Archive for January, 2016

2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Shorts with tags on January 31, 2016 by Mark Hobin

In honor of the Academy Awards, ShortsHD has once again made all three of the Oscar nominated short film programs (animated, live action, documentary) available to audiences around the world.

Animation

The animated compilation was released to theaters on January 29th, giving the public the opportunity to see the nominated entries before the Oscar Awards ceremony on February 28th.

In addition to the theatrical release, the nominated live action and animated shorts will also be accessible online and on VOD/Pay Per View Platforms.

The animated segment is often my favorite of the three shorts programs because they illicit the most diverse array of feelings – ranging from joy to sadness, sometimes within the same vignette.

I’ve ranked them in the order from best to worst. Also included in the theatrical program are a few honorable mentions including Cordell Barker’s If I Was God. All things considered, it’s a shame this didn’t earn a nomination.

 

World of Tomorrow
USA/17MINS/2015
Director & Writer: Don Hertzfeldt
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An adorable stick figure toddler is visited by her future self, a 3rd generation clone designed to live forever. She imparts wisdom and the script is literally one brilliant piece of wisdom after another. “I am very proud of my sadness because it means I am more alive.” The contrast between her happy but oblivious younger self and her melancholy older reproduction is heartbreaking.

American Don Hertzfeldt’s animated films (It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Rejected) have made him a bit of cult figure in this field. World of Tomorrow only adds to his mystique. (10/10)

 

Sanjay’s Super Team
USA/7MINS/2015
Director: Sanjay Patel
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A young Indian boy wants to watch superheroes on TV while his religious father is trying to mediate. After being forced to join him in prayer, the boy uses his imagination to envision Hindu gods combating in superhero adventures. Deeply personal tale obviously influenced by director Sanjay Patel’s real life relationship with his own father. Actual photos of the animator and his dad at the end complete the touching story arc.

This is from Pixar studios. Their entry originally ran before The Good Dinosaur so this is the most widely seen and the heavy favorite. (8/10)

 

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
RUSSIA/16MINS/2014
Director & Writer: Konstantin Bronzit
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Tale concerning two friends since childhood who go through the training program to become cosmonauts. The cartoon is from Russia so I’m making an attempt to use the correct terminology. Starts out lighthearted and silly and ends up rather sad and poignant. It isn’t particularly innovative, but it’s refreshing to see a short where the narrative takes precedence over the visuals. (7/10)

 

Bear Story
CHILE/11MINS/2014
Director: Gabriel Osorio
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Lonely bear who presents a mechanical theater of windup toys contained within a musical diorama . Passersby may peer inside for the price of a coin. The somber, dialogue-free story about animals captured to perform in the circus may or may not actually mirror the history of his own family. You decide. Just kidding. There’s nothing to decide. That’s exactly what it is. Cute. (6/10)

 

Prologue
UK/6MINS/2015
Director: Richard Williams
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Hand drawn Spartan and Athenian soldiers rendered in charcoal, engage in an extreme battle to the death. Here’s where you should escort the little ones out of the theater and get a snack. There’s nudity and lots of blood. A warrior is brutally stabbed in the groin. The animation is hypnotic but after it’s over, you’ll be scratching your head. What was the point? Well named because it feels like the beginning of something unfinished. (4/10)

01-28-16

Son of Saul

Posted in Drama, History, War on January 27, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo saul_fia_ver2_zpswqogquod.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgSon of Saul is a Hungarian drama covering a day-and-a-half in the life of one Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He is forced to work as a Sonderkommando, that is – a captive who assists in the disposal of the dead, his fellow people, from the gas chamber. While there he discovers the body of a boy he takes for his son and tries to find a rabbi to give the child a proper burial.

The Holocaust has been the subject of innumerable pictures presented from a variety of different angles. Judgment at Nuremberg, The Pawnbroker, Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist, The Counterfeiters, The Reader and Ida are merely a famous few that have won awards and accolades. Son of Saul is critically acclaimed as well and is even up for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards on February 28, 2016. Evidently the topic is ripe for more productions as director Laszlo Nemes approaches the material a little differently.

What separates Son of Saul is the you-are-there vantage point of the main character. Our lead is a prisoner but his own execution has been delayed. A visual perspective from a person thrust into the eye of the storm, so to speak.  The orientation is unique. We see everything from Saul’s viewpoint.  The action is shot in extreme closeup, often slightly behind or right in front of our protagonist. His expression is a blank face of detachment, perhaps immune to the atrocities that inundate him. The events however are often obscured, just out of focus for the audience, and hard to view clearly. We never see the faces of the victims or even their deaths distinctly. That is a blessing. Although the sounds that surround these incidents is horrifying.

Given the theme, Son of Saul is understandably difficult to watch. In many ways it should be. The plot doesn’t follow the traditional narrative that highlights an improbable hero. Its hyper-realistic style addresses the murder directly head on with no relief to alleviate the terror. The brutal efficiency with which the Nazis oversee this evil task is a robotic death camp of mind numbing savagery. A seemingly unending hell on earth from which human life is disposed like a mechanized chore. Even watching prisoners scrub the human blood from the floor of a massive shower can be an overwhelming experience.

Son of Saul is largely a compelling drama. Where the chronicle doesn’t near a masterpiece lies in the conclusion. The fact that Saul and his fellow workers’ days are numbered will inspire questions as the story wears on. Why submit to a ghastly task that only prolongs your inevitable death by days? Some abatement from their chamber of horrors is suggested but after a while Saul’s behavior becomes vexing for viewer. Setting up a brilliant beginning also demands a skillful ending. Son of Saul doesn’t quite deliver at the same level all the way through, but it is still a very powerful film nonetheless.

01-21-16

Mustang

Posted in Drama, Foreign with tags on January 17, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo mustang_ver2_zpsy2ovvvho.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgMustang is set in a remote Turkish village and depicts the life of five young sisters. Our tale concerns them all but is more centered on Lale (Güneş Şensoy). Her teacher at school is leaving for Istanbul. After saying goodbye, she accompanies her sisters on the walk home during a beautiful sunlit day. On the way, they stop off at the beach. They join some of their male classmates in a water game, fully clothed incidentally, where they sit on the boys’ shoulders trying to knock each other off. A neighbor spies the impropriety and the news of their seemingly innocent game reaches their family. The five orphaned teen sisters live with their grandmother in an isolated town on the Black Sea. She along with their overly protective uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) are shocked.  Their harmless goofing around is viewed as licentious behavior. The incident has lasting repercussions on the girls’ life from that moment forward.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven is a Turkish female director born in that country. However she was raised in France and is currently based there.  As such this picture was nominated as the French entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards.  In a broad sense, the chronicle is about freedom. More specifically the accessible subject concerns the unique challenges that girls face growing up in a conservative Muslim society. The narrative does a good job at detailing how their home life transforms after the event. They’re given virginity tests and forbidden to leave the house – even for school.  Soon after their uncle intends to marry every single one of them off as soon as possible. As the 5 sisters band together under the tightening restraints of their domesticity, their sisterly bond is captivating. They exhibit a camaraderie that is touching – a pretty, free-spirited group on the precipice of burgeoning sexuality. However, the group behaves as a unit and that often makes it hard to differentiate one sister from the other. Only the youngest, Lale (Güneş Şensoy) who narrates the story, truly stands out.

Director’s Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s harsh critique of an oppressive patriarchal society is straightforward, but it isn’t subtle. The saga descends from the carefree optimism on the beach into the dark corruption of a community prone to gender bias. The essential “house arrest” of these 5 teen girls approaches the totalitarian conditions of a jail.  The nightmare that is their homelife is clearly evident. Their subjugation is infuriating. As Westerners we are forced into a judgmental corner and are predictably outraged. The cultural portrait is nicely presented. This makes the decision to further stack the narrative by also making the uncle sexually abusive, a bit ham-handed. The focus isn’t just about the tyranny of a culture unjust to women anymore. Now we’re dealing with sexual assault. The approach is unnecessarily embellished. We feel the forcible pull of a screenplay, co-written by the director and Alice Winocour, overstating its case. However as the debut feature from an up-and-coming filmmaker, there’s still a lot to admire here.

01-07-16

Concussion

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on January 11, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo concussion_ver2_zpsn7swvjsa.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgBefore I launch into my review of Concussion, I thought a little primer on biology might help. So the brain floats inside the skull surrounded by something called cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). When the body is suddenly stopped after a blow to the head, like after being tackled for example, the brain continues to move in the CSF until it hits the next solid surface – the inside of the skull. Sure a helmet will protect the skull, but it cannot protect the brain. If this happens enough times, the nerve fibers break off and proteins start to build up in the brain leaving scar tissue. That’s bad.

Concussion is a medical drama about Dr. Bennet Omalu. He works for the Allegheny County Medical Examiners Office in Pittsburgh. A forensic pathologist, Omalu conducts the autopsy on Hall of Famer Mike Webster – legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster had not been well. He was suffering from amnesia, dementia, depression and died from a heart attack at only 50 years old. What Omalu finds, leads to his discovery of a new disease that he names chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE in 2005. The complications of which somewhat resemble Alzheimer’s, however they occur much earlier in life. The depression, memory loss and erratic, aggressive behavior experienced by ex NFL players, continues to this day. Concussion does a nice job at emphasizing the severity of these symptoms.

Given the subject matter, this could’ve been a much more incendiary film. The research calls the very sport of professional football into question. (I assume athletes in boxing, soccer, hockey, rugby and wrestling would be at risk as well.) As you might expect, the publication of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s research is viewed as extremely controversial by the National Football league. The NFL had a choice. Join Dr. Bennet Omalu and try to solve the problem, or use their considerable power to discredit him. The NFL choose the latter and they certainly do not come off well. They’re presented as this monolithic corporate entity as headed by commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson).

Dr. Omalu’s fight to get people to acknowledge he is right, becomes a veritable David-vs.-Goliath match. He was born in Nigeria. Dr. Omalu earned his degree in medicine there before coming to the U.S. where he completed his residency. Despite all of his education, he is seen as an outsider. “They insinuated I was not practicing medicine; I was practicing voodoo,” he has said. Not only is Dr. Omalu an immigrant, he is indifferent to that quintessentially American of pastimes called football. Nevertheless he does gain a powerful ally in former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin).

I really wanted to love this movie. Concussion has the best intentions. It dramatizes a serious story that needs to be told. At the heart of this biography is a compelling performance by Will Smith. Historically he has often had a difficult time disappearing into the persona of another person. We see mega celebrity Will Smith – the brash movie star, not an actor fading within a role. Here however, he manages to convincingly present a different personality – accent and demeanor included. It’s his most impressive achievement since The Pursuit of Happyness. Unfortunately, the diffuse narrative spends way too much time on tedious details involving his personal life which includes love interest and eventual wife, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She is far too great an actress to be saddled with this expendable role. Concussion is at its best when it’s delving into the science of Omalu’s work, chronicling his study and the ensuing struggle to get his important research acknowledged. The production ends unresolved. According to the film, his research still has yet to be taken seriously by the NFL. Although some concessions have been made, very little about the sport has changed. Apparently the issue is far from over. Stay tuned.

12-29-15

Daddy’s Home

Posted in Comedy, Uncategorized with tags on January 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo daddys_home_zpsmwctg3sm.jpg photo starrating-halfstar.jpgI wasn’t going to review Daddy’s Home. I absolutely hated it. So much that I didn’t even want to ever think about it again. But then it became a hit. Since Dec 18th Star Wars: The Force Awakens has loomed large over everything else at the multiplex. That makes the success of Daddy’s Home even more incredible. While Oscar hopefuls like Concussion, Joy, The Big Short and The Hateful Eight all compete for an audience, this meager comedy outperformed them all with $120 million dollars. I can no longer ignore this. It has incurred my wrath.

It’s a sad coincidence, but Will Ferrell actually managed to co-produce the 3 worst movies I saw in 2015. No joke. Daddy’s Home, Get Hard, and Welcome to Me were the very dregs of everything I saw. It wasn’t always this way. Will Ferrell was once a favorite of mine. I consider Elf, Blades of Glory and Step Brothers to be among the funniest comedies of the 2000s decade. I even liked The Other Guys, the last flick he made with Mark Wahlberg – his onscreen co-star here. That makes his recent output all the more depressing. He can do better.

Brad (Will Ferrell) is married to Sara (Linda Cardellini). Right from the start we learn Brad cannot produce children of his own because his groin was subjected to x-ray radiation at the dentist. The script thinks it is important that we know he is infertile. The implicit-association is that he is defective and enfeebled. He is, nonetheless, a loving stepdad to her two young children. The children, who come across as ungrateful brats, hate him anyway simply because he isn’t their real dad. Megan draws a picture of Brad with “homeless man poop” on his head. However after 6 months of sycophantic behavior, Brad is finally starting to fit in with the family. That is, until the kids’ biological dad (Mark Wahlberg) decides to show up and re-enter the picture. Dusty is presented as a more handsome, athletic, macho dude that rides a motorcycle and knows the coach of the Lakers. He ingratiates himself back into their lives much to the consternation of Brad.

This is probably a good time to point out that that the entire narrative is based on a battle of egos to determine male superiority. Brad is unceasingly shown as not being able to measure up to stereotypical standards of masculinity. Will Ferrell has built a career on being an affable buffoon. He’s always been a passive milquetoast, a cloying entity desperately seeking approval. Daddy’s Home relies on those character traits, but here he amps up the obsequious sensibilities of his character to the point it becomes embarrassing. As his feeble attempts to win his stepkids’ love intensify, the more pathetic he seems.

I’ve never been a fan of comedies that derive laughs at the expense of a poor sap who is the obvious butt of jokes. It’s a very low form of humor because it relies on the degradation of another human being. Will Ferrell is a virtual whipping boy of ugly and mean-spirited humiliation. In fact, he’s emasculated to such a degree it becomes excruciating to watch. Despite the evidence that Brad is a nice guy, everyone comes to favor Dusty over Brad. This includes his boss (Thomas Haden Church), the handyman (Hannibal Buress), and the fertility doctor (Bobby Cannavale). Even his own wife (Linda Cardellini), who originally wanted nothing to do with the freeloader, is seduced by Dusty’s self serving ego-driven shenanigans. Here’s where the plot defies logic. Apparently Dusty thumped his chest the loudest.

Tonally Daddy’s Home is an unholy union of raunchy humor unconformably shoved into an account concerning children. Nowhere is this more disturbing than when Dusty improvises a fairy tale to the kids about the “real king” and the “step-king” in a way that paints Brad in a negative light, including the relative sizes of the men’s “swords”.  I’m trying to figure out where the script hits rock bottom and I think sexual innuendos in a children’s bedtime story is the nadir. If this schizophrenic mishmash were only guilty of being painfully unfunny, then I could have dismissed it as just another lowbrow farce. Yet the screenplay has the unmitigated gall to tack on an inspiring coda at the eleventh hour that retrofits this dirty adult comedy with an uplifting moral. You see Brad’s fathering skills ultimately redeem all of his male deficiencies. That this appalling piece of filth eventually shapeshifts into a kid-friendly sermon makes the film too pernicious at which to even gaze. No one should see this vile film. Avert thine eyes!

12-31-15