Category Archives: Movie Reviews: 2019

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Parasite ( 기생충)

Parasite

Parasite is the story of the Kim family trying to break out of poverty by scamming their way together into serving an upper-class family.

Foreign-language films have a habit of becoming catchy when you least expect it. This year’s hit foreign film comes from South Korea. It’s titled Parasite and done by renowned director Bong Joon-ho and it’s quite a telling story about the classes.

The Kim family have it hard as they live in a basement shack in a rough area of Seoul. Father Ki-Taek had a good restaurant, but it folded. Mother Chung-sook used to be a good hammer thrower. Some Ki-Woo dropped out of college and their daughter is unsure of her future. They struggle with working menial jobs, have to roam near the windows for free Wifi, have a lot of bus in their food and sometimes have no choice but to watch drunks urinate outside their window.

Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk visits with him before he leaves for college. Min-hyuk has been working as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy Kim family. Min-hyuk recommends to Ki-woo he take over and even fake university credentials. Ki-woo is able to make a successful forgery and he’s hired to be the English tutor to the Park’s daughter Da-Hye. The Kim family hope to get jobs within the Park household. The Parks are nervous about their 6-year-old son’s drawings and are looking for an ‘art therapist.’ Kim Ki-jeong, the daughter, is able to pose as a student heading to the US under the name of Jessica. Now that Ki-jeong is hired, it looks like there aren’t any more positions. Not unless they get the chauffeur and the maid fired. Which is exactly what the Kim children do! The limo driver drives Ki-jeong close to her block but without him knowing, she takes her panties off and leaves them to get him framed for having sex in the car. It works and the father Kim Ki-taek is hired as the limo driver. Then there’s the maid Moon-gwang. She’s a good servant, but makes her allergy to peach aware. Perfect! The Kims shave peaches and throw it when she’s around to get her to think she’s come down with tuberculosis. Moon-gwang has to quit and the mother Kim Chung-sook is hired to replace her.

Although all four have jobs in the Park household, they have to disguise they’re not family. That’s not easy as the Park so, Park Da-song, have the same smell. Also all have to make their exact whereabouts secret to them not just so that it’s unknown they live in the same place, but so the parks don’t know they live in a rutty area. Soon the Parks leave for a camping trip, which they will be using their own car and entrusting Chung-sook as the maid and leaving the others off. As the Parks are away, it’s perfect opportunity for the Kims to have their own party at the place. And they have every reason to. They all made it!

However during their fun on a rainy night, something unexpected happens. They have a visitor at the house. It’s the former maid Moon-gwang. She said she left something important in the bunker. The Kims didn’t know the Parks had a bunker. It’s a bunker a lot of rich people have either to avoid loan sharks or in case nuclear war happens. In that hidden room at the bottom of the bunker, Chung-sook discovers Geun-sae, Moon-gwang’s husband, is in it. He has been hiding down there for years to avoid loan sharks. When the other Kims discover Moon-gwang and Geun-sae a fight ensues after Moon-gwang threatens to expose their scam. However the fight ends when Chung-sook learns the family is coming back sooner than expected because of the heavy rain and they expect ramen. Party’s over, right?

Not quite. The Kims have to hide and Chung-sook kicks Moon-gwang down the stairs for which she receives a fatal head blow. Chung-sook serves the Park family ramen after they arrives with the other Kims hiding under the sofa waiting to escape. It’s a long process as the parents sit on the sofa watching Park Da-song play ‘indian’ in his tent out in the rain. The Parks even get sexual on the couch and even talk about the smell of Kim Ki-taek, unknowing that he’s underneath the sofa and hears it all. The three Kims escape the mansion and return back to their home in the rain, only to find it’s almost completely flooded and they’re one of many people from the neighborhood that have to sleep in a shelter. Ki-woo and Ki-taek have a heart-to-heart talk about life and directions, and even having instances like these where they have to face the music.

All appears not to be lost. The Parks are having the birthday party for Da-song and the staff are invited. All four Kims can assume their guises again. It’s based on the ‘indian’ theme that Da-song loves. However Ki-taek is left out of the party by Park Dong-ik and is reminded he’s a paid servant. The party goes well but just as Ki-woo returns to the bunker with the scholar’s rock, he encounters an angry Geun-sae. Geun-sae has had it that he’s been down there for so long and that he just lost his wife because of the Kim’s stupidity and selfishness. Geun-sae wants revenge and Ki-woo is first to get it as Geun-sae uses the scholar’s rock to hit him over the head. Then Geun-sae goes out in the yard where the party is and stabs Ki-jeong in the heart. That provokes a seizure from Da-song which Dong-ik orders Ki-Taek to drive him to the hospital. That leads to even bigger chaos as Chung-sook fatally stabs Geun-sae, but Geun-sae is alive long enough to look Dong-ik in the face and remind him of when both were scouts and taught respect for one another. Angry with it all, Ki-taek stabs Dong-ik.

The aftermath is that Ki-jeong died and Ki-woo was in a coma for weeks. Ki-woo came out of it, but it left him with a brain injury that causes him to laugh unexpectedly. He and Chung-sook were convicted of fraud and impersonation and Ki-taek is at large missing without a trace. The Park house has been resold because of the massacre. Despite the deaths of Moon-gwang, Geun-sae, Kim Ki-jeong and Park Dong-ik, it sold. Even though it has new owners coming, Ki-woo notices a light from the bunker flash on and off. His father is alive and hiding in the bunker. Ki-woo has a message of morse code for him where he tells of a hope that they can be a family again and how they can live prosperously, and done fairly.

The interesting thing of this film is that it’s very creative in showing the biases poor people have of rich people and the biases rich people have of poor people, and biases both have of certain peoples in general. We see it in the Park family as they common talk about the smell of poor people, especially Mr. Kim. It seems like poor people have a smell only the Parks can sense. We also see how the Parks seem to think the smallest instance of something wrong, like in their son’s art. I mean the kid is only six! We see it in the Kims how they have the belief that the rich are very naive and all four are ready to take full advantage of it. However the film also shows how both the Kims and the Parks can expose their own weaknesses. We see it at the beginning as the Kims think their only way into a better life or even a life of wealth is to scam their way into wealth. We see how Park Da-song likes to fantasize about being an ‘indian’ and the family toys around with Native Americans.

We see it at events like the birthday party, we see it during the rainflood, we see it when Mr. Park confronts Geun-sae before he’s killed and remembers he once knew him in scouts. Actually that massacre scene and when Geun-sae shouts ‘Respect’ to Park reminds him, and all of us, that there was a time in Park’s childhood he saw all his male peers as equal, including poor ones like Geun-sae. Maybe that’s it with that scene close to the end. The film reminds us of part of a saying Banksy once said of how we’re all the same: ‘until… wealth classifies us.’ Interesting how Geun-sae, Dong-ik and Ki-teak were all scouts who saw each other as equals until they grew up, got older and went their own paths.

That’s the funny thing about the film. At first you think the film will follow a basic linear path in therms of telling its story. There are even times in which even after one incident happens out of the ordinary, it will still end in normal fashion. However it doesn’t. What you anticipate might be a good ending actually ends up being something totally bizarre. One source mentions that it ended that way because Korean movies are known to be big on blood and gore, just like a lot of Japanese movies. However it does make one think whether the film and its scenes were done right or not. Sometimes you think it could have been done better if this was done that way. Then you think if it did, this would have to be left out. In the end, you’re left convinced the film was done the right way. Including the massacre scene when Kim Ki-jeong is killed, but the only thing Park Dong-ik cares about is Ki-jeong’s ‘poor person smell. Even Geun-sae’s ‘poor person smell’ comes out as he’s dying but before Kim Ki-taek can stab Park, Park reminds him of their childhood as scouts. Also the aftermath looks like it ends the film right as a redemption of humanity at the end and actually makes you feel for the surviving Kim family.

Top accolades for the film go to director Bong Joon-ho. Bong is actually South Korea’s first director to break into North America. He had a good reputation in South Korea, but he expanded into North American film after people take note of 2009’s Mother. His English-language breakthrough came with 2013’s Snowpiercer and critics were impressed. Even after returning back to Korean films, Bong has still caught a lot of attention with films like Sea Fog and Okja. This is possibly his best work.

It is very complex as he’s not just simply working with a complex story he co-wrote with Han Jin-won, but even working with a lot of complex styles of scene. Bong got the idea from this story from an actual murder of rich people by their servants. It was 1933 in France and the two servants that killed their master were sisters. Bong does a good job in making a great story sending a message about the division of the classes. The little elements that add to the theme of the rich-poor gap like the ‘poor person smell,’ the use of English when they have something significant to say, the storm which makes the Kim family face the music about what they’re doing, the scholar’s rock which goes from a good-luck object to something Geun-sae attempted to kill Kim Ki-woo with before the massacre, the use of Morse Code, they all help add to the color of the story and to the theme. There are scenes that get you wondering as well. Like the scene where Park Da-hye has sex with Kim Ki-woo. Some could say it’s sending the message the two classes aren’t that far apart. Others could say it’s where the rich like to screw the poor. You be the judge! Also you figured halfway into the film that the scam of the Kims would eventually be uncovered, but I bet you didn’t expect it during a massacre at a child’s birthday party!

The acting from all ten actors involved was excellent to see as they all had something to add and they did it all as one team rather than a single actor standing out. If there was anything close to a standout, it had to be Song Kang-ho as the Mr. Kim. He did an excellent job as playing a man who appears to be cold and dead on the outside but is secretly hurting. Choi Woo-shik was also good as the Kim son who starts it all and ends up the voice of reason at the end. The production design was also very good. It was excellent in showing off the modern rich-poor gap very well. The cinematography of Hong Kyung-pyo was also excellent.

Parasite begins in normal fashion, leads to a comedic middle, leads to the conclusion in bizarre fashion, and ends on a somber note. It does seem like an odd construction of a film, but Bong makes it work. Plus he has a lot to tell about the gap between rich and poor. It’s a gap we see all too well in our own lives.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Joker

 

Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix showcases a villain in the making in Joker.

“I thought my life was a tragedy. Turns out it’s a comedy.”

At first you’ll think a film like Joker is yet another popcorn movie. I mean the film about the eventual making of Batman’s most legendary villain. what more can you expect? Actually it goes beyond what you’d expect.

This film is interesting, and I don’t mean interesting in a negative way. We live in a time where superhero movies are the call of the day. We love heroes. We even consider anti-heroes like Deadpool a guilty pleasure. Very rarely do we get a movie of the origins of the villain. Before this film, I’m sure there were all sorts of ideas for a villain film, including a few ideas in the past for a Joker film, but it never came to full fruition. I always felt that if there was to be a first major ‘origin of a villain’ film for a superhero franchise, there would be a Lex Luthor movie before any Joker movie. I was wrong!

One thing about the Joker is that there have been several stories of the original of the Joker from DC Comics. Actually the original story of how the Joker came to be is in 1940 that the Joker fell into a vat of chemicals which left his skin and appearance the way it is., as well as the chemicals making him insane. Another 1951 story is that the Joker was a normal person until Batman interfered with him and he fell into a chemical vat. Interesting to know that Jerry Robinson who created the Joker never paid too much focus to his origin, just the villain he became.

This is one story of the evolution of the Joker that’s like no other. The film presents Gotham City as a big city full of crime and being run as a plutocracy in which mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne supports, but wants to take to higher levels. It seems like their one escape from the hell is through watching The Murray Franklin Show. Meanwhile Arthur Fleck is one of the marginalized people. He’s mentally ill, possibly from a head injury from his abusive childhood, but he just wants to make people smile and laugh. Whatever attempts to do so backfires and it seems like he’s dragged down by them. He tries to get a girlfriend with a mother in his own apartment but that falls apart. The mental illness consumes his mind and it interferes with his life. On top of it, his mental illness made him look like a fool with a clip run on a late night show. However it’s right after receiving an answer for what he dug for about his mother that he loses it. He threw in the towel for what he wanted to be and just explodes. He already got a good sense that he was good at revenge by that subway shooting. Following the revenge shooting he gave on a fellow clown of his, he got a sense that he was actually destined to be a person of revenge. However his biggest act was yet to come on the Murray Franklin show. He had an act that was an act of entertainment mixed with an act of revenge on Franklin. That started the wave of anarchy and mayhem in Gotham City  which would pave the way for the Joker to be king and would lead to the murders of Thomas and Mrs. Wayne in front of Bruce.

The thing about this story about the Joker is that it’s obvious the Joker story is meant to be dark just by the way it starts. It presents Gotham of a place of doom and gloom and Arthur as one of it’s many casualties. His mental illness is also portrayed in a dark manner with its symptoms and how he’s dealt with by the government. Actually mental illness has to be the biggest theme of the film. I don’t know if there’s a specific mental illness that is exactly like what Arthur has. I’m sure it’s possible because I remember the son in Parasite is left with a mental illness that has him laughing at the wrong times since his skull fracture. Whatever the situation, Fleck lives in what appears to be a prison of his mind that is common with a lot of people. Fleck’s mental illness has him write down statements of truth rather than statements of humor for his comedy routine. Those statements seem to echo that of many other people with mental illness. I think that’s the biggest thing that grabs people about the film, about how Fleck’s struggle is a common struggle with many.

The ending becomes an ending one should expect as Arthur Fleck is supposed to end as the Joker in the movie, right? However we get a lot more. The marginalization of the majority of Gotham City is reflected well inside Arthur Fleck. Recently he snapped. He’s already committed revenge against his mother and his coworker by shooting them. However it becomes obvious those two were all dress rehearsals and that he was planning for his biggest act on Murray Franklin. You could tell something was up by the way he walks to the Franklin studios in his Joker outfit and dances around. However even if you did anticipate Arthur would get his revenge on Franklin on live TV or not, I’m sure most did not expect the mayhem of a Gotham City riot to happen and this anarchy to happen either just after the Joker’s appearance on the show. Also some might not have expected the ending to be a case of both the Joker arriving and the legend of Batman just starting.

Now there was some talk when the movie first came out that there was fear there would be some copycat violent incidents. When you look at the film, it’s a film that features a lot of disturbing things like mental illness, marginalization, incels and vigilantism. There’s even that line just before Arthur shoots Murray: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fucking deserve!” No violent incidents have come of it. And even if one did, I believe it is not the responsibility of the filmmakers. I learned a long time ago in the 1990’s that you can say all you want how influential entertainment is on certain people or society, In the end, it;s not responsible. People are responsible for their own actions.

First off, the biggest accolades have to go to Joaquin Phoenix. This was a captivating character to play, but also a complex character to play as well. To portray this version of the Joker on the big screen was not an easy thing, especially since the character lives in both a fictional world of chaos and a mental world of chaos. Joaquin made it work, and in a way that keeps one in their seat. Also this may make history as the first-ever performance of a superhero character to win an Oscar. Additional accolades have to go to Todd Phillips. This movie he directed and co-wrote with Scott Silver worked beyond anyone’s expectations and even won moviegoers in the process.

For acting, it appeared Phoenix had the most developed role of the film while the other roles lacked dimension in comparison. However the performances did a lot to show their presence and add to the film rather than just be something for Phoenix to work off of. There was Frances Conroy who played Arthur’s mother and she did a good job of portraying her character’s own mental illness. There was Robert de Niro who did a good job as the host that’s friendly one minute, mean the next. There was Zazie Beetz who plays Arthur’s love interest. Technical efforts in the film were also excellent. There’s the cinematography by Lawrence Sher, the costuming by Mark Bridges, the makeup work, the production design, and of course the musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir. I’m a fan of film scores and Hildur was excellent in delivering a score to fit a dark and disturbing world as well as the chaos in Arthur’s mind.

Joker does present a unique story of how one of DC Comics’ most legendary villains came to be. However it’s a lot more as it takes us into the character’s mind and into the world of mayhem he lives in. And it connects with you in a surprising way.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Little Women

Little women

The latest adaptation of Little Women stars Saoirse Ronan (top left) as Jo March and is adapted and directed by Greta Gerwig.

 

I’m sure when most of you learned of Little Women about to be released, I bet most of you thought ‘not another Little Women adaptation.’ I admit I had those feelings at the start. However I was surprised to see how well it turned out.

In 1868, Jo March is a teacher in New York City. She has writing ambitions and takes her writing frequently to Mr. Dashwood who will publish her writing… under considerable editing. Her younger sister Amy is in Paris under the guidance of her elder Aunt March who never married and despises the idea of marriage. She meets her love from back home, Laurie and invites her to a party, in which he gets drunk to her dismay. Jo’s writing ambitions are kept alive by a professor named Friedrich Bhaer who supports her work but is constructive but blunt in his critiquing of her works. However Jo has to put everything on hold when she receives a letter that her younger sister Beth is sick. She has to return back home.

The film flashes back to the winter of 1861 in Massachusetts, just after the March’s father goes off to the Civil War, and the March sisters all dress up and prepare for a party where Jo meets Laurie, the grandson of their neighbor Mr. Laurence, for the first time. Just before Christmas dinner, the mother Marmee encourages the girls to give their food to their Mrs. Hummer and her group of hungry children. The girls return with a plentiful Christmas dinner thanks to Mr. Laurence and a letter from their father who just started fighting. During the trip, Jo is invited by her single elder Aunt March to come to Paris with her. Also during that winter, Amy is strapped by a teacher for her drawing in class and Laurie takes her in to his Latin lesson before her family arrives.

It’s obvious as Amy has artistic ambitions and Jo has writing ambitions, their ambitions clash, often violently. One night as Jo is out with the family for an occasion, Amy burns the notes to her novel. Jo discovers upon returning, and a violent fight ensued. However all animosity ends when on an occasion while skating, the ice breaks under Amy and is in danger of drowning. Jo saves her. Also during that winter, Mr. Laurence invites Beth to play on his piano as she reminds him of his late daughter.

Returning to 1868, Laurie apologizes to Amy for his drunken behavior the night before. He also begs Amy not to marry Fred Vaughn but marry him instead. That only makes Amy unhappy as she feels she’s ‘second to Jo’ at everything, including Laurie. Amy later rejects Fred’s proposal after she learns Laurie returned to London. Returning back to the past, there was a period of time when Marmee left to visit their father who was wounded during the War. During that time, Beth received a gift from Mr. Laurence: his piano! However she becomes ill with scarlet fever. With a weak heart, it means she might die. Her mother rushes home with their father, already recovered. All come home in time for Christmas and Amy is all better. However returning back to 1868, Amy dies shortly after Jo arrives from her train trip.

The film flashes back to the past on the day Meg is about to be married. Jo doesn’t want her to marry, feeling Meg doesn’t want to marry, but Meg reminds her Jo’s ambitions may be different from Meg’s ambitions, but they’re still her ambitions. It’s on the day of the wedding Aunt March announces she will take Amy to Paris instead of Jo. Laurie admits his feelings for Jo after the wedding, but Jo insists she doesn’t have the same feelings.

Returning back to 1868, a devastated Amy returns home with a dying Aunt March. Jo starts to wonder if she has second thoughts of her love to Laurie. She writes a letter confessing her feelings, but she soon learns Amy accepted Laurie’s proposal and rejected Fred Vaughn’s proposal. Jo later agrees with Laurie to just be friends. After she throws her letter of love to Laurie in the river, she’s inspired to write her novel about her and her sisters.

She takes the novel to Mr. Dashwood who dismisses it because he believes a lead protagonist female who marries is what sells novels. Mr. Dashwood is given a change of heart when he learns his own young daughters love the story. However he’s still skeptical and wants Jo to make the lead protagonist marry. Jo is at first against it as it is sacrilegious to her work. However she compromises, but on one condition. She gets a $500 up-front publishing payment and more than the original 5% profits promised. She starts at 10% but compromises at 6.6%. The novel Little Women is set to be published and the school Jo and her sisters wanted to open is opened in what was Aunt March’s house with Bhaer teaching children at the school.

This may be a film adapted from a novel written in 1868, but as one watches, one would be surprised to see its relevance for today. This may be a story set around the time of the US Civil War and in New England, but there are a lot of similarities to the present. One common theme is the competitiveness of sisters. We still have that. Ask any woman who comes from a family with a lot of girls! There’s also the story of women with desires and ambitions. Today’s young women have possibly the biggest ever ambitions for their future. Women may have had it rougher a century and a half ago, but it makes clear the ambitions the women shared, whether it be career ambitions, romance ambitions or artistic ambitions. We should remember from history that women had to work during the war while the men were fighting and that started suffrage groups and the first feminist groups. There’s dealing with dashing but stupid men, as seen in Laurie. There’s support and encouragement from others. There’s also the bond of the family. First of the March girls all live with their mother Marmee as they’re waiting for their father to come home from the war. Even dealing with the heartbreak of a sister that died too soon.

For those that read the novel Little Women, I feel the reason why it became so popular is that women could see mirror images of themselves in the March sisters. They shared similar goals, similar trials, similar ambitions and similar dreams. Here in the film, I felt the characters of the March girls were made to look very relatable to most young females of today.

Now Little Women has already been adapted into a film many times before. In fact this is the seventh film adaptation of the novel if you even include adaptations as far back as the silent era. To make people welcome a film adaptation of this in the present, there would have to be a freshness or a twist that works. Having it a case where Beth is one with no intentions to marry is a risky thing. I feel it did the smart thing by having it a case where Jo is the author of Little Women and trying to market it, and using the money to build the school, is a brave decision. I don’t think it does anything too sacrilegious to the book. In fact the character of Jo is to mirror that of Louisa. What the film does is actually give two alternatives of Jo: the Jo that’s common in the novel and the Jo who’s more of a reflection of Louisa’s own life and strong will when she deals with Mr. Dashwood. It’s a unique twist for Greta to make it happen. Plus instead of it defying the story, it actually adds a unique twist to it that works.

Top accolades of the film should go to director Greta Gerwig. This could have been another rehash of a commonly-adapted novel. Instead Greta adapts the story to make it very relatable to young women in today’s world and even adding a twist to the story without ruining the dignity of the original story. Gerwig bends instead of breaks. Even the constant flashes between the past and present work well. The best acting comes from Saoirse Ronan. Again she does an excellent acting performance that adds dimension and charm and speaks to the audience. Florence Pugh is also great as Amy: Jo’s most rivalrous sister and very good at stealing the show from Jo at times. Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen are also very good as sisters Meg and Beth. Laura Dern is also good as Marmee, but her role is limited in dimension. Meryl Streep is also given a brief role as Miss March, but she delivers a character that commands your attention each time. Timothee Chalamet was good as the idiotic Laurie, but I feel he didn’t act 1860’s-ish enough.

The film also has a lot of great standout technical efforts too. There’s the costuming of Jacqueline Durran, there’s the score composition from Alexandre Desplat, the set design from Jess Gonchor and Claire Kaufman and there’s the cinematography of Yorick Le Saux.

The most recent adaptation of Little Women does the book justice, but it adds a twist at the end. I’m sure even the biggest fans of the novel will be happy how the film turns out.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Marriage Story

Marriage Story

Marriage Story is the story of a marriage between an actress (played by Scarlett Johannson) and a theatre director (played by Adam Driver) that’s falling apart. And the child caught in the middle.

There have been films about marriages falling apart before. You could understand that a film like Marriage Story would be expected to deliver a lot in order to separate itself from the other divorce films. It will surprise you.

The film begins on the two in the marriage: Charlie and Nicole Barber. Charlie is a successful theatre producer in New York and Nicole is a former teen actress originally from California who’s part of his production and has helped her career as an adult actress. We see images of Nicole and we hear Charlie’s voice of what he loves best about Nicole. We see images of Charlie and we hear from Nicole what she loves best about Charlie. We then see Charlie and Nicole sitting in the office of a marriage mediator. What we heard are the written essays both were requested by the mediator to write of each other. The mediator requests Nicole to read first, but she’s too embarrassed and they forego the counselling.

The marriage troubles appear to have happened when Nicole was offered a starring role in a Hollywood television production. After she left the New York production of Charlie’s, Nicole moved back temporarily into her mother’s house taking their 8-year-old son Henry with them. Charlie chose to stay in New York as his play is moving to Broadway. They want the split to be amicable and to forego lawyers. However right after shooting, one of her castmates recommended a family lawyer she had for her ow divorce.

Her name is Nora and she is known to have experience in family situations, especially those in showbiz. Right from the start, Nora appears ready to deal with Nicole’s case, even before she hears it. Nicole does state her case. She tells of how she feels neglected by him and he constantly rejects her ideas and desires. She also suspects him having an affair with the stage manager of the theatre company.

Charlie goes to Los Angeles with the intention of visiting Nicole’s family. Nicole’s family is very affectionate to Charlie, but Nicole wants them kept out of it since this divorce is happening. The family try to make like it’s a normal visit until Charlie is served the divorce papers. Charlie first meets with Jay Marotta in Los Angeles who’s known to be an aggressive lawyer who fights dirty. Charlie declines hiring him, but he receives a phone call from Nora saying he needs to find a lawyer or risk losing custody of Henry. It’s on his return flight he finds a lawyer who’s not one Nicole previously consulted.

His name is Bert Spitz and he’s retired from family law and favors a civil approach to handling divorce. However Bert does make it clear there are some thing Bert will need to do to win custody of Henry such as move to Los Angeles. Charlie finds an apartment and remodels it to look modern. However he still has to fly back to New York frequently to work on his show. Charlie doesn’t want this to be a dirty court show so he gets Bert to arrange a meeting between the two of them, Nicole and Nora. From the start, Nora is the one in control as she brings up Nicole claim of him not being warm to her ambitions and revealing Henry prefers to stay with his mother instead of fly between the two cities. A frustrated Bert recommends Charlie move to Los Angeles completely.

A frustrated Charlie has had it. He fires Bert. During his Broadway run, he wins a lucrative Fellowship Grant. The first payout is enough to buy Jay on retainer. The case then moves to court. A confident Nora reassures Nicole that everything will be for her success, until she sees Jay coming to the court office. She knows it will get ugly. And it does get ugly in the court as Nora tries to portray Charlie as a bad person with past infidelity and emotional distance and Jay tries to portray Nicole as a bad person by making her wine drinking look like alcoholism and a criminal for hacking Charlie’s emails.

This whole lawyer vs. lawyer action frustrates both Nicole and Charlie. They act in a friendly way, especially around Henry. They don’t want this divorce to be a burden to Henry but he makes it obvious the back and forth is an annoyance to him. They hope a private discussion without either lawyer present will lead to a better resolve to the situation. Instead it starts as friendly and then turns into a heated argument. So heated, it a case Nicole claims he has gotten too involved with himself and an angry Charlie wishes she would die. However it’s Charlie realizing what he said that he breaks down, with Nicole comforting him.

The divorce drama isn’t over. Charlie is to have nightly visits with Henry where he is monitored by an expert evaluator. The visit appears to go well until Charlie shows both Henry and evaluator a trick he does with his carpenters knife in front of castmates. The trick failed and it left a long cut on his arm. The court process ends as both agree to relax their demands. At a family party with Nora as guest, Nora reveals the 50/50 agreement is actually 55/45 in her favor with terms Nicole didn’t want. At a party with his Broadway castmates, they console Charlie and he sings a song which seems to reflect his feelings of defeat.

One year passes. Charlie’s play has a successful year-long run and Nicole was nominated for an Emmy for directing. She also has a new boyfriend, possibly the boy she met at a party a year earlier. It’s on the day of Halloween Party. Nicole’s family is excited to see Charlie and Charlie tells them all he accepted residency to spend more time around Henry. Just before Charlie is about to take Henry to the party, he notices Henry trying to read something written on paper. Charlie tries to read it, but realizes it’s what Nicole wrote about Charlie in preparation with meeting with the mediator over a year ago. Charlie reads it as Nicole just enters in, and is in tears. At the end of the party, Nicole notices Henry tired on Charlie’s shoulder. Nicole agrees to let Charlie have him for the night, even though it’s her night with him.

There have been films about marriages falling apart and even films about actual divorce battles. Some will remember 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. That film won the Oscar for Best Picture and even highlighted a touchy topic about children caught in the middle of their parents’ divorces. This film is unique as this is about a divorce and it’s a divorce of a showbiz couple with differing career paths whose ambitions can be best met thousands of miles apart. The thing about this film is that anyone who’s been married, been in a long-term relationship, or are even going through divorce themselves can see certain instances in the Barber story that mirror their own. Maybe it’s at the beginning where Charlie’s and Nicole’s essays reflect one’s pre-divorce feelings towards their spouse. Maybe it’s the nasty court battles. Maybe it’s those child custody situations. Maybe it’s even those moments where instead of keeping it all together, they just let it out and just vent out their hostile frustrations towards them. I’m sure one can see their own situation mirrored in this film.

The film does a very good, very thorough, if not completely thorough, look at the divorce of the Barbers. The film starts with the two talking of what wins them to the other. It progresses when we learn of their past career moments, present career situations and obvious future goals. It leads into how the split gets to the point a divorce is necessary and how lawyer involvement is needed. It gets to the legal preparation and even how one tried to prepare himself to win a custody battle. It even gets to moments where both bring out the worst in each other. Then there’s the two aftermaths: the first aftermath being right after the divorce and the second being much later with the calm after the storm. The film is very good at showing how the ambitions of the two, whom both describe the other as ‘a competitive person’ at the beginning, cause the friction. The film is good at showing how one state’s divorce laws conflict with another’s laws. The film is good at showing how divorce battles interfere with their child’s life. The film is also creative as it shows the first part of the aftermath of the court battle with a musical note. Nicole, her mother and sister perform a song from a Stephen Sondheim musical at a post-trial celebration party while Charlie sings a song from a Stephen Sondheim musical at a New York return party about heartbreak. It fits the film and story perfectly.

I feel the biggest focus of the film is not just the marriage falling apart, but of the involvement of lawyers. One of Jay’s assistants said: ‘Criminal lawyers see the good in bad people. Divorce lawyers see the bad in good people.’ That is very true. We see it at the trial as both Nora and Jay try to vilify their client’s spouse and expose the dirt in them. Even after we heard Nicole and Charlie describe each other at the beginning as ‘a competitive person,’ we see in the court battles that their competitiveness is nothing compared to Jay and Nora. Many divorce lawyers like Jay and Nora end up being this kind of ‘cutthroat competitive.’ You can see it puts a strain on Nicole and Charlie. Sometimes you’re left to wonder if their most frustrated by the divorce proceedings or by their lawyers’ involvement. Both lawyers even showed animal-like mannerisms in the way they did their business; Nora appeared to be coming off like a snake while Jay appeared to be coming off like a bull. What can I say? It’s like my father once said “The only people that really win in a divorce are the lawyers.” Very true, Dad!

It would be interesting to compare this to Kramer vs. Kramer. One think that’s noticed is that this film is a lot more intense. One difference is Kramer focuses on a neighbor who’s in support while Nicole has more of a support system of a family. Both films are about a divorce and a custody battle. However the role of Henry in this film is not as dimension as that of the role of Billy in Kramer. Both boys have similar bowl-cuts, but Billy was the bigger role. Actually the bigger roles in this film were the lawyers. There was some ‘lawyer moments’ in Kramer, but not as much. I think that’s the thing with this film is that it’s not just about a divorce but about lawyer interference too.

Interesting note is that Scarlett has been married once and has a daughter from that marriage to Ryan Reynolds. Adam Driver is currently married and has a child. Noah Baumbach is currently married to Greta Gerwig but was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh for some time before and fathered a child through her. Sometimes it’s tempting to think this is about that marriage, especially when Jennifer, like Nicole, was a teen movie star with her breakthrough coming in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Noah will admit it’s partially about that, but it’s about other divorces too like his own parents and through people he worked with. He even interviewed lawyers, judges and mediators. In case you’re wondering, Jennifer did see it and she’s cool with it. That bit about Nicole having directorial pursuits, I think that’s more like Gerwig than Leigh.

This has to be the best film ever made by Noah Baumbach. Up until now, I felt his best work was The Squid And The Whale which ironically is what it’s like being a teen during a divorce, and was semi-autobiographical. This film he directs and writes really appears to be a mirror on what’s happening in a lot of people’s marriages today. It reminds me of what won people to certain independent films of the late-1980’s and early 1990’s. Those films consisted of actors playing regular people who won audiences over by being reflections of themselves. This film does that. Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver were also excellent in their parts. There were times when they had to be their own individual character and then times to be a character that was part of a couple. Both did an excellent job of making their characters work. Laura Dern was hateably-excellent as the divorce lawyer that was appeared more interested in winning for her than her client and was going to manipulate her way into getting it. Julie Hagerty was also very good as the mother trying to be supportive for Nicole but still having high regards for Charlie. Azhy Robertson was also very good as Henry, but his role lacked the dimension and the screen time of that of Billy Kramer. I feel the role didn’t touch on the frustrations of the child that well.

Marriage Story is the story of two people in the arts whose marriage falls apart. However what they go through is what one can see mirrored in their own lives or what they see happening to couples close to them or what one experienced in their own divorce. That’s the film’s best quality.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Ford v. Ferrari

Ford Ferrari

Matt Damon (left) is Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale (right) is Ken Miles in the racing drama Ford v Ferrari.

At first you’ll think Ford v Ferrari is about cars. It is, and about car racing. However, you’ll be surprised how much more it’s about.

The Ford Motor Company is going through an image issue in the mid-1960’s. For decades starting at the very beginning of the 20th Century, Ford under the genius of Henry Ford manufactured cars that completely redid the way Americans travel. Ford is still on top and currently led by Henry Ford’s grandson Henry Ford II, but it’s trying to win over younger buyers of their cars. It’s a bit harder because young people have recently developed an interest in racing cars and see Fords as their ‘parents cars.’ In 1963, Vice-President Lee Iacocca recommends to Ford they strike a merger with the cash-strapped Italian company Ferrari. It seems like a good choice as Ferrari has been a big winner in racing. In fact Ferrari cars have won the most recent 24-hours of Le Mans races since 1960.

However over at the meeting at the Ferrari office, the meeting does not go well. Enzo Ferrari tells Ford that he accepted a deal with Fiat that’s more lucrative and allows him to keep the Scuderia Ferrari racing division. In the meeting, Ferrari insults the Ford cars and Henry II as ‘not Henry Ford but the grandson of Henry Ford.’ That infuriates Henry Ford and he plans a revenge on Ferrari. The revenge is actually one to take the Ford Car company into the future. He plans to have a Ford car designed to win auto races. He hires Carroll Shelby who won the Le Mans in 1959 but had to retire because of heart problems: a problem he consistently takes pills straight out of the bottle. Since retiring racing, Shelby devoted his time to developing cars for auto racing through his company Shelby American. Carroll Shelby is close friends with 47 year-old Ken Miles: a British auto racer who is infamous for his bad temper and struggles as a mechanic with owning his garage in Los Angeles. This is a burden not only to him, but his wife Mollie and young son Peter.

Miles is Shelby’s first pick to test out his cars. Miles racing style and car know-how allows him to make good decisions. He is always very honest with Shelby whenever he notices something that needs an improvement or when something’s a weakness. However, the choice of Ken Miles does not go well with Henry Ford, especially since he feels Miles’ personality doesn’t fit the Ford image. Ford elects to send Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren to the 1964 Le Mans instead. Miles predicts none of the Ford participants will win the race, and he ends up right. Once again, the race is won by a Ferrari-driver.

Despite the big loss at Le Mans 1964, Shelby tries to reassure Ford that one of the Ford drivers hit 218 mph on the Ford GT40 and that made Ferrari nervous. Meanwhile it’s back to the drawing board. Shelby continues development on the Ford GT40 Mk II and he has Miles test the cars with Peter watching frequently and Ford unhappy about the arrangement. On one practice run, the brakes fail and cause the car to crash in fiery manner, which Miles is lucky to escape.

In 1966, Ford takes an extra step in the efforts of their racing cards by creating a racing division of their company and has Ford’s Senior Vice-President Leon Beebe run it. Beebe wants the program a case where Miles is not a part of any of it, not even the testing. Shelby meets up with Ford on an opportunity and offers to take him into his car. Ford accepts, and Shelby drives like a racer on the track which scares Ford almost to death. It’s right there he convinces Ford that Miles is the best man to win Le Mans. Ford agrees, but with a compromise; Miles needs to win the 24-hours At Daytona First before he can race at Le Mans. Shelby visits Miles at a street corner near his house after he’s finished grocery shopping to tell him the news. That infuriates Miles so much, he has a fist-fight with Shelby at the corner, which wife Mollie watches entertainingly.

Shelby and Miles continue with the racing and testing as Peter continues to watch and Phil Remington is the mechanic doing the fixing. Beebe is hoping Miles doesn’t win as he has puts in a second Ford entry in Daytona with NASCAR team Holdman-Moody supporting it. The Holdman-Moody team is faster at pit stops, but Shelby allows Miles to push his car to 7000 RPM. The result: Miles wins Daytona. It’s Miles’ first win in five years. Miles also has continued success later by winning the 12 Hours Of Sebring. Le Mans will be Miles’ chance to win the rare Triple Crown of endurance races.

At the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, Miles is there as is Shelby, but so is Ford and Beebe. So is Enzo Ferrari in hopes of this being victory #7 for the Ferrari car. Ferrari has just released his latest racing prototype, 330 P3, and his best hopes in repeating rest with Italian driver Lorenzo Bandini. Mollie and Peter are listening to the race on the radio as Peter will be going through the race on the Le Mans racetrack he drew.

The race starts and Miles has problems on the first lap as the passenger door won’t close; he has to steer with his right hand and hold the door with his left. At the first lap, Miles alerts of the problem, which Remington fixes with a sledgehammer. Miles gets back to driving and has a lot of ground to make up. With each lap, he breaks the track record and passes numerous Ferraris as he gains ground on the leaders. However, as he’s pursuing Bandini, brake problems occur. At the pit stop, the team replaces the brake system, which infuriates Enzo Ferrari. He feels it’s against the rules, but Shelby is able to successfully convince race officials that the brake replacement is within the rules. As the race continues, Bandini is in hot pursuit by Miles, but Bandini is the last Ferrari driver in the race. As they duel again on the Mulsanne Straight, Bandini blows is engine and is out, making this the first Le Mans since 1959 Ferrari won’t win!

There’s still one more act of the drama. Three Ford cars lead the race nearing the finish with Miles leading them all. What should be a normal racing situation actually becomes a publicity opportunity for Beebe. He envisions all three Ford crossing the finish line simultaneously and even tells Miles to slow down and set up for the opportunity. Miles is furious about this as this could put his Triple Crown in jeopardy and responds by setting more lap records, but eventually agrees with it. Miles does slow down and the three cross the finish simultaneously. However, it’s not a shared win as Ford driver McLaren is declared the winner. Shelby is mad that it ends all chances of Miles’ Triple Crown, but Miles is not down. Miles is just grateful for driving at Le Mans and giving the crowd a show.

That race would be Ken Miles’ last ever race. One day while testing a J-car, and with Shelby and Peter around, Ken crashed near a turn. It was a ball of fire and he didn’t get out. The fatal crash happened in Peter’s view. Some time later, Shelby goes to visit Mollie and Peter. He sees Peter still hurt but gives him words of comfort about his father and gives him a wrench Ken threw at Carroll years ago. As for Mollie, he just makes eye contact. Then he drives off like a racer.

The film is unique as it is more than just a story about racing. It’s also how one race depended on taking a solid American business and a business legendary in making automobile travel the new norm for the USA into the future. Because of it, or maybe not exactly because of it, people still drive Fords today. Ferraris are still the most expensive sports cars today but Ford is still one of the biggest auto manufacturers in the World. The film also gave us some reminders about sports business. Businesses don’t simply look for sportspeople who win all the time. They also look for those with a marketable image. Michael Jordan may be a case where one of the best sportsmen ever becomes the most marketable ever, but it’s not always a guarantee. Seeing how a great racer like Ken Miles was shunned by everybody except by his family and those involved with Shelby American is one example. Also how Henry Ford looked at him was also unpleasant to see. I remember one person said that Henry Ford simply not liking you was enough for him to fire you. Goes to show he was cruel to whoever as he was to Ken Miles.

The story isn’t only about racing or even about a remarkable race. It’s about an auto racer whom at an age most would retire from the sport at was having the most successful year of his life. It was his love for his family. He wanted to win for them. And he especially wanted to be seen by his son as someone to be proud of. It was also of a friendship between Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby. Miles was the one person Shelby can best trust for an honest opinion about his cars, or should I say Ford’s cars. Shelby saw a lot of qualities in Miles most others overlooked. The friendship was strong, but it wasn’t without its friction as both men were temperamental and fighters. But the friendship was still very strong.

One thing about this film is that it doesn’t compromise in being an auto racing film. Being such, it knows that it has to make the audience feel like they are part of the race or they are in the driver’s seat. The camera angles as well as many of the scene shots helped greatly in creating the experience and intensity and leaving the audience at the edge of their seat. The film also does a great job of putting the audience in the races too. Despite the intimate story, the story does not forget what it’s about and makes the audience feel the moments too.

The film marks another great success for director James Mangold. This is his sixth film to earn Oscar nominations and his first ever to be nominated for Best Picture. Although he missed a Best Director nomination, he creates a great film that delivers just as good a story as it delivers in racing excitement. The story by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth along with Jason Keller becomes more than a racing story with a simple plot. It’s a deep plot with three-dimensional characters and reminds the audience that the story is as much about the man, the friend, the husband and the father as it is about the racer.

The film marks another great performance for Christian Bale. Again he succeeds in getting into character and delivering a deep role. Not a false note about the character nor the father-son relationship. Matt Damon was also great as Carroll Shelby. His role may not have been as deep as Ken Miles’ but he added dimension and character to the role. The other standout of the film was Noah Jupe as Peter Miles. Noah made the father-son relationship work as well as Christian did. Other standout efforts include the cinematography from Phedon Papamichael. He knew the shots he needed for this racing film and he delivered, especially in some of the most intense scenes. The visual effects were also excellent and perfect for the film. Also the score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders added to the excitement of the film.

Ford v Ferrari is the remarkable story how a driver and a race depended on the future of the Ford auto company. It’s also a story about a friendship between two racers few of us knew of. And a reminder of an overlooked great in the sport.

VIFF 2019 Review: The White Snake (白蛇:缘起)

WHITE-SNAKE

The White Snake is the story of a young woman who is destined to be a snake spirit, but is torn between her destiny and the man she loves.

“Your fate may be in stone, but you choose how you live.”

I ended my VIFF 2019 experience by seeing The White Snake at the Playhouse theatre. I wanted to treat myself to something imaginative. It was excellent and breathtaking to watch.

Blanca is a young assassin in white clothes. She is a snake spirit as the ‘White Snake’ and is able to assume human form, but she can’t achieve her goal of immortality. The answer to her goal of immortality lies in a memory of centuries ago, which she cannot recall. Her sister Verta, who is a ‘green snake’ spirit, gives her a magical hairpin that allows her to go back in time to the Tang Dynasty to get her answer.

Back in time, Blanca finds herself waking up in a village. She is surprised to learn she’s in what’s called ‘Snake Catcher Village.’ She comes across a handsome villager names Sean and his dog DuDou. Sean rescued her from a rock by the waterfalls. She falls for Sean, but is unaware that Sean is a snake-hunter. He has been ordered to hunt snakes for the Dark General and the Little General as they believe the snakes hold the key to supreme power.

Soon Sean faces an attack from a snake demon. Blanca stops the demon, only to learn it’s Verta. Sean is surprised and Dudou is convinced she’s a demon. Sean is convinced Blanca is not a demon, despite all he knows about her. Nevertheless Verta reminds Blanca that her true nature will come out when there will be a battle between the snakes and the Dark General’s army. Soon Sean learns who Blanca is as she assumes snake form. Foxy Boss tells Blanca a terrible secret about being a ‘demon:’ gods, people, and even other demons want to kill you.

Will Sean still love Blanca? There will be a battle between the snake catchers and the snake spirits very soon. The Snake General wants Blanca to be extinguished since she wants to defy her snake spirit. Blanca is heartbroken and feels she’s doomed to her demon spirit forever, but Sean sees it in his heart to love Blanca and see her for who she really is. The film ends with a battle in thrilling fashion and in a romantic mood.

This film is a 3D animation big-screen adaptation of the traditional four-chapter Legends Of The White Snake. What I liked best about the film is that the film doesn’t just present a good eye-catching drama, but it also possesses a lot of elements of Chinese culture and Chinese mythology. The imagery of animal spirits within a person is very common in Chinese storytelling and Chinese folklore. I’m not familiar with all of Chinese folklore but I can see a lot of familiar traits of it in the film. Especially the animal spirits that exist in the humans. The film does it in a very entertaining and a very mesmerizing way. The 3D animation doesn’t hurt it at all. In fact it makes it very eye-catching and even brings the audience into the story.

The film appears like a common Chinese fable meant to tell the story of bad and good. However the story is also about rejecting a destiny all for the love of a man. She was a snake spirit; he was a snake hunter. It shows how the heart can win over a person even if they are destined to be something else. The film is mostly a drama and the film succeeds in being a dramatic story. However there are some humorous moments. Most of the humor comes from Dudou, especially after he’s able to speak. It does seem like a must to have some humor in an animated film. Kids will be watching. The film doesn’t seem to get as suggestive as parts of Children Of The Sea does, but there are some suggestive scenes. The story tries more to capture the essence of love between the two. Nevertheless the suggestiveness and the violence in the film leaves me thinking this will get a PG rating.

This is an excellent film done by Light Chaser Animation. Excellent job by directors Amp Wong (credited as Huang Jiakang) and Ji Zhao. Amp has animation credits with doing the Green Lantern series. Zhao has more credits in doing editorial work in film and this is his first direction of animation. Here the directors and the Animation studio deliver a great, colorful eye-catching story that’s a delight to watch and will capture your imagination. The story by first-time scriptwriter DaMao is also excellent. It captures the story and the essence of Chinese mythology well while giving an ideal story for big-screen animation.

The vocal talent is also there. Zhang Zhe did a very good job at making Blanca sound mystical. Yang Tianxuang was also good at making Xu Xuan sound as romantic as he looked. He Zhang was great in adding the humor to the film with DuDou and Zheng Xiaopu was great at bringing out the deviousness of Foxy Boss. The music from Guo Haowei and the songs sung by Sean are also a delight to hear and add to the film’s mystique.

It’s interesting to note that the White Snake cost 80 million Chinese Yuan (roughly $11.4 million US) to make but made 447 million Yuan (about $63.9 million US) in China alone. It will be released in North America starting only with Los Angeles on November 15th and in limited release starting November 29th. English dubs will be in the release as Stephanie Sheh will be the English-language voice for Blanca and Paul Yen will voice Ah Xuan or Sean. Having seen the film in Mandarin with subtitles, I would see the English-language one, but I would try to see which one in more magical. Also those who watch the film when it comes out, I highly recommend you stay to watch the credits. Yes, there is a scene in between the credits featuring Foxy Boss that leaves you convinced there will be a sequel coming out. In fact the Mandarin title of the film means ‘White Snake: The Origin.’

The White Snake is a film with a lot of beauty and intense thrills, but it also has some humor and passion. It succeeds in doing what an animated film should do and make you escape into another world.

And that does it! There wraps up the last of the films I saw at the Vancouver International Film Festival. I will be posting my wrap-up blog very soon.

VIFF 2019 Review: The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会)

Wild Goose Lake

The Wild Goose Lake is a story of a Chinese crime boss on the hunt, played by Hu Ge (right), and the woman who loves him, played by Gwei Lun-mei (left).

I was volunteering when they were showing The Wild Goose Lake. I found it intriguing to see a crime drama coming from China.

Zhao Zenong is part of a crime ring in a district of Wuhan. One night, he goes to a dingy amphitheater in the basement of a hotel. There the men are talking about the latest techniques in motorcycle theft. One man tries to direct men to certain areas of the district to conduct their crime. Two men squabble over a lucrative area and then an all-out fight ensues. The fight is brutal and bloody with no one dying. However as some of the men go riding off in their motorcycles chasing each other down, one is beheaded by a rail at a fast speed. Meanwhile a policeman who arrives is accidentally shot by Zhao in a tourist garden.

In the city, a young woman named Liu Aiai works as a prostitute. She catches Zhao’s eye. Zhao propositions her and even gives her one of his cigarettes. Turns out Liu is a ‘bathing beauty’ who’s pimp is a mob boss named Huahua. Huahua tells Liu to deliver a message to Zhao’s wife. He has placed a hefty dead-or-alive price on Zhao because the decapitated man in one of Hua’s men. Also after the shooting of the cop, the police now have a dead-or-alive reward of 300,000 Yuan for the capture of Zhao and is made public on television. Captain Liu alert a team of police dressed for undercover work that he may be in the Wild Goose Lake area: an area known for its lawlessness.

Sometime later, Aiai is at a night market participating in line dancing with glow shoes. Just as she’s dancing to ‘Rasputin,’ she notices Zhao’s wife. She meets her to tell the news. Then right in the middle of dancing, another shootout occurs through a raid of the bikers for Zhao. Zhao escapes but the bikers shoot one man.

Zhao knows all the details. He knows it when he sees all the surveillance cameras and what’s up. Men inside the crime ring want to claim the reward, with Zhao dead. One night, he meets with Aiai by the Lake.  Zhao tells her that if she turns him in, the reward money goes to his wife. Despite this, Aiai wants the reward to start a better life. Zhao has been in hiding since he’s been aware he’s a wanted man by more than one source. He does not his wife or young son to be a victim of this mess. However his own mob boss doesn’t like Zhao hiding himself. His boss still needs him to do things. The police confront Zhao’s wife and hope to use her to get Zhao in. Hua wants to use Zhao’s wife as bait for his own reward, but she breaks down over all this. A heist by the police turns up nothing. Zhao is shot, but is able to remove the bullet and bandage himself up.

One day, Zhao meets with Aiai at the lake in a boat. They share what could be one last cigarette. They caress and Zhao confesses everything to her. That night one of Hua’s men grabs Aiai and rapes her. The man is then shot by Zhao. But right in Wuhan’s market area, the police are on the chase for him. Zhao knows he has to make a run for it. He tries to make a run for the Lake, but is shot and killed. The police arrive led by Captain Liu and the news media comes as well. In the aftermath, Aiai and Zhao’s widow are seen together, and smiling.

There have been crime stories before. Most of them have been the common cat-and-mouse story that we see again in this film. Zhao has a ransom on his head and almost everybody surrounding him from law authorities to rivals to people even of his own crime syndicate want the big-money reward. It’s not just about a big crime boss trying to avoid being killed. It’s also how through Aiai we see another side of him. The outside sees a heartless criminal who’s hard to catch and hard to kill. When he’s with Liu, we see a man with feelings of love and sensitivity. A man who does have frailty and knows that he’s not that invincible. A man who shared with her more than just cigarettes. A man who wants to keep his wife and child out of his doings. Also unlike most of the other men in the crime world, he knew how to treat a lady right. Very rarely do we see a film that shows a sensitive side to a crime boss. The film does have the ability to be labeled a romance as it can be labeled a crime thriller.

The film is not just about the boss Zhao. It’s also about Aiai Liu: the woman in between. Aiai Liu is the woman who has Zhao’s heart. Zhao may be married to another woman, but it’s Aiai who Zhao drops his feelings of egotistical invincibility and shows he has a heart. However Aiai knows being involved with Zhao will make her a target. She knows men will want to target her and even violate her. She appears to know of the risk and is willing to make that risk. The smile between her and Zhao’s wife at the end does make one wonder. Are they smiling because they’re finally free? Or are they smiling in remembrance of Zhao?

The film succeeds not only as a drama, but also from its many cinema angles. The bike chases add to the excitement. The times between Zhao and Aiai add a calmness to the film at the right time and done in top notch film noir style. The addition of many of the shootings happening near a tourist section of the Lake and with surrounding animals add to the storytelling. The use of the Lake being where Zhao shows his frailty and fearfulness around Aiai also adds. The use of lights and colors in various shots, the sights of the worn buildings of the market town, and images of trains passing which has been done numerous times in crime stories also add to the film and its quality. It’s almost as if film noir has a Chinese quality added to it.

This is an accomplishment for writer/director Diao Yinan. He’s had two decades of renowned success with Black Coal, Thin Ice winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Here he takes on a crime story and does it with remarkable style. The story may be confusing and overdrawn in some areas, like Aiai’s rape, but he presents it in excellent fashion. Diao may have a lot of common elements of film noir in the past in this film, but it’s adding these elements to this film that shows a Chinese filmmaker can create film noir and make it look like his own.

One thing that’s rare in action films is deep acting, there was a lot here. Ge Hu was excellent as Zhao Zenong. He did a great job in making him go from this fearless invincible criminal a troubled man haunted by his impending death whenever he’s around Aiai. Lun-Wei Kwei was also very good as the woman caught in the middle who has feelings for Zhao, but also knows she has her own job to do. Also kudos to the cinematography of Dong Jingsong and the art direction of Qiang Liu.

This film was a nominee for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and was also a nominee for a major prize at the San Sebastian Film fest. There have been times during the film or even after the film I wondered how would a story about organized crime in China make it to the big screen? Would the Chinese government be concerned and want the film to be censored? This film is planned for release in China on December 6th of this year.

The Wild Goose Lake is a crime drama of the pursuit of chasing down a big crime boss for the sake of a reward. However the story is a lot more as it’s about the woman he loves and her feelings towards him, and living in the same criminal world he lives in.

VIFF 2019 Review: Children Of The Sea (海獣の子供)

Children Of The Sea

A young girl meets two ‘boys of the ocean’ who give her a summer to remember in Children Of The Sea.

Very rarely do I see animated films at the VIFF. It’s usually off my radar or I catch it by chance. I was fortunate to see Children Of The Sea from Japan. This is an excellent film to watch.

The film begins in the summer. 14 year-old Ruka is not happy spending it at home as her mother just drinks beer. She finds a break from it as she spends the days as part of her school’s camp. There she’s able to let out her energy. During a game of field handball, Ruka performs aggressively and suddenly trips, skinning her knee. The girl that tripped her did it by accident, but laughs at her. This infuriates Ruka to the point she gets her in the face in the next tackle. Ruka is taken off the game and the leader of the sports camp takes her out of the camp for the rest of the summer. Now there’s nothing for Ruka to do before summer’s end.

Ruka’s father, who is mostly away, takes her and bring her to the marine biology lab she works at. Ruka is blown away from all the sea animals that she sees there. However she notices a human. He’s a boy of dark skin and he seems to live in the waters and treat them like it’s his playground. His name is Umi. Her father tells her Umi was raised at sea by a dugong. Soon Ruka starts swimming with Umi during her summer days. The two develop a close friendship. Umi has a light-skinned blond-haired blue-eyed brother named Sora who’s also a boy of the sea. The boys of the sea are studies at the aquarium. Some of the scientists are concerned for their life, while other scientists at the research facility selfishly hope the boys will lead them to the Birth Festival– an underwater festival celebrating sea life — and hope to study it in order to advance oceanic sciences.

One day, Ruka is swimming with Umi and Sora in the ocean with one of the workers carefully supervising them shipside, while the more selfish scientists watch from the coast in curiosity. Ruka soon learns from Umi that they don’t know how much longer they will live and she is shocked. During her time with the two boys, the three decide to pursue a shooting star-like ‘will-o-the-wisp’ and it’s an experience like no other. She even kisses one of the boys.

However as summer is nearing its end, the day soon comes of the Birth Festival. Ruka fears this could be the day Umi and Sora die. Nevertheless the three enter into the water as Umi and Sore feel they have to be a part of this. The festival is deep in the ocean and begins in spectacular fashion. It is a celebration for the eye to behold. Even Ruka is able to swim with whale sharks. However as it ends, Umi and Sora are nowhere to be seen and Ruka is heartbroken. even the selfish scientists regret their pursuits. Ruka meets with her father and he promises to patch things up between him and her mother. Summer ends with a heartbroken Ruka walking to school. But just as she sees a handball, her newfound courage is very visible.

Anime is a very popular version of animation. It has a worldwide following in the way it does animation and for the way it tells stories. Usually on the internet, there’s a lot of celebrating of anime with some of the darker more disturbing stories. It’s very rare that the tamer more family-friendly stories get their notice, as well as their acclaim. This film may have some mature themes and wouldn’t entirely be 100% family friendly, but it is a film that will deliver an entertaining and mesmerizing story for people of various ages. The film is also a reminder of the qualities 2D-animation still possesses. We may live in a time where 3-D animation is the norm for feature films right now, but the film shows that 2-D animation is just as captivating and is also able to take the audience to another world. I did notice some imperfections in the film that are common in anime and wouldn’t be allowed in 3D animation. Nevertheless this film had the right images, the right story and the right effects to take you to another world: the mystical world of the ocean.

One thing about animation is that for it to succeed on screen, it has to have a top-notch story from start to finish. The story itself is very good. A lonely girl from an uneasy family background finds herself meeting two boys of the sea. Both boys were born to live in the sea, but have trouble on land and their time may be short. Here the girl has a summer experience of a lifetime as she learns of the beauty around them and learns how to be a friend. The story succeeds in having a consistent beginning, middle and end with characters that are either relatable or mystically captivating. I know that anime is not for everybody, but this film has such a lovely story with such spectacular dazzling animation effects, I feel it’s very much worth seeing.

This is an excellent film by animator Ayumu Watanabe. Children Of The Sea is actually a Japanese comic book series drawn by Daisuke Igarashi. I am not familiar with the series but I will say that the on-screen adaptation with the animation by Studio 4°C Co. made for a great mesmerizing story. The vocal talent from the voice actors is excellent, but it leaves me wondering if it gets a North American release, will it be in subtitles like I saw it or with English voice-overs? The music from Joe Hisaishi also fit the film excellently. Hisaishi has composed scores for many feature-length anime films like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. He does an excellent job again.

Children Of The Sea is as much as great story as it is dazzling to watch. It’s an anime film that’s as mystical as it is entertaining.

VIFF 2019 Review: Greener Grass

Greener Grass

Greener Grass is a comedy about dimwitted parents and dimwitted couples in a dimwitted world.

After seeing a lot of dramas at the VIFF, especially heavy dramas, you can bet I’d be in the mood for some comedy. I got what I needed on the last day of the festival with Greener Grass. It’s not your typical comedy, and all the better for it.

The film opens at a neighborhood children’s soccer game. Jill Davies meets up with her best friend Lisa Wetbottom. Jill’s son Julian and Lisa’s son Bob are playing in the game. Lisa is complimenting Jill on her newborn baby daughter Madison. Jill decides that Lisa can have Madison, to Lisa’s complete surprise. Lisa accepts with no problem.

The two drive home in their golf carts, which all the resident of the town drive. Arriving home, Jill tells Nick the news, and he’s okay with it. He’s happy that they still have Julian, even though he is a nerd who’s awkward at sports, which Nick is uncomfortable with. Lisa introduces baby Madison to her husband Dennis and son Bob. The others happily welcome Madison and rename her Paige. Lisa is proud of how Bob is good at sports, but uncomfortable how Bob is not that good at school. On top of that, her husband Dennis is shorter and pudgier compared to taller, more athletic Nick. Later on, the two couples meet together at a barbecue. They end up kissing each others’ spouses. However they all laugh it up and switch it back to the right pairings.

They try to go about their lives and raising their families normally, or as normal as it gets in that town. Nick may be unhappy Julian is not the athletic hero he hoped for, but he’s okay since they now have better pool water. The water’s so good, he enjoys drinking it. Soon there is the news that the yoga instructor has been murdered. The whole town is in shock. Both Jill and Lisa are nervous. There’s even a message of terror sent to Lisa’s golf cart.

One day, Lisa notices a volleyball left by a playground. She uses it to make herself look like she’s pregnant. And everyone including Dennis buys this. This starts to upset Jill. Lisa first noticed how unhappy Jill was at a children’s bowling game. At Nick’s birthday party, Lisa thinks Jill is best with getting a divorce. Soon Julian distracts from the party and talks about how terrible his life is. When he appears to take a suicide plunge in the pool, he turns into a dog. Everyone is in shock.

Jill goes about bringing the dog-like Julian to school, much to Bob’s shock, and music practice. However Nick is blown away how good Julian is at sports. He’s like the son of Nick’s dreams now. Jill tells Nick he wants a divorce. Nick agrees and takes Julian with him. Jill is now childless and empty. Meanwhile a ‘pregnant’ Lisa is shocked to see Bob watching Kids With Knives on the television. The show immediately turns Bob into a self-loathing angst-ridden monster. However Lisa decides to ‘give birth’ to the volleyball, and all including Dennis accept it as the new addition to the family.

Jill can’t handle it. It’s not just being childless, but the stress knowing the murderer hasn’t been caught yet. Jill then confronts Lisa. She wants Madison/Paige back. Lisa is hurt. Paige is hers. Plus he reminds Jill that it makes her look like an ‘Indian giver’… excuse me… ‘Native American giver.’ Jill can’t take it anymore. That night, she rips out the wire from her braces, furiously drives past the intersection in her golf cart without being polite and drives off into another town. She sees a house with children. She knocks on the door and talks to the mother. The conversation is friendly until Jill asks for one of her children. The woman politely asks her to leave, but one of the girls is looking at Jill as she walks off. Jill has a new child!

Jill makes it back into town and just on the eve as the murderer of the yoga instructor has been caught. At a children’s soccer game, Jill’s child plays her first game. Everybody is happy to see Jill’s new child, including Lisa. She’s happy to see that Jill is finally happy again. Or is she?

Watching this comedy does leave you wondering what the heck is going on? The world these adults live in make no sense at all. Perhaps that may be its best quality. Instead of this being a world that makes perfect sense, it makes perfect nonsense. It’s a world where the adults wear sweet pastel colors, all wear braces on their top teeth and all drive around in gold carts. A world where they’re too polite to make the first move at a stop sign. A world where they make huge decisions without rational thought. A world where they can love as conditionally as they want. A world a parent can simply give their child to another family and the family’s good with it. A world with TV shows where cooking contestants are judged with someone else’s entry, and they accept without hesitation. A world where the kids have their own weird bizarre traits and can instantly either turn into a dog or act like they’re possessed by the devil. A world where a woman can fake a pregnancy with a basketball and everyone would believe it, and even treat the basketball like it’s their baby!

To sum it all up, it’s a world lacking of common sense, but full of smiley niceness, instant hurt and even insanity. I haven’t seen this much weirdness or bizarre human behavior since watching an episode of South Park. Though it’s not as warped as a South Park episode, it has a combined weirdness that has to both make sense and be consistent from start to finish. When you see a lot of the idiocies or the idiotic world created in the film, it does get you wondering. Will it hold through from start to its feature-length finish? Will the stupidity of the world be just as stupid at the end? Will the characters be just as dim-witted? To my surprise, the story did hold up. Instead of making perfect sense from start to finish, it made perfect nonsense. The world and the characters are just as idiotic at the end as they were at the beginning. The may have been some noticeable changes in the kids, but it ended with the same crazy energy.

This may be a comedy with nonsense from start to finish. However it does seem to resemble the envy people, parents, and couples. It’s a spoof on how we all think the grass is greener on the other side or how we keep up with the Joneses or how we try to chase something we can’t get. We can’t be happy with what we have. We have to think the other one’s better or try to one-up them. This film and the brace-cases in it spoofs it, and in bizarrely hilarious fashion.

This comedy belongs to Upright Citizens Brigade alumni Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe. They wrote it together, directed it together and play Jill and Lisa respectively. Actually this is a feature-length version of the short film Greener Grass they created four years earlier. They took a story full of a lot of comedic ridiculousness and insanity and had quite the job to make it work as a smooth film from beginning to end. To my surprise, it works. The story and its combination of idiocy and insanity works from beginning to end. It had all the making of a story that would go off-path, but it doesn’t. Whatever different elements of the story get added in as if it adds to the story instead of interferes with it.

One thing about the film is that it’s obvious Jocelyn and Dawn are aiming for shocks. This film is a film that has people with a lot of experience writing for and acting in comedies. Here you can tell with a lot of the incidents and lines, they are aiming not just to weird us out, but shock us along the way. It’s noticeable with a TV show called Kids With Knives, Nick drinking pool water, the other-spouse kiss (which is full of saliva) and Bob uttering angry lines like “I wish I was aborted!”

The supporting acting is also funny. The husbands are played by two Saturday Night Livers: SNL actor Beck Bennett plays Nick and SNL writer Neil Casey plays Dennis. They both do a good job of adding to the idiocy of the story and even show a good male side to the idiocy in the world of this film. The two boys in the film were also good, but Asher Miles Fallica was quite something as Bob. He goes from a kid that’s your typical kid to a boy who suddenly acts like he’s possessed by the devil after watching Kids With Knives. That’s crazy!

Greener Grass is a comedy about suburban families that mixes in stupid with bizarre and insanity and insecurities. It comes off as a winning feature-length comedy from start to finish.

VIFF 2019 Review: Mr. Jones

Gareth-Jones

Mr. Jones is about journalist Gareth Jones, played by James Norton (left) who seeks to expose a tragedy in Ukraine the USSR is determined to hide from the outside world.

I was interested in seeing Mr. Jones at the VIFF as it’s based on a topic of my interest: the Holodomor or Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. It’s an intriguing story with a relevant message for today’s world.

In 1933, Gareth Jones is a 28 year-old Welsh journalist who is very good at getting stories. He was the first foreign journalist to fly with Hitler and Goebbels at the start of Hitler’s regime while working as an advisor for British statesman Herman Lloyd George. During the time, he discovered of Hitler’s intentions to wage war. His story fell to deaf ears in the press and his job as advisor is dropped due to budget cuts. Despite being dropped, George gave Jones a letter of recommendation. He hopes to use it to go to the USSR to find an investigative journalist. Before he does, he gets a phone call from a friend named Paul Kleb in the USSR. He talks of how the economy is booming in Russia, but he is about to tell of something terrible happening in Ukraine… and then he gets disconnected.

Jones arrives in Moscow. His trip is regulated from start to finish: what he does, how long he stays and where he goes. That’s how things are in the USSR. In fact his job as a foreign journalist is under heavy scrutiny by national officials during his stay and no foreign journalist is allowed outside of Moscow. He arrives at the hotel in Moscow of New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty. Duranty welcomes him and introduces him to his assistant Ada Brooks. Jones is expected to be in the USSR for seven days but he can only stay at the hotel for two days. Duranty offers Jones to stay and partake in the late-night partying. At the parties is all kinds of debauchery from prostitutes to heroin shooting to even homosexual advances. Jones wants none of this as he knows Paul Kleb was killed in Ukraine and has to find out why.

Jones finds a train headed to Eastern Ukraine. He breezes past security to stow away on it. When he arrives in Ukraine, he steps off to see the farmed grains loaded onto trucks by the Soviet army, but people dead in the snow and farmers starving. He tries to get answers. He goes to soldiers putting the bagged grain in a truck. He asks in English where it’s going, but is suspected as a spy. Soldiers go out chasing and shooting after him. Fortunately, Jones is able to evade the pursuit. He comes across some children who sing a haunting song to him of the death and starvation happening around him. He goes to a house which is in a photograph he holds, but sees the residents dead in their beds. Jones goes into a town where he sees the Soviet army take the dead bodies in the snow and pile them in a sled to be buried in a mass grave. They even take a baby that’s alive and still crying. Jones goes into a house where he is able to find living residents. They give him something to eat, which appears to be meat, and from Kolya. He soon learns they’re staying alive by cannibalism, and Kolya is a famine fatality.

Soon Jones is captured by Soviet forces. The Communist government commands him to be silent by using the lives of six British auto workers as hostages. Jones tries to plead with Walter Duranty to expose the truth of what’s happening, but Duranty is ‘in bed’ with the Soviet regime. Duranty has a habit of writing of the ‘Worker’s Revolution’ in the USSR like he romanticizing it. In fact Duranty has the reputation of being known as ‘Our Man In Moscow.’ Ada however is more supportive towards Jones and believes he has to get the story out. This can’t be hidden and knowing that Jones is to be sent back to the UK, she encourages him to make the truth known.

Back in the UK, Jones can’t get any British paper to buy into his revelations of a man-made famine. The government either doesn’t want to believe it, or fear it will jeopardize diplomatic relations with the USSR. This upsets Jones as he knows this must be stopped. The events upset him so much, he can’t stop himself from breaking down in tears in his hometown. However he has an opportunity to talk to William Randolph Hearst while at a newspaper office. Hearst, however is extremely busy and will only allow Jones thirty seconds to state his case. However when he mentions of the death of Paul Kleb, that grabs Hearst’s ear and makes Hearst want to hear everything Jones saw. Finally the story ‘Famine In Ukraine’ makes the front page of the New York Times. Jones is defamed. He is not allowed in the USSR again. Duranty is also defamed, but never had his Pulitzer Prize rescinded. Nevertheless George Orwell is caught in the intrigue of Jones’ pursuits and it inspires him to write ‘Animal Farm’ published ten years after Jones was shot to death.

I’ll admit any story about the Holodomor catches my interest. I’m of Ukrainian ancestry. My great-grandparents arrived in Canada around the 1890’s-early 1900’s. They came here long before World War I even started, before Ukrainian land was annexed as part of the USSR and before the Holodomor. This film showcases the Holodomor and is possibly one of the best cinematic depictions of it, but the Holodomor is not the biggest theme of the film. The biggest theme of the film is about censorship in the USSR at the time. All the censorship that happened in the film is an example of the censorship that happened in the USSR since it began after World War II until it broke down in the mid-80’s to when it dissolved in 1991. All news was censored. Nothing but good news was to be published in Soviet newspapers and whatever negative news could not hit either Soviet news nor news to the outside world. Phone wires were tapped and letters were opened and investigated by authorities before it reached the mailboxes of the citizens or outsiders. Even speaking negative words of the Communist government would get one a jail sentence. The Soviet media promoted propaganda to glorify itself and its Communist system and vilify the capitalist system in the United States.

As seen through Gareth, the Soviet system was also restrictive to outsiders. The system decided if a person from an outside country could visit, where they could go and stay and for how long. There were already six British autoworkers who were treated like hostages at the time and threatened with death to have the UK comply to their demands. You can understand just what Jones had to face in order to get the truth out.

Gareth had good reason to pursue the story. It’s not just trying to find out why Paul Kleb died, but Ukraine had personal interest to him as his mother taught English in Ukraine in the 1890’s. Gareth even had barriers in journalism to overcome once he had his story. He had top journalist Walter Duranty to deal with. Duranty had a big reputation at stake and kept insisting that the Holodomor isn’t happening. It isn’t until Jones meets with William Randolph Hearst that he finally gets a willing ear. The big feud between Duranty and Jones shows how even in what is supposed to be the ‘free world,’ there is still a lot of truths that are suppressed or even denied. Seeing all that goes on can make one wonder if this is happening today in what is supposed to be free countries. If we are really getting this freedom of speech or if we’re getting a lot of concocted stories.

This film is great in making a point about journalism and getting the truth out. There are a lot of truth even in today’s world that need to be exposed, but are covered up. The film does a good job in making a moment of past history, and the journalistic feuding surrounding it, make for a relevant message for today. Even the fact that Gareth was shot to death in 1935 while investigating a story in Chinese territory bordering Russia (which many consider to be a Soviet plot of revenge) reminds us of how many journalists risk their lives to uncover truths.

The film was very good at making its point. However the story didn’t seem to be heading on a straight path. There were times when moments that only deserved a certain time, like all the debauchery at Duranty’s hotel party, was slowed down and given more screen time than necessary. Even the moments of the journalistic feuding and political feuding appeared to take too long. The moments involving Jones witnessing the Holodomor in Ukraine were given the best screen time and the best on-screen depiction. It showed a lot of brutal honesty of the Holodomor, including that of cannibalism. It may have taken over less than half the screen-time, but it was done in excellent detail and gave the right haunting feel to this moment of tragedy.

Veteran director Agnieszka Holland teams up with emerging writer Andrea Chalupa to bring this story to the big screen. The story is one of great personal interest to Holland as she is well-knowledged of the Holodomor. Holland also has renown for her depictions of the Holocaust in some of her films. She does a very good job in directing the story, even if there are some moments of irrelevance or moments drawn out longer than they should be. James Norton does a good job in his portrayal of journalist Gareth Jones, but his part could have been developed more. Most of the parts didn’t have too much development and could have had more done with it. Nevertheless, Peter Saarsgard was able to make Walter Duranty hateable on the big screen. Vanessa Kirby was able to make her role of Ada gain more dimension over time.

Mr. Jones is about more than just about the Holodomor. It’s also about the topic of censorship that is just as relevant now with the ‘freedom of speech’ we’re led to believe we have in the ‘free world.’