Movie Review: It

Pennywise

Bill Skarsgard plays Pennywise, the creepiest clown in movie history, in It.

Until now, It appeared to be the one big Stephen King novel that has not had a big screen adaptation. Sure, there was a miniseries back in 1991, but nothing beats a big-screen showing. Finally it’s here, and the excitement is just beginning!

The story beings in the fall of 1988 in Derry, Maine. Sick and in bed, a stuttering Billy Denbrough makes a paper boat for his younger brother Georgie to play with on a rainy day. While playing with the boat, it falls into a sewer. Georgie goes to get it, but comes across a clown named Pennywise who manipulates Georgie by biting off his arm and taking him down the drain.

The story progresses to June 1989: the end of the school year. Bill has found himself with a clique of three misfits which include bespectacled big-mouth Richie Tozier, sickly asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak, and fearful Stanley Uris who’s the son of the rabbi. End of the school year won’t mean the end of torment from a group of bullies led by Henry Bowers, son of a police officer. Bullying is Henry’s favorite past-time as he loves tormenting almost every kid. His last victim on this last day of school is Ben Hanscom, an overweight kid new to the town. The bullying however does result in Beverly Marsh, who’s bullied by the popular girls in school and called a ‘slut,’ coming to the rescue. She takes a liking to Ben as she learns he too likes the New Kids On The Block. She doesn’t appear bothered by her own bullying at school because she gets it worse by her father at home. Last day of school just means work on the farm for Mike Hanlon, an orphaned African-American boy who’s raised by his grandfather.

The abduction of Georgie is still very much on Bill mind. Actually it’s on the minds of most people in Derry. Derry has a dirty secret that children disappear six times more often than the national average. Bill tries to get his friends to locate the possible whereabouts of Georgie, believing he may still be alive and in a marshy wasteland known as the Barrens. Ben does research into the town of Derry. He learns of the explosion of 1908 which killed many children. He also learns of how children of Derry go lost most frequently: a curse going back centuries. Ben encounters a headless boy in the basement and runs off, only to be encountered by Henry’s group. Ben successfully fights them off and runs away bumping into Bill’s group. Adding to the drama of Derry, the group including Ben find the sneaker of a young girl. Patrick Hockstetter, one of Henry’s bullies who is chasing after Ben, is killed by Pennywise and becomes the latest of the missing.

The following day, all five of the boys have some type of nightmarish encounter with It. Later they encounter Mike Hanlon after he was bullied by Henry’s group. Mike becomes part of the group which now calls itself the Losers Club. Mike also possesses some knowledge about this entity and how it’s haunting Derry. Later in the summer, the group get together to do research into this entity that haunts them each. Bev finds her way into the group, thanks to Ben. They come across some interesting facts: they are all haunted by the same entity in the guise of what they each fear; awakens every 27 years to prey on children before returning to hibernation; and uses the sewers to travel about the town upon where a shabby abandoned house on Neibolt street is built.

They see the house on Neibolt as a chance to get to It. Most are afraid, but Billy wants to do this for the sake of finding Georgie dead or alive and to prevent other children of Derry from receiving this same threat. All agree the first time, but after having to wrestle with Pennywise the first time. Inside, Eddie breaks his arm, making him vulnerable to Pennywise. Fortunately Bev impales Pennywise, forcing him to retreat vowing revenge. However the group is threatened to disband as Eddie’s mother is furious with what had happened. Bill insists on continuing to fight It, but all except Bev and Ben leave.

August comes. Bev is threatened by her abusive father and threatens to rape her, but she kills him with a toilet lid. Unfortunately Pennywise abducts her. This prompts Bill to reassemble the Losers Club to rescue Bev. Even Eddie returns to the group after he learns that his asthma is fake and drug-induced by his mother. Meanwhile It goes into the guise of a children’s television host to compel Henry to kill his abusive father and then kill the Losers Club over at the Neibolt house. Henry fights Mike only to pushed down a well to his death. Inside the Neibolt house, they try to make their way to It’s central location, only to have Pennywise bite Stanley’s head with It’s sharp teeth. Soon they make their way to a cooling tower where they find It’s lair, containing a mountain of decaying circus props and children’s belongings. They also find Bev floating in a catatonic state. The group are able to bring Bev down and it’s Ben’s kiss that restores her consciousness. Now it’s up to the Losers Club to defeat It. The film ends with a spectacularly haunting ending that’s both triumphant, tragic and in anticipation for what’s next.

Adapting a Stephen King movie to the big screen is very much a case of hit-or-miss. Not everything can be adapted from the novel so the writers and directors have to work to bring it to life within two to two-and-a-half hours. That would mean a lot of picking and choosing and a lot of pairing down. There have been a lot of cases where it has worked excellently like Carrie, Christine, The Shining, Stand By Me, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption to name a few. There have been duds too like Maximum Overdrive, Needful Things, Dreamcatcher and Cell. YouTube countdown channel WatchMojo even did a countdown on how movie adaptations of novels actually differed greatly from the real thing.

Before there could be a big-screen adaptation of It, the film had to be organized. This is a movie that took eight years and the efforts of three directors to develop and loads of casting changes. It started when David Kajganich decided to adapt the screenplay when he learned Warner Bros. would be in charge of it. In 2012, direction then went into the hands of Cary Fukunaga. He had a vision of the story and originally planned to cast Will Poulter as Pennywise and Ty Simpkins as Bill. That changed when New Line Cinemas stepped in. Fukunaga withdrew from directing feeling that New Line and their concern with budget cuts was interfering with the creative process.

Then in July 2015, it was announced Argentinian director Andy Muschietti would be signed on to direct with Fukunaga remaining as scriptwriter. Muschietti has had a modest success that took off overnight with his 2008 short film Mama being expanded to an English-language release in 2013 with Jessica Chastain as lead actress. Casting changes came about with a new Bill and a new Pennywise most noticeable. Muschietti is the only director that went the full distance.

Then the adaptation of the story. This adaptation from It makes a lot of notable changes from the original novel. First we must remember the novel was released in 1986. The characters as children were set in the 1950’s. The characters as adults were set in the 1980’s. Here, we have the child characters set in the summer of 1989: a summer that’s close to my heart, too. Setting that part in the 1950’s would seem like a good choice as made evident in Stand By Me, but it could also be a hindrance. 2001’s Hearts In Atlantis was set in the late-50’s and it flopped. I feel it made sense to adapt the Losers Club part of It to 1989. It worked here.

Then there’s the choice of whether to do the full novel in this It movie or have this as a movie series. We’re talking about a novel that first required the format of a mini-series in order to get its first adaptation. It made sense to have the first It movie with focus exclusively on the Losers Club as children and then have a second It film possibly with the Losers Club all grown up. It would also be a gamble as this first It film would have to avoid performing poorly at the box office to get a second It film happening. I’ll mention later why they won’t have to worry about that.

One thing we shouldn’t forget is that this is a Stephen King film. Adaptations of Stephen King novels have been known to be a case of a lot of paring down of the story to mish-mashing to including only one part of a multi-chapter novel. Stephen King’s novels have a lot of common elements. For those unfamiliar with Stephen King novels, the first common element is the setting in a smalltown in Maine, most commonly the fictional town of Derry. Another is the case of main child characters being the misfits in a harsh time in their lives. Another is the situation of parents who are either negligent, manipulative or downright abusive to their children. Another is of religious figures or religious people with some even possessing a warped sense of blind faith. Another is the element of evil that King works into his villains.

The film included a lot of elements common to a Stephen King story. It’s set in Derry and the misfits form a clique of their own: The Losers Club. As for parents: Billy’s parents are too distraught with the loss of Georgie to pay attention to his issues; Stanley faces the pressure of being the rabbi’s son; Eddie’s mother has a case of Munchhausen syndrome which explains the fake Asthma she induces with pills; Henry Bowers’ father uses his gun to ‘traumatize’ sense into him; and Bev’s father… I don’t want to go there. Religion or religious figures are not seen as so much of a threat, curse or interference in It, but some could argue Stanley’s strict religious upbringing made him a fearful person. As for evil, the character of It is one that messes with the characters minds and fears it took a group of seven children to solve who It is and to end It once and for all.

The film also had to leave some things from the novel out. It’s not just changing the setting of 1958 to 1989. There were some guises of It in the novel that didn’t appear on film. Henry’s bullying of Stanley includes anti-Semitic slurs in the novel. Here in the film, it’s limited to throwing Stanley’s yarmukel like a frisbee. Patrick Hockstetter is not killed by It as Pennywise, but It as an army of leeches. Henry attempts to kill the Loser Club with his friends Vic and Belch in the novel, but is on his own in the film. In the novel, Bill confronts It through the Ritual Of Chud. And finally, Bev has sex with all six of the Losers Club boys in the novel after they make a blood oath. You can understand why that ending was changed to what it is.

In the end, Andy Muschietti delivers a winner of a film. He was not the most experienced director when being hired on to do It but it paid off and delivers an excellent thriller that frightens and gets one excited for the next It film. Kudos to scriptwriters Chase Palmer, Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman for putting together an excellent adaptation and making a lot of choices that worked. The story of the Losers Club bonding as one to fight It gives one memories of Stand By Me and even a lot of similarities to Stranger Things. Having Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhart adds to that factor even under those big glasses. The film also did a good job of adding humor into the film. The film is situated around a bunch of 12 year-olds so having some humor adds to it, despite how dark a story it is. Plus the music from 1989 adds to it too.

For those who are complete ‘virgins’ to It— I’m taking about those who have never read the book or seen the miniseries– it will keep them intrigued and scared. It will also seem confusing at first with most being haunted by Pennywise but others scared by other images too. In the end, it will all come together. All are being haunted and tormented by It. They will first think Pennywise is It, but It takes the guise of many figures like Bev’s abusive father, the children’s TV show host that pushes Henry to commit murder, the animated picture from the painting that haunts Stan. Pennywise is the most dominant guise of It and used mostly to lure young children. It’s right and proper that It meets its match as Pennywise and from Billy.

For those who are fans of the novel It and even the miniseries, they will admire that this is a film that captures the best and truest aspects of a Stephen King horror thriller. It doesn’t stray off like so many other adaptions nor is it a victim to too much studio tweaking of the story. Sure, it sets the Loser Club part of the story 30+ years of when the novel sets it, but the characters of the Loser Club and those surrounding them are very much in tune with the novel. Most of the incidents that happen in the movie It closely match what happens in the novel too. I’m sure fans of Stephen King novels will be proud of this movie.

However the best thing about It is that this is a rare case of a horror movie that delivers excellence. The genre of the horror movie is very hard to master. Most horror movies often come across as junk loaded with blood, gore and other elements for the sake of shock value. Us 80’s kids had that with all the Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street movies. Millennial kids got that with the Saw movie franchise. However it’s very possible to create a masterpiece of a horror movie. Movies like Psycho, The Exorcist, Carrie and even Get Out from this year are some of the best examples. Even good acting can come out of a horror movie as Sissy Spacek’s performance in Carrie earned her the first of her six Oscar nominations as did a nomination for Piper Laurie. It delivers in having a well-written script, a well-directed story and dead-on acting from the actors. This should be a template on how to do a horror movie right.

Jaeden Lieberher did a very good job in playing Bill Denbrough, especially in making the stutter look natural instead of wooden, and in making the quest to fight It a personal battle for Bill. The best thing about Lieberher was he was good at being unselfish with his lead role as he knew the other members of the Losers Club had their moments too. Sophia Lillis was possibly the biggest scene-stealer as tomboy Bev as was Finn Wolfhart whose role of Richie Tozier will entertain you, but also make you want to tell him to shut up! Good performances included Wyatt Oleff as the fearful Stanley Uris, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben the misfit who finds his way, Jack Dylan Glazer as sickly Eddie who develops an inner strength over time and Chosen Jacobs as the farmboy who becomes a help to the clique. All seven of the Losers Clubs kids not only had to play their parts but also make their characters grow. We see it in all the characters, especially Bill. Bill didn’t lose his stutter but he gained a new inner strength.

The actors in the Losers Club did a good job in playing salty-mouthed 12 year-olds that were not afraid to let loose, get sassy and even act like jerks at times. That’s definitely an appeal as Hollywood has a way of making child performances to innocent or ‘sugar-coated.’ Just turn on the Disney Channel and you’ll see what I mean. The kids of It were very unlike the squeaky-clean crystal-clear purity-ring-wearing Disney Channel kids; more like the foul-mouthed kids of Stranger Things. And all the better for it.

It’s not just the Loser Club that delivers in terms of acting. There’s also Bill Skarsgard who did a good job in giving Pennywise his sinister demeanor. There’s also Nicholas Hamilton who succeeds in transforming Henry from simply a jerk bully to being possessed by It’s evil leading to his own death. The mix of music of 1989 hits and the score of Benjamin Wallfisch blended well and fit the scenes of the film well. The visual effects of the film are also excellent and needed to be top-notch to make the movie work.

Already It has broken a load of records in its opening weekend. It set a September opening weekend record of $123.4 million, breaking the old record held by Hotel Transylvania 2 of $48.4 million: more than 2 ½ times that! Usually September is a quiet month for movies and they usually yield low box office results. Mainly because people had their fix during the Summer Movie Season. Summer’s over and now it’s time to get back to regular life and wait for the movie excitement to return in November as is custom. It proved that the September movie season had something to deliver, and right on the weekend after Labor Day, of all weekends! Usually that’s the lowest-grossing weekend but not this year! Other records It broke and feats It achieved according to Box Office Mojo are Widest R-Rated Releases, Widest R-Rated Openings, Highest-Grossing Fall Opening Weekend, Second-Highest Opening Weekend for an R-Rated film, Highest Grossing Stephen King Film (in just five days!), right now the third-highest grossing R-Rated horror film and second only to Deadpool for the biggest opening weekend for an R-rated film! And I’ll bet there will be more to come!

SPOILER ALERT: Do Not Read This Paragraph If You Don’t Want To Know The Ending! The film gives evidence that this will be the first It movie and there’s a Volume Two coming. It’s in the end credits and it’s very well-hinted when the Loser Club makes a ‘blood promise’ to return to Derry in 27 years if It returns. There’s already talk of It: Volume Two on IMDB. There’s a lot of talk about it from Muschietti to the producers to even the young actors. As of yet, nothing is finalized. It’s possible one could assume the film could be set in 2016–27 years from the first It— and Pennywise makes a return to the Losers Club all grown up. It’s very possible the original Losers Club from this film might have a low presence in Volume Two. That could help or hinder the story because all seven of the Losers Club helped make this adaptation of It a hit and their absence might mean the absence of their charm in Volume 2. However nothing is finalized and it leaves those that saw It in big anticipation of what’s to come.

It delivers as a Stephen King horror movie that has all the right moves–a rarity for horror movies as a whole– a hotly-anticipated Stephen King adaptation that works on the big screen, and a big reason for people to go to the movie theatres in September! Some say this could be the best Stephen King movie since 1976’s Carrie. You be the judge.

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My Top 10 Films of 2016

Why do I do my Top 10 lists of the year so late into the following year? Simple. I’m not a film critic that gets free tickets to sneak peaks or special DVDs to preview before the end of the year. So that means I’m limited to making my picks until months into the new year.

It took awhile because I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of movie watching. Boy did I have a lot to watch and boy was it hard to rank the Top 10 of the year. There were a lot of films I liked and it’s hard to rank them 1st to 10th. But it’s needed if you want to make a Top 10 list.

So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Films Of 2016:

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  1. Moonlight
  2. La La Land
  3. Fences
  4. Manchester By The Sea
  5. Silence
  6. Deadpool
  7. Hidden Figures
  8. Hell Or High Water
  9. Kubo And The Two Strings
  10. Loving

Honorable Mention:

  • Arrival
  • Lion
  • Zootopia
  • The Salesman
  • Hacksaw Ridge

And there you have it. My Top 10 films of 2016. For my past lists, just click on the links below:

DVD Review: Sing Street

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Sing Street is about a band in Dublin led by Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, left) , a boy with musical dreams.

2016 was seen as a weak year for comedies, unless they were animated. Possibly the most overlooked gem of 2016 was the Irish musical comedy Sing Street. I passed it up when it first came out, but I finally saw it recently. I’m glad I did.

We see Conor Lawlor strumming his guitar in his bedroom. Conor is a 15 year-old boy living in a shabby suburb of Dublin in 1985. Right now, Ireland is going through difficult times. It’s economy has been hit hard and many young people are fleeing to the UK, most notably London, for a future. His family is also going through difficulties as his father is struggling in his architecture practice and is struggling in his marriage and drinks excessively. Because of that, Conor is taken out of his high-class Catholic school and put into an all-boys free state school in Synge Street. A move older brother Brendan objects to, knowing how terrible the priests are there.

Things don’t go well for Conor on the first day. Being the new kid, he gets bullied. On top of it, he has the principal Br. Baxter giving him a hard time because he’s wearing brown shoes instead of black shoes in the dress code. Conor does end up with a bully name Barry but he makes a new friend in Darren who has big-time entrepreneur dreams. Conor also meets a 16 year-old girl named Raphina living at the orphanage nearby the school. He learns that Raphina is a budding model who’s headed to London. Conor impresses Raphina saying he’s in a band.

Now it’s up for Conor to create the band with the help of Darren. Darren is quick to act as Conor is introduced to Eamon: an awkward looking teen with a passion for music and can play many an instrument. Conor is able to meet a local black teen who is mostly shunned away from the others and two other awkward but musically-inclined students from his school. They start out pretty flat together and create a demo tape of popular 80’s songs. Conor gives it to Brandon but he’s unimpressed. He instructs Brandon not to be a cover band but do their own original stuff. That helps Conor to meet with Eamon to compose a song about his infatuation with Raphina: The Riddle Of The Model. The boys try on various costumes for filming a video and Raphina even volunteers to be their makeup artist and ingenue.

The song and video impress Brendan, feeling they’re off to a good start. However Conor’s rocker image of dyed hair and makeup gets on the nerves of Br. Baxter who insists in turning all boys into men at the school. Baxter even grabs Conor and washes the makeup off his face in a bathroom sink with hot water. But Conor and the band are undaunted. They continue making music and Raphina even advises that Conor be known as Cosmo. Conor develops the self-confidence to stand up to school bully Barry. The romance between Raphina and Conor heat up too, despite Raphina claiming an older man is her boyfriend. Conor even talks of sailing to London with Raphina.

However things soon take a turn for the worse. Conor’s parents are on the verge of separating with the mother moving in to her new lover’s place. Plus Raphina doesn’t show up when Sing Street are shooting a Back To The Future style video for their song Drive It Like You Stole It. Raphina later revealed she was set to leave for London, but her boyfriend abandoned her. A disheartened Conor breaks up with her. The breakup affects Conor in writing new songs for the band.

However it’s Brendan who encourages him to get back with Raphina and get back into playing. It’s through Brendan’s own personal feelings of past failures that drive him to give Conor the advise. Sing Street have a chance to perform a gig at school. Conor even offers Barry a chance to become a roadie for the band to escape his abusive household. The band performs their gig to the delight of the school and a condescending Br. Baxter looking on in disappointment, but they saved the best for last. The film ends not as one would expect but one that would leave the audience happy and hopeful.

I won’t deny this is a common story you’d expect to see in a film. I’m sure the story of a person growing up in a trash-bin of a city starting a band has been done before. The thing with this story is that for a common story like this to work again, the characters have to connect with the audience. They have to make the audience want them to succeed. The film succeeds in making the audience want Conor, or should I say ‘Cosmo,’ and Sing Street to succeed. The film succeeds in making the audience want Conor win Raphina’s love. The film succeeds in making the audience want the bullying of Barry to Conor to end and for Conor to get even with Br. Baxter. The connection of Conor with the audience is one of the biggest elements of magic in this story.

It’s not just the connection of Conor with the audience. It’s the connection with Raphina too. You get a sense Raphina is the right one for Conor, despite being confused about her love to her older boyfriend. However you get a sense that Conor will win her love. Raphina believes in the band and believes in Conor. You can see it in her eyes. Also Raphina shares Conor’s dreams of leaving for London. Seeing how unpromising Ireland looked with its economic drabness back then and the people seeing the priests as ‘rapists’ leaves you sensing life would be better for the both over in London.

It’s also the connection with Brendan with the audience too. Brendan is the first character in the film outside of Conor that’s easy to like because Brendan believes in Conor’s talents. Brendan’s also the type of brother that would be honest about how Conor is doing. Even after he disses what Sing Street does at first, he will give Conor words of encouragement. He will give Conor music albums to give him a sense about what makes rock and roll. It’s Brendan’s embrace of music in both its past influences and future directions that become a huge boost for Conor. However it’s also Brendan’s past failures that we get a better understanding. We see why Brendan pushes Conor in that scene after the parents’ separation and he throws a violent fit over his past failures. Because Brendan views himself as a failure who doesn’t have a chance, so he wants Conor to chase his dreams and be the one that has what it takes to go to London. It’s easy to feel for Brendan. It’s also easy for a viewer to see their own feelings of failure and regret in Brendan too.

With this being a film about a rock and roll band, the music has to be as important as the story itself. Brendan’s embrace for music is a big quality of the film, but it has to rub off on Conor as he’s the one with the gift of music. The film gets focused on the themes of music like themes of love, themes of heartache, themes of frustration, themes of emptiness and themes of hope. We learn about the ‘happy-sad’ feeling that we all get, but may  not know it. The ‘happy-sad’ element is definitely influential in music. Now once all the themes and elements of music are put together, the film has to have catchy songs. The film succeeds in doing so with songs like Riddle Of The Model, Drive It Like You Stole It and Brown Shoes. Brown Shoes made the perfect end-number for the school show. Even music from other musicians like Duran Duran, The Cure, The Jam, and many others add to the theme of music in the film. The film is as much about music as it is about love and dreams.

Writer/director John Carney succeeds in delivering an enjoyable film to the big screen. Music has been a common theme in past films of his like Once and Begin Again. He succeeds here again in delivering a film that’s enjoyable and keeping you engaged in the story. The film featured a very good debut performance for Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who was 16 years old when this film debuted at Sundance 2016. Ferdia is actually a singer who has performed professionally as a child in Ireland for years. This is his first acting role and he does an excellent job. Lucy Boynton also did a very good job in playing Raphina. The best thing is she made Raphina appear older than she really was. Jack Reynor was also very good as Brendan. He made Brendan into a likeable character, but also made you feel for him too.

Sing Street is a musical comedy that delivers excellently. It delivers a story and characters that connect with the audience very well. It also delivers entertaining music, which is what a film about a rock and roll band should do.

DVD Review: The Salesman

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The Salesman is an Iranian film about a husband (Shahab Hosseini) going after the man who assaulted his wife (Taraneh Alidoosti)

The Salesman won the Academy award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is the second film by Asghar Farhadi to win the Oscar in that category. It was worth watching.

Emad is an acting instructor at a local school in Tehran. He and his wife Rana are also actors and are rehearsing the production of Death Of A Salesman where Emad plays Willy and Rana plays Linda. One day, their apartment is on the verge of collapsing. All the residents flee including Emad and Rana along with their son. Their fellow actor Babak, who plays Charley, finds a shelter for them in an apartment suite recently abandoned by a woman and still consisting of most of her belongings.

One night, Rana returns to her apartment alone and bathes. Emad returns to the apartment finding Rana absent and blood on the bathroom floor. He learns from neighbors that she is in the hospital after being badly assaulted. Neighbors also reveal that the former tenant of the apartment was a prostitute.

Rana recovers from her injuries and is able to come home, but is traumatized. Despite Emad changing the locks, she’s afraid to bathe fearing a repeat of what happened. She is afraid to go to the police, feeling they’ll question her about her own lifestyle. The frustration leads Rana to break down during rehearsal. When Emad finds the car keys of the culprit left behind in the apartment, he decides to take things into his own hands. He discovers they belong to a pickup truck parked outside. The culprit even left behind his cellphone and money. The stress of trying to locate the man who assaulted Rana adds up on Emad as he falls asleep during one of his film lectures He even blames Babak for what happens and calls him a ‘degenerate’ during rehearsal, despite it not being in the script.

Emad finally gets a lead from one of his students. He learns the truck belongs to a man names Majid who runs a business in downtown Tehran and shares the truck with his father-in-law. Emad learns that the older man is in fact the culprit. Emad calls the culprit to meet with him in the apartment. The man claims he didn’t assault her, but startled her instead. Emad doesn’t believe it. He locks the man in a room to get him to confess everything to Rana and his own family. As the family is just making their way to the apartment, the man appears to have a heart attack. Emad calls Rana in a panic but Rana warns him if he pursues revenge, she will leave him.

Just as the family arrives, Emad offers assistance to the older man. The man doesn’t want his family to know his sordid actions and Emad complies. The family is relieved to see the man and even thank Emad for saving his life. However Emad has one last thing to settle with the man in private. Emad gives the man his money and slaps him, which leads the man to collapse again and the family to fear for his life. The film ends leaving the viewer questioning and even assuming what happened.

This story has a lot of similar aspects with A Separation, Farhadi’s first Oscar-winning work from five years earlier. It presents a story in Tehran and features a male character resorting to his own means to get to the bottom of things. In both cases, it’s likely to sense Farhadi is making a statement about Iranian society. First we have a case where the husband takes the law into his own hands because the police may suspect something of the wife, whether it be done by Iranian law or the nature of the police. Secondly we have the ending climax where the man carries out his intentions and we don’t know what will happen next. Thirdly, we have a case where the protagonist tries to play either the judge, jury or executioner. Finally we have an ending that is ‘silent’ and leaves you wondering what happened and of the relationship of the couple. Those are usually the best endings where one would try to guess what happened or come to their own judgement.

This story is a cat-and-mouse story as Emad willfully takes the law into his own hands and plays vigilante in this situation. You wonder if it’s simply because he’s going along with his wife or because he too knows how one-sided the law is and how they would come down hard on women. As the viewer sees clue after clue, they start to get their own assumption. Once we know, it leads to the climactic ending. However this is a climactic ending that takes a long time to end. The drama in the climatic ending however justifies its lengthiness and even adds a second part to the ending. The final end scene where we only see what we saw and nothing is spoken between Emad and Rana as they’re getting their makeup applied also gets you questioning what happened. Even drawing your own conclusions. Those are usually the best endings where they get the viewer to create their own ending.

The unique thing about this story is how it’s mixed in with theatre. We see the story unfold right as the couple are both rehearsing and performing for Death Of A Salesman. The story in The Salesman does not come across like the story of Willy Loman. Emad is far from the pathetic character Willy Loman is known to be and Rana appears to be stronger-willed than Linda Loman. Yet somehow you sense a connection and try to think back if there is.

Asghar Farhadi does it again. He writes and directs an excellent story that has you following the story and guessing what happens in the end. He also succeeds in again making a statement about Iranian society through the story. This time, he adds the art of theatre intertwined with the story with excellent results. Shahab Hosseini does a very good job in his performance as Emad. He played the temperamental Hojjat in A Separation. Here he delivers a performance that both embodies the character of Emad and says more in Emad’s silence than in his dialogue. Taraneh Alidoosti also did a very good job in her role as Rana. She first comes across as someone hurt and troubled, but reveals at the end she possesses more inner strength than you think. Farid Sajadhosseini also did a very good job in playing the older man with secrets he wanted to hide.

The Salesman is another great film from Asghar Farhadi. It’s a story that says a lot in the drama it presents.

DVD Review: Elle

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Isabelle Huppert plays a woman caught is a troubling time in her life in Elle.

Elle was one of those films that came around the time of the Academy Awards. It has a lot of interesting elements, but it features a lot of elements some would first find unwatchable. Is it worth it?

The film begins with a cat witnessing the rape of her owner Michele LeBlanc (that’s right). The masked rapist immediately leaves. Michele just calmly cleans up themes and resumes her life, but doesn’t call the police. Michele returns back to her job as CEO of a video game company where her male employees either lust after her or view her as a ‘bitch.’ She tries to maintain a relationship with her son Vincent but feels detached as she feels he’s being controlled by her pregnant girlfriend. She has a troubled relationship with her mother who is narcissistic and has a thing for younger men. She’s having a love affair with Robert, the husband of her best friend and business partner Anna, but also has caught the eye of her new neighbor Patrick, although his devoutly Catholic wife Anna is unaware of this. Michele also has a troubled past.

The reason why Michele doesn’t call the police is because she has a sordid past. She is the daughter of a mass murderer who was arrested and imprisoned over 40 years ago when Michele was 10 years-old and even involved Michele in his murder spree. His parole hearing is coming up and the events from the past still haunt her. Her friends plead for her to report the rape to the police but Michele won’t, fearing the police have it in for her. Life is hard for Michele as she receives harassing text messages form a man claiming to watch her. She’s also the victim of a hacked video game which shows an alien with her face being raped by another alien. She learns the male colleague who made the hacked video game is infatuated with her but not the rapist. Her ex-husband learned of the news and tried looking out for her safety.

Christmas only adds to the stress as her mother falls into a stroke and her dying wish to Michele is to see her father. Michele tells her son Vincent she believes he’s not the father of his girlfriend’s child. The rapist returns for the third time, but Michele takes of the mask to discover it’s Patrick. Even though she now knows, she still doesn’t call the police nor have an alarm installed in her house.

Michele goes to visit her father in prison only to learn he hung himself. On the ride home, she gets into a car accident. She calls her friends instead of an ambulance, but the only one who responds to the call is Patrick. Michele gives Patrick a shocking confession of her feelings toward him which leaves Patrick shocked and confused. Then the day of the celebration of the launch of the new video game. At the party, she confessed to Anne her affair with Robert, which breaks Anna’s heart. The story ends with a tensely climactic moment and an ending that comes across as triumphant.

The thing about this film is that it deals with a complicated cat-and-mouse situation. Michele wants to get her rapist arrested but she is afraid to call the police, feeling they’re after her. That could also explain why she wouldn’t call an ambulance after the car crash: because of her past. She has a sense of who did it, but she feels an attraction to him. She is caught in situations in her work, in her family and even within her circle of friends at the same time. It’s enough to make anyone snap. It even turns her into a spiteful bitter person to whomever she meets up with. You hope that her rapist is caught but you’re left wondering how will it end? Will he be caught? Will Michele be the one who ends up killed? Will her rapist end up her new lover? It keeps you intrigued.

One thing about this is that this film is a psychological thriller that succeeds in taking subject matter that is disturbing and even unwatchable and turns it into a story that becomes positive in the end. Normally I am very nervous about the subject of rape in a film. In fact the very opening scene of the rape (as witnessed by the cat) and her bleeding vagina in the bath really had me questioning what Paul Verhoeven was up to. I’ll admit I had a mistrust to Verhoeven because I know he has a reputation for films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. I still haven’t forgotten the misogyny of the latter and I was anticipating misogyny in the film at first. Even the scene that appears like Michele is consenting to the rape of Patrick makes me wonder, in addition to knowing Michele actually gets sexual satisfaction from it. In the end, the film delivers a strong female character who is able to piece the puzzle together. It’s at the end we see Michele as if she triumphed in the situation.

SPOILER ALERT – IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING, BYPASS THIS PARAGRAPH: The ending is a surprise as well. Throughout the whole film, you see Michele as a bitter, hurting, troubled woman with the world seemingly against her or bothering her in every which way. However it’s right after Patrick is killed that everything magically becomes right. We see how Rebecca isn’t as hurt over Patrick’s death as she’s moving out, and makes it obvious she knew what Patrick was up to. We see how Vincent has been able to get better in his career and relationship. We see how Michele is finally able to make peace with her father. We also see how Michele makes peace with both Josie and Anna as they’ve both left Robert, and even resumes the strong friendship with Anna. It’s like life for all during the time of Michele being raped was what was causing friction in the lives of Michele and those around her, and it was Patrick’s death at the hands of Vincent that set everything right for all. Normally something like that wouldn’t work in terms of a story. I mean how is it possible for a rape victim to recover from what happened seemingly overnight? But the way it was played out in the story made it look very believable and made it look like the story ended on the right note. Quite an accomplishment, especially for a psychological thriller.

This film is actually an adaptation of a French novel titled Oh. I’ve never read the novel but David Birke does a very good job in creating a story that’s both a psychological thriller and a big puzzle that somehow is able to get all the pieces to fit in the end. Paul Verhoeven also did a good job of directing. I will admit I did get suspicious with him, especially after seeing certain scenes. However it’s in the end that I feel he did a very good job of creating a strong female character despite appearing to push the envelope at times. However making the story work also came down to Isabelle Huppert in her performance of the protagonist Michele. She had to portray a character who seemed to have everything pushing her to snap but somehow keep her composure throughout the ordeal, despite being bitter and spiteful, and appear triumphant in the end. She accomplished that feat excellently. Supporting performances of note include Laurent Lafitte as the troubled neighbor Patrick and Anne Consigny as Anna: the friend caught in the love triangle.

Elle begins as a film that one would expect to be misogynist, but instead paves the way for a female character who triumphs in the end. It’s the film’s surprising twists and turns that make it.

DVD Review: Jackie

Jackie

Natalie Portman showcases a deep personal angle of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie most of us never saw.

At first I wasn’t too interested in seeing Jackie. I mean there have already been enough made-for-TV movies of JFK and Jackie Kennedy. The film would not only have to justify being made but also its big-screen release.

The film begins with a journalist interviewing Jackie Kennedy in her home just days after JFK’s assassination. It’s like one minute she’s the First Lady living in the White House and the next, she’s a young widowed mother living in a private home miles away. The journalist begins with small talk but the questions move to the assassination and the aftermath.

It is from that point the film flashes back to various moments. Moments when Jackie and John attended Camelot: a musical JFK was captivated by. Moments like Jackie right after the shooting cleaning the blood off her clothes. Moments like being comforted by Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, and White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman whom Jackie would later confide in. Moments like making funeral plans. Moments like her dealing with the priest and her questioning her faith more than ever.

It’s moments like those where Jackie feels more lost than ever as a person. It’s moments like these where Jackie wonders what to leave as a legacy for her husband. It’s during that time she uncovers truths many tried to hide from her, but she knew. It’s also moments when Jackie learns to be strong on the inside. In the end, she regains her faith while talking to the priest. In the end, she makes the final decisions on her husband’s funeral. In the end, she chooses to have her husband’s legacy remembered as ‘Camelot.’

Now keep in mind when this film came out, I was not too interested in seeing it. I mean the role of Jackie Kennedy has been included in too many made-for-TV film. When I saw this film about to be released, I was thinking “This film had better justify its big screen format.” This is not just simply a film that’s a biography. This film focuses on Jackie not even during ten days of her life. This is one of the most critical times of her life as she went from being Jackie Kennedy to a widow in an instant. Many of us know a lot of Jackie Kennedy, but this film presents an angle of Jackie Kennedy few of us knew. The smile and happy charm of Jackie Kennedy we are all familiar with is now replaced with a Jackie Kennedy that is hurting inside. She feels like she’s nothing without JFK. Her faith both in God and in the magic of Camelot has been challenged to more than what she can handle. She even feels like she’s worthless as a mother to her children. That was Jackie right after JFK died. That was Jackie those many days later dealing with the journalist.

We also see another angle to Jackie. This film goes through scenes happening in various moments of time in Jackie’s life. We see some scenes when JFK was still alive but most scenes are various times after his assassination. With those scenes, we see the different aspect of Jackie few knew. We have always known Jackie Kennedy the First Lady to be charming, charismatic, sweet and outgoing. Here in the film, we notice that Jackie is not the prissy, naive Jackie as most of us thought she was. She knew of her husband’s infidelity. She knew of Wanted For Treason posters published by dissenters days before his assassination. She did have concern about tax dollar use for her husband’s funeral. She even considered her publicity an interference: “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.” She even questioned her faith with the priest. These are all aspects most never knew of Jackie Kennedy. However the film also shows Jackie as a person who doesn’t lose faith in the things she believes in. Despite going through the hardest moment of her life, she still finds the inner strength to keep her faith in God and to believe in the power of books and theatre. “I believe the characters we read on the page become more real than the men who stand beside us.” That would take a lot for someone to still believe in especially after what happened.

This is an excellent breakthrough film for Pablo Llarain. This is his first English-language feature and he does a very good job in directing the story and scenes. Also done well is the script from writer Noah Oppenhein. He’s most famous as the scriptwriter for The Maze Runner. Jackie is a big change of pace for him. It’s very common nowadays to do films of a certain famous person and have it focus on a certain brief period of their life instead of the common biography-style film you’d expect. It’s done many times in films like The Queen, Capote and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. It’s also a difficult challenge because in doing so, they have to construct a story that looks like it sums up the protagonists lifetime in that brief period of time. Oppenheim succeeded in constructing a very 3D Jackie Kennedy in that brief period of her life.

It’s not just Oppenheim’s story of Jackie that worked well but also the performance of Natalie Portman. At first, I was skeptical of the idea of having Portman play Jackie Kennedy. She did not come as the type of personality to play her at first. However Portman did an excellent job in her portrayal of Natalie and portraying the personal traits and feeling of Jackie in the scenes of the story. The film also shows an excellent maturity in the acting of Natalie Portman. Sometimes we forget she was 35 when she was filming this film and Jackie Kennedy was 34 when this incident happened. This film shows Natalie’s acting maturity very well. For all intents and purposes, Jackie Kennedy was the role with the most depth and range in the film. Nevertheless there were supporting performances that delivered well despite their limited range, like Peter Saarsgard and Bobby Kennedy and Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman. The costuming from Madeline Fontaine and the music from Mica Levi also added to the quality of the film.

Jackie did justify its big screen format in the end. It’s an excellent film about carrying grace under such devastating heartbreak and reminded us why we admire Jackie Kennedy so much.

DVD Review: Silence

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Adan Driver (left) and Andrew Garfield are Portuguese missionaries in Japan whose mission is a huge test of faith in Silence.

Learning of Martin Scorsese doing Silence caught my intrigue: Scorsese doing a film about Catholic missionaries. The big question would be how would it turn out? Would it be pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic? Or something else entirely?

It it the 17th Century. Portuguese Jesuit priests Rodrigues and Garupe  are sent to Japan to spread the faith and to find Father Ferreira. Ferreira was sent as a missionary from Portugal, but has been forced to watch the brutal executions of people he helped convert to the faith and has since apostatized. In their first stop in Macau, they came across one of the converts who himself watch executions happen. He’s now a paranoid alcoholic.

Once they arrive in Japan, they arrive in the village of Tomogi. They learn that Catholics have resorted to an underground church. The people are relieved to see they have a full priest available but the priests learn of the samurai searching out Christians to execute: commonly called ‘The Inquisitor.’

Both priests go to different islands. Garupe goes to Hirado Island to avoid having the village threatened and Rodrigues goes to Goto Island in search of Ferreira. He comes across the man from Macau who betrays him in front of an old samurai. The samurai has Rodrigues and the Catholic converts arrested and taken to a prison in Nagasaki. The samurai warns Rodrigues to renounce his faith or else the other captured Christians will be tortured. The samurai give the Christians a chance to step on a rudely-carved crucifix to renounce their faith. One man refuses and he’s beheaded on the spot. Rodrigues has to witness this from his prison cell. Later, Rodrigues is taken to a shoreline where three Christians from Hirado and even father Garupe are to be executed by drowning. Even though Garupe refuses to apostatize, Rodrigues is horrified by what he witnesses.

Finally Rodrigues gets to meet up with the apostate Ferreira. Ferreira tells him after 15 years in Japan, Christianity is futile in Japan. It’s best that he apostatize. They day before Rodrigues goes on trial, he hears the torture of five Christians who had apostatized. Then the day comes. Rodrigues is brought to trial by the shogun and is presented the chance to step on the crude carved crucifix to apostatize. Rodrigues appears to hear permission from Christ and steps on it. He is distraught. Rodrigues spent his remaining years in Japan married and searching out goods from ships incoming from Europe. His job was to identify Christian items from non-Christian items. The ending will definitely lead to a lot of conversation.

We should keep in mind this is not exactly a true story. Instead this is a film adaptation of a book of the same name written in 1966 by Japanese author Shusaku Endo. Whatever the situation, this is a film that presents a huge challenge to one’s faith. Even one with the strongest of faith and convictions can find themselves questioning what they would do in a situation like this. We should remember this is not a case of Christian martyrdom where the priest is the first to be executed. The followers are executed first as a pressure to get the priest to apostatize. The methods of execution are also horrific such as slowly dousing prisoners in hot spring water slowly and painfully to burning them alive wrapped in grass. I’m sure some would ask what would they do in this situation? Is it a selfish thing to hang on to one’s faith while the others are tortured and killed?

I’m sure a lot of people would be suspicious of a film like this coming from Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has had a reputation of a lot of negative and even blasphemous depictions of Catholicism and the Catholic faith. The biggest controversy was in 1988 when The Last Temptation Of Christ hit the theatres and there were protests galore. This film does not give a negative depiction of the priests. Instead it presents the challenges of faith such as the pressure to apostatize or the treatment of sacred images. One thing about the film is that the ending of the film is sure to give a lot of discussion of the final fate of Rodrigues. They say endings should have you asking questions rather than give you answers. It sure worked here as a lot of debate of the ending has sure come about. Even the end scenes after Rodrigues apostatized prompted a discussion between me and another person. This film will have you talking.

One thing it goes to show about this film is that it shows just how difficult it is for a director to make a labor-of-love film. No matter how many hit movies a director may produce, they still have stories deep in their heart they can only dream of putting on film. Even a renowned director like Scorsese would face such challenges. It’s not just in the amount of time it would take to develop such an idea on film– this film is 25 years in the making– but also the willingness of executives to allow it. We forget that film making is a business first and foremost, and business is ruthless. Even after all is completed, it’s then up to how the general public will receive it. In the end, Silence became Scorsese’s lowest-grossing film since 1997’s Kundun. It is a shame because the film is wonderful to watch and showcases a lot of excellent aspects. The film did make the AFI’s annual Top 10 list of the best films as well as the Top 10 list of the National Board of Review.

Martin Scorsese does another good job of directing, even if it’s not his best. He works the film very well and presents it well without his usual trademark of over-the-top blood-and-guts. Sure, there were torturous scenes, but they were a far cry from what you’d normally see in Scorsese film. I feel the adaptation he wrote along with scriptwriter Jay Cocks included the right parts and right moments from the novel as none of the scenes seemed pointless. Also he did a good job of maintaining the dignity of the priests and of the Catholic faith. Maybe this is a change in Scorsese.

Andrew Garfield did a very good job in his portrayal of Rodrigues. This was one year where Garfield played roles of people with strong faith. First was Hacksaw Ridge and now this. He did a very good job in presenting a man with a huge spiritual struggle. Adam Driver was given less screen time and it didn’t allow well for his part to develop. He did do well with what he had. Lia Neeson was also good in his part despite how brief and how limited it was. If there was one supporting actor who could steal the film from Garfield, it’s Issey Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue. He came off as cartoonish at the odd time but he succeeded in making you hate him. Other great works in the film include the cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto. He did a lot of good shots in creating the drama and even capturing the beauty of the scenery. Also worth noting is the excellent production design from Dante Ferreti in both the natural and man-made settings and the costuming also by Ferreti which were top notch.

Silence will most likely go down as Scorsese’s most overlooked masterpiece. It was a labor of love of his that didn’t pan out at the box office. Nevertheless, it’s a good think he made this film as it features a lot of cinematic qualities and gives a lot to marvel at.

DVD Review: Loving

Loving

Loving is the depiction of Richard and Mildred Loving–played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga– and why they fought for their love.

DISCLAIMER: In the next while, you will see a lot of film reviews that have been delayed for the longest time. I’m passing them off as DVD reviews.

“Can’t you just go and speak to Judge Bazile? We ain’t hurting anybody.”

Loving was actually the very first film I saw in 2017. Pardon the delay of the review. It’s still worth reviewing as it is a unique film, and not just because of its subject matter.

Richard and Mildred Loving want to marry. It’s the right time; they’ve been dating for a long time she’s having a baby. Problem is Mildred is black and Richard is white and they live in Virginia where interracial marriage is forbidden by law. They travel to Washington, D.C. to marry, but it causes problems as the couple are raided by the police and told their marriage certificate is not valid.

The couple were tried in the court of law in Virginia and they plead guilty. They received a suspended sentence, but decided to move to Washington, D.C. Life in Washington doesn’t work out for them as the oldest of their three children was hit by a car. The child survives, but Mildred decides she prefers the calm life of the country and wants to move back to Virginia. Especially since their families are there. In addition, Mildred writes to Robert F. Kennedy of her situation. Kennedy sends her letter to the ACLU. Bernard Cohen, a lawyer associated with the ACLU, agrees to contest the marriage ruling in the state of Virginia, but is slapped by disapproval in the court based on Virginia’s constitutional law.

Mildred then has Cohen take the case to the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1967, the US Supreme Court overturned their convictions and ruled that the criminalizing of interracial marriages violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The Lovings could now live in Virginia without fear of threat and love each other peacefully.

This film is of a relevant topic. Interracial marriage is a topic that still develops some heated discussion in the United States today. Many countries like Canada, the UK and even France don’t see interracial love as much of a problem. However there are still a significant number of people in the United States that look down upon it. Even seeing how Richard’s mother was disapproving of the marriage and even telling Richard he ‘did a wrong thing’ really gets one thinking at first how someone, including many millions around the world, can think loving a person of a different race is ‘wrong.’ Even hearing how the courts of Virginia ruled that: “God created the continents to keep the races separate and that they don’t mix.” I thought that was bizarre that they thought that but the courts in the Commonwealth Of Virginia considered that to be the truth. Me, I’d demand they pull out the Bible and show me where marrying someone of another race is a sin. Which of the Ten Commandments did that violate?

I was anticipating the subject of race to be included in the film. I know the prime topic of interracial love would be the prime topic but I figured the topic of race would be present too,, especially since this is in Virginia. The topic of race was not focused too heavily. However there were some moments when the subject of race was present. Like the case when Richard was going for a beer with his brothers-in-law from Mildred’s side of the family. I remember one of them questioning “You think you’re black?’ That too had me thinking about the racial divide in the US that still hits today.

The most surprising thing about Loving is that it wasn’t as dramatic as one would expect it to be. In fact the film appeared less focused on the events and more focused on the people Richard and Mildred Loving. It focused on the two as a couple, but mostly on both Richard Loving and Mildred Loving as individuals. Richard was seen of having the personality of a man who’s both hard and sensitive at the same time, but fearful of what would happen. Possibly because he’s white and he knows about a lot of racism that he could be subject to hate and even violence for. Mildred, whose actually half-black and half-Native American, was seen as a person who was soft and smart, but always optimistic. She had that look on her like she had nothing to lose and whatever else to gain.

It first seems like an odd choice to be more focused on the people instead of the events. I often wondered too about why it was done so. Over time, I saw it as something that made sense. We should not forget that it was the Lovings’ love for each other that made this happen. Sure, history will record Richard and Mildred for making history for their interracial marriage, but they made history because of their love for each other. The feelings for each other are made very obvious to us as are their feelings towards the events in their lives. This angle of focus was a very good choice in making such a film. We more of a look at the couple that made history rather than the history they made.

I admire writer/director Jeff Nichols for using that angle in creating the story of the Lovings. It is a unique angle and keeps their story from coming off as a made-for-TV movie. The portrayals of the Lovings by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga were excellent and very telling of Richard and Mildred both as individuals and as a couple. The other actors in the film didn’t have such well-developed roles, but they did own the scenes when they had them, like Sharon Blackwood as Richard’s disapproving mother and Nick Kroll as Bernie Cohen the lawyer. The score from David Wingo didn’t occupy too much of the film, but its presence helped with the storytelling.

Loving is an excellent film that shows a focus to a story many know, but a focus overlooked. It’s also a film relevant now as interracial marriage is still a hot topic to many today.

2017 Confederations Cup Preview

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The 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup will take place in Russia one year before they are to host the World Cup.

With the World Cup just a year away, that means this year will have the FIFA Confederations Cup. Back in 2013, I did a focus on the Confederations Cup and why it’s an important tournament. This year’s Confederations Cup is important as well. Not just because the Cup is a growing tournament but also for the host country of Russia.

Russia is already a country controversial enough with the way they do politics. Hosting next year’s World Cup is also considered controversial as there’s question on how Russia won their bid and FIFA’s process in achieving the victories for both Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022. All I can say in this matter is I don’t have the research on that and things will have to sort themselves out over the year’s time leading up to the World Cup.

While the World Cup will be contested in twelve stadiums in Russia next year, this Confederations Cup will be contested in four stadiums. All four being ‘fresh’ stadiums which are either just now breaking ground or have broken ground only within the past five years:

  • Otkrytiye Arena, Moscow – This will be one of two stadiums in Moscow that will stage the World Cup. Located in the Tushino area of Moscow, this stadium is the home venue for Spartak Moscow. Completed in 2014, this stadium seats just over 45,000 people.
  • Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg – This 68,000-seat stadium may have just broken ground this year but it took ten years to complete. Problems from construction management to changing contractors to problems with its conditions have plagued the stadium and its construction but it will finally be ready for the Confederations Cup. Built on Krestovsky Island, the stadium is also the host venue for the football team FC Zenit.
  • Kazan Arena, Kazan – Completed in 2013, this 45,000-seat stadium has the largest outside screen in Europe. The stadium has hosted events like the 2013 World Student Games and the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. The stadium is also the home venue for Russian Premier League team Rubin Kazan.
  • Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi – Remember the $51 billion Sochi Winter Olympics? This is the host stadium which hosted the ceremonies and held the Olympic flame. Determined not to have it become a ‘white elephant,’ the stadium is now the home venue for Russian Professional Football League team FC Sochi. In addition, it will also host six World Cup games next year.

The tournament begins Saturday the 17th. There will be eight teams. Six are winners of their continent’s respective championship, Germany qualified as winner of the World Cup and Russia qualifies as host nation. Here’s how the teams stack up. FIFA rankings for June 2017 are the numbers in brackets:

GROUP A:

Russia Fixed-Russia (63): Russia is an enigma in football right now. The team has a lot of talent but constantly misses in delivering in major tournaments and qualifying events. Such examples include qualifying for three World Cups since the USSR dissolved and failing to qualify for the knockout round each time. Another example is the Euro tournament: semifinalists in 2008 but out in the Group Stage in 2012 and 2016. Trying coaches from other countries like Guus Huddink and Fabio Capello have delivered sub-par results.

Russia has yet to prove its current team since Euro 2016. The team consists of a Russian coach and all but one of the lineup for the Cup play for teams in the Russian Premier League. 2017 has not been the best to Russia as they lost 2-0 to the Ivory Coast and drew 3-3 against Belgium and 1-1 against Chile. They did however score a 3-0 win against Hungary. Remember that football is a box of surprises as Pele always says and Russia could end up surprising everyone here.

NZL-New Zealand (95): New Zealand can be either a very good team or a bad team. It qualified for the 2010 World Cup and drew in all of its games. However it hasn’t made much of an impact since. The current line-up of the all-blacks only features one player that plays for a team in a major European League (France’s Ligue 1). The Kiwis have been dominant against teams from Oceania but have struggled against teams from other continents such as a 1-1 draw against the US and losses to Belarus, Northern Ireland and Mexico. If they don’t go far here, they can always learn in time for next year.

Portugal Fixed-Portugal (8): Portugal is a team of surprises. The team went from lackluster group play in Euro 2016 to becoming Cup champions. Portugal has since maintained its reputation as one of the best teams in the world with excellent play in World Cup qualifying and continuing to win most of their games. However they have had some notable losses such as a 2-0 loss to Switzerland in September and a 3-2 loss to Sweden in March. Portugal can either be very on or very off here in Russia. The next two weeks will decide their fate.

Mexico-Mexico (17): Mexico has always been seen as the leader of the CONCACAF. They hope to take it even further by proving themselves among the best in the world. However it’s come at a struggle as they’ve ended their last six World Cups in the Round of 16. Mexico have had a lot of good wins in the last 12 months to teams like Ireland, Iceland and Costa Rica and even had a 1-1 draw against the US. However they’ve had a 2-1 loss to Croatia and a 7-0 loss to Chile at the Copa America. The World Cup may be one year away but now is a good chance for Mexico to prove itself on the world stage.

Prediction: This is a tough one but I predict the two qualifiers to the semis to be Mexico and Portugal, but don’t count out a possible surprise from Mother (?) Russia.

GROUP B:

Cameroon-Cameroon (32): Cameroon have been one of the most consistent African teams. However their play in the last two decades have been far from their glory days in the early 90’s. The team has worked hard to become better and more consistent since the embarrassment of the 2014 World Cup where they finished dead last. The current squad has many players from many leagues. The team hasn’t had the best chances at proving themselves since. In the past twelve months, they’ve either won or tied every game, but they’ve all been against African teams. The Confederations Cup is a chance for them to prove themselves and where they stand.

ChileChile (4): We can have a long discussion about the ‘sleeping giants’ in football waiting for their big moment to arrive. Chile would be one of them. They have been underestimated in the past and have even gone out in the Round Of 16 in the past two World Cups; and to Brazil both times. However Chile has seized the moment at both the 2015 and 2016 Copa Americas by winning their first-ever Copas. Chile now wants to prove its greatness on the world stage, but they have had an up-and-down period since Copa 2016. They’ve had wins against Uruguay, Colombia and Iceland, but they’ve also had losses to Romania and Argentina and even drew against Russia 1-1 just a week ago. Chile will have to seize the moment if they want to prove themselves further.

AustraliaAustralia (48): Since Australia was switched from the Oceania federation to the AFC after their Round of 16 surprise at World Cup 2006, bigger and better things were anticipated from them. Instead it’s been the opposite with losing in the Group Stage these past two World Cups. Australia hopes to put itself back as a powerhouse. However they’ve had a mixed bag of results in the past twelve months ranging from a 1-0 win against Greece to a 4-0 loss to Brazil. Anything can happen here in Russia and Australia could possibly find itself among the frontrunners.

Germany fixed-Germany (3): The current holders of the World Cup appear to be the heavy favorites to win here. They’ve maintained a consistency even with new members added to the national team ever since. However they’ve had their difficulties too. The semifinal loss at Euro 2016 showed they still have some elements of team unity and other glitches to work on. Since Euro, Germany have not had a loss. They’ve had wins against England and the Czechs but have also drawn 0-0 against Italy and 1-1 against Denmark. They have what it takes to win the Cup here. They just have to deliver.

Prediction: Long shots can pull surprises but I’m going to go with my best instincts and predict Germany and Chile to be this group’s two qualifiers.

And there’s my look at the confederations Cup and the competing teams. Winner to be decided on Sunday July 2nd. Possible more blogs to come, depending on how many hits I get with this.

Movie Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

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The Guardians are back, even with a Baby Groot, in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.

We first met the Guardians Of The Galaxy back in 2014. The Guardians are back in Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2. But do they have what it takes to deliver this time?

Back when the first Guardians Of The Galaxy came to the big screen, most people have not heard of them. This was a chance for Marvel to introduce them to the world. It was a unique mix of quirky characters, both virtual and live, loads of action, and a mix of both music and humor that made it a hit with families and superhero movie fans alike. The movie became the third-highest grossing movie of 2014 and turned the Guardians into household names. In fact “I am Groot,” became the top movie line of that year.

This time around is about bringing about the sequel.  Most of you already know my feeling of Hollywood sequels in my review of Furious 7. However sequels can either propel a movie franchise further or sink it. Sequels are hit and miss. I’ve seen so many sequels where they simply rehash the formula of the first movie plot-for-plot, moment-for-moment. That’s why I’m mostly turned off sequels. That’s also often all one needs to do to end a franchise. Nevertheless there are a good number of sequels or second-movies that do differ a lot from the original. That’s often the better idea but even that’s a gamble. One example is the second and third film of The Matrix. It was too different from the original film that blew audiences away in 1999 and they disappointed fans.

This sequel for Guardians takes the chance of being very different from the first film. One can already notice the differences here: animosity between the members, the stormy family relations of Peter and his father and Gamora and her sister, the people of the various galaxies going against each other and all galaxies being threatened by Ego. I appreciate them creating a scenario different from the original. Nevertheless there were some things from the original that they had to bring back into the sequel like the humorous tones in various scenes, the unique and sometimes crazy personalities of each of the Guardians, and of course the use of 70’s songs in the many scenes. It was all a case of making the right choices of what to include from the first and what to change up. I feel they made a lot of the right choices here.

Another difference I noticed in Volume 2 is that there are a lot more ‘salty’ and ‘spicy’ things in the film. For example, I noticed there was more swearing included and a lot more lewd talk. There were even scenes hinting towards sex or even showing suggestive situations like a stripper bar in another galaxy. Sometimes I think ever since Deadpool shook things up in the world of superhero movies, directors are less afraid of including risque stuff even if they know children will be watching. However unlike Deadpool, the film knows it’s supposed to be a superhero movie and the theme of heroes and the values they stand for and fight for is definitely not forsaken. Whether it’s okay for parents to take their children to see it or not is completely the parents’ call. I’d say it’s best for 11 and older.

James Gunn again delivers as a director and a writer in this sequel. He takes some of the first, some new ideas, and some racy choices and turns it into a movie that works. Chris Pratt delivers again as Peter and Kurt Russell does a very good job in playing a deceptive villain. Zoe Saldana again proves why she’s the top actress in sci-fi movies with her performance as Gamora. Dave Bautista was hilarious as Drax as was Bradley Cooper as Rocket. Michael Rooker was also good as Nebula. Baby Groot had a lot of funny moments but there are times I felt in retrospect that he went too much on the ‘cutesy’ side. Michael Rooker was also good as Yondu. The two newcomers–Karen Gillan as Nebula and Pom Klementieff–were good in their roles even if Mantis did come across as too weird or ditzy. Judianna Makofsky did a very good job in designing the costumes to fit the story, Tyler Bates delivers a fitting score to the film, and the visual effects team with hundreds of credits again delivered effects to make the action and drama that more exciting.

It seems appropriate that Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2 kicks off the 2017 Summer Movie Season. It’s a sequel that delivers the right stuff most of the time. It’s able to deliver some new magic without compromising the magic of the original and keeps one thrilled one moment, laughing another moment, and entertained throughout.