Category Archives: Movie Reviews: 2014

Movie Review: Unbroken

Unbroken is the story of American Olympian Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O'Connell) and his ordeal as a POW in Japan.

Unbroken is the story of American Olympian Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell) and his ordeal as a POW in Japan.

One of the surprise hit movies of the winter was Unbroken. many would think it’s another World War II drama but it’s more of a biographical story. A story worth telling.

The story begins in 1943 with Louis Zamperini missioned an air battle against Japan over the Pacific Ocean. The plane he’s in is hit but they’re able to land safely. Louis isn’t just your typical soldier. Louis grew up in Torrance, California an outsider. The only Italian in his small town, Louie was subject to a lot of bullying as a child and spent much of time stealing, drinking alcohol or smoking. He was frequently arrested and his parents were very concerned if he’d turn out okay. His older brother noticed something as he tried to run from bullies: speed. His brother encouraged him to try track and field. It paid off as Louis became the talk of the town as he was winning race after race and soon became known as the Torrance Tornado. At the age of 18, he qualified for the 1936 Olympics in the 5000m. The race was won by Finnish runners as expected but Louis finished eighth with an incredible 56-second last lap: something unheard of at the time.

Soon after, Louis and surviving members of the crew are on a rescue mission on a plane military officials believe is suitable to fly but has noticeable faults. Over the Pacific Ocean, the plane breaks down and crashes. Only Louis, Mac and Phil from the plane survive and find refuge on two inflatable rafts. Alone at sea, the two try to live the best they can until relief finds them or they hit land. That would mean drinking rain water and fishing for food and avoiding having sharks try to eat them. Attempts at getting a rescue plane failed. The first, that happened on the third day, didn’t notice them. The second, on the 27th day, is a Japanese plane that sees them as the enemy and shoots at them. They survive by hiding under their raft. Unfortunately Mac dies on the 33rd day.

On the 47th day, they bump into a Japanese boat, where they’re taken on as prisoners of war. The Japanese demand fact but neither Louis nor Phil know anything. This leads them being sent to POW camps on the mainland. Zamperini is sent to a camp in Tokyo full of Americans and Australians and run by a sadistic young general who calls himself ‘The Bird.’ The Bird has especially singled out Louis because he’s an Olympic athlete and takes pleasure in beating him. The Bird also gets Louis to broadcast messages on radio that he’s okay and treated well. When he’s given an offer to speak anti-American propaganda, Louis refuses and is punished by having all the other POWs punch him in the face.

The Bird would torture Louis for two years until he is to be transferred elsewhere. Louis’ relief is short-lived as the camp is damaged by the American bombing in Tokyo. They’re all taken to a new camp which is run by The Bird and are made to work in a coal barge. Upon hearing Louis sprained his ankle, The Bird gets him to life a big piece of wood. If he drops it, The Bird will kill him. Louis holds it up for hours until The Bird can’t take it anymore and beats him in frustration. Soon World War II ends and the movie moves to Louis returning and makes mention of his life after the War.

This is an impressive story about one man and his ability to withstand torture. This is also an impressive story of a man who was singled out among other POW’s in being tortured by the leader only to triumph in the end. It even succeeds in the action moments and has the audience wondering what will happen next.

However the way the movie has been carried out, it’s nothing new, different or fresh. The story plays out like a common Hollywood against-all-odds story. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as it plays itself out well to the crowd and keeps the story true. However this is not going to work come Oscar time when the standards of what makes a movie among the ‘elite of the year’ change and evolve over time. This could be Best Picture material twenty years ago but it won’t cut it now. Unbroken makes better movie material than film material. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just the movie is better set for something like summer movie fare.

However the movie does have a notable positive factor. I may have mentioned in my review of Selma of how violence is made to look cowardly. Here in Unbroken, we have The Bird who loves to inflict pain on ‘the enemy’ and has taken Louis as his favorite person to assault. The Bird was looking for a chance to kill Louis with having him hold that block of wood up or else he’d kill him. When Louis succeeded it lifting it up again, it was there the Bird’s pride was damaged and he beats Louis with a bamboo pole in frustration. I can’t think of better revenge. Funny how it would assault The Bird’s pride forever as he would decline all the times Louis offered to make peace.

This also leads to another glitch in the movie. Louis is not only known for what he withstood during the war but also for making peace with the Japanese people and even the army over time. At the end, it’s only focused briefly through end-notes and video footage of Louis running with the torch in Japan during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics torch relay and not much else. I felt that should have be added in or given script because it is a significant part of Louis Zamperini’s life.

Angelina Jolie did an impressive job in directing. She didn’t really direct anything remarkable but she did an excellent job of directing a story that’s also a war thriller. Joel and Ethan Coen delivered a script with the help of William Nicholson and Richard La Gravenese that’s a surprise from the Coens. Usually you’d expect darker artsy work from them. This time they delivered on a thriller war story. Not what you’d expect from them but quite impressive. The acting was good if not spectacular. Jack O’Donnell was very good as Zamperini but the role could have been more developed. Miyavi was also very good as The Bird but I felt the role was missing something there too as it still seemed like your typical bad guy.

If there’s one place where the film is at its best, it’s in the technical categories. Alexandre Desplat again delivers another winning score. It should be no surprise Desplat is composer of the year. Roger Deakins again delivers another excellent cinematography job, the set areas were very realistic to the World War II era with its set time and with its war-like grittiness and the action sequences were also excellent.

Unbroken is a very good, very enjoyable movie about a remarkable story. However it would’ve been better released in the summer or the fall instead of Oscar time. Still very much worth watching.

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Movie Review: Still Alice

Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50 year-old woman fighting early Alzheimer's in Still Alice.

Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50 year-old woman coping with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice.

“I wish I had cancer. At least then people wear pink ribbons for you, and they go on long walks.”

It’s always a question whether it’s possible to have a film about Alzheimer’s Disease that’s watchable. The latest film making that attempt is Still Alice. I believe it does so.

Alice Howland is a 50 year-old woman who appears to have it made: a college professor who just published a book on linguistics, an active person recreationally, a wife to a loving and supportive husband and a mother to three adult children. One of which is married and about to be a mother to twins. However something goes noticeably wrong during a lecture about her book. She has a mental lapse she mistakes for an effect of alcohol. Soon there are more mental lapses, especially while jogging around campus and while giving lectures. Even reintroducing herself to Tom’s girlfriend causes people to wonder. Alice seeks a doctor’s attention immediately. She’s given the news: Alzheimer’s. She’s victim to a gene that brings on Alzheimer’s at an early age.

The family is devastated to hear the news. The children even have to get tested to see if they carry the gene. Anna bares the gene but her yet-to-be-born twins are immune. Nevertheless the family tries to go about the best they can while trying to be a help to Alice. However the changes are as hard for them as it is for Alice herself. Firstly Alice will have to give up her professor job. Going to an Alzheimer’s ward in a nursing and witnessing the patients leaves her upset about her future to the point she plans her own suicide using a marked bottle full of pills and a video file on her computer named ‘Butterfly’ of herself instructing her to take all the pills in the bottle. Family friction happens over time as her husband John notices changes in her thinking and Lydia overreacts after she learns Alice went through her theatre notes.

However things get better over time. John learns how to work with her fading abilities and become patient with her even in the case of her cellphone she misplaced a month earlier. Anna gives birth to the twins and she’s able to hold one of them. Her relationship with Lydia grows as Lydia shares her plays with her and gets Alice to see her perform in Angels In America where Alice feels the play. Even Alice is able to give a lecture to the local Alzheimer’s association where she delivers a speech she wrote herself and uses a highlighter to mark the notes she read as John and her son Tom watch. The speech is near perfect.

Over time she continues to acquire inner strength just as the disease is continuing to impair her brain even further to the point she needs a caretaker while John is gone. However it’s by chance that while her caretaker is away, she comes across the ‘Butterfly’ video on her laptop. She obeys the video and even takes the laptop with her as she searches for the bottle. However the suicide attempt fails as the pills still all over the bathroom floor. The film ends with her still alive but will get you questioning if it ended right.

The film is more than just about Alzheimer’s. It’s about having it at a very young age and trying to be able to deal with it and its debilitating effects. You can’t blame Alice for being distraught on hearing the news, especially when she has so much going for her. Just a bit of trivia here: even though 50 seems awfully young to have Alzheimer’s, we should remember the first subject Dr. Alois Alzheimer studied in the disease that bears his name was a 51 year-old German woman. It almost seems understandable to some that Alice sets her own suicide up to happen when the time appears right. However it’s about acquiring inner strength over time. Yes, Alice’s years are numbered and the disease is taking a toll on her mind and her body but she becomes a stronger person over time. It makes like the suicide attempt look like the wrong thing to do after what she’s fought out.

The movie is also about family relations during Alzheimer’s. For those who have a loved one with this disease, you would know how much it affects the whole family and even hurts deeply. It’s even harder to bear when the gene that causes early Alzheimer’s is present in other family members, just like how it’s also present in Alice’s oldest daughter Anna. The frustrations are there in the Howlands as Lydia doesn’t know what to make when she learns Alice went through her script notes. Even John feels the frustration as being the husband. Nevertheless the family unit becomes stronger over time and they continue to function the best ways that they can. Lydia’s connection with Alice through her theatre work helps Alice still keep in touch with the world even as the disease continues to take its toll. Anna even tries to let the fact she bares the gene not bother her and continue to live her life as a wife and mother of newborn twins. That scene where Alice is holding her grandchild is one of the more poignant moments of the film.

Without a question, the film belongs to Julianne Moore. Her ability to give an Alzheimer’s victim a personality and a will of her own while fighting the destructive nature of the disease has to be the actress performance of the year without an equal. She did a top notch job and deserves the Oscar. None of the supporting performances can pare up to the caliber of Julianne’s performance but Kristen Stewart’s performance of the actress daughter with extreme emotions who connects with her mother through the art of theatre has to be the best of the supporting performances and has more range than even the character of John, despite how good of a job Alec Baldwin does. Kate Bosworth was good as the daughter with the same gene trying to live her life normally but it could have been developed more. Hunter Parrish’s role as Tom the son was the most underdeveloped role in the film but he does a very good job with what little he has. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland do a good job of directing and writing despite making this film appear to be a film of a single acting role dominating for the most part. I’ll admit I haven’t read the novel by Lisa Genova so I can’t say if they adapted it right or not.

SPOILER ALERT: They say the ending is one of the trickiest things to do in a film. I will have to say the scene of the suicide attempt ended rather flat and led into scenes that will leave one wondering if the film makes it look like a good thing the attempt failed or a bad thing. That scene where Alice is with John having ice cream dwelling on how she used to be very smart will have you wondering as will the end scene where she’s with Lydia and she can hardly talk. It also makes you wonder if it ended right. But I think that may have been the point. I think Richard and Wash ended the film that way so we can make our own judgment whether Alice continuing to live is the right thing or the wrong thing.

Still Alice makes for a very watchable movie about Alzheimer’s even if it does appear at times to be dominated by Julianne Moore’s acting. Nevertheless her role is one that leads to a performance meant to shine and she does just that.

Oscars 2014 Live-Action Shorts Review

Cinema

Most years I have the luxury of seeing both the animated and live-action shorts nominees back-to-back. This year I didn’t have that much of a luxury because of how tightly scheduled my life is right now. Actually I could’ve waited to see the ‘double feature’ the day before the Oscars but why should I wait when I have many chances in the days and weeks leading up? I had the good luck of seeing the animated nominees last week. I had my chance to see the live-action ones just a couple of days ago. I’m glad so I can make my predictions well ahead of time. So here’s my review of the shorts and my predictions:

Parvaneh – dirs. Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger – Parvaneh is a teenage Afghani girl living in the Swiss alps trying to make money for her family, especially her ailing father to afford medicine. It’s hard enough staying in refugee housing away from her family and being around young sleazy guys. It’s not clear whether she’s a legal emigre or illegal. However it’s hard to get good work. It’s also hard for her to send money since she doesn’t have the right ID to send and she’s under 18.

While in Zurich where she traveled to in order to send money via Western Union, she asks a street girl for help. She’s willing to but at a percentage: she starts at 50% but is negotiated down to 10%. At first the girl decides to just simply help Parvaneh or ‘Pari’ by just having her at her mother’s, whom she’s not on good terms with, while she’s showering. Both arrive too late as the Western Union is closed.

The girl decides to take Pari out to a party while she’s staying overnight. Pari is reluctant at first but starts getting more comfortable over time to the point she is enjoying herself. The girl has her own fun but doesn’t let Pari out of her sights. Unfortunately more drinking than Pari can handle leaves her feeling sick. Outside she’s approached by a young male trying to seduce her. Her refusal to accept only leads him to get even more invasive with her. It isn’t until the other girl comes out and attacks the male that he stops and runs off, only for Pari to find out her money was stolen by him. They are able to get the money back. The film ends on a delightful note.

The film can be seen by having a lot of themes about it. One theme could be of all the young males who think they’re God’s gift to women and hit on a girl like Parvaneh. Another could be on the theme of the relation between native Swiss and emigres. I don’t know how the native Swiss population treat emigres or foreigners so I can’t say. However seeing what became of two young girls who are complete strangers– an Afghani emigre and a Swiss street girl — and cultivate into a friendship overnight feel this may be a story with a social message. And one with a happy ending. Very well-written and well-acted. That’s why I feel this Should Win the Oscar.

Butter Lamp – dirs. Wei Hu and Julien Feret – Two Chinese men are taking portraits in a Tibetan village. They’re of various Tibetan families, children, people of authority and even a newlywed Chinese couple that live there. Many of the Tibetans wear traditional clothes. Some wear modern clothes. Some pose with props like their yak, their religious items and even a motor scooter for the couple. They pose by the various backdrop that include Tiananmen Square, Tibetan Himalayas, downtown Shanghai, gardens, the inside of the Beijing 2008 stadium (where children pose on a podium wearing plastic medals and a paper torch) and Jokhang Temple whom an elderly woman mistakes as the real thing. Most of the time it works well. In one case, a man walked off because they thought a jacket he was wearing wasn’t right. It turns out it belonged to his late mother.

During the various photo shoots, you feel that the film is trying to send a message about Tibetans in China. You feel like it’s confirmed at the end as they shut down for the day, take down the backdrop setting exposing a bridged highway under construction in the mountain area, and talk about ‘authorities’ coming the next day. It’s a very impressive short as this short does send a statement about the mistreatment of Tibetans by the People’s Republic and the encroachment of modernization in their region, especially with various Chinese peoples coming to the ‘province.’ Very good short that says a lot just by showing a common situation.

The Phone Call – dirs. Matt Kirkby and James Lucas – It stars Sally Hawkins and James Broadbent. Heather is a shy woman who works as a helpline call centre respondent with Daniel who’s just simply her co-worker. Her first call of the day comes from a man names Stan. Stan is in tears as he is a widowed man for two years. He has just taken a load of pills. Heather does what she can to find help for him but he refuses as he wants to die. Heather tries to develop conversation in hopes of getting results. She finds out more about his history with his late wife Joan and even learns about their one child, a stillborn daughter. Just as things get friendlier and there appears to be a ray of hope that he’ll want to live, a surprise happens. It leads to an unexpected ending that appears to turn for the better for both.

It’s hard to tell if it’s giving a social message or not. You could assume it’s to do about the lonely people in England or even depression. You could even assume at the end as Stan (whose real name is John) and Joan are reunited in death that the filmmaker is saying this is how it’s supposed to be or even about true love forever. Even at the end as Heather has wine with Daniel could send a message about love that’s meant to be. Nevertheless it does make for a good story that keeps you paying attention and wondering what will happen next.

-Aya – dirs. Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis – Aya is a 29 year-old woman at Tel Aviv airport waiting for a family to arrive. A chauffer to a Jerusalem hotel who’s waiting for a Danish man named Mr. Overby to arrive has to leave and gives Aya the sign while he’s gone temporarily. As Mr. Overby arrives, Aya doesn’t tell him to wait for his chauffeur. Instead she acts as the chauffeur and even has a dinner with him. As she drives him to the hotel, which she doesn’t know how to drive to, the conversation gets more personal as she learns he’s a musical judge in Jerusalem for a competition. It even gets more personal for her as she wants his attention. She does eventually reveal she’s not his driver and welcomes an intimate moment with him. You think that she has met a new love but you get a surprise ending.

I will admit I thought this would end up being political. It’s hard to blame me as year by year, many of the nominated shorts in this category end up having a political message. However this turns out to be something different. It’s entertaining too because how the story of a mismatch appears to lead to something romantic. This is my prediction on which short Will Win the Oscar.

-Boogaloo and Graham – dirs. Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney – The story is set in Belfast in 1978 and narrated by a grown-up Jamesy. Back then, Jamesy and Malachy are two brothers growing up in Belfast. Their father is a bit of a dreamer and lousy at keeping jobs and the mother is unhappy with the marriage, even constantly calling him a ‘fool.’ One day the father brings the two baby chicks. The boys immediately fall in love with the two and the chicks become the best of friends. They’d much rather have the chicks than a dog because ‘everybody has a dog.’ They’ll even make themselves partial vegetarians because of their friendship with the chicks whom they named Boogaloo and Graham.

Months pass by, Boogaloo and Graham grow up to be full-grown chickens but the brothers’ friendship with them is still as thriving as ever. However their parents announce that they’re expecting a new baby and the chickens will have to be killed. The boys refuse to accept this to the point they’ll even run away right in the middle of the dangerous inner city streets of Belfast. However just as the chickens are about to be killed, they all learns Boogaloo’s a female that lays eggs. Renamed Boogalooloo, the parents change their mind.

No question there is a political message. It’s a reminder of children that grow up in political hot spots that they face a load of dangers and ugly realities most children don’t have to face and grow up too fast. Jamesy and Malachy are boys growing up in Belfast in 1978 when political tension was at its most heated. Bombings and shootings between Catholics and Protestants were all too common at the time and children like Jamesy and Malachy were not immune. However it was a story where Jamesy and Malachy found an escape from it and they found it with Boogaloo and Graham. Having Boogaloo and Graham as pets and even friends helped Jamesy and Malachy stay children during that time. It’s a funny charming story which allowed the children to be cute without being hard to stomach. Even the boys’ talk about sex will have you laughing. A charming comedy. Also the inclusion of the song ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ may seem odd in a film like this but later on you’ll think it fit the film well.

This is a unique selection of short films this year. Some were political while some just wanted to tell a simple story. Some did have a dark story to it while some were more comedic. It’s always hard to predict which short will win or whether they will choose a political one or non-political one. We’ll have to see on Sunday which one wins.

Double Movie Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6

Normally I would do single movie reviews. Additionally, I never really had plans to see How To Train Your Dragon 2 or Big Hero 6. When it comes to animated movies, I mostly go to see the one or ones that look like they have the best chances of winning Best Animated Feature. All year I thought I had it all wrapped up when I saw The LEGO Movie and nothing else. Then the Oscar nominations came and The LEGO Movie was inexplicably snubbed out of that category. That led me scramming to see both movies. I saw Dragon 2 on a DVD while I was lucky to see Hero on the big screen. Here are my thoughts:

Dragon 2

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

Making a sequel from a hit movie is always a challenge as commercial pressures will demand it. It’s sink or swim as it can either be a continuation of the original’s charm or simply a flavorless rehash of the original. Yes, the audience will distinguish between tried-and-true and tried-and-tired. We saw how Shrek burst on the scene back in 2001 but its excellence and flavor declined with each subsequent movie. Now How To Train Your Dragon has its sequel out. Will How To Train Your Dragon 2 measure up?

First off, the writers and producers did the right thing by releasing the sequel four years after the original and four years since they first started work on it as opposed to the three years between the Shrek films. For those unfamiliar with work on animated features, it takes four years to create from start to finish. The focus on the story this time is in the Fjords of Norway. The story begins with Hiccup, still awkward but well-respected. It also adds in a story where he experiences friction between his girlfriend and his father as well as an enemy he must fight.

I’m unsure if the story would remain true to what Cressida Cowell wrote in her dragon books but I do feel the story is not ‘spoiled’ as so many sequels as most sequels, both animation and live-action, are prone to do. It will continue to delight fans of the first Dragon movie too. The story was darker this time as this would include the death of Stoick and Toothless is under a spell which causes him to want to attack Hiccup. I believe the story would be more suitable for older children but one thing the story doesn’t do is lose the charm of the original. It also has its fun moments and a happy ending that should make it enjoyable for the whole family.

Now on to the technical bits. Whenever I watch a 3D animated movie, I especially pay attention to the quality of the images and effects. I know that each image has to have 100% detail in order to succeed. Any glitch or inconsistency will hurt the movie. I didn’t notice any glitches in the images. I felt the detail was very accurate from the scales on the dragon to the fire they unleashed. The characters’ mouths were always in sync with the dialogue. The film’s images also continued to give the audience a thrill-ride. Naturally when you have a film of people travelling on dragons, you would expect there to be images of the various flights and even parts in the movie that get the audience feel like they’re flying on their own dragons too. The audience will come expecting that. People come to such movies for the escape and the thrill-ride of it all. It succeeds in doing so and it does a top notch job of doing so.

I’m sure that most of you expected The LEGO Movie to win Best Animated Feature even before the nominations were announced. I did too. An interesting bit of trivia to know is that Dragon 2 actually beat out The LEGO Movie in that category to win major awards like the National Board of Review award, the Annie Award and the Golden Globe. Now with The LEGO Movie snubbed out of that category, it appears safe to assume that Dragon 2 will win the Oscar. However that snub reminds us nothing is a foregone conclusion as it is possible Big Hero 6 or The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya could pull an upset.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 was faced with the common pressures of a movie sequel but was able to overcome them to the point they again deliver a movie that’s entertaining and a thrill-ride and still maintains the charm of the original without appearing to exhaust it or stray too far away from it.

Big-Hero-6

BIG HERO 6

Now moving on from a sequel to an original. And moving from one I saw on DVD to one I was lucky to see on the big screen. This time a Disney film: Big Hero 6.

Big Hero 6 is based off of characters from the Big Hero 6 comic series from Marvel comics that first hit shelves in 1998 and went under the Marvel name in 2008. However the story for the film is nothing like the comic series. In the comic series, the characters were all heroes commissioned and created by the Japanese government. Hiro Takachiho was a 13 year-old whiz kid who became part of the team after his mother was kidnapped and creates a Godzilla-style monster hero off of his deceased father’s brain named Baymax. The comics come with the type of over-the-top violence and imagination that you would come to expect from Japanese comic books. The comics have won a following here in the US.

Here for the film, we have a much different story. Hiro is an orphaned boy who lives with his brother Tadashi in San Fransokyo. Hiro commonly gets himself in trouble as he tries to win bot-fights for money but Tadashi takes him to his polytechnic. Hiro thinks it will be the ‘nerd school’ he thinks it is but is amazed with what he sees created by Tadashis’s friends –including his brother’s creation: Baymax, the inflatable virtual doctor which is kept at home–and tries to win a scholarship in a young innovators contest held by the school. After winning the scholarship, a fire breaks out killing Tadashi and a professor.

Hiro feels alone at first even distancing himself from Tadashi’s friends but Baymax suddenly becomes a friend-like to him despite Hiro being unwelcome at first. Later as Hiro learns more new truths about what really happened at the school that night and how his brother really dies, Hiro gets Baymax and the friends to team up to get his brother’s killer. All of them don costumes in the images of the Big Hero 6 comic book characters except Baymax who has an outfit more like Iron Man.

I don’t think the movie was meant to be a film version of the main comic book characters. Remember writers can adapt stories into whatever they want. It’s obvious Walt Disney Studios wanted to do their own story with the characters and have it as a family-friendly film. It succeeds in doing so as it creates a story that’s thrilling, entertaining and imaginative. The story also has a good message for children too as justice is better than any revenge. It also doesn’t try to be too dark in the situations involving Tadashi’s death and Hiro being an orphan.

Although this is an original film, it’s not to say it was without its pressures. We shouldn’t forget this movie comes a year after Walt Disney released the phenomenon Frozen. It wasn’t simply a hit movie. It became a marketing phenomenon and even spawned a release of a sing-along version. Already you could tell there would be pressure upon the release of their follow-up. Big Hero 6 doesn’t exactly deliver to the dame length Frozen has. It has its charm and is a likable film on its own. Whatever the situation, Big Hero 6 was not hurt at the box office as it has already grossed more than $200 million and has been nominated for Best Animated Feature.

Another thing Big Hero 6 succeeds in doing is it adds to the recent resurgence to the Walt Disney Animation Studios. For decades the studios reigned supreme in the world of animated motion pictures. It had very few challengers save for Spielberg animation in the 80’s but made a comeback in the 90’s with 2D masterpieces like The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King. However the studios knew that the world of 3D animation was coming and it did become the case as soon Disney’s partnership with Pixar would create the 3D revolution in animated features. The flavor of the 2D movies from the main Disney Studios were running thin as they couldn’t compete with the Disney/Pixar movies. Eventually Walt Disney Animation Studios did acquire the skills and know how to create their own successful 3D animated movies starting with 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph which rivaled Pixar’s Brave that year and Frozen from last year. Big Hero 6 succeeds in keeping its comeback alive. The Disney/Pixar partnership is still there but it’s good to see Pixar now has a rival with Walt Disney Animation Studios back on its feet.

Big Hero 6 may not be a phenomenon like Frozen nor is it the best animated feature of the year. Nevertheless it succeeds in being entertaining on its own and is another plus in the comeback of the Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Movie Review: Into The Woods

 

Meryl Streep plays a witch in control of the fates of fairy tales in the film adaptation of Into The Woods.

Meryl Streep plays a witch in control of the fates of fairy tales in the film adaptation of Into The Woods.

Into The Woods is the latest Broadway musical to hit the big screen. The question is does it entertain and charm well enough for moviegoers?

The film begins just as the fairy tales do so: Little Red Riding Hood is about to go to grandma’s with her basket, Jack has to sell the cow as she’s getting old, Cinderella is being mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, a lonely couple want a child, and Rapunzel is imprisoned in a castle by the Witch. The Witch puts a request on the couple. You first thing it’s just Rapunzel’s hair but she also asks for a red cape, a white cow and a golden slipper.

As they search the stories proceed: Riding Hood is lured off the path by a wolf, Jack goers to market but will only accept an offer that would mean the return of his cow, Cinderella arrives at the ball. However the couple find their way into the story or pass by it: Jack receives magic beans from the husband, the wife tries to swipe Cinderella’s slipper off her feet after running from the ball, the husband passes the tower Rapunzel is kept captive in, and both notice Riding Hood’s cape.

After a series of misadventures, the couple has all the items needed to produce the spell to receive their baby, all the fairy tale characters have their expected happy endings and the witch is able to regain her beauty with the potion. However the ‘Happily ever after’ endings don’t end up being so happy after all. The Baker worries he might end up being a poor father to his son just like his own father, Cinderella loses her charm for prince charming and the lavish life with it, Rapunzel is scared by the outside world, the witch loses her powers with her returned youth and Jack is pursued by the giant’s wife –ahem, widow– who came down to earth via a second beanstalk and demands Jack or she will destroy the village and its inhabitants.

Soon everything goes opposite to what’s planned. Casualties include the Baker’s wife who fell for Prince Charming before her accidental death, Rapunzel as she ran off forever with her prince, Riding Hood’s mother and grandmother, and Jack’s mother. The latter three killed in the Giant’s Wife’s rampage. On top of it, Cinderella and Prince Charming part ways. At first those still standing–the Baker, Cinderella, Jack and Red Riding Hood– think that Jack should be offered back only for them to blame each other. Nevertheless they do work things out, defend against the Giant and there’s the genesis of a new fairy tale the Baker reads to his son.

I have to say as a musical, Into The Woods was probably not the first time fairy tales have been mixed together to surround a main plot. It’s not even the first in motion pictures. Remember Shrek? What it needed to do was stay true to the fables while mixing the story of the baker and his wife as well as the haunting of the Witch during the first half and then allow for a believable twist to the fables we all know to occur in the second half. Even though the twist occurred starting with the giant’s wife appearing, all the twists of the stories had to appear sensible and pertinent to the original story. Some of the twists were very surprising and even tragic but it did come together in the end. That’s how the stage musical of Into The Woods worked.

The next trick was to bring Sondheim’s musical to the screen. Putting a stage musical to screen is a very difficult thing. There’s a lot of decision-making on what from the stage play to leave in and what to leave out. That would fall into the hands of director Rob Marshall and scriptwriter James Lapine who wrote the original Broadway version. However when it’s Disney that buys the rights, you think it would be a big break but there was an added challenge. Naturally with this being a musical about a mish mash of fairy tales, Disney would want to make this a family film and that could be intrusive to the control Sondheim and Lapine have over the play. This was not the case as both Sondheim and Lapine insisted to Disney that any changes would have to be approved by them. Even then, they would have to work within time constraints and keep it to a respectable running length.

In the end, Sondheim, Marshall, Lapine and the production company were able to create a finished adaptation 125 minutes in length that brings the musical to a big screen audience with big-name stars and additional musical talents. I myself cannot compare the film to the stage version since I’ve never seen the stage version. I will start by saying it doesn’t surprise me that Disney acquired the rights to adapting the musical to film as Disney is world famous for bringing fairy tales to life. I will say that one can do a good job differentiating the actors who know how to do musical acting and those who don’t. You just know it. There were some like Chris Pine and Mackenzie Mauzy who struggled, there were some like Billy Magnussen and James Corden who could have done a better job, there are some like Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford and Tracey Ullman who know how to deliver both singing and acting and then there are actors like Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep who are able to deliver a performance in a musical. Meryl was especially excellent as she had the role that would hold the film all together. Musical film is another genre she can add to her list of accomplishments.

I will say that the film adaptation did very well in terms of special effects and set design to give the fell like there really was one terrain in the world where all the original stories happen at once. Colleen Atwood once again knows how to create the right costumes for the movie. The music was not a problem at all as the songs were well-sung and fit the scenes well. The film also did a good job of handling the story where all the fables get their twist in the end. However the film does leave some noticeable things out. There are some times where it felt the story had key scenes left out like the big bad wolf living in the tree about to eat Red or Jack in the giant’s house or Cinderella’s fairy godmother creating her clothes for the ball. There were even some times when one could easily forget that this is a musical and it would take a song some time later to remind you. There were even a couple of scenes that made you wonder if it should have been kept in. I can’t think of a better way to do it but I’m sure there are areas that could have been done better. Rob Marshall did a very good job of directing. It’s fair to say this is his best work since Chicago but there are some areas I feel he could have been better, like not having us forget this is a musical in some areas. It may not completely be his fault as the script was written by James Lepine. Lepine may be an accomplished scriptwriter and director in musical theatre and this may be Lepine’s best musical ever but somehow he could have done a better job at a stage-to-screen adaptation.

The film adaptation of Into The Woods has been long awaited. Now that it’s here, it’s imperfect but very enjoyable and entertaining.

Oscars 2014 Best Picture Review: Selma

David Oyelowo (centre) plays Martin Luther King in Selma.

David Oyelowo (centre) plays Martin Luther King in Selma about an important part of American history.

Selma appears to be about an important time in US history. However it tells more than what we’ve learned about the whole story including those involved.

The film is about the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 led by Martin Luther King Jr. that would pave way to President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But it was more than that. It starts with Martin receiving his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. However it’s just the beginning for Martin. A black church in Alabama explodes killing four young girls. Annie Lee Cooper has been denied the right to vote like most black people in Alabama before her. Meanwhile King is unsuccessful in convincing Johnson to pass a law allowing black citizens to vote.

Instead of accepting defeat, King is undeterred and determined to achieve this. Selma, Alabama is the meeting place for King and other activists to organize efforts to achieve this law. However both Johnson and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover are nervous about this. Hoover uses phone calls to disrupt his marriage to Coretta. Undeterred, King and black residents of Selma march to the registration office only to be confronted by a mob of police and a riot ensues where King and Cooper are arrested.

Things get even harder as state governor George Wallace, a pro-segregationist, speaks out against the marches and even calls police in Marion, Alabama to use force from state troopers during a planned night march. An assault by troopers does occur during the march where Jimmie Lee Jackson, who hid in a restaurant for the safety of him and his family, is shot to death by the police. Jimmie’s death only prompts King to tell people to stick to fighting for their rights. However the Kings receive threats on their children and activist groups are becoming unhappy with him.

A march from Selma to Montgomery to make their message heard is planned especially with the hopes of having all of the United states watching and paying attention, especially as working on ‘white consciousness’ is one of King’s objectives. At first King is hesitant but is convinced by his colleague Andrew Young. The original march takes place with all African-Americans. Right on the Edmund Pettis Bridge they’re stopped by police and attacked. The news goes nationwide. A second march is planned. This time King not only has blacks from other cities but white supporters too from regulars to religious clergy. Just before the marchers reach the end of the bridge, the chief officer and his group are back again. This time they’re allowed to proceed but King kneels in prayer and goes back. The reason was because King was suspicious. He doesn’t trust the mob of police and wants legal permission for them to march. The push for permission is especially stressed as one of the white allies, Rev. James Reeb, was beaten to death. The permission is granted by Alabama Judge Frank Minis Johnson. Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King and the marchers make history.

There’s no question that this is to do about an important moment in American history. Actually coming from Canada, I was never taught about Selma. I knew about the I Have A Dream speech but was never taught about Selma. However the film is also about Martin Luther King himself. The movie begins with him accepting his Nobel Peace Prize which came months after his I Have A Dream speech. However we would be reminded that King had more work to be done. Selma was a new challenge for him as his people needed the right to vote. However there was the constant threat of police brutality and even death. He stood firm in his non-violence stance and his plan was to work on ‘white consciousness’ and he knew it was the only way to work. He also knew he had to work with the tough minds of President Johnson and other politicians including Alabama Governor George Wallace. Each death linked to the marches would make him more fearful but it would make him more convinced this is something that needs to be done. We all know it was achieved but this is a reminder of how King and his people had to achieve their right.

The film also takes us back to the time and place. It reminds us just how hard it was to be black in southern US states like Alabama. Living in segregation was one thing. Being denied the right to vote was another. The only time in my life I knew of black people being denied the right to vote was in South Africa up to 1994. Apartheid riots were common news stories in the 80’s. I was shocked to learn that it was happening to black people in the 60’s in the Southern US. I always thought the US was supposed to be the ‘land of the free.’ It showed the red tape black people had to face in the justice system and especially with the police. We are all shocked and disgusted to hear about the fatal shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin in recent years and their killers getting away with it. This was happening in Alabama in the 60’s all the time. Especially shootings by police on young unarmed black men like Jimmie Lee Jackson. You couldn’t blame them for having had it. They couldn’t be denied this anymore and this was a must-win situation for them and King.

Just as much of a focal point as blacks fighting for their right to vote is also the focus of the bigoted attitude of the whites in Alabama. King made it his duty to work on ‘white consciousness’ in order to achieve this victory. Alabama, especially in the city of Selma, showed what type of ‘racial battleground’ they had to deal with. The first sign was the church explosion but we’d see it all throughout. We’d see it in the police brutality, we’d see it as a restaurant proudly advertises itself as ‘a whites-only restaurant since 1883,’ we’d see it as a white man ‘introduces’ himself to King and punches him in the face, we’d see it in the taunting of white people from all around. That’s the type of environment the black people had to fight. We should forget that Alabama has segregation removed years ago but the white people weren’t happy. They felt that segregation was right and they reacted in frustration with taunting and even violence. Even when white people joined the blacks in their march, that didn’t change a lot of people’s minds. In fact they found white supporters to be a threat and reacted with the same violence on them, even killing some. Another reminder that white supporters of the Selma marches would also be at risk to the same violent reactions as blacks. The film takes us back to the time, place and the hostile attitudes at the time. An ugly reminder but necessary to show.

Even though the film was about Martin Luther King, his crusade for human rights and the bigoted attitudes in the area, the film also showed another factor: the strength of non-violence. King’s use of non-violent means to achieve human rights may appear radical to many and even ridiculous to some at first. In fact it explains why he had a rivalry with Malcolm X as seen near the beginning of the film. Because Malcolm believed: “by any means necessary.” However it was shown to be successful in the actual event and in the film. In fact I noticed the film to also show violent means to look cowardly. We see it in the police who try to use it to strike fear in the protesters in hoping they’d quit. We see it in the white Alabamans as they use it to strike fear in the blacks and their supporters. Most of the times it’s seen they do it on impulse because they just don’t know how to deal with the situation. Funny how we’ve seen a lot of Hollywood movies, especially in the action movies of the 80’s and 90’s, where the leading man uses vengeance and violence to become the hero. Here violence looks very cowardly.

Without a doubt, this film has to belong to Ava DuVernay in directing and co-writing the story with Paul Webb. She did an excellent job in recreating the story of the marches, the people involved with them and the atmosphere of the time and place. The end result is an excellent film that won’t leave you. It’s not without controversy. There are many questioning the depiction of Lyndon Johnson in the film. Historical documents show he was actually supportive of Martin Luther King and his mission. Even I myself believed for a second that Johnson may have had some difficulty at first, knowing Johnson was originally from Texas: a state that formerly had segregation. DuVernay simply responded: “I’m a storyteller. Not a historian.” Whatever the situation, it was still a very good film put together.

David Oyelowo was excellent as Martin Luther King Jr. as she showed him in both his convictions, his inner strength and even his own personal frailties at times, like that time he relied on Andrew Young to go through with the march. Even that scene where he calls gospel singer Mahalia Jackson for inspiration and she sings to him shows that King did have fears which he needed support for. Tom Wilkinson was also very good as Johnson. Even if you feel his depiction of Johnson wasn’t that truthful, it was still a very good performance. Carmen Ejogo was excellent as Coretta. She did more than just simply play Martin Luther King’s wife. She played a young woman who herself grew in courage: a courage Coretta would need after Martin’s assassination. Oprah was also surprisingly well as Annie Lee Cooper. Right at the beginning we could see a character completely opposite to the Oprah we know. A character that looks like she’s been through the hardest life offered her. You could see it in her face. The cinematography and music added to the environment of the story. You could feel that this was a struggle worth winning.

Selma is a film retelling an important moment in history. It gives us insight into the people involved and the environment they had to fight in order to achieve their rights.

Movie Review: Wild

 

Wild is about Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) who goes on a hiking trip in 1995 to heal herself from her troubled past.

Wild is about Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) who goes on a hiking trip in 1995 to heal herself from her troubled past.

Before you label Wild a ‘Reese Witherspoon movie,’ you have to see it from start to end. You’d be surprise that it’s not your typical movie from her. It’s more.

The story begins in 1995 with Cheryl Strayed, a young twentysomething, about to start a hike down the Pacific Crest Trail. This comes right after her divorce from Paul, her husband of seven years. One of the many troubles in Cheryl’s life. Cheryl looks to hiking the trail as a chance to reshape her life and gain inner strength. But at first, you will think Cheryl doesn’t have what it takes to do this long hike. It’s an 1,100 mile journey and on top of it, Cheryl is struggling to simply put on her 40-pound backpack, never mind walk with it. And on uneven terrain that includes mountains? Can she do it? Even her best friend Aimee feels she can’t do it.

The hike starts with great difficulty. Walking with the heavy backpack, she has difficulties on the first day such as not even hiking ten miles, being without cooking fuel and being unable to set up a tent properly. The days get stronger over time but it’s still very gradual as the second day she’s made aware of the type of wild animals she would have to deal with.

Over time she would have to find help. On the third day, she asks a farmer for help. He offers to take her to her house but she’s nervous about it, especially since she sees a gun in his car. She later learns he’s a married man and the couple offer her to stay overnight. Over time she meets other people that offer her help from a father and his teenage son to full families to people at various camping goods stores and retailers to hippies in a local California town who pay tribute to Jerry Garcia upon his recent death at the time to three college guys out having a fun hike together to even hikers that also plan to do the trail but eventually fail. Not all were helpful. One was a journalist for a magazine who just took pictures of her and interviewed her. Another was a group of snowboarders on a mountain top who just leave her. Another was a pair of threatening-looking men she met at a well only to be encountered by the bowhunter later looking like he would want to do something harmful to her. Fortunately it doesn’t happen as his colleague tells him to return.

However it’s the alone times of the hike that are the most crucial. In between the times she signs a name on the hike log that includes using a quote or line of poetry from a famous poet, Cheryl is all alone and has the moments of her past come back to her. Moments like a childhood with an abusive father her mother leaves taking her younger brother and her at age 6, going through high school while her mother was returning to complete her graduation, marrying Paul a successful restaurant owner while young, learning her mother has cancer and her dying sooner than expected, having her mother’s cherished horse put down, leaving Paul and hitting the inner city of Portland where she adopts a drug habit and even has an abortion. Those are the memories Cheryl is trying to wrestle with in her hike. Her cheap therapy hasn’t helped but maybe this hike will.

The thing with this film is that it’s not just to show the trip Cheryl took but also the flashbacks to the moments of her life that both trouble her and define her. We don’t just see the bad memories she’s dealing with but we feel them too. We may first just see Cheryl right after she finished her divorce at the beginning but as the trip progresses, we start feeling her situation. We learn of the bond she had with her mother and why her death hurt her terribly. We learn of how her marriage to Paul fell apart. We learn of her drug abuse. We learn of her abusive father she hasn’t seen since she was a small girl. We learn of the cheap therapy she tried at first but didn’t work. We learn of her no-so-close relationship with her brother. Over time, we see why Cheryl wants to use this trip to heal herself and it comes to appear as the right thing for her to do.

The film gives a good sense of inner strength Cheryl acquires over time with the hike. At first Cheryl appears to be a completely amateur camper who can’t get her backpack on right, can’t put up a tent well and can’t cook a proper dinner outdoors. You think she doesn’t have a chance in completing it. You’d think even more so when she comes across threatening creatures like rattlesnakes and cougars along the way. You’d also think that way in seeing she can’t even cover ten miles a day during the beginning of her trip. Sometimes you think she might become a victim of crime as there would be some threatening people she’d encounter, especially that bowhunter. Nevertheless she gets stronger with each and every mile.

However the film also succeeds in conveying the popular saying ‘the journey is the destination.’ It shows Cheryl being enriched by her experience while mentally fighting her troubles of the past. That’s not just acquired from her hiking but also from the people she meets. It’s people like the farmer who first appears threatening but becomes helpful along with his wife, like the hippies she encounters upon the death of Jerry Garcia, like the men at the store who help her reduce her packing, like the various hikers she comes across, and people like the grandson who sings ‘Red River Valley.’ There are many people that enrich her experience. Even those that seem insignificant like that journalist on the road or the three young college boys hiking together and goofing off appear to give some extra richness to her experience. Even the quotes from various authors and poets Cheryl puts in the logbooks add to the richness of the journey.

Another key aspect the film focuses on is people’s attitudes, especially in dealing with the hardships of life. We see Cheryl as she went through a self-destructive path after her mother died and needed a way out. She took the Trail in hopes that it would help her recover. We also see her mother who had also been through hardships of her own but still holds her head high. That scene where she says she doesn’t regret marrying Ronald because she had her and Leif. You think people that are constantly positive are naive and foolish but she shows strength in positive thinking. Even seeing her on her deathbed laughing how she finally gets a ‘room with a view,’ it takes a special kind of person to hold their head high during difficult times. I think it was because of her mother’s positive attitude that Cheryl knew she couldn’t be a victim anymore and needed to heal herself. That’s why she took that hike. Interesting how there are some people like Bobbi who just have that ability to stay strong in hard times and there are people like Cheryl who need to acquire that inner strength.

Without a doubt, the film belonged to Reese Witherspoon. This is not the typical Reese Witherspoon movie. This is Reese playing someone completely different from roles she’s played before in the past and it’s a role with immense depth. Even playing Cheryl at various ages in the film. She comes out shining. Even though this appears to be a one-person film, it’s Laura Dern who does an excellent job as Bobbi and even steals the film at times. She makes being positive in difficult times look smart and strong instead of naive and foolish. Thomas Sadoski did good playing Paul but his role could have been developed more as could have the role of her brother Leif played by Keene McRae and the role of best friend Aimee played by Gaby Hoffman. The various supporting performances were also excellent and added to the film. Even the briefest of performances.

Jean-Marc Vallee does it again. He really made a name for himself last year with the Dallas Buyers Club and he adds to his reputation here. He succeeds in making it the personal story of Cheryl’s it’s supposed to be while adding to the environment of the story. Nick Hornby did a very good job of writing out the story from Cheryl’s memoirs keeping in the key parts of her hike and of her life. The film made a wise choice in keeping the story mostly score-free and let the sounds of the wild and even the chill of silence add to the story. That scene of the bowhunter appearing to either want to rape or murder Cheryl wouldn’t have worked as well with a score. The inclusion of the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘El Condor Pasa‘ is an excellent addition. It’s almost like it becomes Cheryl’s own personal anthem. Also noteworthy are the contributions by Strayed herself where she’s the associate producer and even plays a woman in a truck in the film. Her daughter Bobbi Lindstrom even plays Cheryl as a child.

Wild is a bit of a melodrama but it’s not the least bit boring. It’s a very deep, very enriching story of one woman using a hike to fight her inner troubles. We not only witness her gain inner strength from it, we experience it.

Oscars 2014 Best Animated Shorts Review

Cinema

Normally each year I’d see the Oscar nominated shorts for both animation and live-action on the same day. Because of my crazy schedule, I actually seized the chance to see the animated nominees on Saturday. I arrived in decent time and was able to see all five nominees plus four additional shortlisted films. Here are my thoughts on the nominees.

Me And My Moulton – dir. Torill Kove – Kove has already won the Oscar in this category before for The Danish Poet. I haven’t seen it so I can’t compare the two. Nevertheless it is a charming short with 2D drawings telling of a personal story of a troubling time in Kove’s childhood for her and her family that ended on a happy note. It’s a good story that shows the differences between the world through a child’s eye and the world through adults’ eyes. It gives you a happy ending you hope for despite the troubles you see. Interesting how it’s the National Film Board of Canada that that produced it this time.

Feast – dirs. Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed – If you’ve seen Big Hero 6, then you’ve already seen this short that was screened before. It’s another Disney short where you don’t need very much dialogue to get the story. Even with the little dialogue in there, you’ll get it. You just have to let Winston the dog to the talking and the acting. However it’s the ending that turns out to be a surprise. You think it will end one way like Winston really is man’s best friend but instead ends on a funnier note that’s very fitting. Excellent animation and enjoyable for all ages. However I’m kind of pessimistic that it will win. Usually shorts shown before Disney features don’t win.

The Bigger Picture – dirs. Daisy Jacobs and Chris Hees – This is a film where the focus is more on the animation than it is on the actual story. Yes, there’s the story of the two brothers discussing the fate of their elderly mother and the ensuing squabble after squabble. However you can tell that with this story looking like oil paintings coming to life, you can tell it’s the art which is given more focus. The style is very unique and the story has an enjoyable humor to it.

A Single Life – dir. Joris Oprins – It’s just three minutes but this 3D story really entertains. You think the girl is playing a simple vinyl single but surprise surprise, her life elapses as the song plays on from beginning to end. Cute, bizarre and entertaining where even her timely death at at the end–a death that’s surprising but you should expect– is funny and surprising. Seeing how this film packs in so much in three minutes and successfully entertains, I pick this as my Should Win pick.

The Dam Keeper – dirs. Robert Kondo and Daisuke ‘Dice’ Tsutsumi – It’s the longest of the five nominees. It’s a story that starts off sad where the pig both works the dam’s windmill and goes to school ridiculed by all the other animal students. Things change when a new student, a fox with a knack for drawing, joins the class. Soon a friendship builds. However things change for the worse one day as the pig sees what he suspects to be a mockative drawing of him and the fog overtakes the city. The story ends with how it should. The short is charming as the caricatures can remind many of Richard Scarry books. The story is rather dark but it does end with a fairy tale-like ending that remains true to the story instead of a lopsided ending. That’s why I predict it for the Will Win pick.

It’s always entertaining and interesting when watching the nominated shorts. The interesting part is seeing the various styles of animation in the film. We have the 2D style of drawings of Torill Kove’s style, 3D style common in Disney/Pixar films, paintings coming to life, humorous 3D style and painting style 2D caricatures. This allows for a lot of diversity in the nominees. Also noteworthy are the ‘commended’ shorts that didn’t get nominated: Sweet Cocoon, Footprints, Duet and Bus Story. Especially with the latter being a Canadian story that’s charming. They were all also very impressive and had a unique style about them.

And there you go. Those are my thoughts on the Best Animated Short Film nominees. There’s hardly ever a sure favorite and it’s always hard to predict the winner. Nevertheless it’s still enjoyable to watch and I’ll just have to wait a couple of more weeks to see who wins.

Movie Review: Foxcatcher

John DuPont (Steve Carell) tries to be a wrestling mentor to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in Foxcatcher.

John DuPont (Steve Carell) tries to be a wrestling mentor to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in Foxcatcher.

Foxcatcher isn’t just simply an Olympic story with a tragically bizarre ending. It isn’t completely a crime story either. It’s about the people involved.

It’s 1987. Mark Schultz is an Olympic wrestling champion who’s about to do a talk at an elementary school substituting for his brother Dave who was expected to be the talker. The school gives him a small payment for his time. Dave is coach of the wrestling gym married with two small children and trainer of Mark. Although Dave tries to be a good mentor to Mark, you could tell something’s eating at him.

One day unsuspectingly, he’s greeted by John DuPont, heir to the E.I. DuPont family fortune. He offers to have Mark train at the Team Foxcatcher gym in Pennsylvania he created to promote wrestling. Mark agrees but John also wants Dave to coach. Dave turns it down because he has family commitments miles away. Despite that, Mark continues on with John coaching him even living in a DuPont guest house which John sometimes visits. The training pays off as Mark wins the World Championships later that year. John is even seen as a mentor to Mark and all the other wrestlers at Team Foxcatcher.

However something’s not right. John wants the wrestling trophies won by Team Foxcatcher to overtake one shelf of horseracing trophies his family have won over the years. Mark and John develop a friendship to the point John gets Mark to use cocaine. John even mentions his mother paid a boy to be his ‘friend’ when he was younger. His mother Jean who’s part of the DuPont legacy of horseracing is disapproving of his coaching wrestling feeling that it’s a ‘low’ sport. Then one day it happens. While Team Foxcatcher’s wrestlers take a day off to watch a Mixed Martial Arts event, John becomes furious especially when Mark insists Dave won’t join team Foxcatcher. John tells him he will get Dave by any means necessary.

Dave agrees to Team Foxcatcher where he even moves his wife and family over there. Mark however is going through self-esteem issues with the mental abusiveness of John and moves away to train for the 1988 Olympics. Just before the Olympic trials, John has his mother Jean escorted in her wheelchair to see what John has accomplished. She leaves in disgust after seeing John give his back to one of his students.

At the Olympic trials, you can tell something is bothering Mark. He loses his first match and in response cries, wrecks his room and goes on an eating binge. Dave is alarmed at discovering Mark in his condition in his hotel room and works to get him to lose weight in time for the weigh-in. As Mark competes on, he notices Dave prevent John from speaking to him. Mark wins the Olympic trials but both he and Dave notice John is absent. He returned home as his mother died. Mark lets Dave know he can’t stay with John and Team Foxcatcher after the Olympics and asks Dave to leave with him even though John created a promotional video of Team Foxcatcher with Dave asked to do a speech. Mark finishes sixth at the 1988 Olympics where he loses his last match 14-0. As he said, he leaves Team Foxcatcher for home while Dave agrees to remain training Team Foxcatcher in exchange for John giving Mark financial support.

It’s 1996. John watches the promotional video with the part of Mark’s speech about John. This would pave way to the depiction of the eventual murder. However the film ends showing what happened to Mark shortly after.

It’s funny how around Oscar time, it’s common to expect that most movies with big Oscar buzz would have some sort of political message or humanistic message. So it was quite natural for me to think that Foxcatcher might be a film with things to say about Olympic athletes or how they’re treated in the US. I don’t think it was but it did present a unique time in Olympic sport. Many older people remember that until the 80’s, you had to be a complete amateur in an Olympic sport. Even if you made a single penny off your sport, you were ineligible to compete at the Olympics. That all changed in the early 80’s when the IOC changed its constitution from allowing only ‘amateur’ athletes to allowing ‘eligible’ athletes to compete and it would be each sport’s respective federation decide who’s eligible. There were some sports like track and field, swimming and gymnastics that were the first to make the transition and the pay and sponsorship money was good albeit not the same level it is today. Wrestling was one of the sports to catch on later. In Mark’s time, wrestlers could not make a living off their sport unless you were also a coach like Dave. In fact I remember a quote from Olympic gymnast Bart Conner: “The big myth is that Olympic gold medalists can get rich off their gold medal. I know a lot of Olympic champions that are flipping burgers.” So it’s no wonder that Mark would find sponsorship from John DuPont and the state-of-the-art Team Foxcatcher wrestling gym a welcome relief.

I don’t even think it’s a statement about rich people in the United States. Sure, John was born into money as the DuPont family have a dynasty going all the way back to the 18th century. Sure, John appears to be spoiled living in the same gigantic mansion in the middle of nowhere as his parents. Sure, John has the money to make his dream of being a great wrestling coach come true. Sure, John had a sheltered childhood where he was the youngest of four and had a ‘paid friend’ during his childhood. And sure, John has a mother with a superficial attitude as made evident in her comment of wrestling being a ‘low sport.’ However I don’t feel it’s about the American rich.

What I do feel the movie is to do about are the people. Yes, it’s a crime story but it’s also about the people. John appears to be a person who may have been belittled all his life and dreamed of being a successful wrestling coach or manager. He has written successful books on birds but wanted to become successful as a wrestling coach. This is especially hard for him since his family has a tradition of horse racing. Throughout the movie, we get a sense that he felt that something was missing in him. Even after hiring Dave as the coach, we see friction between the two as they’re both training and managing Mark. Sure, it’s common for two coaches on the same team to have disputes but the disputes make you wonder. In fact that scene where John is watching the video of himself promoting him and his gym just before the shooting may be sending the message he always felt underrespected. Maybe it was because he felt like the misfit of the family. Maybe it was because his family never knew or honored his achievements. We’ll never know. There’s no question he shows his mental illness, especially at the end, but it’s just a wonder if his inferiority complex is what caused him to shoot Dave.

The film is not just about John. It’s about Mark too. The 1984 Olympics was of him and Dave winning gold but the time since then was a struggle. Dave was able to marry, become a father and continue as an athlete by coaching at the same time. He was well to do. Mark was the one who struggled. He lived single in a shabby home, he worked a measly job, he received spare cash from school appearances, he was always living in the shadow of Dave. Even though Dave was never the type of brother that would try to make Mark feel inferior, You could tell it was bothering him in that training scene at the beginning where he gives Dave a bad hit. It was easy for him to see John’s offer as a breakthrough for him but a struggle as he was trying to create his own identity while Dave and John had coaching disputes over him. It seemed more like a threesome rather than him. Possibly even sensing Dave was becoming the apple of John’s eye rather than him. Even after his win of the World Championship, you could tell the whole thing would take a toll on him especially seeing how he had to purge himself at the Olympic trials and struggled to make the team. Eventually it did take its toll right at the Seoul Olympics with his sixth-place finish and the threesome ended there. You can easily understand why when Mark moved out, he wanted to move without turning back.

The highlight of the film was the performance of Steve Carell. In fact even his biggest fans would be surprised to see Steve looking different and acting completely different from the way they’ve always known Steve to act. He embodied John DuPont well in terms of physicality and his mental illness but he also made us feel John’s feelings of inferiority which definitely added to the film. The film also has Channing Tatum’s best acting ever. He also embodies the character of Mark well in terms of his desire to succeed and in terms of his insecurities. Although the film focuses more on the characters of Mark and John than on Dave, it’s Mark Ruffalo’s performance that gives added dimension to a person who is both a coach and a father and tries to do the right thing but ends up an unsuspecting victim in the end. Even supporting performances from Sienna Miller as Dave’s wife and Vanessa Redgrave as John’s mother were done great despite being less than what they should be.

The directing of Bennett Miller was also impressive as he focused on both the story and insight into the people involved in the story. The script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman was also good in taking us to the right events even though it did feel slow at times. Even there, I think they were trying to make a murder story that didn’t just simply tell of the events but also give us portrayals of the characters. It’s not to say they haven’t experienced friction about it. There was a story that Mark felt the film made it look like John had a homosexual attraction to him. I didn’t notice it. Besides I later learned John was married for the first and only time at 45 and the divorce occurred just before he met Mark.

Foxcatcher is more than a murder story. It’s also a portrayal of the people involved in both their desires and their insecurities. Often it did feel more like the film was about who than what.

Oscars 2014 Best Picture Review: The Theory Of Everything

The Theory Of Everything is as much about Jane Hawking (played by Felicity Jones) as it is about Stephen (played by Eddie Redmayne).

The Theory Of Everything is as much about Jane Hawking (played by Felicity Jones) as it is about Stephen (played by Eddie Redmayne).

When you hear about The Theory of Everything being about Stephen Hawking, you’d probably assume it’s about his scientific conclusions. You will actually be quite surprised.

Stephen Hawking is an astrophysics student at Cambridge in 1963. Stephen is awkward-looking, rather clumsy and already his imaginative thinking is being noticed by students and professors with varying reactions. One night, he meets Jane Wilde, a literature student. They form an unlikely couple with Jane actually taking an interest and liking in Stephen’s imagination.

The following year, there are two incidents that will change Stephen’s life: the first being a lecture on black holes which inspires him to write a thesis about time; the second being when he learns he has ALS–Lou Gehrig’s disease– and is given two years to live. Stephen becomes a recluse upon hearing the news but Jane tells him he loves him and will marry him. The two marry and they have a son Robert.

Stephen continues giving lectures as his condition deteriorates from using crutches to needing a motorized wheelchair and even talking with great difficulty. Jane is always there to help him but it’s becoming very hard on her. Nevertheless he continues to give lectures about black holes, evolution and time to top professors. Some professors find it erroneous while others praise it and give him an honorary doctorate.

Over time Hawking continues to win more acclaim in the science world including becoming a world-renowned physicist. Nevertheless the fame and his physical condition is making it hard for Jane both as a wife and as an educator. Upon her mother’s advice, she joins the church choir where she meets conductor Jonathan Hellyer Jones. Jonathan becomes a friend of the family but the birth of her third child causes suspicion from her mother if Jonathan is simply a friend. Jonathan senses the suspicion and leaves the family for a bit but Stephen tells Jonathan himself she needs him.

While Stephen’s in Bordeaux, Jane has a camping trip with Jonathan and the children and it’s obvious their feeling for each other are shown. The trip ends as Jane learns Stephen contracted pneumonia and needs a tracheotomy in order to fight this. Jane agrees. However Jane finds dealing with Stephen too difficult and hires a helper named Elaine. Elaine works well with him on the letter board. Then computerized technology comes in play and Stephen is able to communicate with a talking machine. He’s able to speak better with the machine than he did when he still had his own voice. It enables him to write a book where he dictates and Jane and Elaine type. The book, A Brief History Of Time, becomes a best-seller and wins Stephen worldwide renown. However it does mark the end of the marriage as he plans to accept an award in the US with Elaine instead of Jane. Nevertheless the film ends on a positive note leaving one to believe Jane and Stephen are still soul mates despite no longer being married.

The remarkable thing about the film is that it shows Stephen Hawking in a light we don’t normally notice. Yes, it shows Stephen and his scientific thoughts. Yes, it shows Stephen in his wild imagination. In fact there are times when it makes Stephen look like the Albert Einstein of our times. However it also shows other aspects of Stephen like how ALS can paralyze his body but not his mind. It’s safe to assume ALS made him a stronger person and the movie shows him acquiring his personal strength over time. He was expected to live only two years when he was first diagnosed and he’s still alive today. It shows how he won’t even let ALS stop him from getting a Penthouse subscription. It also shows him as a father and a husband but also a man with some personal weaknesses such as being sucked into his new-found fame and falling for his assistant Elaine.

But somehow it often appears the movie is not about Stephen. It appears more like it’s about Jane. We shouldn’t forget the film is based off of Jane’s memoirs of being Stephen’s wife. It shows Jane as she’s first attracted to Stephen despite being nerdy and having an eccentric mind. It shows her as the one who got Stephen out and living right after he learns he has ALS and even marries him. It shows her as the one that stood behind Stephen every time he gave a lecture on his Black Holes Theory even when top professors would dismiss it as rubbish. It also shows her as the one who helped Stephen write his legendary book with his talking machine. It almost appears like she was his arms and legs.

The film however does make Jane out to be a saint. It does show Jane’s struggle of being both a wife to a man with a disability. In fact it was the scene when Stephen is playing croquet just after his diagnosis and Jane sees how much it’s deteriorated him that sent me the message this movie could be about Jane. Despite Jane doing her best to be a supporting wife, there are times she can’t hide the frustration and it upsets her. Her frustration is a common frustration people who are spouses with disabilities go through. The film also shows Jane in another flawed light when she falls in love with Jonathan and has a long affair. This film highlights Jane’s own flaws as it highlights Stephen’s.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the film has to be the performances of the two leads. Eddie Redmayne was beyond dead-on as Stephen. In fact it’s the scene of the divorce where Eddie playing Stephen said more with  his face than his talking machine did that caught my attention. There were many times in the film Eddie was able to say more in silence as Stephen than when he was talking. From beginning to end he was excellent and embodied the ALS flawlessly. It wasn’t just the ALS. Eddie also gave us an inside look into Stephen’s imagination which adds to the character. Imaginative minds must be something for a topic for film this year. First Alan Turing and now Stephen Hawking. Felicity Jones was not only excellent but also did a great job of stealing the show. Her embodiment of Jane Hawking helps you get to know Jane better as well as have a new found respect for her. In terms of acting, this is mostly a two-person film. Nevertheless there were some good supporting performances from Charlie Cox as Jonathan and Maxine Peake as Elaine that added color to the story. Even the minor appearances of Stephen’s college mates and Stephen’s family added to the story too.

James Marsh did a very good job in directing, especially since he’s more of a documentarian (Man On Wire). This is his second feature-length film that isn’t a documentary and he does a great job of directing the story and bringing out the characters. Anthony McCarten did a great job of adapting Jane Hawking’s memoirs into a good story with great character depth. However it did often come across as a two-actor screenplay and could have added more depth to the other actors. The film had other great efforts too such as Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography, the score from Johan Johannson and added visual effects that dazzled.

The Theory Of Everything isn’t a perfect depiction of Stephen Hawking and his marriage to Jane but it is entertaining. We get to know the two better and feel for them both.