Archive for the Drama Category

Operation Mincemeat

Posted in Drama, History, War with tags on May 17, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

British cinema will always have a fascination with World War II. Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are recent offerings. Just this past January, we were blessed with Munich: The Edge of War which detailed Hitler’s early designs on Czechoslovakia. I now present Operation Mincemeat, a true-life tale about the effort to disguise the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. This involves obtaining a corpse and passing it off as a fallen soldier with secret documents suggesting Greece is the real target.

The best thing about the film is the cast which features Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen. Coincidentally, the two actors have each played Mr. Darcy in versions of Pride and Prejudice, Firth in a 1995 BBC production, and Macfadyen in the 2005 movie with Keira Knightley. The intelligence officers plan the disinformation campaign. Even Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) — yes, the future writer of James Bond — is tapped to help. Despite the fact that the central pair are on the same side, feelings of jealousy arise. Both are attracted to a widowed secretary who works in their office. Actress Kelly Macdonald portrays Jean Leslie. Jason Issacs oversees the tactical deception as Admiral John Godfrey. And what WWII drama would be complete without an appearance by Winston Churchill? That role is occupied by Simon Russell Beale.

Operation Mincemeat is a solid production skillfully assembled by experienced director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). There are bits of levity inserted throughout. The attempts at humor enliven the atmosphere. If you relish fact-based espionage, then you’ll find this to be a competent melodrama ably supported by a talented ensemble. However, the account is a little too content to rely on proficient actors simply doing their thing. This is one of those cases where the truth is stranger than fiction. Reading about the real-life mission is a lot more fascinating than the entanglements depicted here. The period piece is polished and genteel, but I craved more excitement. It all culminates with a telephone call informing the audience how the endeavor went. I won’t spoil the outcome, but any history buff will already know the answer. I was kind of anticipating a recreation of the attack. Now that would have been exciting.

05-11-22

The Outfit

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on May 12, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I love a clever title with a double meaning. The Outfit is about an English tailor named Leonard Burling (Mark Rylance) who sews suits, but it also concerns the Chicago Outfit, an organized crime syndicate. The story details one fateful night in the tailor’s life. Okay, so he’s technically a “cutter” because Leonard used to work in London’s Savile Row. It’s 1956 and he runs a neighborhood shop in Chicago controlled by Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale), an Irish Mob boss. Roy’s son Ritchie (Dylan O’Brien) and chief enforcer Francis (Johnny Flynn) are Leonard’s best customers but they also use his business as a place to hide dirty money. Oh and his receptionist Mable (Zoey Deutch) also happens to be Ritchie’s girlfriend.

The drama has all the trapping of the stage. The story is set in a single location. A twisty sequence of developments unfolds as the tailor attempts to stay alive by manipulating people with his words. The low-key vibe of the account takes a while to get going. However, things do get more complicated and even bloody. Before the night is over, not everyone will still be alive. A series of discussions propel the plot. Although the climax ultimately relies on a sequence of several actions. The ending could use a little — pardon the pun — tailoring.

The Outfit is an entertaining tale from screenwriter Graham Moore who won an Oscar for The Imitation Game. The dialogue is crisp and witty. A sample exchange:

Richie: [My father was] always stating, “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life kid”
Leonard: Wilde
Richie: F***ing crazy, right?
Leonard: No, that’s a quote: Oscar Wilde

Screenwriter Graham Moore is making his directorial debut. He expertly builds tension from a unique situation. There’s a rat somewhere in Roy Boyle’s organization and he’s aiming to find out who it is. The centerpiece is a stellar performance from Mark Rylance. He’s a cagey individual but his unassuming nature belies a shrewd personality. A notable alumnus of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, his talent here recalls the work of another graduate of the prestigious school, Anthony Hopkins. I can’t give an actor higher praise than that. Mark Rylance elevates this well-written theater piece into a captivating pressure cooker drama.

05-06-22

The Northman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama with tags on April 26, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Princess Bride was the last film I expected to think of while watching The Northman. It occurs when Prince Amleth makes his proclamation: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” Like the declaration of Inigo Montoya in the William Goldman novel and subsequent adaptation, the vindictive pledge is like a mantra. In all fairness, the mood of this Viking adventure is closer to darker revenge movies like Conan the Barbarian, Braveheart, and Gladiator.

The ancient Norse legends are the basis for Robert Eggers’ tale. They’re part of a rich tradition that also inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet. The Northman is the director’s most commercial release. He’s working from a reported budget of somewhere between $70 and $90 million depending on whatever accounting reports you believe. Regardless, it’s easy to see where the money went. The chronicle is a beautifully photographed epic of visual grandeur. If you’re content to simply gorge on the scenery, you’ll be satiated.

The story is simplistic, but it’s accomplished by a talented ensemble. Young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) witnesses the murder of his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), and the capture of his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), by his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Years later, Amleth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) vows to assassinate Fjölnir. He also promises to liberate his mother — still played by Kidman (!) The actress is now only nine years older than the actor playing her son. Ah, Hollywood! Amleth embarks on a quest to find and execute Fjölnir. During his journey, he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sorceress/Slavic slave who becomes his ally and also love interest — not necessarily in that order.

There’s no denying that Alexander Skargaaard has the physicality of a Viking. His performance is a wild untamed muscular bundle of rage. The dude is so jacked, his workout routine suggests he’s doing a lot more than rowing a boat and occasionally wielding a sword. Intellectually he has one thing on his mind: to avenge his father’s death. So he enlists the help of a group of berserkers to help him accomplish his task. I wish I could say there was more to the plot but that’s it. The account portrays this undertaking.

The Northman is a surprisingly conventional tale from a director who heretofore has been anything but. It’s not surprising that the director is feeling a little playful. He’s working with a massive budget that now allows for a grander scale and scope. The Witch and The Lighthouse were contemplative pictures that traded action for meaning. The Northman feels like an about-face. The screenplay — co-written by Eggers and Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón — isn’t too interested in profound considerations. It’s a basic and bloody revenge scenario. Introspection be damned.

Where this visceral fable of retaliation excels is in the iconography that elevates the most historically accurate Viking movie ever made. At least that’s what the press materials brag. Maybe it is. I can’t dispute the boast because I don’t have a Ph.D. in Scandinavian Studies. The research and attention to detail must be acknowledged. The director is hell-bent on historical authenticity. The feature relies on a lot of window dressing that follows a narrative blueprint of retribution. I’m talking about spectacular production design by Craig Lathrop, beautiful cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, and meticulously created costumes by Linda Muir.

I’ll admit the spectacle is visually impressive. The landscapes are stunning. The violence is brutal. Yet I’d accept a little inaccuracy for some narrative depth. The saga is high on style but low on innovation. Nevertheless, it does manage to proffer a meditative consideration of masculinity and honor. Meanwhile, the action remains rooted in pulpy earthiness. It all culminates in a bloody skirmish between Amleth and Fjölnir who converge — naked — near an active volcano. If nothing else, it’s a moment that ensures this picture demands a mention on lists of memorable fights that include Women in Love and Eastern Promises. The Northman‘s place in cinematic history is ensured.

04-21-22

Petite Maman

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Foreign with tags on April 21, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a wistful ode to childhood. Petite Maman — which means “little mother ” — tells the story of an 8-year-old girl who has just lost her beloved grandmother (Margo Abascal). Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) joins her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) in the painful endeavor of cleaning out her mother’s childhood home in the countryside. Mom is deeply disturbed by the process and leaves that night without saying goodbye. The next morning Nelly goes off to play in the forest and happens upon another girl her own age. The stranger’s name is Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) and she’s building a fort made of branches in the woods.

The less said about the narrative the better. Many reviews have spoiled the central conceit of the film. That’s a shame because the mystery is one of the film’s greatest charms. What exactly this meditative reflection is trying to say is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Nothing is explained. The bonds of family, specifically between mothers and daughters, is certainly a theme. Director Sciamma has cited Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki as an influence. A French movie told from the naive perspective of a child also recalls René Clément’s 1952 masterpiece Forbidden Games.

The story is slight and it unfolds at a languid pace. Whether Sciamma’s vague meditation approaches the depth of its influences is open for discussion. Your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, the bewitching yarn does manage to captivate in a mere 72 minutes. That’s saying something these days when films double this length routinely do not. It is in the quiet moments of solitude that the atmosphere can resonate as intensely as pages of dialogue. Sometimes the most profound ideas aren’t overtly expressed but rather felt with the heart. The otherworldly fantasy mines the evocative mood of a fairy tale. A tender devotion to the characters shines through, elevating the fable with warmth and poignancy.

Petite Maman opens in select US theaters on April 22 and goes wider on April 29.

01-22-22

Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama with tags on April 14, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood is Richard Linklater’s warm reflection on growing up in 1969. 10 1/2-year-old Stanley (voiced by Milo Coy) is a boy living in Houston, Texas right before the Apollo 11 Moon landing. He’s the youngest of six children — three boys and three girls. So that would be “Bobby” if you’re a Brady Bunch fan. The saga includes a fanciful tale of a fourth-grader who imagines himself to be the first person to land on the Moon because the engineers accidentally made a capsule too small.

Apollo 10 1/2 is Linklater’s most accomplished delve into rotoscope animation yet. He utilized the technique before in both Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The style is used to create animated sequences by tracing over live-action footage frame by frame. The nostalgic trip through the late 1960s relies heavily on voice-over from past collaborator Jack Black (School of Rock, Bernie) as the adult Stanley. As the events of his childhood play out, his reflective narration recalls The Wonder Years. The nostalgia is heavy and deep.

Few people recreate an era like Richard Linklater. I’m talking about masterful movies like Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and Everybody Wants Some!! I have one brother. My household of four was a far less complicated structure than the family of eight depicted here. Additionally, Linklater’s birth predates my own by a decade. Nevertheless, his lovingly recreated memoir is realized with such authentic detail that I identified with his recollections in a uniquely personal way. From a father employed by NASA (My father worked for NASA Ames Research Center) to a mother who recycled paper bags from the grocery store as trash bags for the kitchen, I felt the parallels to my own suburban but frugal upbringing. Incidentally, our protagonist humorously notes that the last idea is a smart one so long as the garbage isn’t wet.

Apollo 10 1/2 depicts a simpler time. The minutia brought back a ton of memories, though the chronicle does tend to drift. It lacks the propulsive thrust of a strong narrative. The leisurely account should captivate adults more than kids. However, it emphasizes that a compelling depiction of our childhood need not incorporate the biggest news stories of the day. Sometimes it’s the vivid but inconsequential details that resonate. The best moments aren’t the events surrounding the moon landing itself, but when Linklater offers pop culture touchstones in this personal coming-of-age story. The mere listing of his favorite TV shows or the board games he enjoyed playing, will resound with anyone who lived back then. It was perhaps the last generation when parents let their offspring run wild and free throughout the neighborhood. No one thought twice if a group of kids should be traveling in the back flatbed of a pickup truck — sans seatbelts — or riding a bike without a helmet. It may not have been prudent, but we had a glorious time. Somehow we survived. I felt a connection to my own experience.

Streaming on Netflix since April 1.

04-10-22

Deep Water

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on March 29, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

A new release starring erstwhile lovers Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas based on a 1957 novel by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) and helmed by provocateur Adrian Lyne would have been a big deal in a previous era. Yet on March 18, this went straight to streaming on Hulu. There’s a reason for that. Adult movie fare isn’t doing so well in theaters at the moment. Oh and frankly, it’s not all that good. But that doesn’t mean it lacks entertainment value.

Director Adrien Lyne earned a flashy reputation in the 80s & 90s for glossy dramas that were sexy and stylish. Flashdance, Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal were some of his best known. However, the last time he made a film, was way back in 2002. Unfaithful featured an Oscar-nominated performance by Diane Lane. She was outstanding to be sure, but I also credit Adrien Lyne for being the director in charge of that production. The promise of his first picture in 20 years is something to celebrate. If only it delivered the captivating heights of his previous work.

Deep Water is a limp drama about a couple living in the fictional Louisiana town of Little Wesley. It concerns a husband named Vic Van Allen, (Ben Affleck) in an unconventional marriage to his wife Melinda (Ana de Armas). She has affairs with various men. Instead of sneaking around behind his back, she flaunts them much to his discomfort. It’s the odd back and forth of the feuding twosome that compels your attention. However, the story is a head-scratcher. At first, it appears they’ve agreed to an open marriage. But when Vic threatens the guest (Brendan C. Miller) that Melinda invites to a party, it’s clear Vic isn’t happy with what his wife is doing. Although that doesn’t stop her. It’s implied that perhaps Melinda savors his jealousy. Martin McRae — the last guy that romanced his wife — goes missing and Vic claims to be responsible. Or is he kidding? Melinda is unfazed by the possibility that Vic is a murderer. “I’m the one you kill for.” she coos. It isn’t long before she’s off openly flirting with a different man (Jacob Elordi) and then another (Finn Wittrock).

Deep Water occasionally recalls what made Lyne’s earlier output so irresistible. The milieu is sleek and polished. As photographed by cinematographer Eigil Bryld, the living spaces are exquisitely opulent. They live in a palatial suburban mansion that would be right at home on the pages of Architectural Digest. The bathrooms are the size of a bedroom. A grand pool at the center of a party shimmers with an incandescent glow. The atmosphere is seductive. It hints that something sinister is always brewing. But the attempt to achieve the provocative excitement of his past work goes unfulfilled and an abrupt ending is supremely unsatisfying.

Deep Water is not good. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the mischievous tone that pervades the account. Melinda has this lusty appetite that straddles the line between insatiable and ridiculous. Conversely, Vic inexplicably vacillates between bouts of being enraged and aroused. The developments elicit laughter and campy elements inform the plot. Their precocious six-year-old daughter steals every scene she is in. The suggestion is the dissimilar pair stay together for her sake. Her bratty behavior is an annoying delight. “Alexa, play ‘Old MacDonald’ again” she chirps despite her mother’s protestations. Meanwhile, Vic keeps snails as pets and that’s a bizarre addition to the story. Ben Affleck broods with the same intensity as Nick Dunne, his role in Gone Girl. His character is a most perplexing personality. I could never quite figure out what motivates this highly confused individual. In the absence of a clear motive or credible passion, I simply reveled in the absurdity of it all.

03-25-22

Windfall

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on March 21, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Windfall has been boldly touted as a Hitchcockian thriller. If I had a $1 for every movie that failed to live up to that high bar…I’d probably have at least $50. Hey, I’m trying to be realistic, but it happens a lot. At this point, I regard the appellation as a red flag for something that aspires to Alfred’s brilliance but isn’t as thoughtful. This film reinforces those feelings.

The drama concerns a burglar (Jason Segel) who breaks into the luxurious vacation home of a wealthy CEO (Jesse Plemons) who heads a tech company. Things don’t go as planned when the CEO and his wife (Lily Collins) happen to coincidentally show up at that moment and surprise the would-be prowler. I didn’t know it at the time, but the parts are listed as CEO, wife, and Nobody (for the robber) in the credits. That perfunctory attitude pervades the account. There are so many directions the writers could have taken. They chose the most mundane.

The narrative is constructed around a boring discussion set within a scenic but fixed locale. We discover the husband and wife are quite blasé about the robbery. They unexpectedly offer to help the thief out so he can be on his way. There’s one amusing interaction where the couple encourages the robber to negotiate his take up to half a million dollars. The cost of living has skyrocketed they contend. However a sum that large will require a day to arrive. Over the next 24 hours, the three participants will have a tedious conversation. We learn that the couple isn’t happily married. The intruder seems benign while the tech mogul grows more arrogant and obnoxious. That’s about the extent of it. There’s not much more to be discovered than that. A gardener shows up, but that doesn’t improve the story.

Director Charlie McDowell has worked with screenwriters Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker before. The One I Love had a similar single location setting, but that story had a supernatural component. At least it kept things interesting. The high point here occurs when the three of them are watching TV. We witness a scene from the 80s western comedy Three Amigos! That brief snippet is more compelling than anything in this picture. Windfall is only 92 minutes but I couldn’t wait for it to be over. (So I could watch Three Amigos!)

03-18-22

After Yang

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction with tags on March 10, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

A minimalist sci-fi flick from A24 Films about an artificially intelligent robot that coexists with people featuring an incongruous dance routine, I’d have said you described Ex Machina to a T. Not so fast. Alex Garland’s 2015 release has a spiritual cousin in After Yang. However, that is where the similarities end.

After Yang‘s boogie moment pops up early on. It happens during the credits which occur after a 4-minute opening intro. Apparently, families of the future compete in virtual competitions. This is recreation, like playing “Dance Dance Revolution” in your living room. More than 30,000 households are competing across the globe. “Level one complete. 3,000 families eliminated,” a woman’s disembodied voice flatly declares. The captivating sequence suggests a tale about a dystopian society where people are literally terminated for not performing choreography with meticulous precision. Sadly it was not meant to be. This is nothing more than a playful introduction to the cast.

The drama concerns an android purchased by parents Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith). Yang (Justin H. Min) is what is known as a “technosapien.” He has been programmed to help their adoptive Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) learn about her cultural heritage. The movie is adapted from the short story Saying Goodbye to Yang by Alexander Weinstein. Then one day, Yang stops working. The malfunction means more than just the loss of a babysitter. He’s also become something of a surrogate son. Yang is still under warranty, but Jake’s traditional attempts to have the appliance repaired are difficult. He bought a refurbished model from a shop that no longer exists. But then a rogue repairman (Ritchie Coster) steps in to help and uncovers some hidden memories of which Jake was unaware. These include a mysterious girl (Haley Lu Richardson). Is there something more sinister afoot? Was “Big Brother” Yang built to spy on the family? Alas, this fascinating idea is not explored either.

What does it mean to be human? South Korean-born writer and director Kogonada (Columbus) considers the age-old question. Then probes further to ask what it means to be “Asian.” Yang is a “cultural techno” that can offer “Chinese fun facts” as part of his educational discourse. Nevertheless, he laments that he feels disassociated from his ethnicity. This is where the movie ultimately shows its hand. After Yang aspires to be a rumination on race, culture, family, and identity. The screenplay has ambitious objectives. The problem is it does little more than suggest those ideas then does absolutely nothing with them. The mood is chilly, spartan, and sterile. Yang is a machine, so his lifeless personality makes perfect sense. Yet the humans are ciphers too, almost catatonic in their inability to express emotion. The actors often contemplate these concepts in darkened spaces and silence. Unfortunately, I do not read minds so I was at a significant disadvantage.

03-08-22

The Batman

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Superhero, Thriller with tags on March 7, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Did we really need another Batman movie? At this point, the question is akin to asking whether we want more James Bond flicks, an additional performance of A Christmas Carol, or a new production of Hamlet. For any film lover, the answer will forever be yes. The obligation is to make it good and to bring something fresh to the table.

Every new incarnation of Batman seems to top the previous one in darkness and gloom. Tim Burton’s 1989 vision was a game-changer compared with the lighthearted TV show of the 1960s. However, by the time Joel Schumacher had directed parts 3 and 4, the 1990s series had devolved into a zany cartoon. Christopher Nolan recalibrated with The Dark Knight trilogy. It’s the definitive version as far as I’m concerned. That spirit inspired the DC Extended Universe franchise with Ben Affleck. The R-rated spin-off Joker upped the ante considerably and now we’ve got this reboot in 2022.

The title points to a back-to-basics approach. Bruce Wayne is the Batman, a vigilante uncovering corruption in Gotham City. He has a personal vendetta against the kind of criminals that took his parents when he was 10. Director Matt Reeves — who wrote the screenplay with Peter Craig — wisely spares us the umpteenth dramatization of that murder. A slow-motion shot of Martha’s pearl necklace falling apart is burned into my mind. But I digress. The caped crusader is conflicted by the ethics of vengeance. He has the uneasy support of Lieutenant “not quite Commissioner” Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). In Batman’s quest to bring criminals to justice he meets The Riddler (Paul Dano). The arch-villain has been singling out corrupt officials suggesting a connection between them and the criminal underworld. The web of corruption runs deep. It may even impugn the hallowed legacy of the Wayne family.

The Batman is yet another melancholy depiction of the superhero, but the narrative does distinguish itself from the others. The biggest difference is that this interpretation leans very heavily into the idea that Bruce Wayne is first and foremost a detective. Lest we forget, DC stands for Detective Comics after all. The story is set after he’s been fighting crime for two years. The Riddler is a sadistic serial killer in this iteration. Think of Batman as Sherlock Holmes dropped into the thriller Seven or even a Saw movie. The Riddler places his victims in these contraptions that recall the devices from that horror franchise. He taunts the Dark Knight with a string of riddles. Each one conveyed in a greeting card. Batman’s pursuit of justice will lead him to an organized crime conspiracy in Gotham city and a variety of different characters.

The saga incorporates a terrific cast. This includes a cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), and a mobster played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell. Oswald Cobblepot is his name but you might know him better as The Penguin. Of course, the most important person is Robert Pattison as the main character. He’s officially the 10th person to portray Batman in a live-action picture. Pattinson manages to offer a unique take on his personality. Bruce Wayne is significantly more troubled with what he is doing. The most depressed and broken interpretation of the character we’ve seen thus far. He’s also younger than the most iconic portrayals. Pattinson is physically slight, less stocky. His emo haircut says he’s sensitive and even sports eyeliner when he wears the cowl. “They think I’m hiding in the shadows, but I am the shadows,” he whispers. This Batman doesn’t growl like his predecessors.

The Batman is a lot of things. Simply consider the definite article before the name. The title is a declaration that’s a little presumptuous right off the bat, no pun intended. The film is also too long…nearly three hours. The convoluted tale features the labyrinthian twists and turns of an investigation. Although to its credit, it doesn’t drag. But most of all it’s dark. I’m talking pitch black. The atmosphere is not an innovation. We’ve seen this somber rendition before. It’s so bleak but it does affect the compelling mood of a neo-noir. Director Matt Reeves stages the action with such visual flair underscored by the stunning cinematography of Greig Fraser (Lion, Dune). One stylish scene with Selina Kyle takes place in a sordid private club amidst the flashing strobe lights. The movie feels cinematic. Although it may not top Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, there’s still much to admire. That’s enough for a recommendation.

03-03-22

2022 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Drama, Shorts with tags on March 2, 2022 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV has made the Oscar-nominated short films (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences since 2006. The 17th-annual theatrical rollout of films nominated in the live-action, animated, and documentary short categories began on February 25. To learn more about the participating theaters and how to purchase tickets, visit the website here. The program will play in theaters only for the first four weeks. They then will be released to VOD via iTunes, Amazon, Verizon, and Google Play beginning March 22.

DOCUMENTARY

A pioneering basketball player, a high school for the deaf, life in Afghanistan, homelessness, and bullying: the topics covered in the documentary shorts are an eclectic assortment, although perseverance is a common thread. The shorts programs have long focused on depressing subjects and the documentary category is often the bleakest. These certainly depict adversity, but they affect a more hopeful mood than in years past. I’ve ranked them in order of my favorites but all five nominees are compelling. This collection is my favorite of the three short programs this year.

THE QUEEN OF BASKETBALL
USA | 22 MIN | 2021
DIRECTOR: BEN PROUDFOOT

Lucy Harris is a trailblazer. She played basketball for Delta State University in the 1970s and won three consecutive National Championships. Then she represented the U.S. team in the first women’s basketball tournament at the 1976 Olympic Games and won the silver medal. She was later drafted by the New Orleans Jazz in the seventh round in 1977 — thus becoming the first and only woman “officially” drafted by an NBA team. Despite her immense talent, Harris did not express an interest to play in the NBA and declined to try out. She focused on raising a family instead and had two sons and twin daughters. This makes her even more intriguing. Luisa Harris is such a warm and self-effacing woman. Her humble persona belies a charming personality that shines throughout. I’m pretty confident that what “will win” and what “should win” the Oscar in this category is the very same thing.

AUDIBLE
USA | 38 MIN | 2020
DIRECTOR: MATT OGENS

Amaree McKenstry is a high school student at the Maryland School for the Deaf. The football team has a forty-two-game winning streak. Then they lose a game. The tournaments have a cinematic grandeur with a rousing score. Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg is one of the producers. Yet it’s not just about football. It’s a coming-of-age story about Amaree, the whole school in general, his group of friends, a tragic suicide, an absentee father, bullying, and sexuality. The uplifting account is a triumph over layer upon layer of hardship. The massive scope of the various narrative threads portrayed is so wide. It touches upon a lot of weighty themes within a brief runtime. There’s enough subject matter to sustain a 2-hour feature. Heck, it could be a miniseries. That’s a tribute to how engaging these stories are. These kids are so amazing the portrait captivates through sheer magnetism.

WHEN WE WERE BULLIES
GERMANY/USA | 36 MIN | 2021
DIRECTOR: JAY ROSENBLATT

Bullies feel regret. Writer/director Jay Rosenblatt’s film is a recollection of a bullying incident. It happened 50 years ago when he was a child in the fifth grade. He was one of the perpetrators. Indeed the entire class was complicit in the taunting he recounts. All except the victim — whose name was Dick. No last name is given. Jay includes sound bites of the classmates he was able to interview. They share their memory of the event. Even his ninety-two-year-old teacher is interviewed. Not surprisingly, Dick does not particulate in this chronicle.

The fact Jay — the oppressor — is reconstructing this horrible experience to assuage his guilt makes him a lot of things: insensitive, self-indulgent, callous. He acknowledges this. “When I began making this film, I didn’t consider how it might make you feel, ” he addresses the victim. “I guess I’m not as sensitive as I thought.” The document is like an autopsy on a dead body completed by the murderer himself. Jay isn’t someone to be commended or admired. The overwhelmingly negative reactions on social media would agree, its Oscar nomination notwithstanding. Yet it still doesn’t make the reconstruction any less fascinating. It’s a psychological window into human behavior. This is real-life horror and it happens on playgrounds every day.

LEAD ME HOME
USA | 39 MIN | 2020
DIRECTORS: PEDRO KOS, JON SHENK

Over 500,000 Americans are homeless on any given night. This profile humanizes that statistic with the specific stories of people in three U.S. cities on the West Coast: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. This slickly-produced account is filled with stunning cinematography and music that sometimes verges on making the environment too beautiful. The presentation doesn’t delve into the roots of the problem or come up with any solutions. This is merely a sympathetic plea for help with a problem on a daunting scale and scope. What ultimately comes through amidst the crushing details of their lives is the humanity of these people.

THREE SONGS FOR BENAZIR
AFGHANISTAN | 22 MIN | 2021
DIRECTORS: GULISTAN MIRZAEI, ELIZABETH MIRZAEI

Shaista is a newly married young man to Benazir. The couple lives in Kabul in a camp for displaced persons and they’re starting a family. His wife is expecting their first child. Nevertheless, he wants to be the first of his tribe to join the Afghan National Army. His desire to leave her for the army is difficult to support. Everyone tells Shaista to remain with his wife. “Go poppy harvesting,” his father implores. But that’s not the driving force behind his ambitions. The fact we never hear what his pregnant wife thinks speaks volumes. Shaista seems like a sweet guy and his love for Benazir is evident. We flash forward four years. The bleak ending does nothing to alleviate my distaste for Shaista’s decisions in life. This chronicle ends on a sour note.

02-21-22