Tag Archives: Allen

VIFF 2018 Shorts Segment: Escape Routes

Cinema

With every VIFF, it’s a goal of mine to see at least one shorts segment. I had the good fortune of seeing a segment as my first VIFF show. The segment titled Escape Routes consisted of six shorts by Canadian directors. Three of them were filmed in BC. All six were intriguing to watch.

The Subject (dir. Patrick Bouchard): We see a body on the table. We see a spike coming out of a foot at first. Then we see it start to be dissected. What’s happening is a whole lot of imagery happens around his body and coming from out of his body. Then when he’s dissected in his upper chest, we see a steel inside.

What’s happening in this film is the animator dissecting his own body. This film is the animator using self-dissection to show what his works are all about. His emotions, his memories, his fears, all go into his work. A couple of religious entendres may be telling how it plays into his fears. Even the artistic patterns that form around his skin give a picture about what the animator is saying about himself and how it plays into his works.

Girl On A Bus (dir. Matthew B. Schmidt): The film begins with people questioning about a girl who disappeared. Then the film shoots to a scene on a bus. A teenage/young adult female is one of the passengers and she’s just relaxing and looking at Instagram photos. The bus takes a break at a gas station along the highway. She uses the outside bathroom and changes her hair, makeup and clothes to something very different and takes social media pictures. The driver can’t recognize her and thinks a passenger is missing. As police are questioning the ‘missing girl,’ she gets interrogated and gives misleading questions. She mentions she’s running away but doesn’t say why. She leaves the interrogation booth. A picture from a child identifies her as the missing, but she walks away when asked.

At first, it seems like a nonsense film. A girl changes her look but is labeled missing? Then you get the sense of what’s happening. She says she’s running away but gives a vague answer why. When told to stay at the booth as the police leave temporarily, she leaves. When asked if the photo of her on a child’s pad is her, she doesn’t answer and walks away. It makes more sense later on. She comes across as a girl who wants to escape from it all. It’s not apparent exactly the reason or reasons why, but it’s obvious she wants to escape from everything. Only on social media would she want to be around people. I can identify because I had those same feelings when I was her age. A very good short story of a film.

Best Friends Read The Same Books (dir. Matthew Taylor Blais): The film consists of no sound at all, but of images of plants, colors, bushes, parks, coasts, and the director reading a book in various places and various seating positions on a bench. The film ends with a set of colors.

I’ll take it for what it is. This is the director trying to film in an abstract sort of way. The images, around various areas of Greater Vancouver, are meant to tell about his surroundings and reading the same book.

Train Hopper (dir. Amelie Hardy): The film begins with a passage of Allen Ginsberg’s poem America. Then cuts into a video of a young man who’s a customer service agent working at his desk with his headset. Later we catch the young man around trains on the train tracks. Then we see him hopping on the trains between the cars and going along for the ride. We even see his self-recorded videos of him during the trips. Within the second-half of the film and video footage, we hear the man talk about his dreams and his imagination and why he takes these trips, which include trips crossing into the United States. The film ends with audio of Ginsberg’s America.

The film begins with a statement that the Beat Generation is not dead. The whole film is a picturesque reminder that even in this day and age, there are still young people who still dare to dream, who dare to still want to live their dream out. This film shows it with this young man who’s a customer service agent by profession, but dreamer by passion. An excellent cinematic portrait.

Acres (dir. Rebeccah Love): The story begins with a young man working on a farm. Later on, his sister, her husband and a former girlfriend of his join for dinner. They talk about him managing his father’s farm after his death, as well as a dispute over use of the land that will require legal attention. The sister and brother-in-law leave for home but the ex-girlfriend decides to stay overnight. Possibly to help him with his situation. She is a photographer by passion. The two were in love while they were in college. This is happening while they’re talking of a way to properly mark the burial site of his father’s ashes. He had ambitions of becoming a businessman, but passions in his life that involved travelling caused him to leave everyone behind, including the family and even her. She tries to get to the bottom of this. Especially since this caused their break-up. Eventually they do rekindle.

The film is a picturesque way of showing a real-life situation. It’s a quiet situation, but one that needs to be discussed and resolved. The filmmaker does it with good storytelling and honest dialogue.

Biidaaban (dir. Amanda Strong): This is the one short that’s fully animated. There’s one young person of Indigenous decent, Biidaaban, and an older Sasquatch shapeshifter Sabe. They live in the same dwelling. They communicate with what you first think is a smartphone, but is actually a mystic rock that creates images and dialogue. Biidaaban seeks to collect sap from maple trees in a neighborhood. Sabe will assist Biidaaban. As they collect the sap, they are suddenly taken over by spirits and enter into a mystical world.

Upon the film’s Q&A, we learn the film is not just about Indigenous legends and myths. It’s also about gender-fluidity as Biidaaban is a gender-fluid youth. From what I remember about the Q & A, the gender-fluidity does tie in with Indigenous culture. The whole film was very dramatic and very mystical. The genre of animation allows the viewer to feel the imagination of the film and capture the mysticism.

All six shorts were very intriguing to watch. Even with one more thrilling than the other, and one not trying to be thrilling at all, all had something to say. Sometimes you wondered if all six fit the term Escape Routes. Some of the subjects or plots in a film or two didn’t look like physical escapes at all. However many of them turned out to be escapes of the mind. Escaping isn’t just about a road to somewhere.

Escape Routes was an excellent selection of six Canadian shorts. Each were different in their own way. All of them had something to say. And all would come off as an escape from something. You had to see it to know it.

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Movie Review: Room

Room is a drama of a mother (Brie Larson) and a son (Jacob Tremblay) bonding in a difficult situation.

Room is a drama of a mother (Brie Larson) and a son (Jacob Tremblay) bonding in a difficult situation.

I’ll admit I was late in reviving my interest in the movies with Oscar buzz. Room was even at the VIFF and I ignored it thanks to not hitting the website AwardsDaily. However Room was out in November and I finally had my chance.

The film begins with Jack waking up in a room. The room is small and crowded with a television, small kitchen, beds, bathtub and a toilet. There are no windows but there is a skylight in the ceiling. The only other person who lives in this room is a young woman named Joy, his mother. Soon we learn the two are abduction victims held captive in a shed full of escape alarms by a man she calls Old Nick. We also learn that Joy has protected Jack from knowing the truth of the situation and tried to create a world of childhood wonder for him. She even gets him to hide from Old Nick fearing Nick will sexually assault Jack the way she’s been.

Joy has been calm about her abduction situation mostly as Old Nick has kept them both fed well and sheltered well despite his obvious sexual assault on Joy of which Jack was born from. However food, clothing and shelter supplies have been scarcer since Old Nick has been kept out of a job for six months. Joy has attempted to escape before but it failed. This time, she uses Jack where she gets him to fake having a fever. It doesn’t work. The next day she gets Jack to play dead in a rolled-up carpet and to run out of the back of Nick’s truck when he gets to a stop sign en route to ‘burying’ him somewhere. The plan works as Jack is able to get out in a residential area. Jack is rescued but police would have to pursue Old Nick back at the shed where he has Joy hostage temporarily. The two are soon reunited in freedom from Old Nick.

Once free, Jack and Joy are given medical treatment where Joy is reunited with her mother Nancy, stepfather Leo and father Robert. Jack is thanked by Nancy for taking care of Joy.

As the two are starting to embrace their new freedom from captivity, they realize that they are not completely free. There’s the general public that are so dazzled by the story, the media turns this into a circus. There is Joy dealing with her divorced parents and the fact Robert doesn’t want to accept Jack. There’s even Joy returning to her room and unpleasant reminders of her fun carefree life before the abduction. While Jack is embracing his grandmother and stepgrandfather, his new freedom and the whole new world for him that comes with it, Joy can’t handle her situation and she attempts suicide. Jack sends her a piece of his hair in hopes she gets better. Eventually Joy does recover and thanks Jack for giving her reason to live. However there’s one last thing to do.

This is a film based on a novel by a novel by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue released five years ago. Filmmakers hired Emma to write the script for the film. Normally a situation like an abduction of a minor and a child coming from the abduction would make for something unwatchable. I wouldn’t blame any of you for feeling that way. What makes it watchable is that it’s mostly seen from the child’s point of view. Throughout the film we see the world through the eyes of Jack. Him and his sense of wonder at the small world around him as well as his hope for entering the world outside keeps this film from feeling the tense situation around it. I will say that most people would find the child’s sense of awe and wonder in the middle of an abduction would find it bizarre but it’s a creative twist that actually helps the story.

However the film is not without reminders of realities. First is the father who doesn’t want to look at Jack. While Joy sees Jack as his child and Nancy willfully accepts Jack as her grandson, grandfather Robert doesn’t want to accept him. Possibly because he may see Jack as a product of his daughter’s abduction and rape and would naturally be upset by it. Second is the media attention. No doubt the freedom achieved by Jack and Joy is a remarkable story but the media attention that came with it was too much, especially since Joy would just want to get back to her life again. Also just as Joy is getting use to life back at home, she’s reminded of her life before the abduction and of so many things that were cut short because of it.

The highlight of the film is actually the bond between Joy and Jack. No doubt Joy is a victim of her abduction. Her son Jack is where she’s able to forget her problem temporarily and feels like a mother instead of a victim. Plus she loves him back. She could have seen him as a product of her rape and neglected him but instead chooses to be a mother. Seeing her make a birthday cake for him and protect Jack from Old Nick shows how much she means to him. Even after they’re free, they still have a bond: a bond that gives Joy a reason to live after her suicide attempt.

The film I’ll admit is even a reminder of how both children and adults see situations differently. Joy sees the shed as her prison but Jack doesn’t. Joy is doing what she can to keep Jack from seeing this as a traumatizing time for the both of them and creates for him a world of joy, creativity and wonder for Jack. That’s why Jack feels an attachment to the shed to the point he even calls it ‘Room.’ Even the time in freedom is seen in different ways. Jack sees it as a time for new worlds and new explorations. Joy is supposed to see it as her time of the freedom she thought she’d never achieve but there are a lot of things that bother her like a father who doesn’t want to accept Jack and a future that was robbed from her. Even that scene at the end as the two see ‘Room’ one last time shows the difference in how the two feel. Jack willfully says goodbye to it–now a place of the police’s crime scene as is should be– but you can still see the trauma in Joy’s face. However seeing how Joy willfully says goodbye to it upon Jack’s request reminded me that if us adults handled their problems they way children like that do, we’d have much less trauma in our lives.

I will admit that I knew the film was shot in Vancouver. Whenever I see a film that was made in Vancouver, I try to identify the sites and sets in the film with areas of Vancouver I know well. I was able to do so. Even though the film is set in Ohio, it couldn’t fool me!

This film is the North American breakthrough for Irish director Lenny Abrahamson. His direction along with Donoghue’s screenplay adaptation of her own novel is the right mix and delivers a great story. I will admit the story of Room begins on an awkward note as we don’t fully understand the situation. The abduction and Joy’s impregnation of Jack from Old Nick becomes more obvious later on. I feel the two together made the right choices.

Brie Larson was the right pick for Joy. She displayed the right mix of compassion, trauma and frustration. It’s not easy to play a character who’s first a victim of abduction and rape and later adjusting to her freedom but she succeeded in playing Joy Newsome excellently. Just as excellent is Vancouver actor Jacob Tremblay. He was the right fit to play Jack with his naivety, his sense of wonder and his undying love for his mother. Joan Allen, William H. Macy and Tom McCamus were all good as the grandparents. Sean Bridgers was rather limited in his role of Old Nick. Mind you Old Nick wasn’t too be that big of a role anyways.

Room has to be the best film coming out of Vancouver this year. It’s a very unique story that makes what would normally be an unwatchable and even taboo situation very watchable. Even enlightening.

Movie Review: Beeba Boys

Randeep Hooda plays Jeet Johar, a leader of an organized crime syndicate in Beeba Boys.

Randeep Hooda plays Jeet Johar, a leader of an organized crime syndicate in Beeba Boys.

Back at this year’s VIFF, I was hoping to see at least one Canadian live-action feature. I didn’t have the luck. I was actually luckier after the VIFF ended as Beeba Boys hit theatres just a week after. I had the chance to finally see it for myself.

The story is about Jeet Johar, a Punjabi-Canadian mob boss who is seen as the big man in Greater Vancouver, especially Surrey. He’s seen by many in the Indo-Canadian community what many would see of a mob boss: a father figure, a leader, a man who helps his community and a man who tells other not to mess with their own.

However there’s another side to Jeet. Despite having a set of loyal men who carry out his actions, he’s a loyal father who’s concerned about his well-being. He’s very upset when his father drinks in front of his son and he’s concerned how his mother feels about him, even though he acts like it doesn’t bother him.

One time, Jeet is arrested for murder. The jury finds him not guilty and he wins the attraction of one of the jurors, the daughter of Polish immigrants. However the police know he’s guilty and they set up a man to join Jeet’s gang and have him set up for what they hope will be his capture.

Jeet faces a load of rivalry from other mob leaders, an Indo-Canadian business leader who has become hugely successful and various other Indo-Canadians trying to get a piece of their own crime action for their own gain. Meanwhile his love for Katya is growing despite her family’s opposition to her love to Jeet.

However with Jeet’s lust for power comes incidents along the way that send him a message he’s doomed to downfall. This comes from members of his gang being killed to even a shootout at his place, endangering his own family. This leads to an ending that is far from predictable but doesn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect.

The film has a lot of of good elements and ingredients brought by writer/director Deepa Mehta: the separation of the values held by the older Punjabis from the younger Punjabis who question and can even ridicule the values and loyalty held by older Punjabis. There’s even the perceived jealousy felt by a lot of young Punjabis towards those who have made it successfully and feel that they have to kill them to get ahead. There’s even the scene of how some children of those who have made it feel a distance from their parents and even feel neglected because of their parents’ focus on making it.

There’s also how one looks at the leader of organized crime as a positive thing, especially the young. That was especially seen in that young Punjabi boy at the beginning talking how Jeet tells others not to mess with them the same way Bruce Lee showed others not to mess with the Chinese. Typical young male with a ‘might is right’ attitude. There’s the feel of power associated by many with the might of the gun. That was shown when one of Jeet’s men gets a young boy to feel what a ‘real gun feels like.’ Even though he unloaded the gun before, it sends a message about how addicting the power of the gun can get. There’s even the feeling they have to rule the night club scenes as shown in many scenes in the film.

The film also includes many other unique and vital ingredients. One unique ingredients to the film include the mix of languages as it goes from English to Punjabi to ‘Punglish.’ Another good ingredient is not just the focus on Punjabi immigrants but also some minor focus on the Ukrainian aquacize teacher and Katya Drobot. Sometimes I think the film is not just showing the struggle of Punjabi-Canadians to exist socially in Canada but the struggles of many immigrants. I found it surprising since I live in Vancouver that is one of the most immigrant-friendly cities in the world.

There’s also the character of Jeet who’s trying to make like he’s the boss but struggles to be a responsible father and is easily infuriated when his father drinks. Soon Jeet would have to fess up as his son now thinks violence is cool.

However the main problem is that the film does not put it all together in a well-constructed manner. The film shows a lot of potential as it features a story within a topic that rarely gets proper focus and has offered few effective solutions in the past. However there are times in which the news stories and even the newscaster herself come off as too cartoonish. There are times when the story goes from telling a story of an Indo-Canadian mob boss turns into ‘preaching’ about the problem. I’ve seen other gangster films before that told a story that reflected a common problem in society without resorting to ‘preaching’ methods. There were even parts that came off as ridiculous such as mob rival Jamie being intruded upon during a fellatio by one of Jeet’s men. All I can say is for each Canadian gangster film like this, there are at least 50 American gangster films that are better.

Mehta brings an ambitious project with Beeba Boys however the problem is it’s not done in a well-edited, well-pieced manner and it comes off as unsteady, sometimes preachy and even confusing at times. I will however give Mehta credit. It’s obvious Mehta, whose 2005 film Water was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, is presenting a topic very close to her concern: the rise in crime among young Indo-Canadians, especially around Surrey and other part of Greater Vancouver. Being a resident of Greater Vancouver myself, I often hear the news stories and concerns however I myself can’t really make a statement about this topic because I don’t have direct involvement with the Indo-Canadian communities in Greater Vancouver. Mehta however is very knowledgeable about this and she feels she has something to say about this. I give Mehta credit for presenting a topic on the big-screen that gets so little focus but I feel that it could have been done better as a big-screen film.

The acting was good but it wasn’t stellar. Randeep Hooda did a good job as playing Jeet Johar: a gangster leader who’s art tough guy, part concerned father and part troubled man. Balinder Johal was the best supporting player as the concerned mother. The mix of IndoPop or IndoRock were some of the best music that could have been added to the score while the more synthesized parts of the score didn’t fit well and took away from the professionalism.

Beeba Boys is an ambitions movie that attempt to send a message as it tells a story. However it makes a lot of noticeable mistakes and it doesn’t compare to many of the crime dramas before it.

DVD Review: Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a socialite with all the wrong moves, in Blue Jasmine.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a socialite with all the wrong moves, in Blue Jasmine.

I’ll admit I did not see Blue Jasmine when it first came out in theatres. The Oscar buzz for it prompted me to watch the DVD. I’m glad it did and now I know why it’s buzzing.

Jasmine comes off a plane from New York to San Francisco. She tells the elderly female passenger next to her the story of how she used to be a top socialite in New York but is near broke and hoping to start a new life. She appears to have impressed the passenger but we learn in a conversation to her husband she didn’t welcome herself to Jasmine. Jasmine then goes to her sister Ginger’s apartment. The bizarre thing is Jasmine hardly ever gives Ginger any contact but is now seeing her because of her dire straits. It’s funny since Ginger–whom is actually sister to Jasmine via her parents’ adoption–always credited Jasmine as having the good genes. The problem is that even though Jasmine is drowning in debt, she’s still set in her opulent ways.

Frequently Jasmine flashes back to her luxurious past with her husband Hal and her stepson Danny. Life was good for Jasmine and Hal appeared to be very successful as an investor It’s years ago when Ginger and her original husband Augie come to visit her in New York that things started to decline. First Jasmine offers an investment opportunity for Augie through Hal with the $200,000 he won in the lottery: money Augie was planning to use to start a business opportunity for himself. Augie and Ginger thought they’re being treated by Jasmine with a stay at the Marriott and their car and driver but Jasmine put them there because they cramped her style. It’s right during one of their sightseeing tours they noticed Hal kissing another woman.

It later became clear that Hal is a fraudster who would eventually get arrested, convicted of fraud, sentenced to prison and later committing suicide. Augie’s money was lost and it led to Augie and Ginger’s divorce. Ginger forgives Jasmine even though Augie is still resentful but is now dating a mechanic named Chili, a man Jasmine resents at first sight and gives Ginger snide remarks about him. The remarks cause Ginger to leave Chili much to his hurt.

Jasmine comes to San Francisco in hopes of starting a new life. She missed completing her anthropology degree because she fell for Hal. She wants to become an interior designer but has to take courses online and lacks computer skills. She reluctantly takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office. Nevertheless it does not work out as Jasmine finds the job too stressful for her and receives unwelcomed sexual advances from the dentist.

Things do improve for Jasmine as she falls in love with a wealthy widower named Dwight who’s a diplomat with plans to become a congressman. Ginger also meets a new love named Al at the same party. Jasmine is able to win Dwight’s affection through lies of her being married to a doctor who died of a heart attack. The lies fall through when Augie bumps into them on the street and tells the whole story, including the details that her stepson Danny is working in a record store in Oakland. Right in the car ride home Dwight calls off the engagement and leaves Jasmine on the street. She visits Danny at the record store to no avail. Danny didn’t even want Jasmine to know his whereabouts. He wants to leave the past behind which means never seeing Jasmine again.

It’s right in a flashback at the end we learn of when Jasmine confronted Hal of his many affairs. Hal confesses he wants to divorce her in favor of a teenage maid for Danny. That was when she called the police and had Hal arrested for fraud which led to his imprisonment and suicide. In the end, Jasmine has to face the music for what she did to Danny, to Augie, for her interference with the love between Ginger and Chili, and herself in general.

It seems odd at first to see a Woody Allen movie classified as a drama. We’re all used to Woody Allen doing comedies. Mind you it’s after seeing this movie that there are a lot of elements that are darker than what one would expect in a Woody Allen film. It succeeds in not being too comical and even serious in some of the harsher parts of the movie. Nevertheless there are a lot of comical elements in this film despite the situation.

If there’s one thing that it does have in common with Woody Allen movies, it’s that it ends completely unexpectedly. It’s bizarre that you think things are going to go better for Jasmine in the end. Instead it all ends up worse, she fails at making peace with whatever wrongs of the past she did, whatever improvements in her own life fell through the cracks and she’s left all alone. She’s even confronted of her real name: Jeanette. She is the type of rich phony whom could easily charm and impress anyone but had a lot to hide and hid it well at the time. In the end, she has nothing left to hide and no one left to charm. She goes from being the life of the party to a person not even one on a park bench would want to be around. It’s also surprising since Jasmine would remind some of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with The Wind. Sure, Scarlett lost it all in the end too but she still held her head high at the very end with a sense of hope. Here, you don’t see a hint of ‘Tomorrow is another day’ in Jasmine.

Sometimes I think it’s not just a story to do about a socialite who gets a reality check but sometimes I think it’s a message from Woody Allen. For all intents and purposes, you’d probably know that Woody Allen is not the type who likes to go to big Hollywood parties. He hardly even makes visits to the Academy Awards. Sometimes I think his is his statement about the social scene and the phonies involved with it. It’s also a story with a lot of good relevance. It may have been more relevant had it been done ten years ago as Paris Hilton was constantly embarrassing moment after embarrassing moment upon herself, and getting more famous off of it in the meantime. Nevertheless it still does show relevance as Kim Kardashian’s exploits still make a lot of copy, if not the same hugeness of copy as say two years ago.

Yes, Woody Allen did a very good job of directing and writing this story but it was Cate Blanchett who did the greatest effort in making the character of Jasmine. The interesting thing is that Cate succeeds in making Jasmine to be the charismatic but snooty, phony, superficial, self-indulgent, materialistic socialite who deserves to be looked down upon. But she does something else. Right at the very end, she succeeds in making us actually feel from sympathy for Jasmine. Sure she went from impressing everybody to causing great personal and financial harm to others and ending up with nobody. But for some reason, the end scene actually succeeds in making us feel for Jasmine. What was it? Her willingness to try to do better? Her coming to her senses too much too late? Whatever it was, that was something hard to do and I give Cate great kudos for pulling that off. I think that’s why she has that edge in the Oscar race.

The best supporting performance has to go to Sally Hawkins as Ginger: the sister that’s supposedly the inferior one but comes off as the winner in the end. Sally also did a very good job of character acting and made Ginger into a believable and colorful personality. Finally we see which sister has the ‘good genes.’ The female leading roles were the best of the film but the male roles were also great from Alec Baldwin playing the scamming superficial Hal, to Bobby Canavale as the ‘inferior’ Chili, to Michael Stuhlbarg as the sleazy dentist, to Peter Saarsgard as the politician Jasmine has a second-chance with to Andrew Dice Clay as the distraught ex-husband of Ginger (and I hardly noticed any of the ‘Dice Man’ in him). The women ruled the movie but the male supporting roles also added to the story and contained character flares of their own. The movie didn’t really have too many stand-out technical aspects but the scenic cinematography and the music tracks added to the movies charm.

Blue Jasmine has all the ingredients of a Woody Allen movie. Only it’s more of a drama than a comedy. Nevertheless it’s something Woody and the actors pull off excellently to make it work.

Movie Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Forest Whitaker plays a butler in The Butler who serves the White House and includes himself in history.

Forest Whitaker plays a butler in The Butler who serves the White House and includes himself in history.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is another surprise hit movie of the summer. It doesn’t feature the typical fare for what one would call a ‘summer movie.’ Actually it features more mature fair that’s meant for a release around October, November or even December. So how did it manage to become a hit this summer?

The Butler is a unique story of Cecil Gaines. Born in a cotton field, he was forced into labor by the Westfalls, a Georgia family who owned the plantation. Even though slavery was out of existence, it didn’t stop people from treating their black employees like slaves. The son raped Cecil’s mother and shot his father dead. The state’s caretaker, the mother, takes Cecil out of the farms and assigns him to be a house servant. However it would be a businessman whom encounters Cecil after he breaks into a bakery and steals a cake after running away. The businessman turns him into a successful butler who’s able to provide a good income for his wife and children. Something very rare for an African-American man to be able to do before 1960.

A breakthrough occurs when Cecil is offered a job as a butler at the White House. This is a big breakthrough for the Gaines family as they can improve their way of life. However it does not come without its prices as Gloria feels alienated from Cecil and his workaholic manner and turns to adultery. His son Louis becomes very involved with political activism and the Civil Rights Movement from restaurant sit-ins to the Black Panthers movement. That doesn’t sit well to Cecil at all to the point they fight and they don’t speak for years. His 34 year career as a butler in the White House takes some turns as he’s able to converse with the president and even influence many on how they deal with African-Americans. Cecil is also involved in other incidents such as the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination to losing his son in the Vietnam War. The story intertwines with his career with social changes for Black America during that time period with his own family life from his childhood to his career to Obama’s inauguration.

A short while back when I was doing a Wikipedia search on the movie, I learned that this film is loosely based on Eugene Allen: an African-American butler who first served in the White House in 1952, advanced to Maitre d’Hotel in his career and finally retired in 1986. The movie admits that this is inspired by a true story rather than actually being a true story. Though one can doubt the truthfulness of the story, the script by Danny Strong does capture one’s attention and is able to mix the White House life of Cecil with moments of history and even the struggle of one family dealing with the changes and trying to make life better for themselves and for their race. It’s almost like Cecil could be labeled the ‘Black Forrest Gump.’ The relationship between Cecil and Louis also highlights the divisiveness between two generations of African Americans. One learned he had to work hard to get places. Another adopted the new attitudes of Black pride during the 60’s. The clashes between the two represent the clashes of the two generations of Black America. Lee Daniels also does a very good job of directing the movie with its complexities. This is a big move for him to go from something like Precious to something more polished. Nevertheless it’s a very good move and can allow him to replace Spike Lee as the top African American director in the business.

The actors were also excellent, especially Forest Whitaker as Cecil. I’m not sure if Forest is trying to imitate Eugene Allen or trying to make Cecil into his own character–I admit that I myself have never seen video footage of Eugene Allen–but he gave an excellent performance both in terms of the character’s personality and his aging. Oprah Winfrey also gave an excellent performance as Gloria encompassing the struggles of maintaining family unity while dealing with a husband that seems too preoccupied with success. David Oyelowo achieves a personal breakthrough here as Louis Gaines. He does a very good job of representing the new black attitude of his times in both life and personal political attitude through Louis Gaines. Supporting acting was also very good from star actors like Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey and Jane Fonda. The supporting acting performances from the lesser-known actors like Mika Kelly, Nelsan Ellis, Elijah Kelley, Clarence Williams III and Yaya da Costa were also very good and added to the ensemble cast. One thing that struck me about Yaya da Costa’s performance of Louis’ girlfriend is the Black Panthers scene where she has a big afro and admits her desire to kill. Didn’t she remind you of Angela Davis in that scene?

There’s one glitch in the movie, it’s the casting for those who portray presidents in the past. At first I thought Robin Williams as Eisenhower was a good choice but the others didn’t seem so.  John Cusack made Richard Nixon seem awfully young as did Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson and James Marsden as John F. Kennedy. All three of them were at least ten years younger than the presidents they played when they assumed office. I feel the biggest miscast was Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Reagan had a charming personality and Reagan was not seen as charming at all in the film but rather a toughie. Makes me wonder what was with this? Was it miscasting? Or were those the ways the presidents looked to Lee Daniels or through the eyes of Cecil Gaines?

One final note of the movie. This was the scene near the end showing Obama’s election to the Presidency in 2008. I know that there has been a ton of flack given to Obama over what he’s done or what he’s failed to do as President of the United States. One thing you can’t deny is that even in the five year’s since his election, he’s still the face of hope for a race and other racial minorities. That’s one thing that can’t be taken away.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an excellent movie worth watching. I have sometimes co-related to movie to Forrest Gump where a man is part of history. Despite some of its flaws, it was an excellent intelligent alternative to the hyped-up summer stuff and still draws audiences now.

Movie Review: Midnight In Paris

Midnight In Paris turned out to be one of the most unlikely sleeper hits of the summer. Little was expected of it: Owen Wilson being the biggest name, a romance featuring characters older than the 20’s, a Paris setting and a trip back to the past. Somehow it was able to capture people’s imaginations and make moviegoers want to see it.

The story is about Gil: a Hollywood screenwriter who’s successful but easily distracted. He’s engaged to Inez, a daughter of wealthy conservative parents. While the four are vacationing in Paris, Gil is struggling to finish his first novel about a man working in a nostalgia shop; a novel for which he plans to give up his scriptwriting career and move to Paris for inspiration. This does not sit very well with Inez’s parents as they don’t favor the arts or Paris nor does it sit well with Inez herself as she intends to live in Malibu. Meanwhile Inez’s friend Paul who appears to know a lot of the artistic greats makes things more complicated as Gil finds him insufferable and even phony.

 After a wine tasking one night, Gil is drunk and alone outside the hotel. At midnight, Gil comes across a coach leading a group to a secret place. Gil joins the group and the people appear to be celebrating 1920’s couture. Later we see that the coach leads to a place where the 1920’s come alive with the Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda. He even meets Gertrude Stein and offers her to look over his novel. One catch we learn as he returns to the hotel, he’s back in the present.

Gil goes to return the next night novel in hand and offers to bring Inez with him but she’s annoyed with what he says and returns to the hotel. The coach returns at midnight and this time Ernest Hemingway is inside. He gives Gertrude his novel and she introduces him to Picasso. Gil encounters Picasso’s mistress Adrianna whom he has become attracted to. The following day Paul  shows Gil and Inez Picasso’s painting of Adrianna at a museum and tells his story about it. Gil contradicts with the truth he just saw the other night, only to annoy both Paul and Inez.

Gil visits the past more often for inspiration for his novel which annoys Inez. Her father even hires a private investigator on him, only to be lead to the Versailles during the era of Louis XIV and never to be found again. Gil spends more time with Adrianna, who leaves Picasso for Hemingway. This confuses Gil as he feels he’s falling in love with her. Meanwhile he meets with surrealists like Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Luis Bunuel who see nothing strange about him coming from the future. Gil goes furniture shopping with Inez but comes across and an antiques dealer who’s selling Adrianna’s diary. He also learns from a conversation with the antiques dealer herself that she also has the same fondness for the 20’s Gil has. Later a guide from the Rodin Museum translates Adrianna’s diary and he learns she’s in love with him. Gil returns to the past and confesses his love to Adrianna. A coach leading them to the days of the Belle Epoque drives up and Adrianna opts to go in, talking of how she longs of the days of the Belle Epoque and how the 1920’s are so imaginative. It there that Gil learns about the illusionate lure of nostalgia and learns to accept the present for what it is. In the end, the romantic triangles between all involved take a surprising turn and Gil makes some surprising decisions.

I don’t think the movie is stressing too many points but rather telling an amusing love story where artistic inspiration and one’s passion are the top themes. It does pay an admiration for the writers and thinkers in the past but it reminds us to admire their influences rather than dwell back to their time.

Another theme that’s common in Woody Allen’s movies is about artists and their inspirations. It shows how a top Hollywood writer feels that burning desire to create a novel that no Hollywood millions can take the place of. Allen puts in many legendary artists, writers and filmmakers—including some from an American expatriate group in Paris at that time–who received their inspiration in Paris to make his point. It also reflects on Allen’s feelings of conservatism being stuffy, especially with the Tea Partiers. Interesting how Gil is an artist mesmerized by legends of the past while Inez’ father admires a political party known for its past thinking.

In terms of the movie’s acting, this is the best acting I’ve seen from Owen Wilson. He seems in these past few years to be leaving his past Slacker Pack schtick behind and is now doing more sensible roles. This is an excellent move for Wilson. Here he plays a man who’s smart but easily distracted. Very good job. The supporting roles were also excellent, especially the character acting. Most of the characters of people from the past are so well-acted, you easily forget who the actor is. It took me a while to recognize Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, Marion Cotillard as Adrianna and Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald. The most recognizable was Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein. Nevertheless her acting was still top quality.

The best effort has to come from the directing and writing from Woody Allen. I will admit that Woody Allen’s humor and comedies are not as fresh as it was during the 70’s and Midnight isn’t that different. If there’s one thing I like, it’s that Woody Allen is able to keep quality and good effort in comedy. While most comedic writers rely on cheap shots, one-liners and slapstick to make hit comedies, Allen keeps the intelligence in his storylines and presents comedies with amusing situations, full characters and an ending that differs from your typical Hollywood endings. Here we have characters that make you laugh and think at the same time. Here we have a return back to the past that fits the story well. Here we have a romantic comedy that doesn’t end the way your typical Hollywood romantic comedy ends. in terms of box office, Midnight is Woody’s highest-grossing film in North America ever. Impressive.

Midnight In Paris is not a comedy for everyone. I don’t think a trip into the past in Paris at the stroke of midnight will draw everyone. Nevertheless it is a refreshing break from your typical predictable, formulaic Hollywood fare and will impress whoever is willing to view it.