Tag Archives: 2011

VIFF 2015 Review: A Syrian Love Story

A Syrian Love Story focuses on a Syrian couple from the start of 2011's Arab Spring to the present.

A Syrian Love Story focuses on a Syrian couple from the start of 2011’s Arab Spring to the present.

I saw quite a few documentaries at this year’s VIFF. A Syrian Love Story was one documentary that gets one thinking.

This is a documentary filmed year by year over five years. It starts in 2010 while Syria is going through its start of political turmoil. It had been under turmoil since the 1970’s when Hafez Al-Assad took power and any reforms promised by his son Bashar, who succeeded Hafez in presidency after his death almost ten years earlier, doesn’t deliver in the reforms he promised. Images of protest met with a violent response from government forces are too common. Caught in the middle is a married couple of Amer Daoud and Raghda Hasan. They have four sons from 6 to 22. Amer is living in Damascus being a father to the children. Raghda is in a prison for publishing a book about their relationship of all things. Amer and Raghda are no strangers to political oppression in their home country. Raghda has face imprisonment because she’s a communist revolutionary and Amer was once imprisoned with his ties to the PLO. In face they both first met in prison and fell in love through communicating through a prison wall.

Sean McAllister is in Syria looking for something about Syria’s crisis to film but something out of the ordinary. He finds it in Amer and Raghda. McAllister also shows us their four sons. The first year he films Amer’s phone conversations with Raghda while she’s in prison. He gets her sons to talk with her as well. McAllister was even imprisoned for a few days for a journalism crime and was able to listen first-hand to the torture in Syria’s prisons. He even meets the older son who broke up with his girlfriend because she was pro-Assad. Despite all this, McAllister does show a case of hope for the future, for all.

In 2012, Raghda is finally free. She is reunited with her husband, sons and the rest of her family. But they can’t stay in Syria, not while there’s civil war that started once Syrian people revolted against Assad during 2011’s Arab Spring. The family move to a refugee area in Lebanon. They do it not simply for the sake of themselves but their sons too. McAllister is nervous for the couple’s future since he knows behaviors of prisoners after they’ve been freed. He hopes Raghda doesn’t exhibit behavior that will hurt their marriage.

In 2013, they find themselves in Paris, France. Things are definitely better for the two youngest children Kaka and Bob. Bob is in a good school and Kaka is able to become a disc jockey at his high school. Things appear to go well for Amer and Raghda as they’re able to make a living for themselves but there’s a sense that something’s wrong. The children sense it.

In 2014, we get a good sense of what’s wrong. Amer and Raghda’s marriage is crumbling. Amer feels distant from Raghda and has a French girlfriend of his own. It upsets Raghda to the point she changes the password on his laptop. She even attempts suicide by cutting her wrists. No doubt it upsets everyone. She them admits she never had the chance to find herself and she feels that despite her  political freedom in France, she still feels she can do more for Syria or for others hurt by war.

The film ends in 2015. They two youngest sons have a promising future in France. Their older son reveals his pro-Assad former girlfriend was killed. Asad runs a chicken farm in France and is without Raghda. He wishes her well in whatever she does. Raghda is now in Turkey in a city 20 miles from the Syrian border. She works with refugees and is happier with her life now.

This is a unique story of love that starts with one hoping for a happy ending. We know Syria won’t turn out for the better but we hope that Raghda will be free and will return to her family and they’ll live happily ever after. We all want that storybook ending. Unfortunately it doesn’t end up that way. McAllister knows the problems prisoners exhibit after they’re free and he lets Amer and all of us know it. Over time, it shows after the moves, after Syria’s continued strife and after one senses the love between the two fading over time. It was unfortunate. The moment of hope doesn’t end up being when Raghda is free but rather when Amer is still in France and Raghda is in Turkey. That’s where the true scene of hope for the better is present.

The story is not just about the couple. It’s also about the surrounding family. This is especially noteworthy of the two youngest sons, Kaka and Bob. Bob is six at the beginning and the youngest. He tried to be a carefree child but the hurt of knowing his mother’s in prison is evident. Kaka is ten at the start and familiar with the realities in Syria. He’s able to tell Sean in good enough English his feeling of the situation, and of how he’d either like to fight or kill Assad. As they grow, the changes are present. Bob is getting bigger but has difficulties fitting into his school in Paris because his long hair causes other boys to call him a girl. Kaka is getting a better education but can’t ignore what’s happening to his parents. He can sense what’s happening and has his own opinions on what he feels should happen. Although the two are not the main protagonists, their presence in this story is vital.

One thing about this documentary is that the story focuses more on the fading marriage than it does in the strife in Syria from civil oppression to public outcry to a civil war to the eventual crisis with ISIS. However it does focus on the couple as they were fighting their own war with each other. They go from loving each other and having a closeness while Raghda’s in prison to the love fading over time after Raghda is free and they’re together again. It’s sad that they were closer together when Raghda was in prison. It’s even hard to pinpoint who’s the bad guy. Is it Amer for his fading commitment? Or is it Raghda for her inner strife? Amer appears like a jerk not even willing to try when he says things like “Syrians love prisoners,” but Raghda’s suicide attempt gets you wondering was she thinking of her family at the time?

Watching this documentary, I believe that this isn’t the type of documentary meant for the big screen. With the camera quality, editing and McAllister’s voice over, it fares much better as something for television broadcast. I’m sure that’s what it intends to be. I have to give McAllister credit for having the ability to do all this filming over time and to present a unique story. I also give Amer and Raghda credit for McAllister willing to film them while their marriage was hitting rock bottom and they were showing terrible behavior such as Amer threatening to smash his laptop and Raghda slitting her wrists. It surprises me that they were willing to show things that personal on camera.

A Syrian Love Story may not be a documentary meant for the big screen but it’s a very revealing story that reminds us not all love story has the fairytale ending. despite the hardships they show, it does end on a hopeful, if not happy, note.

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Oscars 2012 Best Picture Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a woman who means business in Zero Dark Thirty.

Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a fearless CIA agent who means business in Zero Dark Thirty.

-So Patrick, be honest with me. You really believe this story? I mean…Osama bin Laden?

-Yeah.

-What part convinced you?

-Her confidence.

9/11 movies aren’t very successful and rarely are they good. I don’t know if Zero Dark Thirty can rightfully be called a 9/11 movie but boy does it deliver well. Many can argue it’s the best film of the year.

The film opens in 2003 as a prisoner Amar, who is believed to have connections to Saudi terrorists, is questioned brutally by CIA officer Dan at the US embassy in Pakistan on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. He is joined by a young CIA officer, Maya, who has spent her entire brief career on intelligence related to Osama. Maya assists Dan in his humiliating torture on Amar at the black site until he confesses the name of Osama’s personal courier: Abu Ahmed. Other detainees corroborate the claim with some claiming there’s a middle-man between the two named Abu Faraj. Abu Faraj is captured in 2005 and Maya is able to interrogate him under torturous conditions. He denies Abu Ahmed but Maya suspects a cover-up.

The whole scenario is one long puzzle from 2003 to 2011 where Maya is trying to connect the pieces. Maya is trying to determine the identity of Abu Ahmed and trying to track his whereabouts or even existence with every piece of communication she can find. She interrogates prisoners. She searches for clues with every further incident associated with al-Qaeda that happens. During the time she’s able to go from a rookie CIA officer to a veteran over that period.

However the dark cloud keeps on lingering. Osama is still at large and sending tapes to al-Qaeda of his latest messages for broadcast. Terrorist attacks continue like the 2005 London bombings and the 2008 Islamabad Marriott bombings in which Maya is actually in the hotel dining with her friend Jessica and colleague. Both survive despite the explosion blowing a massive hole in the street. Even Maya survives being shot at.

It isn’t until the 2009 Camp Chapman attacks where a suicide bomber kills nine CIA agents including Jessica that marks a turning point. It’s there in a meeting with all those involved including Jessica that the head is disappointed with all and even humiliated that these many years have passed and Osama is still not caught. Terrorist attacks continue. None of the traces come up positive. Agents even concluded that Maya’s claim of Abu Ahmed is long dead and now a false trail. Soon Maya receives a lead from a researcher of the identity of Abu Ahmed. It isn’t until Maya is able to get a trace to the mother’s phone and even a sense of the use of tradecraft that the man really is Abu Ahmed and residing in an urban compound near a Pakistani military academy.

Months of heavy surveillance by the CIA fail to prove that bin Laden is there. Even Maya writes the number of ongoing days on her boss’ window. Finally a mission is planned to capture bin Laden in the compound but can only receive approval from Obama if it’s confirmed he’s there. Most of the CIA agents give certainty estimates ranging from 60 to 80% but Maya is 100% certain he’s there. The raid is given approval by President Obama on May 2nd. What takes place is history in the making. What is shown in the film will surprise even those most knowledgeable of the hunt for bin Laden.

The best thing about this movie is that it’s many things in one. It’s the story of the trace for the most wanted man in the world. It’s the story of a nation on a mission that’s long, complicating and frustrating as time goes by without success. It’s the story of one woman and her search to find that man. This is a multifaceted story that packs a lot into it. We see with each passing year and each passing additional terrorist attack committed by al-Qaeda how the search for Osama has to be done and how frustrating it is. We see from the people inside the government agencies the frustration they go through to find Osama with each passing year and with each additional terrorist attack. We also see from Maya her pursuit to find Osama through her computer work, questioning of those connected with al-Qaeda and her mappings out. But we also see her own personal involvement in the matter. She witnesses and questions the tortured prisoner. She’s with her friend and colleague in a hotel when an explosion happens. She loses that friend in another bomb explosion. She’s at the camp site when the mission to catch Osama is launched. This is as much Maya’s story and the U.S.’s story as it is about the hunt for Osama.

The funny thing is no one knows the identity of Maya. Many say she’s a certain different woman. Some say Maya is actually a combination of characters. All I can say is after this movie, she will be to the hunt for bin Laden what Deep Throat was to Watergate and we may never know her true identity until 30 or 40 years or even after her death. Only time will tell.

One thing to say about Zero Dark Thirty is that it has a lot of furious message board activity wherever anything to do about the movie is discussed; not just IMDB. I myself believe that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda did in fact cause the 9/11 invasions and destruction. I refute the claims of the 9/11 ‘truthers’ because I’ve done my own research. I’ve known of terrorist acts before 9/11 committed by al-Qaeda ordered by Osama and of terrorist acts since. I have read the news and have kept on top of things from the start of 9/11 to the various intermittent terrorist attacks to al-Qaeda’s acknowledgement of the death of Osama bin Laden. I’m not afraid to dismiss the claims of “9/11 was an inside job” for the garbage that I see it to be.

I’m not sorry I believe this and I refuse to consider myself a sheep. In fact I consider the ‘truthers’ that declare 9/11 to be an inside job out loud to be propagandists instead of truthers. They care more about media attention through their opportunistic public demonstrations and violent destruction of public property than they do about the truth coming out. Sometimes it left me wondering if left-wingers love calling everything a lie. Hey I’m from Vancouver: the leftist crap-disturber capital of the world–Right, Harsha Walia?– and they’ve given me every reason to think that way about them. Osama and al-Qaeda carried the acts of 9/11 out. Osama was brought to justice by being killed May 1, 2011. They should keep their media whore cravings to themselves. Hey, don’t get me wrong; I’m all for free-thinking. But don’t shove it down my throat as the truth! I’ll decide the truth for myself. Besides I’ve been on message boards long enough to know message boards are so full of clowns, who needs a circus?

Also on message boards are people saying how the movie doesn’t denounce violence towards prisoners of war. Let me remind you this movie is to tell the story as it happens. It owes nobody an anti-prisoner violence message. Besides as far as war goes, we are living in a time with the closest to humane methods of war. We didn’t have ‘smart’ weapons back in the past as we do now. Up until 50 years ago we didn’t show concern for innocent civilian deaths. And back then we didn’t care how prisoners of war were treated. War was war, the enemy was the enemy and a POW was a POW. Osama had a huge network of colleagues carrying out his actions and torture was necessary. Besides have we forgotten this is prison?

Without a doubt the movie was all Jessica Chastain’s. Her performance of Maya was a very 3D role of a woman who had feelings but had to be tough both emotionally and mentally to find Osama after such a long search for him. That scene at the very end when she sees ‘her mission accomplished’ was especially remarkable. It will be no surprise if Jessica wins the Oscar this year. It’s not to say that Jessica was the only good performance. Jason Clarke’s performance as Dan and Jennifer Ehle’s performance as Jessica was also good too. Chastain’s brilliant performance however couldn’t have been done firstly without the excellent direction of Kathryn Bigelow and the writing of Mark Boal. I have to say that Kathryn Bigelow has to be the most fearless director in Hollywood and Zero Dark Thirty shows how fearless she can be in touching very touchy subject matter. Mark Boal is also just as fearless. He’s a former journalist who has written books and news articles on the Iraq War. He would also go on to write the screenplay for Bigelow’s other fearless film The Hurt Locker. Its critical accolades and Oscar success helped make a name for both Boal and Bigelow. Both team up again here and they both deliver excellently.

Another interesting note is Zero Dark Thirty’s box office run. The first Bigelow/Boal film The Hurt Locker won the 2009 Best Picture Oscar but only grossed $17 million at the US box office: the lowest gross for a Best Picture winner since 1960’s The Apartment. Zero Dark Thirty is another Bigelow/Boal film that packs a lot of punch and this time it pays off at the US box office as it currently has grossed $78.6 million as of press time and its chances of passing $100 million look healthy. Great to see.

Zero Dark Thirty takes a piece of history that we all know and gives us some things we didn’t know. The outcome is the most fearless film of 2012 and one of the best films of the year. Definitely worth seeing.

Oscar 2011: The Buzz And The Biz

Well how about it? Exactly thirty-four days have passed since the Academy has given out the golden statuettes. The box office results of the nine Best Picture nominees also have a lot to say too. Some good, some bad.

Box Office Mojo does it every year. They have charts of the Oscar nominees and winners. They also have a special Best Picture chart where they divide the grosses into Pre-Nom (before the nominations are announced), Post-Nom (after the nominations are announced) and Post-Awards: after the Oscars are decided. Here are the charts of reference:

    2011 Best Picture Nominees

    2011 Nominees: All Categories

This year’s charts shows some interesting stats involving the nominees. Four movies–The Tree of Life, Moneyball, The Help and Midnight In Paris–had already completed their box office runs long before the nominations. Some opened again after the nominations were announced but it attracted modest-size crowds compared to its heydays months earlier. War Horse opened late in the year but it had already neared its total gross just before the nominations were announced and the nominations had very little effect on its gross.

The movies with the biggest boosts of the Oscar nominations were Hugo, The Descendants, The Artist and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Hugo grossed most of its total share before the nominations but the Oscar nominations helped increase its gross an additional $13 million before the Oscars. Oscar wins helped give Hugo an extra $4 million even though it was already on DVD just two days after the Oscars. The Descendants was another movie that was already doing well before the Oscars possibly because of George Clooney’s star power. Nevertheless this film had the biggest post-nominations gross of all nine Best Picture nominees with $31 million including an additional $3.9 million after the Oscars were awarded.

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close and The Artist were the two Best Picture nominees whose grosses more than doubled after the nominations. Both films did so-so before the Oscar nominations with Extremely Loud grossing just under $12 million and The Artist grossing just over $12 million. The nominations would change lots as Extremely Loud has grossed an additional $20 million since the nominations. The Artist would also gross an additional $19.4 million between the nominations and awards but its Oscar wins including the Best Picture win would help give it an additional $11.4 million to date currently standing at $43.3 million. The Artist is the only Best Picture nominee this year to gross even as much as $5 million after the awards.

The biggest surprise about this year’s set of Best Picture nominees isn’t necessarily because there are nine instead of ten but that only one, The Help, has grossed more than $100 million either before or after the Oscars. Even last year, there were five that would at least have a total gross of more than $100 million. The average gross of this year’s Best Picture nominees of $69.6 million is actually the lowest average since the more-than-five nominees system was reintroduced at the 2009 Oscars and the lowest since the 2006 Oscars fivesome. This year’s hit movies were left out of the cold. There was no Disney/Pixar blockbuster that found itself in that group. There was no movie with a lot of Oscar buzz that caught on in a big way. Even the family-friendly Hugo didn’t hit the $100 million mark. A shame since the movie cost $170 million to make. Even seeing how The Artist hasn’t even hit the $50 million mark tells quite a bit about the box office crowds. Its gross isn’t as low as say the The Hurt Locker was two years ago but it still says a message not just about box office crowds but even the Academy and their voting, how nowadays crowd fanfare doesn’t mean an awful lot in choosing Best Picture.

So there you have it. The rundown of this year’s business involving the Oscar nominees and winners. Each year tells a different story on both the Academy’s voting and the box office outlook. Next year’s should also tell a lot too. Stay tuned.

Oscars 2011 Shorts Review

Now one would wonder why on earth would one want to see a reel of short films. First reason: They’re all nominated for an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film or Best Animated Short Film. Second reason: a lot of winners of this category would go on to direct bigger and better things. Peter Cattaneo directed the Oscar nominated short Dear Rosie years before his big break with The Full Monty. Taylor Hackford won this category for Teenage Father 25 years before he directed the Oscar-nominated Ray. Most recently, Brutish director Andrea Arnold won seven years ago for Wasp and has gone on to direct two renowned British features: Red Road and Fish Tank.

Now 2011 has a crop of nominees for the categories of Best Animated Short Film and Best Live Action Short Film. I will review each and give my picks for what I feel should win and will win:

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM

Pentecost – dir. Peter MacDonald and Eimear O’Kane -Interesting story about a boy–Damian– who’s a lousy altar boy and is punished by having no football for three months. He has the opportunity to redeem himself with a mass led by the Archbishop. Sure enough it’s in time for when Liverpool is playing the European Cup. Even the priest gives quite a pep talk to all participating in the mass. Will Damian do it right? A big surprise at the end!

Raju – dir. Max Zahle and Stefan Gieren-This is an excellent story about a German couple who adopt a boy from India only to lose him and find a dirty secret along the way. The story brings up the same moral dilemma Gone Baby Gone brings up. This is of a situation that could be quite real: an orphanage that gives away kidnapped children. The story will leave you wondering what side to choose and the ending will surprise you.

The Shore – dir. Terry George and Orrlagh George-The story is of two boyhood friends. One, Paddy,  stayed in Belfast, lost his arm and continues life as an illegal crab hunter. Another, Joe, moved to the US but returns to Belfast after being away for years. He wants to come and visit again and make peace with Paddy years after Paddy took his girlfriend, and married her. The story is as humorous as it is touching and it provides for a happy ending. I pick this as my Should Win pick.

Time Freak – dir. Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey-There have been lots of stories about time travel but none as weird as this. A guy invents a time machine only to go back a few days into the past to correct things he’s done. And he does it again and again until he gets it right. Bizarre is right!

 –Tuba Atlantic – dir. Hallvar Witzo-A man has six days to live. A young woman is to be is death angel and help him before he dies. It won’t be easy because he’s quite eccentric: he hunts with a machine gun and fishes with dynamite. Then she learns he has a horn that can send a signal across the Atlantic. He hopes to use it to send a message to his brother whom he hasn’t seen in 30 years. She wants to be a successful death angel and he’s her third chance. It makes for a touching story with a surprise ending. I predict this for the Will Win in this category.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

Dimanche/Sunday – dir. Patrick Doyon/NFB of Canada – This is a charming 2D animation story that is coarsely drawn and has hardly any dialogue but tells a lot. It’s about a boy and the town he lives in and the places he visits. Not spectacular but charming and entertaining. One of two Canadian entries in this category this year.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore – dir. William Joyce and Brandon Oldenberg- Morris Lessmore had everything fly by him in a windstorm. Then one day he sees a young woman flying with books instead of baloons, and that changes everything for him forever. Impressive use of 3D animation. Good use of music and of the animated story. I predict this Will Win the animated feature category.

La Luna – dir. Enrico Casarosa – Interesting that Disney/Pixar’s Cars 2 didn’t get a single nomination but this short that was played before Cars 2 did. While most of Disney/Pixar’s shorts feature a story done without dialogue, this story is mostly in the types of mumbling. As expected from Disney/Pixar, top notch animation and a very unique story about being able to touch the moon and its glitter.

A Morning Stroll – dir. Grant Orchard and Sue Goffe-Features a chicken’s stroll down a New York neighborhood in 1959, 2009 and 2059. In 1959, people say “How do you do?” don’t get too peeved if you bump into them and the chicken’s able to make it there safely. 2009 and people are too into Starbucks coffee and iPhone using. A bump into someone causes a big coffee spill and a chicken entering into a house is perfect moment for your iPhone video camera. Once again, the chicken makes it there safely. 2059 and New York is filled with zombies. The chicken makes it home but not after a big zombie chase. This was a good mix of 2D and 3D animation with a creative image of the future.

Wild Life – dir. Wendy Tilbe and Amanda Forbis- A British émigré tries to make his home in a small town in Alberta. While everyone else is either a cowboy or made themselves a villager, he continues to be an Englishman. Interesting and humorous. Plus me knowing Prairie life helped the sort to appeal to me. Both the dialogue from him and the villagers add to the humor of the story. The animation was excellent not just as 2D but as painting animation. The painting animation was its best quality and it makes it stand out from the five nominees. I pick this as my Should Win pick.

And there you have it. The nominated shorts for the 2011 Oscars. Stay tuned to find out the winners. Stay tuned to find out which directors move on to bigger and better things.

Oscars 2011 Best Picture Nominee: The Artist

Georges and Peppy's fates are sealed with a kiss in 'The Artist'.

Miss silent movies? Some of you are too young to know what silent movies are, never mind appreciate them. Anyways The Artist is a throwback to the days of the silent movie and it does a top notch job of it.

It’s 1927 and the era of silent films. Georges Valentin is the king of the big screen. The premiere of his latest release A Russian Affair is applauded greatly. He is quite the charmer with his debonair looks and his mall dog Jack by his side. Zimmer, his boss at the Kinograph Studios, loves him. Clifton, his valet, considers him his best friend. Outside he’s signing autographs when a young wannabe named Peppy Miller accidentally falls into him after dropping her purse. The incident is an event for photographers and even leads her to the cover of Variety magazine with the title ‘Who’s That Girl?”

Peppy and Georges meet again as she auditions as a dancer for his latest movie. He insists on giving her a role and even gives her a fake beauty mark for a competitive edge in Hollywood. It works as her fame is soon rising. Meanwhile Georges has a nightmare one night where he’s in a world of sound and he’s the only one who can’t talk.

It’s 1929 and Zimmer announces that Kinograph will now be doing movies with sound, or ‘talkies’ from now on. Valentin is unhappy feeling talkies are a passing fad. He stubbornly makes and directs his own silent film with his own finances. Unfortunately it opens on the same day as Peppy’s latest talkie release. Before the release, she’s being interviewed in a restaurant where she proudly talks of herself as ‘fresh meat’ and ‘out with the old, in with the new’ until she comes face to face with Valentin. Peppy’s movie is a hit while Georges’ silent movie is a flop. Georges’ wife kicks him out of the house and he takes up an apartment with Clifton. Meanwhile Peppy is a major Hollywood star. Despite her stardom, she never loses her thoughts and concerns for Georges. She even attends the premiere of his silent film.

Things turn for the worse for Georges especially after the stock market crash where it gets to the point he auctions everything off and fires Clifton who he hasn’t paid for a year. One day in a drunken rage, he burns all the copies of his movies save one. He’s trapped in the fire and can’t get out until Jack the Dog is able to attract a policeman’s attention. He’s rescued and taken to a hospital where Peppy soon takes him to her house to recuperate.

Georges awakes not only to find himself in Peppy’s house but to learn Clifton now works for her. Peppy then pleads to Zimmer to get Valentin to star in her next film, even going as far as threatening to quit Kinograph  if he doesn’t agree. Meanwhile Georges discovers all his auctioned-off items at Peppy’s house and then returns to his burned-out apartment. Peppy arrives at George’s apartment just as he’s about to commit suicide. It’s then when they reconcile and she persuades Georges let go of whatever pride is eating him and star in her next film. I won’t tell you how it ends exactly but it does end happily and on a surprise note.

It’s unique that it shows the swing from the silent world to the sound world as a personal trial of Georges Valentin. The world of silence made him a star, made him beloved and helped define him. When talkies came into play, silent movies went out of fashion and Valentin faded with them. Even despite his insistence of them being an art form, silent movies were not liked anymore. Valentin’s devotion to silence and his anger to his lost fame almost becomes like a source of pride for him as he even goes as far as neglecting the help given from those who act like ‘guardian angels’ to him: Jack, Clifton and Peppy. It’s only in the world of sound, a world Georges feared, that he’s able to recover.

Another thing this movie reminds us is that this world of disposable stars in Hollywood is nothing new. The movie does show a truth that a lot of stars popular during the era of silent films would lose their stardom during the start of talkies to a new era of stars. Does John Gilbert come to mind? And that line from Zimmer that: “The public wants fresh meat and the public is never wrong.” gives us a reminder of what Hollywood is about and always was about. Those who complain that Hollywood is not about the art of filmmaking and ‘all about the money’ are reminded in this film that it always was that way. Even while it has churned out some of the most classic and most beloved movies of all-time, it was still a profits-first system even during its Golden Age. The battle between ‘film as art’ and ‘film as entertainment’ still continues now.

Overall this was an excellent movie that is the brainchild of French director Michel Hazanavicius. He directs, writes and even edits the film. He also includes Jean DuJardin and Berenice Bejo who have worked with him in two of his past productions. Their performances on their own stand out as two of this year’s finest. Often one thinks that a lot of acting involves annunciation of words but a lot of acting is also done in silence too. In fact there’s even one completely mute performance–Holly Hunter in The Piano–that even won an Oscar. And we see the quality of the silent performances in this movie. Supporting performances from James Cromwell and John Goodman also add to the movie and stand well on their own. Also we have the dog Uggie as Jack the Dog who’s as much of a charmer as he is a scene stealer. The accompanying score from Ludovic Bource is also another top quality of the movie that adds to its highlights. The set design and costuming also work perfectly to set the time period. You’d hardly know this was made in 2011. Overall this is a well-organized film that’s as entertaining as it is artistically merited.

The Artist is a very charming throwback to the silent movie age. It retains the charm of silent movies and the era while maintaining an intriguing story and top notch acting. The big question is will its silence be golden on Oscar night? It’s heavily favored. We’ll just wait and see.

2011 Oscars Best Picture Nominee: Hugo

Hugo is a delightful movie based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. It’s a unique story about how a chance stealing by a young boy changed everything forever.

It all starts in a train station in Paris in 1930. Hugo Cabret has a life no child would want. He lives in the train station completely orphaned and with nothing but a bed and an automaton from his late father whom he hopes to repair. He ended up there after his widowed father was killed in a fire and taken by his alcoholic uncle who would look after the station clock. After his uncle died, Hugo steals food and runs the clock himself from revealing the death of his uncle. If the truth is found out, he will be sent to an orphanage.

One steal by Hugo of a toy part from the station’s toy store owner would change everything. Hugo was able to escape the station policeman thanks to his leg brace being caught in a train. Hugo however loses a book of animated drawings to the toy store owner. For Hugo to get it back, the toy store owner punishes Hugo by making fix his broken toys. The toy store owner is surprised to see that Hugo is very skilled at fixing toys thanks to his father’s teachings.

Soon Hugo catches the attention of Isabelle, the girl who frequently visits the train station. She is an orphan too who is being looked after by the toy store owner, whom she refers to as Papa Jacques. He notices the key she wears: it is heart-shaped. His automaton has a heart-shaped lock. Another link to the mystery. The two spend time together. She sees the clock area Hugo lives and the view of Paris. The two sneak into a movie theatre and see a movie, something Papa Jacques forbids her to see. Later Hugo uses Isabelle’s heart-shaped key on the automaton. The automaton draws a picture of the moon with a spaceship in his eye and the name Jacques Melies.

The two try and search further to see if Papa Jacques really is Jacques Melies. Upon a return visit to the house, they try to uncover the top drawer in his bedroom. Out comes a wide variety of imaginative artist images. Nevertheless Jacques is distraught to learn the children have learned of his secret. It’s only until the children bring a young film student to Jacques that Jacques finally reveals that he really is Jacques Melies, director extraordinaire of the early 20th Century. He explains to all why he became a recluse, because of his films failing as the First World War was taking place. He even burned most of the master copies of his films in a fit of rage during his downtime.  It is through Hugo and the film student that he’s able to receive an acclaim from a new generation of film enthusiasts. It is also where Hugo finally finds a family.

The movie is more than just a salute to Jacques Melies and his contribution to film in general. This movie is also a salute to moviemaking and movie watching. Movies achieved their greatness by making people’s fantasies come to life. They took them to worlds never before imagined. They took them to adventures and thrills they wouldn’t experience in their own lives. And to think it all started when a film of a train approaching the station made the audience duck for their lives. Nowadays movies face a lot of rivalry from many entertainment sources. Its biggest rival is now video games which allow the viewer to live the fantasy via an avatar, but movies still capture people’s attention and take them to worlds they never dreamed of.

Even though the movie is very much a salute to movies, it’s also a reminder that even then, great directors like Melies faced downtimes too. Jacques created hundreds of movies in his lifetime but as soon as most of the French public lost their liking for movies his fortune disappeared, his studio became useless, burned his films in anger and lived in obscurity for years. Nowadays we hear countless stories of people, especially greats, who had their moment but fade fast and die in obscurity without a penny. It happens to greats as often as it happens to ‘one-hit wonders’. Showbiz is cruel. Fortunately there does come a time long after their downfall when their achievements are recognized once again. It may be while they’re still alive or it may be post mortem but their greatness does become remembered and honored again.

Overall the movie was top-notch quality. That’s something you rarely see in most live-action family movies. There was no one acting performance that stood out or was spectacular but the performances of all worked excellently with the movie. Ben Kingsley was very good as Jacques. Sacha Baron Cohen who’s known for his comedic characters was great as the comic relief of the movie. The child actors of Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz did an excellent job in their lead roles. The story was very well-adapted and well-edited as it’s able to keep the audience excited, thrilled and interested from start to finish. Martin Scorsese did another excellent directing job. He’s tackled a lot of genres of film excellently and now he achieves another triumph in directing family movies. The score by Howard Shore fit the movie perfectly. The visual effects were also amongst the best of the year. The movie being shown in 3D worked. This was one of the rare times in which the 3D viewing appeared to be less in vain or for extra money and more for the delight of the crowd. It looked like Scorsese knew that if he was to have a movie in 3D, he should have the effects that make it work.

One thing that’s been unique in the film world of recent years is that a lot of well-renowned directors have started to make family movies. Seven years ago, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire) released Millions: a story about a boy who encounters a bag of stolen money and consults patron saints for advice. Many years ago, Roman Polanski did his version of Oliver Twist to make a movie for his children who were twelve and under at the time. Two years ago, Spike Jonze directed the film adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are. Even Quentin Tarantino says he’s interested in doing a family film if the right idea comes around.

Now we have Martin Scorsese with a family movie out. It may come as a surprise since he has been renowned for his filmmaking of some of the grittiest legendary dramas. Nevertheless if Martin was to make a family movie, Hugo would be the perfect fit. The celebration of film in Hugo is something Martin would do well because Martin is known to have a love for film itself. Martin even did a documentary series for the BBC years ago where he narrated the history of film and its genres. In Hugo we see Martin’s love for film as much as we see the reasons why movies have become so beloved. Even Roger Ebert described the move as “in some ways, a mirror of his own life.” And the love of film started with Jacques Melies. Martin Scorsese does more than just make a family movie. He also makes a masterpiece that even adults can appreciate, especially those who love film. The film has been nominated for Best Picture and ten other categories at this year’s Oscars. It is the first live-action family movie since Babe to be nominated for Best Picture.

Hugo is a pleasant film not just in terms of family movies but all films. Very rarely is a family movie able to be referred to as a masterpiece. Very rarely does a family movie deserve to be referred to as a masterpiece. Hugo is that rare.

NOTE:  Usually around this time, I start my reviews of the Best Picture nominees. I have five more reviews coming. Best Picture nominees already reviewed are: Midnight In Paris, The Help and Moneyball.

2011 Movie Year In Review: Another Downhill Year

It seems with every movie year, it tells a lot of its overall successes and failures. However its overall total would be the big determiner if it was a success of a year or not. 2011’s movie year not only showed one year’s lack of success but Hollywood’s continually declining success.

2011 started carrying the burden of the not-so-good news of 2010. 2010’s total box office finished at $10.565 billion: $30 million less than 2009’s record-breaking year. At first $30 million doesn’t seem that that big of a loss but there was one additional sobering fact. 2010 sold almost 1.34 billion tickets: the lowest since 1996. Even Entertainment Weekly made note of that during January of 2011 and offered some tips in increasing movie turnout.

2011 had even more sobering statistics to tell. The year’s total gross was almost $400 million less than 2010’s: a dip of 3.8%. These two years in a row failing to outgross each other was the first such pair of years since 1990 and 1991. Ticket sales were also lower: 1.276 billion to be exact and the lowest since 1993. Not pleasant at all.

2011 was not completely bad news. The year still grossed over $10 million and became only the third year ever to do so. The months of January to March failed to outgross 2010. Mind you it was hard to do considered January and March 2010 had mammoth hits like Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. That downtime ended in April as it managed to become the highest-grossing April ever at $948 million. Successes like the action movie Fast Five and animated family movies like Rio and Hop had a lot to do with it. May also managed to be bigger than 2010’s thanks to Thor and Pirates of the Carribean 4 but June was a setback of a quarter-billion. Movies with big buzz like X-Men: First Class, Super 8 and Cars 2 didn’t pan out as big as they hoped. July and August offered bigger grosses than 2010 thanks to Transformers 3, the last Harry Potter movie, Captain America, the Rise Of the Planets of the Apes and the sleeper hit The Help. Thanks to July and August’s success, the whole summer’s total just managed to squeak over the previous year’s total. September became the highest-grossing September ever, thanks in part to a 3D release of the Lion King but the last three months had lackluster box office results. Not even the latest Twilight movie, the second Sherlock Holmes movie or the latest Mission Impossible could help the last three months of 2011 outgross the previous year, nor lead 2011 to a higher box office total.

So who or what’s to blame for this? You could blame the theatres for giving such irritating increases in ticket prices. You could blame the lack of box office star power of today’s A-list stars. You have to admit the star power of Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Will Smith isn’t as big as it used to be and there haven’t been any new ones to achieve the star power they once had. You could blame it on the lack of attractions at the theatres itself. That explains why a few theatres, including the Coquitlam SilverCity, have included an adults-only VIP lounge that includes alcoholic drinks. You could blame the lack of new winning ideas coming from Hollywood.

You could also blame it on a lot of external factors as well. First the economy. You have to admit that tough times don’t make for being able to afford a night out at the movies that often. You could also blame it on a lot of the new media functions and new ways to see movies. In the last five years, Youtube and Netflix have come about and it has changed a lot with people seeing movies. Even cellphone companies have movies in which one can download and watch on their cellphone, much to the displeasure of the likes of David Lynch. In fact that has led to a lot of changes in businesses such as video chains like Blockbuster and Rogers either going bankrupt or reducing its stores. Even local stores like Vancouver’s Videomatica–which specializes in hard-to-find DVDs like cult movies, indie flicks and a multitute of classic movies–had to close their main shop and relocate to a record store to keep business happening, especially for their most loyal patrons. It also explains why it’s next-to-impossible to have a single-screen theatre as I stated in my article about the closure of the Hollywood Theatre. In fact in my city of New Westminster, there will be a cinemaplex opening up with ten screens and a total seating of 1800: an average of 180 per screen. That’s the realities of running a movie theatre nowadays. Also we should remember that we’re now at a time when video games make higher annual grosses than movies. So people are finding other alternative ways to entertain themselves.

Despite all that’s happened last year and even happening now, 2012 has a lot of movies to show. Hollywood knows its demands and film festivals have their line ups planned. So hopefully 2012 should give you plenty of reasons to go see a movie this year.

Okay. Now I’m done the one and only ‘2011 in Review’ article I feel I need to right. Now I can go back to what I do best, which is review movies and the awards season. Golden Globes predictions tomorrow.

WORK CITED:

“Yearly Box Office Chart” BoxOfficeMojo.com. 2011. Box Office Mojo. Owned by  IMDB.com. <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/>

2011 Corruption Perceptions Index Shows Many Surprises – Including For Canada

The annual Corruption Percentage Index has been released which ranks the most corrupt countries to the least corrupt. If there are two points one would most get from this list, it would be that Canada is slipping and that this is a very corrupt world.

Since three years ago, I’ve taken an interest in a certain annual chart. It’s called the Corruption Perceptions Index and it’s released by Transparency International. Transparency International is an international watchdog association headquartered in Berlin with 70 international chapters that monitors the corruption levels in countries around the world. Every year since 2002, they publish what they call a Corruption Perception Index which shows the annual corruption ranking of each country. They rank the countries based on a scale they give from 0 to 10. 0 is completely corrupt while 10 is not corrupt at all.

Many welcome their results while others question the validity and accuracy of the results. Some question whether Transparency International really has all their facts together when they make their list. The thing we shouldn’t forget about the list is that it’s about perceived corruption: the people’s ability to sense or notice corruption in their own country. This is based on poll questions ranging from “Do you trust the government?” to “Is corruption a big problem in your country?” Without a doubt, the results are rather surprising. Plus we shouldn’t forget that most governments do a good job of hiding their corruption so it’s hard to sense.

In the past, Canada has done very well ever since the Index has been published. Canada ranked an impressive 10th-least corrupt in 2011 with a score of 8.7. However the rank becomes less impressive knowing that last year, Canada ranked 6th with a score of 8.9. Also making it less impressive is the fact that it’s Canada’s lowest ranking on the list since 2006. The lowest Canada ever ranked on that list was 14th back in 2006 and 2005, and what was around the time the Gomery Scandal was fresh in the mind of most Canadians. The most recent government scandal–the Harper government’s contempt of parliament which led to a national election–had a lot to do with Canada’s slip of four spots.

For the record, here are the Top 10 least corrupt countries, according to this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index with score in brackets:

1)New Zealand (9.5)

2)Denmark (9.4)

2)Finland (9.4)

4)Sweden (9.3)

5)Singapore (9.2)

6)Norway (9.0)

7)Netherlands (8.9)

8)Australia (8.8)

8)Switzerland (8.8)

10)Canada (8.7)

Viewing the overall results can give some interesting facts and figures. Interesting how the Scandinavian countries and the major countries of Oceania had the highest rankings. The only Scandinavian country not to make the Top 10 was Iceland at 13th with 8.3. It’s a shame because they used to rank #1 in 2005 and 2006 with as high as a 9.7. Hong Kong ranked 12th. Many countries which has some of the most established democracies ranked lower than most people would expect like Germany and Japan ties for 14th, United Kingdom in 16th, the United States in 24th and France in 25th and Italy in 69th. The highest ranking country under a dictatorship was Qatar in 22nd. The highest ranking African country was Botswana in 32nd.

An interesting find is that 49 of the 183 countries ranked received a 5.0 or higher, sending a message about how this is quite a corrupt world. The country at #49 is Rwanda with a 5.0. That’s especially surprising since many people could remember the bloody civil war they went through back in 1994. The list is as good at monitoring improvements as it is in monitoring weakenings. Rwanda had the highest jump up from 4.0 from last year. For the record, the biggest drop in pointage came from Slovenia which went from 6.4 last year to 5.8 this year. The dictatorship of Cuba ranked a surprisingly high 62nd, outranking such democracies like Italy, South Africa and Greece. Syria and Yemen, which made bad news this year for its constant clashes with people marching for freedom, ranked 129th and 164th respectively. Also Venezuela, which continuously makes bad news with its dictator Hugo Chavez, ranked 172th. Since we’re on the topic of Venezuela, here’s the ten most corrupt countries on the list, the ‘Bottom 10’:

182)Somalia (1.0)

182)North Korea (1.0)

180)Myanmar (1.5)

180)Afghanistan (1.5)

177)Uzbekistan (1.6)

177)Turkmenistan (1.6)

177)Sudan (1.6)

175)Iraq (1.8)

175)Haiti (1.8)

172)Venezuela (1.9)

172)Equatorial Guinea (1.9)

172)Burundi (1.9)

Most of the bottom countries are already well-known for their governments continuously making bad news. They remind us that when things seem to be going wrong in our country, there are countries where corruption is not only very present but sometimes part of daily life.

So there you have it: a brief summary of the 2011 Corruption Perception Index and its interesting finds. With the politics of the world changing frequently and varying from country to country, there should be many interesting finds for 2012. The politics in Canada will determine if we can improve on our 10th-place ranking. The nation of South Sudan should make its debut next year. Also Arabic countries which had successful fights for freedom this year could see interesting results for next year. If you want to keep track, Libya ranked 168th, Tunisia ranked 73rd and Egypt ranked 112th for 2011. Stay tuned for next year’s rakings.

If you want to learn more about Transparency International and the Corruption Perceptions Index, which I have used in my article here, here are the links to go to:

Transparency International: http://www.transparency.org/

2011 Corruption Perceptions Index (with link to list): http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2011/

30th Year Of VIFF A Record Year

After sixteen days of showing films, welcoming crowds, making deals, and allowing directors to give Q&A’s to the audience, the Vancouver Film Festival ended its 30th year on Friday, October 14th. I had my excitement with volunteering and seeing seven different shows of differing variety. Those that volunteered, like myself, were treated to a Mexican style brunch at the Waldorf Hotel which consisted of some prize giveaways and small gifts. Almost a week later, the news hit that this year’s film festival achieved new records.

The 2011 Vancouver International Film Festival was the most attended and highest-grossing VIFF. Admissions totalled over 152,000, up from 148,000 from last year. Ticket revenues also hit a record with $1,178,811, breaking the record of $1,074,025 also set last year. Very impressive.  

One thing we learn about hosting film festivals like these is that the money from ticket sales are not enough. Although we hit a new high in ticket sales, the Festival itself costs $3.5 million to put on. The remainder of the baklance is covered by government support (about 10%), private sector sponsorship, and personal donations. One thing about this year is that there was a bigger expense this year in using the Vogue Theatre for showing movies. Although the VIFF used the Granville 7, Pacific Cinematheque and the VanCity Theatre as it did last year, the Park Theatre wasn’t used this year, opting for bigger crowds with the Vogue Theatre. The Vogue served as the Visa Screening Room for all the big premeieres and Gala events, replacing Theatre 7 at the Granville 7. It did pay off as film crowds were bigger for the Vogue.

The success of this year’s VIFF keeps its reputation as one of the Top Five film festivals in North America in attendance and films screened. Here are some of the numbers behind this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival:

-152,000 – total admissions

-633 – public screenings

-600 – industry guests

-386 – total films shown

  • 240 – feature length (60+ minutes)
  • 126 – shorts
  • 20 – mid-length films (20-59 mins)

-97 – Canadian Films shown

  • 39 – feature length
  • 57 – shorts
  • 1 – mid-length

-80 – countries entering films

-49 – North American premieres

-40 – Canadian premieres

-36 – media screenings

-30 – International premieres (first screeening outside home country)

-20 – World Premieres

-17 – entries in the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Oscars shown

-16 – days of showing films

-10 – theatres showing films

Very imporessive numbers indeed and a hard act for 2012 to follow. Also for those interested in the award winners, here’s which film won what:

DRAGONS & TIGERS AWARD for YOUNG CINEMA

  • The Sun-Beaten Path  (China/Tibet) – dir. Sonthar Gyal

ROGERS PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD

  • A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)  (Iran) – dir. Asghar Farhadi

VIFF MOST POPULAR DOCUMENTARY FILM AWARD

  • Sing Your Song (USA) – dir. Susanne Rostock

ENVIRONMENTAL FILM AUDIENCE AWARD

  • People of a Feather (BC/Nunavut) – dir. Joel Heath

SHAW MEDIA AWARD for BEST CANADIAN FEATURE FILM

  • Nuit #1 (Québec) – dir. Anne Émond

MOST PROMISING DIRECTOR of a CANADIAN SHORT FILM

  • Andrew Cividino for We Ate the Children Last (Québec)

NFB MOST POPULAR CANADIAN DOCUMENTARY AWARD

  • Peace Out  (BC/Québec) – dir. Charles Wilkinson

VIFF MOST POPULAR CANADIAN FILM AWARD

  • Starbuck  (Québec) – dir. Ken Scott

So there you have it. Those are the winners of this year’s Vancouver international Film Festival. Great to see the Festival end on a great note. I’m happy to have volunteered for the Festival this year. I hope to volunteer for the Festival again next year and I hope to see its records broken again. Will it be a marquee film festival in the future like Cannes, Sundance, Venice or Toronto? Only time will tell. Nevertheless I commend the VIFF for showing its huge variety of films, showing the most Canadian film and for promoting a wide array of films and talents from the up-and-coming to the established. Also I commend the volunteers for doing a good job with the crowds. Last year my uncle visited the Toronto Film Fest and he said the people thee get treated like cattle. So I myself comment the VIFF volunteers for treating the crowds right.

Here’s to the continued success of the Vancouver International Film Festival and to its success in the future years. VIFF 2012: Starting September 27th. Already I can’t wait!

VIFF 2011 Review: Shorts Segment – Air

This is another shorts segment that I saw at the VIFF. It was not the original movie I planned to attend but when someone at the info desk was giving away free tickets, I told them I already had a ticket for a show that was happening. She offered a trade, which I accepted. I’m glad I did. Like Water, the shorts of Air also had styles and varieties of their own:

 Spirit Of The Bluebird – This is mostly animation that’s very colorful and meant to tell a story. A story about a Native woman killed one night by two strangers. The bluebird is to represent her. At the end, we see her relatives standing by the building near where she died painted permanently with a mural in her memory. This was as much of a reminder that no one and nothing is forgotten as it was a picturesque short of animation.

Parkdale – This is a very thought-provoking short to do about two sisters living in a rough area with a father who’s constantly in trouble with the law. As they try and draw up money for a bus trip to Kingston, this paints an unhappy but truthful statement about street youth and their attempts to try and stay afloat.

Hope – As a war general lies on his deathbed, he confronts images of violence. It’s hard to make sense of it all. I’m sure that through some of the bizarre images the director is trying to make some statement. It didn’t come across too clear or maybe he tried too hard to be graphic.

CMYK – This is another animated movie focusing on the primary picture colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and key. The filmmaker tries to be creative but the short ends up coming off as mind dizzying and drawn out.

Oliver Bump’s Birthday – Oliver’ three older siblings died on their 13th birthday, and he’s doomed for the same fate. While all three made achievements during their lives, Oliver dreamed of the stars and space travel. On his birthday, he leaves his family party, which is quite like a pre-funeral, for his homemade space ship. You’ll enjoy seeing him chase his dream and enjoy a surprisingly enlightening and happy ending.

Theatrics – Two flirty thirtysomethings go for a night out in a movie theatre with surprises left, right and center. Starts off with drinking a drink with horse tranquilizers and then leads to one misfortune after another. Humorous and amusing. Just hope I never have to go through what she went through.

The Provider – Just when we see mention of the droppings of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we think we would get something serious. However we’d be surprised to get a darkly comical story about coming home. Very bizarre indeed.

Cold Blood – I don’t know if it was because I saw a lot of originality of the previous shorts or because I was expecting something else instead, but this short came up less than what I expected. Perhaps it was just meant to represent an aspect of life. Perhaps it was as much about the mother of the two children as it was of the son giving blood for his sister.

The Balcony Affair – This is one comedic short that is completely unpredictable. A lonely Russian man who’s always out on a balcony falls in love with a woman in the apartment across. Will they meet? Will they fall in love? The ending will surprise you, more than you expected.

So there you have it. The shorts that made up Air. All were Canadian. All were unique. Some I liked, some I didn’t. Some were thought provoking. Some were meant just to entertain. Some may go on to bigger and better things. Some may continue to do just shorts. All were worth seeing. It’s good that a film festival like the VIFF showcases shorts from up-and-coming directors as well as from established film companies. It’s what makes the VIFF different from Toronto.