Category Archives: Movie Reviews: 2018

Movie Review: Cold War (Zimna wojna)

Cold War

Joanna Kulig (left) and Tomasz Kot play a musical couple whose love overcomes politics and separation in Cold War.

At first I didn’t plan to see Cold War. It had a lot of good rapport, but I doubted its Best Picture chances. It may not have been nominated for Best Picture, but it did earn three nominations including Best Director. That’s enough to catch my intrigue.

The film begins in the late-1940’s. World War II has ended and Poland is now under Communist rule. People from the Communist party are called out to go into the towns and villages of farmers and peasants. They meet out in a remote area consisting of a forest, a single solitary building, and a bombed-out church. Their purpose is to create an ensemble of Poland to be shown to the Communist world. The art will consist of traditional song and dance, but will also consist of propaganda songs too. This is the new world order. Wiktor Warski and Lech Kaczmarek are the two men hired to construct this ensemble.

The men decide the pieces to have for the choir as well as the dances to have for the shows. They also decide who will be singing the lead for the choir. During the audition, Wiktor takes a special interest in a singer named Zuzanna, but nicknamed ‘Zula.’  Lech notices the affection between the two. Zula is not that vocally skilled as the other female singers, but has that ‘it’ quality and sings lead through most of the choir songs. During the time of rehearsals, Wiktor increasing becomes more in love with Zula. Their love for each other continues as the ensemble Masowske finally start performing for the whole of the nation.

However years later, the leads of the ensemble decide to develop propaganda songs that will be sung during the performance. They will also be touring internationally to other Eastern Bloc countries with the goal to eventually win praise in Moscow. The tour goes into East Berlin as part of the plan. The show goes well, but unsuspectingly Wiktor notices the French Sector which can easily be crossed. Wiktor invites Zula to cross with him, but she’s afraid, feeling that something will be lost behind. Wiktor does crosses and would eventually settle in Paris, France.

In the years since his defection, he has immersed himself into the jazz scene and even formed his own ensemble, becoming very successful. He’s even married to a French poetess Juliette. One night while his band is on tour in Split, Croatia, he notices the Polish ensemble he was a part of is performing there. He goes to watch the show. Zula is able to notice Wiktor in the crowd. Before they can meet, the secret service drags him back to Paris.

Years later, Wiktor notices Zula again, but in Paris. Wiktor fills in with his life of how he’s found a woman of his own. Zula tells him she’s married to a Sicilian man in Italy. She defected the ‘proper’ way. Zula is able to become a successful jazz singer under the wing of Wiktor which includes singing a jazz adaptation of one of the ensembles’ songs. However Wiktor notices something else in Zula. Zula has become very flirtatious. He notices it when ‘Rock Around The Clock’ is performed in the bar and she dances around with many a man. It takes Wiktor to stop this. They have an argument outside, but it becomes clear the argument exposes their selfishness and their ambitions. In the end, their worst traits are exposed and it sours their love for each other. It’s noted how Wiktor’s jazz playing has gotten worse that something is wrong.

In 1961, Zula is back in Poland fairly. Wiktor wants to return, but Lech informs him of how much he has insulted the country with his defection. Lech informs him that he can spend 15 years in a labor camp for what he has done. Wiktor is willing to accept for the sake of winning Zula back. Zula hears the news and goes to the prison camp to find him. Upon being reunited, they need to reaffirm their love for each other despite it all. They go back to the ruins where it all started.

This is a slow story of a love that grows and faces friction through art and political tension. The purpose of the slowness is to feel the dramatic tension of the love between the two. We have a man and a woman who have a love for each other, but face the tests of politics with the Cold War and the Iron Curtain causing a lot of division between the two. Plus we have the personal obstacles of the two, most notably their pride, that possibly is the biggest barrier between the two. They both love each other, even through marriages of their own, but their selfishness gets in the way.

I believe that was the point of the film. The central theme of the film is about divisions. We have the Cold War that represents the divided world. We have the selfishness and pride of Wiktor and Zula that causes division in their relationship. We also have the division of the two arts as jazz is more Wiktor’s thing. I think that’s the reason the film is shot in black and white. Pawlikowski may have done black-and-white before in the film Ida, but here, black and white is fitting as it represents all the divisions in the film.

The divided world may be the common ‘world’ in the film, but possibly the most present world in the film is the world of music. The film shows a lot about the arts in both song and dancing. It’s the song of peasant people that is the heart and soul of the people’s voice. It is the stoic choir singing propaganda songs that represents the new rigidity Poland has to go through and the ‘free world’ has to deal with. It is the happy folk dancing that shows the joy of the Polish people of generations past. It is the Rock Around The Clock dancing that shows Zula’s freeness and thus her biggest personal weakness. It’s that song of the love that can’t be allowed sung by Zula as lead of the choir and in a jazz song that becomes symbolic of the obstacles in the love between Zula and Wiktor. Music and dance are the biggest metaphors in the film.

This is possibly the crowning achievement of Pawel Pawlikowski, which he directs and co-writes with Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski. Pawlikowski has been mostly involved with the British film scene, but has recently delivered films in the Polish language. His previous film, Ida, was shot in black and white and won Best Foreign language Film three years ago. Here he delivers another Polish-language film. The story is more personal as it’s based on the romance of his own parents. The film he delivers is a masterpiece both of filmmaking and art. It’s a charming story that incorporates love, politics and music that works as a bittersweet romance.

The acting was also very good. Joanna Kulig is very good as Zula. Kulig has acted in many of Pawlikowski’s films before like Ida and The Woman In The Fifth. This film is her best performance. Tomasz Kot also does a very good job of playing the complicated Wiktor. Borys Szyc does a very good job in his first film role. Borys is more famous as a musician rather than an actor. Lukasz Zal does an excellent job with the cinematography in the angles he chose and the way they add to the story. The music, both original by Marcin Masecki and that performed by the performers make the story and add to its richness.

Cold War is one of the surprises of this year’s Oscar season. Those who see it will know why it has its recent renown.

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Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Green Book

Green Book

Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen) is the driver for pianist Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) in Green Book.

Racism has been a common theme in a lot of films up for contention for this year’s Oscars. One of those is Green Book. It has caught a lot of attention since it was released this year.

It’s 1962. Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga is the best bouncer in all of New York City. However the night club he works at is going through two months or renovations. He needs to find work to pay for his one-room apartment he shares with his wife and two sons. At first the only way he could make money was in an eating contest. He’s offered an interview to be a driver for Dr. Don Shirley on an eight-week tour of the Southern US. He goes to the interview, in Don’s apartment above Carnegie Hall, and is unhappy to see Don Shirley is black. Tony rejects at first, Don is insistent due to the strength of his references. Tony consults with his wife Dolores first. She agrees. Tony promises to white her and the boys. One thing he notices is that his accompanying musicians, Oleg and George, will be going in a different car.

They begin the tour in the Midwest before going to the south. The two start clashing at the beginning; Tony being asked to act with more refinement and Don disgusted with Tony’s habits. Tony is especially surprised how Don is so well-educated, not into rock ‘n roll and blues and fried chicken, which Don takes into offence. However it’s during the tour that he notices just how good of a classical piano player Don is. He also notices the racist treatment Don gets when he’s off-stage, including one time having a shabby piano with junk on it on one stage. Then one night, a group of white men threaten to kill Don in a bar. Tony rescues him and instructs Don not to go out with him during the rest of the tour.

During the journey, Tony stays at his own hotel while Don stays at the hotels in the Green Book, which is a hotel guide for African American travelers. At times, Tony can see Don drinking. Don admits to Tony that he is a divorced man and has isolated himself from his brother and his professional achievements. Don also help Tony to write his letters to the family. One night, Tony finds Don arrested at the YMCA for a gay encounter with a white man. Tony is able to bribe the officer for Don’s freedom, which Don sees it as ‘rewarding’ the officer. Another night at a sundown town, a white officer arrest Don and then arrest Tony after being punched by him. Don goes to call ‘his lawyer,’ but the officers get a phone call from Bobby Kennedy to have them both released.

The tour is winding down, but not with one last dispute between Tony and Don. Tony tells Don he thinks he’s ‘blacker’ than him. That causes Don to lose it and lament that his affluence gives him the feeling he’s an outsider to other African Americans while white people treat him like an outsider. His homosexuality only adds to him feeling alone in this world.

The final performance is in Birmingham, Alabama. Before the performance, Don is refused a seat for dinner and being the guest musician changes nothing. Tony attempts to fight the manager, but Don refuses to play. The two find themselves at a predominantly black blues club. When Don performs, the crowd loves him. The two return back to NYC. Tony invites Don up for dinner, but Don shies away. It isn’t until sometime later that Don musters the heart to visit Tony’s apartment. Here he’s made a welcome guest.

The film has been generating a lot of attention, both good and bad. The film’s script was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son. This was mostly told through the point of view of Nick. However the family of Don Shirley was not happy with what they saw. Many claim that Don did not consider Tony his friend, but his associate. Peter Farrelly admitted his fault in not consulting with Don’s family before the film. Actually Peter didn’t know of how many members of Don’s family Don was still in contact with. In fact even that scene of Don arrested at the YMCA with another man raises a lot of eyebrows too since Nick admitted Don never ‘came out’ to them in his lifetime.

I can’t say much for a film that claims to be ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by true events.’ No such film is 100% true. There are always some plot twists and movie cliches added in. In fact one could simply call The Sound Of Music ‘a musical based on a true story.’ The accuracy may be in question, but the film does have a lot of relevance. We think we have racial tension now or a big racial divide now, it was bigger back then. This was a year before Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. This was a year or two before schools in the southern US were desegregated. That ‘Green Book’ for African American travelers was very needed in the South because they could be attacked by hostile whites. Discrimination was that bad back then. There were still public lynchings happening.

One thing the film does is that it gives us something to think about. We’re living in hostile times right now, especially on the subject of race. There are still a lot of misunderstandings between races. The film sent a message that maybe if we stopped, calmed down, and talked things out, we can learn we have more in common that we have differences. Another thing the film succeeds in is testing our expectations of what people of certain races are like. There were many scenes where Tony asked Don about rock ‘n roll musicians and fried chicken. Don was the complete opposite where he played classical piano, was very well-educated, and couldn’t stand the thought of fried chicken. A lot of traits most white people, and not only Tony, would be surprised to see in an African American. Also Tony and his life and lack of education may surprise a lot of African Americans of what whites are like. Like I say, if we took the time to talk, we’d be surprised.

The film may present Don Shirley to be a very wealthy, very successful African American, but the film does show that despite the wealth and high education, Don still feels like an outsider. That’s another theme of the film: personal insecurities. History can easily explain why Don would feel uncomfortable around white people. However his identity, wealth and background has made him feel like an outsider to other blacks also eats at him. That scene where the two stop in the south in a cotton field with a group of African Americans working on and they all stop to look at Don is a symbol of his insecurities. That’s a reminder to us of how there are some that feel they don’t fit into their own race. However that scene where Don plays rock ‘n roll at the jazz bar showed that he had a lot to overcome and that he actually does fit in. Also the scene at the end where Tony welcomes Don into the house at Christmas, though demanding his family not refer to black people by that certain slur, sends a message that a major way to overcome racism is simply befriending people of another race.

You can dispute the truthfulness of the story but you will have to acknowledge that the script and story are put together very well. Nick Vallelonga isn’t just Tony’s son. He’s had years of screenwriting experience. Teaming up with Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly on the script, they deliver a great story that’s worth knowing. Farrelly also does a very good job in directing this film. A complete change of pace from the charmingly crude comedies from the Farrelly Brothers. Viggo Mortensen was solid in character in his role as Tony, but Mahershala Ali was also excellent in his role. It will leave you questioning who was the lead actor in the film? The film also had some good supporting performances such as Linda Cardellini as Dolores and various other members of the Vallelonga family in their roles. The mix of previously recorded music and the original music of Kris Bowers helped make the film as well.

Green Book may leave you questioning the accuracy of the story, but it’s also an enlightening story nonetheless. It will leave you thinking as well, which is what we need at a time like this.

Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

IBSCT_09450_R_CROP

Stephan James (left) and KiKi Layne are Fonny and Tish: a young couple in love in If Beale Street Could Talk.

There have been some adaptations of James Baldwin’s literature in the past, but I don’t think there’s ever been one ever to hit the big screen. Director Barry Jenkins brings If Beale Street Could Talk to the big screen and it’s quite the experience.

The film opens with a quote from James Baldwin of how most of America’s African-Americans were ‘born’ on the Beale Street of Memphis. The story opens in a prison just outside New York City in the late-1960’s with 19 year-old Tish visiting 22 year-old Fonny behind glass and communicating via telephone. She announces to Fonny she’s pregnant. Fonny is overjoyed and looks forward to being a loving husband and a good father once he’s proven innocent. The crime Fonny is charged for is rape of a Puerto Rican woman: Victoria Rogers. She knows Fonny didn’t do it because he was three blocks away with his friend Daniel when the rape happens. She knew he was arrested because of the racist Officer Bell.

Tish always knew Fonny was the right man for her. They were friends since childhood. Then months earlier Fonny wanted to take the friendship to the next level and date. She agreed. Both Fonny and Tish are people willing to work for a living. Fonny went to community college and had plans of going into woodworking. Tish found a job as a perfume saleswoman at a department store, which considered hiring a black woman in that role to be progressive.

Tish announces the news to her parents and sister. She’s very nervous about it, even though the family see Fonny in high regard. She first announces to her father, and he’s happy. Soon the mother Sharon and sister Ernestine are happy, though nervous as the trial is coming. Fonny’s family, who call him by his real name Alonzo, come to visit. The mother and Fonny’s sisters always had contempt for Tish. When the news is announced, Fonny’s father is happy, but the mother is the complete opposite. The sisters look down upon her and the highly-religious mother even goes as far as saying the child will be a child of sin because he’s conceived out of wedlock. The mother and sisters leave in disgust.

The film goes frequently from the present of the story to the past quite often. Tish reflects back to when they were walking the street and the feelings of love they had for each other. She reflects on the Mexican restaurant and the waiter Pedrocito that made them feel welcome there. She even remembers the time when she and Fonny were searching for an apartment. Fonny came across a loft being sold by a Jewish developer. She didn’t like the idea of a loft, but Fonny saw potential. They were both surprised that the owner had no problem with them being black, but he just loves seeing couples in love.

Soon Tish flashes back to the present. There is a trial they have to work on. The lawyer claims that this is a difficult case to manage, but they feel this white lawyer just doesn’t care about justice for a black man like Fonny. Tish’s and Fonny’s father team up to do illegal trading in order to raise the right money for Fonny’s case. Victoria Rogers returned to Puerto Rico because she couldn’t handle the reminders of her rape in NYC. Sharon has a mission to go to Puerto Rico to get Victoria to come back to New York and testify for Fonny’s innocence, but it will be very costly. In the meantime, the months add up and the child inside Tish is developing. Tish goes to see Fonny again at the prison, but Fonny has gone through months of torture there. He wants to get out so he can live the life he was meant to live and love Tish.

Memories go back to the harder memories. The first is when Fonny is reunited with his friend Daniel. Daniel had just come out of prison for grant theft auto; the result of a plea bargain after being arrested for marijuana possession. Daniel tells him how it’s hell in prison and how he knows how racist the justice system is. She also flashes back to when she and Fonny were just shopping at a grocery store. Tish is harassed by a man and Fonny throws him out. The throwout is witnessed by Officer Bell, who things that Fonny has committed aggravated assault. However the white storeowner comes out and vouches for Fonny that Officer Bell lets him go, but not without that look of the desire to arrest in his eye.

Sharon did it. She was able to get enough money to confront Victoria Rogers and convince her to come back to New York for the sake of Fonny’s freedom. Victoria’s long stay in Puerto Rico is what’s delaying the trial. Victoria is not happy to see Sharon. The rape is the whole reason she left NYC and has no plans to go back. It’s too upsetting for her. Sharon tries pleading to Victoria to come back and give the true story for the sake of Fonny’s innocence, but that just causes Victoria to break down mentally and emotionally. Sharon returns back to NYC and the trial is still delayed. Tish gives birth to the baby in a bathtub with Sharon’s help while Fonny is still in prison. It’s a boy. As the wait drags on, Fonny accepts a plea deal. Years later, Tish and Alonzo Jr. visit Fonny in jail as they all hope for Fonny’s eventual release.

James Baldwin has been known to be an outspoken civil rights leader as well as a renowned author and poet. Racism is one of his biggest themes in his works. The film which is based on his novel of the same title definitely focuses on racism. It’s set in the mid- to late-1960’s just after more civil rights for blacks had been championed. However it was still a struggle as a lot of rights were limited, a lot of racial riots were happening, and many wrongful arrests were taking place. The novel and the film give a depiction of what it was like at the time. Especially with a black man in jail for a crime he didn’t commit as seen through his pregnant fiancee. The film also shows the hopes and dreams of a young black couple in love. They will have a future previous generations before them couldn’t have, but it would still take a fight. Very often, you hear Tish and others having negative things to say about white people. Even having a mistrusting attitude towards them. Those who saw the documentary I Am Not Your Negro will know about the mistrust towards white people had back then. I’m sure it was a mistrust shared by many African Americans at the time and we hear it echoed in the characters, mostly from Tish

However the novel and film are about more than that. It’s about undying love through hard times. Tish knows Fonny is innocent and she and her family team up to get Fonny free in time for the birth of their son. We see that Fonny is a good honest man. She’s known Fonny since she was a child. She knows Fonny would never hurt anyone like that. When they started dating months before the arrest, she knew right there and then she was the right man for her. We feel that love in the film. Interesting how a gay author like James Baldwin can deliver a better sense of love between a man and a woman than most straight authors. The novel and film however isn’t all ‘whites are bad’ and ‘all blacks are good.’ That meeting between Tish’s family and Fonny’s family showed a certain friction. While the fathers got along well, the mother’s, especially Fonny’s, looked down upon Tish’s family and the sisters had the same snooty attitude. It’s possible that scene was meant to send a message about how certain African Americans aren’t all unified or there’s a superficiality between certain types.

The film does a very good job in adapting the novel, but it does more than that. Barry Jenkins adds his own unique flair to the film. One flair he has in the film just like his previous success Moonlight is the inclusion of a lot of music. The film is a good mix of original score and songs from years past. It fits the movie well. However one thing he does that’s different from Moonlight is he includes a lot of imagery to set the theme of the time. He also includes a lot of scenes where many of the characters involved in the story have their own shots where they face the camera standing still. That adds to the film. Also what Jenkins does is during many scenes, he slows the moment down and softens it so that one can get a feel of the moment. That happens many times during scenes with Fonny and Tish, the scene with Tish working the perfume counter, and the scene with Fonny and Daniel. Sometimes it’s half-muted and we hear Tish’s narration, but we get a very good sense of the situation. I think Jenkins made some good choices in making the film.

Barry Jenkins does it again. It’s hard to say if it’s as good as Moonlight, but the film is nothing short of excellent. He not only plays out the novel on film, he allows us to feel the story. I feel James Baldwin would be very proud. KiKi Layne was very good as Tish as was Stephan James as Fonny. The whole cast was excellent, but the standout was Regina King as the mother. She really did an excellent job as the mother-in-law going out of her way for Fonny’s innocence. For the technical, James Laxton did a great job with the cinematography, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders made the right editing moves and Nicholas Britell delivered a great score that fit with the film and blended in with the tracks of past songs.

If Beale Street Could Talk is more than about racism and social injustice. It’s also about the undying love of two. It’s a love no prison system or injustice can destroy.

Movie Review – Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is about a teen who becomes a Spider-Man and becomes part of a ‘Spider-team.’

We’ve seen many live-action films of Spider-Man in this century. This year, we had an animated twist with the Spider-Man story with Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. The big question is will this story work? Or will it be an insult to Spider-Man fans?

Miles Morales is having the difficulty of going to a special private school, which includes a dorm. He doesn’t want to go to that school, but his police-officer father insists because of his intelligence. After school, Miles visits his uncle Aaron Davis to watch him spray paint graffiti, but is bitten by a radioactive spider. Miles son learns he has superpowers of his own.

Miles goes searching in the same area for the spider, but comes across a particle accelerator built by Wilson Fisk who desires to find the universe where his deceased wife and son are. Soon Peter Parker as Spider-man appears to destroy it, but is confronted by Fisk’s enforcers Green Goblin and Prowler. It’s a losing battle for Spider-Man as he lays dying, but hands Miles the USB drive to disable the accelerator before he dies. While still trying to learn his abilities, Miles damages the USB.

The whole of New York is in mourning over the death of Peter Parker. While at the grave, Miles meets up with Peter B. Parker: a down-and-out Spider-man who’s divorced from his wife. Peter B. had just been dropped out of the accelerator. To get back in, he agrees to train Miles. They soon learn after breaking into Kingpin’s laboratory and confronted by Fisk’s female associate in crime, Peter will die if he doesn’t get back into the accelerator to his universe.

Soon they’re rescued by Gwen Stacy: Miles’ classmate and also part of the universe. Gwen brings them to Peter’s Aunt May, whom Peter thought was dead. May is sheltering other displaced and deteriorating heroes of the Spider-Verse like Spider-Man Noir, Peni Parker and Spider-Ham, the spider bit by a radioactive pig. Miles attempts to help them, but his lack of experience with his new-found powers gives the Spider-Verse members a lack of confidence.

Things get worse for Miles as he learns his uncle Aaron is Prowler. He returns to May’s house, where Peni has the drive prepared, but he is followed by the team of villains of Wilson Fisk. Miles is able to free but is captured by Prowler. When Miles unmasks himself, Aaron is willing to be killed by Fisk rather than kill Miles. Miles’ father makes the conclusion Spider-Man killed Aaron.

The Spider-people retreat to Miles’ dorm and Peter B. webs him up and his mouth, feeling he doesn’t have what it takes to battle Fisk. Miles’ father, thinking that Miles isn’t talking, confesses his feelings for him and tries to make peace. However Miles soon learns he can master his powers.

Miles then goes to Aunt May where he’s able to help the other Spider-people work the accelerator and get back to their universe. However they leave Miles to defeat Fisk, insuring him they believe in him. Miles does face the courage to defeat Fisk, help the Spider-people return to their dimensions, and his team and make peace with his father.

Now one thing few people except die-hard Marvel comics fans knew about was that the Spider-Verse was not a new thing. The Spider-Verse came to be back in 2014. So those who think that this is something new and original, they’re wrong. In fact the Spider-Verse includes a Gwen Stacey. However one will be entertained by the Spider-Verse. This is rare in a movie that we get to see six ‘Spider-beings’ get together and be heroes. However the story does put the focus on one individual: Miles Morales, the new person into the Spider-Verse. It is a shame because we were just starting to get into this Spider-Verse. Nevertheless the movie allows it mostly to be Miles’ story and the other members of the Spider-Verse give Miles his chance to prove himself.

The story is very good as it does have a good beginning, middle and end. It actually had to have more of an extended beginning because it’s not just Miles who is affected by the radioactive spider, but five others too. Also it uses the death of a Peter Parker/Spider-Man set the road up for the story of the Spider-Verse to come. The story is not just about the Spider-Verse or even solely about Miles’ role in it. It’s also about family relations too. Miles has a hard time with his father sending him to a private school he hates. Miles idolizes his uncle Aaron, but would have to soon learn that Miles is The Prowler and keep it a secret from his father. That part of the story adds into the drama. However with this being an animated telling of the Spider-Verse, the story has to have humor in it. There’s no shortage of that here.

As for the animation, the animation is excellent. It’s not just 3D animation, but a mesh of comic-book images that add to the film. The mix of the imagery adds into the story, especially with this being a Marvel comic story.

Kudos to Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman for bringing the Spider-Verse to the big screen and creating a story that’s entertaining but not too confusing with all these Spider-beings. The directing team of Persichetti/Ramsey/Rothman do a great job of making the film work in both the story and its imagery. The vocal talent was very good, but top marks go to Shameik Moore for his performance as Miles Morales. He had the big task of being the voice of the lead and he did an excellent job. Mahershala Ali and Bryan Tyree Henry were both great as the uncle and father, respectively. Hailee Steinfeld was a scene-stealer as Gwen Stacy as was John Mulaney as Peter Porker.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse was the animated movie we all needed this year in which the only winning animated movies seemed to be sequels. This animated story of a team of ‘Spider-Beings’ all teaming up at once and then doing their own duties did not do any damage to the Spider-Man story at all. Instead it added an entertaining twist. Stan Lee would be proud.

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Vice

Vice

Amy Adams and Christian Bale play political power-couple Lynne and Dick Cheney in Vice.

You would wonder would a film like Vice work at this time? A film about former US Vice-President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne? A film about politics of the past? Turns out there’s more than meets the eye.

The film opens in the White House as the September 11th attacks happen. Instead of talking things out, Dick Cheney gives an immediate order. The film then flashes back to Wyoming in 1963. Dick Cheney and Lynne are married and living in Lynne’s parents’ house. Dick was originally a student at Yale University but his persistent alcoholism caused him to drop out. He takes work as an electrical lineman, but that doesn’t satisfy his in-laws at all. It’s after he gets busted by a cop for driving drunk, his second DUI, that Lynne tells Dick to clean up his life. All of this is narrated through a man named Kurt: a typical ‘middle-class’ American.

Fast forward to 1969; Republican president Richard Nixon is in the White House and Cheney has been hired as an intern. He meets a slimy scheister named Donald Rumsfeld who is Nixon’s policy advisor. Cheney works under Rumsfeld’s wing and tries to juggle family and political commitments. Cheney also overhears a conversation between Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon about the bombing operation in Cambodia. There, Cheney learns about the true power of the executive branch. Rumsfeld’s abrasive attitude has an effect on Cheney as both distance themselves from Nixon. After Nixon resigns in the heat of the Watergate Scandal, both men are promoted: Cheney to Chief Of Staff to the new President Ford and Rumsfeld to Secretary Of Defense. Their jobs only last two years as a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, is elected president.

After leaving the Oval Office in 1977, Dick decides to pursue politics on a state level by running for the seat of House Representative for Wyoming; Wyoming is a state that has only one seat in Congress. Dick’s campaign starts on a lackluster note as he delivers an uncharismatic speech. However he soon suffers his first heart attack. While recovering in the hospital, Lynne decides to deliver speeches for him. Her speeches are more winning to the public and it succeeds in helping him to win his House seat.

Then Reagan becomes president in 1980. Cheney is able to provide influence to the agenda promoting conservative pro-business polices like promoting fossil fuels (which puts an end to Carter’s goal of more solar power) and also ending news media showing both sides of the issue, which paves the way for one-sided media like Fox News on the right and CNN on the left. In the meantime, Dick and Lynne are shocked to learn that their teenage daughter Mary is a lesbian. Nevertheless Dick agrees to be supportive to her, despite being a right-wing politician.

Dick is promoted to Secretary Of Defense during the tenure of George H. W. Bush and has a pivotal role in the Gulf War of 1991. Also during the time of the senior Bush, Dick meets his son George W. Bush, who’s a clumsy nimrod. Dick has desires to be President but after Bill Clinton is elected, he decides to retire from public life to spare the scrutiny for the sake of Mary. Cheney then becomes CEO of Haliburton while Lynne raises golden retrievers and writes books. Then starts an epilogue claiming Cheney lived the rest of his life happy and healthy with his family out of the public eye, then the credits roll.

But wait. That’s not really the end of the film. Dick is still CEO of Haliburton, but he meets with George W. Bush who’s the Governor of Texas. He wants to run for President for the 2000 Election not because he desires the power to himself, but to please his father. Cheney agrees to be his running mate provided Bush delegates ‘mundane’ executive responsibilities to him like foreign policy and energy. Things like family values issues, he doesn’t want to get involved with for the sake of Mary. Bush is elected president despite a hugely controversial election. On his first day as Vice-President, he learns Rumsfeld is back as Secretary Of Defense, and is still as slimy as he was when they first met. Added to the team of making foreign policy and defense decisions is legal counsel David Addington and Chief Of Staff Scooter Libby.

The film then returns to the 9/11 attacks and when Dick gave the immediate orders. After that, Cheney and Rumsfeld team up over initiating and presiding over the US attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan (which Kurt finds himself a soldier in both those wars). Cheney struggles with his heart attacks as the War Of Terror mounts. Nevertheless he continues through his vice-presidency which includes instituting the Unitary Executive Theory, his role in the Plame Affair, the accidental shooting of Harry Whittington (which he never apologized to him for) and his daughters Mary and Liz having opposing views on same-sex marriage. His actions are shown to cause thousands of deaths overseas, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq, and record-low approval ratings upon leaving office.

However it doesn’t end there. Cheney is about to die of heart failure while waiting for a new heart. Just as he says his teary goodbye to Lynne, Liz and Mary, Kurt is killed in an auto accident while jogging. Sure enough, Kurt’s heart is the perfect match for Dick’s transplant in March 2012. Then Liz runs for the House seat of Wyoming where she announces during a debate her opposition to same-sex marriage. This causes Mary to cease communication with her. Liz is now the Rep of Wyoming. At the end, Cheney says to us all he regrets nothing.

When you see one renowned film by a certain director, you are impressed, or interested, with what you see. When you see a second film by that director, you get a better sense of what their film making style is all about. I’ve seen The Big Short and I was very impressed with what I saw. However, when I saw Vice, I liked what I saw but throughout the film, I was thinking “Okay, I get Adam McKay’s filmmaking style.” I’ll admit throughout the film, I was seeing a lot of elements similar with what I saw in The Big Short. However I saw some new elements in Vice as well. Basically Vice told me more about Adam McKay than it did about the Cheneys. I noticed in both films, Adam likes to toy around with the story. He also likes to include references to the time of the story both in terms of the political landscape and of pop culture moments. Adam even admits that Vice is a ‘true story’ or as true as it gets since Dick is a private person.

The events in the film are events that are widely known, but are seen through the eyes and imagination of Adam McKay. The characters of the various politicians are also through McKay’s eyes, which may explain why they come off as cartoonish. It almost seems like the Cheneys are the only political figures that don’t come across as cartoon characters, despite also being portrayed as crazy and conniving. Like is Rumsfeld right? Is the top job of the Vice President to ‘wait for the president to die?’ The influence of Cheney’s decisions and politicking are shown to have a huge presence in American life and politics for many decades and have a huge influence now. Even the reason why Donald Trump became president.

However the biggest standout is having the story of Dick Cheney narrated by Kurt: a fictitious veteran of both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kurt even narrated while he’s dead and his heart is inside Cheney! I think the point of having Kurt, the average American, narrate the story is to show how much Dick’s decisions and political influence us Americans. It shows why we get such empty promises in terms of our economy, it shows why the middle-class is shrinking. It also even shows why we’re all so frustrated, we turn to dumbed-down entertainment to escape this frustration of American politics in our lives. No matter what serious issues we have to deal with in our lives, we’d rather tune out and watch another Fast And The Furious sequel. Adam demonstrates it all, through Kurt.

Kudos to Adam McKay for delivering another bizarrely-constructed but thought-provoking sad comedy. His direction and writing didn’t work as well as it did for The Big Short, but it worked well too and was very entertaining. Christian Bale was excellent as Dick Cheney. He did an excellent job in depicting both the young Dick and the older Dick Cheney too. Amy Adams also did an excellent job in depicting Lynne Cheney throughout the film and as she aged too. The film also showed how Lynne had an impact on some of Dick’s choices and how she acquired political influence of her own. Dick knew how to deliver policies and decisions, but didn’t know how to make speeches. Lynne knew how to deliver a speech. Amy did a very good job in demonstrating Lynne’s political savvy. The most surprising performance came from Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. He was completely unrecognizable and dead-on! Steve Carell may not have delivered an accurate performance of Donald Rumsfeld but he was dead-on as the slimeball Rumsfeld as seen through McKay’s eyes. Also Jesse Plemons was an entertaining scene-stealer as Kurt. Instead of making Kurt look like something ridiculous, he made Kurt work.

Vice is a sad comedy about Dick Cheney and American politics. We both laugh and mourn how all this came to be.

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Rhapsody

In Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek captures the essence of Freddie Mercury to a tee.

The musical biopic Bohemian Rhapsody came out in movie theatres this year. We’ve seen music biographies before. The big question is does this film simply chronicle Freddy Mercury’s life? Or does it do much more?

The film begins just as Queen is about to step to the stage to perform in the 1985 Live Aid Concert. The film then flashes back to 1970 when Smile is an English band consisting of Brian May, Roger Taylor and singer Tim Staffell. Faroukh ‘Freddie’ Bulsara is a Farsi immigrant who studies and also works as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport. Freddie faces a lot of discrimination for the color of his skin and mockery because of his hyperdontia which makes him look like he has a mega-overbite. However Freddie does lose himself in rock and roll.

One night, Staffell quits Smile in disappointment. Freddie was there attending the show. When he sees what happened, he asks to join the band. The band gets a rocky start as they play at small college gigs, but it looks promising and Freddie fully believes in them all. The rock singer gig does not go well with his family who feels he should earn his living more ‘honestly.’ Freddie also wins the attraction of college student Mary Austin during a clothes shopping trip. They start dating and romancing.

Over time, Queen gets bigger and they soon have to record an EP. It will cost a lot of money and Freddie agrees to sell the van for money. The EP is a success and it attracts major music producers including one from EMI Records interested in the band. The band changes their name to Queen and Freddie even legally changes his name to Freddie Mercury. The band is acquired by John Reid, Elton John’s manager, and assistant manager Paul Prenter. They bring the band to a gig on BBC’s Top Of The Pops where the band lip syncs Killer Queen. As success grows, including success in the US, Mary and Freddie get engaged. However soon after Freddie learns of his bisexuality.

The band try to record their album A Night At The Opera and the song Bohemian Rhapsody, but the song is too long and hard to perform. On top of that, producer Ray Foster is antagonistic on the band for both the song and the music for the whole album. After Foster refuses it as a single, Freddie gets a local DJ to play Bohemian Rhapsody. The song opens to a lot of negative reviews, but also scores big on the charts worldwide. However Freddie starts an affair with Prenter and has to call off the engagement with Mary. Mary is devastated, but agrees to remain friends.

In the film, the band has continued success in the early 1980’s with We Will Rock You. However the band experience tension both by Freddie’s lavish partying lifestyle and the increasing controlling ways of Prenter. Freddie even cheats on Paul with a waiter, but the waiter tells Freddie to find him after he finds himself. The friction between Freddie and the band grows to the point Freddie leaves the band to record a solo album upon the direction of Prenter. However it becomes obvious how much Prenter wants a piece of the action and Freddie both breaks up with him and fires him.

Soon Freddie learns he has HIV right when the devastating AIDS epidemic was at its most troubling times. He returns to the band confessing it was wrong for them to leave. They’re offered an appearance at the 1985 Live Aid Concert which will be broadcast worldwide to raise money for food supplies during the famine in Africa. This will be the band’s comeback concert, but it will take a lot of effort to bring the band back to their level of performance.

Just before the concert, Freddie confronts his parents to make peace with them. Freddie is also supported backstage by a pregnant Mary along with her husband David. Bob Geldof is hoping for a lot of call-in donations through this concert. Then Queen get on stage and it’s like they never missed a step. The crowd is blown away, television crowds are dazzled, and the donations accelerate like nobody’s business. Queen was back and alive!

There have been musical biographies in films done many times before. In order to make a winning story about a musician, the film will definitely have to include the music. That’s what made the musician great. The film will also have to include key events of the person’s life: the artistic moments, the triumphant moments and the struggles, even any tragedies. It’s all a matter of deciding the right moments for the right beginning, middle and end of the film.

The film does a smart move in making the Live Aid Concert the pivotal moment for Freddie Mercury both as the scene where the movie starts before flashing back in time and ultimately ending. The film also does a good job in picking out moments such as when Freddie joins the band Smile, changes it to Queen, first hits it big with Killer Queen releases their iconic Bohemian Rhapsody, faces friction as well as declining fame in the early 80’s, Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, and their return to winning the public at Live Aid.

However the film also risks disappointing a lot of Queen fans because of how inaccurate the story is. Despite Jim ‘Miami’ Beach being the film’s co-producer and May and Taylor being music consultants, The five biggest inaccuracies Queen fans are most likely to notice are, firstly, Freddie was actually introduced to Brian May and Roger Taylor of Smile by singer Tim Staffell when Staffell wanted to pursue further studies. Secondly, We Will Rock You was written and recorded in the late-70’s rather than the early-80’s. Thirdly, John Deacon was actually Queen’s fourth bassist rather than the original bassist. Fourthly, Queen never split up nor did they get back together at Live Aid. Freddie may have had solo work — the most famous being Barcelona: the duet with Montserrat Caballet — but Roger Taylor also had a solo album too. Fifthly, Freddie learned he was HIV-positive in 1987: after Live Aid. Those that know the true Queen story will know that a lot of these moments in the film were mostly common music-movie cliches rather than the truth about Queen.

Despite failing a lot of Queen fans with some of the inaccuracies and cliches, the film does succeed in a lot of ways and even presents some truths even Queen fans knew. Freddie did credit his extra teeth for his singing, he adored his cats, he held outlandish parties, the song Bohemian Rhapsody was considered too long and too ridiculous at first, Freddie did keep his ordeal with HIV and AIDS private as he did not want to be an object of pity, and finally his friendship with Mary Austin lasted until his death and she did live next door to him even while married to David. The film does stick to the truth in a lot of areas, including that of how Paul Prenter was a controlling person in Freddie’s life. However another added quality is that the film does an excellent job of capturing the essence and feel of Queen’s music. Those that haven’t heard much of Queen’s music will experience songs they never heard before. Those that are fans of the band will fall in love with the songs again. Also those that want to be rock musicians themselves will be inspired to pursue their dreams after watching the film. You not only hear the music, but you can also get the feel of a rock performer too.

The film has already grossed $844.4 million worldwide at press-time with $210.6 million coming from North America. However the film has also faced a ton of heat during the awards season. The cause for all of this was for director Bryan Singer. As you know, Singer has faced criminal charges of being a sex offender. How it happened that Dexter Fletcher stepped into directing the remainder of the film upon the departure of Bryan Singer is that Singer was fired after having violent clashes with Rami Malek. Singer, and not Fletcher, was credited as the film’s director. The awards season has seen the film win many accolades which many have voiced their displeasure about. Possibly due to hostility during the #MeToo movement, many are speaking their mind as if they’re saying a win for Bohemian Rhapsody is a win for a sex offender.  I personally feel that Fletcher should have been credited as director. However despite the fact that Singer was fired, people are still unhappy. Makes you wonder what will satisfy them all? Denying the film a release and trashing it altogether? This is a reflection on how toxic and bullying the free speech of social media can be.

Anthony McCarten in cooperation with Peter Morgan may have written a story that was more cliched than truth, but it did capture a lot of the essence of Queen and a lot of the essence of Freddie Mercury. As for the ending, I can understand why they went for the heavy drama by ending with the Live Aid Concert. I’d rather they went with the moment Freddie records The Show Must Go On. Those who know the story behind that will recognize it as one of the biggest triumphs of Mercury’s career and a testament of his mental toughness.

The film also captured the essence of Brian, John and Roger well too. Co-director Dexter Fletcher did a very good job of picking up where Singer left off and creates an exciting experience for the audience. However the biggest triumph is the performance of Rami Malek. Until Bohemian Rhapsody, he was facing the common difficulty of actors of Middle Eastern descent with limited opportunities. It almost seemed like the biggest thing he would ever be known for is playing the Pharaoh in the Night At The Museum movies. This also was not an easy task because Malek was not originally a fan of Queen. However that all changed when he was given the role. Malek was excellent in his performance and will blow away anyone who sees this film.

The actors portraying Brian, Roger and John — Gwilym Lee, Ben hardy and Joseph Mazzello, respectively — also added to the film. Lucy Boynton was also excellent as the friend Mary Austin. Even minor performances like Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, Mike Myers as Ray Foster, and Allen Leech as Paul Prenter did very well with the roles they were given. Julian Day did a very good job with the costuming, Aaron Haye did an excellent job with the set design, and the producers did a very good job in choosing the right songs for the film.

Bohemian Rhapsody has some noticeable errors in the film. However the film succeeds in capturing the spirit of Freddie Mercury, capturing the music of Queen and capturing the experience of a rock star. No wonder it dazzles those that see it.

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper play two singers in love in A Star Is Born.

Right now we seem to have a lot of reboots in terms of entertainment. Reboots of TV series, reboots in music and reboots in movies too. A Star Is Born is a reboot of a film done three times before, but does it translate for the present?

I know I mentioned about a lot of reboots happening in my introduction. There are a lot of successful reboots right now, but there have also been some reboots that flopped too. What makes a successful reboot isn’t just rehashing something people loved in the past. It also involves making it relevant to the present and also have the ability to both please fans of the past materials and win over new fans. One of the best cinematic examples of a reboot is last year’s It. The cinematic version of It worked last year because of two smart choices. The first being it would divide 28 years earlier to the time of the plot in two separate films. The second being the childhood part of the story would be set in 1989 and the adulthood part of the story to be set in the present, unlike setting the childhood part in 1958 and the adulthood part in 1986 as in the novel and the miniseries.

Moving onto A Star Is Born, we’re dealing with a film that has been done three times before. The first being in 1937 starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the second being in 1954 starring Judy Garland and James Mason, and the third being in 1976 starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. For Bradley Cooper to take on the project and turn it into something winning for the present, he had to make a lot of choices.

Some elements would be very similar to what was done in films past, while some elements would have to be new and relevant and believable for the present. There were a lot of elements of all three past editions that worked very well such as a singer struggling to make it, the wash-up who discovers her and promotes her to greatness and even loves her, and the man encountering a substance problem which hurts his marriage and ultimately takes his life.

There were some elements from the separate films that he had to include. For example 1937 and 1954 were about an actress trying to make it and a washed-up actor promoting her and loving here. 1976 was about singers for the first time. The choice to have singers and in the field of country music as in 1976 worked well for the film. I will focus more on that later. Also the tribute Ally gave to Judy Garland was a subtle reminder in the film of the most famous version of the story.

Then there were the more complicated choices. First off, Bradley Cooper may have proven himself as an actor, but not as a singer or a director in the past. Bradley had to give himself the practice and even have the duet scene done in front of a live crowd. Sometimes only the real thing can work. Secondly, there were two factors involving Lady gaga. One factor was she had limited acting experience with her biggest previous role being her minor role in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. The other factor was to present Gaga as a country singer. We all know her as the modern flamboyant pop icon and most of us could not see her as a country star. Even seeing Gaga portray Ally as a common pop star later on was challenging because of her ‘grand diva’ image. However Gaga made it work and came off as a very believable country singer. Her songs from the film have also won her fans over too. Thirdly is the chemistry between the two. The two had to come across not just as two singers but as a couple in love. The chemistry between Jackson and Ally worked excellently and made for a believable story. Star power can only go so far. They have to make it work on screen and they did it. Fourthly is the music. In order to make this version of A Star Is Born about two contemporary singers, the reboot had to have original songs that fit the film and fit the genres of country of pop, whatever genre was needed in what scene. The songs fit the film to a tee and proved to be winners off the screen too as Shallow and I’ll Never Love Again have charted.

Top accolades go to Bradley Cooper. The reboot was originally intended in 2011 to be directed by Clint Eastwood and have Beyonce as the lead. Beyonce’s pregnancy interfered with the story and it lead to four years of chaos with both Beyonce and Eastwood eventually leaving the project. Cooper picked it up, joined co-writer Will Fetters, and saw it as his chance for his directorial debut. He was first trying to get Beyonce to agree to the project, but it was decided in 2016 that Lady Gaga would be the lead. This proves to be a success in acting, directing, co-writing with Fetters and Eric Roth, and co-producing. The story comes across as relevant and believable to the current times and winning with the public once again.

It’s not just Cooper. Lady Gaga comes off excellent in what is her first lead role. We all know how Lady Gaga can really go into a character as seen in her on-stage performances and her music videos. However this was her first major acting role and singers are a bit of a gamble in terms of casting them as actors in movies; they’re either sink or swim. Sure, she knows how to sing, but the challenge was for her to handle a lead role. She handled the role of Ally with believability from start to finish. Even with the singing, Gaga showed she can sing country very well and also make for a believable common pop star. The film is as much Gaga’s triumph as it is Cooper’s.

There’s also more winning performances than just Cooper and Gaga. There’s also veteran actor Sam Elliott not just coming across as a believable cowboy half-brother in Bobby, but also stealing each scene he was in. That’s what makes a winning supporting actor. Andrew Dice Clay is not only good as Ally’s father Lorenzo, but is unrecognizable! Rafi Gavron also comes across well as Ally’s manager who has an axe to grind with Jackson. He did a good job in making Rez hateable. Dave Chappelle and Anthony Ramos were also very good in their supporting roles, despite having roles that weren’t that challenging or lacked screen time.

A Star Is Born goes beyond being a simple reboot. The story is made relevant to the times, the actors deliver a believable story and a love with chemistry, and the music is winning. This is not just another reboot. This is a reboot that works big-time!

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Black Panther

Black Panther

Chadwick Boseman plays The Black Panther who has to save the kingdom of Wakanda and his people.

People have been waiting for the longest time for a superhero movie to get nominated for Best Picture. If there’s a movie genre the 2010’s will most be remembered for, it will be for the heydays of the superhero movie. Deadpool and Wonder Woman were heavy favorites that ‘missed by that much.’ However it’s Black Panther that finally did it. And rightly so!

Now I’m not going to give a brief synopsis of the plot because most of you already know the story and saw the action. I will talk about superhero movies and how it lead to Black Panther’s most recent Oscar success. Now we’ve had superhero movies in previous decades and back in the 20th Century. I’m sure many of you can remember the old Superman and Batman movies from the 80’s and 90’s. The problem is around that time, the emphasis on popcorn movies back then was to be heavy on the action, and even heavy on the market hype, but comparatively minor attention to the characters and story-line. You couldn’t blame them; action movies blew people away and won big at the box office. However the flaws of a shotty script with minimal character development would soon become noticeable, especially by the critics. Around the 90’s as independent films were winning people over with storylines and well-developed characters, the stories and characters in action movies were starting to look either cardboard or idiotic. 1998’s Godzilla was possibly the best example of a film loaded with hype and action, but a ridiculous cookie-cutter story with foolish acting.

The 21st Century would mark a turning point for popcorn movies and especially for superhero movies for them to deliver better stories and better acting. Some say 9/11 became a turning point for movie watchers as they became less interested in cheering for villains and sleazes, but there’s more to that. The first sign was 2002’s SpiderMan. The producers were aware that despite the love for action in movies, the films story and acting could not be compromised. The film was loaded with action, as expected, but it did an excellent job in delivering a good story along with good acting as a result. That would not only open the doors for more superhero movies to come, but would also change the way superhero movies were done too. Marvel and their cooperating studios would become less focused on marketing hype — have you noticed there are less fast food chains plugging action movies lately? — and more focused on developing a well-written and well-acted story. It’s not to say that there were duds. There were a few SpiderMan sequels that were lousy and the 2015 rehash of the Fantastic Four was lame, but most superhero movies were very winning and easily demonstrated why they were winning crowds over.

Also on the subject of superheroes, I remember there were groups from religious organizations highly critical of the movies Hollywood was shelling out. They were complaining about all the ‘hazardous’ things in movies and how it threatened their values. Although no censorship occurred from their pleas, it did have an effect on the way superheroes are portrayed in the big-screen movies. One thing the studios were reminded of was that superheroes didn’t just simply do amazing things with their hands. They were characters that took a stand for values and were not afraid to do what’s right and be unafraid to deliver in their call of duty. In fact there have been many cases of some studios’ writing teams hiring Christian writers for the task. In most cases (obviously not for Deadpool), the superhero movies of the 21st Century were often praised by Christian critics of promoting values and dignity in a winning way. To think back in the 1990’s while gangsta rap and anti-hero entertainment were the call of the day, most people thought a story promoting values would come across being like a Mister Rogers. The 21st Century superhero movies proved that promoting values can be done in a winning way.

However it’s only been in recent years that superhero movies have the potential to do very well in the Oscar race. Most of the time, the best chances superhero movies had at scoring Oscars or Oscar nominations were in the technical categories like Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing. Sometimes they would win nominations in Best Costume Design, Best Production Design or Best Original Score despite nominations going mostly to ‘timepiece’ movies. The big turning point came in 2008 when The Dark Knight was a heavy favorite to get a Best Picture nomination. It didn’t happen, but Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his portrayal as The Joker. It was the biggest sign of how much better superhero movies, and even popcorn movies in general, became. In the past two years, there were two superhero movies, 2016’s Deadpool and 2017’s Wonder Woman, that were nominated for Best Motion Picture for the Producers Guild Awards. The Oscar nomination however did not happen: for Best Picture or any category!

It’s 2018; enter Black Panther. The Black Panther is a hero that actually made its debut in the Marvel universe in a Fantastic Four strip in 1966. The Black Panther has made many appearances in various Marvel comic stories. In film, the first appearance of the Black Panther was in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War where he was played by Chadwick Boseman. That of course was an Easter Egg of what was yet to come. The movie of The Black Panther was released in 2018. As expected, it was to tell the story of how the Black Panther came to be and how the Black Panther had to achieve their first defining moment of greatness. However it did a very good job in presenting a story of a moment in the distant past, to the ‘near-past’ of 1992 to the present. The story doesn’t just simply focus on T’Challa becoming the Black Panther, but also on his family and restoring the dignity of the Jabari Tribe and the wealth of the kingdom of Wakanda.

The film also does a good job in developing a story that’s entertaining for adults but also not too confusing for children. Another hard job of superhero movies is developing a story that works for both children and adults. It shows the conflicts abounding between T’Challa and Killmonger, as well as Killmonger’s pursuit of the throne of Wakanda with the intent to rule corruptly. It delivers the story in an excellent and entertaining manner with well-developed characters. Of course a superhero film needs to have its action moments, but the film does not compromise at all on the story or the characters.

The best efforts of the film come from director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole. Coogler has had a steady progression in the film world. His first film was the 2013 independent arthouse film Fruitvale Station, then progressed to popcorn movies with 2015’s Creed, and now Black Panther. All have had winning results. Black Panther could have gone to another white director that was part of the Marvel team, but marvel made the right choice to have Coogler direct despite never directing a sci-fi movie. The result is winning. Cole has also been able to make his mark in this film. The most writing experience he had before the film was 2011’s Amber Lake and the TV series The People vs. O.J. Simpson. Here, he’s able to make a name for himself in a big way and should open bigger doors in the future.

With the great directing and the great story, the acting is also excellent. Chadwick Boseman delivers very well as the Black Panther and succeeds in delivering a three-dimensional role for the character. Michael B. Jordan (who also acted in Fruitvale Station and Creed) also does a great job portraying the villain. Lupita Nyong’o was possibly the biggest scene-stealer of the movie. She was enjoyable. The costuming by Ruth E. Cater worked excellently for the film as well as the sets for the film. It made Wakanda look very believable as a place. The music by Ludwig Goransson also fit the film excellently and the special effects were dazzling and entertaining.

It’s easy to see why Black Panther is a winning film. It’s a superhero story that delivers in all facets and manages to dazzle crowds too. It also succeeds in again taking a seldom-known Marvel superhero and turning him into a household name.

VIFF 2018 Review: Mega Time Squad

Mega Time Squad

Anton Tennet plays a young man who uses multiplicity to form his own gang in Mega Time Squad.

Every year I do the Vancouver Film Festival, I make the effort to end my VIFF with the very last show. Once again, it was at 11:15pm at the Rio Theatre on Friday, October 12th. This year, it was the New Zealand thriller-comedy Mega Time Squad. It wasn’t the best film to end it with, but it wasn’t one of the worst.

John has a life that’s going nowhere. His parents are deceased. He lives in a garage in a town full of aged people. The only way he can make any kind of money is for working with a crime boss named Shelton who’s hired him with a lot of other dim bulbs.

Shelton gives John and another dim bulb named Gaz a mission. He wasn’t them to intercept a money drop at a Chinese antique store being dropped off by a rival Chinese gang led by a man named Wen. This turns out to be a bad idea as Gaz says he’s tired of being Shelton’s bitch. The heist is successful as they grab the money, but John gets a lot more. From the antique store, he grabs a Chinese bracelet. The store-owner tells him not to take the bracelet, claiming it has a mysticism that could be harmful. John ignores and takes it.

The crazy thing about the heist is that it has the Chinese gang and his own gang after John. John doesn’t know what to do until he discovers a time machine that can transport him back into time and avoid whatever trouble they’re facing. The machine also duplicates the user, so John uses it to get more than one John around. Eventually all the Johns meet up. The lead John declares his group of selves the ‘Mega Time Squad.’

The good thing is that John can accomplish what he misses the first time with his duplicate selves. The bad news is none are brighter than the original John. Plus with the charm bracelet, it could mean all the Johns would die off soon, including him. The various Johns are able to accomplish the heist, win a fight win over Wen, and fool people while the real John has won over the affection of Shelton’s younger sister Kelly. Eventually the actions of the various Johns catch up to the real one as Wen’s gang is after him and Shelton has a mission involving a bomb for him to do, which he eventually fails. Kelly learns of this and is turned off John.

However John has to do right. John is able to fix the curse so that all the other Johns are in a room. He reverses the curse of the bracelet and all the other Johns die with Kelly witnessing. Also Wen is able to get the bag of money John stole. Meanwhile an infuriated Shelton wants to see him. Shelton is about to shoot him for not doing his part right, but John confronts him and tells him he gives everyone the risky business while Shelton sits back and calls orders. Shelton tries to shoot john, but the bullet is shot in the reverse direction. RIP Shelton! All the gang members are free and John is free to love Kelly. As for Wen and the bag of money, that’s for you to see.

Here we go again where we see a New Zealand film that tries to be a thriller-comedy. I’ve seen it before many times at the VIFF with Housebound and Deathgasm. Housebound was the best-done of the three I’ve seen. Deathgasm was more focused on the humor and the gore than it was on the story, but still delivered on entertainment. Mega Time Squad gave me the feeling like I was watching the same thing over again. Also it didn’t compare to the other two as a story or in humor. There were a lot of times in which I felt the story was dumb or lacking in thrills. There was a lot missing.

One thing I will not do is declare this movie to be a disappointment. This film wasn’t the disappointment Housewife was. The acting was still good, if not great. The story was consistent and made sense. Even the foolishness or ridiculousness of the story or the idiocy of the characters didn’t come across as stupid or confusing. I will admit that this is the type of film that could simply be a made-for-TV film on a sci-fi network. However the film does deliver on a consistent story line that is fun, entertaining and humorous. It may be boring or lackluster in comparison, but it still entertains and will make you laugh.

I wouldn’t say this is an accomplishment for writer/director Tim Van Dammen, who ironically was an actor in Deathgasm. However I will say that it delivers in entertainment. Sure, some of it was idiotic, but it was able to pull itself together at the end and even deliver a humorous ending. Anton Tennet was funny as the loser-turned-winner John. Even some of his acting looked idiotic, but it was on for the most part. Hetty Gaskell-Hahn was the scene-stealer as Shayna. She was solid in her character and she helped make the film too. Yoson An was also good as a humorous villain who meets a surprise at the end.

Mega Time Squad offers nothing new for the thriller genre. I’ve seen it done before and done better. Nevertheless it will entertain you and get you laughing. It is a welcome relief after watching a lot of heavy, intense fare at the VIFF. And a good way to end the VIFF, if not end it with a bang.

And there you go! That sums it up for all the films I saw at the Vancouver Film Festival. I know it took longer than I should, but I saw a lot of movies and had little time to write. But I’m finally done now. My review of the Fest will be coming very shortly within a day or two.

VIFF 2018 Review: Winter Flies (Všechno bude)

Winter Flies

Winter Flies is the story of two Czech boys having fun braking the law.

“You’ve only got this time in your life to be young and stupid, so go for it!”

-my advise to young people

Winter Flies is the third of three entries in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars I saw at the VIFF. This Czech film is one that will surprise you.

The film starts on a winter’s day with a young boy carrying what appears to be a gun and wearing an outfit that makes him look like a bear. Turns out it’s a pellet gun. The boy’s name is Hedus. Soon an Audi arrives. It’s driven by a teenage boy with a shaved head named Mara. Despite the meeting together starting on a bad note, Mara decides to invite Hedus along.

The film then flashes to a police office. Mara has just been arrested for grand theft auto of that Audi. The female police officer, Officer Freiwaldova, is not impressed with Mara. He’s 15 and has a pregnant girlfriend back home, or at least he claims so. The film goes frequently from their ‘road trip’ to Mara being interrogated. They interrogate him about the trip and as well about the pink female sweater they found in the car.

Flashing back to the trip, Hedus drams of joining the French legion and asks Mara advise over girls. Mara acts like he knows it all, but soon they spot a girl on the road. She’s an older girl named Bara and looks like she’s abused. However she accepts a ride from the two as they don’t appear too threatening. During the trip, they stop at a park near a small lake. Hedus is having fun being up a tree and talking to Mara. Meanwhile a man is trying to sell them a dog. The boy laugh it off, only for the laughter to end when it appears the man is trying to drown the dog. They go to the rescue of the dog and Hedus even fires his pellet gun at the man. The dog is now theirs.

Back at the police office, Freiwaldova tries to get Mara to map out the trip, but he refuses and even hits on the Officer. Freiwaldova is frustrated with dealing with Mara. This is a long process as the Officer keeps on asking questions as she’s smoking cigarettes she puts in an ashtray with a fly in it. Continuing on the trip, the three come to a man who’s willing to give the three shelter for the night. They think it’s okay, and Bara sees no problem as long as she can protect herself. However things go wrong when they notice the man is about to rape her. That’s when Hedus and Mara act in and start acting violently to the man. They then take off again. However it’s soon where Hedus tries coming onto Bara. It’s there where she demands to be let out. So that’s all that’s left in the trip. The two boys, the dog and Bara’s pink perfume-scented sweater for them to masturbate over.

Overnight doesn’t seem to stop them. They learn they’re in a self-driving Audi as it can drive itself even while Mara is asleep at the wheel! In the morning, Mara learns they’re close to the town where his grandfather lives. However when they get to his house, Mara find his grandfather on the floor suffering from a heart attack. Mara, more concerned for anyone, gets his grandfather to a nearby hospital. Flashing back to the interrogation scenes, Freiwaldova is hoping to use this incident to find out more information about Mara. She calls the hospital to find out the name and tells Mara one of the men died last night. That makes Mara cry and confess information. It’s right after that where she admits she lied and says she did it to get any info out of him. No doubt Mara is pissed off.

Reflecting back to the trip, the Audi does eventually find itself caught by police in a small Czech town. It’s only a matter of time that the car is stopped and Mara is arrested. Hedus was nowhere to be seen. It’s the end of the road for Mara with him being at the police office, or is it? Hedus is outside the police office and the Audi is close outside. Hedus also found a ladder that reaches up to the office Mara is interrogated in. Hedus is sly enough to fire his pellet gun on all the police vehicles. That’s enough to distract all the officers and leave Mara alone in the office. Alone except for the fly in the ashtray coming back to life. Then Hedus climbs up the ladder and tries to get Hedus to escape. They’re back on the road again!

We should really hate those two jerks. One is stupid with an overactive imagination. The other is an irresponsible rebel with complete disrespect to just about everyone, including the police. We should also hate the two at the very end. However one critic made a point that I agreed with. They said the two make the rebellion and the irresponsibilities of adolescence look charming and even funny. I have to agree because that is the magic of art. It can take characters that we would look down on in the real world and make them look likable and even charming. We see that here as Mara does bring out the charm of the anti-authority jerk we really should hate. Hedus also brings out the charm of the weird boy with an over-the-top wild imagination. That was what the story is about in a nutshell: two adolescent misfits on a wild ride.

The film not only brings out the characters’ charms but may also remind us of our own adolescent ‘glory days.’ There are many scenes that were funny and hilarious, but would look terrible or disgusting in real life. Like when Mara is being a jerk to the officer, or when the two start hitting on Bara right after she was about to be raped the night before, or even when the two masturbate over Bara’s perfume-scented sweater. It’s a guilty pleasure to laugh at moments of stupidity like that because they will remind us of us and our own stupidities. I’m sure you remember the days you used to flip the tweeter to whoever you wanted! The film has other humorous moments as well like when the fly in the cigarette ashes appears to come back to life or when the two boys are able to sleep in the self-driving Audi with no problem. The latter should also be symbolic as it appears the two boys appear to be on a trip to nowhere. Maybe they don’t really care if they don’t have a destination, as long as they’re away. That’s another joy of being young: venturing into the unknown.

One thing to take note is that even though the two are characters of teens we should hate, Mara does show some vulnerability. One case is when a man is about to drown a dog. Mara gets Hedus to fire his pellet gun at the man while Mara goes to rescue the dog. Also that scene where Mara and Hedus are seen helping their grandfather who is having a heart attack. It sends you the message that Mara does have a heart, despite his rebellion and carelessness. Also that scene where Mara is crying when he thinks his grandfather has died shows he still has a child-like innocence in him that comes out when you least expect it. Those are scenes that bring out Mara’s redeeming qualities and make you actually like him and feel for him. He’s not the heartless jerk we’re first led to believe he is.

We should give a lot of respect to Slovenian-born director Olmo Omerzu and Petr Pycha. Who would’ve thought this was Pycha’s first ever feature-length script? Pycha’s story and Omerzu’s direction help make this film and its characters entertaining and charming in ways you least expect it. Tomas Mrvik was very good at the young protagonist Mara. This is Mrvik’s first film but he succeeds in making Mara hatable, but charming at the same time. Also acting for the first time is Jan Frantisek Uher. He did the idiocy of Hedus very well and surprised us all in showing Hedus is trickier than we thought. Lenka Vlasakova was excellent as Officer Freiwaldova. She did an excellent job in delivering the more dramatic parts and made them work for the film.

Winter Flies is the Czech Republic’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was nominated for the Crystal Globe for Best Film at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival where Omerzu won Best Director. The film is also quite remarkable for including a lot of elements in a story of teenagers most teen films, especially those made by the Hollywood system, wouldn’t include. Stealing an Audi, allowing it to self-drive while asleep at the wheel, teen boys talking about getting ‘pussy,’ the two masturbating and climaxing in their pants, I doubt Hollywood would dare to make a teen-themed film with scenes like those!

Winter Flies is a humorous story. However the funniest thing about the film is that it makes likable characters out of two we should really hate!