Archive for February, 2014

The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Documentary

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Oscar Nominated Short Films photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) has been awarded every year since the 14th Academy Awards beginning in 1941. In the early years many were propaganda films focused on the U.S. effort in WWII. Over time however they have focused on a variety of subjects. This year’s crop were an extraordinary mix of both feel good and heartbreaking subjects. A very strong collection that was the most substantial of the three short film programs. As far as I’m concerned any one of these could triumph and it would be a solid winner.

 

 

CaveDigger
CaveDigger
USA / 39MIN / Director and Producer: Jeffrey Karoff
Ra Paulette is an artist. He digs “cathedral-like caves” into the sandstone cliffs of Northern New Mexico. He has done commissioned work, but often his desires do not always match those of his clients. An absolutely fascinating portrait of idiosyncratic fellow and the jaw droppingly beautiful spaces he creates. This is seemingly the most lighthearted, but I found it deeply moving and my favorite of these five strong choices.

 

 

Facing Fear
Facing Fear
USA / 23MIN / Director: Jason Cohen
The lives of a neo Nazi skinhead and a gay man living in West Hollywood intersect in the 1980s. 25 years later their paths would cross again. Fascinating document of how these men, once enemies, would become unlikely allies. Tale of forgiveness and redemption unfolds gradually with emotionally compelling results.

 

 

Karama Has No Walls
Karama Has No Walls
YEMEN, UK & UNITED ARAB EMIRATES / 26MIN / Director: Sara Ishaq
The population in Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, has assembled in Change Square as an act of civil disobedience. Without weapons, they peacefully demand that President Ali Abdullah Saleh end his three-decade-long rule due to widespread corruption and human rights abuses. Under a barrage of sniper bullets, a peaceful demonstration turns violent. Emotionally powerful chronicle is difficult to watch but, like Oscar nominated documentary feature The Square, it’s a powerful record of atrocities that cry out to be recorded.

 

 

Prison Terminal
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
USA / 40MIN / Director: Edgar Barens
The final 6 months in the life of a terminally ill prisoner, Jack Hall, is detailed. Hospice volunteers, also prisoners, attend to the once war hero. One might ask, as I did, why we should even care about the life quality of a convicted murderer in the Iowa State Penitentiary. If so, you are the perfect audience for this documentary.

 

 

The Lady In Number 6
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
CANADA / 38MIN / Director: Malcolm Clarke
Alice Herz Sommer is 109 year old, the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor and high on life from her piano playing. The subject is unquestionably touching but it’s also a bit expected as well. Come on! Let’s combine growing old, classical music, and the Holocaust all in the same documentary. I mean how can this lose? It’s almost scientifically designed to win the Oscar.

 

 

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The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animated

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

2014 Oscar Nominated Short Films photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Oscar for Animated Short Film has been awarded every year since the 5th Academy Awards beginning in 1932. Walt Disney received 12 of his 22 Academy Awards in this category. Needless to say it’s a prestigious honor that should highlight some of the most important contributions to the world of animation of that year. With that said, this year’s crop of animated films were a wee bit disappointing. With one exception, I found them to be pleasant but uninspiring.

 


 


 

Feral

Feral
USA/13min/Director: Daniel Sousa
A wild boy is found in the forest by a hunter. He is brought back to civilization where he must adapt to his new surroundings. Black and white with green tints, the hand drawn story has some eerie visuals and some beautiful music, but this wordless mood piece is rather dull and inconsequential.

 


 

Get a Horse!
Get a Horse!
USA/7min/Director: Lauren MacMullan
Easily the best of this group. Fun throwback to the earliest B&W shorts of Mickey Mouse. The production is thrown completely on its ear when flat animation becomes 3D and colorful. The characters appear to burst from the screen as they use their surroundings to their advantage. An homage to classic Disney but it also deconstructs the character in a delightfully modern way to create something fresh and original. A real winner.

 


 

Mr. Hublot
Mr. Hublot
Luxembourg/France /11min/Director: Laurent Witz
Mr. Hublot is a quirky character that lives in a mechanized world beautifully rendered in computer animated detail. A robot pet resembling a dog is introduced into his life and the addition will have a major effect on his comfortable existence. If Get a Horse! didn’t exist, this would be my favorite.

 


 

Possessions
Possessions
Japan/14 min/Director: Shuhei Morita
A man lost in the woods, waits out a storm in a small shrine. Suddenly the room is transformed and inanimate objects appear before him. Beautifully animated but the story is random and aimless. Not my cup of tea.

 


 

 photo ROOM_ON_A_BROOM_zpsbbdf1be3.jpg
Room on the Broom
UK/25min/Director: Max Lang and Jan Lachauer
Story about a overly sweet witch with a collection of animals she invites to share space on her broom. This is based on a children’s picture book and it feels like something for pre-preschoolers. Constant narration explains to us what is happening while we actually watch it happening…for 25 long minutes. The book is read to us by what sounds like a librarian as portrayed by Simon Pegg. From the producers of The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child.

 


 

My 2014 Oscar Predictions

Posted in Podcast with tags , , , on February 26, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Out Now with Aaron and Abe is a film podcast show where the aforementioned hosts review films with a revolving roundtable of guests. I, Mark Hobin, have been on numerous times. Their annual Oscar Prediction show is one of my favorites. As a HUGE unapologetic Oscar fan, I join them along with fellow Oscar aficionado Mark Johnson to discuss our picks.

Predictions for the 86th Academy Awards are presented from 12:00 to 1:12:00. Afterward we go over our favorite Oscar winners throughout history.

2014 Oscar Predictions Podcast

Oscars

Also Available on iTunes‎!

Listen to this and you’re sure to win any Oscar pool.

Pompeii

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Thriller with tags on February 19, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Pompeii photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe studio pitch for Pompeii must have gone something like this, “People loved Dante’s Peak and they loved Gladiator, so why not combine the two?” It speaks to general mood that this story doesn’t unfold as something fresh and original. It feels like a dusted off script from some sword and sandal relic from the 1960s. You know the kind, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts are examples. They featured great special effects by Ray Harryhausen. No one would ever raise them up as great art, however they were rousing adventures that were fitfully entertaining. Pompeii is very much in the same tradition.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson is best known as the director of Resident Evil and the husband of Milla Jovovich whom he met while directing her in that movie. He also helmed Mortal Kombat which was a nifty little flick that combined martial arts and fantasy. He can be a dependable talent.  It was a monetary triumph back in 1995. Though he’s never been a director that gets critical acclaim. Much of that is deserved. But he shouldn’t be held accountable for past transgressions. He gets a lot of things right here.

The first part, the gladiator section, is set in 79 A.D where we meet our hero, Milo (Kit Harington), a slave. As a child, he witnessed his parents’ slaughter by Romans who demolished his entire Celtic village. Now an adult, he is in the company of a lot of other slaves that are being taken to the city of Pompeii by the Roman Empire. Unless they had 24 Hour Fitness in ancient Rome, they’re more physically fit than anyone in that era ought to be. Milo sports curly locks and a smoldering stare but with a dim bulb personality that doesn’t feel the need to speak much.

Then there’s the romance which is de rigueur in these stories. Emily Browning plays the daughter of a wealthy businessman and his wife, Aurelia. Kudos to Carrie-Anne Moss who manages to get second billing for her cameo. She does speak once, maybe twice? I can’t remember. Anyway Emily Browning’s chemistry with Kit Harrington is not particularly moving but if you‘re here for the romance, you probably didn‘t take note of the size of the volcano on the movie poster. Poor Browning has had one success in the beginning of her career (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) and hasn’t had a hit since. That’s not going to change with this film. The beautifully blank Cassia admires the young slave for his horse whispering skills. Milo and Cassia “meet-cute” occurs when he humanely kills a horse with his bare hands to ease its suffering. It’s a moment where Cassia looks so moved she just might faint. “I can’t believe he had the strength to do that,” Cassia breathlessly tells her gal pal later on. “Didn’t you see his muscles?” her friend replies. Oh but Cassia apparently meant his strength of character. You decide if exchanges like that are enjoyable funny or roll-your-eyes silly.

If I’m being more critical than my star rating suggests, you misunderstand the weight of my objections. The supporting casting is really good. The face of the evil Roman empire is embodied by Senator Corvis, a hissable villain portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland. He’s the only one who seems in on the joke and he chews scenery like Jon Voight in Anaconda. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje commands the focus of every scene in which he’s present. As Bridgageous, a fellow slave, the two are meant to be rivals. They’re destined to face off in the arena, but when Bridgageous saves Milo from a fellow slave who tries to stab him, we know it’s only a matter of time before these two ultimately join forces.

Pompeii is good old fashioned nonsense. The story is refreshingly simple and uncluttered with superfluities. Completely unencumbered by anything deep or pretentious, it’s the occasional cheese that makes this experience fun. I actually wished there was more. Milo’s moral dilemma is initially conceived as a revenge tale but clearly the gods are not happy with Rome either and the narrative slowly turns into a disaster flick. I chuckled every time rumbling shots of Mount Vesuvius were randomly inserted amongst the action.  These sonic reminders of the mountain percolating in the background pop up occasionally. “Remember me? “ the mountain seems to ask. “Well I just might have something to say a little later.“ The climax is exciting and when the ASH hole blows its top, the spectacle is appropriately impressive. Before that happens, however, we get some nicely staged action sequences in the arena. There’s slashed throats, stabbings, and enough deaths that might have earned an R, but the spirited battles are surprisingly bloodless. The PG-13 rating makes sense for a lively production a teen audience shouldn’t be denied the right to see. Pompeii is by no means a great film, but it isn’t horrible either. It kind of exists in that realm and that’s how I appreciated it.

About Last Night

Posted in Comedy, Romance with tags on February 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

About Last Night photo starrating-3stars.jpgDavid Mamet’s 1974 play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” was sanitized into a 1986 brat pack romance starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore when they were in their early 20s. It was a moderate hit with audiences but David Mamet (and the critics) hated it. Flash forward nearly 3 decades later and the comedy about the divide between men and women has been remade. Director Steve Pink’s update is familiar stuff to anyone who has ever seen at least one romantic comedy in their life. He recycles timeworn ideas but now the location is Los Angeles. The story charts the relationship of two wildly different African-American couples who also happen to be friends. The principals skew closer to the age of 40 this time around. One is genuinely into long term commitment, the other craves instant gratification.  The material is more sexually explicit, but it‘s all because of frank repartee. It’s verbally raunchy, but not graphically so.

The real stars of About Last Night are the sidekicks Bernie and Joan, portrayed by Kevin Hart and Regina Hall. This is the 6th film the two have appeared in together, 7 if you count the upcoming Think Like a Man Too. However this is the first instance where they have been a couple. Note to Hollywood: continue pairing these two up as such.  Kevin Hart is a motor-mouthed comedian with enough energy for 5 romantic comedies. Regina Hall is his sassy match. She seems happier in an argument than at peace. Their characters are in it for the physical act and not about the commitment. They’re lewd, crude and yes hilariously over the top. They stand in stark contrast to actors Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant who play the reticent Danny and Debbie that fall deeply in love. Then they move in together. They’re shy types that develop a sweet intimacy, but they can be sensual too. On one occasion Debbie spends the evening making dinner. In one fell swoop, Danny knocks it all to the floor so they can have sex on the table. I couldn’t help thinking, you just ruined a lot of good food, to say nothing of her time and effort. No mention is made of that. Instead they squabble over things like getting a puppy.  <yawn> On New Year’s Eve, they actually complain about being boring. Only the dullest couple would fight over such a thing.

The narrative is frenzied and haphazard. Danny and Debbie’s relationship goes through unpredictable fluctuations. Danny progresses from nice guy to jerk on New Years Eve. Danny’s anger with staying at home is perplexing because up until that point he had always enjoyed a quiet evening with his girl. Debbie makes another delicious meal for Danny. Then Bernie calls him and they all end up going out instead. More wasted food. They meet up at the club and Danny starts pounding one drink after another at the bar. Who is THIS guy? Bernie and Joan’s behavior doesn’t make a lot of sense either. Joan is constantly getting angry at the drop of a hat, sometimes for reasons that are completely random and unpredicatble.

About Last Night concerns the sexual politics of two couples. The sweet one wants to commit following a one-night stand. The other passionately volatile, are like two moths drawn to a flame. The pace is frantic. The frenetic editing can go from screwball to headache in seconds. One minute of conversation between two people talking is a series of 30 jump cuts back-and-forth between two faces. Relax! It’s OK to linger on a shot for more than 2 seconds.  Director Steve Pink’s movie bears little resemblance to David Mamet’s play or dialogue, but that doesn‘t mean this isn‘t an improvement to the 1986 adaptation. Argumentative Bernie and Joan are fun to watch. Their shouted dialogue is delivered machine gun style at each other in rapid succession without breath. They interact in hilarious fashion and their discussions descend into bickering, often suddenly without warning. They quarrel, often for no good reason other than to provide laughs. They raise this from a clichéd chronicle to an enjoyable romp.

Gloria

Posted in Drama with tags on February 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Gloria photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe song “Gloria” that was a smash hit for Laura Branigan in 1982 was first sung by Umberto Tozzi with Italian lyrics in 1979. You’ll hear the later version of the song near the end of Gloria the movie, which was Chile’s selection for the foreign language Oscar in 2013. It didn’t get a nomination incidentally. For my tastes I prefer the remake because its extra bouncy kick is upbeat and inspiring. The original, while pleasant is more romantic with a starry-eyed flavor.

I can see why the filmmakers chose Tozzi’s version though. Its softer beats actually befits the film. Gloria is 58, divorced and single. She’s rather nondescript but she wears these super large glasses that compare to the spectacles Dustin Hoffman wore in Tootsie. Come to think of it, Gloria looks a lot like Tootsie. Anyway, she’s been single for 12 years so perhaps a little desperation has set in. She’s tired of being lonely. She spends her nights hanging out in dance clubs that play the disco music of her youth. She’s looking for love by seeing a succession of men her own age, but the affairs lead to nothing lasting. Then she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a man in his mid 60s. Could he be the one?

Gloria is sympathetic up to a point, but she also makes a lot of really bad choices. We have the insider’s view, watching her relationship with Rodolfo when they‘re together. He is an ex-naval officer, who is recently divorced with two needy adult daughters. He is taken with Gloria and she with him. But he doesn’t even want to tell them of his new love for fear they will laugh at their old man. They call his cell phone constantly when they’re together. Their interactions involve the occasional sexual encounter. The actors bare all for their director. Sebastián Lelio proudly flaunts the nudity of people over 50 as if the lack of restraint deserves acclaim. Gloria ultimately introduces Rodolfo to her own family at a special dinner party. Then he inexplicably leaves for questionable reasons. “Grow a pair!” she demands out of exasperation. This type of insensitive behavior happens several times. You want her to just leave him, but she keeps coming back. Apparently he is all she has.

Gloria as a movie isn’t particularly innovative. It feels like some rediscovered relic from the 70s highlighting the liberated single woman character wronged by men. Here she is a vibrant older woman who, once married, must now come to terms with being alone. Her emotional journey to make peace with her current state in life is where the story mines its drama. The entire film rests on the performance of its titular star. Gloria is highlighted by Paulina García. She craves passion and it’s hard not to care about her predicament. We sympathize with her for awhile. But Rodolfo’s conduct grows more inconsiderate and less tolerable. He’s weak and ineffectual. We do not share in her attraction to this man. Her decision to keep going back to him is a little frustrating and after awhile, enabling. Laura Branigan sang, “Are the voices in your head calling, Gloria?” Because if they are, don’t answer them, Gloria. Just walk away.

The Lego Movie

Posted in Action, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on February 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Lego Movie photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgLow expectations totally help The Lego Movie. We’ve seen other examples of films based on a specific brand name toy before with mixed results.  At least Transformers and G.I. Joe were box office successes if not critical ones, while Battleship was a failure by anyone’s measure. It’s hard not to be cynical at the title and greet this animated film as nothing more than a feature length commercial. While the production will undoubtedly sell a boatload of Lego, it’s surprising that there is a lot of creativity behind the marketing. The Lego Movie works on a meta level. We’re watching an advertisement for toys that warns us about a nefarious corporation that tries to sell us products: these include the TV show Where Are My Pants?, the ubiquitous hit song, “Everything is Awesome“, and designer coffee for $37.

The evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) wants to unleash the Kragle (a tube of Krazy Glue with some letters missing). It’s a superweapon that will leave the many various Lego worlds immobilized in perfect constructed harmony forever. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is completely average in every way. Nothing special. He helps build skyscrapers for the Octan Corporation. He’s one of the faceless Lego denizens at the construction site. One day after everyone has gone home, he accidentally stumbles into a pit and a red relic – “the Piece of Resistance” becomes fused to his back. Wyldstyle a tough fighter chick, and Vitruvius a blind wizard, now believe him to be the “Special” – the one the prophecy foretold would be sent to stop Lord Business.

The story is pure formula. Yes the plot admittedly bears more than a passing resemblance to The Matrix. However that implies The Matrix was an exclusively original concept.  It wasn’t. These ordinary heroes thrust in extraordinary circumstances have been an archetype dating back to ancient myths. Even side characters suggest earlier works. Lord Business’ lieutenant, the split personality Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), is reminiscent of the Mayor of Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Where the saga takes off is the utter senselessness of it all. Lego owns the rights to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, DC superheroes, so each of these figures can and do pop up. Some making only a very brief appearance.  The action moves at a speedy clip through different lands rarely stopping to take a breath. The Old West, Middle Zealand, Cloud Cuckoo Land are represented.  It combines these disparate inspirations and solidifies them into an entertaining amalgamation. It’s mostly computer animated, although the animation is purposefully done in a herky jerky style to resemble the way Lego bricks actually move. There are rapid fire bullets, frantic chases, and flying machines – all rendered in a kaleidoscopic spectacle bursting with colors. Sometimes it’s so chaotic it verges on distracting, but it’s impressive as well. I loved seeing Lego bricks forming puffs of smoke as they’re billowing out of a train stack or an explosion rendered as a series of colorful bricks.

This is pretty manic stuff.  For better or worse, the narrative is all over the place. Writers-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) are the minds behind all this lunacy. They manipulate the conventions of children’s entertainment and turn them right on their ear. They imbue the proceedings with a subversive bent. The importance of a coherent story is ridiculed. The prophecy of wizard Vitruvius (brilliantly voiced by Morgan Freeman) is not taken from some venerable sacred text. It’s something he just makes up on the spot. Emmet zones out when listening to Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) give exposition and all he (and the audience) hears is, “blah blah blah proper name place name back-story stuff.“ Wyldstyle desperately wants to be the “Special”. And why not? She’s infinitely more qualified because she is creative and brilliant, unlike Emmet who just follows the rules. The hero is in fact a zero. But believe in yourself and you can achieve anything, right?  The message is superficially cloying but there is a twist.  Without revealing anything important, the underlying recommendation is to NOT follow instructions. The “good guys encourage the workers to rise up against Lord Business. Imagination is a powerful thing. Freedom is better than conformity. However the script’s greatest inspiration lies in its ability to explicitly decry business while indirectly celebrating it. This is after all, an advertisement for Lego toys, right?

Labor Day

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on February 2, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Labor Day photo starrating-2stars.jpgBack in 2007 Chronicle Books published a paperback entitled Porn for Women. Despite the raunchy sounding title, it was in fact a tongue-in-cheek, PG-rated photo book. The humorous publication featured clean-cut guys washing dishes, doing the laundry, and saying things like “Let me make you some tea and we can talk about it.” Labor Day is kind of pitched to the same audience except that it’s no joke.  It might have been rewritten and worked as a parody, but as a serious romance, it’s just awful. The most stilted fantasy aimed at lonely women since Nights in Rodanthe.

The drama stars Kate Winslet as Adele. Apparently she’s suffering from depression after the breakup of her marriage. She’s extremely forlorn, although her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) does his best to comfort her. He is sweetness personified even giving her a coupon book offering to do all the chores around the house. I will say that his coming-of-age character makes the most sense. The young actor is quite good. Anyway, while shopping in a discount store one day, the twosome are accosted by Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict with a bleeding wound on his stomach. He forces the two to take him to their home so he can hide out for awhile.

What happens next is too illogical for words. Within seconds of entering the house Adele is making Frank coffee. “Isn’t it against the law to hide a fugitive?“ her son asks.  So Frank gently ties her to a chair to look as if she has been forced contrary to her will. For some reason, he spares the son. Henry watches on nervously. Then Frank whips up his famous chili and spoon-feeds it to Adele, blowing on each bite so it doesn‘t burn her tongue. As the weekend progresses, manly Frank replaces the oil on her car, changes the filter on the furnace, washes and waxes the kitchen floor and even helps her son understand what a ratchet wrench is and how to throw a baseball. Are you kidding me? However the most ridiculous sequence is an extended cooking demonstration in which Frank teaches mother and son how to bake the perfect peach pie. Each brand name ingredient lovingly framed at camera level ostensibly so the audience can go buy the correct ingredients when they make the recipe at home. Adele mixes the peaches with her hands. Then Frank also puts his hands in the mixture and the two affectionately caress one another. First I thought of the pottery scene in Ghost. Then I rolled my eyes so far back I thought I saw my brain.

The plot is simplistic in the extreme. Lonely divorcée falls in love with an escaped prisoner. He’s pretty benign, but the ominous music misleads the viewer into believing something very evil is imminent. I suppose falling for a murderer isn’t ideal. But then there are several groan-inducing flashbacks that awkwardly persuade us to sympathize with Frank in the most horrendously manipulative way possible. Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult: I’ve adored every single one of Jason Reitman’s other films. I am flabbergasted this was helmed by the same director. Furthermore, he adapted Joyce Maynard’s novel himself. Regardless of how sappy the source material is, he must accept blame for this script. I kept thinking that at some point in the development of this story there would be a twist or surprise that would explain why such a mentally troubled woman would be so comfortable with a convicted felon in the house. No such luck.