bad things – that’s the level of innovation.  A few characters have this moment.  At times, the narrative morphs in needlessly convoluted ways that are uninteresting.  The crux of the plot is about playing a futuristic sport.  The lively action consistently returns to Motorball time and again, even ending at the arena.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  There’s artistic value in simplicity.  Alita manages to recall both Frankenstein and Pinocchio by way of creating life from a once lifeless body.  This is a story for children.  Director Robert Rodriguez was responsible for Spy Kids and this should charm the same audience.  However, the writers still felt the need to throw in one, and only one, prominent use of the F-word.  The visuals are fun as you’d expect when James Cameron is the producer.  The classic battle of good vs. evil is presented under a pretty veneer of special effects and charismatic actors.   There’s a pure joy here and with a little judicious editing, this could’ve been quite spectacular.  As it stands, it’s fitfully entertaining.

02-14-19

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy on February 9, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lego_movie_two_the_second_part_ver8STARS3If ever there was a shortcut to a “fast” film review, it would be one question, Did you enjoy 2014’s The Lego Movie?  If so, then you should appreciate The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.  This one was also written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, although directing chores are now in the hands of Mike Mitchell (Trolls).  It’s another adventure that centers on Emmet (Chris Pratt) and Lucy/Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who must defend their beloved city.  Mysterious invaders have turned Bricksburg into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  Batman (Will Arnett), Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie) Benny the Spaceman (Charlie Day) and MetalBeard (Nick Offerman) have all returned in this outing.  They, in addition to Lucy, are taken prisoner by a masked general named Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz).  Not a traditional Lego, but rather an intergalactic mini-doll who reports to the enigmatic Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish).  Phonetically her name sounds like “Whatever-I-Want-To-Be” and that makes sense because she’s an alien queen of constantly shifting shapes.  Still always the plucky spirit, it’s up to Emmet to rescue his friends.

The colorful production is a big loud noisy clutter of sound and images.  There are battles and explosions, along with dinosaurs and spaceships.   The underlying explanation for its nonsensical nature is to mimic the imaginative stories that children make up with their toys.  The first picture was manic too, but there was at least some coherence to the story.   Here, action and dialogue merge in a virtual collage of pandemonium.  I must admit I longed for subtitles on more than one occasion to make sense of the chaos.   This has been done before so granted, the concept doesn’t feel as fresh as its predecessor.  They’ve somehow managed to produce two spinoffs (Batman, Ninjago) in the interim as well – so that’s 4 LEGO movies in 5 years. Obviously, the big reveal at the end of episode one can’t be the same wondrous surprise again.  However clever pop cultural allusions are there amidst all the manic energy.   I did laugh.   Bruce Willis briefly pops up in an amusing cameo.  Comedian Tiffany Haddish is a creative selection to portray the main villain.  Her raspy voice lends an inspired sass to her character.  This is a semi-musical of sorts and she gets to talk-sing her way through two ditties: “Not Evil” and “Gotham City Guys” – both comical musical confections.  So too is “Catchy Song” which features the refrain “This song’s gonna get stuck inside your head” and it probably will.  The narrative is a clever allegory for sibling rivalry.  The obligatory moral, which is so often awkwardly inserted in these kid flicks, feel refreshingly sincere.  Cooperation and getting along never goes out of style.

02-07-19

Cold War

Posted in Drama, Music, Romance with tags on January 30, 2019 by Mark Hobin

zimna_wojna_ver2STARS2.5Cold War is a clever title.  Yes, it clearly refers to a time period.  Pawel Pawlikowski’s love story begins in Poland in the aftermath of World War II.  However, it could also refer to the chilly relationship at its center.  Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) are musicians.  They meet in 1949.  Musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a pianist holding auditions for a traditional folk song and dance troupe.  Music plays an important part in the lives of these entertainers and it often underscores the striking visuals.  Zula isn’t the best singer, but Wiktor is infatuated by the sultry blonde.  He hires her.  The impropriety of an older teacher lusting after his young student is a bit unsettling at first.  Those feelings are somewhat assuaged later when we learn that Zula isn’t the innocent that she appears to be either.  She’s not to be toyed with. There’s a rumor that she killed her father.

This isn’t a sentimentalized portrait but rather a tempestuous affair highlighted by bitter disagreements.  Neither character is what they seem.  As their connection deepens, their show becomes a hit and the state appropriates their production for propagandistic purposes with massive posters of Stalin behind them.  Unhappy with the turn of events, Wiktor and Zula make a pact to flee and reunite in West Berlin.  Then she inexplicably stands him up.  They will meet again but it’s years later.  Incredibly over an efficient 85 minutes, the picture chronicles 15 years of a relationship that traverses across Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia, and Paris.

This tale of star crossed lovers without children is fictionalized but director Pawel Pawlikowski’s based the pair on his own late parents.  His work has received many accolades.  His last feature, Ida, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015.  So too has Cold War garnered Oscar nominations in 2019 — 3 to be exact: Foreign Language Film, Directing, and Cinematography.   In an interesting coincidence, it will compete against Alfonso Cuarón’s even more heavily nominated Roma, another black and white movie inspired by the director’s own life.

Cold War is indeed highlighted by stunning black and white camera work by Lukasz Zal. Curiously the format of the presentation is in a boxy 4:3 ratio.  I must assume that widescreen would have only enhanced the visuals.  Perhaps this decision was to recall the past and mimic the way Hollywood movies looked before 1953.  Despite the truncated image, it still looks enchanting.  Yet the rapport between these two enigmatic people is not.  Indeed this just might be the bleakest romance ever given a luminous facade by way of gorgeous black and white photography.  This is the profile of a stormy love.  The justification for the desire that keeps them returning to each other is wholly unexplained.  To make matters more bewildering, the motivations for certain behaviors is frustratingly vague.  For example, please witness a dreamy moment where the couple is lying together in a sunny meadow showing sweetness. Now during that very same scene, Zula suddenly admits to an act of betrayal.  Here and elsewhere, I felt nothing but apathy for these two.   Yes, the cinematography is absolutely captivating.  The on-again, off-again love story at the heart of the drama?  Eh not so much.

1-24-19

Stan & Ollie

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on January 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

stan_and_ollie_ver4STARS3This biopic is a somber reminiscence on the legendary comedic duo.  Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) first rose to fame through in a series of silent shorts during the 1920s, the early days of Hollywood.  Their popularity would grow exponentially until they became one of the most acclaimed comedy duos ever.  Stan & Ollie isn’t about their glory days, however. The script by Academy Award-nominated writer Jeff Pope (Philomena) focuses on their later years.  This sad little feature deals with a rather low point in their history when they were no longer making films in the U.S.  There’s talk about doing a Robin Hood parody movie.  It never materializes.  It’s 1953 and the pair is on a music tour of the UK.  Way beyond their prime, they struggle to fill seats in run-down theaters and cheap hotels.  Hardy’s failing health becomes a concern.  They also bicker about the past.  A 1937 contract dispute with the studio, depicted in the intro, is dredged up in the present timeline.

There are two good reasons to see Stan & Ollie: its stars. Steve Coogan is very good as Stan Laurel. John C. Reilly is even better as Ollie Hardy.  They ascribe such sincere sympathy to their characters and invest that with tenderness.   Stan and Ollie make personal appearances and incorporate their schtick into these everyday interactions.  The public greets their shenanigans with enthusiasm.  The antics of Coogan and Reilly come across as a genuine achievement, more than just an impersonation.  The actors truly get the mannerisms down, clearly the result of work that has been well researched.  Their work matches the production.  The attention to period detail is exquisite.  The makeup beautifully supports the superior performances.  At first, the reflective tone seems to benefit this admirable effort.  Over the course of the entire runtime however, it becomes depressing.  The atmosphere is surprisingly bleak for a team known for making people laugh.  I admired Stan & Ollie but I wasn’t enthused by it.  I can’t help but think all of this meticulousness might have better served a screenplay that centered on their earlier, more celebrated era.

01-07-19

Destroyer

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama with tags on January 18, 2019 by Mark Hobin

destroyerSTARS3I respect Nicole Kidman as an accomplished thespian.  I really do.  As such, I hold the actress in high regard.  Destroyer is a film highlighted by the transformation of its star.  The tall, willowy blonde ditches her signature long tresses for a wispy dirty brown bob with bangs.  Not only does her hair look filthy but her normally fair unblemished skin is wrinkled and pockmarked.  Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Kidman plays Erin Bell, a detective who is on the hunt for the members of a burglary ring.  When she receives a $100 bill stained from a dye pack, she determines it’s from a bank robbery committed by a California syndicate many years prior.  Erin’s gritty appearance tells us she’s had a rough past.  Via flashbacks, we learn that she and her former partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) had previously infiltrated this organization as undercover officers.  Predictably, these two shared a romantic relationship as well.  At any rate, now it appears the criminals are active again.  Based on an original script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the narrative is the saga of a woman with a score to settle.

Destroyer has a grimy atmosphere.  Early on Erin is shown doing something distasteful to get information from an informant (James Jordan).  I was repulsed by the scummy milieu.  If you’re willing to stick with the unsavory sections, there is a story, although it is confusingly doled out in bits that the viewer must piece together.  Kidman immerses herself in the sordid surroundings.  She admirably gives it her all but physically she seems too frail to be taken seriously in the role.  Her character Erin gets no respect from her contacts.  Everyone seems to treat her as an annoyance.  Her daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) as well as her daughter’s boyfriend (Beau Knapp), along with a lawyer suspect who launders money (Bradley Whitford), all regard her with disdain — initially anyway.   Occasionally she makes inroads.

As a detective drama, Destroyer is merely adequate.  Kidman doesn’t have the gravitas to play an intimidating police officer.  Destroyer is helmed by Karyn Kusama who directed Michelle Rodriguez in her feature debut Girlfight way back in 2000.  I couldn’t help but think Rodriguez would have been a better choice to play this part.  Kusama recently created a sinister but captivating mood in The Invitation (2015), an innovative thriller.  Destroyer is less inventive.   Most of Destroyer simply wallows in the muck as if to prove that Nicole Kidman can be rugged.  I admire her ambition I suppose.   The actress received a lot of positive mentions for her work here.  It’s an exaggerated performance from a veteran performer that’s clearly begging for an Oscar nod.  Unfortunately, that’s all there is.  The screenplay is rooted firmly in genre clichés.  I only wish the drama had been more interesting.

01-01-19

On the Basis of Sex

Posted in Biography, Drama on January 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

on_the_basis_of_sexSTARS2.5The old adage states “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Admittedly, that’s a brutal way to begin a movie review that’s mildly indifferent. It is somewhat apropos though. On the Basis of Sex is the very definition of a well-intentioned drama. It’s adequate as a superficial biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The story idealizes her as a champion for equal rights, yet it fails to captivate. The script is penned by Daniel Stiepleman, a first-time screenwriter. He just so happens to be the subject’s nephew. If you’re an avid fan in need of a reverential memoir depicting the Associate Justice’s formative years, then this should suffice.

Directed by Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, Pay It Forward), this by the numbers drama merely covers the beginning of how RBG came to be.  Slick meticulous production shows how Ruth graduated at the top of her law school class.  Unable to find a job because no law firm would hire a woman, she becomes a professor at Rutgers Law School. On the Basis of Sex mainly focuses on one tax law.  In 1970 her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), brings a case to her attention.  It concerns Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey) a Denver man who was caring for his elderly mother.  Unmarried, he was denied a dependent-care tax deduction.  A single woman, however, would have received the advantage.  RBG saw this situation where a man had been disadvantaged, as an opportunity to bring sex-based discrimination to an appellate court.  She believes the male judges might be more sympathetic to his plight.  In this way, she anticipates that a favorable decision would open a gateway to attack more gender-based legislation.  Indeed this has been a focus of her entire career.

On the Basis of Sex is a traditional biopic, rather conservative in style for such a liberal subject.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissents with the majority ruling have only grown more forceful with time.  They’ve given rise to memes where she’s affectionately referred to her as The Notorious RBG (a riff on late rapper The Notorious B.I.G.).  As such, she has become a pop-culture icon for young liberals.  That profile of an intimidating firebrand is not on display here.  Felicity Jones sweetly radiates hope and resolve as a crusader for equal rights.  Armie Hammer is her supportive husband, an accomplished lawyer in his own right.  Martin actually comes across as more charismatic.  This is even addressed by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), legal director of the ACLU in their mock trial practice sessions.  Those looking to see her appointment to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton in 1993 on through her current tenure will have to wait for the sequel. I’m kidding. (Sort of.)  By focusing on a tax case, On the Basis of Sex doesn’t stir the emotions as it should.  The chronicle doesn’t seem vital enough for anyone other than her most ardent admirers in need of an idealized portrait.

01-03-19

If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on January 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

if_beale_street_could_talk_ver2STARS3Writer James Baldwin’s 1974 novel is lovingly adapted into a beautifully filmed love story about a Harlem couple in the 1970s.  The last feature director Barry Jenkins made won the Oscar for Best Picture so expectations are understandably high.  If Beale Street Could Talk is about Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), newly engaged to her boyfriend Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), better known as Fonny.  We are presented with scenes that show they grew up together.  They have known each other since childhood.  This is fashioned as a romance for the ages.  However, conflict has entered the sanctity of their lives which threatens to upend everything they hold dear.  Fonny has been falsely identified for a crime he didn’t commit.  We see Tish visit Fonny in jail to deliver some major news.  She is pregnant. Cinematographer James Laxton lingers on faces like they’re masterpieces carved in marble.   These images cast a spell that gently invites the viewer to reflect on the disparity between the beauty of their relationship and the ugliness of what has befallen them.  Barry Jenkins screenplay is a somber contemplation of a love fret with hardship.  There are many elegantly composed scenes that convey a feeling in the absence of dialogue.  Indeed the deliberate pace comes at the expense of action.

There is an early moment in Beale Street that tempts the viewer with what might develop into an electrifying ensemble piece.  Tish must break the news of her pregnancy to her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris).  They are shocked but supportive.  Now how to tell Fonny’s family? There’s his religiously sanctimonious mother (Aunjanue Ellis), more easygoing father (Michael Beach), and judgmental sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).  Sharon invites them over to their home for drinks.  Then the verbal fireworks start.  It’s a memorable scene.  Occasional flashbacks throughout show us how Tish and Fonny’s life was before he was arrested, then contrast it with their lives in the present.  Yet nothing matches the sheer drama of the earlier showdown.

If Beale Street Could Talk is compelling in fits and starts.  I call those moments Regina King.  The actress has been picking up awards left and right for her work.  She’s extraordinary.  Sharon’s drive to prove her son-in-law’s innocence ultimately necessitates a trip to Puerto Rico.  It’s the portrait of a mother who only wants justice and truth.  The halcyon days of Tish and Fonny’s romance are idealized with gauzy cinematography highlighting two pretty young people.  Fonny is a sculptor and he works amidst cigarette smoke swirling around a piece he’s creating with a saxophone wailing in the background.  They gaze longingly at each other and the dreamy display is not unlike the sculpture he’s creating — a precious objet d’art to study and appreciate from afar.  A grave injustice underlies their lives and yet there’s no there there.  The action, or lack of it, concerns what appear to be in the details.  How can the reflective inertia of the rest of the film compete with mother Sharon’s emotional fire?  Every time actress King is on screen I was riveted and every time she garners accolades for her achievement, I get it.  I simply wish there was more of her.

12-13-18

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Superhero on January 9, 2019 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_into_the_spiderverse_ver2STARS3.5How much Spider-Man do you need in your life? Sequels, reboots, so many origin stories – This is the 7th feature film to star the Marvel superhero since 2002 and the first animated movie in the franchise. That’s roughly a new release every 27 months. This chapter has certainly put the other entries in perspective. The cognoscenti extolled this feature as the best Spider-Man ever, some even going so far as to call it the best superhero picture of all-time. Those are some pretty lofty declarations. It’s an enjoyable production to be sure. Just based on innovation alone, this production justifies yet another iteration. At this point, those Amazing Spider-Man movies with Andrew Garfield from 2012 and 2014 are only worth watching if you’re a die-hard completist.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse plays with tradition. I wasn’t up on my comic book history. Those well versed in such lore will be at a distinct advantage. If that’s you, go ahead and skip the rest of this paragraph. In fact, go ahead and skip the whole review. This movie was made with you in mind and I can recommend it to you wholeheartedly. Ok now for you casuals and non-superhero fans,  apparently the setting is a shared multiverse called the “Spider-Verse”, which has alternate worlds. This is the first to feature Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager from Brooklyn. He was a re-invention of the character in 2011 by writers Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli. Miles admires Spider-Man /Peter Parker (Chris Pine), the classic guy with whom we are familiar. In this realm, Peter Parker is blonde, fit and seemingly perfect. Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider in the very same way and also develops the same powerful abilities.

That’s merely the beginning. Maniacal crime lord, Wilson Fisk AKA the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) and his top scientist Liv Octavius (Kathryn Hahn), the head of Alchemax, are the baddies. They’ve built a particle accelerator to access parallel universes. Fisk wants to reconnect with his wife and son who died in a car accident. His use of this thing allows various forms of Spider-Man to come into contact with Miles and interact. There’s Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a more disheveled, brown-haired Spider-Man that sort of acts as his mentor. He’s from another dimension.  There’s teenaged Gwen Stacy, a Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), a brooding reporter from the Great Depression called Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), an anthropomorphic pig parody called Spider-Ham AKA Peter Porker (John Mulaney), and Japanese-American high school student Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who pilots a robot called SP//dr. Does this sound confusing? Believe me, it’s even more dizzying as you’re watching it. Each one of these versions gets a chance to tell their tale of how they became a “spider-man”. The production boasts three directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) and five producers including Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind The Lego Movie. They don’t adhere to the past rules of the live-action films. It’s not based in reality. It’s ridiculously bonkers. I suppose that’s part of its charm.

Spider-Verse sets up some emotional stakes. This Spider-Man is still another origin story about a guy coming to terms with his superpowers. In those broad terms, this doesn’t distinguish itself. It’s another hero’s journey.  However, Spider-Verse does a great job at introducing people we care about. We understand Miles. He’s the teenaged son of Jefferson Davis, a black cop (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio Morales, a Puerto Rican nurse (Luna Lauren Velez). Despite the different surnames, they are married. His uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali ) is a supportive presence who encourages his nephew to express his artistic side. Brothers Jefferson and Aaron have drifted apart, however. At one point Dad pleads with his son not to drift away like his brother did. The conversation occurs while Miles is in his room on the other side of a closed door. It’s very poignant.

Spider-Verse is a built upon the DNA of comic books. I’ve explained how the story utilizes that aesthetic but it also infects the trippy graphics as well. The stunning visual design is what captivated me the most. The computer animation is distinctive. Its bold colors and images almost bleed through the lines. Not constantly, but the effect is noticeable at times. Initially, I thought I had accidentally walked into a 3D showing without the glasses to render the proper effect.  It was an intentional choice. The technique recalls the Ben-Day Dots printing process of old, pulpy magazines on cheap paper.

The visuals are gorgeous. The computer rendering gives the faces a photo-realism. It’s incredibly expressive. Their faces emote. Yet it’s still filtered through the style of a comic book. It’s a nice balance. Thought bubbles occasionally pop up. When someone activates his Spider-Sense it’s conveyed through squiggly lines around their head. Then the hyperkinetic action sequences kick in. It can get a bit insane. The interconnected characters from other dimensions start to glitch and become unstable. This random twitching seems to increase when they’re fighting.  At times this mixes with the action on screen and it can be a lot to process for the uninitiated.  “What is happening?!” I thought to myself on more than one occasion. Yet it’s always a wonder to behold. “How much Spider-Man do you need in your life?” I ask.  Spider-Verse proves that when creativity and innovation are fully engaged, there’s always room for one more.

12-28-18