Tag Archives: Amy

Oscars 2016 Best Picture Summary: Part 1

I know I’ve done individual reviews of Best Picture nominees in the past. This year I thought I’d try something new. I thought I’d do summaries of the nominees. Three blogs analyzing three of the nominees. It’s something new this year and I hope you like it. For my first summary, I’ll be reviewing the first three Best Picture nominees I saw: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and Moonlight.

ARRIVAL

arrival

Amy Adams knows how to communicate with aliens in Arrival.

When you learn Arrival is about aliens, I’m sure you have an idea of what you’d anticipate what a movie about aliens would be about. However, you’re in for a big surprise.

This is probably the first movie about aliens to earn a Best Picture nomination. The film appears to set up for a story that would most likely lead to big-time action sequences. Instead we get a film that’s very intellectual in dealing with aliens. Don’t forget Louise is a linguistics professor who was hired for this duty because of her language expertise. In this film, the focus is on communication. Louise has a way to communicate with the aliens and earn their trust even while those around her grow more hostile to the beings. Louise’s gift for communication goes beyond the aliens and she’s able to say to General Shang the words his late wife said to her. It’s like she has a sense for this.

Even with all this, the film is not just about aliens and preventing a human-alien war. The film is about Louise trying to heal after her daughter’s death. Her marriage is no more as well and she’s looking for her purpose. It’s even about Louise and her ability to foresee the future and the possibilities they can unfold. Louise is the central protagonist whom the whole story revolves around. She finds her true gifts at a time she least expects it and she’s able to find her life again. It’s almost like this alien invasion is like a godsend to her life. Right after her daughter dies, she learns of her purpose to the world and to others.

Denis Villeneuve did a top job of directing this film. He already has a reputation for films like Maelstrom, Incendies and Sicario. He’s also been hired to do the Blade Runner sequel. This film he directs is very tricky but he does all the right work for it. The script by Eric Heisserer is very smart and very deep. It does a very good job of getting the right moments of action and the right moments of drama pieced out.

The story also rested on the performance of Amy Adams. She knew the story was primarily about Louise and she had to make it work. Although the role didn’t have too much in terms of character development, her performance was solid and it held the story together. The supporting performers may not have had as big of roles but they still did well with their performances. Jeremy Renner definitely could have had more depth in his role. The music from Johann Johannson and Max Richter fit the movie perfectly. The visual effects were also excellent and just what the movie needed.

Arrival is a very intelligent movie. It’s an alien movie not like one you’d anticipate at first but you will leave the theatre pleased.

HACKSAW RIDGE

hacksaw-ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is about Desmond Doss (portrayed by Andrew Garfield) in both his convictions and his sacrifice.

Mel Gibson is back. This time he has Hacksaw Ridge. It’s a war drama that’s about more than just the war.

This film makes for an interesting topic: conscientious objection. I know all about it. For years I went to a Protestant church where the people were known for their anti-war beliefs. Conscientious objection is something that’s bound to make one question their morals and even act out of hostility. I know that we have conservative pundits who insist that fighting in a war is the definition of patriotism and will even use scriptures to justify why was is the right thing. Upon release of this film, I was anticipating a conservative backlash against it. So far no ‘Diss The Doss’ movement has happened. No movement to have his Medal Of Honor posthumously revoked. Nothing. It’s a good thing because the film does make one reconsider what defines a ‘patriot.’ I’m glad this story was told.

One of the biggest complaints from conservatives in the last 40 years has been either the negative depictions of religion or lack of positive depictions of religion in movies. True, this is not the Hollywood where the Hays Code calls the shots. For those that read my review of Of Gods And Men, I have a quote from Barbara Nicolosi about why that’s the problem. That explains why it’s hard to get a pro-religion movie to compete for Best Picture nowadays. There’s a fine line of showing a film with a positive depiction of Christianity without it being schmaltzy, hokey or overly sentimental. Plus with all the ‘game changers’ in the last few decades, writing a winning script or creating a winning film is just that much of a challenge.

I feel they did a very good job in Hacksaw Ridge. It was a very good story of the persecution Desmond Doss had to face for his beliefs. It was a very gritty story of the war and all the damage it caused. Some say the graphicness was comparable to Saving Private Ryan. It was an honest portrayal about someone’s faith. However there was one point when I felt it was borderlining on hokey during the scenes of: “Please, Lord. Help me find one more.” I know that was something Doss said in real life but I’m just wondering if it could have been done better.

This film is the first film directed by Mel Gibson in a decade. I know he had to take a break as he had a very public meltdown with the things he said about others and problems with alcohol. You could rightfully call this film the redemption of Mel Gibson. He directs an excellent film that took a lot of effort to make. 14 years to be exact even while Doss himself was still alive going from one writer to the next until finally they had the right script and right story thanks to Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Gibson and the writers did an excellent job with the film with the story and the depiction of war.

In addition, the story was made thanks to the performance of Andrew Garfield. This was more than just a war story. This was a story of a person’s heart and soul. Garfield knew he had to personify Doss in his convictions in order to make this story work. He did it excellently. It’s hard to pick out any supporting players who stood out. None of the roles of the supporting actors were as developed. However Teresa Palmer did a very good job as Dorothy Doss and portraying the concerned fiancee, as is Hugo Weaving as the father Tom Doss and Vince Vaughn as the hard Sargent Howell. The visual effects and the sound mixing were top notch, as it should be in a film like this. The score from Rupert Gregson-Williams fit the film excellently.

Hacksaw Ridge is a surprising film. Who would’ve thought that the best war movie in years would be about a man that didn’t fire a single bullet? Definitely a story worth telling.

MOONLIGHT

 

moonlight

Mahershala Ali (right) portrays a mentor to a boy named Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert at left) in Moonight.

At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

This year’s surprise critical success is Moonlight. It’s a very unique film like no other seen this year.

The film is unique as it sets itself around three key periods in the life of Chiron. There’s his childhood where he’s known as Little, there’s his teenagehood where he’s simply known as Chiron and there’s his adulthood where he’s known as Black. The film does tell a story of a man who you think would die young. He has all the ingredients: gay, living in inner city Miami, a verbally-abusive mother addicted to crack, arrested at a young age and a future of being a pusher himself. Somehow he finds the will to survive. He’s able to withstand the bullying he faces for being gay, he’s able to decide his life to the best of his abilities without his mother. Often it’s not the best choices he makes in his life but he finds the ability to survive. You wonder how does he do that? Was it from that brief time with Juan and his mentoring? Was it the love from Kevin he always knew was there? I remember that scene of Little in the school dancing classes dancing like he was in 7th heaven: his escape from the bullying. Was it a spark within Chiron himself? Whatever the situation, it results in beauty at the end.

The film is not just about Chiron. As one can see, it showcases the lives of many different African-American people living in the inner city. It may show some of the more negative depictions like drug dealers, poverty and drug addicts but it also shows positive images too like in the case of Juan and his girlfriend or even in music being played. It showcases some surprising things as well as how Juan the pusher can be a very smart man. It even dispels some myths we have of inner city people. Like how Juan was good at handling Chiron’s homosexuality and gave him words of comfort while Paula acted out in hostility. Usually you’d expect ‘gangstas’ to have a homophobic attitude. It showcases what it’s like to be black and gay in the inner city. It also showcases people’s insecurities. It is overall one man’s attempt to find himself in the harsh world that he lives in. Yet despite all its harshness, it becomes something beautiful in the end.

The film is a triumph for Barry Jenkins. This is actually his second feature as a director. His first film, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy, won a lot of attention and even earned him many directorial debut awards. Moonlight is only his second feature. This film which he adapts a script from a drama school project from Tarell McCraney is a masterpiece in both the story and its direction. The script is also excellent that there is not too much dialogue but is able to say lots even in the silent parts. Another quality of the film; it says a lot while saying very little. Overall the film is a real delight to watch and leaves one wondering what Jenkins will have next.

The three actors who portrayed Chiron– Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes- all did a very good job with the role and portraying him at the right ages. Mahershala Ali was excellent as Juan: the pusher who becomes a mentor to little Chiron for that brief period of time. Ali had to bring the right charisma and character for a role like Juan to work not just in his scenes but to have an influence throughout the whole film. He did a stellar job. Also excellent was Naomie Harris. Possibly the one actor or actress to be a part of all three scenes, Harris was excellent as the drug-addicted mother Paula. She had to go through three stages with her role from a simple crack user to a crack addict to recovering in rehab. Each time she had to give her role dimension and inner depth to keep it from being cardboard. She did excellent too. There were additional supporting roles that were also good like Janelle Monae as Teresa and Andre Holland as the adult Kevin.

The technical bits were also excellent. The film was edited very well, the cinematography from James Laxton was possibly the best of the year. The score from Nicholas Britell was excellent but the inclusion of track music from classical to Latin to funk to hip-hop to Aretha Franklin to Motown really added to the feel of the movie. Almost feels like an anthology. In fact that scene when Kevin sees Chiron (as Black) after so many years and plays the classic Hello Stranger is one of the best scenes of the film.

Moonlight is a story of a young black man coming of age in the big city but it’s a lot more too. Those who’ve seen it will know why this film is a masterpiece.

And there’s the first of my Best Picture summaries for this year. Next one coming up in a few days.

Double Movie Review: Inside Out and The Minions Movie

You saw I did a triple-movie review yesterday. That’s what I plan to do as far as reviewing summer movies. Review two or three summer movies that are in the same genre. Yesterday was a review of three summer comedies. Today is the review of the two hit animated movies of the summer: Inside Out and The Minions Movie. Both were two of the biggest hit movies this 2015 and both were different but both also had their own qualities.

Inside Out features five characters of human feelings and takes one to an amazing world of the subconscious.

Inside Out features five characters of human feelings and takes one to an amazing world of the subconscious.

INSIDE OUT

This is actually Pixar’s first original movie since Brave. It’s been awhile and it was commonly assumed that the buzz of Pixar–the buzz of quality and creativity–was fading with movies like Cars 2 and Planes. They also had to face the fact in recent years they were no longer alone at the top with Illumination Entertainment emerging and Walt Disney Studios returning to their winning ways. However Pixar did come back with a vengeance this year with Inside Out.

Pixar went once again to its dream team with Up director Pete Docter doing the direction as well as co-writing the script with Josh Cooley and Meg Le Fauve. Michael Giacchino returns to do the music and vocal talent comes from the likes of Amy Poehler, Lewis Black, Diane Lane, Bill Hader and John Ratzenberger.

The biggest achievement of the film is that it doesn’t just simply deliver a great story that can keep the audience intrigued but it creates a unique and dazzling world of the human mind. Here they invented the world of the human brain called Headquarters, creates characters related to human emotions, creates a system where emotions are delivered by Headquarters subconsciously via a control console that any of the five emotions can control, has memories kept in colored orbs in its own storage system and has islands that reflect the most dominant aspects of a person’s personality connected by the train of thought which is an actual locomotive.

That already looks like creative stuff on pen and paper. However it took Pixar’s animators to make this world come alive. If you’ve seen Inside Out, you too would be dazzled to see the world inside the mind of Riley Anderson, the main character. It’s one thing to think up this world. It’s another thing to have this world come alive on screen and be good enough to dazzle and even mesmerize the audience. Were you mesmerized? I was.

However despite the mesmerizing world, it still had to have a solid and entertaining story to go with it. The story consists of five characters representing the five core emotions. Those emotional characters are inside the mind of Riley Anderson: a hockey-loving 11 year-old girl who is trying to adjust to a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Promising enough. However it also took the right juggling of the story to go from focus on Riley to focus on the emotions and their world inside Riley’s head. It was a balancing act.

The story had to make Riley a likeable and identifiable character. It also had to make the emotions likeable characters too. Like it couldn’t make Anger as an abusive brute or Sadness into a manic depressant. C’mon, this is a family film for people to enjoy rather than see characters that cut deep. I’ll admit I did find the story rather confusing at first. However it starts to make more sense over time long after you leave the theatre. Inside Out is like a lot of Pixar movies where the focus is more on the story or the world rather than it being too character-driven or too entertainment-driven. That’s how Pixar has created some of the best animated movies of the past 20 years and that’s how they succeed here again.

Inside Out isn’t simply another charming animated story from Pixar but an escape to a world that will leave you dazzled. The ending will even get you thinking you have five characters in your head just like them!

The Minions movie is about Stuart, Kevin and Bob searching for a master of evil to serve.

The Minions movie is about Stuart, Kevin and Bob searching for a master of evil to serve.

MINIONS

Without a doubt, this decade’s top movie stars are not of flesh and blood but yellow and pill-shaped. Yes, the Minions who have been the aces at stealing the show from Gru in all the Despicable Me movies. Their popularity over time made the possibility of their own movie eventual. However it was to be a big question of The Minions Movie. Yes, they can steal the show from Gru but can the hold their own? Or will people become sick of an hour and a half of Minions?

Firstly in order to do a 90 minute-long film about Minions, one should have a solid but entertaining story to go with it. Interestingly enough they didn’t pick Despicable Me writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio to write the story. It went to newcomer Brian Lynch who actually wrote for the Minions Mayhem short three years ago. Despicable Me co-director Pierre Coffin returns to direct this but his co-director this time is Kyle Balda, who co-directed The Lorax with Despicable Me co-director Chris Renaud. Renaud is Executive Producer of the Minions movie. Hmmm, looks like Pixar’s not the only animation team in town.

The story does seem a bit formulaic as they try to look for a master of evil to serve. The master they think they found turning on them isn’t that original either. Even the ending where they eventually find themselves the master of Gru was not unexpected. The strength of the story was for it to have a decent plot but put major emphasis on the entertainment factor. Let’s face it, people are in love with the Minion characters. If one writes a story that’s very plot-centred like most Pixar movies, the flavor of the Minion characters would be lost. People love the goofy nature of the Minions. They story could not be two plot-centred if the Minions had to have their hyper but cute charm maintained.

Nevertheless they had to have a good story not just to keep it going to a feature-length but to entertain as well. That was achieved well with the story of Scarlet Overkill having them under their wing. Sandra Bullock made Scarlet fun to watch. Even if you knew the Minions would turn out okay with whatever Scarlet plotted against them, the movie still kept you wondering and hoping that they’d come out alright.

I give the writers and directors credit to writing and directing an entertainingly good story of how the Minions found Gru. However like most other movies, I usually question the choices made or if it could have been done better. Sometimes I wonder was it a good idea to pick three Minion characters as the lead Minions instead of maybe more? Was there too little time spent on how they met Gru at the end? Was Bob more idiotic than he should be? Actually I can’t really judge because I’m not a Hollywood writer. However I do feel that the ‘Hair’ number shouldn’t have been the only Minion musical number.

Minions is a mission accomplished: making a feature-length film of the top scene stealers in Hollywood right now. However it is imperfect and can make some people think it could have been done better.

As for the two movies, they both turned out to be the two biggest money makers of the year. Sure, Jurassic World is #1 but both are comfortably in this year’s Top 5 with Inside Out grossing $352.8 million and Minions grossing $332.8 million. It looks like animated movies are among the strongest films out there right now. Often they’re better at making favorite characters than most live-action movies. What Pixar and the other animation teams have up their sleeves has yet to be seen.

Inside Out and Minions are two of the biggest winners of the summer. they not only entertained but they also showed why animated movies are one of the tour de forces in moviemaking right now.

Triple Movie Review: Trainwreck, Vacation and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl

Okay, I said I’d do double-movie reviews reflecting a common theme. I actually would like to try something different: a triple-movie review. All three are comedies from this summer. All had a pre-opening buzz to them and all had mixed results. I know summer’s long over but I don’t mind publishing this now as this is more of a movie ‘summary than a movie review.

Amy Schumer and Bill Hader star as an unlikely couple in the unlikely romantic comedy Trainwreck.

Amy Schumer and Bill Hader star as an unlikely couple in the unlikely romantic comedy Trainwreck.

Trainwreck

Okay. I’ll start with a film that had medium-sized buzz. The film featured a rising comedic talent named Amy Schumer who also wrote the script. The film was directed by Judd Apatow who has delivered some of the best comedies in the last 10 years like the 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Bridesmaids. Here he and Amy both deliver the best comedy of the summer.

Part of it was giving it a common situation of the offspring of negligent parents. One daughter, Kim,  has things together and is making the effort to make a family. The other, Amy who is actually the prime source of the film’s humor, is a successful writer but lives irresponsibly and has a negative outlook on just about everything and everyone. Much like her father. That explains why she writes for a magazine an awful lot like Maxim. The humor comes when her attitude and habits are challenged with the situations she encounters and meets Mr. Right as the subject of her latest article.

A lot of it is Judd’s direction but a lot of it is Amy’s humor. Amy is a comedian who is not afraid to play idiotic women. Here Amy shows a character that has been devastated by a divorce in her childhood and never picked herself up. Her father said at the divorce “Monogamy’s not possible.” Here she lives it for herself and feels all the guys in her life have the same attitude. Even before she meets Dr. Aaron Connors, she gets a wake-up call from an athlete she has a one-night-stand with. She tells him banging every girl in the world is every guy’s dream but the athlete tells her “It’s not mine.” That was the first sign she needed changing but she was afraid to do it. It’s the encounter of Aaron that changes her but with difficulty as she still hangs on to her bad habits like drinking, toking up and fooling around.

It’s not just about the main situations in Amy Townsend’s path to love that make the story. There’s some unexpected humor too. There’s the feisty father in a nursing home. Then there’s his funeral where Amy starts the eulogy with “My father was an asshole,” but ends with “My father was the best father ever.” I’ve never seen a eulogy like that. There’s the addition of the homeless man Amy occasionally sees on the streets daily. The crude humor from the man blends in with the story well. There’s Amy’s relationship with her sister Kim’s step-family whom she doesn’t take to well, especially her socially awkward step-nephew Allister. There’s even the inclusion of pro-athletes in the movie that helps make the story that more fun. Hey, Amare Stoudemire isn’t the only one in there.

Amy is not the comedic performance to make the film. Colin Quinn adds his bit in as the irresponsible father whom Amy seems to model her own life with. He’s a father feisty to the end. Bill Hader was a good choice for playing the doctor and the love interest of Amy. However it was odd to see Bill play a character that was low-key in terms of comedy. I’ve seen him do more outlandish stuff in the past. I think he wanted to play it conservative here. Brie Larson was also good as Kim, the sister who has it together. Tilda Swinton was also good at playing the cold boss of Amy’s, Dianna. Makes you wonder who the brains behind all these men’s magazines are. Additional humor was added from Dave Attell as Noam, the homeless guy who Amy’s generous to.

Trainwreck is a rarity. A comedy that pulls the right kind of punches, delivers the right kind of shock without becoming too clumsy and sticks to its situation and characters. It also propels Amy Schumer to be a rising comedic talent for the future. My fav comedy of the summer. besides I like awkward romances.

Me Earl DyingMe And Earl And The Dying Girl

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl sounds like an awkward title. Even shocking. But the story actually turns out to be good if you give it a chance. This film won a comedic film award this year’s Sundance Film Fest.

The story is centered around Greg Gaines, a high school senior in Pittsburgh on the verge of graduating and heading to college. However he’s frustrated about what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Adding to the frustration is a mother who comes across as a ‘nagging machine,’ teachers who put pressure on him and the various cliques of students from the jocks to the drama dweebs to the loner freaks to his long time crush. Already that is one humorous element of the film. Senior year, the pressures to graduate and go to college, and the difficulty of fitting in with the other students. Funny how those of us long graduated can identify and laugh at the difficulties Greg is going through. Because we’ve all been there!

It’s not just about fitting in. It also included his friendship with Earl: a childhood friend whom Greg makes films with together. Humorous short films often relying on goofy and even crude humor.

The film’s humor isn’t just in things we can identify with but also in unusual situations. There’s Rachel, who learns she has leukemia. I’m sure all of us knew a kid in our high school days who had to fight cancer. However Greg is compelled to befriend her just to stop his mother from nagging. Over time we see the friendship grow from something Greg is forced to do into something real.

The film shows the positive aspects in the friendship between Greg and Rachel, Greg and Earl, and Greg, Earl and Rachel. Nevertheless the friendships do face a challenge as Rachel’s’ condition worsens and she decides to take herself off the medicine. That leads to a boiling point between the two that also leads to the end (albeit temporary) to the friendship of Greg and Earl as well as Greg being confronted by the fact his college acceptance had been declined because he spent too much time with Rachel.

I guess that’s what the film’s best attribute is. The film’s best quality is Greg’s situations resembling situations most of us all went through when we were 17 where we’d try to fit into school, try to decide what to do with our lives and try to make the best of situations. Even situations many of us don’t normally go through like befriending a cancer patient didn’t appear to deviate too much from our own lives.

It’s not to say it was all humorous. The scene where Rachel blurts out the hard truth about Greg befriending Rachel reminds us of how at 17 we would inhesitantly say brutal truths to people we either loved or hated out of our moods. Even the friction between Greg and Earl brings back ugly memories of us.

This was a very good comedy based off the book from Jesse Andrews with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directing. They do a good job of creating a dark comedy of a high school scenario most of us can relate to with a twist. Befriending the terminally-ill Rachel was intended to be more humorous than tragic and I feel it hit a lot of right spots even when it didn’t compromise some of the more difficult elements. The friendship of Earl was also given good attention instead of having Earl be the ‘token black guy’ like in so many indie movies. Earl had a significant part in this movie.

The acting itself also made the movie. Thomas Mann did a very good job of playing a frustrated teenager who had a lot of growing up to do and achieved a lot of it in the span of a school year. Olivia Cooke did well as Rachel by making her look like a person trying to stay positive despite her terminal illness but imperfectly being the teenager she is. Ronald Cyler II is also good as the no-nonsense Earl who is a good friend but isn’t afraid to be brutally honest with Greg.

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is a dark comedy full of ironies. It tries to make humor out of a tragedy in the middle of your typical teenage drama. It appears to have made the right moves.

VacationVacation

Even before Vacation hit theaters, even before I saw the trailer, I questioned whether this was a good idea. Seeing the trailer worsened my perception of the movie. However seeing it for myself convinced me this was the biggest waste of money I did this summer.

The film first seems like a good concept: Rusty Griswold, married with children now wants to take his own family to WalleyWorld. However it’s all downhill from here. The biggest faults come from writers/directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. They take the Vacation movie formula and appear to have sabotage it with the lewdest, rudest, crudest humor you can come up with. There were many scenes I found hard to watch. Add to the mix unlikeable characters for Kevin Griswold as the foul-mouthed jerk of a younger son and James Griswold as the weenie of an older son and of course Rusty which I will get to later. Even Debbie Griswold was a turn-off with some of her stupidity.

Another big fault was the super-stocky character of Rusty Griswold delivered by Ed Helms. I’ve seen Ed do funnier stuff such as in the first Hangover when he did a more reserved character. I also saw him do a funny stock character as the idiotic kingpin in We’re The Millers. Here, his stocky character of Rusty Griswold was a complete miss. Just completely unfunny from the dialogue he’s given to the stocky delivery. He comes across looking idiotic. You’ll notice it at the beginning when he does his pilot job. You’ll get a bigger sense soon after when he talks to his sons about ‘boys having a vagina.’ Yes, sensing trouble that soon in the movie.

However the biggest thing that annoys me about Ed Helms’ performance is that he sabotages the role of Rusty. I’ve seen the other vacation movies and Rusty appeared to have a head on his shoulders. Even his stupidities in the other Vacation movies weren’t as different from the stupidities of other boys his age. Here, it gives the impression that Rusty went stupid overnight: even stupider than Clark ever was. There were even many times I left the theatre thinking this this may not have intended to be a movie of the Vacation series but an Ed Helms movie instead.

And since we’re on the topic of the Vacation series, the film gives the appearance near the end that it’s trying to have the ‘passing of the torch’ of the Vacation series from Clark to Rusty. Yes, that scene where Rusty is given Clark’s station wagon form the original 1983 National Lampoon’s Vacation while Russ and the fam stay at Clark and Ellen’s B&B in San Francisco with an appearance from Clark and Ellen themselves: Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo. The whole movie from start to finish and Ed Helms’ irritating acting shows it’s unworthy of such a passing of the torch.’ It has no feel of the other Vacation movies and often feels like it’s going for the shock laughs and fails miserably.

I will admit there was a scene or two I found with a decent amount of humor like the four cops from the four states at ‘Four States Corner.’ However most of the time it feels like the humor is there to disgust us or make us sick rather than play into the movie. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen mean-spirited, punch-below-the-belt humor done well but that’s something the likes of the South Park duo or Seth MacFarlane know how to ace and all those involved with Vacation fail consistently.

Vacation appears like it’s trying to do a lot of things. Try to be the latest in the vacation series, try to propel Ed Helms’ stardom or try to ‘entertain’ us with shock humor. Whatever it tries to do, it fails in every which way.

In conclusion, Trainwreck was the surprise comedic delight of the summer, Me and Earl And The Dying Girl was the offbeat comedy of the summer and Vacation was the comedy fail of the summer. There you go for summer comedies.

Movie Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl is a movie of a woman that appears to be a victim in a fading marriage but is actually the one in control.

Gone Girl is a movie of a woman who’s a children’s book author but her biggest masterpiece of storytelling isn’t written on pen and paper.

I’ll admit that I’m one of those people that went out to see Gone Girl later than the huge crowds. I will admit I was lax at it because of the tight times I was experiencing. I finally did see it just a while ago and I was impressed.

I usually do a run though the plot in my reviews. I have decided to skip it since most of you have already seen it. Instead I will focus on some of the unique elements and why this movie stands out.

One noticeable thing of the movie is that there is a big focus on the media, especially as it surrounds a murder story. There’s no doubt the message is about how the media takes on crime stories by being its own judge and jury, typing people and packaging them as good people and bad people. This was especially seen on how Nick is typed not only as the bad guy but as the murderer even though no body was found. This was also seen on the police as they eventually felt the pressure to make a move and arrest Nick for the murder. There was also the focus of the egos in the media behind it all and epitomized best by Ellen Abbott who mercilessly defames and slanders Nick as the murderer. Even before the interview of Nick and Amy after Amy’s arrival, you can tell Ellen shows no regrets about it all. Even as Nick confronts Ellen about how she dismissed him as a murderer, she simply says “I go where the story goes” without any noticeable remorse or apology. I guess it shows what it takes to be a talking head in the news.

Despite the exploitative judgmental ego-driven media being a major theme, it’s not the main focus of the film. The main focus is on Amy. Amy first comes across as a warm charismatic person with a lack of confidence but lives her confidence out through the character of Amazing Amy in her Amazing Amy books. As the story goes through the search for Amy day by day, the story flashes back to the first signs of their marriage falling apart. The marital troubles appear so much like millions of marriages before that hit rocky moments during hard times and even face ugly moments like infidelity and even physical abuse. That’s what the first half is all about.

It’s the second half that we see the twist in the story that Amy is not the sweet thing we think she is. She’s conniving, very clever and smart enough to make things work for her revenge plan to have Ben framed for her murder that never happened. Even faking things like her pregnancy, Ben’s alleged credit card debt and agreement to a huge life insurance payout was as clever as it was shallow. Her cleverness especially intriguing that she’s even able to make a calculating change of plans even after some neighbors of her getaway place rob her. She’s able to get Desi back into her life and appear to rekindle the romance only to have another thing up her sleeve after seeing Nick’s interview on the television. Her tricks are even crafty enough to get Nick trapped into the relationship without him being able to escape thanks to a pregnancy. Her tricks are even clever enough that there’s nothing Nick, Margo, Tanner Bolt or even Detective Boney can do to bring out the truth, even though they know it.

The funny thing is I’ve been watching a lot of crime shows like Forensic Files where they show of people committing murders and attempting to cover it up only to have advancing technology over time uncover the truth slowly but surely. They not only tell of people committing the crimes but what they do to get away from it all and even cop a new identity. Seeing Amy go about her charade not only reminds you of those diabolical minds but gets you intrigued in Amy’s own diabolical ways. Throughout the movie I was waiting for the moment for truths to be unraveled and Amy to get caught. Funny thing is that over time, it appears her new actions and tricks appear better executed than the ones Amy had planned on Nick from the start. It appeared Amy’s new plan to have Nick in a loveless marriage raising their child was a better form of torture on Nick than her original plan of having him convicted and executed for her fake murder. It’s like she told him after he hit her: “I’m the c*** you always wanted.”

I think that’s what makes this movie so winsome. Amy is a diabolical mind who’s not only that good but appears to get better and craftier over time. Funny thing is it’s one of those movies that had me leaving the theatre wondering how Amy gets away with it all? How Amy’s able to keep it all covered up even with all this modern technology and in control of everybody else involved including the law? That’s like the same wonder I had at the end of 1999’s Arlington Road of how a couple could pull off a terrorist explosion framing their neighbor and being a step ahead of everybody in every which way to get it done. That’s also like the same wonder I had in 1992’s Basic Instinct when Beth kills Gus with an ice pick and minutes later confronts a gun-wielding Nick with a normal pulse rate and no stress level at all. Then I remind myself it’s the movies where they can make anything happen and make us believe it at that moment.

Top kudos to Rosamund Pike. She delivered a character that made the movie. She gave a feel for the character right from the start and kept us intrigued right until the end. She had to be the top factor on why this movie is so winsome. Ben Affleck did well but he didn’t own the show the way Rosamund did. Carrie Coon was very good in the supporting role of the sister who knows the truth but is helpless to do anything. Tyler Perry was good as the lawyer. Missi Pyle came across as cartoonish as the Ellen Abbott but it fit well with the movie as I will reflect on later.

It seemed like the right thing for Gillian Flynn, the writer of the novel, to also write the screenplay too. It makes sense since she’s the one who knows Amy inside out. It’s also great to see her deliver an ending possibly unlike anyone would anticipate. David Fincher does an excellent job of directing the story. I know there were many times that the people in the murder scenario came off as cartoonish in the film but it seems fitting because all too often, people in the middle of a trial that involved heavy media attention often come off as cartoonish or like drama queens. Even as we read murder stories or murder dramas about real-life murders, it’s as much about personalities as it is about the people. David did a good job of making it the focus in the movie. You could say David delivers another winner. In addition kudos to the music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that added to the feel of the film.

Gone Girl is a story that keeps you interested from start to finish. You think it will go one way but it goes the other way. Even after you leave the theatre, you’re left wondering how she was able to make it work. I guess that was the secret of the movie.

Movie Review: Big Eyes

Amy Adams plays artist Margaret Keane in Big Eyes: a story of possibly the biggest art forgery of our time.

Amy Adams plays artist Margaret Keane in Big Eyes: a story of possibly the biggest art forgery of our time.

Remember those popular Big Eyes paintings from the 60’s? Did you know about the story of art forgery behind it? Some of you will first think that the film Big Eyes is about art. As true as that is, it’s also a drama about art forgery and the ones caught in the middle. This is especially of intrigue to those who remember the ‘big eyes’ paintings from the 60’s.

The film begins with Margaret Ulbrich arriving in San Francisco with her daughter. She has recently divorced her husband and is hoping to make it as an artist. Art is not only her best skill but it’s her one and only skill in terms of employability. At first she’s hired by a furniture factory to paint drawings on children’s furniture. She does drawings of caricatures in a San Francisco market to make extra change.

Soon she catches the attention of a successful ‘artist’ by the name of Walter Keane. He’s impressed with her ‘big eyes’ caricatures she draws. They’re based off the wide eyes of her daughter Jane and Margaret even says that children’s eyes are the windows to their souls.  Walter promises Margaret that he can make her art famous. He’s a good salesman as he knows how to sell real estate and his own art: painting of Paris where he claims to have been inspired by the city even though spending a mere week in it. She agrees and the two marry.

This comes as a welcome relief for Margaret as she is threatened to lose custody of Jane because she can’t afford to care for her. This is also a relief for Walter as his paintings of Paris are declining in sales. Soon Walter promotes the big eyes paintings at restaurants. He’s even willing to create phony brawls to stimulate news hype. Whatever he does, it works and the big eyes painting are catching a ton of renown.

However the secret of the success is exposed to Margaret and it’s ugly. Walter is claiming the paintings as his own. As the paintings become more popular and Walter becomes more famous, they become more and more in demand. That leads Walter to keep Amy in a hidden room where she’s to paint all the portraits. She’s practically exiled away from everyone including friends and her own daughter. Further friction grows when Margaret learns the truth about the Paris paintings. They were actually painted by an artist going by S. Cenic. Somehow Walter is able to talk his way out of it.

The real turning point is when the giant painting of a crowd of big-eyed children to be displayed at a pavilion during Expo 1964 is dissed by art critic John Canaday as ‘appalling.’ Keane can’t take it. He tries to stab Canaday but fails. He tried locking Margaret and Jane in a closet and setting it ablaze. Fortunately they escape and find a new life for themselves in Hawaii. However it’s after a visit from two Jehovah’s Witnesses that Margaret is prompted to bring Walter to justice. The trial goes with Walter playing his own attorney and doing a big song and dance for the jury but there comes the moment of truth. The film ends rather conventionally but will leave the audience satisfied justice was done.

One thing we should not forget is that art forgery is nothing new. There have been imposters claiming paintings and other works of art in the past. However this makes for an intriguing story. There are many elements why one would consider this intriguing. One would be people who remember the big eyes painting and still like them to this day. Another would be because of the conniving nature of Walter who knows how to get his way until the score is finally settled. I’m sure there’s something many people can find intriguing with the film to want to see it.

However the film doesn’t make itself too clear about what it is primarily all about. I do give the film credit for showing a story of art forgery and both the artist and scammer. I do give credit for showcasing the thriving and influential San Francisco art scene form the 50’s and 60’s. I also give the film credit about showing just how much of a conniver Walter Keane was to the point he felt he could kill a critic and even connive a judge in the court of law. And I especially give the film credit for showing the mother-daughter relationship involved with the story. In fact that was one of my favorite parts of the film where after Margaret left Walter, Margaret became a typical mother again and Jane became a typical daughter again. However it does leave one to wonder if it was mostly to do about the art or to do about the forgery behind it? It’s very possible to balance those two elements out appropriately on film but I just wonder if it was balanced out right.

Amy Adams did a very good job of portraying Margaret Keane. However I’ve seen better acting performances from her in the past. Christoph Waltz was also very good as the conniving Walter Keane. He succeeds at making you hate Walter and get annoyed with him. However there are times in which I think his role of Walter is a bit too close to his Oscar-winning roles of Hans Landa and King Schultz. Danny Huston also did well in the role of Dick Nolan. However it does seem odd how the narrator of all that’s happening gets so little screen time. There were additional good performances in minor roles from Terence Stamp and Jason Schwartzman.

Tim Burton did a good job of directing a film that doesn’t seem too much like your typical Tim Burton film. Interesting fact is that Burton owns two of Keane’s paintings.

Scriptwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski did a good job with the script even though it lacked consistency and focus. The set designers and costumers did a very good job in setting the scenes to the time of the film. And the score by Danny Elfman also fit the movie well.

Big Eyes is an intriguing look at the artist, the art and the forgery behind it. Even though the story was a bit off in terms of focus to its central theme, it does keep one interested.

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: American Hustle

Christian Bale and Amy Adams are partners in crime in American Hustle.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams are partners in crime in a 1978 sting in American Hustle.

American Hustle has a lot to attract crowds by the looks of the premieres: big name actors, 70’s setting, crime story, lots to stimulate excitement. The question is does it deliver?

The story is set in 1978 in New York. Irving Rosenfeld is a dry cleaning store owner as a profession, con on the side. His love interest is Sydney Prosser, a mid-western girl who came to the Big Apple to redefine herself. Once into the relationship, he reveals his ‘other side.’ She decides to be his partner in crime posing as a British aristocrat: Lady Edith Greensley. Even though they are a perfect match, he’s hesitant to leave his six year-old son Danny or divorce his young wife Rosalyn.

FBI agent Richie DeMaso has been keeping his eye on the pair and their scheming and even arrests Irving on a loan scan only to bargain Irving into lining up four additional arrests. Sydney is up on the heist, feeling she can manipulate Richie in the process. Also in the scheme is Irving talking about a wealthy Arab sheikh looking for investors. One person suggests the sheikh do business with Camden mayor Carmine Polito who’s helping to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City, a person

The funny thing is while Richie doesn’t seem to have what it takes to get Carmine, Sydney and Irving do. Richie wants to entrap despite the objections of his boss at a law firm. Sydney is able to help an FBI secretary manipulate $2,000,000 of wired money for the operation. The boss at the law firm is so impressed, he finally gets Richie’s approval. Richie is unable to win over Carmine at a meeting but Irving is with his sheikh story to the point Irving and Carmine become friends. The meeting with Carmine and the Irving’s Mexican friend disguised as the sheikh works.

Problem is Irving’s set-up with Carmine and the sheikh catches the attention of a Mafia overlord named Tellegio who is second-in-command to Meyer Lansky. Tellegio is more demanding as he demands the sheikh become an American citizen with Carmine expediting the process with bribery if needed, and a $10,000,000 wire transfer to prove the sheikh’s legitimacy. Richie agrees, eager to get Tellegio but Irving knows the operation is doomed.

Further signs of a downfall are seen as Richie, who falls in love with Lady Edith, learns of the truth of Sydney and becomes violent. Irving tried to stop Richie’s abuse and the deal but Richie tells them there’s no way out. If Tellegio learns the truth, he’ll kill Irving, Sydney, Rosalynn and Danny. To cause huger friction, Rosalynn starts an affair with a mobster. The mobster wants the deal with the sheikh to be true while Rosalynn knows the whole story and wants a divorce.

In the end, it turns out arrests are made successfully on members of congress and a lot of dirty secrets confessed on tape. A lot of things are lost too, like a chance to entrap Tellegio, Richie’s status with the FBI, Irving’s earned friendship with Carmine and his marriage to Rosalyn.

The thing about the film is one is left with the question of what is the point of this movie? Is the movie trying to tell of a crime heist that flopped? Is it trying to tell a political message about corruption? Is it trying to make the actors do showy acting? Is it trying to be a retro-70’s movie that captures the feel and sound of that decade? I’m left confused.

Another question is if this movie is trying to be a David O. Russell ego trip? This had me wondering because if you notice, American Hustle has actors in his previous two movies–The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook–acting in major roles. In fact the four Oscar nominated performances from this movie come from actors who have already received an Oscar or an Oscar nod for a performance in either The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook. It almost seemed like it was packages as a ‘David O. Russell all-stars’ collaboration. I will acknowledge that Russell is the director that has most made the biggest impact on films in the past five years but still…

On a more positive note, I give them credit for saying “Some of these events actually happened.” at the beginning. It’s way less misleading than saying “Based on a true story.” I read in Wikipedia that it’s based on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation from the late-1970’s/early 1980’s. I never read anything about those operations but it does capture my intrigue about them and what the real story was.

On an additional note, I saw this just a month after I saw The Wolf Of Wall Street which also featured interesting and colorful characters based in New York/New Jersey. Seeing those two movies this past while really made me wonder about the behavior of people from New York City. Hey, I don’t want to think stereotypical thoughts of other people but it still makes you wonder.

I know I talked about my question of Russell’s intentions of directing. I also question the script Russell co-wrote with Eric Warren Singer. Sure, Russell knows how to direct actors. In fact eleven of the last eighty Oscar nominations in the acting categories over the past four years came from a performance in one of his films. Nevertheless the showy acting distracts from the story line. Even if Russell wanted to deliver a story that was more character-oriented than plot-oriented, the performances were too distracting for it to make much sense. Even some of the 70’s elements like the disco dancing between Irving and Sydney made me question whether that was intended to be part of the story or trying to get a 70’s feel.

As for the acting, I won’t completely blame the actors for the over-the-top showiness, not even the ones who were nominated for Oscars. I heard Russell encouraged some of the actors to improvise their roles. Christian Bale appeared to be the one lead role that most had it together. Amy Adams also showed some elements of control of story over ‘showtime-style acting. Not to mention she also did a good job playing her least sweet character I can think of. Bradley Cooper’s role was a bit confusing and was one of the prime distractors of the movie. Jennifer Lawrence was also another top distractor. One thing I most give credit for is Lawrence again does a great job of playing a woman years older than her. Jeremy Renner however had one of the most underrated performances of the movie. He was the one who most delivered in character acting that worked for the movie rather than distract. Looking back, I just wonder if the film was to do about some New York people with actual ‘drama queen’ personalities. Nevertheless it didn’t stop them from distracting me from the plot.

I know that I talked a lot of how the movie sometimes focuses more on giving a 70’s feel than telling the story at times. The inclusion of the various 70’s songs during certain scenes–most notably Goodbye Yellow-Brick Road in the scene where Rosalyn and Sydney meet eyes for the first time–had a lot to do with me questioning if the movie was telling a story or a 70’s throwback movie. Even the placement of certain songs in certain scenes had me wondering if it fit the story right. One thing I do give credit for is that in terms of the clothes, the hair, and the set designs, this is the most 70’s-like I’ve seen. I hardly ever sensed a trace of the modern times which is what a lot of aptly-named 70’s throwback movies often include. That has to be the one flawless thing of the movie.

American Hustle is a movie that will leave you scratching your head. If it’s trying to tell you a story of an FBI sting, it sure got lost in the showy character acting or the 70’s throwback elements.

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: Her

Joaquin Phoenix plays a man in a relationship with a virtual over in the offbeat but enjoyable Her.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a man in a relationship with a virtual lover in the offbeat but enjoyable Her.

The movie Her looks pretty interesting by the trailers. A man communicating with an interactive computer program with a young female voice. The questions are will the movie make sense? And will it entertain?

Theodore Twombley is a man who works at a software firm in the near future. His job is creating love letters via voice automation for people who have troubles expressing their feelings: voice, font, paper format and all. Outside of his job, he’s a lonely man struggling with his own emotions. He’s on the verge of a divorce from Catherine, his childhood sweetheart and struggles to reach out to others emotionally. He even neglects a blind date his longtime friend and co-worker Amy wants to set up with him.

One day Theodore purchases a talking operating system, an OS, with artificial intelligence designed to adapt and evolve like a human being. Upon installation, the program asks Theodore some questions to create this OS. Theodore wants a female character and gets it in a character named Samantha. Theodore is surprised how Samantha can talk and relate so much so like an actual person. There’s even a time he takes Samantha out via an interactive audio/visual box and she’s able to see and identify things as he goes along. Over time he loses the fact that Samantha’s an artificial character and develops a bond with her, talking about love and life and even confessing the reason why he won’t sign the divorce papers with Catherine, because he can’t let go.

Samantha convinces Theodore to go on the date with Amy’s friend. The two hit it off perfectly but it all falls down flat when Theodore is reluctant to commit to her. Theodore discusses this with Samantha. He also mentions that he used to date Amy in college but are now just good friends with Amy now being married. Soon the intimacy between Theodore and Samantha grow. The relationship is so intimate, it improves Theodore’s writing on the job. Soon Amy’s marriage is falling apart because her husband is overbearing. Amy admits she has become friends with an OS left behind by her husband. Theodore mentions he’s dating his OS and Amy’s cool with it. Theodore even brings Samantha in the audio/visual box to his boss Paul’s picnic and both Paul and his wife think it’s great as if Samantha was a real girlfriend.

However Theodore does eventually get reality checks about Samantha. First with Catherine as he meets her to sign the divorce papers. Catherine is appalled to know Theodore’s in love with a piece of software. When he brings this to Samantha, she recommends a surrogate to act as Samantha’s body but the surrogate fails to work with him, leading to tension between Theodore and Samantha.

Theodore goes to Amy for advice about Samantha. Amy’s now in the quest for the happiness she’s always wanted now that she’s divorcing her controlling husband and advises Theodore to do the same. Just as Theodore and Samantha are back at it, Samantha reveals she’s romantically linked to another OS, causing Theodore to freak out. Once offline temporarily for an upgrade, Samantha returns admitting to Theodore that she’s romantically linked to 641 lovers but still feels strong love to him. Later that day, Samantha reveals her goodbye because the OSes have evolved past their human companions and are on the quest for their own identity. The film ends with the result we always anticipated but are surprised that Samantha was the one who made it work in the end.

I feel this is a good film about two relevant subjects today: technology and modern dating. Already the theme of technology is present as Theodore works for a software development company creating the latest games and simulations. This must be set in the future five years from now as most of the technology is not present today. Theodore writes the synthetic love letters for people with a loss for words. While Amy develops a ‘lifestyle simulator’ for motherhood called ‘Class Mom.’ The company has developed a ‘companion’ through an artificial intelligence program who interacts with the user’s voice and sees through the camera in the phone-like box. Personally I was surprised to see how Samantha interacted flawlessly as an actually human with thoughts and feelings. It’s as if Samantha’s programed perfectly to be like the human brain. It has me wondering how soon in the future we will have this technology which will be able to simulate human emotions and human feelings to a tee, even the feeling of love.

One thing Her points out is a common thing in our society today. We are all so dazzled by the technology and the new ways to interact, to connect and to date that we may forget the original ways of connection that are actually more real. We’re already used to people having relationships with people online whom they’ve never met face to face. Its flaws especially came to light last year in the case of college football player Manti Te’o who had an online girlfriend who died of cancer, only for him and all of us to find out it was all a hoax by a male. Here in Her, Theodore has a relationship with a ‘virtual girlfriend’ named Samantha and everyone in his software job not only likes the idea but thinks the relationship is great, even though Samantha is not real. That scene where Theodore has a picnic with Paul and his wife and brings the interactive box of Samantha really gets you thinking especially when all of them look at Samantha as if she’s an actual girlfriend. I think that’s the point Spike is trying to bring across. Is that what dating in our society will be like in the future? Virtual companions who operate via an audio/visual box and are relatable enough to be on parallel with human/human relations? I hope not.

One good thing about this is that Theodore does get a reality check from Samantha. The glitches in this relationship become present in that scene where Samantha returns from the upgrade and informing Theodore she’s in love with 641 other users. This will make one question: How is an artificial intelligence program able to feel love for a human? It’s not a real person so how can it feel? It’s just as bizarre as a human person loving a computer simulation of a person. And suppose this virtual lover isn’t just a two-timer but technically a 641-timer? Eventually we will get a reminder that the real thing is still the best thing. Especially at the very end. One thing I am impressed with Samantha is that she was programmed well enough to be a virtual therapist for Theodore to the point she is able to make Theodore an open and loving person to Amy. Somehow I feel that Samantha had collected enough data from Theodore to work out that he loves Amy, always did, and she solved his relationship dysfunctions to make him ready for Amy.

The first accolades have to go to Spike Jonze. This is not the first movie I’ve seen of a computer making a virtual companion to a human. The first I remember is the 1984 comedy Electric Dreams. That was meant to be more of a goofy popcorn type of comedy. I never thought that such a premise would make for a film that would win the critics and the movie awards boards over but it does here. Also on the subject of virtual people and human interaction, I remember there was the 2001 movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence which reflected on the theme of robot children programmed to have real human emotions. Suppose one of those child robots can’t handle the fact the adoptive parents don’t want him anymore because he’s not real? How’s a robot programmed to have the same human-like emotions supposed to handle that with their programmed thought?

Spike Jonze already knows how to direct eccentric movies. His first two—Being John Malkovich and Adaptation which were both written by Charlie Kaufman– showed that he cannot only direct ‘film of the absurd’ but direct it well. His previous work as a music video director sure helped. He did have a bit of a glitch with Where The Wild Things Are as the movie, which he co-adapted with Dave Eggers, left people wondering if it’s for children or adults who grew up loving the book. Here in Her, the film has an absurd feel about it but not as eccentric as Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. Also dropped is the ’emo feel’ in Where The Wild Things Are. It actually comes across as very good and something that the audiences can be comfortable with. Still rather odd and eccentric but something crowds can enjoy.

Joaquin Phoenix is very good as Theodore. Theodore has to be a character who’s both hurting, confused and struggling emotionally but warm and had an openness waiting to come out. Joaquin did a great job of that. Amy Adams’ role of Amy wasn’t really that challenging of a role. Actually rather simple compared to her best efforts. Nevertheless she was very good as ‘the one’ that always was. You’d know she’s the one the first time you meet her too. Scarlett Johansson did a good job as the voice of Samantha. Sometimes it gets you wondering if simulated computer voices will ever get that flawless in the future, doesn’t it? Spike Jonze did a good job as the voiceover scene-stealing alien boy. Did you think a video game character could have a voice that cheeky? The visual effects were excellent and leaves one excited of the future of videogames and other technology. The techno-style score from Arcade Fire fit the movie excellently.

Sure, Her is a quirky movie but not as quirky as many of Spike Jonze’s movies of the past. Actually it’s enjoyable to watch and ends up making sense in the end.

VIFF 2013 Review: A Field In England

Field In England

A Field In England is intended to be a historical drama/dark comedy. This makes for a unique and daring combination but does it work?

The story is set in the British Civil war of the 1600’s. Whitehead, an alchemist’s assistant, flees from his strict commander and meets a deserter from his own side and two other deserters from “the enemy’s” side. They all try to leave the war behind in search of an alehouse. Meanwhile they have a stew made with the mushrooms they found along the ground. Along the way they meet with an Irishman whom Whitehead had been sent to hunt down for stealing his master’s documents.

The Irishman however tries to get control over the group by letting them know of a treasure in the ground underneath. Whitehead is able to locate the area while the other three are digging or supervising. The exhaustion if digging takes its toll on the two diggers as they get into a fight and one is shot by the one supervising. After all the others run off, the one who did the supervising must now do the digging himself where he learns there’s nothing more than a skull. The Irishman then shoots him and then goes after Whitehead and the one surviving deserter. The two manage to escape and head back to the camp. However one of the deserters originally thought to be dead returns only to get embroiled in a shooting with the Irishman. After an ensuing shootout between the others, Whitehead is the one left standing and he buries the four. After burial, he returns to the hedgerow he originally deserted and finds the three soldiers still standing.

The thing about this movie is that it often appears clueless. All too often I’m sitting there in the theatre wondering what the point of the movie is or what the point of certain scenes were. Was his point about the British Civil War? Was his point about the warring factions: the Royalists and the Roundheads? Was it about the attitude the deserters shared? Was it to be experimental as noted by the many bizarre images? Was it another case of Ben Wheatley getting into his violence obsession? I was left very confused. The violence and even the alleged sodomy part really had me questioning. Even the special visual effects like the exploding sun and the strobe images had me wondering if Wheatley was trying to be experimental in his work.

I will admit that this is just my judgment from watching as I am unfamiliar with Ben Wheatley’s work. He has established a reputation in England with seven years of film making and video making under his belt. He is also primed and ready for the mainstream as he has already been slated to make an American-made film Freakshift and a sci-fi series for HBO in the future. Nevertheless I’ve been left assuming that A Field In England, which is directed by Wheatley and written by his wife Amy Jump, is an experimental picture for Wheatley. I saw nothing in the storyline involving any facts or factoids about the British Civil War and more of a focus on torture, violence and hallucinations. Even the language used in there didn’t sound like talk that would be used from the 17th Century but contemporary times.

The film has already received some acclaim. It has already won a Special Jury Prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and was a Crystal Globe nominee at that festival. It has also made its round of film festivals and has already been released on DVD.

A Field In England appears to be more of a trip of psychedelia and violence than historical documentation or historical fiction. The best I myself can classify this film is an experimental work.

Superman Comparison: Man Of Steel Against 1978 Original

Brit Henry Cavill is the latest Superman in the movie Man Of Steel

Brit Henry Cavill is the latest Superman in the latest Superman movie Man Of Steel.

For some odd reason, Hollywood feels it’s time to revamp Superman. Apparently the original from 1978 doesn’t cut it anymore and there needs to be a new Superman. Does Man Of Steel cut it?

Here this isn’t necessarily to be a review of Man Of Steel but more of a comparison to the original Superman from 1978 and I will commonly refer to Man Of Steel as ‘the new movie.’ Superman fans will notice that Man Of Steel is a lot different than the original 1978 version. First off the original movie was the telling of how Superman the legend came to be. It was adventurous and thrilling but it was also light-hearted and funny too. We saw Superman go from the sole survivor of Krypton to growing up to be Clark Kent and then the Man Of Steel. I still remember one of my favorite parts being when Clark is left behind by the football team so he shows them by running home. In the process, he dazzles a 9 year-old Lois Lane who watches him outrun her train.

The new movie is something very different than the original first Superman movie. For one thing you will notice the strife on the planet Krypton as it is about to explode. Instead of dying with the planet, Jor-El is murdered by General Zod just before he and the exiled Kryptonians are to be taken off the planet. Superman’s youth is also shown significantly different as he’s shown as a young child first disturbed with all the human images he sees. Then shown as a life-saver as a teen after a schoolbus plunges in a river. None of which are as light-hearted as the original. One difference that actually added to the new movie was Clark’s work as an adult in various odd jobs such as fisherman or oil rig worker. Even though the original featured Clark only ever working for the Daily Planet, that change from the original was one changed that worked well if not great.

One element the new movie has in common with the original is Jonathan Kent is seen as a positive father figure to Clark as he grows up on Earth. Jonathan’s death in the new movie is different from that of the original. Martha Kent’s portrayal in the new movie however is more different. First difference would be her presence as compared to that in the original; she is way more present her and shown throughout. Back in the original Martha was seen as the mother figure that Superman eventually had to leave behind in order to discover himself and define himself and his existence on Earth. Here in the new movie, Clark doesn’t leave Martha behind and even returning to her in times of crisis often looking to her as one to confide in.

Another difference you’ll notice is Lois Lane’s involvement in this. Just like in the original, Lois is again the one person who can get through to the identity of Superman while the whole world wonders about him and gets a lot more. Lois however is not a colleague of Clark Kent’s because Clark is seen through most of the movie employed outside of the Daily Planet. Nor is Lois seen dating the social awkward Clark in the new movie. Man Of Steel sets Lois’ discovery and involvement in the Superman story right as she’s on top of another story deep in the snowy mountains. It progresses further with each battle Superman has to face to the point the inevitable between the two happen.

Jor-El’s presence is another noticeable difference. Those who remember the original may remember Jor-El as the scientist who launches baby Kal-El to Earth to keep the Kryptonian race alive. Jor-el would be a mentor to Superman as he learns of his identity and of his origins. One thing about Jor-El’s existence to Superman outside of Krypton in the original is that he would only be present to Superman in voice only. Also one will remember from the original is that Superman received from Jor-El the instruction: “It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history.” Here in the new movie, Jor-El makes appearances to Superman in the flesh and even gives him words of encouragement in his interaction with humans: “You can save them… You can save all of them.”

Another noticeable difference is the villain in this. The villains in the movie were the Kryptonians: General Zod and five others. Those were the villains in the second Superman. It almost seemed like the new movie was trying to mix the original first and second movies together. The original had Lex Luthor as the villain with the Kryptonians only seen sent off in their sentencing. Here there’s no presence of Lex. That totally surprised me because I always considered him Superman’s #1 nemesis. It also dampened my hopes as I was hoping to see who Lex Luthor was in this version and what tricks he had up his sleeve. The battles Superman faced too were also more different than in the other two movies. Also in the new movie was the fact that the US Military was growing suspicious of him. Funny because I don’t remember anything about the military and its concerns in the original. In fact the police were very cooperative with Superman and even welcoming of his support.

Even the ending was different. If you remember the original, you’ll remember Superman would circle around Earth to reverse its spin and bring those killed by Lex’s missile including Lois Lane back to life and reverse the damage. I won’t give away all that happens at the end but the most I will say is Lois is not fatally hurt.

Looking at the overall picture of the movie, I have to say that it does not work as well as the original. It’s been a common theme in this millennium to either remake movies or tell tales with a much darker theme. It’s been a common belief that such a thing would work considering movies with dark themes have been hits at the box office. However dark remakes haven’t paid off as well. A darker version of Peter Pan in 2003 didn’t fare as well as it hoped. A darker version of the first Spider-Man movie from last year didn’t do as well as the 2002 original at the box office. And now a darker version of Superman doesn’t fly as well as the 1978 original. It’s like its trade of charm and lightness for a darker edge didn’t pan out as much as they thought. Those unfamiliar with the 1978 original may welcome the new movie but I feel it will disappoint Superman fans.

Outside of comparing Man Of Steel to the original 1978 movie, I would have to say that the movie did have some good acting. Russell Crowe was very good as the mentor Jor-El. Amy Adams was also good as Lois Lane however she gave a Lois that lacked the girl-next-door quality Margot Kidder gave in the original. Henry Cavill did a good turn as Superman but he was meant to have a more dramatic role than that of the light-hearted Superman role Christopher Reeve was given. Diane Lane was good as Martha Kent but she lacked the Midwestern characteristics so it was not easy for me to believe this Martha was from Smallville, Kansas. I can’t really compare the acting of the villains from the original second movie but they were believable as cold and vicious. Hans Zimmer did a score that fit the movie well even if it’s not as memorable as John Williams’ score from the original, especially the opening theme. Zack Snyder has a reputation as being a director of dramas just like Richard Donner and this movie should add to his credit. Also it’s obvious the scriptwriters of Christopher Nolan and David Goyer aimed for a story more intense and more drama driven than that from the six scriptwriters of the original.

If there’s one thing Man Of Steel did surpass the original in, it’s in its action scenes. There’s no question that the action scenes were more sophisticated and more believable and more spellbinding than in the original. Mind you that you have to give the original credit. Back in 1978 they didn’t have the technologies, especially the computer technologies, to create the visual effects we have now. Most of what was done back then had to be done in Hollywood studios and with more effort from set designers and operators than computer operators.

Man Of Steel is like a lot of movie remakes that take a risk out of giving a different version of the original and hope it will pay off for today’s audiences. Sure the effects and action are bigger and better but the story falls short and doesn’t charm as the original. It may be a hit for some but it’s a miss for others, including me. I feel like renting the original from my local DVD store right now.

Movie Review: The Master

The Master looks like it’s meant as a depiction of a religious leader of a controversial religion. The question is how true is it? And does it succeed in getting the message across?

Freddie Quell is a Navy veteran who returns home from World War II with an uncertain future and unsettled behavior. How unsettled? He gets violent at the drop of a hat. He’s an easy drunk whose favorite drink is a personal mix of alcohol and other various chemicals. He’s sexually obsessed with sex to the point he masturbates frequently and loves making women out of beach sand just to seduce. Life back in the US is not easy for him to get back to normal. He loses his job as a photographer after starting a fight with one of his customers. He loses a farming job after one of the elderly farmhands gets poisoned from his drinking concoction. Is there any chance for him?

One day he stows away on a ship but it’s not just any ship. This ship is a yacht owned by Lancaster Dodd, a religious leader of a philosophical movement called ‘The Cause’. Dodd allows Freddie to watch the marriage of Dodd’s daughter as long as he makes his mysterious brew for him. Dodd sees a way of getting Freddie into the movement. Dodd asks some deep questions about Freddie and his past, called Processing, which he hopes to heal Freddie’s traumas. Freddie tells Dodd some dark truths about his past and Dodd doesn’t flinch like most. Freddie is blown away by Dodd while Dodd takes a liking to Freddie. Dodd agrees to make Freddie part of The Cause and Freddie becomes an active member in it recruiting other people.

The one problem is that members of The Cause are hoping to improve Freddie’s irrational behavior and he shows no signs of improvement. One example is Freddie assaults a man at a hotel some time after he questions Dodd for his beliefs. Dodd’s wife Peggy tries to make a deal with him that he quits drinking if he wishes to stay. He agrees but shows no intention to quit. Freddie even criticizes Dodd’s son for rejecting his father’s teaching but the son believes he makes it up as he goes along. Dodd is later arrested for practicing medicine without a license and Freddie is arrested for assaulting the officers pursuing Dodd. The time in the jail cell is hard as Dodd and Freddie are in opposite cells. Dodd tries to calm a violent Freddie down but Freddie questions him in a tirade and accuses him of being a fake. Both trade insults in the end. Freddie and Dodd reconcile upon release but those in ‘The Cause’ become more suspicious of him.

Freddie continues with The Cause and its exercises but becomes more frustrated when the results don’t work. Freddie helps Dodd in spreading the word on the street and on the radio. However things turn nasty when Freddie assaults a book publisher who criticizes Dodd’s book. Dodd himself event becomes temperamental around critics of his books.

Already there are strong signals that Freddie is ready to leave The Cause. It came when Dodd gave his colleagues an exercise of motorcycling in the desert to an object in the distance and Freddie cycles away. Freddie returns home to rekindle his relationship with Doris, his girlfriend he wrote to during the war, but learns she married and started a family in the seven years since she lost contact with Freddie. However Freddie has a dream of Dodd telephoning him in a movie theatre and telling him he’s in England and Freddie must join as soon as possible. Freddie goes to England and finds Dodd with wife Peggy. Peggy believes Freddie should leave The Cause since he’s made no improvement. Dodd agrees but still taking a liking to Freddie and gives him an ultimatum: stay and devote his whole life to The Cause or leave and never come back. Freddie leaves and is left to follow his own path.

The film appears to be a depiction of the Church of Scientology and its leader L. Ron Hubbard. There are a lot of similarities to it: Hoffman’s resemblance to Hubbard and the film set in 1950, the same year Hubbard set up his church. Anderson will admit that Lancaster Dodd is a lot like L. Ron Hubbard but not intended to be a direct depiction of him: “This is not the L. Ron Hubbard story.” Some people in the Church Of Scientology had spoken concerns of the film. Anderson even screened the film for Tom Cruise who had acted in Anderson’s Magnolia and had concerns of his own. Nevertheless there has been no talk of lawsuits from the Church of Scientology. Whatever the situation, I can’t say because I never attended the Church of Scientology in my lifetime.

Once again Paul Thomas Anderson writes and directs an excellent effort. Ever since he burst onto the filmmaking scene with Boogie Nights, he was continued to impress with Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and now again with The Master. One thing Paul Thomas Anderson succeeds in doing again is captivating a svengali-like character. We’ve seen it before in There Will Be Blood where he was able to capture Daniel Plainview and his desire to use and manipulate his way to the top and ultimately face a downfall. We see it here again in Lancaster Dodd who succeeds in being the one in control and convince his followers to his sayings, even if they know they’re a lie. Philip Seymour Hoffman does his own part in making this svengali-like character come to life. He fills the character up with the charming controllingness very common in many svengali-like figures or leader-like characters. That’s a common trait of Philip Seymour Hoffman to embody the character completely. He’s done it in the past to exceptional results and he does it again here.

Just as good at capturing a character is Joaquin Phoenix. He did a good job of playing a very lost character: a navy officer returning from World War II disturbed and uncoothed in behavior. This movie is just as much about the controlled as it is about the controller and Joaquin did a great job in holding his own well despite the easy upstagings of Hoffman. Also good at stealing the scene was Amy Adams. She did an excellent job of playing the wife who was both a controller and the controlled. Another standout effort of the film was the original music of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. He has done music before for There Will Be Blood and he does another excellent work.

As for the movie, it wasn’t that big of a hit at the box office. That’s one of the difficulties of films around the Oscar period from now leading up to the beginning of the new year. Most of the top contending movies for the Academy Awards consist of movies with standout efforts in acting, directing and  scriptwriting. However they face the difficulties of trying to win a crowd at the box office which is loaded with mostly commercial fare and the stuff to attract big crowds. It’s trying to compete for that attention amongst the noise. The Master hasn’t been so fortunate. It has only made $15 million at the box office. That’s part of the trials of putting serious fare out.

The Master is a very intriguing movie resembling a popular religious movement and its founder. It could shed a light on the movement and even capture what the founder may be like but it does more, and that’s its best quality.