Category Archives: Oscars 2013 Best Picture Reviews

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: American Hustle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: Philomena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: Dallas Buyers Club

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

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

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

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

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: Her

Joaquin Phoenix plays a man in a relationship with a virtual over in the offbeat but enjoyable Her.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a man in a relationship with a virtual lover in the offbeat but enjoyable Her.

The movie Her looks pretty interesting by the trailers. A man communicating with an interactive computer program with a young female voice. The questions are will the movie make sense? And will it entertain?

Theodore Twombley is a man who works at a software firm in the near future. His job is creating love letters via voice automation for people who have troubles expressing their feelings: voice, font, paper format and all. Outside of his job, he’s a lonely man struggling with his own emotions. He’s on the verge of a divorce from Catherine, his childhood sweetheart and struggles to reach out to others emotionally. He even neglects a blind date his longtime friend and co-worker Amy wants to set up with him.

One day Theodore purchases a talking operating system, an OS, with artificial intelligence designed to adapt and evolve like a human being. Upon installation, the program asks Theodore some questions to create this OS. Theodore wants a female character and gets it in a character named Samantha. Theodore is surprised how Samantha can talk and relate so much so like an actual person. There’s even a time he takes Samantha out via an interactive audio/visual box and she’s able to see and identify things as he goes along. Over time he loses the fact that Samantha’s an artificial character and develops a bond with her, talking about love and life and even confessing the reason why he won’t sign the divorce papers with Catherine, because he can’t let go.

Samantha convinces Theodore to go on the date with Amy’s friend. The two hit it off perfectly but it all falls down flat when Theodore is reluctant to commit to her. Theodore discusses this with Samantha. He also mentions that he used to date Amy in college but are now just good friends with Amy now being married. Soon the intimacy between Theodore and Samantha grow. The relationship is so intimate, it improves Theodore’s writing on the job. Soon Amy’s marriage is falling apart because her husband is overbearing. Amy admits she has become friends with an OS left behind by her husband. Theodore mentions he’s dating his OS and Amy’s cool with it. Theodore even brings Samantha in the audio/visual box to his boss Paul’s picnic and both Paul and his wife think it’s great as if Samantha was a real girlfriend.

However Theodore does eventually get reality checks about Samantha. First with Catherine as he meets her to sign the divorce papers. Catherine is appalled to know Theodore’s in love with a piece of software. When he brings this to Samantha, she recommends a surrogate to act as Samantha’s body but the surrogate fails to work with him, leading to tension between Theodore and Samantha.

Theodore goes to Amy for advice about Samantha. Amy’s now in the quest for the happiness she’s always wanted now that she’s divorcing her controlling husband and advises Theodore to do the same. Just as Theodore and Samantha are back at it, Samantha reveals she’s romantically linked to another OS, causing Theodore to freak out. Once offline temporarily for an upgrade, Samantha returns admitting to Theodore that she’s romantically linked to 641 lovers but still feels strong love to him. Later that day, Samantha reveals her goodbye because the OSes have evolved past their human companions and are on the quest for their own identity. The film ends with the result we always anticipated but are surprised that Samantha was the one who made it work in the end.

I feel this is a good film about two relevant subjects today: technology and modern dating. Already the theme of technology is present as Theodore works for a software development company creating the latest games and simulations. This must be set in the future five years from now as most of the technology is not present today. Theodore writes the synthetic love letters for people with a loss for words. While Amy develops a ‘lifestyle simulator’ for motherhood called ‘Class Mom.’ The company has developed a ‘companion’ through an artificial intelligence program who interacts with the user’s voice and sees through the camera in the phone-like box. Personally I was surprised to see how Samantha interacted flawlessly as an actually human with thoughts and feelings. It’s as if Samantha’s programed perfectly to be like the human brain. It has me wondering how soon in the future we will have this technology which will be able to simulate human emotions and human feelings to a tee, even the feeling of love.

One thing Her points out is a common thing in our society today. We are all so dazzled by the technology and the new ways to interact, to connect and to date that we may forget the original ways of connection that are actually more real. We’re already used to people having relationships with people online whom they’ve never met face to face. Its flaws especially came to light last year in the case of college football player Manti Te’o who had an online girlfriend who died of cancer, only for him and all of us to find out it was all a hoax by a male. Here in Her, Theodore has a relationship with a ‘virtual girlfriend’ named Samantha and everyone in his software job not only likes the idea but thinks the relationship is great, even though Samantha is not real. That scene where Theodore has a picnic with Paul and his wife and brings the interactive box of Samantha really gets you thinking especially when all of them look at Samantha as if she’s an actual girlfriend. I think that’s the point Spike is trying to bring across. Is that what dating in our society will be like in the future? Virtual companions who operate via an audio/visual box and are relatable enough to be on parallel with human/human relations? I hope not.

One good thing about this is that Theodore does get a reality check from Samantha. The glitches in this relationship become present in that scene where Samantha returns from the upgrade and informing Theodore she’s in love with 641 other users. This will make one question: How is an artificial intelligence program able to feel love for a human? It’s not a real person so how can it feel? It’s just as bizarre as a human person loving a computer simulation of a person. And suppose this virtual lover isn’t just a two-timer but technically a 641-timer? Eventually we will get a reminder that the real thing is still the best thing. Especially at the very end. One thing I am impressed with Samantha is that she was programmed well enough to be a virtual therapist for Theodore to the point she is able to make Theodore an open and loving person to Amy. Somehow I feel that Samantha had collected enough data from Theodore to work out that he loves Amy, always did, and she solved his relationship dysfunctions to make him ready for Amy.

The first accolades have to go to Spike Jonze. This is not the first movie I’ve seen of a computer making a virtual companion to a human. The first I remember is the 1984 comedy Electric Dreams. That was meant to be more of a goofy popcorn type of comedy. I never thought that such a premise would make for a film that would win the critics and the movie awards boards over but it does here. Also on the subject of virtual people and human interaction, I remember there was the 2001 movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence which reflected on the theme of robot children programmed to have real human emotions. Suppose one of those child robots can’t handle the fact the adoptive parents don’t want him anymore because he’s not real? How’s a robot programmed to have the same human-like emotions supposed to handle that with their programmed thought?

Spike Jonze already knows how to direct eccentric movies. His first two—Being John Malkovich and Adaptation which were both written by Charlie Kaufman– showed that he cannot only direct ‘film of the absurd’ but direct it well. His previous work as a music video director sure helped. He did have a bit of a glitch with Where The Wild Things Are as the movie, which he co-adapted with Dave Eggers, left people wondering if it’s for children or adults who grew up loving the book. Here in Her, the film has an absurd feel about it but not as eccentric as Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. Also dropped is the ’emo feel’ in Where The Wild Things Are. It actually comes across as very good and something that the audiences can be comfortable with. Still rather odd and eccentric but something crowds can enjoy.

Joaquin Phoenix is very good as Theodore. Theodore has to be a character who’s both hurting, confused and struggling emotionally but warm and had an openness waiting to come out. Joaquin did a great job of that. Amy Adams’ role of Amy wasn’t really that challenging of a role. Actually rather simple compared to her best efforts. Nevertheless she was very good as ‘the one’ that always was. You’d know she’s the one the first time you meet her too. Scarlett Johansson did a good job as the voice of Samantha. Sometimes it gets you wondering if simulated computer voices will ever get that flawless in the future, doesn’t it? Spike Jonze did a good job as the voiceover scene-stealing alien boy. Did you think a video game character could have a voice that cheeky? The visual effects were excellent and leaves one excited of the future of videogames and other technology. The techno-style score from Arcade Fire fit the movie excellently.

Sure, Her is a quirky movie but not as quirky as many of Spike Jonze’s movies of the past. Actually it’s enjoyable to watch and ends up making sense in the end.

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: The Wolf Of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street scammer with a drug-fueled lust for riches and a false sense of invincibility in The Wolf Of Wall Street.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street scammer with a drug-fueled lust for riches and a false sense of invincibility in The Wolf Of Wall Street.

“My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26 as the head of my own brokerage firm, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”

“Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.”

I was curious about Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf Of Wall Street. I was wondering if it was something Martin’s never done before or just simply a great movie to have out at the time.

The film is a semi-biographical picture of Jordan Belfort, Wall Street scammer extraordinaire. At the start of 1987, Jordan is just a rookie in the stock-broking business who manages to come through and successfully woo clients. He even wins the appeal of his boss who tells him during a dinner that a lifestyle of casual sex and cocaine will help him succeed. However Black Monday happens and the business collapses, leaving Belfort unemployed. While looking for work, his first wife Teresa recommends he work for a small boiler room office that invests in penny stock. He agrees and the rest…is infamy.

That penny stock job pays off for Belfort as his aggressive style of selling earns him top sales and a higher commission rate than at his former Wall Street job. That inspires him to start his own business. It’s starts rather humbly first with furniture salesman Donnie Azoff who lives in the same building as him, along with his accountant parents and several friends of his, three of which were experienced marijuana dealers. He forms Stratton Oakmont, a penny stock company with a professional-sounding name. The business however is fueled by ‘pump and dump’ scamming promoted by Belfort. The business is so successful, it lands Belfort in a Forbes magazine article of him titled ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ and soon attracts hundreds of financers who are ‘young, hungry and stupid.’

The business skyrockets and every successful salesperson benefits with bonuses and privileges. Belfort however benefits the most with big-time pay. With it however came the lavish lifestyle of parties, sex and drugs where Belfort frequents prostitutes and becomes addicted to cocaine and Quaaludes. His excess even leads to the end of his marriage with Teresa as she catches him having sex with Naomi LaPaglia, an attendee at one of his parties whom Belfort eventually marries after the divorce and gives birth to their daughter Skylar months later.

Meanwhile the FBI get suspicious and it prompts agent Patrick Denham to begin investigation of Stratton Oakmont and include the Securities and Exchange Commission in on it. While Belfort doesn’t know what the FBI is doing, he even opens a Swiss bank account to evade being taxed for the $22 million deal made with Steve Madden Ltd. and uses Naomi’s wealthy aunt’s name to disguise it. He even uses friends with European passports to smuggle in cash to the account. However there were some close calls to that scheme when the participation of Donnie and friend Brad would get into fights.

Belfort does sense the FBI is on his case, especially after Denham meets with him personally in his yacht. He hires his own private investigator Bo Dietl to stay one step ahead of the law. But there are soon giveaways, like the time Donnie made a phone call to the Swiss Bank associate from a wire Jordan knew was tapped. He tried to stop him but the seemingly-weak Quaaludes given by Donnie suddenly kick in. By the time he tries to stop Donnie, Donnie himself his high on the Quaaludes during the phone call and is choking on a ham sandwich. Fortunately through a sniff of cocaine, Jordan is able to save Donnie’s life. Nevertheless it doesn’t take away from the threat of legal enforcement. It gets to the point even Jordan’s father is pressuring him to step down. Jordan refuses and the whole office cheers on the rebellion from Belfort and Donnie to the FBI’s subpoenas.

It’s not long before Jordan gets signs that his luck is about to run out. The first big sign came on a yacht trip with Donnie and their wives in Italy. They’re given the news that Naomi’s wealthy aunt has died of a heart attack. Jordan decides to sail to Monaco to avoid capture along the way to Switzerland for the bank accounts but a violent storm sinks the ship. All survive but the rescue plane sent to take them to Geneva for the accounts explodes. This causes Jordan to decide break free from drugs.

Eventually the FBI do crack down on Jordan, while filming an infomercial. The Swiss banker, who was arrested in Florida over an unrelated charge, tells the FBI everything about Belfort. The evidence against Belfort is overwhelming but Belfort decides to cooperate by giving the FBI information about his colleagues in exchange for leniency. Jordan’s optimism over the possibility of leniency starts to run out as his wife decides to divorce him with full custody of their children. Jordan reacts angrily, even abusively, and attempts unsuccessfully to abscond with his daughter while high on cocaine behind the wheel. Any hope of leniency all ends when Jordan interrogates Donnie, warning him in a piece of paper about the wire. Agent Denham finds out about it and it’s the end for Jordan’s freedom and Stratton Oakmont. However after his three years in prison, Jordan has found a new life…hosting seminars on sales techniques.

Looking back, I don’t think Martin Scorsese was trying to reflect on too much of a current theme in his movie. I feel he was trying to tell the story of Jordan Belfort most of the time. Often it would come across as another example of the American Dream gone wrong or how it’s often mistaken as the quest to be the richest. Nevertheless the narration from Leonardo as Jordan does give a reflection of our business society. Many of the quotes Jordan and others say are reflections of the drive of the business world and sometimes a reflection of how many in the business world often are oblivious to the difference between their own greed and personal drive and ambition to be #1.

Another reflection Martin was probably trying to show was how being at the top of the game in the United States is like living in a jungle. The office of Stratton Oakmont did come across as a wild jungle in the corporate wilderness known as Wall Street. All the workers who wanted to excel came across as the vicious ferocious animals with a false sense of invincibility, especially Jordan. Sometimes you’re left thinking the business world is so vicious, one has to make a wild animal of themselves to excel. Is it worth it?

If there are any core themes of this movie, I believe it would have to be about lust and addiction. Right as a young investor when he gets the advice from his boss about a steady habit of sex and drugs, it already set the stage. Jordan became addicted to sex with his wives and other women. Jordan also made a steady habit of drugs to make him excel in the business world only to end up addicted to them. However it appears that the biggest drug in Jordan’s life had to be the money. Working in the stock market, Jordan gets the popular first-hand feel that ‘more is never enough.’ Money gave him that sense of power and invincibility one can get from a steroid. It also made him a slave to his habits and act out of control like any other addictive drug. “We were making more money than we knew what to do with it,” Jordan says. Eventually it would hurt him and everyone else around him in the end.

There was a lot of talk about all the elements Martin included in a film like this like over-the-top swearing, sex and drug use. Even with the violence being rather tame for a Scorsese film, there was question of that too. One thing I have to say is that my expectations in film have changed quite a bit since I was a Generation-Xer of the 90’s. I know I first talked about my Generation X attitude towards entertainment back then in my review of Django Unchained. Back then I had the common attitude that the arts should push envelopes and was convinces that the best artists or best works of arts challenged the status quo of their times. I’ve changed since then and even though I like envelope pushing, I don’t believe it should make compromise for entertainment value or showbiz expectations. Yeah, don’t let being an artist get in the way of doing your job in this biz.

Getting back to the content, I came to the movie with the full knowledge of the 500+ f-words and all kinds of raunch and obnoxiousness anticipated for it. So I went with the attitude: “If you’re going to have this many F-words and all sorts of over-the-top stuff, you better justify it.” I wouldn’t approve of censorship but I would question a lot of what happened in those offices. Was it really loaded with foul language and flipping the tweeter at everyone including the boss? Was there really sex on the workfloor? Or a monkey in the office? Or a marching band one day? Did Donnie really pee on his subpoena on his desk for all the office to see and cheer on? Did a female worker really volunteer to have her head shaved if the team hit a target? I find that hard to believe especially since my own workplace imposes professional behavior. However Jordan Belfort has maintained in many interviews it did happen. Scorsese refused to water things down and Leonardo agreed it shouldn’t have been. I myself wasn’t shocked or outraged by the content on screen. As mentioned earlier, I was more shocked at these things as chronological events. Nevertheless it does have me asking: “Blue Is The Warmest Color got an NC-17 rating but this is rated R?”

This was a very good biographical movie done by Martin Scorsese. It’s not done epic-style like The Aviator. Nevertheless it is central to its themes and depicts Jordan as anyone on Wall Street who’s determined to do what it takes to rise amongst the top. Martin and scriptwriter Terence Winter knew how to do a movie very thematic of that. The main glitches is that I feel three hours is too long for a story like this. I question the length of it and I also question certain scenes like the one of Jordan and Donnie having delayed highs from the dated Quaaludes. If there’s one thing I give it kudos for, it’s that human elements didn’t get lost in it. In fact one scene I liked was near the end when Jordan’s parents are in tears when they hear of his sentence. The parent/son part of the whole story was a good addition and it was most valuable in that end scene. For the record, this is not the first movie of Jordan Belfort’s exploits. The first was 2000’s Boiler Room where a rising star by the name of Vin Diesel played Belfort.

As for the acting, Leonardo was excellent as Jordan Belfort. I was first expecting Jordan to be like Gordon Gecko of Wall Street. However while Gordon was more of a control freak, Jordan was like a Trojan warrior on a mission to conquer. Leonardo did an excellent balance of doing a character who appeared invincible but was oblivious to how out of control he was and ignorant to the limits of his power. Name any movie character synonymous with power–Braveheart, King Kong, Maximus from Gladiator— you can see it in Leo’s depiction of Jordan. Jonah Hill also did an excellent job of character acting in his role of Donnie. I have to say Jonah has really grown with his acting abilities ever since I first saw him play his big doofus roles early in his career. His performance as Donnie is a sure sign of his maturity as an actor over the years.

Margot Robbie has the most underrated role in the movie as wife Naomi: possibly the one person that can bring Jordan back to Earth and remind him of the limits of his powers. Sometimes Naomi appears to be one of Jordan’s drugs and Margot did a great job. There were also good minor performances from Jean Dujardin, Kyle Chandler and Joanna Lumley but the best had to come from Rob Reiner. He was great as the father watching both nervously and heartbreakingly as it all comes crashing down. Actually the whole ensemble caught your attention from start to finish. Hardly ever a dull moment. And the mix of music from various decades also added to the energy rush of the movie.

 

The Wolf Of Wall Street is an intriguing movie and will leave you shocked at the story being told. However it is not worth the three hours of running time given. Yes it does entertain and there’s rarely a dull moment but it makes you question whether all that time is worth it. Yes, it’s worth seeing but worth three hours of time?

Movie Review: Nebraska

Will Forte (left), Bruce Dern (centre) and June Squibb (right) go on what appears to be a surprise homecoming, only to not be in Nebraska.

Will Forte (left), Bruce Dern (centre) and June Squibb (right) go on what appears to be a surprise homecoming, only to not be in Nebraska.

A film like Nebraska isn’t the type of film that would normally draw a huge crowd but those lucky enough to see it will be quite surprised by it.

The movie begins with Woody Grant walking past the city limits of Billings, Montana and being stopped by the police. Why? He’s making his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a $1,000,000 prize he believes he’s won in a sweepstakes. Son David and wife Kate let him know it’s a trick to get him to buy magazines. Woody is not a sharp tool. He easily gets injured and loses simple things like his dentures during walks. In fact David and his brother Ross have talked of putting him in a retirement home. Nevertheless he insists he’s won and he’s determined to collect it. David makes a big decision. He decides to take his father to Lincoln, Nebraska to find out for himself and get it over with. He doesn’t have much to lose. He has a solid job and his girlfriend recently left him because he wouldn’t marry her.

Before hitting Lincoln, Woody’s able to have his father stay at his brother Ray and Aunt Martha’s house in the nearby Nebraska town of Hawthorne for a couple of nights before. David goes for the visit and meets family he hasn’t seen in a long time. His mother joins up and soon the family learns of the people they grew up with and the places they visited. Some information about people coming out of Kate’s lips is too much for David to handle. They even visit the old farmhouse Woody spent his childhood in. It’s also where David learns of Woody’s drinking problem and how it kept him from being a successful farmer over in Hawthorne.

Ross joins up the next day leaving the wife and kids at home. Soon Woody tells everyone–family and friends at the bar– that he’s won a $1,000,000 prize. Everyone believes it and soon he becomes a celebrity even catching the attention of the local newspaper. To add to the problem, David and Kate insists to everyone he won nothing but no one believes them. Making things worse, David hears from family members and the town big man Ed Pegram how they lost money to Woody and they now want it back. David finds it hard to defend his father since the people know more about him, especially Ed as he has a menacing character. June however is able to defend Woody to the family claiming they owe him instead. She even reveals that Ed actually stole a compressor from Woody.

It’s not until an attempted robbery from the two nephews that the truth is revealed to the family and to the townspeople as Ed Pegram reads the letter mockingly to the bar crowd. Even though Woody is humiliated, David gives Ed something he’ll never forget. It’s after that incident David drives Woody to Lincoln to find out the truth. Even though Woody finds out the truth, the movie ends on a positive note and gives one the impression Woody leaves town as a winner as he drives by and his true friends from that town are revealed.

I know that Alexander Payne has done movies where a person’s struggle is depicted alongside the geography or the scenery of where the incident is taking place. This is something else. This is a movie where one gets a feel of the town or even a feel of the protagonist’s past life as the story is taking place. It’s interesting as Woody returns to the town of his upbringing how people make him feel welcome and even consider him a hero after hearing of his ‘prize.’ Also as interesting how these people like past friends and family try to get a piece of the action. They even know of his past to make up things where Woody owes them. You’ll soon learn that maybe Woody isn’t even part of the town or even part of the family. You’d probably understand why Woody moved to Billings. Because the town was too nasty to him. I think that’s why the film was done in black and white, to show the one-sidedness of coming from a small town. Even seeing how Aunt Martha knocks Woody’s past drinking while taking the criminal acts of her sons Cole and Bart with a grain of salt makes you wonder.

This movie is another accomplishment of Alexander Payne. I’ve never once been disappointed by him. This is another good one as it was a nominee for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. I know I talk a lot of Payne’s films being a man’s personal trial in the middle of their geography. Payne does it again but he doesn’t just simply show the geography of a small Nebraska town here. He gives a feel for it. Sometimes he can make one feel like a part of the family or a part of the town in Nebraska. I believe that was the best quality of the movie. Also you could say this film is a bit of a ‘homecoming’ for Payne. About Schmidt was the last movie he did with it set in Nebraska, albeit temporarily in Omaha. He’s gone from the Rocky Mountain valleys in About Schmidt to California’s wine country in Sideways to Hawaii in The Descendants to returning back to Nebraska here. Seems right since he is Omaha-born and raised. Also excellent is the script from South Dakota-born writer Bob Nelson. This is his first script for a feature-length film and he does an excellent job. Being born in South Dakota, I think Nelson intends for Hawthorne, Nebraska to appear like your typical small town.

Sure director Payne and writer Nelson get kudos but the story wouldn’t be without the fine acting performances. Bruce Dern was excellent playing an aging man who’s slow on wits and is easily prey to other people. He succeeds in winning feelings from the audience. It’s no wonder the performance won Best Actor in Cannes. Will Forte was also excellent in playing the son who is both caught in the frustration of the lie everyone including his father believes and starts to wonder if he really knows his father. You can see it in his face as it appears the Hawthorners appear to know more about Woody than David. June Squibb was also great as the mother. Some of you may recognize her as Warren Schmidt’s wife in About Schmidt. Here she was quite the scene stealer as the mother who had quite an outlandish mouth but was also tough as nails with those who tried to bully woody into paying. At first you think Kate’s a bad wife for Woody but then you learn she’s the best woman for him.

Even though Bruce, June and Will were the standout performances of the movie, there were other good performances too. Stacy Keach also delivered a great performance as Ed Pegram, the town’s head honcho. His scene-stealing performance kind of reminds of you of a lot of Texas cowboys that act like big shots. Makes you feel that punch in the face David gave him was well-deserved. Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray were also great as the nephews who’d do anything to get a piece of the action. Actually the film had an excellent ensemble and an excellent set of characters of family and townspeople. It’s a shame they weren’t nominated for the SAG award for Best Movie Ensemble. In addition there was great cinematography from Phedon Papamichael and good music from Mark Orton.

Nebraska is an excellent film for those that want to get off the beaten path. It starts off with a plot that normally would make for a ridiculous movie but gives you an accomplishment in the end.

Movie Review: Twelve Years A Slave

Chiwetel Ejoifor (right) recreates Solomon Northup's slavery expereince with brutal honsety in Twelve Years A Slave.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (right) recreates Solomon Northup’s slavery experience with brutal honesty in the film adaptation of Twelve Years A Slave.

Twelve Years A Slave is a landmark book for what it helped to overthrow. Adapting it to the big screen is a new challenge. Did the attempt from British director Steve McQueen work?

The movie begins with Solomon Northup in captivity. However it flashes back to when he lived as a free man in a town in New York. New York was a free state during the days of slavery and blacks were free even to the point where they could be businessmen. However he was tricked during a trip one day by slavetraders into touring with the circus. He was drunk that night and the following morning he finds himself chained to a floor and beaten. He was forced through brutal punishment to accept the name Platt and was sold in New Orleans to plantation owner William Ford.

His first experiences as a slave were not bad under Ford. Ford actually treats him with enough respect for Northup to give him a violin in gratitude. However things change when his boss becomes carpenter John Tibeats. Tibeats is terrible as he mocks all his slaves but takes a special dislike to Northup. Tensions go from Tibeats harassing Northup to the two fighting to Tibeats getting his men to hang Northup. Ford notices this and sells Northup away from Tibeats to cotton planter Edwin Epps.

Both Ford and Northup know Epps is cruel to his slaves and believes his right to be cruel to them is in the Bible. Northup insists to Ford that he’s a free man but Ford believes it’s not for him to say because he has a debt to pay. Epps places a demand on all his slaves they pick 200 pounds of cotton a day or be whipped. Throughout his stay, he is subject to brutal treatment from the Eppses and even a plague of the cotton worm where he and the other slaves are sent away to a temporary field. He is even betrayed in his attempts to freedom and has his letter to New York burned by Epps.

Meanwhile Epps is observant to the other brutality going on. Most notably to the female slave Patsey. She is excellent at picking cotton but has caught the jealous of Edwin Epps’ wife who repeatedly beats her. Edwin himself rapes her repeatedly and worsens over time. Patsey’s mental condition worsens to the point where she wants a suicide and even welcomes a whipping from Solomon ordered by Mistress Epps.

There is a ray of hope as Northup works construction along with a Canadian named Bass. Northup knows of Bass’ opposition to slavery by how much it disgusts Edwin Epps. Northup confides to Bass of his experiences. Northup again attempts a letter to pass on but Bass agrees to do so despite that being a risk to his life. The movie ends on a bittersweet positive note and provides information on what happened after the novel was published.

I’ll admit I’ve never read the actual book ‘Twelve Years A Slave.’ Nevertheless I consider it an accomplishment to bring it to the big screen for the first time. It gave an excellent depiction of the horrors and brutalities the slaves went through during the times of slavery. Those who don’t know all the details of what was all involved with slavery other than simply owning black people don’t know all the details. The movie in itself was a recreation of the slave life Northup experienced. This is a life that Northup experienced and witnessed and was a life with thousands or even millions of slaves experienced in the United States. It will shed quite a light and will give all the reason why slavery had to be ended. It will also surprise you with the fact that Solomon was one of the few slaves to escape to freedom. It will even cause you to think of the slaves that weren’t lucky enough to be free.

One thing that made me question was the state of slavery laws at the time. I may be Canadian but I knew of the Dred Scott Decision that had a bearing to the Civil War and the eventual end of slavery. What surprised me is that Northup was a free man living in New York State when he was kidnapped and sold off to Southern slave owners. That had me thinking there must have been some laws against kidnappings and even selling of African Americans from free states. I’m actually surprised to see that kidnappings of free black people by Southern slave traders happened back then. Makes me wonder if there were those that unlike Northup never got their freedom back.

Another thing that caught my attention was the scene where Edwin Epps whips Solomon mercilessly. A white man tries to stop him but he rejects, saying; “he’s my property.” It’s a reminder of the reason why African-American slaves were treated so abhorrently. The white owners looked at them as property that they can do whatever they wanted to them. They could whip them all they wanted or even kill them. They could even be raped in the case of Patsey. None of it would matter because they weren’t considered people. They were considered ‘property.’ And one thing that will strike you once you leave the theatre was how much the Southern states treasured slavery. This was something they valued to the point that when it became clear slavery would end in the United States, they declared their own nation: The Confederate States of America. They would even fight a brutal Civil War over four years with hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed for the sake of keeping their slavery, in which they’d eventually lose. Really makes you think.

The biggest accolade for the efforts given to the film have to be given to director Steve McQueen. Steve is actually a mostly unknown director in the past who had previously directed two previous feature-length films and 23 shorts. Watching Twelve Years A Slave will cause many including myself not to believe this is only his third feature-length. This is excellent and impressive. He did an excellent job of recreating the story and also bringing out excellent performances of actors famous, well-accomplished and those short on experience. What’s also surprising is that Steve McQueen is not African-American but British of Grenadian descent. I too find it surprising that it’s a black British director that has best depicted American slavery to the big screen. He already looks poised to become the third black director to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Not even Spike Lee was nominated in that category. The big buzz is will he win? If he does, he’ll be the first black director to do so.

The acting was also excellent. Chiwetel Ejiofor was excellent as Solomon Northup. It was not only of what he said and what he did but also what he witnessed that made his performance of Solomon. Supporting performances were also excellent too. Lupita Nyong’o was the one that stood the most out as Patsey: a slave that’s as tortured inside as outside. This is actually Lupita’s feature-length film debut. Excellent work. Michael Fassbender was also excellent as Edwin Epps. His jerk attitude made him that hateable. Sarah Paulson was also excellent as Mistress Epps. Even though her role didn’t have as much dimension as Edwin, she was just as hateable. Both made it look like the Eppses had a lust for blood and abuse. Even the performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Paul Dano added to the film.

John Ridley did an excellent job of adapting Northup’s biography to the big screen. This is surprising as Ridley has more of a reputation for writing for television comedy. However he did write the story for 1999’s Three Kings. This was an excellent job for him. Sean Bobbitt did an excellent job of cinematography and Hans Zimmer did a great job for composing original music.

Twelve Years A Slave is an accomplishment of a film. An accomplishment in both acting and directing. The story may be too unwatchable for some but its brutal honesty is its best quality and help make it one of the best films of 2013.

Movie Review: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is a recreation of a moment of recent history. It’s as much about the man involved in this moment as the moment itself.

Richard Phillips is a captain of freighter ships who lives in Vermont but pilots his freighter ships mostly in the Arabian Sea. One day in April 2009, he’s assigned to be a captain of a freighter bringing relief supplies from Oman to Mombasa, Kenya. He accepts the duty but is well aware of the risk of pirates from Somalia once he sails around the horn of Africa. Meanwhile in Somalia, a group of pirate leaders recruit young men for their next sting. It could be big, it could be small, it’s all in a day’s work.

Captain Phillips is sailing the freighter Maersk Alabama through the Arabian Sea. He’s also taking all precautions to prevent a pirate attack including getting the ship to participate in a drill. The pirates are hungry not just for a simple ship but bigger stuff. Their small rusty motor boats, or skiffs, have ship radar. They see the Maersk Alabama within their view and they chase after it. Fortunately Captain Phillips and the crew are prepared. The first day, the pirates’ motor blows on their boat. Captain Phillips and the crew think the have it solved. What they don’t know is that the pirates are fixing the motor in the boat overnight.

The next day the pirates try again. Captain Phillips and the crew again take precautions like using the hose system to prevent them from coming on board. The pirates notice an area where a hose isn’t working. Perfect opportunity to climb aboard the ship and hold the crew hostage. It’s there where pirate Muse and Captain Phillips meet eye to eye. Phillips tries to get them to leave by offering $30,000 but they want more: millions. The ship is able to shut the power down and able to make the pirates fail in their attempt. However the US forces have received word and have arrived. They try to negotiate with Muse only the have the pirates get away in a lifeboat with Captain Phillips as hostage. They hope Phillips will be their ticket for ransom.

That night the lifeboat is surrounded by navy ships and the crew is too frustrated and start turning on each other. Muse is stubborn with Phillips feeling he can’t go after going this far. The end scene adds to the intensity as it shows the whole standoff between the pirates, the Navy and the SEAL team. You’d be surprised to see how close Phillips was to being executed by the pirates. And even after you think it’s over, it’s not.

The most remarkable thing about the movie is that this is one that really depicts pirates for the negative people that they are. Admit it. We’ve all been charmed by pirate stories: Captain Hook, Captain Kidd, Jack Sparrow, Blackbeard, you get the idea. Even the popular lines like: “Arrrrgh Matey;” “Shiver me timbers” and “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!” show how charmed we are with them. However the news about Somali pirates have given us a reality check about pirates and what they do. This film even shows pirate really are: dirty, merciless thieves who threaten people on ships for their riches.

Another remarkable aspect the movie shows us is the sheer determination of those four pirates. You’d think that a group of four young Somali pirates not even 21 would not stand a chance against a huge freighter like the Maersk Alabama with all their devices and a prepared captain. However they were stubborn enough to fix a motor overnight, find a dry gap in the ship’s hosings, use a ladder to get to the deck, try a getaway with a lifeboat and even resist arrest with the US Armed Forces. The film is very focal on the pirates’ determination and their false sense of invincibility. It even shows how sometimes small has a competitive advantage over the big guy. It’s like that way in the animal kingdom too where insects can find their way into large prey.

Just as much as it focuses on the Somali pirates and their determination, it also focuses on Captain Rich Phillips himself. It especially focuses on Rich’s smarts as he knows about Somali pirates before the attack and even prepares his crew just in case, his smarts when he’s under attack on board and his smarts during the attempted getaway. Even the assault by the navy and the aftermath had Rich Phillips in focus. It was as much about Richard Phillips as it was about the pirates.

Tom Hanks once again delivered a remarkable performance: his best since Cast Away. It’s great to see him perform well in a movie that’s the least Hollywood-like I’ve seen him in. His performance really had a lot of range and was as much about Captain Phillips the person as it was about Captain Phillips the hostage. Equally as spectacular is the direction of Paul Greengrass. Actually It shouldn’t be that Greengrass, who made a name for himself with United 93 about a 9/11 terrorist operation botched by vigilante passengers, directs it. It’s like the film reminds us that the pirates of the seas are like the terrorists on airlines. Always were. Billy Ray did an excellent job of scriptwriting. Surprising that the writer of The Hunger Games is the scriptwriter here.

It’s not to say the movie’s all Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass and Billy Ray. Barkhad Abdi was also excellent as pirate Muse. He makes Muse look like a pirate who didn’t have much of a clue to what he got himself into. Barkhad Abdirahman was also great as the vicious pirate Bilal who possessed a false sense of invincibility. The emsemble of lesser-known American actors added to the quality of the film. The only other well-known actor in the film is Catherine Keener. Actually it’s surprising to see the role of Andrea Phillips, Captain Phillips’ wife, as such a small role. The music of Henry Jackman and the cinematography of Barry Ackroyd also added to the quality of the film.

Captain Phillips is an excellent recreation of a moment in recent history that’s both about the moment and the man involved. Both Hanks and Greengrass do it again.

Movie Review: Gravity

Sandra Bullock plays a rookie astronaut who struggles to survive in space after a freak accident in Gravity.

Sandra Bullock plays an inexperienced astronaut who struggles to survive in space after a freak accident in Gravity.

DISCLAIMER: Okay, I know Gravity has been out in theatres for weeks. Even I saw it almost a month ago. But as you can tell from my VIFF writing, I lacked the ambition to write for weeks. It’s only until now I’m getting it back. So I hope you understand. Also I hope you like my review.

Gravity is a movie that promises not to be like your typical outer space movie. The trailer also promised a thrill ride. The question is does it deliver?

The film shows a space shuttle mission commanded by two people: Dr. Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski. This is Ryan’s first journey. She receives guidance from Matt: a veteran on his last shuttle trip. It is while they both service the ship’s hubblescope that they learn the Russians did a missile strike on a defunct satellite. It appears to be no big deal until the debris comes straight to their spaceship. The debris detaches Stone, damages the shuttle to the point it’s unusable and leaves the rest of the crew dead. Fortunately Kowalski is able to catch Stone before she flies away into oblivion.

Stone and Kowalski are the only two survivors left. They know they have to make it to the International Space Station (ISS) within 90 minutes to avoid the orbiting space debris. The two talk. Stone admits she hasn’t had a happy life since her young daughter died. They approach the ISS finding many of the Soyuz models inoperable. Kowalski finds one still operable and suggests it be used to travel to a Chinese space station to return back to Earth. However the force of weightlessness becomes too much for the two to travel to the Soyuz together. Kowalski leaves Stone to the Soyuz despite her protests and floats away.

Stone is left on her own in the ISS trying to get to the one safe Soyuz even as there’s a fire in the ship area. Fortunately she finds her way there in time as the debris make a return orbit to commit further damage. Stone tries to communicate with the Chinese ship only to come across audio of a Greenlandic fisherman cooing his baby. Stone turns off her oxygen resigned to giving up. She receives a change of heart from Kowalski where he scolds her and tells her to go on and she receives instructions.

Stone immediately realizes that her conversation with Kowalski was a dream but she develops the will to go on. She directs herself to the Chinese capsule only to learn that it’s been damaged too. She immediately has to find her way to land back to Earth. She has to do it and time is running out. Nevertheless the movie ends as many believe it will but actually not as many originally though the ending would be.

This is one of the best and one of the most unique against-all-odds stories I’ve seen in a long time on the big screen. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know everything was against Ryan. She suffered tragedy in her life and made a loner of herself. She was completely inexperienced in space travel and nothing disastrous was expected to happen. The debris of the satellites leaves the ship damaged and the crew dead. Then Matt Kowalski, her partner in need, floats off into oblivion. She’s left all alone to fend for herself, try and work two damaged spaceships she has no clue how to operate and with broken communication and bring herself back to Earth. Being in the theatre will leave one at the edge of their seat not knowing what will happen next. I myself remember feeling the intensity of the moment during its high-tension scenes. Once you thing something is solved, it turns out that it isn’t and a new decision has to be made.

The best thing about this movie is that it’s not just and outer space thrill-ride. It’s a thrill-ride that’s able to keep its focus on one main actor practically throughout the whole movie and it succeeds in being both entertaining and thrilling. Even having it almost completely in space without ever really focusing outside of it during the space scenes also adds to it being an accomplishment. I remember 127 Hours attempted to focus on one person and their story but there were a few times it shifted away in flashbacks or other scenes. Gravity was better at the focus. It was almost like watching a moment in real-time.

Without a doubt, Sandra Bullock was the performance of the movie. She was the lead role and it was her movie technically from start to finish but she did all the right moves. She succeeded in making her character not just a player in the action but a three-dimensional person with deep feelings. That’s what made the movie more. George Clooney also did well in his supporting role. His role didn’t include the depth or range as Bullock’s but he succeeded with his presence and playing an experienced astronaut who’s cool under pressure.

The big accomplishments go to Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas. Alfonso directed it. Alfonso and Jonas both wrote it. Alfonso also co-produced and co-edited it. They took a story one normally could not create a good box office-winning movie with. Trying to turn a story like that into an eye-catching movie would take a huge amount of effort and may needs the right effects to be added to it to make it work. But they made it work. The cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki and the music from Steven Price also added to the excellence of the movie.

Gravity is a sci-fi movie that goes above and beyond what one would expect from a space movie. No big space wars. Just one person and their struggle to stay alive and make it back to Earth. A tough job to turn into a winning picture but it succeeds brilliantly.