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VIFF 2020 Review: The Curse Of Willow Song

The Curse Of Willow Song is about a troubled orphaned girl (played by Valerie Tian) who possesses a curse that haunts her, but could just save her.

Most of the familiar VIFF categories from past years are back for the online festival for this year, including Altered States. The first Altered States film I saw was the locally-filmed The Curse Of Willow Song. It was something else.

Willow Song is a troubled girl. The daughter of Chinese immigrants who both passed away, she followed in her older brother Mission’s footsteps to live a life of crime to survive. Manual labor wasn’t enough for her. Only the arson she committed landed her a prison sentence. She’s done with her time but she spends her time in a detention centre in Vancouver as she works to build her life. Her one friend is Flea, another girl at the detention centre. Flea appears to be the only one she can trust right now. Willow is not allowed to see any close family, especially her brother, for fear she will return to her criminal ways.

It is very hard for Willow to reintegrate back into society. One labor job that appeared to have steady work ended as the boss accepted an opportunity in Edmonton. The detention centre doesn’t seem to be working well to help her get back on her feet. The society she’s around has a contemptuous look at young Asian-American females. On top of that Wolf, the pusher from the place she burns down, keeps harassing her how much she owes him.

She gets relief when she least expects it from Dani: a figure from her past. Dani has found a place for Willow to live all the way out in Surrey in an abandoned Warehouse area that has common housing amenities. There, Willow is able to have a set-up similar to that of a comfortable home. One thing. When Willow sleeps at night, there appears to be something dark and mysterious growing on the walls.

Despite her new shelter, Willow knows she still has issues to deal with. She still has to reintegrate herself back into society. Also she has to avoid any contact with Mission or Wolf. That’s not an easy thing to do as she tries to get a labor job, but the boss just pays attention to her physical and racial features. He hires her, but drops her after the first day. Obvious sexual harassment. Walking down the streets of East Van, she does bump into Wolf. He hasn’t forgotten her. He still wants the money from her and won’t stop until she does. In addition, she meets up with Flea, but Flea appears to have turned her back on her. The growth on the walls continues to get bigger and bigger.

Soon, Willow’s secret shelter doesn’t stay secret for long. First to know is Mission and his gang where they go to conduct some activities. It’s only after an altercation with others that they go. Flea finds Willow’s whereabouts and they appear to have made peace. Only it turns out Flea gave Wolf the info about her secret place. Wolf and Flea then go over to her place. Wolf is ready to chase her down and kill her. Willow tries to run and hide herself wherever she can, but Wolf is determined. Willow tries to hide herself in a room full of chairs. Wolf is determined to get to her, but something happens to Willow as she’s hiding. When Wolf gets to where she is, Willow has become this monster of black smoke. She can attack Wolf and there’s nothing he can do. Flea tries to search for Wolf, but Willow has a surprise for her.

This is definitely a horror-thriller movie. However it does a lot more. It sends a message about some Asian-Canadians who slip through the cracks of the system. This is in the focus of Willow: a young Asian-Canadian female. She’s orphaned, best at skilled labor, and has been with her brother’s crime ring. Seeing how Willow wants to get back on her feet but the system either failing or falling short does send a message about problems that are out there. What happens to Willow often happens to many other girls too. I guess that’s why it’s shown in black and white. Because of the black and white world Willow lives in.

Another unique element is the thriller aspect of the film. The ending where Willow turns into this bizarre deadly spirit is bizarre to see. I actually read in an interview with director Karen Lam that she mentions of “psychokinesis (PK), where people can create an energy when under extreme stress that resembles a poltergeist.” That’s something unique. This is also the first time I’ve ever seen something like PK in a film, especially used by the protagonist. It was evident that Willow had her PK growing over time as it grew on the walls before her big confrontation with Wolf when it really came out.

This is a great work from writer/director Karen Lam. It’s a film that does keep you intrigued with the protagonist and what will happen next. The film was nominated for ten Leo Awards (BC’s equal to the Oscars) and it won two including Best Director for Lam. It’s well-deserved as this is a film that really succeeds in telling its story and keeping the audience intrigued. Also excellent is the acting of Valerie Tian. She does a good job of playing the protagonist with a troubled past and something supernatural she doesn’t know what to make sense of. Ingrid Nilson is also excellent as the traitorous Flea. She’s good at playing a lot of street girls that will befriend you one minute, then take what you have the next.

This film is part of the VIFF series Altered States. Many of you know that I’ve been seeing a lot of Altered States films for many VIFFs of the past. Those we the thriller/horror films that were shown at the Rio Theatre during their 11:30 weekend shows until they dropped them after 2018. Altered States are back this year and they’re mostly all online.

The Curse Of Willow Song is more than just a film of a young woman with a supernatural gift. It’s also a film with messages about our society and discrimination. It definitely knows how to end in unexpected manner.

VIFF 2020 Review: Monkey Beach

Monkey Beach is about a young Indigenous woman, played by Grace Dove (left), who possesses a supernatural gift that’s as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

DISCLAIMER: I know you’re all getting my first VIFF review just after it ended on October 7th. Thing is I’ve been bogged down with work and taking online courses which left me with little energy to do reviews. Now imagine me adding film-watching to the mix. Yes, that would take all my energy away! Now that VIFF is over, I can finally post reviews over time. Most of the films I believe would still be accessible via streaming services.

Lots of people who are into VIFF have a lot of reasons to want to see Monkey Beach. I wanted to see it because it’s a novel I studied in an online University course fifteen years ago. Those that see it will be happy with what they saw.

The film begins in East Vancouver. Lisamarie Hill thought she could get somewhere after leaving her town in the reserve, but she’s ended up rock bottom. Her friend tells her she needs to return to get her life back together…and then disappears.

Lisa returns back home. It’s like a prodigal daughter welcome. The parents are happy to see her back, her brother Jimmy is happy to see her back, relatives are happy to see her back, old friends are mostly happy to see her back. Her grandmother ‘MaMa-oo’ is happy to see her back. However she’s uncomfortable with returning. She knows of problems going around the reserve plus it doesn’t offer too much of a promising future. Even her younger brother Jimmy, who showed huge potential to be an Olympic swimmer, missed the Olympic trials because a work accident broke his collarbone.

One night while she is sleeping, she notices the trickster come to send her a message. She is haunted by the trickster. She knows because she inherited a gift where she can sense future events to others, including dreadful events. It’s a gift she first learned of as a child. She learned of it during a family vacation during her childhood at Monkey Beach. She remembers the vacation well. It was her family, Ma-ma-oo, and Uncle Mick. It was a vacation full of many warm memories of family togetherness, but also of a memory that haunts her. She remembers that of a mythical creature in the woods. Something mysterious and she can’t remember what he looks like, but she knows he’s haunting.

Returning to the reserve reminds her of a lot of uncomfortable things. First, Uncle Mick is long gone. He had a big influence on her life where she was taught to be proud of her Indigenous heritage. It’s a pride Mick taught out of anger as he was taught in a residential school and suffered the abuse at the hands of the priests and the system. Mick taught Lisa and Jimmy how to be defiantly proud to be Indigenous, but Lisa shouting “**** the oppressors,” at school didn’t go well with her parents. Also missing is Ma-ma-oo. Ma-ma-oo was key in teaching Lisamarie many Haisla skills and traditions.

It’s not just of those deceased. It’s also in the reserve. She’s noticed how many of her friends had lives that fell apart. She noticed the hostility of Josh, one of the older young adults, towards others. On top of it, Jimmy is dating Karaoke: Josh’s ex-girlfriend, and Karaoke is pregnant. Jimmy has been playing it cool, but she senses something’s not right.

Over time, the visions become a lot more frightening. Lisa has every reason to be concerned. She had frightening images of the deaths of Mick and Ma-Ma-oo before they died. She has visions of something terrible about to happen to Jimmy. Her parents however don’t want to hear about her visions. Soon she learns of bad things waiting to happen. It becomes evident as Josh disrupts a rap performance at a party with his angry rant. Plus Karaoke reveals the shocking secret that the baby is not Jimmy’s but Josh’s, out of a rape. On top of that, the images of the trickster become more and more frequent.

Lis then decides to take the boat out to the ocean. Her parents are nervous, but she is insistent as she senses something bad will happen to Jimmy out on a fishing boat. She has every reason too because Josh is on the boat too. She’s able to sense that Josh is about to fight Jimmy and is out of control. She makes her rush trying to find Jimmy, but has to return to Monkey Beach to face the demon who’s been haunting her. She comes prepared with a mask made by Uncle Mick and a drum. She is ready to meet the being head-on and face whatever comes to her. Part of her battle includes making a trip to the underworld. The film ends in surprising, but positive, fashion.

This is a unique story. It’s a story of a young woman dealing with the harsh realities of the world she’s living in as well as dealing with a supernatural gift that risks being a curse. It’s a story of a young Indigenous woman struggling to exist when the two most influential people in her life have passed. Ultimately it becomes a story of triumph when she learns that she ultimately learns she is a person of strength and she has the support of her deceased ancestors behind her.

Indigenous culture is very present in the story. Culture is most present during scenes of Lisamarie being taught the ways of her peoples from Ma-Ma-oo. It’s like a rite of passage to pass on the traditional ways to the granddaughter. Culture is also present in the appearance of the mythical ‘trickster.’ However the harsh realities of Indigenous communities and Indigenous peoples are also very present. We see it in Uncle Mick when he talks of his time at residential schools. One can often assume it’s this racist abuse that fuels his defiance and Indigenous pride. We see it in the reserve as there appears to be so little future available for the young and they’re left confused which direction to pursue. We see that in the angry attitudes, especially in Josh. It’s a story that does not stray away from realities. In fact the realities shown at the reserve in the film are common realities sees in many reserves.

The film will have people interested in the storyline coming to see it. The film will also have some people in the audience who have already read the novel. For those that don’t know, the novel Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson was released in 2000. It won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize of 2001 and was shortlisted for a Governor General’s award in fiction. Way back, I took an online University course in Canadian literature and Monkey Beach was one of the novels we studied. I liked the story because it was set as Lisa was a teenager in the 1980’s. I’m not Indigenous but some memories of that period of my time reminded me of some moments of my own teenagehood. There were even times while reading I had the feeling Ma-ma-oo was my own grandmother.

For someone that’s read the novel, I came in with my own expectations of what I was most expecting to see included in the story. I know it’s a challenge to adapt a 300-page novel to film. I know it’\s a matter of including some things, but also leaving other things out. I was figuring since most of the novel is about Lisa in her teen years, I was anticipating most of the film story would also be about Lisa’s teen years. Instead they went for a bigger focus on her time as a young adult returning to the reserve. The film did focus on her years as a young girl and as a teenager, but less than I hoped. Also the novel did more focus on Jimmy and his swimming pursuits, but was only seen briefly in the film. The film was also too brief on the focusing of Ma-ma-oo’s death.

I think in retrospect I’ve still been doing a lot of questioning whether they put in the right parts for the story or if they left out a lot of parts I feel were crucial. I think a lot of people who have read the novel would also be left questioning if the film adapted the novel well, if not properly.

I admire the work done by director Loretta Todd. She did a very good job in directing and co-writing with Johnny Darrell and Andrew Duncan the story for the film. The film’s imperfections are noticeable, but it doesn’t take away from the better parts of the film. There are more positive qualities of the film than flaws. Grace Dove did an excellent job as Lisamarie. Grace has had professional experience before as the host of a television show and acting in The Revenant. She does very well as the young protagonist struggling to make sense and to find herself. Adam Beach was also excellent as Uncle Mick. He delivers a role excellent of a man divided between pride and hurt. Tina Lameman was also good as Ma-ma-oo, but I feel her role could have been more developed and had more presence in the film. On the negative, I felt the role of child Lisa was underplayed by the young actress. That could have been directed better.

In short, Monkey Beach is an imperfect depiction of the novel. It leaves wondering if certain scenes can be done better. Nevertheless it does have a lot of positive qualities and makes for a film, and a story, worth seeing.

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 2018 Best Picture Review: BlacKkKlansman

blackkklansman

John David Washington (right) and Adam Driver (left) play a pair set out to stop a racist bomb attack in BlacKkKlansman.

I admit I missed BlacKkKlansman when it first came out. Actually I saw very few movies in the summer of 2018. I finally had the chance to see it this week, and I was very happy with what I saw.

The film begins in 1957 with Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard speaking for a propaganda film for the KKK about the ‘terrible dangers’ of desegregation. The film then proceeds to the early 1970’s in Colorado Springs. Ron Stallworth is being interviewed for the police force by a white cop and a black consultant. Through the interview process, Stallworth becomes the first black police officer for the city, but is given marginalized duties like file and document retrieval. Stallworth then decides he wants to do undercover work.

His first operation is for a rally of an African American activist Kwame Ture, whom the police view as a threat. Stallworth poses undercover with a hidden microphone to record the rally. There he meets Patrice Dumas who heads the black students union at the local university. The words of Kwame sound threatening to the ears of the white policemen. Patrice then goes with Kwame to a hotel where they’re stopped by racist white patrolman Andy Landers. At the arrest, Landers threatens Kwame and gropes Patrice. After the arrest, Ron meets Patrice at a club and they dance their cares away.

Stallworth is soon transferred to the intelligence division. One day he learns of a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth decided to investigate by posing as white on the phone to chapter president Walker Breachway and having his Jewish colleague Philip ‘Flip’ Zimmerman pose as him whenever meeting the Klan in person. Zimmerman reluctantly agrees at first. He goes to the first meeting where he meets Breachway, the more hostile Felix Kendrickson and Ivanhoe, who subtly talks about an upcoming attack.

Zimmerman signs up for Klan membership under Stallworth’s name and Stallworth calls Klan headquarters to expedite his membership and speaks to Grand Wizard David Duke. The next meeting is at Kendrickson’s house. We learn that Felix’s wife Connie is just as racist. However Felix, being the loose cannon that he is, senses Zimmerman to be Jewish and tries to get him to pass a lie detector test. Before Zimmerman submits, Stallworth, who’s listening into everything with Zimmerman wired, smashes a window. Later on, the romance between Stallworth and Patrice heats up, but he doesn’t tell her he’s part of the police because of her anti-police attitude.

Stallworth is getting more active in his searching results. He learns two men of the KKK are in a branch of the US Air Force. In the meantime, Stallworth’s name is growing with the KKK. Zimmerman, while attending a shooting practice, learns of an attack planned at a student rally; the rally Patrice plans to attend. Zimmerman knows an explosion is planned as he knows Breachway makes bombs. Meanwhile David Duke travels to Colorado Springs to be at his induction and Breachway is willing to transfer his leadership to Zimmerman posing as Stallworth. Zimmerman declines, but his swearing in ceremony, along with other new members, goes as planned. However not without a KKK member noticing Zimmerman from an arrest years ago. He even remembers his nickname ‘Flip.’

As the swearing in is taking place, the attack at the student rally however does not because Connie noticed the huge police attendance. After the rally, Patrice learns the truth about Stallworth. Stallworth admits the truth and leaves Patrice in a question of principles. Her association with her anti-police group or Stallworth. With the attack at the rally botched, Connie wants to take the bombing to Patrice’s house. Connie can’t put the bomb in Patrice’s mailbox while Stallworth tracked Connie and tries to save Patrice by stopping Connie. However two policemen, who don’t know about the planned sting, think Stallworth is an attacker. It’s not until Zimmerman and another police ally arrive that they learn of the truth. Breachway sets the bomb off, but Breachway, Felix and Ivanhoe are the only fatalities.

It’s not over yet. Stallworth and Patrice are in a bar with other cops. Along comes Officer Landers. Patrice tries to get Landers to confess, which he brags about with no remorse. He tries to attack Ron and Patrice, but the police arrest Landers. With the sting over, and Connie a widow behind bars, the police order to burn all records. Stallworth makes one last call to David Duke to deliver him the shocking truth! The story ends with Ron and Patrice contemplating their future, but are interrupted by an image of a burning cross. The film, however, ends with images of the Unite The Right rally in August 2017 and Donald Trump’s lack of action to it.

There’s no doubt the object of the story is racism. Spike Lee has used racism as a theme of focus, if not the prime theme, in his films. The best example is Do The Right Thing. Spike has always maintained his films are about ‘being black in White America.’ However the film tackles the subject of hate groups. He focuses on how they don’t just have a message of racial superiority to promote. They also promote a false sense of fear and a hostility to prove their point. The groups may claim to be non-violent or not one to attack, but that’s further from the truth. That’s made most obvious when Stallworth examines the shooting targets and they’re the images of running African-Americans. The fact that they practice shooting and making bombs shows the evil behind their agenda that they try to make to look friendly. Lee makes that point in that film rehearsal at the beginning of the film. Lee shows of all the falsified news of the surrounding events the Klan deliver to their members before the bombing. Lee also shows that in the Unite The Right footage, that it’s a battle that still continues today. They may have overcome a lot, but there’s still much more to overcome. In the story, Lee sends the message that the Colorado Springs Police may have won this battle, but they didn’t win the whole war. Not while the KKK is a nationwide brotherhood.

The film obviously has a message to send, but it doesn’t forget that it’s a film that has a story to tell. It’s a good intriguing cat-and-mouse story about a local group of the KKK planning a bombing of a group of black students and the black detective who brings them down along with his Jewish guise. It has a good beginning, middle and end that will keep the viewer intrigued. It also incorporates a lot with the entertainment of African-Americans, like the music and the ‘blaxploitation’ films of the 70’s, into the story. It also includes a lot of references to entertainment that send a racist message like Tarzan and The Birth Of A Nation as to why the problem of racism still exists today. However his use of entertainment for thematic purposes doesn’t cause the film to lose its focus. Lee also mixes in another message he appears to question. At a time like where the Black Lives Matter movement has arrived, it appears Lee is critical of a lot of anti-police attitudes of these groups. The police do have history of racism, but what are they to think when the police come to their rescue? That poses as the moral question for Patrice at the end, especially since it could affect her love for Ron. I think Lee was trying to place his own viewpoint here.

No doubt about it, the top accomplishment is that of Spike Lee. Lee has had a mixed career. He’s had accomplishments like Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, but he’s had many duds too. I still consider Do The Right Thing to be his best work, but this is an excellent story that he made work. The story he co-wrote with Wachtel, Rabinowitz and Willmott is a good complex story with a lot to say. The messages Lee tries to put in the story does not take away from the story itself. It actually adds. However it also succeeds in being a comedy with a lot of humorous moments. I think Lee also wanted to show off the stupidity of these racist groups too.

The top acting comes from John David Washington. The son of Denzel, John David delivers an excellent performance that he can rightfully call his breakthrough. He delivers the right acting for the right film. Also excellent is Adam Driver. In playing Stallworth’s Jewish partner, Driver delivers his role well while revealing the personal insecurity inside his Jewish character. I think Lee’s message was also to send how white superiority doesn’t only affect blacks. There were also a lot of excellent supporting performances coming from the likes of Laura Harrier as Patrice, Jasper Paakkonen as the walking time-bomb Felix, Topher Grace as David Duke and Ashlie Atkinson as the hyper-hostile Connie. The films inclusion of music from the past and original score from Terence Blanchard also adds to the film.

BlacKkKlansman obviously has a message to say. However it still succeeds in being a film with a thrilling plot, which makes it a winner of a film.

And there you go! This makes it the eighteenth straight years I’ve seen all the Best Picture nominees of the year before Oscar night. My predictions for the Oscar wins coming soon.

 

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Vice

Vice

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

As the world becomes more and more confusing, we tend to focus on the things that are right there in front of us. While ignoring the massive forces that actually change and shape our lives. With people working longer and longer hours, for less and less. When we do have free time, the last thing we want is complicated analysis of our government, lobbying, international trade agreements, and tax bills.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The film then returns to the 9/11 attacks and when Dick gave the immediate orders. After that, Cheney and Rumsfeld team up over initiating and presiding over the US attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan (which Kurt finds himself a soldier in both those wars). Cheney struggles with his heart attacks as the War Of Terror mounts. Nevertheless he continues through his vice-presidency which includes instituting the Unitary Executive Theory, his role in the Plame Affair, the accidental shooting of Harry Whittington (which he never apologized to him for). His actions are shown to cause thousands of deaths overseas, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and record-low approval ratings upon leaving office. Rumsfeld is even forced to resign. Nobody likes him in Washington.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DVD Review: Silence

silence

Adan Driver (left) and Andrew Garfield are Portuguese missionaries in Japan whose mission is a huge test of faith in Silence.

Learning of Martin Scorsese doing Silence caught my intrigue: Scorsese doing a film about Catholic missionaries. The big question would be how would it turn out? Would it be pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic? Or something else entirely?

It it the 17th Century. Portuguese Jesuit priests Rodrigues and Garupe  are sent to Japan to spread the faith and to find Father Ferreira. Ferreira was sent as a missionary from Portugal, but has been forced to watch the brutal executions of people he helped convert to the faith and has since apostatized. In their first stop in Macau, they came across one of the converts who himself watch executions happen. He’s now a paranoid alcoholic.

Once they arrive in Japan, they arrive in the village of Tomogi. They learn that Catholics have resorted to an underground church. The people are relieved to see they have a full priest available but the priests learn of the samurai searching out Christians to execute: commonly called ‘The Inquisitor.’

Both priests go to different islands. Garupe goes to Hirado Island to avoid having the village threatened and Rodrigues goes to Goto Island in search of Ferreira. He comes across the man from Macau who betrays him in front of an old samurai. The samurai has Rodrigues and the Catholic converts arrested and taken to a prison in Nagasaki. The samurai warns Rodrigues to renounce his faith or else the other captured Christians will be tortured. The samurai give the Christians a chance to step on a rudely-carved crucifix to renounce their faith. One man refuses and he’s beheaded on the spot. Rodrigues has to witness this from his prison cell. Later, Rodrigues is taken to a shoreline where three Christians from Hirado and even father Garupe are to be executed by drowning. Even though Garupe refuses to apostatize, Rodrigues is horrified by what he witnesses.

Finally Rodrigues gets to meet up with the apostate Ferreira. Ferreira tells him after 15 years in Japan, Christianity is futile in Japan. It’s best that he apostatize. They day before Rodrigues goes on trial, he hears the torture of five Christians who had apostatized. Then the day comes. Rodrigues is brought to trial by the shogun and is presented the chance to step on the crude carved crucifix to apostatize. Rodrigues appears to hear permission from Christ and steps on it. He is distraught. Rodrigues spent his remaining years in Japan married and searching out goods from ships incoming from Europe. His job was to identify Christian items from non-Christian items. The ending will definitely lead to a lot of conversation.

We should keep in mind this is not exactly a true story. Instead this is a film adaptation of a book of the same name written in 1966 by Japanese author Shusaku Endo. Whatever the situation, this is a film that presents a huge challenge to one’s faith. Even one with the strongest of faith and convictions can find themselves questioning what they would do in a situation like this. We should remember this is not a case of Christian martyrdom where the priest is the first to be executed. The followers are executed first as a pressure to get the priest to apostatize. The methods of execution are also horrific such as slowly dousing prisoners in hot spring water slowly and painfully to burning them alive wrapped in grass. I’m sure some would ask what would they do in this situation? Is it a selfish thing to hang on to one’s faith while the others are tortured and killed?

I’m sure a lot of people would be suspicious of a film like this coming from Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has had a reputation of a lot of negative and even blasphemous depictions of Catholicism and the Catholic faith. The biggest controversy was in 1988 when The Last Temptation Of Christ hit the theatres and there were protests galore. This film does not give a negative depiction of the priests. Instead it presents the challenges of faith such as the pressure to apostatize or the treatment of sacred images. One thing about the film is that the ending of the film is sure to give a lot of discussion of the final fate of Rodrigues. They say endings should have you asking questions rather than give you answers. It sure worked here as a lot of debate of the ending has sure come about. Even the end scenes after Rodrigues apostatized prompted a discussion between me and another person. This film will have you talking.

One thing it goes to show about this film is that it shows just how difficult it is for a director to make a labor-of-love film. No matter how many hit movies a director may produce, they still have stories deep in their heart they can only dream of putting on film. Even a renowned director like Scorsese would face such challenges. It’s not just in the amount of time it would take to develop such an idea on film– this film is 25 years in the making– but also the willingness of executives to allow it. We forget that film making is a business first and foremost, and business is ruthless. Even after all is completed, it’s then up to how the general public will receive it. In the end, Silence became Scorsese’s lowest-grossing film since 1997’s Kundun. It is a shame because the film is wonderful to watch and showcases a lot of excellent aspects. The film did make the AFI’s annual Top 10 list of the best films as well as the Top 10 list of the National Board of Review.

Martin Scorsese does another good job of directing, even if it’s not his best. He works the film very well and presents it well without his usual trademark of over-the-top blood-and-guts. Sure, there were torturous scenes, but they were a far cry from what you’d normally see in Scorsese film. I feel the adaptation he wrote along with scriptwriter Jay Cocks included the right parts and right moments from the novel as none of the scenes seemed pointless. Also he did a good job of maintaining the dignity of the priests and of the Catholic faith. Maybe this is a change in Scorsese.

Andrew Garfield did a very good job in his portrayal of Rodrigues. This was one year where Garfield played roles of people with strong faith. First was Hacksaw Ridge and now this. He did a very good job in presenting a man with a huge spiritual struggle. Adam Driver was given less screen time and it didn’t allow well for his part to develop. He did do well with what he had. Lia Neeson was also good in his part despite how brief and how limited it was. If there was one supporting actor who could steal the film from Garfield, it’s Issey Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue. He came off as cartoonish at the odd time but he succeeded in making you hate him. Other great works in the film include the cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto. He did a lot of good shots in creating the drama and even capturing the beauty of the scenery. Also worth noting is the excellent production design from Dante Ferreti in both the natural and man-made settings and the costuming also by Ferreti which were top notch.

Silence will most likely go down as Scorsese’s most overlooked masterpiece. It was a labor of love of his that didn’t pan out at the box office. Nevertheless, it’s a good think he made this film as it features a lot of cinematic qualities and gives a lot to marvel at.

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: The Big Short

Big Short

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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