Monthly Archives: February 2014

Movie Review: The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

Toni Servillo plays an aging journalist/socialite pondering what could have been in the Italian film The Great Beauty.

Toni Servillo plays an aging journalist/socialite pondering how his life could’ve been in the Italian film The Great Beauty.

Just when I thought I saw all the movies I had to see for this year’s Oscar season, I learned The Great Beauty is around for a limited time. Now it wasn’t a serious Best Picture contender but it is a favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Picture category.

The film begins with Jep Gambardella having his 65th birthday party. Jep started his fame by writing a novel only to turn to writing cultural columns and becoming a top socialite in Rome since. He has been a popular fixture in all of Rome with holding the most expensive and most debaucherous parties on his apartment overlooking the Coliseum. The birthday party he has is well-attended and well-celebrated however Jep feels a sense of unfulfillment. The sense of unfulfillment continues after he meets face-to-face with a performance artist he’s about to pan, only for her to tell him off. It continues even further when he meets up with the man who married his first love from back in the early-70’s. He reveals to Jep she just died and she always loved him.

It’s then Jep decides to take a break from the party scene and retreat into a trip of knowledge. He takes in aspects of life in the many places he goes to: weddings, funerals, magic shows, visiting relics of Ancient Rome and the Renaissance, and even viewing the wreck of the Costa Concordia. He discovers from others about their passions and why it matters to them, even if they don’t become rich and famous from it. He visits artworks and learns from them and their lives. He meets with one friend who does a disappearing act with a giraffe. He witnesses the daughter of a rich friend of his paint out her frustration and anger with an abstract painting on a huge canvas. He meets a man whose father took a picture of him every day of his life and has the pictures plastered around a Roman palace. He even meets a 104 year-old nun who has cared for the sick throughout her life and still holds the same amount of faith.

However life does take some changes along the way. He does come into conflict with some of his rich friends when he questions their lives. He gets involved with friction with his mentally-ill son to the point his son commits suicide. His artistic friend decides to leave Rome after 40 years because the inspiration is no longer there. He never learns about why his first love left him as her husband threw away her memoirs.

The film is a very deep film as it reflects on a man who ‘made it’ and cashed out into the world of socializing and column-writing. It focuses on his reflecting on what could’ve been for him. The constant question from others on why he hasn’t written his second book adds to that lingering feel. The memories of him with his first love adds to the wonder of what could have been. Often when he sees the passions of others–whether it be a rich girl painting out her anger, a friend doing a magic trick, or even an elderly nun making every effort to live out her faith– he gets a sense of why people live out their passions. It’s a common theme in which many people feel once they look back on their lives often with regret and that lingering question of ‘what if.’

Paolo Sorrentino did an excellent job of directing and co-writing this original script with Umberto Contarello. I’m not too familiar with Sorrentino’s works but I know that he has a good resume for a young director. Three of his films have been entered into the Cannes Film Festival and two have been nominated for the Palme d’Or including this one, which lost to Blue Is The Warmest Color. He has even done an English-language film with Sean Penn entitled This Must Be The Place. His next productions as Rio, I Love You which is a continuation of the I Love You series of movies and In The Future which is slated to star Michael Caine.

Toni Servillo did an excellent job playing Jep in all of his dimensions. You could really sense the feelings inside of Jep that Tony embodied excellently. The supporting acting was also excellent, especially from Carlo Verdone as Romano and Sabrina Ferilli as Ramona. There were also great performances of significance and scene stealing from Giovanna Vignola as the secretary with Dwarfism and Giusi Merli as the elderly nun still full of spiritual passion. There were other great qualities to the film including excellent cinematography featuring the best of Rome and all of Italy. Another addition to the film was the mix of music from modern to classical. The classical pieces really stood out as they presented many scenes best and added to the theme of the film.

I have to say The Great Beauty adds to the greatness of Italian film that has been prevalent in past years. I know how Italian film really came to the attention with directors like Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini coming to exposure many decades ago. Italian film seemed to be continuing towards greatness and influence in recent classic films like Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino and Life Is Beautiful. However it took a bit of a back seat in the past ten years as there hasn’t been a film or director in that time that dazzled the world by storm. Paolo Sorrentino and The Great Beauty looks to change that. Many critics have said it resembles many great Italian films of the past. It has won many awards in film festivals and even beat out Blue Is The Warmest Color for wins at the European Film Awards and the Golden Globes. It looks to be a heavy favorite for the Oscar as there doesn’t seem to be any other film to challenge. Even if there was, it would still rank as one of the top films of the year.

The Great Beauty is an excellent cinematic reflection of an aging socialite. Its deep story set against thematic scenes and beautiful cinematography makes it one worth seeing.

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: American Hustle

Christian Bale and Amy Adams are partners in crime in American Hustle.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams are partners in crime in a 1978 sting in American Hustle.

American Hustle has a lot to attract crowds by the looks of the premieres: big name actors, 70’s setting, crime story, lots to stimulate excitement. The question is does it deliver?

The story is set in 1978 in New York. Irving Rosenfeld is a dry cleaning store owner as a profession, con on the side. His love interest is Sydney Prosser, a mid-western girl who came to the Big Apple to redefine herself. Once into the relationship, he reveals his ‘other side.’ She decides to be his partner in crime posing as a British aristocrat: Lady Edith Greensley. Even though they are a perfect match, he’s hesitant to leave his six year-old son Danny or divorce his young wife Rosalyn.

FBI agent Richie DeMaso has been keeping his eye on the pair and their scheming and even arrests Irving on a loan scan only to bargain Irving into lining up four additional arrests. Sydney is up on the heist, feeling she can manipulate Richie in the process. Also in the scheme is Irving talking about a wealthy Arab sheikh looking for investors. One person suggests the sheikh do business with Camden mayor Carmine Polito who’s helping to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City, a person

The funny thing is while Richie doesn’t seem to have what it takes to get Carmine, Sydney and Irving do. Richie wants to entrap despite the objections of his boss at a law firm. Sydney is able to help an FBI secretary manipulate $2,000,000 of wired money for the operation. The boss at the law firm is so impressed, he finally gets Richie’s approval. Richie is unable to win over Carmine at a meeting but Irving is with his sheikh story to the point Irving and Carmine become friends. The meeting with Carmine and the Irving’s Mexican friend disguised as the sheikh works.

Problem is Irving’s set-up with Carmine and the sheikh catches the attention of a Mafia overlord named Tellegio who is second-in-command to Meyer Lansky. Tellegio is more demanding as he demands the sheikh become an American citizen with Carmine expediting the process with bribery if needed, and a $10,000,000 wire transfer to prove the sheikh’s legitimacy. Richie agrees, eager to get Tellegio but Irving knows the operation is doomed.

Further signs of a downfall are seen as Richie, who falls in love with Lady Edith, learns of the truth of Sydney and becomes violent. Irving tried to stop Richie’s abuse and the deal but Richie tells them there’s no way out. If Tellegio learns the truth, he’ll kill Irving, Sydney, Rosalynn and Danny. To cause huger friction, Rosalynn starts an affair with a mobster. The mobster wants the deal with the sheikh to be true while Rosalynn knows the whole story and wants a divorce.

In the end, it turns out arrests are made successfully on members of congress and a lot of dirty secrets confessed on tape. A lot of things are lost too, like a chance to entrap Tellegio, Richie’s status with the FBI, Irving’s earned friendship with Carmine and his marriage to Rosalyn.

The thing about the film is one is left with the question of what is the point of this movie? Is the movie trying to tell of a crime heist that flopped? Is it trying to tell a political message about corruption? Is it trying to make the actors do showy acting? Is it trying to be a retro-70’s movie that captures the feel and sound of that decade? I’m left confused.

Another question is if this movie is trying to be a David O. Russell ego trip? This had me wondering because if you notice, American Hustle has actors in his previous two movies–The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook–acting in major roles. In fact the four Oscar nominated performances from this movie come from actors who have already received an Oscar or an Oscar nod for a performance in either The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook. It almost seemed like it was packages as a ‘David O. Russell all-stars’ collaboration. I will acknowledge that Russell is the director that has most made the biggest impact on films in the past five years but still…

On a more positive note, I give them credit for saying “Some of these events actually happened.” at the beginning. It’s way less misleading than saying “Based on a true story.” I read in Wikipedia that it’s based on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation from the late-1970’s/early 1980’s. I never read anything about those operations but it does capture my intrigue about them and what the real story was.

On an additional note, I saw this just a month after I saw The Wolf Of Wall Street which also featured interesting and colorful characters based in New York/New Jersey. Seeing those two movies this past while really made me wonder about the behavior of people from New York City. Hey, I don’t want to think stereotypical thoughts of other people but it still makes you wonder.

I know I talked about my question of Russell’s intentions of directing. I also question the script Russell co-wrote with Eric Warren Singer. Sure, Russell knows how to direct actors. In fact eleven of the last eighty Oscar nominations in the acting categories over the past four years came from a performance in one of his films. Nevertheless the showy acting distracts from the story line. Even if Russell wanted to deliver a story that was more character-oriented than plot-oriented, the performances were too distracting for it to make much sense. Even some of the 70’s elements like the disco dancing between Irving and Sydney made me question whether that was intended to be part of the story or trying to get a 70’s feel.

As for the acting, I won’t completely blame the actors for the over-the-top showiness, not even the ones who were nominated for Oscars. I heard Russell encouraged some of the actors to improvise their roles. Christian Bale appeared to be the one lead role that most had it together. Amy Adams also showed some elements of control of story over ‘showtime-style acting. Not to mention she also did a good job playing her least sweet character I can think of. Bradley Cooper’s role was a bit confusing and was one of the prime distractors of the movie. Jennifer Lawrence was also another top distractor. One thing I most give credit for is Lawrence again does a great job of playing a woman years older than her. Jeremy Renner however had one of the most underrated performances of the movie. He was the one who most delivered in character acting that worked for the movie rather than distract. Looking back, I just wonder if the film was to do about some New York people with actual ‘drama queen’ personalities. Nevertheless it didn’t stop them from distracting me from the plot.

I know that I talked a lot of how the movie sometimes focuses more on giving a 70’s feel than telling the story at times. The inclusion of the various 70’s songs during certain scenes–most notably Goodbye Yellow-Brick Road in the scene where Rosalyn and Sydney meet eyes for the first time–had a lot to do with me questioning if the movie was telling a story or a 70’s throwback movie. Even the placement of certain songs in certain scenes had me wondering if it fit the story right. One thing I do give credit for is that in terms of the clothes, the hair, and the set designs, this is the most 70’s-like I’ve seen. I hardly ever sensed a trace of the modern times which is what a lot of aptly-named 70’s throwback movies often include. That has to be the one flawless thing of the movie.

American Hustle is a movie that will leave you scratching your head. If it’s trying to tell you a story of an FBI sting, it sure got lost in the showy character acting or the 70’s throwback elements.

Russia’s Winter Olympic Legacy

I know there was a lot of talk about whether the Olympic Games should have been held in Russia despite the political problems at the time. I too have my concerns about having them in Russia, especially with the amount of money Vladimir Putin spent on them. However back when I was younger I used to have the belief that if a nation demonstrates their sporting prowess in the Olympic arena, then they’ve earned the right to host an Olympics. Yes that was a naive rationale I had those decades ago but that rationale would sure work for Russia.

THE FIRST SIGNS

Before the current Russian Federation and before the legendary USSR, Russia first competed as the Russian Empire. It only competed in three Olympic Games–1900, 1908 and 1912– and won a total of eight medals: only one of them gold. Nevertheless that gold was unique because it was in the sport of figure skating. Remember how I mentioned that the London Games of 1908 was one of two Summer Olympics to host figure skating until the first Winter Olympics took place in 1924? Well Russian Nikolai Panin won the gold medal in the men’s special figures event.

Then in 1917, the Russian Empire was no longer and became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Athletes in the USSR were paid the same wages as all Russians who worked. That made them ineligible to compete in all Olympic Games between the two World Wars. Despite Soviet athletes being denied Olympic glory, an athletic revolution was happening inside the USSR at the time that would take the world by storm, provided the Olympic door would open one day.

THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING

In 1952 thanks to some IOC tweeking by President Avery Brundage who ironically was staunchly pro-amateur and slapped Olympic athletes who accepted money with big punishments including a ban from all Olympic competition, the USSR was allowed to compete at the Summer Olympics in Helsinki. They received the second-highest total of medals and would serve notice to the United States that they’d be their most legendary Olympic rival of all-time. They would have to wait until 1956 to compete at the Winter Olympics for the first time but their prowess at the Summer Games of 1952 would send a message to the sporting world.

The Italian resort town of Cortina d’Ampezzo would serve as the host for the 1956 Winter Olympics. The Soviet Union sent 53 athletes to those Olympics and walked away with the most medals. They had won six of the 24 events–including one speed skating event where two Soviets tied for the gold–and a total medal haul of sixteen. The Soviets reigned supreme in speed skating winning three of the four events. Before 1956, the medals of cross country skiing were divided by the Norwegians, Swedes and Finns. The Soviets gave them all a new rival as they came out on top winning seven of the eighteen medals including two golds. However it was hockey where the Soviets would give its biggest signs of the revolution. Before 1956, Team Canada had won hockey gold in all but one previous Olympics. Now Canada finally had a major hockey rival as the USSR won the gold beating Canada 2-0.

THE USSR’S HUGE LEGACY

Soviet dominance at the Winter Olympics would continue for decades. There would only be two Winter Olympics where the USSR wouldn’t be the top medal winner. That would be 1968 when Norway came out on top and 1984 when East Germany ruled those Games. The Soviets would also set a Winter Olympic record in golds in 1976 when the team won a total of 13. Out of the 38 events in 1976 that’s roughly one gold for every three events. Those 13 would remain untouched until the Norwegian team of 2002 equaled it and unbroken until the Canadian team of 2010 broke it with 14.

The most famous winter Olympic legacy of Soviet athletes probably came from its hockey players with Vladislav Tretiak (bottom, third from right) considered the best goalie in history.

The most famous Winter Olympic legacy of Soviet athletes probably came from its hockey players with Vladislav Tretiak(bottom, third from right) considered the best goalie in history.

From 1960 to 1988, Soviet athletes shined like no other country winning a total of 194 medals, 78 of them gold. Cross country skiing was where they experienced their biggest success with three skiers winning three golds in a single Olympics: Klaudia Boyarskikh in 1964, Galina Kulakova in 1972 and Nikolai Zimyatov in 1980. Speed skating was the second biggest medal-winning sport. The biggest feat by a Soviet was Lidia Skoblikova who won a total of six gold medals including winning all four event in 1964. Biathlon was also a sport the USSR exceled in as they won every men’s relay since it was introduced in 1968 and would include many individual champions.

Figure skating was good for the USSR but its biggest accomplishment was in the pairs event where they churned out gold medal-winning pair after pair starting with the Protopopovs in 1964 and ended with Gordeyeva and Grinkov in 1988. Irina Rodnina would win three golds with two male partners between 1972 and 1980. Ice dancing was its second most dominant as it would win gold three of the four times it was contested until 1988. Only a superpair like Britain’s Torvill and Dean could break their dominance.

However if there was one sport where the USSR defined ‘dominance,’ it was ice hockey. From its first Olympics in 1956 to 1988, the Soviet hockey team showed its dominance like no other. The dominance was helped in terms of Olympic rules. The best Soviet players were allowed to be eligible for Olympic competition. The best Canadian and American players weren’t because playing in the NHL made one professional and in those days, an athlete couldn’t make a single penny off their sport if they wanted to compete in the Olympics. That allowed for them to win seven of the nine Olympic competitions during that time. They only times they lost the gold was in Olympic Games which the US hosted and won the gold: Squaw Valley in 1960 and the famous ‘Miracle On Ice’ in Lake Placid in 1980. Their most powerful was during the 70’s whose players at the time were believed to be even better than the best NHL pros. Their dominance through the 70’s and early 80’s came greatly from goalie Vladislav Tretiak whom many considered to be the greatest hockey goalie ever.

1992: THE USSR’S LAST HURRAH

Funny thing is whenever I return to Olympic Square whenever I visit Calgary. They have plaques listing all of the medal winners during those Games. Funny thing is they also list the three-letter Olympic nation codes that go with them. Some of which are codes of nations during the ‘Cold War,’ like the GDR (East Germany), YUG (Yugoslavia), TCH (Czechoslovakia), and the URS (Soviet Union).Unknown at the time of the Calgary Olympics of 1988, countries of the Eastern Bloc would undergo a revolution where Comunism would be overthrown either diplomatically as in Poland and Hungary or aggressively as in Romania. The USSR was showing signs of kinder gentler Communism under Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika but that didn’t come without its problems, like republics wanting their own independence. In August 1991 while Gorbachev was outside hte USSR, a group of Communists staged a mutiny in the Kremlin returning the Union to the hard-line Communist rule. Gorbachev returned declaring the death of Communism and the end to the USSR.

When the 1992 Albertville Winter Games opened, the Parade Of Nations showed the signs of the New World Order: Germany was reunified, Yugoslavia was still together but Croatia and Slovenia sent their own teams, Czechoslovakia competed in their last Olympics together and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that was part of the USSR sent their own teams. The most notable change was the republics of the USSR competing as the Unified Team. They competed under the Olympic flag and if ever one of their athletes won a gold medal, the Olympic hymn was played.

129 athletes from five of the twelve republics competed for the Unified Team. The women in cross country skiing were dominant with Lyubov Egorova winning two individual events and anchoring the relay. Figure skating showed continued dominance with a win in pairs and ice dance. Also for the first time came a gold medal in men’s figure skating by Ukrainian Viktor Petrenko. Until then, the highest a Soviet male skater won was a silver. There some signs of Soviet dominance wearing off with the political changes. There were gold medalists in biathlon but the men’s relay team didn’t win gold for the first time ever. There were no medals won by Unified athletes in men’s cross country skiing or long track speed skating. Even the hockey team suffered a loss to Czechoslovakia in the preliminaries. However the team came back to win gold.

RUSSIA: A NEW CHAPTER OF WINTER PROWESS

Russia's new Winter Olympic era: While the USSR never produced a gold medallist in men's figure skating, Russia produced four including Evgeny Plushenko.

Russia’s new Winter Olympic era: While the USSR never produced a gold medallist in men’s figure skating, Russia produced four including Evgeny Plushenko.

It was at the 1994 Lillehammer Games that all the republics of the former USSR first competed for their own national teams. National flags were flown at victory ceremonies as well as their national anthem played. Russia fielded a team of 113 athletes and they showed a continuation of the prowess. While host country Norway won the most total medals, Russia won the most golds with 11.  Russia won three of the four figure skating events. Lyubov Egorova was back winning two events and anchoring the relay to gold. Biathlon prowess was still alive as the men won the two individual events and the women won the relay. Speed skating strength returned as they won five medals including two gold. Russia also showed skill in sports either new on the Olympic program like two medals in freestyle skiing or even in traditional Olympic sports the USSR never fared well in like alpine skiing where a female skier won a silver. Hockey however would mark its biggest changing of the guard as the Russian team would fail to win a medal.

Success for Russia’s winter athletes would continue long after the end of the USSR. However Russia would often have cases where they’d have a strong team one Winter Olympics and a so-so team the next. Nagano in 1998 would show excellent success as the Russians would win 18 medals including nine gold. The Russian women completely swept all five cross country skiing events with Larisa Lazutina winning two individual event golds, two other medals in the other two individual events and was part of the gold medal-winning relay. Russia again won three of the four figure skating events and their men’s hockey team returned to prowess albeit losing the gold to the Czechs 1-0 in the final.

The Russian team would first show signs of struggle in Salt Lake City in 2002. Sure they won two figure skating events and two cross country skiing events but their overall medal total was 13 medals including five golds. The medal total was so disappointing to Russia, the president of the Russian Olympic Committee refused to have the athletes march or dance around on field during the closing ceremony. Turin in 2006 showed a return to the winter muscle as they finished fourth in the medal tally with 22 medals including eight golds. They won two golds in biathlon and cross country skiing each and won three of the four figure skating events. They also won their first ever sledding medals with silvers in men’s four man bobsled and men’s luge. However Vancouver 2010 was a return to the down side as the team won fifteen medals including only three gold in biathlon and cross country skiing. They failed to win a medal in men’s hockey and failed to win pairs figure skating for the first time since 1960. You could understand why Putin wanted a grand team for Sochi.

THE SOCHI GAMES SUCCESS

I will only give a brief rundown of Russia’s success here in Sochi because I’m planning more of a discussion in a full blog specifically about the Sochi Games. The opening of the Sochi Olympics showed a salute to athletes of the past with speed skater Lidia Skoblikova and hockey player Vyacheslav Fetisov carrying the Olympic flag. The Olympic torch was lit by pairs figure skater Irina Rodnina and goalie Vladislav Tretiak: former Soviet athletes that not only won three Olympic golds but also are considered the best ever in their sport. Sochi definitely showed a return to Russia’s prowess in winter sport. They were back in pairs figure skating, won their first ever ladies figure skating title, showed prowess in speed skating for the first time and even won their first-ever bobsledding gold. More to come on this in my final Sochi blog.

Russia has always had a legacy in Winter sport whether it be as the USSR or as the Russian Federation. The Sochi Games further proved that legacy and also provided a future for that legacy in the years to come.

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: Soviet Union at the Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet _Union_at_the_Winter_Olympics>

WIKIPEDIA: Unified Team at the Winter Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unified _Team_at_the_Winter_Olympics>

WIKIPEDIA: Russia at the Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia_at_the_Olympics>

Movie Review: Frozen

Frozen

I’ll admit it’s rather late for me to be reviewing Frozen. I wasn’t interested in it at first. However its success at the box office coupled with its Oscar buzz helped me change my mind.

Normally I’d give a description of the film in my reviews but I won’t here since most of you have already seen Frozen by now. I’ll just go in to what I have to say. There are a lot of unique and great aspects of this movie. First is its unexpected twists. You’d first think it would be Kristoff that would save Elsa, Anna and the kingdom but it turns out to be Elsa. Already there are a lot of writers and bloggers comparing Elsa to Merida in Brave in terms of heroine status. I’ll bet you never thought Kristoff would be one of the bad guys. Second is its animation that truly mesmerizes. I was dazzled when I saw Elsa’s snow-spell and even the ‘ Castle Of Ice’ created on screen. Watching Frozen was like being taken to a world of ice at times.

Thirdly is the musical aspect of the movie. For many decades, even as close to about twenty years ago, animated movies were commonly musicals and excelled in telling the stories with catchy songs. From Someday My Prince Will Come in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Hakuna Matata in The Lion King, you could always rely on an animated feature to deliver charming music. When 3D became the staple of animated features, the features were predominantly non-musicals and the movies were more focused on the story and the animation. When was the last animated feature done as a musical that dazzled you? Yeah, that far back. Frozen is the first 3D animated musical that has won the movie-going public by storm. It’s refreshing to see the musical aspect come back in animated movies and even added to 3D animated movies successfully for the first time. I think the success of Frozen will churn out more musical-styled 3D animation features.

Frozen is a welcome relief in terms of animated movies for 2013. This year was a rather quiet year in terms of animated movies. Sure this summer featured the excitement of the comeback of the monsters of Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 took ‘minion mania’ to new heights but there was nothing new to create new buzz. Nor was there anything with writing that stood out. I’m sure that became apparent to a lot of my subscribers when I published my blog about Pixar appearing to have lost its spark. Frozen may have come late in 2013 but it sure came to the rescue. Its excellence is not just in having a thrilling story but also in having excellent animation.

Also Frozen has a bonus aspect: catchy songs. It’s not just something that’s been missing from animated movies but movies in general since the new century. You may remember before the 2000’s came there were many catchy songs that came from movies. Since 2000, the presence of a catchy song or even a hit song from a movie is something that has been very rare. I think the last hit song from a movie before Frozen was Slumdog Millionaire’s Jai Ho. I was especially surprised during 2006 when Dreamgirls was in theatres, none of the songs were released as singles despite Beyonce’s chart-topping prowess at the time. I know most of North America was in a hip-hop coma at the time but still… Frozen helped bring back the catchiness of movie music. Already two versions of Let It Go are on the charts right now: Idina Menzel’s version is currently #18 on the Hot 100 and Demi Lovato’s version is at #56 having peaked at 38. Recently Do You Want To Build A Snowman? started hitting the charts and is now at #57. I guess it’s no wonder that the movie has been re-released in a sing-along version.

It’s hard to pick who first to compliment. First off, I’ll say the animation was top notch. The Walt Disney Animation Studios did an excellent job in creating a charming trip to the past and a mesmerizing world of ice. Secondly, kudos should go to Christophe Beck and Kristin Anderson-Lopez for providing music that was not only entertaining but the catchiest movie music in years. Thirdly a great job in the acting and singling by both Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel. They’re already established actors and they’ve also had musical experience but this has to be the best combined singing/acting efforts from both of them. The supporting actors were also great in their roles too including Jonathan Groff and Santino Fontana. However it’s Josh Gad that steals the show as the goofy Olaf. Finally great acting/writing efforts from Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Shane Morris. It was something to take Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and turn it into an animated musical. They really delivered a winner. In fact you remember how Disney movies would give animated adaptations of children’s stories like Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio and The Lion King and turn them into beloved classics? I think Frozen is destined to go that same route over time.

Funny thing about Frozen is not just simply its current total success with its box office run but its lack of success when it first started. I’ve noticed on Box Office Mojo that it was only on one single theatre when it opened because it didn’t want to compete with the opening of the latest Hunger Games movie. It got better the following week when it was spread across North America and grossed $67.4 million that weekend but it was still in second to the Hunger Games by $7 million. The funny thing is while most movies came and went during the six weekends since, Frozen stuck around in the Top 3 and was even #1 on two different weekends. It was even #2 the weekend of January 31-February2nd: its eleventh weekend. Okay, the sing-along version release may have something to do with it but it just goes to show its lasting power. In fact it wasn’t until this weekend, its thirteenth, that it finally left the Top 5 and currently sits at #8 with a total gross of over $375 million.

Frozen has been the animated movie both moviegoers and fans of film alike have been waiting for all of 2013. It was definitely worth the wait because it delivers in terms of quality and entertainment value. Maybe I should go back for the sing-along version.

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: Philomena

Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman looking for he long lost son, in Philomena.

Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman looking for her long lost son, in Philomena.

The premise of Philomena may make many people nervous about seeing it. The questions before watching it will be “Will it be too disturbing?” or “Will the Catholic Church get knocked on screen again?” There’s only one way to find out.

The film begins in 1951 with a teenage Philomena Lee. She meets a young boy at a town fair whom she completely falls for that one day. Fast forward to 2004. Martin Sixsmith is an unemployed journalist since the Labour Party, the party he works as a government advisor, is beset by scandal. He goes to a party and meets the daughter of Philomena Lee who encourages him to write a story about her mother who was forced to give up her baby boy Anthony more than 50 years ago. Martin is uninterested in writing a human interest story and is more intent on writing a book on Russian history. However it’s after he meets Philomena and hears her story about how it all happened that he changes his mind and investigates further.

Once she was pregnant, she was sent by her father to Sean Ross Abbey, a mother-and-baby home that young unwed pregnant girls were sent to. It was terrible to live there while under the orders of the strict Sister Hildegarde, especially if she was assigned to do the laundries for four year to cover her stay. Nevertheless she was able to see her baby Anthony whom grew attached to her friend’s girl Mary. Then one day Philomena saw Mary and Anthony adopted out of the house. All Philomena could do was watch in heartbreak 30 feet away as her infant son was taken away.

Philomena had tried for years to find out what happened to her son by visiting the convent to no avail. Martin goes with Philomena to the convent only to hear from the nuns the records were lost in a fire years earlier. It’s over at the pub they hear from locals that the records were purposely destroyed in a fire and the children were sold to rich Americans. It’s after Martin’s searches in Ireland coming to a dead end that he decides on an arduous task. He decides to get the answers by visiting the United States and having Philomena accompany him.

Upon arrival in the United States, he learns through various search sites that Anthony and Mary were adopted by Doc and Marge Hess who renamed him Michael. Michael grew up to be a lawyer and a senior official to the Republic Party during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. He also learns news of heartbreak. Michael died in 1995 at the age of 43. The news naturally breaks Philomena’s heart but soon she wants to meet with people who knew Michael.

She meets one colleague and learns Michael was gay and died of AIDS. She meets up with Mary who grew up with Michael and eventually became a mother. Mary reveals Michael had a boyfriend named Pete Olsson. Pete is unwilling to cooperate despite Martin’s please but it’s not until Philomena pleads face to face with Pete that he complies. The visit with Pete is warm as he tells her of Michael’s childhood and even shows home videos. It’s when Philomena sees a video of Michael at the Sean Ross Abbey that she learns Michael tried looking for her while he was dying. She also learns he was buried over at the Abbey.

It’s then when Martin and Philomena return to the Abbey where it all started. It’s there where Martin can confront Sister Hildegard for being strict on the girls and being deceptive to both Philomena and Michael, whom she told Michael he was abandoned and they lost contact with the mother. Hildegard is unrepentant but surprisingly Philomena approaches her and forgives her. It’s right at Michael’s grave that she can finally meet the son she’s always looked for and finally make peace with her past.

The best quality of the movie is its unpredictability for those who’ve never learned the story. There may be some who have already learned the story of Philomena Lee but most who haven’t. If you don’t, then this movie will surprise you in many areas. It’s not just about Philomena’s search but learning of her son and what happened in the end. The film is full of moments. Moments of happiness, moments of tension, moments of relief, moments of surprise, moments of sadness and moments of humor. The film shows that the trip Philomena went on was not just about leaning about what came of her son but also her own personal journey of healing. A healing that needed to happen and occurred in unexpected ways.

Another great quality is the portrayal of the characters themselves. Philomena comes across as a very likeable and charming woman. Nevertheless one would question how smart she is at times and even question her faith if it’s just routine or even strong. Philomena is seen as simple and sometimes blames herself for a lot of wrongs in her life. However she comes across at the end as a stronger person than one would originally think. The biggest surprise is it would be Martin who most seems to have problems and issues while Philomena, who is the one who actually endured trauma, who still smiles at life in the end despite the harshness she went through.

Martin himself comes across as your typical egotistical journalist who appears to want to destroy the Catholic Church with his pen but somehow has a softening of heart once Philomena comes into his life. He will first make one wonder what his true intentions of helping Philomena learn of her son is: to really help Philomena or to get a great story published. In the end, he comes off as rather likeable for a journalist. Proof that even a journalist can have a heart!

I know there may be some Catholic readers that may be hesitant about seeing this film and the way the Catholic Church is portrayed. Yes, it’s surprising that Catholics would be more concerned about their depiction of the Church in a film that’s not by Martin Scorsese than whether Scorsese’s latest has another slamming of the Catholic Church in his latest. Even I myself was a bit concerned about seeing this as I saw The Magdalene Sisters ten years ago and it really was a nasty depiction of nuns and priests as well as a harsh but true look at the abuse the girls received. Philomena doesn’t show the girls in the laundries suffering abuse. It shows then doing the laundry but it does show the heartbreak of a teenage Philomena as she sees Anthony taken away from a distant window. It also shows Sister Hildegard to be unapologetic for all she’s done, not even for the girls that died during childbirth.

Actually in retrospect, I think it makes the Catholic Church look like the bad guy while the Catholic faith comes across as a positive thing in the end. One will first think of Philomena’s Catholic faith as something too ritualistic or forced upon her and even prone to break at one point but one will see in the end that it’s her faith that helps her through her hard times. In fact Philomena’s response to why she forgives Sister Hildegard in from of Martin will astonish the audience and will surprise many about how forgiveness is actually a form of personal strength.  As for The Wolf Of Wall Street, Catholics should relax as the most there is in it is a joke about nuns which is the tamest taunting of the Catholic church I’ve seen is a Scorsese movie in years. I feel Philomena’s story of her search is an uplifting story of hurt and eventual healing.

Without a doubt, the standout of the film is the performance of Judi Dench. Judi is one of those actresses who really knows how to excel with age. I may have seen better acting performances from her but her portrayal of Philomena was excellent in showing the many dimensions of Philomena Lee as well as adding a charm to her. Steve Coogan was also very good in what I feel to be the best acting I’ve seen from him. His role as Martin didn’t have the same dimension as Philomena but it was a very good performance. Coogan also did a very good job of scriptwriting with Jeff Pope. The story keeps one interested especially for those who don’t know the story of Philomena Lee. Stephen Frears may not as done as spectacular job in directing as Judi did in acting and as Jeff and Steve did in writing but it is worthy of respect. It may not be as great as his Oscar-nominated directing in The Queen but it’s still a very good job. Finally, Alexandre Desplat does it again in making the film with his score composition.

Philomena may first appear like a harsh movie about a woman hurt by her past and finally looking for answers. In the end it turns out to be more bittersweet than harsh and will leave one feeling Philomena did win in the end.

Sochi 2014: Making Press For More Than Just The Games

The Sochi Olympics has made news who won what medals. And a lot more.

The Sochi Olympics has made news who won what medals. And a lot more.

DISCLAIMER: I’ll admit that I originally planned to post this blog on the day of the opening ceremonies. In retrospect, I’m glad that I waited until the halfway point because I learned more about them in the last while.

The Olympic Games are being held in Sochi, Russia from February 7th to 23rd. 2800 athletes from 88 countries will be competing in the 98 medal events in fifteen different sports. In this, I will look at the city of Sochi, the new events, what Russia and especially Putin plan to get out of these games and the side-news that has been making headlines before the Olympics.

SOCHI THE CITY:

Sochi is a city in Russia with a population of 420,000. Sochi sits at the foot of the Sochi River on the east coast of the Black Sea just 20 miles north of the Russia-Georgia border with the Caucasus Mountains on the horizon. The city had been formed over various years of wars and conquering tribes. It was after both  the Caucasus War and the Russo-Turkish War that was ceded to the Russians back in 1829. British intervention would occur in monitoring the weapons of the war. The Fort of Alexandria would be constructed in 1838 at the mouth of the Sochi River. That would later have an impact on forming the city. Many more forts would be set up close to the Fort of Alexandria including the Fort Dakhovsky. Fighting would continue until the end of the Caucasus War in 1864.

Starting in 1866 people of various ethnicities settled around the coast of the Black Sea. In 1874 the first Russian Orthodox church was built on the former Fort Dakhovsky and the settlement was renamed the Dakhovsky Posad. The Sochi Lighthouse was built in 1890 and the Dahkovsky Posad renamed themselves the Sochi Posad and incorporated themselves into the Black Sea governate. Sochi opened its first sea resort in 1909 and the town was granted full town status in 1917. Then came the war between Russia and Georgia. The war ended in 1923 with Sochi declared Russian territory. Joseph Stalin helped promote Sochi as a fashionable resort. After the fall of the USSR, Sochi has been promoted in Russia as the capital of summer.

THE GAMES AND THEIR HOPES:

These Olympic Games cost $51 billion to build: $39 million more than originally anticipated and more than any other Olympic Games in history. This was not only for the sake of building more facilities for hosting events. This also included telecommunications improvements in the region, power infrastructure upgrades, transportation improvements on all means of transportation, over 10,000 additional hotel rooms and six additional post offices.

The Olympic sites have been divided into two clusters: the Coastal Cluster inside the town and the Mountain Cluster into the Caucasus Mountains. The Coastal Cluster consists of the Olympic Park containing the Olympic Flame, the Fisht Olympic Stadium, two hockey arenas, a figure skating arena, a speed skating oval, a curling centre, the Olympic village, and the International broadcasting centre. The Mountain Cluster–located in the area called Krasnaya Polyana or ‘Red Hills’–consists of five venues including a Nordic skiing complex, a ski jumping centre, an alpine resort including an extreme park for snowboarding and freestyle skiing, a sliding centre and an Olympic village.

This isn’t all completely in vain for the sake of these seventeen days, or at least they’re not intended to be. The city of Sochi is expecting to make big improvements and grow considerably after the Olympic Games. Fisht Olympic Stadium plans to be continued as a football facility after the Olympics and is even one of the venues for the 2018 World Cup. The city of Sochi itself is signed on to be host of the Russian Formula 1 Grand Prix from 2014 to 2020. The RusSki Gorki ski jumping hills are to be used as a training facility for jumpers and two smaller hills for youth training are planned to be added after the Games. The ski hills at Rosa Khutor have been designed by a 1972 Olympic champion and plan to be part of future World Cup seasons. In fact Vladimir Putin is hoping to have Sochi become a winter resort that can compete with the resorts of France, Switzerland and Italy. In fact Putin had a conversation with one world leader where he said: “The rich travel to France and Switzerland to go skiing. Why not Krasnaya Polyana?”

Even as shown in the Opening Ceremonies, the Games hope to present a positive picture of Russia especially since it has made a lot of bad news in terms of politics, social problems, alcoholism, poverty, crime and even terrorism. Putin is hoping to improve ties with other countries. Putin is also hoping to improve the family structure in Russia with declining birth rates. Putin is also hoping these Games will stimulate the Russian economy. Let’s hope those $51 billion pay off, Vlad.

Even for venues planned for just those seventeen days, they too have post-games uses planned for them. The Bolshoi Ice Dome, the biggest of the hockey/skating venues, has plans for further ice events and concerts. Shayba Arena is a temporary hockey venue which is planned to be dismantled and shipped off to another city. The Iceberg Skating Palace has two post-games options of remaining an ice arena or a cycling velodrome. The Adler Oval for speed skating is slated to be an exhibition centre after the Games. The Ice Cube Curling Centre plans to stay a sports facility but can be moved to another location. Whether the plans will follow through and whether they will pay off in the end is something only the future will tell.

NEW TO THE PROGRAM:

Back in Vancouver there were 86 events. Here in Sochi there were an additional 12 events added to the program:

  • Figure Skating Team Event-There will be three mixed events where both men and women compete together contested for the first time here in Sochi. The Figure Skating Team event consists of ten countries competing in both short programs and free skates of men’s singles, ladies’ singles, pairs and dance. Points are based on the country’s entry’s placeage in each program. Team with the highest total of points wins the gold.
  • Freestyle Skiing Halfpipe (men and women)- The halfpipe event that’s one of the highlights of the snowboarding events have now been added to freestyle skiing.
  • Slopestyle events in snowboarding and freestyle skiing (men and women)- It’s like skateboarding on snow. Consists of first skiing or boarding on rails and then doing daring jumps off the three kickers. Points are scored on difficulty and execution.
  • Snowboarding Parallel Slalom (men and women)- Since 2002, snowboarding has had the Parallel Giant Slalom where two racers are paired together for two runs with last racer standing as winner. This Olympics marks the debut of the Parallel Slalom with tighter turns. Same method of deciding the winner as the Parallel Giant Slalom.
  • Biathlon Mixed Relay-two women on each team ski and shoot for 6 km, two men ski and shoot for 7.5 km. Not even cross-country skiing has a mixed relay.
  • Luge Team Relay-the relay consists of a men’s singles sledder going down first, touches a touch-sensitive pad that releases the gate for the next sled, the ladies’ singled sledder, to go down and then she touches the pad to let the men’s doubles sled go. The team with the fastest combined time wins.
  • Women’s ski jumping (normal hill)-You may remember before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics there was a brouhaha about getting Women’s Ski Jumping added to the Olympic program. The IOC decided the event wasn’t competitive enough to be added to those Games. Since then the event has become competitive enough to be added to the Olympic program. Women will compete in one event: the normal hill.

GAMES PROBLEMS:

With every Olympic Games come problems and they will get a lot of notice in the months leading up to an Olympic Games. Same with Sochi and there were two issues that received huge notice:

PUTIN’S ANTI-GAY LAWS

The administration of Vladimir Putin has not sit well with the many human rights groups on various issues but the biggest firestorm in the last few months came because of recent laws passed against the GLBT population and didn’t appear to make tourists immune to those laws. The laws were the prevention of distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors, which effectively makes it illegal to suggest that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships or to distribute material on gay rights and even bans gay pride parades. The media has reported of an arrest of a gay rights activist and an increase in ‘hate crimes’ against the GLBT population including against GLBT minors.

The laws have been protested against a multitude of people including GLBT rights activists and their supporters, famous celebrities like Lady Gaga and 27 Nobel Prize winners from arts and sciences. Putin has responded to the pressure by saying that GLBT tourist during the Sochi Olympics will not be under threat. Some heads of state chose not to come to these Olympic Games allegedly because of the laws. Thomas Bach wants to keep the Olympic arena free of politics just like past presidents of the IOC and has even threatened to ban athletes who protest the laws. As harsh as that is, we shouldn’t forget we’re dealing with the same IOC that punished the two black sprinters from 1968 that gave the ‘black power’ salute on the victory podium. I’m sure most of you know the story. Bach has responded back to the protests both in pre-Olympic announcements and in his speech during the opening ceremonies: “Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue and not on the backs of these athletes.”

My Personal Vent: Personally I wasn’t happy about all those protests over Putin’s anti-gay laws. Now, don’t get me wrong. Yes, it is a problem. However it’s one of a whole whack of human rights problems inside the Russian Federation under Putin right now. The GLBT community isn’t the only set of people being hit hard or legally punished in Putin’s regime. Remember the free speech problem many months ago involving feminist punk band Pussy Riot? Even that’s one of many. The reason why I found it irritating is because I saw it as another case of the GLBT community ‘hijacking’ issues. Much the same way they ‘hijacked’ the issue of Eminem’s lyrics in 2000 while the GLBT people were one of many groups of people verbally slammed in Eminem’s records. And how they ‘hijacked’ the bullying suicides issue in 2010. It didn’t last as recent suicides from bullying involving non-GLBT teens like Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons reminded the public that bullying suicides occur indiscriminately. I don’t have a problem with pre-Olympic protests but I do wish other groups of people were just as loud at speaking their concerns rather than GLBT activists hogging the show.

ETHNIC CIRCASSIAN DISSENT:

A bit of a history lesson. The Circassian peoples used to have the area around Sochi and the Krasnaya Polyana as their own centuries ago. Unfortunately most Circassians were killed during the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Russian-Circassian War from 1763 to 1864. Today there are 900,000 ethnic Circassians in Russia.

Some Circassian groups objected to the Games being held on land that was held by their ancestors before the war. There are two other factors that also leave many Circassians unhappy with the Games. One is the fact the Games are being held in 2014 which coincides with the 150th anniversary of the end of the Russian-Circassian war. The second being events held on the Krasnaya Polyana which were named the ‘Red Hills’ because of the bloodshed of a group of Circassians that attempted to return to their homes in a bloody battle in 1864.

Reactions amongst Circassians have been mixed. Some demand the Games be moved outside Russia unless Russia apologizes. Some accept the Games but want symbols of Circassian history be included the same way indigenous culture was included in past Games like Vancouver in 2010 and Sydney in 2000. There has been no response as to what has been done in this matter.

THREATS OF TERRORISM

The threat of terrorism has been taken seriously since the death of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Sochi is located in an area prone to terrorism. It’s located close to a set of provinces in the North Caucasus such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia to name a few. A lot of them have been fighting over their rights of their ethnicity and of their religion. Chechnya has been in the news the most firstly because of the First Chechen War that occurred between 1994 and 1996 just as Russia was defining itself in the post-USSR era. Wars have continued and Putin has responded with many human rights group call brutal force.

Islamic Chechen terrorists have declared a jihad and created a lot of terrorism since the First Chechen War which first started with hotel bombings in Russia in 1999 and has consisted of many incidents since. Most within the past five years like numerous car bombs, an express train bombing, Moscow subway bombings, an attack on Chechen parliament, a bombing at Moscow’s international airport and even links to last year’s Boston Marathon bombing.

The Chechen Islamist commander Dokka Umarov called for an attack in the Games back in July 2013 stating that the Games will be held: “on the bones of many Muslims killed.” Athletes that were to compete before the Games and many national Olympic Committees received threatening e-mails from terrorist groups threatening to blow them up. It got to the point the US ski and snowboard agency hired a private security agency to protect them during the Games. Even the US government added to the scare a week before when they talked about the possibility of ‘toothpaste bombs’ that can be made in tubes of toothpaste of 100ml or more.

Security during these Games will be handled by 40,000 law enforcement officials including police and the Russian Armed Forces. Putin even signed a Presidential Decree at the beginning of the year declaring that any protest in Sochi or the surrounding areas be approved by the Federal Security Services. There’s also an unmanned aerial vehicle squadron with defense rockets to protect Olympic airspace. There are four gunboats along the Black Sea to protect the coastline. Forces are also set up along the Russia-Georgia border and even the US has agreed to lend Navy ships and other assets for security purposes.

The closest thing to an incident was on February 7th during the opening ceremonies when a Pegasus Air Line from Kharkiv, Ukraine to Istanbul, Turkey was hijacked by a person claiming to have a bomb and wanted it flown to Sochi. The plane arrived at its destination in Istanbul and the passenger was arrested with no weapons or bombs found on the place. Since then there have been no incidents occurring.

The Sochi Olympics sure made a lot of news in the months leading up to their opening. They are currently making news mostly for the good in the days of competition held. The Games end on February 23rd with the Paralympics opening on March 7th. It remains to be seen whether the Games will pay off, whether they will continue to run smoothly without incident and whether Sochi and Russia itself make improvements in the months and years after.

WORK CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: 2014 Winter Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Winter_Olympics>

Sochi 2014: Seven Canadians To Watch

Canada Olympic

You all remember Vancouver 2010. Canada won the most ever Winter Olympic golds in a single games with 14. Canada is not the host nation for the Winter Olympics anymore. That pressure now belongs to Russia. Nevertheless Team Canada will face pressures of its own over in Sochi both as individuals and as a team. One thing we should take into account is how some countries perform in the Olympics after they were host nation. Below is a chart of host countries and their various medal hauls. The #/# guide is golds/total medals:

Olympic Chart 1

As noted in that chart, some get better like Canada in 1992. Some still stay the same and some do noticeably worse like Japan in 2002 and Italy in 2010. Sports Illustrated predicts Canada to win a total of 31 medals including eleven gold. That’s an awful lot but not impossible.

In the meantime, here’s a look at some Canadians favored to do well in Sochi, if not win:

Patrick Chan – Figure Skating: Canada has a proud legacy in figure skating. So proud you could say figure skating is rightfully third behind hockey and curling as our national sport. Our legacy is there. Canada has also left every Winter Olympics since 1984 with at least one medal in Figure Skating. Canada is one of only five countries to win twenty or more Olympic medals in figure skating. We have Olympic champions in three of the four returning figure skating categories. The only one we don’t have is in the Men’s Singles event. Four bronze medalists, two double-silver medalists but never a gold medalist. This could finally be the year.

Patrick Chan has Canada’s best chances. He’s been national champion since 2008 at the tender age of 17, a world Championships medalist every year since 2009 and a World Champion three times starting in 2011. He has looked good this season, winning two of his three international competitions this year losing only the Grand Prix of Figure Skating.

He has looked good in practice here in Sochi and appears confident he will win. However he will have rivalries from Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten who finished behind him at last year’s Worlds and Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko who’s making a comeback. Also expected to challenge is Spain’s Javier Fernandez and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu: the latter two of which are coached by Canadian double-silver medalist Brian Orser. In fact it was Hanyu who gave Chan his only defeat this year at the Grand Prix back in December. So will he be the first Canadian men’s champion or the seventh medalist? It will all be decided on the 13th and 14th.

Erik Guay – Alpine Skiing: Remember the Crazy Canucks? Yeah, Canada had an impressive legacy in Alpine Skiing on both the World Cup circuit and the Olympic Games in decades past. Nancy Greene, Kathy Kreiner, Ken Read, Steve Podborski, Kerrin Lee-Gartner, we all remember them. Problem is it seems like it’s all in the past. The last Olympic medal was a 1994 bronze in Men’s Downhill by Ed Podivinsky.

Canada’s top bet to get back on the Olympic podium is Erik Guay. Guay is 2010 World Cup winner in the Super-G and 2011 World Champion in the Downhill. This year he has ranked in the Top 3 in the men’s downhill on the World Cup circuit. However he was sidelined temporarily in January due to a minor knee injury. But he’s confident he will be ready to perform on February 9th. Actually Erik is not the only Canadian alpine skier with good chances to win a medal. Healthy medal chances also come with Marie-Michele Gagnon who is currently ranked fourth in World Cup standings in the slalom and just won her first ever World Cup race–a super-combined event–just last month in Austria. Will a new generation of Crazy Canucks arrive in Sochi? The Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort will set the stage.

Alexandre Bilodeau – Freestyle Skiing: Alexandre isn’t just simply the first Canadian to win gold during Vancouver 2010. He’s the first ever to win gold on Canadian soil as the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary failed to produce a Canadian Olympic champion.

Since Vancouver he has made many public appearances and has graduated from college. His competitive drive has not deterred. He has won moguls silver at the past two World Championships and has already won three of the six moguls events on the World Cup circuit. He is a big favorite to win at what he says will be his last Olympics but his top challenge will come from fellow Canadian Mikael Kingsbury who is 2012 and 2013 World Cup winner in moguls, World moguls champion in 2013 and has won the other three World Cup events from this year. In fact Sports Illustrated predicts Kingsbury to win gold and Bilodeau to win silver. The stage for Canadian vs. Canadian will take place February 10th.

Charles Hamelin – Short-Track Speed Skating: There’s a lot of talk for the possibility of the first ever Canadian four-time Olympic champion. One possibility, actually three, is in women’s hockey which I will talk about later. Another possibility is in men’s short track speed skating with Charles Hamelin.

You could say that short track is in his blood. His younger brother Francois was part of Canada’s gold medal-winning relay and his father Yves is the current national director of the national short track team. Hamelin has had an illustrious career which includes two Olympic golds from Vancouver and a silver from Turin in 2006 as well as 26 World Championship medals, eight of them gold. In fact at last year’s World Championships, Hamelin was part of the gold medal-winning relay and won three individual bronzes.

Charles comes to Sochi as the reigning leader in the overall World Cup standings as well as leading the 1000m and 1500m. His path to more gold will not go unchallenged. His top threats come from Russia’s Viktor Ahn and South Korea’s Sin Da-Woon. Plus there’s the sport itself which is known for its slipperiness and frequent falls. It will all be decided at the Iceberg Skating Palace.

Alex Harvey – Nordic Skiing: Skiing sure runs in the family. It was natural that Alex Harvey take up cross-country skiing. His father Pierre was Canada’s best ever cross country skier when he was competing during the 80’s. In fact I myself remember back during the Calgary Olympics Pierre was giving Canada its best-ever finishes in the cross country events. Sure they were between 14th and 20th but they were still new achievements for Canadian skiers.

Alex, who was actually born in September of that year, has taken achievement to new levels. He now has Canada’s best ever men’s finish at an Olympic Games: fourth in team sprint with teammate Devon Kershaw. He and Kershaw would become World Champions in that event in 2011. Harvey won bronze in the sprint at last year’s Worlds. This season he has won two World Cup races. Sports Illustrated predicts him to win bronze in the sprint. However he’s pressed to win Canada’s first even men’s cross country medal by teammate Devon Kershaw who finished second to Harvey in a World Cup sprint event. He will also be challenged in winning the sprint event by World Champion Nikita Kryukov of Russia, World Cup sprint leader Josef Wenzl of Germany and Italy’s Federico Pellegrino who’s ranked second in the sprints. The Laura Biathlon and Ski Complex is the stage.

The Dufour-LaPointe sisters (Justine, Maxime and Chloe) – Freestyle Skiing: It’s not uncommon that you have siblings competing together at the same Olympics. Sometimes in the same event. But three? And all three of them in the same event? That’s the case of the Dufour-Lapointe sisters in moguls: Maxime who turns 25 on the 9th, 22 year-old Chloe and 19 year-old Justine.

The first excitement came when Chloe qualified for the Vancouver Games. Bigger excitement came  when Justine won bronze at last year’s World Championships. However the excitement has been happening this year on the World Cup circuit. All six World Cup meets this year has seen at least one of the three on the podium with Justine winning two events and Chloe winning one. Currently on the World Cup circuit Justine ranks second, Maxime third and Chloe fourth. It’s possible the sisters could even sweep in Sochi. However blocking their path is defending Olympic champion, 2013 World Champion and World Cup leader Hannah Kearney of the U.S. American Heidi Kloser of the U.S. who is ranked fifth in the World Cup also poses a challenge as well as Japan’s Miki Ito who finished second at last year’s Worlds. It will all be decided February 8th.

Canada’s Hockey Team (men and women): Every Winter Olympics you can’t avoid the talk of Canada’s chances in hockey. Especially in men’s hockey. Hey, our national pride is at stake and winning it makes our OlympicsEver since NHL players were allowed to compete for the first time back in 1998, it’s always the challenge to prove themselves first among at least six equals. But we’ve succeeded with wins in 2002 and back in Vancouver. However we’ve found ourselves off the podium in 1998 and ousted in the quarterfinals in 2006.

Team Canada’s 24 members are all NHL players and eleven were part of Canada’s gold medal-winning team from 2010. Sidney Crosby who scored the ‘golden goal’ back in Vancouver is the captain this time. Team Canada has failed to win a World Championship medal ever since Vancouver but is predicted by Sports Illustrated to win bronze. They face challenges from 2013 World Champions Sweden whom SI predict to win and from the home country of Russia. It will all be decided at the Bolshoi Ice Dome by the 23rd.

As for the women, Canada has very good chances to win gold again. If they do, three women–Haylee Wickenheiser, Caroline Ouellette and Jayna Hefford–could become the first Canadians to win four Olympic golds. However their top rival as always is the United States. In fact the U.S. beat Canada for the 2011 and 2013 World Championships. It’s just a question of which of the two will take it on the 20th. Or a question of if a European team will upset. It’s possible.

So there you go. Those are some Canadians to look for at the Sochi Games. I know they’re more than seven but I couldn’t resist adding more. Besides people who like my Olympic writing probably don’t mind anyways. Besides since I wrote about the athletes from around the world yesterday, I figure you were due some Canadians.

They should provide for a lot of great moments and more national heroes. Interesting how ever since the 90’s Canada has become a superpower in winter sports like Austria and Norway. Before them we either had a lousy winter and a good summer or a good winter but a lousy summer. There have been one or two years where we had both a lousy winter and summer but that’s in the past. Anyways let the Games begin!

Sochi 2014: Ten To Watch

Olympic Flame

I can tell that a lot of my visitors liked my blogs to do about the London Olympic Games. Heck, the last time someone clicked on one of my ‘athletes to watch’ blogs from those games was just today! Even my blogs reviewing the London Games of 2012 and the other two times still received recent hits. Seeing that has inspired me to do more Olympic writing. And it definitely inspires me to write about these ones to watch for the Sochi Games of 2014.

I know there’s been a lot of talk about outside factors involving the Sochi Games. In this blog I’m sticking to talking about what the Games are supposed to be about: the athletes. Here are ten athletes who are poised to dazzle us or even thrill us from February 7th to the 22nd.

-Marit Bjorgen/Norway – Nordic Skiing: Norway has won more Winter Olympic medals than any other nation. And it’s no wonder. Winter sports are in their blood with their biggest legacies in Cross Country Skiing, Ski Jumping, Nordic Combined and Long Track Speed Skating. Even recently they’ve been showing excellent prowess in Alpine Skiing and Freestyle Skiing. One of the best female skiers ever, Marit Bjorgen, will be competing in her fourth Olympics here in Sochi.

Marit has an illustrious career starting quietly with silvers in 2002 and 2006. Vancouver 2010 was her moment as she won five medals, three of them gold. She has also won the overall World Cup title three years and nineteen World Championship medals including twelve total gold. At last year’s World Championships, she really had the show in her hands as she won four gold and a silver.

Here in Sochi, she comes with probably the most expectations of any female Nordic skier. She’s expected to perform big and has the credentials for it. However she does face rivalry. She is currently ranked third in the World Cup overall standings with her 25 year-old Norwegian teammate Therese Johaug leading in the distance events and 25 year-old German Denise Herrmann leading in the sprint events. She’s also expected to receive rivalry from her traditional rival Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk. Nevertheless if there’s one female skier who can most rise to the challenge, it’s her.

-Ted Ligety/U.S.A. – Alpine Skiing: The United States has always been a force in Alpine Skiing. This century has seen a lot of big names like Lindsay Vonn, Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso. Another name on the list is Ted Ligety. At the 2006 Olympics, Ted came from nowhere to take gold in the combined event. Since then he has been most dominant in the giant slalom event but has had seasons with ups and downs. He was finished on top of the World Cup giant slalom event in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013. However he had a lackluster 2010 Winter Olympics where his best finish was fifth. 2013 not only saw him win his fourth World Cup giant slalom title but a third place finish overall and winning three gold medals at the World Championships.

Interesting is that he has his own ski business. As for this season, it hasn’t been so easy for Ted. He’s had four World Cup wins but finds himself fourth overall and third in the giant slalom. He faces a strong challenge from Austrian Marcel Hirscher and France’s Alexis Pinturault in the giant slalom. It will all boil down on each race day. Especially the giant slalom on February 19th.

-Tina Maze/Slovenia – Alpine Skiing: Slovenia has never won a Winter Olympic gold medal. Two silvers and five bronzes but never a gold. That could change thanks to Tina Maze. She has had an excellent career as a skier that includes Slovenia’s two silvers, both won in Vancouver 2010, and six World Cham,pionship medals. Two of them gold. However her biggest year was 2013 when she won three World Championship medals including gold in the Super-G and the World Cup overall title which she won with the highest total points ever.

This season has been a difficult one for her as she has struggled in consistency in races and it wasn’t until just two weeks ago she finally won her first World Cup race of the season: a downhill. She will be hard pressed to repeat her winning with threats from Germany’s Maria Riesch-Hoefl and 18 year-old American sensation Mikaele Shiffrin. Also it may be possible Slovenia’s first ever Winter Olympic gold could be won by another athlete like ski jumper Petr Prevc or snowboarder Žan Košir.  Nevertheless the Olympics can be anyone’s game in Alpine Skiing and it just could be Tina’s.

-Shaun White/U.S.A. – Snowboarding: What else is there to say about the ‘Flying Tomato?’ His has definitely been one of the most popular Winter Olympians in recent years, if not the most. He has won numerous X Games medals, he has made the cover of Rolling Stone twice and is commonly seen in endorsements. Already he has made Olympic history as the first snowboarder to win back-to-back gold medals, in the Halfpipe event. This year is a unique year as he will be trying for a threepeat in the halfpipe.

Shaun has been absent for the 2013 World Championships but has continuous won events in X Games competitions. He is expected to win the halpipe again but he does however face some hungry young guns like Switzerland’s Yuri Podladchikov and Japan’s Taku Hiraoka trying to take him down.

He was also expected to be a top contender in the new slopestyle event this year. However it was not to be as he fell days ago after hitting the rail hard during a training run and was injured. He chose to withdraw from that event but reassures all that he will be ready for the halfpipe. However there have been other boarders who suffered falls on the course at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park and their injuries caused them to withdraw before even competing and two even requiring hospitalizing. His fate will be decided on the halfpipe on the 11th.

-Shani Davis/U.S.A. – Long-Track Speed Skating: The threepeat in Olympic Long Track Speed Skating is a feat only accomplished twice and by women. First was by American Bonnie Blair in the 500m from 1988 to 1994. The second was Germany’s Claudia Pechstein in the 5000m from 1994 to 2002. We have the chance for a male to do it here in Sochi with Shani Davis.

Davis has been a speed skater known for a controversial career. First came before the 2002 Winter Olympics when he was a short track speed skater. He finished second in a race at the US Olympic trials but it was under investigation of race fixing between him and club teammates Rusty Smith and Apolo Anton Ohno. It was taken before a court of arbitration and none of the skaters were found guilty. Davis however would not skate in Salt Lake City.

Davis would later switch to long track speed skating and became the fastest at the 1000m. For the 2006 Turin Olympics Davis qualified for three individual events and won gold in the 1000m and silver in the 1500m. However it was his non-participation in the Team Pursuit event that caught a lot of flack. Many people felt he should’ve been put on but David neglected making room for some skaters who were just competing in pursuit. The incident has kept him being at odds with U.S. Speedskating. Under less controversy, Davis again won 1000m gold and 1500m silver.

Here in Sochi, Davis is expected to win 1000m and become the first man to win three consecutive golds in a single event. It’s not without its challenges. At last year’s World Championships, he finished third behind Kazakhstan’s Denis Kuzin and South Korea’s Mo Tae Bum. However Davis has won the 1000m in three of the four World Cup meets this year. Plus he is still strong in the 1500m winning silver at last years’ Worlds. It will all be decided at the Adler Oval.

-Germany’s Luge Relay Team: There are five new events at the Sochi Winter Olympics. One of which is the Team Relay event in the luge. In this event there’s one male luger, one female and one doubles team. Each have a single run but when one luger finishes their run, they hit a touch-sensitive pad to open the start gate for the next sled of the team. Fastest total time wins. It should be no surprise that Germany is the team expected to win. German lugers have won 27 of the 40 gold medals in luge since it was added to the Olympics back in 1964. Germany also won all three singles and doubles categories at last year’s World Championships. So it’s no surprise they won the Team Relay at those championships too using the sledders that won the single-sled competitions in the relay.

One thing we should take note is that the relay will take place the day after the last single-sled competition–men’s doubles–will be held. It is possible that the three World Championship-winning sledders–Felix Loch in men’s singles, Natalie Giesenberger in women’s singles, and the doubles team of Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt–could either win gold or be Germany’s best finisher in their respective event and thus on the relay team. But anything can happen in the heat of Olympic competition and there could be a different German competitor that finishes best on the team. Whatever sledders they include in the relay, you can be sure they’ll win it.

-Kim Yu-Na/South Korea – Figure Skating: Those of you remember the Vancouver Winter Olympics will remember a figure skater from South Korea named Kim Yu Na. She not only won gold but took figure skating to a new level of excellence with new world records in points. She became the first South Korean to win a figure skating medal.

Continuing after the Vancouver Olympics has not been easy. There was period for the first few years she lacked motivation and even sat out the 2011-2012 season. By the 2012-2013 season, she decided to return not just to competition but to her childhood coaches back in Korea. It was successful as she returned to her title of World Champion winning by the biggest margin since the new scoring system was adopted in 2005.

However the 2013-2014 season has been rather challenging. She actually had to drop out of the Skate Canada competition because of a metatarsal injury on her right foot. She recovered in time to compete at the Golden Spin of Zagreb competition in December and won. Nevertheless she’s expected to be rivaled by Japan’s Mao Asada who won silver behind her in Vancouver, 15 year-old Russian newcomer Julia Lipnitskaya who just won the European Championships and American Gracie Gold. Kim plans on becoming a member of the IOC after the Sochi Games. In the meantime, she has one last thing to prove in the Olympic stage.

-Sara Takanashi/Japan – Ski Jumping:  Women’s Ski Jumping makes its debut in Sochi. There will be only one event: the Normal Hill. The heavy favorite to win is 17 year-old jumper Sara Takanashi. Last year she won the World Cup in women’s Ski jumping and won a silver medal in the Normal Hill event losing to American Sarah Hendrickson. This year Takanashi has had a stellar year with ten international victories including her most recent wins last weekend in Austria.

Despite her stellar year, she is not alone at the top. She’s expected to receive a challenge from American Sarah Hendrickson who beat her at the World Championships as well as challenges from Austria’s Jacqueline Seifriedsberger and Germany’s Carina Vogt. Nevertheless it will all be decided at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Centre. Watch herstory be made February 11th.

-Tatiana Volosozhar & Maxim Trankov/Russia – Figure Skating: You can’t expect a list of athletes to watch not to include those from the host country, can you? Russia has a legacy in pairs figure skating going back as far as the days of the U.S.S.R. It all started with the Protopopovs in 1964 and 1968. It continued with Irina Rodnina and her male partners from 1972 to 1980. Continuing on in 1984, the dominance continued even after the break-up of the U.S.S.R. as pairs competing for Russia would continue to finish on top. By the 21st century it looked like Russia’s dominance was waning as a Russian pair tied a Canadian pair for the gold in 2002 and the Russian pair that won gold in 2006 was the only Russian pair to even make the podium. Then in Vancouver 2010, not a single Russian pair made it on the podium for the first time since 1960.

With the Sochi Olympics coming, you could bet they want to bring Russia back on top in pairs figure skating and they found it in the pair of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. Back at the Vancouver Olympics, they not only skated with different partners but different countries. Maxim finished in 7th competing for Russia and Tatiana finished 8th competing for Ukraine. She then made the trip to Russia shortly after Vancouver when it became obvious there were no male partners in Ukraine for her to progress further. Since her teaming up with Trankov, it’s been victorious as the two won world Championship silvers in 2011 and 2012 and then won the World last year: the first Russian pair since 2005 to win the World Championships.

This year the pair have been solid winning all but one of the five competitions they’ve entered. They come to Sochi as the heavy favorites and the ones to bring Russian superiority back to pairs figure skating. However it will not go unchallenged as their top threat has been their traditional rivals of Germany’s Savchenko and Szolkowy who were World Champions in 2011 and 2012 and have given the Russians their only loss this season. Nevertheless it will all be decided at the Iceberg Skating Palace on the 11th and 12th.

-Russia’s National Hockey Team (men and women): I’m sure all of you can remember the days of Soviet dominance in ice hockey. Ever since the U.S.S.R. started competing at the winter Olympics in 1956, their hockey team was invincible with players that were better than even the best NHL pros. In the ten Winter Olympics they played, they won eight times losing only to the Americans in the two Olympics the U.S.A. hosted in 1960 and 1980. Since the Unified Team’s win of the gold in 1992, Russia has since found itself amongst equals in the hockey world but have not returned to the top. Since Russia first competed on their own starting in 1994, the men’s hockey team have only won 1998 silver and 2002 bronze with the gold medals divided amongst Sweden, Canada and the Czech Republic.

This time Russia has the whole nation expecting them to win here. And I mean whole. Even Vladimir Putin told Aleksandr Ovechkin that he wants to see Russia’s team win the gold. Sixteen of the 25 members play for the NHL. Other NHL stars on the team including Ovechkin are Evgeny Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk. The other nine players are from Russian professional leagues. They come to Sochi as 2012 World Champions and they’re expected to repeat here, even though they finished off the podium last year. It is possible as the men’s competition is usually a competition of at least six equals. Sports Illustrated predicts Sweden to win with Russia coming in second and Canada third. Only the next two weeks will tell the tale.

As for the women, women’s hockey has traditionally been a case of Canada vs. the U.S. with one other Scandinavian team as a lightweight rival. Russia has only competed in three of the four times women’s hockey has been contested and has never made the semi-finals. The women are hoping things will change especially after winning bronze at last year’s World Championships. The women have nowhere else to go but up and I’m confident they can make their country proud here.

So there you have it. Those are ten athletes to watch out for in Sochi. I know they’re not guaranteed to win. I know the Olympics that the gold medal doesn’t go to the one with the most pre-Games accolades. The gold medal goes to the one who’s the most there at that moment. Nevertheless it will be interesting to see whether they seize it or not these two weeks.

Also those of you wondering why no Canadians on my list? Well I have a separate blog of Canadians to watch.

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey (left) and Jared Leto make unlikely business partners in Dallas Buyers Club.

Matthew McConaughey (left) and Jared Leto make unlikely business partners in Dallas Buyers Club.

Oh, I’m the drug dealer? No, you’re the fuckin’ drug dealer. I mean, goddamn, people are dyin’. And y’all are up there afraid that we’re gonna find an alternative without you.

The Dallas Buyers Club will take you back to a hard moment in history that most of us are familiar with. But it also takes us to something involved with it that we’re actually unfamiliar with.
Ron Woodruff is a 35 year-old electrician and part-time rodeo hustler living in Dallas. He’s not the easiest to get along with as he engages in frequent sex with rodeo girls, sniffs a lot of coke and shortchanges many of the men he arranges gambling deals with. He’s also as typically homophobic as most Texas men. However his physical condition has been acting up. The doctor tells him he has full-blown AIDS and just 30 days to live. He considers it nonsense: he’s not gay. It isn’t until he goes to the library and reads a Time magazine article about AIDS that he learns a promiscuous heterosexual male like him is high risk.
Having the condition is not easy. He’s ostracized by family and friends. He is given a drug at the Dallas Mercy Hospital by Dr. Saks called AZT. AZT is the only AIDS drug approved by the FDA for testing and is among the half with AIDS testing this drugs out while the other half receive a placebo. Ron tries to get AZT illegally by bribing a hospital worker but it only worsens his health to the point he’s hospitalized, sharing a room with a transgendered AIDS patient named Rayon whom he doesn’t get along with. Once the worker stops giving him the AZT, he decides to hit Mexico to get it. What he gets instead is a doctor whose medical license in the US is revoked who tells him of the harm AZT causes. The doctor gives him medicines that are unapproved in the US.
Noticing the improvements in him three months later, Ron decides to pursue in dealing these drugs in Dallas by importing them. They’re not illegal since they’re neither untested nor unapproved. It’s a challenging process as he has to disguise himself as a priest and pass customs by swearing they’re for personal use. Meanwhile Dr. Saks notices the problems with the patients on AZT but can’t discontinue administering the medicine as ordered by her supervisor Dr. Savard.
Once back in Dallas he starts business by dealing them over at the gay bars. He bumps into Rayon again. Even though he’s uncomfortable with her, he knows she can attract more people to his medicines. The two start their own bu8siness in a shared hotel room called the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ where AIDS patients can get these successful-but-unapproved medicines albeit at a $400 annual membership fee. The Club is very popular with AIDS patients lining up to get these medicines and it even helps Ron become friends with Rayon.
The club and its practices however can’t stay secret for long. Once Ron has a heart attack, Dr. Savard learns of his practices and is angry it’s interrupting the trial of AZT. One FDA agent confiscates one of the medicines and threatens to have Ron arrested. However he finds an ally in Dr. Saks who supports the club as she knows of other ‘buyers clubs’ in other US cities. The two become friends but still have to keep this business a secret as she is still commanded to conduct AZT testing.
Ron continues with the club and even goes to countries like Germany and Japan getting the latest in AIDS treatments, disguising himself as a businessman. Ron still faces problems with the club as the FDA agent gets the police to go to the club but receives just a fine. Soon it’s the law any drug unapproved by the FDA is now an ‘illegal’ drug. As the club is about to lose money, Rayon who herself has become a coke addict goes to her estranged father to beg for money. She gives Ron $10,000 passing it off as her chased-in life insurance.
Unfortunately while Ron is on a trip to Mexico to purchase more ‘illegal’ AIDS drugs, Rayon is taken to the hospital as her condition worsens. She is given AZT and soon dies. Ron is infuriated, feeling it’s the AZT that killed her. Then Dr. Saks, who is also upset with Rayon’s death, is also under fire by the hospital for participating in the Dallas Buyers Club and is asked to resign. She refuses as she’s rather be fired instead.
Rayon’s death changed Ron for the better. Soon the Dallas Buyers Club becomes less of an interest to make money and more to help AIDS patients stay alive, especially the gay people whom he has started to feel more of a compassion for after Rayon’s passing. He even goes to gay communities and AIDS outreach groups passing out pamphlets about the dangers of AZT. As one of his drugs is harder to acquire, Ron launches a lawsuit against the FDA. The judge shows compassion to Ron and his cause but his hands are tied. The film ends sending the message that even though Ron lost the trial, he is still a winner.
One thing this film will remind you of is of the harshness of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980’s and early-90’s. One line that stuck out to me was when a doctor said the epidemic will get worse before it gets controlled. I know because before the number of infected and dead started tapering down starting in 1996, it was hard and frustrating. I myself was actually very familiar with the AIDS epidemic back in the 90’s. I learned of its origins in the book And The Band Played On and of a lot of the difficulties in the US with the documentary Common Threads. It was after the latter when I made sure more than ever in my life to learn what I could to protect myself.
One thing I was not made aware of was these underground drug programs. There were these programs like the Dallas Buyers Club that smuggled these medicines approved in other countries but remained unapproved by the FDA into the United States. Ron Woodroof was not the only one doing this. In fact the script details at least two other US cities that had this drug program. I’m sure San Francisco and New York had their own programs.
This may be set during the early years of the AIDS epidemic but the film makes a strong detail that’s relevant today. They point out about drugs that can prolong lives greatly in the case of fatal diseases but remain unapproved by the FDA because of its lengthy testing time. A lot of lives are at stake during the waiting time. Even though some countries have approved some of those medicines already, they still remain unapproved in the US. That was a huge test to people like Ron Woodroof that considered this unacceptable and made the Dallas Buyers Club because of it. I’m sure it’s possible there are underground medicine facilities today in the US that are importing cancer drugs and other AIDS drugs still awaiting FDA approval.
Even though this film is about a smuggling operation exercises because of the FDA’s lack of timeliness, it’s also about the man Ron Woodroof. I don’t know the whole story of Ron but this film shows a unique story of a man who was a rodeo cowboy and hustler who slept with hookers and didn’t care about AIDS until it hit him. Soon he was able to take his hustling and dealing and using it for good. He had a homophobic attitude at first–common to most Texas men at the time– but it dropped once he had AIDS and met other gay men going through the same ordeal. Ron soon became a person for others but confided to Dr. Saks that he wants to live his life again and get back to rodeo life. In the end, he turned out to be that: a rebel cowboy who was a winner in the end. The ends ended up justifying the means too. Ron was originally expected to live a month after his diagnosis in July 1985. Instead he lived another seven years, dying in 1992.
Like any ‘based on a true story movie’ there’s always question of the truthfulness. No exception here. News stories say Ron actually wasn’t so homophobic at first in real life (and may possibly be bisexual), nor was he as violent or even a bull rider, nor did the characters of Rayon and Eve Saks exist. There are even claims that the Dallas Mercy Hospital wasn’t event hat cruel to AIDS patients. I won’t deny the lack of truthfulness in the story. It doesn’t however deter from the drama of the film. The story does have a lot of truth to it as Ron did attempt to challenge the FDA in court only to lose. I won’t deny the lack of truthfulness. In fact I would read a news story that said he had a daughter born in 1971 and there’s no appearance of the daughter at all in the film. I do feel it is a good film that gives a good portrayal of an epidemic and how government organizations like the FDA often fail the public. It was also a good depiction of the man Ron Woodroof if not an entirely truthful one.
The highlight of the film has to be the acting performances. Matthew McConaughey is practically unrecognizable with his cowboy get-up, loss of 40 lbs. and cowboy like Texas accent. His transformation into the role of Ron Woodroof was excellent. I couldn’t notice anything of McConaughey on screen. Also excellent was Jared Leto. He was quite the scene-stealer as Rayon and that was an excellent job of character acting. Jennifer Garner may not have as showy or transformative a role as Dr. Saks but she was also very good doing a performance not what one would expect to see from Garner on screen. Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack wrote an excellent script that keeps one intrigued but also gives the characters dimension. Jean-Marc Vallee also does an excellent job in direction. He’s had his experience directing film in Quebec and he does an excellent job with his first American production.
Dallas Buyers Club is an unlikely film that keeps one intrigued and entertained. One can question the truthfulness of the story but it succeeds in getting one to confront a moral dilemma. Especially on a situation that’s happening now.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: 1967-2014

PSHI wasn’t planning on posting this. Actually I was planning my next blog to be another Best Picture review. Instead I post this because of how shocking it is. And of how much I admired him and his works.

Philip was born in Fairport, New York (just outside of Rochester) on July 23, 1967, one of four children to family court judge Marilyn O’Connor and Xerox executive Gordon Hoffman. His parents divorced when he was 9. Hoffman’s past-time in high school was wrestling but switched to acting after a neck injury caused him to quit. Talent was noticed at a young age as he was selected at 17 to attend the 1984 theatre school at the New York State Summer School Of The Arts in Saratoga Springs. He graduated from Fairport High School in 1985 and attended the Circle in the Square Theatre’s summer program. He would go on to attend New York University’s Tisch School Of The Arts and graduated with a BFA in 1989. Soon after he had a bout of alcohol and drug addiction which we would attend rehab for shortly after and eventually overcome.

He made his acting debut on television acting in a 1991 Law & Order episode. His first film role came in 1992’s Scent Of A Woman. Minor roles in film continued for Hoffman over the next few years. In 1995 he joined the LAbyrinth Theatre Company where he staged and performed in numerous productions. However his breakthrough came in 1997 when he had a scene-stealing supporting role as Scotty J. in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Hoffman would act in three more Paul Thomas Anderson movies: 1999’s Magnolia, 2002’s Punch Drunk Love and 2012’s The Master. Over the next few years, Hoffman’s reputation as an actor would grow with more excellent performances in independent films like The Big Lebowski, Happiness, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and  State And Main. He also showed he could act well in popcorn films like Patch Adams and Almost Famous. In theatre, he would earn a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in 2000 for playing Lee in the readaptation of Sam Shepard’s True West.

Further excellent performances continued for him in films like Love Liza (which was written by his brother Gordy), Owning Mahowny and the TV miniseries Empire Falls. He also continued to do come off well in box office fare like Cold Mountain and Along Came Polly. Theatre accolades would continue with his second Tony nomination coming in 2003 for his supporting performance in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. However big critical acclaim in film. kept on alluding him until 2005’s Capote. There he was to play Truman Capote in a biopic directed by former Tisch classmate Bennett Miller. He was even said to act in character even after scene shooting ended.  It was there where Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. And Miller received his first and so far only Best Director nomination.

Things became better for Hoffman commercially as he would play villain Owen Davian in Mission Impossible 3 months later. In 2007 he received Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor in the independent comedy The Savages and Best Supporting Actor for playing Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War opposite Tom Hanks. It’s his role in Charlie Wilson’s War that would earn him his second Oscar nomination. Hoffman would return as an Oscar nominee the following year in the Supporting Actor category again as Fr. Brendan Flynn in the film adaptation of the Broadway play Doubt opposite Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.

Hoffman would continue acting in film, both independent and commercial. He would also continue acting and directing in theatre. He wouldn’t get too much notice or acclaim over the next two years but his work continued to be consistent. He would again steal scenes in 2011’s The Ides Of March and Moneyball as frumpy Coach Art Howe. 2012 was another big year for Hoffman as it would be acclaim in both his theatre and his film acting. On stage he blew Broadway crowds away during the summer with his performance of Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman and played controlling yet charismatic religious leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master. 2013 would give him more exposure to the commercial movie crowd as he entered into the Hunger Games trilogy as Plutarch Heavensbee in 2013’s Catching Fire. He had already finished playing Plutarch in the first Mockingjay film and had just finished most of the shooting for the second as of February 1st.

Outside of acting, Hoffman shied away from the spotlight. In 1999, he statrted dating Mimi O’Donnell. It would prove to be a permanent union and both he and Mimi had three children. He was open about his past alcohol and drug abuse from which experienced upon graduating from Tisch. He said of his experiences: “I abused anything I could get my hands on and I liked it all.” He recovered successfully and would describe himself as a teetotaler from his past experience but a relapse would eventually happen. In May 2013, he openly confessed to abusing heroine and prescription pills and checked himself into a rehab clinic for ten days.

On Sunday February 2nd, Hoffman was found dead by playwright and friend David Bar Katz in the bathroom of his Manhattan office apartment. A hypodermic needle was found in his arm according to the police. Heroin was also found in the apartment. He was 46 years old.

I hate to bring up the topic of tabloid gossip at a time like this but that topic is unavoidable. Especially when a famous actor dies in such a way. There’s no question in the weeks and months after, there will be a lot of questions about this. There will be some journalists who will want to interview Mimi O’Donnell or close family relatives about this situation. Cast mates of past movies will also be questioned. Even the rehab clinic Hoffman has been attending since his relapse will face its fair share of journalists. I myself am shocked to hear of that. Years ago I read his IMDB profile and it said he does not drink alcohol because of his past experience with alcoholism. I was happy feeling that there was an actor that can be free from scandal. I never knew about his relapse. This is especially surprising since you normally hear about such deaths of actors hugely in the public eye. And Philip was the opposite. He was mostly private, rarely attended A-list events, had friends who were mostly in theatre rather than in the Hollywood business, had an unmarried relationship to the same woman since 1999 and raised his kids quietly. I guess we’ll only know the whole story in the future.

One thing to say is I don’t want to focus on the surroundings of his death. Even though I feel like asking ‘What happened,’ I’ll keep my mouth shut for now. One thing I will say is that I will always admire Philip Seymour Hoffman for the actor that he was. I’m able to separate myself from actors as actors and actors as people. Whenever I admire actors, I admire them for their acting jobs. They’d have to give me a good reason for me to admire their lifestyle. Anyways Philip Seymour Hoffman was an excellent actor. He really knew how to embrace the character both physically and emotionally. He was more than a top character actor, he knew how to make the roles multidimensional. I’ve seen many of his performances and he never let me down once. He always delivered.

I’ve always considered Philip to be one of the best actors of my generation. I also must confess I was secretly predicting and hoping that Philip would  be the next Tom Hanks. It just showed how naive I was to the present acting system. There was a time when an actor had the ability to be both a master of their craft and a top box office draw. That was common form the 30’s to the 60’s. Then there was a time in the 70’s when the big money-winning movies and the serious films had a gap between them that really widened in that decade. With that came a bigger gap between the on-screen craftmasters and the money-winning A-listers. That was especially noticeable in the 80’s. The reason why Tom Hanks was so beloved was that he was one of those rarities who was able to deliver in their craft and bring in top box office dollar.

I felt that Philip had the potential to do just that. I just wasn’t aware at the time of the types of actors that were able to win over the box office dollars. Turns out it’s back to being a looks thing again. Especially in the wake of the Twilight movies. I should know that 5′ 10″ and slightly pudgy won’t make you an A-lister. In fact one New York journalist summed up the physical appearance of Hoffman as: “a stocky, often sleepy-looking man with blond, generally uncombed hair who favored the rumpled clothes more associated with an out-of-work actor than a star.” That was just his nature. He was more interested in being an actor than a star.

Like I said Philip never let me down. Whether it was a role in a popular popcorn movie or if it was in a serious independent production, Philip always delivered. Even his co-stars would vouch for that. I believe that’s the legacy Philip will leave behind. Character acting performances that he didn’t just play but embodied and he knew how to grab your attention. I will always admire him for that.

Rest In Peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman. And thank you for captivating us over the years.

WORK CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: Philip Seymour Hoffman. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Seymour_Hoffman>

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