Category Archives: Movie Reviews: 2015

DVD Review: Straight Outta Compton

Straight-Outta-Compton

Straight Outta Compton tells the story of the rise and fall of N.W.A., and the unleashing of an eventual musical and sociocultural revolution.

DISCLAIMER: This was to be my movie review months ago. I will admit to procrastinating on this. There have been other movies I’ve been too lazy about writing a review on in the past. However I couldn’t avoid writing a movie review on this. Not after its screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. So here it is, finally!

The summer of 2015 was filled with anticipated blockbusters but every now and then, there’s a ‘sleeper hit’ that comes from nowhere to win the movie crowds. This summer’s such hit was Straight Outta Compton. You can easily see why it was a hit.

I don’t have to go into details about the plot since most of you have already seen it. Besides I’ve already elaborate how the album Straight Outta Compton created a revolution in rap, in R&B music, in music as a whole and in pop culture. Click here for the elaboration. Sure, the gangsta rap that N.W.A. seem to have invented may have become the new modern day version of blues but it was a lot more. Much more!

Now focusing to the movie, the film was trying to state a lot of points. The obvious as I’ve elaborated on is how N.W.A. was a game-changer not just in music but in pop culture as well. The film shows how they made it happen. However I think the film was trying to put out its own points for the whole N.W.A. story. I believe the biggest point the film is trying to push is that Eazy-E was the heart and soul of the group. Sure, Dre and Ice Cube have had the hugest post-breakup success of all the members but it was Eazy-E who helped get it off the ground and was the biggest benefactor in making N.W.A. N.W.A. Even after he breaks free from Heller, he’s seen as the one who was going to bring N.W.A. back and any hopes of N.W.A. coming back ended when he died. Ironically this film came out 20 years after Eazy’s death. You’re led to think that way right at the end of the film.

Another top point I feel the film is trying to promote is that the biggest adversary to N.W.A. was the music business. Sure they had a lot of adversaries in their time from family pressures to their run-ins with the law to getting records out when major record companies were afraid to touch them to pushy watchdog groups of parents trying to protect their children to the police forces. They overcame them all despite the tense moments they encountered with them but I believe the film is showing that the powers that be in the music industry as well as their own ambitions were the adversaries they could not overcome.

The first sign you get about this is during the interview where they get heat for their lyrics but one reporter asks Ice Cube what he spent his last cheque on. His response, ‘Raiders gear,” is already sending a message about the type of problems they will encounter with the music business in the time to come. Problems that would eventually lead to their own split and their own personal creative pursuits. It also ends on the same note at the end as Dr. Dre leaves Suge Knight to start his own label. I think the point they were getting across is that any music act is better off being their own boss and that ending was not just sending the message but also the turning point where Dr. Dre came into his own. That’s it. I think the music industry had to be one of the biggest focal points in the movie if not the biggest.

Also an afterthought. I know I elaborated a lot about how N.W.A. and Straight Outta Compton changed music and pop culture. The thing is it happened not just with the success of the album but also of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube going their own directions. Their own personal paths started on an abrupt note but it produced so much like Dre’s own raps and the various acts he shelled out and even Cube’s solo rap career and film career starting with Friday which would eventually pave the way for other rappers to secure acting roles. However I saw N.W.A. as a group of five friends. A friendship that was strong before Straight Outta Compton but fell apart once they hit the big time. It left me wondering if that tidal wave of pop culture I elaborated on would still happen had N.W.A. stuck together. It probably would have but not as big as Cube and Dre going separate directions. It leaves you with the dilemma which would have been better. One thing was certain. Any change of them getting back together ended with Eazy-E’s death.

F. Gary Gray does a great job in directing. It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that the director who directed Friday would direct this. Gray has directed other movies since like The Italian Job and Law Abiding Citizen but I believe this is his best ever. Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff deliver a great script that very close to fact while including their own point of view on the story and keeps one intrigued from start to finish. O’Shea Jackson Jr. does a very good job as Ice Cube but I wouldn’t consider it too much of an effort to play your own father. The other actors playing the rappers like Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell were also good. None of the actors playing rappers really stood out which is probably a good thing because the film’s acting is an ensemble effort that doesn’t appear to compete against each other and delivers well as a group. Paul Giamatti was also good as Jerry Heller but I’ve seen him play conniving controlling svengali-like characters before and he doesn’t really deliver anything new in his role as Heller.

I myself wasn’t too surprised Straight Outta Compton would be a huge hit in the summer. However I was surprised to see how underhyped it was among the superhero movies set to be released. The one thing is that it delivered as a movie and rally stood out. I think that’s what paved its way to being a summer winner.

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Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: The Big Short

Big Short

The Big Short will make you lose all the respect you have in the banking system, if you’re even dumb enough to have any respect for it period.

We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball… What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice. Or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.

The Big Short has been the surprise of this year’s awards season. It’s one of the Oscar entries with the least hype but is somehow coming out on top or pretty close. I decided to find out why.

The film begins in 2005 with Michael Burry, an eccentric hedge fund manager who’s socially flawed but very successful at what he does. He’s actually an M.D. but decided to go into the financial industry. One day he hears how housing prices have increased in Silicon Valley despite the decrease of jobs. He gets his answer. He finds out that the banks and financial industries are giving out subprime mortgages with big risk to underqualified people. The banks either don’t know about this or their too lazy to solve things.

Burry suspects this will lead to the collapse of the American economy within due time. However Burry is also creative. He knows how to ‘short’ the system by creating by creating a credit default swap market allowing him to bet against the housing market. He goes to the various banks offering megamillions to wager. The banks are willing to accept, feeling Burry will lose and the housing market is secure.

Burry’s deal catches the attention of Deutsche Bank trader Jared Vennett, whom the film is mostly scene through his point of view. Vennett hears about it from a banker he dealt with and investigates Burry’s claims for himself. Once he learns of the truth that the mortgages are high-risk, poorly-organized, sold-for-big-numbers and practically unsupervised by the banks and lending companies, he gets his own piece of the default swap action of his own.

An accidental phone call from Vennett to hedge fund manager Mark Baum catches Baum’s interest. Baum is a good businessman but is tough, cynical and isn’t afraid to let people know when something is going wrong. Heck, he was a Doubting Thomas since he was a child. Baum meets up with Vennett and is given a demonstration by Vennett and his assistant through a Jenga blocks set. Vennett demonstrates how the encroaching collapse is being further perpetuated by the sale of CDOs: Collateralized Debt Obligations. These poor loans are given incorrectly high loan ratings from A to AAA and B to BBB due to the dishonesty of the ratings agency. Baum is reluctant and this takes over his mind.

At the same time, Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley are making their way into Wall Street. The two young Colorado men formed their own investment and trading business in Jamie’s garage where the two helped turn $100,000 into $40 million in four year. Now they want to take it to the next level by achieving on Wall Street but despite their promise, they lack the stuff to play with the big guns. At a bank where they failed to get assistance, Geller encountered a paper where he learns of Vennett’s attempt to short and they want a piece of the action. However they will need an IDSA and they lack the minimum capital to profit from this. They are able to get what they need from their friend and mentor Ben Rickert: a retired banker who now gardens for a living.

The time after is not business as usual. Burry’s story may have gotten a lot of notice but it’s also gotten to the ire of his clients. They feel the housing market is very secure and he’s wasting their money. Many demand he stop what he’s doing but he refuses. He even keeps the percentage increase in his ‘shorting’ in big red numbers on his whiteboard. Geller and Shipley consult with Rickert on making a future deal. Geller proposes a large amount of money despite Shipley’s reluctance.

Baum is frustrated by all this and he enlists two of his workers to check up on the housing situation by driving into neighborhoods. What they see is not pleasant: people with low incomes owning two-storied homes and one home rented out to a low income family by a landlord owing five months on his mortgage which he took out under his dog’s name! The landlord himself abandoned his own home to the point an alligator was able to crawl into the swimming pool. In addition, Baum learns of successful mortgage salesman who are going as far as selling mortgages to underqualified immigrants and even giving out NINJA mortgages (NINJA: NO Income No Job no Assests) as well as a banker for a major bank who’s willing to let it happen for fear clients will take their business to the competition and get their mortgage there.

Then comes the American Securitization Forum in Las Vegas. Burry isn’t there but Vennett and Baum are there together along with Geller, Shipley and Rickert to get their IDSA and their own piece of the default swap. Baum comes across a CDO manager who reveals much to Baum’s horror that he’s created synthetic CDOs: a chain of large bets on the faulty loans which actually total more money than the actual CDOs. It’s there where Baum’s business partners convince him to take this on. Geller and Shipley get their IDSA and they find their piece of the action in AA CDOs which have been overlooked by most of the bigwigs. They get their opportunity but they’re reminded by Rickert of the immense hurt that will happen to the American public once they win in their gamble. The celebration of the two ends right there.

Returning back to their business expecting the doomsday to happen any day soon, Baum wants to be the one settling the score as he himself tries to get the word out at public meetings. Geller and Shipley try to get the word out to the news but no one from a former college classmate who now works for the Wall Street Journal to Jamie’s brother’s ex-girlfriend who is a broker to even Charlie’s parents believe their doomsday claims. Burry’s investors still continue to refute his claims and want to pull out until Burry puts a moratorium on their withdrawals, much to their anger.

The stock market crash of 2008 eventually happens. Burry, Vennett and Baum were right all along. Businesses collapsed, the unemployment rate went up, the homelessness rate skyrocketed, trillions of dollars invested by the American people were lost. Not to mention many countries, especially in Europe, went through their economic crises that still exist today. In addition Burry’s investments increased fivefold from his original investment, Vennett made a nifty $77 million and Charlie and Jamie got the big financial break they sought. But no one’s smiling. Oh yeah, did I mention that there was no bank reform done and there was only one arrest from this whole mess?

This is a film that gets inside the world financial crisis of today. We should all be angry and outraged with the system for what it did with the people’s hard-earned money. We had a banking system that was too laxed and had next to no restrictions in giving out mortgages to people even if they weren’t qualified. We had people who saw the eventual doom but opted to get a piece of the action. We had bankers and mortgage dealers who were irresponsible enough to make salesmen of themselves and only care about getting big numbers for bonus checks. We had the bankers, investors and other financial professionals either negligent or ignorant to what’s happening. People’s hard-earned investments, funds and savings were treated like gambling money by these professionals. In the end, it led to the biggest collapse in the world’s economy since the stock market crash of 1928.

The film gives us what we should have to be angry with the system. However the film also does a good job in making a comedy out of it. I myself have come across a lot of situations that have been very nasty or very stressful but also very funny because of the stupidity behind it all. This is the magic of the film. It finds the humor of the stupidity that occurred in the system. While The Wolf Of Wall Street made Wall Street look like a jungle, this film made the banking and loan system look like they treated the system like it was a playground of people’s money. The film gives us many characters we find entertaining and funny but also types we just want to give the middle finger to. The film also makes us laugh at the stupidity that’s going on while having us leave the theatre infuriated in our afterthoughts.

In the end, the laughter ends and even those that profited big are disheartened. Burry’s not celebrating the big returns his investments got. Baum is left with a huge stomach ache and looks like his soul is crushed in the end. Geller and Shipley have possibly the biggest impact as you can see as they’re in the abandoned NYSE building and they’ve lost complete faith in the system.

Another quality of the film is that it helps the average person make sense of a complicated system. The story of how it all happened is a long and complicated story that consists of terms the average person hasn’t heard of and exists in a system only those inside can make sense of and understand why it happened. In making this film, they had to make a film that would help the average person make better sense of the banking system and the products and outside products that come with it. Who outside of banking or investing knows what a CDO is or how to ‘short’ the market when it’s doing business or even what an IDSA is? This film helps make sense of these complicated terms and showed how they worked in a business that is supposed to make things work. The vignettes from celebrities giving an explanation or a demonstration of how things worked added to the humor of the film as well as the quality. Even that flashback to the late 1970’s of how Lewis Ranieri changed the bank system, and our lives ‘more than Michael Jordan, the iPod and YouTube put together’ also added to the story and make more sense of the irresponsibility.

I have to say this is an accomplishment for director Adam McKay. Adam is not known for directing serious movies. For the most part, he’s most famous for writing and directing Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Stepbrothers. This film is a completely different change of pace for him. However he succeeds in directing and co-writing with Charles Randolph an excellent film that’s as much a comedy as it is a tragedy.

It’s often a wonder why someone would take what is a terrible moment in American history and turn it into a comedy. I guess that’s what McKay and Randolph are doing is that they’re showing the bizarre stupidity that happened the whole time in a comedic way. They deliver a film that will have you laughing at the ridiculousness of it all and at the same time infuriate you for days or even weeks after leaving the theatre.

McKay and Randolph also succeed in delivering a film that defies convention which is all the better for it. The use of cameos from other people in an attempt to get the audience to understand banking methods and money-making methods adds to the movie. Most people would think something like this would subtract from the quality. Instead it adds. Additional tricks in the film that add to the quality are scenes and moments where the characters stop the drama in their scenes and face us explaining the real story.

Standout performance has to go to Christian Bale as an eccentric businessman whose socially flawed but smart enough to sense a danger and get rich off of it despite his anger. His social reclusiveness as well as his fixation on music adds to the character’s dimension. The other big standout from the film was Steve Carell. His character of a man who just can’t get the impending doom off his mind and is unapologetically frank but also troubled is another show-stealer. Actually there were a lot of eye catching characters including that from Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett despite the role not being as complex as Bale’s Burry or Carell’s Baum. Additional scene stealers include John Magaro and Finn Wittrock as the two young and hungry businessmen who want a piece of the action but have a lot of learning to do. They first come off as the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the film but it’s right at the end you see how much the realities have bit them.

The film doesn’t prove much in terms of outside things like a score or cinematography or effects. However the film put together unconventionally worked on so many levels. Besides other unconventional qualities I talked about previously, there’s also the added element of showing pictures and film clips of average Americans as they would be the ones paying the hardest price of it all. Even the addition of various news clips and music videos add to the film. The addition of a wide variety of music from hip-hop to rock is another added quality. I feel the film ending with Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks was the right choice because the levee broke here.

The Big Short is one film that will get a lot of people thinking. I may be Canadian but I was shocked at what I was seeing. I too was outraged at how irresponsible the American banking system was and how it appears to have learned nothing from this. I consider myself lucky to be Canadian after seeing this. For all its headaches, the Canadian banking system is a lot more responsible in terms of who it lends its products to and even declines if it feels it has to. However it does have some careless elements of its own. For my own experience, I signed up for a credit card the very first week I was in university while under NINJA status and I still got it. There was another time I was at my bank during company time but a credit card saleswoman wanted me to sign up for a Gold Visa card. Since she wouldn’t take no for an answer, I signed up for it hoping she would get off my case. I thought I wouldn’t get it since I didn’t have the minimum annual income for a Gold card. I got it to my surprise. I’m still unhappy about this. Makes you wonder how and why banks seem to have forgotten their standards. No wonder that British man in a pub said to Rickert: “$100 million? Are you a banker or a drug dealer? Because if you’re a banker, you can fuck right off!”

The Big Short will make you angry with the banking system but will also make you laugh at the stupidity as well. It’s part drama, part comedy, part history lesson and that is probably what makes it a winner.

Oh yes. Another year of watching all the Best Picture nominees. This makes it the fifteenth year in a row I’ve done so! Here’s to another Oscar year.

Movie Review: The Hateful Eight

hateful-eight

The Hateful Eight focuses on eight despicable people in the same building. It leaves the audience wondering who will still be alive at the end, if anyone at all.

Quentin Tarantino is possibly the most uncompromising director in Hollywood. Even when he’s not at his best, he can still make a statement. I gave The Hateful Eight a look. I have to say I found it had a lot to like.

It starts in post-Civil War America in the frontiers. It’s a cold day and there’ signs that there’s a blizzard coming soon. Major Warren, an African-American bounty hunter, has three bodies to take back to Red Rock. He hitches a ride with a stagecoach despite being told by driver O.B. Inside the current passenger wants to be alone. Warren does get the ride and meets his other passengers: another bounty hunter by the name of John Ruth who has his bounty, the ruthless Daisy Domergue, with him handcuffed to him also headed to Red Rock. The ride is not pleasant as Daisy should racial slurs at Warren. To which Ruth response with a punch in her face. However Warren and Ruth are able to bond as Warren reads him his letter from Abraham Lincoln.

Along the way, the coachman  comes across a Lost Causer by the name of Chris Mannix who claims he’s to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Mannix is welcome but tension between him and Warren start over each other’s war records. However both Ruth and Warren make a pact to protect each other’s bounties.

The blizzard becomes so powerful, the four have to take refuge at the nearby Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge. Minnie’s not there and the four are greeted by Bob, a Mexican who claims Minnie is visiting her mother and he’s in charge. Also at the Haberdashery are Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray, cowboy Joe Gage who’s simply traveling to visit his mother, and former Confederate general Sanford Smithers. Ruth knows they will all be in the lodge overnight and trouble is bound to brew with all these differing and conflicting people. So he gets all but Warren to disarm.

They even try to get the eight to have a civilized dinner of stew at the same table. However Mannix points out to Warren that his letter from Abraham Lincoln is a forgery. Warren admits it, stating his letter gets him respect from white people that he’d otherwise be denied. Ruth is outraged when he hears this. Warren also has another confession, but to Smithers. He provokingly confesses to him that he tortured, sodomized and killed his son in lawful self-defense in revenge for his son executing black soldiers during the Civil War.

Another incident happens known only to Domergue, the coffee was poisoned. She alerts no one of this and allows for Ruth and O.B. to pour a mug. After drinking they both vomit and collapse. Mannix is fortunate enough not to drink the cup he poured after he saw what happened. Domergue is able to kill Ruth but through her own gun. Warren attempts to be the master of justice, determined to find out who poisoned the coffee. Only to uncover that Bob is possibly an impostor because Minnie’s haberdashery does not allow Mexicans. He suspects from the start that Minnie was killed and executes the Mexican. To the surprise of everyone, Warren is shot from below. Further shootouts follow leaving Mannix and Mobray wounded.

The film then flashes back to the beginning of the day when it was to be a typical day for Minnie’s Haberdashery. However a robbery happened where everyone including Minnie were killed. Only Smithers is still alive. The leader of the heist was Jody Domergue, Daisy’s brother, who plans to ambush Ruth knowing they’ll eventually stop here because of the anticipated blizzard and his gang will take Daisy away. Returning back to the current situation, the story goes into various confrontations and leads to an unpredictable ending.

Of all the films that are happening around this Oscar season, this appears to be the one film that shows no real intention of making a political statement or social statement of any kind. Actually what it is doing is telling a story that for the whole of it only takes place not even for a full day. It’s starts with a free African-American major wanting a stagecoach ride only to end up in the same coach as two others. Then another. All of which are polar opposites and you know a fight would start any minute. Then the four get to a shelter during the blizzard which happens to be a haberdashery place with four others, also a set of characters too with traits you know could add to the conflict.With eight spiteful people in the same place at the same time with a bone to pick with at least one of them, you know hell will break loose any minute and you wonder who will be the first to get killed. Even as you watch the whole film unravel, you will end up surprised to see anyone at the end of the movie alive.

Once again Quentin Tarantino delivers. He’s one of few directors that doesn’t have to succumb to the pressures of parental guidance groups, family values groups or even the pressures of Hollywood and be able to deliver his stuff his way. As I said at the beginning, he’s possibly the most uncompromising director in Hollywood. He is no holds barred in terms of the use of profanity and racial slurs in this film and uses no restraint. As is common in his movies, he divides his film into segments or even chapters as he does here. Also like his past films, he plays with the chronology of time as the incidents of what happened before the eight got together is shown as the fifth chapter rather than a simple flashback as most film makers would do.

Another thing Tarantino does here like he does in some of his other films is throw in some subtle humorous moments. One example is the case of a cowgirl from New Zealand. Another is getting all of the eight at a table to eat their dinner in a civilized manner, or as civilized as it can get. Another example of his dark humor is the gory effects of when one gets shot in the face or when one drinks the poisonous coffee. And an additional example is how he has items be a significant part of the film. The same way the watch, Kahuna Burger, suitcase and wallet fit the story of Pulp Fiction to a tee, we have Warren’s letter from Abraham Lincoln. He does the type of movie violence that can even make Martin Scorsese jealous. He always was a film maker who didn’t play by the rules. He always made his own rules.

I will admit being a longtime fan of his movies, I was wondering what The Hateful Eight would be like. His last two films weren’t exactly his best: Inglourious Basterds could dazzle at first but would later be seen as ridiculous in afterthoughts and Django Unchained look both ridiculous and redundant as revenge being rehashed. Here Tarantino takes a chance by having most of the situation happen in a single physical location. Most of the time you have that in the case of student films or feature-length films of rising directors. Here Tarantino uses his experience and his knowledge of directing and writing to create a full intense film that’s predominantly set in a single place. That was very creative of him as he does a good job in the story and directing and delivers a movie that gives you the sense anything can happen any minute.

However the film is awfully long and there are many scenes that seem like they are drawn out. Sometimes there are times you’re actually wondering why something hasn’t happened yet.I do give Tarantino credit for delivering a story that’s unpredictable but I still feel almost three hours is too long for such a film.

SPOILER ALERT: Ending Will Be Revealed In This Paragraph. Bypass This Paragraph If You Want The Ending To Be a Surprise. If there’s one surprise Tarantino gave me, it’s the ending. Usually Tarantino is one film maker that doesn’t usually have sentimentality in his films. I have never seen a sentimental moment in any of his previous films. However the ending as Mannix and Warren appear dying was possibly the most sentimental thing I’ve ever seen in a Tarantino film. Sure, that’s not saying much but it’s still atypical enough to notice. No, I didn’t shed a tear as didn’t anyone else in the theatre but it was still a surprise.

Tarantino may be the brains behind what’s all happening in the film but it’s the actors that make it come alive. All eight of the main actors had to deliver a character that was as likable as they were hateable. Basically the type of characters whom you wouldn’t shed a single tear over when they die. They succeed in doing so and even make you welcome their deaths at times. Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell were the ones able to command the most attention. However the biggest scene stealer will have to be Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her performance as the uncoothed Daisy Domergue really caught everyone’s attention. Her character of Daisy could have been considered annoying or even a distraction but she made it work. Her turn will also surprise you how a woman can be as ruthless as the men. The second show stealer would have to be Walton Goggins as Sheriff Mannix. Goggins also had a character that could have easily been dismissed as annoying or over the top but he became more likable and oddly enough appreciable by the end. If there was one more scene stealer, it had to be Bruce Dern as the spiteful Confederate General. Even the minor roles such as Minnie and Six Horse Judy were played well.

The film also did well in terms of its technical aspects. Robert Richardson did a very good job of cinematography both among the outside shots and inside shots. The natural and created sets works well too. Once again, Tarantino delivers a film with an excellent mix of songs from the past that fit the film well. However it’s the addition of the score from Ennio Morricone that give the film an added boost.

The Hateful Eight is not Tarantino’s best film ever. In fact it’s imperfections are noticeable. Nevertheless the film rarely gets boring and will still please Tarantino fans.

Movie Review: Boy And The World (O Menino E O Mundo)

Boy And The World

A boy goes looking for his father and encounters a world both colorful and dark in Boy And The World.

I was lucky enough to see Boy And The World when it was in film theatres in Vancouver. I’m glad I had the chance to see it.

Cuca is a small boy who lives in a village of a distant world. Cuca has all the imagination of a child his age. One day his father leaves to find a better job. As he says goodbye, he gives him a reminder of him. Cuca buries it near a tree. Over time Cuca is impatient and then goes on a search for his father.

Cuca’s search takes him to various worlds. One of farmers, one of cotton pickers, one of construction workers. Each world is magical and musical and tells its own story. The villagers are often seen celebrating in the streets. However each world is threatened by the greyness of lifelessness. One day Cuca meets a man whom he believes to be his father. He keeps on following him to the jobs he pursues in the various worlds he visits. Then one day Cuca makes it to the big city and is disgusted with what he sees. The film doesn’t end on the happy note we hope for but it does end with a message of hope.

This is a very unique 2D animated film. The film is very colorful and very mesmerizing while keeping one focused on the main story at the same time. There isn’t much dialogue and the Portuguese doesn’t have subtitles added to them. However it’s not needed because all the visuals with their actions and patterns tell the story and send the message. Hard to describe the film’s best quality. All too often when I look back, I remember how the film dances and comes alive with colors and music. Almost every scene that tells a story or sends a message turns into a colorful musical splendor.

The film also has a lot to say about the negative elements of society depicted in the film. Even without saying much or without saying a word at all, you can tell the differences when you see the common people in the ‘world of color’ and the world of the city and of industrialization in ‘black, white and grey.’ That scene near the end where Abreu focuses on corporations and industrialization and its dehumanizing effects in Brazil is also set to music just like with the positive parts. The dreary music that comes with it also sets the mood. That was the key quality of the film: the use of music and colors to tell the story and deliver a message.

Top acclaim should go to writer/director Ale Abreu. He is an animator who has a short but merited list of animated films and shorts to his credit. Most of which have never been seen outside of Brazil. Boy And The world is probably his first film or short seen outside of Brazil. Actually the film’s first release outside of Brazil was at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. The film won an Honorable Mention for Best Animated Feature because according to the jury: “it was full of some of the most beautiful images we’ve ever seen.” If you’ve seen the film, you’d understand why. I believe Abreu created a masterpiece.

Since Ottawa, the film has done a very good job at creating an impression at film festivals over time. In Brazil, it won two Cinema Brasil awards for Best Animated Film and Best Children’s Film and the Best Brazilian Film at the Sao Paulo Film Festival. Further accolades include Official Selection feature at the Shanghai Film Festival, the One Future Prize for Abreu at the Munich Film Festival, Best Screenplay at the Cairo Film Festival and Best Feature at the Annecy Film Festival. Bigger acclaim just came months ago as it won the Annie Award for Best Independent Animated Feature.

Before the Oscar nominations were announced, the nominees for Best Animated Feature were expected to be given to films that fared better at the box office like The Good Dinosaur, The Minions Movie or The Peanuts Movie. Instead the animators branch of the Academy decided to show some favoring to some artsier films including Boy And The World. I will admit if it weren’t for its Oscar nod, I would not have seen it.

Boy And The World is a different type of animated film and for the better. It has its own style, its own feel and its own charm despite also delivering a socially-conscious message. A rare gem of a film.

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: The Revenant

Revenant

Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) will soon find himself at odds with his former trapping partner John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy at left) in The Revenant.

If there’s one movie that’s had its box office results significantly after the nominations, It’s The Revenant. If you’ve seen it already, you’ll easily see why it could have done excellently even without the Oscar buzz.

It’s 1823 in an unsettled wilderness part of the northern area of the Louisiana Purchase. A group of trappers under the command of Captain Andrew Henry search for pelts until a surprise attack from Arikara Native Americans kills many from the camp and cause the survivors to flee on a boat. Part of the camp is Hugh Glass who is on friendly terms with the Natives–even being a widow to a Native American woman and fathering their ‘half-breed’ son Hawk who’s part of the camp– and knows the area well. At Glass’ recommendation, they abandon ship and walk on foot to return to their outpost Fort Kiowa. This does not settle well with some of the trappers including John Fitzgerald who has a hostile attitude towards Natives after being scalped years ago. He is noticeably hostile to Hawk.

Glass scouts ahead alone for a while but he is mauled by a mother bear protecting her cubs. The attack is brutal and Glass is severely mauled but he’s able to stab the bear. The other people in the camp find Glass but doubt his chances for survival. Henry commands to three men in the camp–Hawk, Fitzgerald and the young Jim Bridger–to stay with Glass until he dies and give him a proper burial. Fitzgerald tries to smother Glass when alone but Hawk stops him. Unfortunately stabbed is killed by Fitzgerald as Glass can only lie and watch. Fitzgerald attempts to bury Glass prematurely but stops when he sees Bridger flee and follows.

Abandoned with only a canteen, Glass is somehow able to survive and slowly heal. Days later, he’s able to heal to the point he can move, then crawl, then walk. As he heals he’s haunted by visions of his deceased wife. He even sees visions of her as he comes across an abandoned church. However he also has to deal with the Arikara whose chief is searching for his kidnapped daughter Powaqa and trusts no white man.

Both Fitzgerald and Bridger are heading to Fort Kiowa but Fitzgerald scares Bridger into being fully under his control. One at the Fort, Fitzgerald tells Henry that Glass died and Hawk was attacked by the Arikara. Henry gives both Fitzgerald and Bridger a cash reward. Fitzgerald accepts without guilt but Bridger refuses.

Glass encounters Hicuk, a friendly Pawnee who gives him food and shelter and helps him along the path back to Fort Kiowa. Hikuc has also lost his family. Upon hearing from Glass his intent for revenge, he tells Glass “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands.” The day after the blizzard, Glass wakes to find Hikuc hanged by French pelters. Not only that, he finds Powaqa being raped by leader of the French pelters. He’s able to kill the two leaders and free Powaqa but has to escape with Hikuc’s horse and Bridger’s canteen. An ambush by the Arikara causes Glass to flee on horse only to fall off a cliff. Glass survives but the horse is dead. Glass uses the horse’s carcass as a shelter overnight.

Meanwhile word has gotten around to Fort Kiowa that Glass is in fact alive. This is known as a French hunter brings Bridger’s canteen there. Henry however thinks it’s stolen from Hawk and organizes a search party but Fitzgerald knows the truth and flees. Henry finds Glass alive in the search. Infuriated, he charges Bridger with treason after returning to the Fort but Glass insists it’s all Fitzgerald’s doing.

The operation then goes to find Fitzgerald and bring him to justice. Henry however is caught by Fitzgerald in an ambush and is killed and scalped. It’s now up to Glass who hatches a plan to finally get his revenge. It works in catching Fitzgerald and having him shot but not without Fitzgerald being able to run off. It then comes down to a fight between the two for Glass to get his revenge. It ends with Glass making a decision and an ending we’re all left to decide for ourselves Glass’ fate.

Now just to get things straight, this is not the true story of Hugh Glass getting revenge on John Fitzgerald. In fact historic documentation shows Glass let Fitzgerald live because he knew the heavy penalty of killing a soldier in the U.S. Army. Fitzgerald became a soldier in the U.S. army and was stationed in Fort Atkinson, Nebraska. Fitzgerald did give Glass his rifle back.

This film is actually a revenge story adapted from the 2002 novel The Revenant: A Story Of Revenge by Michael Punke. I think the focus of the film is more about telling the story than it is about retelling history. I have not read Punke’s novel but I’m sure that was how Punke would have wanted Fitzgerald to face the music upon abandoning Glass to die. There is actually very little information about who John Fitzgerald was or even what type of person he was in real life. We have the historical documentation of what happened to Glass and what happened in his pursuit of Fitzgerald but not much else. The novel was not only Punke’s chance of creating his own revenge fantasy in Fitzgerald but giving Fitzgerald a character of his own. The film helps Punke’s story come alive and even paint a picture of Glass, Fitzgerald, the times, the terrain and the domain of all that happened.

This revenge story is not your typical revenge story you’d see in your typical Hollywood movies or even from the likes of Quentin Tarantino. This revenge story is also a story of survival and also shows a human side of the perpetrator Hugh Glass. Yes, he was as tough as a frontiersman and a trapper of the time should be. However he did have a soft side. He still has feelings towards his deceased wife who was a Native American woman and he truly loved his son despite others seeing him as a ‘half-breed.’ He also had to be tough as he needed to survive the brutal bear attack and recover from his wounds in order to pursue Fitzgerald. He also had to develop the will to live knowing that his son was killed by Fitzgerald. He also had to be right in his mind in deciding what he had to do to Fitzgerald in the end.

I will admit there were times when I questioned if this film was becoming too much of a tall tale. One example is when seeing Glass pursue Fitzgerald in what appeared to be just days before his attack. I often asked: “Would someone who suffered such a brutal bear attack recover in that fast of a time?” Even that scene where Glass and his horse fall off a cliff. The snowy tree broke Glass’ fall and helped him live without any severe bodily damage but the horse died. That scene also had me scratching my head. Maybe those scenes and the elapsed time were also part of Punke’s novel. Nevertheless it still had me questioning its believability.

First off I’d like to give respect to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for delivering an excellent movie. He may be renowned for his ‘filmwork’ but here he takes his first steps in directing a movie intended to draw big crowds while still maintaining some top film making qualities. Very little was compromised and the end result was excellent as it both succeeds as a film and as a movie. I’ll admit I was unhappy about Birdman winning Best Picture last year because it didn’t give much for a film audience to either enjoy or appreciate. Yes, it had top-notch acting, directing and scriptwriting but who truly enjoyed it?  This is ten times more enjoyable while still maintaining top acting and directing. Yes, there were some scenes that can scare many. In fact I’ll admit the film made me hope I never walk in the woods again. Nevertheless it was a very good movie full of drama and thrills. As I said, I have never read Punke’s novel but the script Inarritu co-wrote with Mark L. Smith definitely makes the novel come alive. I know the script was not nominated for an Oscar. However the unspoken scenes in the movie told as much as the scripted scenes.

The film would simply be a popcorn movie if it weren’t for the acting. Leonardo DiCaprio did an excellent job of Hugh Glass. He said a lot especially in the scenes where Hugh Glass was unable to speak. His performance was as much about telling a lot through physical actions as it was through dialogue. Hey, it’s been said 80% of communication is non-verbal and Leo was able to say a lot in those scenes. That’s why I’d be shocked if he doesn’t win the Oscar. Also just as excellent is Tom Hardy. He didn’t play your typical rotten-to-the-core villain. He gave John Fitzgerald some fears and insecurities to the role and conveyed them well. Nevertheless he also made Fitzgerald hateable as a remorseless villain who even calls the dead Hawk a ‘pussy’ in Glass’ face. Additional performances of respect include Bill Poulter as Jim Bridger, the young trapper who possesses the conscience Fitzgerald lacks, and Forrest Goodluck as Hawk.

Additional qualities of acclaim is the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, the costuming by Jacqueline West including its use of furs and hides, the film editing by Stephen Mirrione, the visual effects including that of the bear attack, the excellent use of both natural settings and constructed sets that fit the times and scenes perfectly and the film’s score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Carsten Nicolai and Bryce Dessner.

An additional note. I also give the film respect for its treatment of Native Americans. I may have been a baby when Sacheen Littlefeather refuted Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf and spoke of his protest to the on-screen depiction of Native Americans or First Nations peoples as Canadians commonly refer to them as. However I already know of Hollywood’s past and how they’re famous for shelling out ‘cowboys and indians’ movies from decades past. I can completely understand why Brando would have been angry with that depiction as Brando has had a history of activism in the 1970’s on behalf of people of various races. I will admit Hollywood has been better at its depiction of indigenous Americans from films like 1990’s Dances With Wolves and even the character of Chief in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that was shown in theatres a mere three years after Brando’s Oscar protest. I’m sure there are some people that can spot imperfections in Hollywood’s current treatment of Native Americans including in this film but I found it hard to pinpoint a scene that was insulting to them. Sure there were battles with tribes and there were bigoted attitudes among many white characters but there were many positive Native American characters in this movie. In addition the main protagonist Hugh Glass had positive interaction with the Native people including marrying one and treating his son with love while many despised him as a ‘half-breed.’

The Revenant isn’t just a dazzling movie. It’s one that will keep you intrigued from start to finish and not know what to expect next.

Oscars 2015 Shorts Review: Best Animated Short Film

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Just recently I published my review of the live-action shorts nominees of this year. Now’s my chance to publish my thoughts on the nominated animated shorts of this year. They range in variety from 2D artistic to primitive 2D to common 3D computer animated to 3D with a unique style. All five are excellent and unique in their unique way but who deserves to win?

Bear Story (Chile): dirs. Gabriel Osorio Vargas and Pato Escala Pierart – It’s a story of a bear who misses his wife and son dearly. Every day he goes out on the street and shows a diorama show to those of the story of how he was abducted from them both and taken away to be part of the circus. The show also ends showing his hope that one day he will be reunited with them both.

The film is a sad story that touches your heart without trying to mess with it. It’s 3D animation but instead of the characters looking human, it comes looking like toy soldiers. I’m not too sure of the creative purpose of that. Nevertheless it does make for an entertaining short film.

Prologue (UK): dirs. Richard Williams and Imogen Sutton – This is one film where there was a viewer discretion warning and advised minors to leave the theatre before it was shown. The film takes part 2,400 years in the past. A child watches a brutal war between two teams of Spartan and Athenian warriors.

This is the rawest nominated short I’ve ever seen ever since they’ve shown the shorts in theatres. The art is simplistic as it consists mostly of pencil drawings with very little coloring. However it merits a lot in terms of its artistry. It also tells a story in brutally relentless fashion even depicting the battles in gory manner. It’s very rare to see a short animated film that’s strictly adults only. It also made it refreshing to see such a short.

Sanjay’s Super Team (USA): dirs: Sanjay Patel and Nicole Paradis Grindle – Sanjay loves watching the Super Team on television but his father is very insistent on a religious prayer habit, even at Sanjay’s young age. Right during the prayer ritual, Sanjay’s imagination comes alive. The gods he’s praying to form a Super Team of his own and they join Sanjay in the battle against a nemesis.

This is from Pixar and was the short before The Good Dinosaur. Director Sanjay Patel has an impressive resume working as an animator for Pixar in films like A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, the two Monsters movies, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. This film in which he co-directs is his directing debut. The film shows similar imagination to that of the Pixar team while also taking us into a brief but memorable time into an incredible fantasy world. Very good from start to finish. I predict it as my Should Win pick and Will Win pick.

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (Russia): dir. Konstantin Bronzit – Two childhood friends train to be cosmonauts in space. Only one will go off into space. The other will be the alternate or next in line if something bad happens to the first. One friend got picked. The other friend wishes him well on his voyage. However shortly after blast off, the friend disappears. The friend down on earth is unhappy. He can’t even adjust well to his alternate whom he doesn’t get along with at all. Actually the alternate can’t get along with anyone. The friend makes a decision to the surprise of many, and to us. It’s a decision we’re glad he made.

It’s a 2D film with a story that doesn’t need dialogue for us to get the messages. Over time we learn the story isn’t about trying to make it into space but about just how close the friendship is. The two train together and dream together. When his friend is lost into oblivion, his ambition to be the next in space disappears just like that. You can easily see why he made the decision to do what he did.

World Of Tomorrow (UK) dir. Don Hirtzfeldt – The story begins with a toddler named Emily in a room. Out of nowhere comes a clone also named Emily who came from 227 years into the future back to the present. The adult Emily, ‘Emily Clone,’ tells the child Emily, ‘Emily Prime,’ of the human’s attempts to achieve immortality through cloning and showcasing the various worlds including the ‘Outernet’ and the various memories of the clone Emily. Very different and very unique.

This is another 2D short. The drawing is very simplistic. However it’s the story that’s the top quality of the film. We see a bizarre but unique story of Emily Clone and Emily Prime the future world and the future of Emily. The funniest element of the short is Emily Clone keeps on talking in her highly scientific speech and all Emily Prime does is just respond back in her childish gibberish. That adds to the humor of the short.

In conclusion I know I picked Sanjay’s Super Team as both my Should Win and Will Win choice. Normally I wouldn’t pick such a film to win but I find it hard to see any of the other four films try to top it. All five are excellent but I think Sanjay stands alone. I know World Of Tomorrow won the Annie Award but I have my feeling about Oscars voters. Mind you the shorts categories are some of the least predictable categories of the Oscars.

And there you go. My thoughts on the Oscar nominated Animated Shorts. Winner to be decided in two weeks.

Oscars 2015 Shorts Review: Best Live-Action Short Film

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The Oscar-nominated short films were back in theatres again. However this year I only had the chances to see the live-action one day and the animated another. I have no problem writing separate reviews for both. So here’s my take on the live-action shorts:

Ave Maria (Palestine/France/Germany): dirs. Eric Dupont and Basil Khalil – Five nuns pray at a convent in a ‘war-zone’ area of Palestine. Then they hear what sounds like an explosive car crash. One tries to help despite the fact they are under a vow of silence. What happened was a car driven by Jewish residents accidentally crashed into the Virgin Mary statue. They try to help but there are conflicts with the nuns’ vows of silence and the family’s strict adherence to the Sabbath and with kosherisms. Not to mention they don’t want to be noticed by Arab residents in the area.

The film does focus on the religious tensions in Palestine but in a humorous way. All of this takes place in the area of the convent. However it’s funny how something as little as a car crash and people trying to seek out help can lead to such religious conflicts. That may have been the least of problems in Palestine but even then it just shows the humor of the whole situation and of how in the end it’s all about doing the right thing. I feel the film’s mix of humor while conveying a social message is why I predict it Will Win the Oscar.

Shok (Kosovo/UK): dir. Jamie Donoughue – A car driving on a Kosovo road stops at an abandoned child’s bicycle. But why would a grown male from the car leave the car to look at the bicycle? And why would he ride it soon after?

The answer flashes back to the mid-90’s. Two Kosovar Albanian boys Petrit and Oki are the closest of friends. They frequently go to school riding on the bicycle Oki bought after a year of selling almonds. Petrit wants a bike of his own but feels he can get it by selling drugs and rolling papers to Serbian soldiers who’ve taken over the area. He feels it could also prevent them invading their village despite news stories of other areas of Kosovo being invaded. He even tells Oki he’s safe with him.

However Petrit’s promise and ‘business’ is put under heavy question during one of his ‘deals’ as a Serbian soldier wants Oki’s bicycle. It’s not the lost bicycle Oki’s angry about but the fact Petrit is willing to do something dangerous and dishonest for money and it threatens their friendship. They reconcile after Petrit is willing to take an assault from a soldier after Albanian books are found in Oki’s bag and Petrit claims them as his own. Unfortunately the invasion of their village eventually comes and with it the tragic end of the friendship of Oki and Petrit.

Of all five shorts, this is the one that still stayed with me long after I left the theatre. This is a story based on true events. I easily remember the war in the Balkans, especially the bloodshed in Bosnia, back in the 90’s. It dominated the news that decade. The war in Kosovo just years after the war in Bosnia ended was another example of the tyranny and I remember that as well. It does leave you feeling it was unfair of what happened to Oki. He was the smart one. He was the one who kept Petrit’s head on straight. But he was the one killed. Also that end scene where we see a grown-up Petrit still haunted by the war more that fifteen years later reminds you that war still haunts even as time passes and even if Kosovo did get its independence. My cousin once said: “No country’s freedom came without some amount of bloodshed.” True, but the bloodshed still leaves people with a trauma not even independence can solve. That’s why I pick Shok to be my Should Win pick.

Eveything Will Be Okay (Austria/Germany): dir. Patrick Vollrath – The film starts on a simple note. A man named Michael goes to see his daughter Lea for visitation. His ex-wife and new boyfriend don’t have a problem with that at all so we think it will just be a fun day of the two of them without incident. It starts on a fun note as he buys her a big Playmobil toy and promises to taker her to the fair afterwards. However things get a bit suspicious as the two go to a photo booth where he gets Lea to have a photo of her own and takes to a passport office for rush processing. Things get even fishier when Michael sells his car and they take a cab to the airport. Soon we get what’s going on. It’s a miracle the flight to Dubai was cancelled but they have a replacement flight the next morning. Despite Lea wanting to go home, Michael is insistent on taking her and for her to cooperate. It’s by the luck of Lea making a phone call to her mother overnight that they’re able to prevent an abduction from happening. But not without a struggle.

This is a film of a scenario that happens all too often. A broken marriage and children caught in the middle even to the point of them being abducted. This is something that happens all over the world. However the story is not just about the child caught in the middle but the parent who’s hurting and feels that the child is being taken away from him. The film leaves you wondering if Michael suffers from a mental illness or if he’s just a hurting person. It leaves you feeling that way of a lot of parents from failed marriages. Is that why they abduct their children? The film also leaves you relieved that the flight was cancelled and that Lea was able to make that phone call to her mother in the early morning. Not as many children are as lucky.

The best quality of the film is that it helps the audience live the moment. We don’t know what’s really happening at first but we soon get a better understanding of what’s happening as time goes on. Even as they go to the fair and ride the bumper cars, we still can’t take our mind off of what we suspect will happen. And as time moves on, what we suspect is exactly what’s happening. In addition that scene which we think is the end where the police, Lea’s mother and the hotel personnel try to stop the heist ends up being a scene where a new conflict begins. Michael still struggle to hang onto Lea. That’s another quality of the film where right where we think it’s all over, it’s not and a new struggle begins. On top of that the film’s story is shown without any musical score which adds to the intensity of the drama.

This is a film of a story of an incident that happens all too often in our world. The film’s best qualities are the story unfolding quietly as time unfolds and the unexpected twists in the drama.

-Stutterer (UK/Ireland): dirs. Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage – Greenwood, a twentysomething London male with a stutter finds life difficult. His stutter is so severe, it causes problems when calling customer service. He has a job as a typographer but his social life is limited to him with his father. Often he fakes himself as death to try and avoid conversation. His thoughts however are perfectly coherent.

Despite his social flaws and his speech problem, he has developed an online relationship with a woman named Ellie. That works excellently and they keep the relationship going for six months despite never meeting face to face. However the day comes when Ellie would like to meet Greenwood for the first time. He’s in a crisis of what to do and abandons her at first but agrees to do so the next day despite being nervous as hell. The ending will surprise you.

This is a charming story. It takes you into the person’s feelings as well as their insecurities. You learn of Greenwood’s stutter and of what he’s really thinking and easily see the barriers he has to face. You learn about Greenwood the person and hope that in the end he does win Ellie. The ending will delight you. Very clever short film.

 –Day One (USA): dir. Henry Hughes – Feda is a young woman just hired by the U.S. Army to act as interpreter. She’s in her 30’s and admits to her colleague who also speaks Arabic that she’s never been married and has no children. Her operation on Day One involves dealing with an enemy bomb maker the army is about to arrest. The operation involves a lot more. It also involves bring his fatherless niece to safety. It also involves dealing with his wife who’s about to give birth.

As if trying to deliver the baby isn’t stressful enough, there’s the fact the baby’s hand is hanging out. The doctor tests for a pulse from the baby and assumes there isn’t one. Feda is given orders to cut the deceased baby’s limbs so that the mother doesn’t bleed to death. Even before Feda attempts the first cut, she notices the hand move. The baby’s alive. There is a sigh of relief but there’s the new stress of making sure the baby’s born right and the mother not bleeding to death. The film ends on a sad but hopeful note.

Just like Everything Will Be Okay, it captures the drama of the moment and allows the audience to capture the intensity as the events are slowly unfolding. The various twists and turns in the story also adds to the continuous drama. The happy ending we all hope for doesn’t happen but it does end with a moment of hope, especially for Feda.

In conclusion, I feel Shok should win the Oscar because of how it’s a story that stays with you long after you leave the theatre. It was creative and it told a story that will touch you deep down inside. I still remember hearing a couple of people in tears after Oki was shot. However I don’t know if the Academy will pick a short that’s all too serious. I think they might want to go for a story leading more to the humorous side. I think Ave Maria with its mix of humor and social awareness will take the Oscar. I think the Academy would prefer a film like that.

And there are my thoughts for this year’s five nominees in the category of Best Live Action Short Film. Winners to be decided on the big night. Also click here for my reviews of the animated shorts.

Movie Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a lot to offer fans of the Star Wars series including new characters like BB-8 and Rey (played by Daisy Ridley).

It never fails with me. I have the habit of ‘waiting until the crowds die down’ to see a blockbuster movie. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do when it involves a Star Wars movie, especially not Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I saw it three weeks after its release. I’m glad I finally saw it.

I won’t explain the story line like I do in most reviews, especially since most of you have already seen it by now, unless of course you’ve been under a rock. One thing about this movie is that it wasn’t just simply bringing another volume of the Star Wars series to the screen. The film’s job was also to bring back the magic of Star Wars people have come to know and love. No kidding the first three Star Wars movies from 1977 to 1983, those that are now referred to as episodes 4 to 6, captivated the world. Watch any one of them nowadays and you’ll see why.

However when George Lucas did the three prequels from 1999 to 2005, many fans felt something was missing. No doubt The Phantom Menace had huge expectations but they missed them and disappointed a lot of fans. Attack Of The Clones tried to be better but still something was noticeably missing. The scene of the fighting Yoda added excitement but it was one small added element. Revenge Of The Sith was the best of the prequels but the feel of Star Wars was still not there. I think it was best summed up by my sister who’s a huge Star Wars fan: “George Lucas knows how to direct sci-fi but he doesn’t know how to direct actors.” Good point because it’s been proven in other action movies or sci-fi movies in the past that special effects no matter how dazzling cannot overtake a lousy story or lousy acting.

Now we should remember that The Force Awakens or Episode Seven was actually thought up by George Lucas way back in the 1970’s as he was dreaming out and writing out the whole Star Wars series. Lucas made it clear after Revenge Of The Sith he will no longer direct Star Wars movies. In fact he sold LucasFilm to the Walt Disney Company in 2012. The first thing Disney did was bring The Force Awakens on screen. The director they hired was J.J. Abrams who has an extensive resume in writing and directing thrillers and sci-fi like Armageddon, Mission Impossible III (his directorial debut), Super 8 and the last two Star Trek movies. Hired to adapt the story to screenplay was Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan who co-wrote the scripts for Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi but didn’t help co-write any of the prequels, and rising writer Michael Arndt.

The mix turned out to be the right chemistry as it was able to bring the magic of the story back to life. The recreation of the two worlds also worked excellently. There was however one challenge I feel it didn’t overcome. That was when they brought back Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. There were a few times that I felt that instead of adding to the latest Star Wars story, it almost made it seem like a ‘Star Wars reunion.’ Even adding C3P0, Chew and R2D2 in there also added to that feeling this was like a ‘reunion” I don’t know if the huge following of Star Wars had a lot to do with why I felt that it seemed like a ‘Star Wars reunion’ but that’s how I felt.

One thing I have to say is the best thing about this Star Wars story are the new elements and the new characters of the story. One thing you hope to get with each Star Wars film are new characters that are able to charm us whether it be the philosopher Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back or even villains like Jabba The Hutt in Return Of The Jedi. Here was get appealing characters like Rey and Poe Dameron and even villains like Kylo Ren. I don’t know if they will deliver the same craze Luke, Leia and Han first did but moviegoers have welcomed them to the Star Wars saga. In addition we have a plot twist in this film as Storm Trooper Finn deserts his duty to fight against the Dark Side. That’s a key element leading into Episode Eight in anticipation in what will happen next.

In addition, adding BB-8 to the Star Wars saga was a plus. Usually adding in something cutesy to the Star Wars Saga is a risk. C3P0 and R2D2 had a big part in making the first Star Wars‘ greatness. The Ewoks of Return Of The Jedi helped make the story. However Jar Jar Binks of The Phantom Menace was too irritating and had a lot to do with that episode’s constant panning. BB-8 was cute but he was more the cute one would welcome and be entertained by rather than easily get irritated with. BB-8 actually added to the quality of The Force Awakens. Even the scenes where R2D2 meets BB-8 for the first time come across as funny instead of ridiculous.

It’s not to say the older elements weren’t good. They may not have stood out like the newer elements but they still fit the movie excellently. I know I talked about bringing Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill back made it feel like a ‘Star wars reunion’ but they were intended to be in the story from the start and intended to age 30 years. I can’t think of anyone else who could play their characters. The Dark Side and its darkness still maintained its mystery and villainous feel. The battles were also excellent to watch. Oh yes, the light saber battles. You can’t have a Star Wars episode without light saber battles. There weren’t as many this time around but they still dazzled.

I will have to say J.J. Abrams succeeds with flying colors in directing and co-writing the latest in the Star Wars saga. He’s proven in the past he can direct sci-fi and direct actors and he was the right man to take over the Star Wars series right after George Lucas let it go. The acting was not stellar but it was very good. The best acting came from those performing the ‘new roles’ like Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Oscar Isaacs. Driver especially delivered an unpredictable villain. The set designs fit the movie perfectly and were able to replicate the ships, planets and lands of the story perfectly. The visual effects were top notch again and worked the movie excellently. And of course they had to bring back John Williams as the score’s composer. Even at 83, Williams is still at it. It seems as though there’s no other composer who can do it for Star Wars and he delivers again.

Without a doubt the biggest news about Star Wars 7 is all the box-office records it’s breaking. It already broke the opening weekend record with $247.9 million: almost breaking the quarter-billion barrier. It would go on to break the North American total box office record held by Avatar on January 5th: the very day I saw it! It now stands at $879.3 million and currently sits at #2 at the box office. Worldwide it sits at $1.94 billion currently and appears poised to break Avatar’s record of $2.788 billion. Only time will decide that.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a very good addition to the Star Wars series. Not only that but it brings back a lot of the Star Wars magic that appeared missing from the prequels. What can I say? Star Wars mania is back and rightly so.

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn is the story of Irish girl Eilis (played by Saoirse Ronan) who comes to America and is swept away by a Brooklyn boy (played by Emory Cohen).

Brooklyn is the story of Irish girl Eilis (played by Saoirse Ronan) who comes to America and is swept away by a Brooklyn boy (played by Emory Cohen).

Brooklyn looks like a film that would be a favorite for a Best Picture Oscar, under traditional standards. Nevertheless it’s worth seeing.

It’s 1952 and Eilis Lacey is about to emigrate from Ireland to the United States through the arrangements of her sister Rose. It’s not like Eilis will miss much. Life in her hometown of Enniscorthy has been redundant as she works at the mercantile run by the spiteful Miss Kelly part-time and she’s also unable to win the affection of a man at the local dance hall while her best friend has better luck. So what does she have to lose?

She bids a tearful farewell to her mother and sister Rose as she departs. The ship ride is trying as she has to cope with rocky waves that make her seasick and cabin neighbors who lock her out of the bathroom. Nevertheless she finds a cabin mate whom she gets along with well. Her cabin mate is actually on her second trip to the United States returning home. She gives her advise on what to do at immigration and informs her of what to anticipate in the United States.

Once in New York she makes her home at an Irish boarding house in Brooklyn run by a traditionalist woman housing young women. She’s able to find a job at a Manhattan department store but is uneasy with it at first. She meets with Fr. Flood who helped her make her job arrangements and she’s able to enroll in bookkeeping classes. She goes to dances at the Irish hall but is surprised to learn the young man who’s interested in her is Italian. He’s smitten over her but she’s reluctant to admit she loves him. Eventually she finally does and meets his family.

Unfortunately tragedy in back in Ireland interrupts her stay in Brooklyn. Fr. Flood informs Eilis that her sister Rose died and her mother doesn’t know how to cope. Before returning to Ireland, Tony wants to marry Eilis. They wed secretly in a courthouse. Upon returning to Enniscorthy, Eilis already has a return to Brooklyn planned out but over time she feels more at home. Her best friend is about to marry, she gets offered an accounting job on an emergency basis at her sister’s business, and she wins the affections of Jim Farrell, an eligible bachelor who stands to inherit huge property.

Over time she wins the love of Jim, gets admiration from her workplace and starts falling in love with the town she left behind. It’s like the life that eluded her before she left has happened once she returned. Her feeling at home in Enniscorthy has left her comfortable to the point she doesn’t open the letters Tony send her. None of them. However a visit to Miss Kelly and what she has to say to Eilis seals her fate and where she makes her final decision.

This film is one that will remind one of Oscar winners or nominees of the past. Often you think you’re watching a film that would’ve had what it took to win Best Picture 20 years ago. However what it does is it helps bring back the magic of those films set in the past and takes one back to an easier time. Usually nostalgia pictures like these have become too cookie-cutter over the years especially as the critical ‘powers that be’ in the film world have recently been giving the lauds to more innovative fare. I will admit myself this looks like something the Weinstein brothers would have shelled out during their Miramax days. However the film succeed in making such a nostalgia film a refreshing alternative around the awards season. The film even adds a certain charm or magic that seemed to be missing in a lot of nostalgia films as of late.

It’s a question what the film’s best quality is. Whether it’s the story line or setting of the environment. However I think the best quality of the film has to be a very relatable story. Sure, we’ve seen many Ellis Island or ‘Coming To America’ stories before. What I feel is the movie’s best quality is a common story that’s relatable time over time. In fact just last week, a person I know who came here from Ireland years ago and just received her permanent residency just this month said she saw the film and it reminded her of her own homesickness and even her own frustrations of not knowing what will happen next or whether things will work out for the better. Reminiscing over the film, I think that’s it. I believe its magic is this is a common story that any Irish immigrant to the United States, whether they came early in the 20th century or in the 50’s like Eilis or even just recently, can relate to and even see themselves and their own stories in that film.

Saoirse Ronan is the perfect pick for Eilis Lacey. She has the grace and the youthfulness to play her well. She also does a very good job of playing a young woman from back in the 1950’s with the elegance and innocence coming with it. Overall, Ronan’s role of Eilis is the centerpiece of the film. Nevertheless there are good performances from the other actors despite not having as complex of roles. There’s Julie Walters who did a good job as Madge Kehoe as well as Jim Broadbent as Fr. Flood. There are even those that give comic relief like Emily Rickards and Eileen O’Higgins as Patty and Nancy, Eilis’ two laughing girl friends in Brooklyn, and James DiGiacomo as Tony’s littlest brother Frankie who knows how to steal the show. There were however roles that could have been more. Firstly, Emory Cohen was also good as Tony Fiorello and had the right charm to play him but the role lacked complexity. Also there were times I feel Jane Brennan’s role as Mrs. Lacey and Domhnall Gleeson’s role as Jim Farrell could have been more.

Nick Hornby wrote a very good adaptation for the screen despite having some underdeveloped roles. John Crowley also did a good job in direction. This film should be considered the Irish director’s North American breakthrough. The technical aspects of the film like the sets, the costuming, the hair and the make-up worked perfectly for the film as it fit the times and the cities perfectly. Michael Brook also gave a fitting score to the film.

Brooklyn may look like your common Ellis Island story but it’s a film that does all the right moves and captures the right feel that makes this film great.

Movie Review: Anomalisa

Anomalisa is one of the more adult animated features from 2015 and features a unique story.

Anomalisa is one of the more adult animated features from 2015 and features a unique story.

Most animated features this year have been family-oriented blockbusters. Anomalisa provides for an adult alternative. Does it provide well?

Michael Stone is a motivational speaker who has arrived in Cincinnati for a single day to give a lecture on effective customer service. He should have it all– he’s married, a father and he’s a success at his profession– but you sense something’s missing. That becomes evident when he has images of Bella, his ex-girlfriend from more than ten years ago. In addition, everyone besides Michael has the same voice from the hotel personnel to his ex to his wife Donna and son Henry to even the waitress.

The night appears to be a disaster as he tries to reconnect with Bella in the hotel lounge only to find out she’s emotionally troubled. In the end, he’s only after sex with Bella and she leaves furiously. You can tell he’s not with it as he is looking to buy a toy for his son Henry and end up shopping in a toy store–an adult toy store– and actually buys something for him.

During the night, he thinks he missed getting his room service and goes walking down the hall for the person he wants to see. He knocks on one hotel room and comes across two females who traveled here to hear his lecture. Both are customer service employees. There’s Erica, who’s tall and blond and sounds like everyone else, and Lisa who’s shorter, a brunette and has a very different voice. Michael has drinks with the two which goes better than with Bella but he takes an interest in Lisa. Lisa is surprised as she’s normally the socially rejected one. In fact she took customer service because she’s not normally put in front desk or face-to-face sales positions. In fact her last boyfriend was a boss who just didn’t work out at all with her. She has low self-esteem, often feeling cut off from the world, and admires Cyndi Lauper for her ability to dare to be different. However Michael and Lisa connect and they spend the night together.

The following morning, Michael gets bad dreams about being sexually pursued by others. At breakfast with Lisa, he’s faced with the dilemma that Lisa may not be the one, that she maybe like all the others. He tries to do his lecture, with Lisa and Erica in the audience, but he just can’t put it together. Michael returns back to his home life and his family only to have a surprise party for him in which he doesn’t welcome and suggests his marriage to Donna is in jeopardy. Meanwhile Lisa and Erica head back on their road trip leaving the audience to wonder what will happen long after the story ends.

I am quite accustomed to Charlie Kaufman shelling out unapologetically eccentric entertainment. Being John Malkovich is possibly the most eccentric film I’ve seen outside of Clockwork Orange. Adaptation is an amusing story about Charlie’s ‘twin’ Donald. In addition, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is possibly the best ‘romance of the absurd.’ Anomalisa is possibly the least eccentric film I’ve ever seen from him. This is also very rare that I see him use animation to tell his story. Actually Anomalisa was a stage play written by him ten years ago. That explains why the film is set in 2005.

Basically the film touches on the subject of a person’s feeling of missing voids in their life and their personal belonging. We have a man who should have it all: a married father who has it made as a motivational speaker and instructor. We also have a woman who feels like a misfit and tries to hang onto things that give her positive self-esteem like Cyndi Lauper songs or her best friend since elementary school. They meet by chance and it turns out that they appear just right for each other only to have that chemistry questioned only shortly after.

I will say it did not make sense at the beginning of the film hearing Michael talk in his voice and seeing all the other characters besides Lisa talk in the same voice including Michael’s wife, son Henry, Bella and even Lisa’s friend Erica. It’s once you get into the film you learn why Michael and Lisa are the ones with different voices. The reason why all the other people have the same voice is because to Michael, they’re ‘everyone else,’ including his wife and son. Once you notice Lisa as the only other person with a different voice, you will soon understand that she is something to Michael. It makes sense over time. However this case of voices matching the role will also send a message about the morning after and what Lisa will mean to Michael.

Kaufman does a very good job of writing and co-directing however it’s also Duke Johnson who does a very good job in directing the animation. It’s a wonder why Kaufman wanted to have Anomalisa adapted to animation instead of live-action. Duke has already had experience in animation with two different shorts and an animated series of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. Here his animation fused with the story of Anomalisa does seem to come off as a bit odd at first–even seeing Duke’s style of animation does seem different at first– but it seems fitting at the end. I feel it worked out excellently. The vocal talent was also very good as both David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh were both able to provide personality and emotion to their characters of Michael and Lisa respectively. Tom Noonan also did a good job of voicing everyone else and was able to make it sound entertaining. The music of Carter Burwell as well as the inclusion of songs and lyrics from others added to the film.

Anomalisa is a refreshing break from most animated movies that hit it big at the box office. It’s a very adult style of an animation story that’s very offbeat but manages to make sense to you and impressed you in the end.