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Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Black Panther

Black Panther

Chadwick Boseman plays The Black Panther who has to save the kingdom of Wakanda and his people.

People have been waiting for the longest time for a superhero movie to get nominated for Best Picture. If there’s a movie genre the 2010’s will most be remembered for, it will be for the heydays of the superhero movie. Deadpool and Wonder Woman were heavy favorites that ‘missed by that much.’ However it’s Black Panther that finally did it. And rightly so!

Now I’m not going to give a brief synopsis of the plot because most of you already know the story and saw the action. I will talk about superhero movies and how it lead to Black Panther’s most recent Oscar success. Now we’ve had superhero movies in previous decades and back in the 20th Century. I’m sure many of you can remember the old Superman and Batman movies from the 80’s and 90’s. The problem is around that time, the emphasis on popcorn movies back then was to be heavy on the action, and even heavy on the market hype, but comparatively minor attention to the characters and story-line. You couldn’t blame them; action movies blew people away and won big at the box office. However the flaws of a shotty script with minimal character development would soon become noticeable, especially by the critics. Around the 90’s as independent films were winning people over with storylines and well-developed characters, the stories and characters in action movies were starting to look either cardboard or idiotic. 1998’s Godzilla was possibly the best example of a film loaded with hype and action, but a ridiculous cookie-cutter story with foolish acting.

The 21st Century would mark a turning point for popcorn movies and especially for superhero movies for them to deliver better stories and better acting. Some say 9/11 became a turning point for movie watchers as they became less interested in cheering for villains and sleazes, but there’s more to that. The first sign was 2002’s SpiderMan. The producers were aware that despite the love for action in movies, the films story and acting could not be compromised. The film was loaded with action, as expected, but it did an excellent job in delivering a good story along with good acting as a result. That would not only open the doors for more superhero movies to come, but would also change the way superhero movies were done too. Marvel and their cooperating studios would become less focused on marketing hype — have you noticed there are less fast food chains plugging action movies lately? — and more focused on developing a well-written and well-acted story. It’s not to say that there were duds. There were a few SpiderMan sequels that were lousy and the 2015 rehash of the Fantastic Four was lame, but most superhero movies were very winning and easily demonstrated why they were winning crowds over.

Also on the subject of superheroes, I remember there were groups from religious organizations highly critical of the movies Hollywood was shelling out. They were complaining about all the ‘hazardous’ things in movies and how it threatened their values. Although no censorship occurred from their pleas, it did have an effect on the way superheroes are portrayed in the big-screen movies. One thing the studios were reminded of was that superheroes didn’t just simply do amazing things with their hands. They were characters that took a stand for values and were not afraid to do what’s right and be unafraid to deliver in their call of duty. In fact there have been many cases of some studios’ writing teams hiring Christian writers for the task. In most cases (obviously not for Deadpool), the superhero movies of the 21st Century were often praised by Christian critics of promoting values and dignity in a winning way. To think back in the 1990’s while gangsta rap and anti-hero entertainment were the call of the day, most people thought a story promoting values would come across being like a Mister Rogers. The 21st Century superhero movies proved that promoting values can be done in a winning way.

However it’s only been in recent years that superhero movies have the potential to do very well in the Oscar race. Most of the time, the best chances superhero movies had at scoring Oscars or Oscar nominations were in the technical categories like Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing. Sometimes they would win nominations in Best Costume Design, Best Production Design or Best Original Score despite nominations going mostly to ‘timepiece’ movies. The big turning point came in 2008 when The Dark Knight was a heavy favorite to get a Best Picture nomination. It didn’t happen, but Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his portrayal as The Joker. It was the biggest sign of how much better superhero movies, and even popcorn movies in general, became. In the past two years, there were two superhero movies, 2016’s Deadpool and 2017’s Wonder Woman, that were nominated for Best Motion Picture for the Producers Guild Awards. The Oscar nomination however did not happen: for Best Picture or any category!

It’s 2018; enter Black Panther. The Black Panther is a hero that actually made its debut in the Marvel universe in a Fantastic Four strip in 1966. The Black Panther has made many appearances in various Marvel comic stories. In film, the first appearance of the Black Panther was in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War where he was played by Chadwick Boseman. That of course was an Easter Egg of what was yet to come. The movie of The Black Panther was released in 2018. As expected, it was to tell the story of how the Black Panther came to be and how the Black Panther had to achieve their first defining moment of greatness. However it did a very good job in presenting a story of a moment in the distant past, to the ‘near-past’ of 1992 to the present. The story doesn’t just simply focus on T’Challa becoming the Black Panther, but also on his family and restoring the dignity of the Jabari Tribe and the wealth of the kingdom of Wakanda.

The film also does a good job in developing a story that’s entertaining for adults but also not too confusing for children. Another hard job of superhero movies is developing a story that works for both children and adults. It shows the conflicts abounding between T’Challa and Killmonger, as well as Killmonger’s pursuit of the throne of Wakanda with the intent to rule corruptly. It delivers the story in an excellent and entertaining manner with well-developed characters. Of course a superhero film needs to have its action moments, but the film does not compromise at all on the story or the characters.

The best efforts of the film come from director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole. Coogler has had a steady progression in the film world. His first film was the 2013 independent arthouse film Fruitvale Station, then progressed to popcorn movies with 2015’s Creed, and now Black Panther. All have had winning results. Black Panther could have gone to another white director that was part of the Marvel team, but marvel made the right choice to have Coogler direct despite never directing a sci-fi movie. The result is winning. Cole has also been able to make his mark in this film. The most writing experience he had before the film was 2011’s Amber Lake and the TV series The People vs. O.J. Simpson. Here, he’s able to make a name for himself in a big way and should open bigger doors in the future.

With the great directing and the great story, the acting is also excellent. Chadwick Boseman delivers very well as the Black Panther and succeeds in delivering a three-dimensional role for the character. Michael B. Jordan (who also acted in Fruitvale Station and Creed) also does a great job portraying the villain. Lupita Nyong’o was possibly the biggest scene-stealer of the movie. She was enjoyable. The costuming by Ruth E. Cater worked excellently for the film as well as the sets for the film. It made Wakanda look very believable as a place. The music by Ludwig Goransson also fit the film excellently and the special effects were dazzling and entertaining.

It’s easy to see why Black Panther is a winning film. It’s a superhero story that delivers in all facets and manages to dazzle crowds too. It also succeeds in again taking a seldom-known Marvel superhero and turning him into a household name.

Summer Movie Summary: Comedies

I don’t know about you but live-action comedies didn’t fare so well at the box office this summer. The highest-grossing comedy of the summer was Central Intelligence with just over $127 million. The only other two comedies of the summer to gross over $100 million were Ghostbusters and Bad Moms. Have people lost their sense of humor? For this summary, I will review two movies: Ghostbusters and The Nice Guys.

The Nice Guysthe-nice-guys

I’ll start the focus on one movie I saw all the way back in May. A comedy I was hoping to do well at the box office but didn’t. I saw The Nice Guys because I felt we were long overdue for a crime comedy or a police comedy. I have to say that this was a funny movie and has to be this year’s overlooked gem.

It takes us back to the 1970’s not just to do with the clothes, hair and music but also of a 70’s thing few 70’s-set movies focus on: the abundance of porn. We often forget that the 1970’s was the sexual revolution’s biggest heyday. A decade of free love at its freest and pornography was prevalent even in the movie theatres. It was even okay back then to take a date to a porno.

Here, they make a crime story set in the deliriousness of the porn business. It doesn’t aim for one-liners like so many other comedies resort to. What it does is it makes comedy of the situation. A case of a private eye and an enforcer who become unlikely partners in trying to solve a murder and who is connected to it. Another humorous situation is at the Los Angeles Auto Show where a clip of the porno starring the murder victim is spliced in to the auto show film to the shock of all. The story even has ironies added into it like how the Holly March, daughter of private eye Holland March, is able to help solve some part of the crime with her know-how. Another irony is how a politician who wants to have the crime solve is actually a part of the instrumentation. It all adds up to a humorous story that will have you laughing at the situation.

The film also gives you this summer’s biggest WTH moment. That comes when the police interrogate a neighborhood boy who showed his penis to a neighboring porn director who was killed. That’s sexual abuse, right? When I saw the interrogation happening, I was expecting a scene of a sexual abuse victim. Instead, the boy comes across as excited as if his exposing could open up opportunity in porn in the future. That was so bizarre. Just reminds you that the sexual revolution of the 1970’s was that free.

Director Shane Black takes a break from directing superhero movies like Iron Man 3 by directing this crime comedy he co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi. It comes off as very humorous in a dark way. I’d like to think he succeeded. Russell Crowe was the right fit for enforcer Jackson Healy. He possessed the right ruggedness for the role. Doing crime comedy is something new for Ryan Gosling but he did a very good job as Holland March. The scene-stealer was young actress Angourie Rice who played daughter Holly March. She did a good job of going just a simple daughter of Holland to all of a sudden one who can best help trace the case and even help solve it, with providing some action of her own. Also a big surprise is seeing Kim Basinger as the politician. I admit it. Like your typical 80’s kid, I always picture Kim as the bombshell she’s most famous for. It was surprising to see her play a role of an older character. I’m not complaining. I think she did quite well.

It is too bad to see that it didn’t make too much at the box office: $57.3 million. There was a time a while back where crime comedies or dark crime dramas were a big hit. I remember the 1990’s were capable of churning out one such movie per year that would be a classic like 1994’s Pulp Fiction, 1995’s The Usual Suspects, 1996’s Fargo and 1997’s L.A. Confidential. Since then, it cooled down. I was hoping this movie would revive some interest in it and rediscover the humor of the crime comedy. Also I feel there’s another message being sent with the lack of success of the film. The 70’s retro in movies has now faded. I know it was very active from the 90’s carried into the 2000’s and showed some muscle at the beginning of this decade but it’s obvious 70’s retro has faded with time.

The Nice Guys is an overlooked comedy from the summer. It’s worth seeing if you have the chance.

Ghostbusters: Answer The Call

ghostbusters-1

From retro 70’s to retro 80’s: the retro phenomenon that still has the most muscle despite retro 90’s encroaching. Now news last year of a Ghostbusters remake featuring an all-female ensemble of Ghostbusters seemed unorthodox at the time. One conservative filmmaker went as far as saying ‘My childhood is ruined.’ However I was willing to give it a chance. I mean this is 2016.

In order to differentiate itself from the original 1984 Ghostbusters, it gave itself the subtitle Answer The Call. Now the big challenge was to decide whether the film was a case of the ghostbusters starting up together or whether these four women were filling the shoes of the men before them. It was decided to be a story where the ghostbusters start fresh. It’s very tempting to compare it to the first Ghostbusters. Actually there’s no escaping it. If you compare the two side-by-side, you will notice a lot of differences. And not just simply the change of genders of the cast. The first is the humor. The new film has humor and lines that are more irreverent that the humor and jokes in the first. The second is the Ghostbuster-wannabe characters. One thing about the first is that the addition of nerd Louis Tully added to the humor of the film. Of course Rick Moranis always specialized in nerdy characters. Having a bimboy character who’s their receptionist play the Ghostbuster wannabe here didn’t fit as well. Plus he wasn’t even that funny. Another is the possessed character scene. I’m sure those of you would agree that the possession of Dana Barrett worked better than the possession of Abby Yates. Even the line “No Dana, only Zuul.” is way more memorable.

Despite the first Ghostbusters being better than the new one in many ways, the second one does have elements that are better than in the first one. The first and most obvious is the better special effects. The film was able to create better and more eye-catching ghosts than they were in the first one. Computer technology has made that big of advances over the years. Another was the rock concert scene. If there was one plus to the movie, it was that where the foursome have to battle a ghost while a rock band was performing. That added to the humor and made it enjoyable.

It’s clear from the start this is a group effort between Paul Feig, Katie Dippold and Melissa McCarthy. This is the third collaboration with the threesome where Feig directs and co-writes, Dippold co-writes and McCarthy acts in. Its often questionable who was the main lead role of the film: whether it was Kristen Wiig’s Erin Gilbert or if it was Melissa McCarthy’s Abby Yates. I know McCarthy’s star has grown bigger over the years. The addition of two other Saturday Night Live talents Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones make for a good mix of humor.

One thing to note is that personnel of the original Ghostbusters gladly came back for the revamp. There’s Ivan Reitman who’s the co-producer this time around. There’s Bill Murray who makes a cameo as a skeptic to the busters. Dan Aykroyd makes a cameo as a taxi driver, Annie Potts makes a cameo as a crabby hotel clerk, Ernie Hudson appears as Patty’s uncle Bill, even Sigourney Weaver makes a cameo appearance.

Ghostbusters: Answer The Call may not compare to the original. It’s either the freshness or the magic of the first that’s not there. Nevertheless it is enjoyable and does make for some good laughs.

And there’s my summary of the summer’s comedic movies with focus on the two. Hopefully the studios should be able to find the right funny stuff to get the live-action comedy back to being a summer hit next summer.

Rio 2016: Seven Canadians To Watch

Canada Olympic

I admit I’ve come to accept it after the Sochi Olympics. Since the late-90’s Canada has become a winter sports superpower but field a very good Summer Olympics team. In past Olympic Games, both Canada’s summer and winter teams were on the same levels. Very often the summer team would outperform the winter team. That has changes since the late-90’s as you can tell by the medal totals with each Games.

However it’s not fair at all to say our Summer Olympic team is lousy. Here in Canada, we have a lot to deliver. The 2015 Pan Am Games and the recent World Championships in various sports have shown we have a lot of athletes in contention. Sure we only won a single gold out of our 18 medals back in London but we have a solid team this year. Sports Illustrated predicts Canadians to win a total of seventeen medals including four gold.

Anyways you saw my focus on foreign contenders in Rio yesterday. Without further ado, here are the seven Canadians of focus:

Brianne Theisen-Eaton – Athletics: The last time a Canadian woman won a gold medal in track and field was in 1928 and that was the very first Olympics track and field events for women were contested! Canada was one of the best countries in women’s track and field in 1928 winning two of the five events and two additional medals. Yeah, what has happened since? Well the drought could very well be over. When Brianne Theisen graduated from high school, she went to the University of Oregon and it was the best decision. She represented Canada in London and finished 11th. She would later marry American decathlete Ashton Eaton and she’s been on a roll since finishing second at the last two World Championships. She also won the Goetzis HypoMeet this year with a points total that’s the highest of 2016 and has propelled herself as the favorite. She will face stiff rivalry from defending Olympic Champion and reigning World Champion Jessica Ennis-Hill and Worlds bronze medalist Laura Ikauniece-Admidiņa of Latvia. 2016 could just be Brianne’s year. Also look to see if Brianne and Ashton become the first married couple since the Zatopeks in 1952 to both win athletics golds in the same games.

Shawnacy Barber – Athletics: Canada is not known for its pole vaulters. Our last Olympic entry was back in 1992. Our only two medals in the men’s event came all the way back in 1908 and 1912. That can all change thanks to New Mexico-born Shawn Barber. He didn’t qualify for London at the tender age of 18 but his talent was obvious that year as he already broke the Canadian record. He has improved in both his vaulting heights and his competitive consistency over the years and even won the World Championship last year. He even vaulted six metres for the first time ever during an indoor meet this year. He will face challenges from defending Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie of France, American newcomer Sam Kendricks and even home-country threat Thiago da Silva. Whatever the situation, Barber is sure to deliver.

Brooke Henderson – Golf: Here in Rio there won’t be any new sports on the program but there are two sports that were part of the Olympic program in the past that were cancelled out. The two returning sports are Rugby, albeit in Sevens format, and Golf. Golf was contested at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics. The last Olympic gold in golf was won by a Canadian: George Lyon. Professionalism may have a lot to do with that. Since there’s now no such thing as ‘amateur’ anymore, it seems right that golf returns especially since it’s international enough. Canada has a strong shot at winning through 18 year-old Brooke Henderson. Already displaying a combination of talent, drive and youthfulness that has best been seen in the past through Se-Ri Pak and Nancy Lopez, Henderson has already won three LPGA events. Her last two– the KPMG women’s PGA Championship and the Cambia Portland Classic–came this June and propelled her to 2nd-place World ranking. She’s a heavy favorite to win in Rio but she will face challenges from World #1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand, latest American great Lexi Thompson and last year’s British Open winner Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand. Win or lose, Brooke has a bright future ahead of her.

Mark de Jonge – Canoeing: Until 2008, there were the 500m and 1000m events in flatwater canoeing for men. In 2012, the program replaced the 500m events with 200m sprints. That has worked for the advantage of Canadian kayaker Mark de Jonge. The Calgary-born Dalhousie grad won bronze in London the first Olympics it was contested. Since then, de Jonge has moved up in the ranks from silver at the 2013 Worlds to gold at the 2014 and 2015 Worlds. De Jonge will face challenges from France’s Maxime Beaumont and Sweden’s Peter Menning who finished second and third to him respectively last year. It could just well be de Jonge’s moment here in Rio.

Rosannagh MacLennan – Trampolining: Ever since trampolining has been introduced to the Olympic program in 2000, the Canadian team has left each Olympics with at least one medal. The women’s event has always had a Canadian medalist with Karen Cockburn winning 2000 bronze, 2004 silver and 2008 silver. In London, Rosie MacLennan became Canada’s first ever Olympic champion in trampolining. Rosie also had the bizarre distinction as being Canada’s only Olympic champion at those Games. Rosie has since won the 2013 World Championship and finished second the following year. She found herself out of the medals in 2015. She plans to return to her winning form in Rio but she will face the rivalry of 2015 champ Li Dan of China and two Belarussians: 2015 bronze medalist Tatiana Piatrenia and Hanna Harchonak. 2016 will be the arena for her to prove herself on top again.

Brittany MacLean – Swimming: Canada is known for its medal-winning swimmers. Sports Illustrated predicts Canada to win no medals. However one that could prove SI wrong is distance freestyler Brittany MacLean. The Etobicoke native who swims for the University of Georgia has a reputation in the distance freestyles with a 7th place finish in the 400 in London. However she was too injured in the 2015 season and had to miss out on the Worlds. This year, MacLean has the 6th-fastest time in the world in the 400 free and the 4th-fastest in the 800 free. Sure the distance freestyles are where Katie Ledecky is all the talk but Brittany MacLean just could win Canada’s first Olympic medal for a female swimmer since 1996. That feat could also be achieved by backstroker Kylie Masse or butterfliers Penny Oleksiak or Noemie Thomas. Actually Canada has its strongest women’s swim team in a long time. While the men’s team could only qualify ten swimmers. Looks like it’s the girls’ turn to shine.

AND ONE TEAM:

Canada’s Women’s Soccer Team: I’ll admit I didn’t review them when I did my pre-Olympic preview for London. And good reason why not. Back at the 2011 WWC Canada lost all three of their Group Stage games. However the turnabout the team made under the new coach John Herdman was evident as the team left the Olympics with the bronze medal. Their performance won the hearts of so many Canadians, I referred to them as ‘Our Girls.’ Canada has continued to show consistency with a quarterfinal finish at the 2015 WWC. Since then, the team have won most of their games losing only to Brazil, Denmark, USA and France. Canada won this year’s Algarve Cup and 19 year-old defender Kadeisha Buchanan was named the best player of the tournament. They’re not expected to win a medal in Rio but the team could just surprise the world again like they did four years ago.

And there you have it. My review of Canadian athletes to look out for in Rio. Notice that I reviewed the four Canadians Sports Illustrated predicts to win gold? Whatever the situation, I’m sure they’ll do our country proud.

 

Movie Review: Black Mass

Johnny Depp is unrecognizable as James 'Whitey' Bulger in Black Mass.

Johnny Depp is unrecognizable as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass.

DISCLAIMER: Okay, I know I’m late in reviewing a lot of movies, including this one. I’m hoping to do some catching up in this time. So please bear with me.

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is a man of infamy. Black Mass is a movie that attempts to reveal what type of person Bulger was and how he was able to get away with what he did all this time.

It’s 1975. The streets of South Boston are ruled by James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and his Irish-American Winter Hill Gang with Stephen Flemmi as his right-hand man, Kevin Weeks as his rising rookie and Johnny Martorano as his merciless hitman. However it’s rivaled by the Angiullo brothers who have ties to the New England Mafia family.

In the middle of this, former FBI Agent John Connolly returns to Boston in hopes of stopping the Angiullo brothers and does the tricky task of trying to get Whitey’s help to do so. Besides Whitey and brother Billy Bulger, who’s the president of the Massachusetts State Senate, are childhood friends. At first, Whitey is reluctant to be an informant but agrees after one of his Winter Hill Gang members is gunned down.

No kidding having Whitey as an informant for an FBI agent is touchy stuff and it even causes suspicion from Connolly’s boss. However it becomes a case where Bulger is the one pulling Connolly’s strings as he uses Connolly’s ‘protection’ for covering his crimes. Whitey becomes more violent after his six year-old son dies of an allergic reaction to aspirin. He even gains more success in achieving FBI control in terms of trying to down the Angiullos. Connolly however becomes more attached to Whitey which interferes with his marriage.

However the bond between Bulger and Connolly reach a turning point as Whitey orders one of his men to kill two men associated with a scheme Whitey was to profit over. One man in whitey’s ring, Brian Halloran, comes across as untrustworthy and senses him to be a possible rat. Fearing for his life, Halloran goes to the FBI for help but to no avail. Connolly informs Whitey of Halloran’s sayings and Halloran is killed.

Bulger’s lust for blood and his own menacing behavior only grow over time and it leads to a downfall in his relationship with Connolly. Over time a new district attorney, Fred Wyshak, is hired in Boston. Despite Connolly’s attempt to befriend the ‘bulldog’ attorney, Wyshak refuses and attempts to have Bulger arrested. Eventually the secrets are unraveled thanks to the help of the Boston Globe which leads to the arrests of Connolly and Bulger’s three other men. Bulger however is successful in avoiding arrest of his own however he would be arrested in 2011 after 16 years ‘on the run.’

I’m sure what most people would be interested in seeing when they watch this film is yet another character played by Johnny Depp. The weird thing is about how unrecognizable he comes across with his balding hair and blue eyes. However I’m sure he was chosen because of how he could embody the character of Whitey with his criminal mentality and his personal demons both on the street and within himself. Mind you Whitey was quite the character in real life to give himself his own exile before ultimately being brought to justice only as he was in his 80’s. Some may find Johnny’s hair and make-up rather distracting but it doesn’t take away from the story.

This is a story of intrigue. Those who know the story of Whitey Bulger, or even those who only know the name but not the whole story, will take an interest in why Whitey carried this all out and why an FBI agent was willing to assist. No doubt the story is mainly about Whitey. However the story is about Connolly too. It makes one wonder why a childhood friend would be so loyal to the point he’d be willing to go against his job in order to help him out despite the fact he’s carrying out such hideous crimes. No doubt the theme of loyalty is very present in the film as it is a common fact that loyalty to family and friends is something valued greatly in Boston. The theme of loyalty comes to the point where we see a scene of Bulger on the run but not before thanking Billy just before he and the other men are sentenced.

The make-up of Depp as Bulger may get a lot of attention but the highlight of the film was his performance of a man who is smart but troubled and very easy to infuriate. Depp also did a good job of conveying Bulger’s growing anger and personal motives in his carrying out in the crime activities but he also did a good job in showcasing Whitey’s mind in why Bulger felt it was right in doing all these hideous crimes and why he needed his men to carry it out and an FBI to be ahead of the game. Even showing how the accidental death of his son would be the turning point in Bulger and his lust for control and vengeance adds to the story and the character. The film rested predominantly on the story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger but it was Depp’s ability to show Whitey the person that made the story work at its best.

Sure, Johnny Depp carried the film but the film did feature other good supporting performances as well like that of Joel Edgerton as Connolly whose loyalty is questioned, Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy. The performances of the wives caught in the middle–Erica McDermott as Mary Bulger and Julianne Nicholson as Marianne Connolly– added to the human element of the story and kept it from being your typical hard-story crime drama.

This actually Scott Cooper’s third film as a director. The former actor’s best film making feat up to now has been Crazy Heart about a faded country star on a comeback. I don’t know if it’s as good as Crazy Heart but this is a very good film done by Cooper and is definitely his commercial breakthrough. Writers Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk did a good job of keeping it from being your typical mob-leader story.

Black Mass isn’t simply about an infamous crime leader. It’s also about the codes of loyalty some people would do for their friends, even if it meant violating their duties as an FBI. Very insightful and full of intense moments.

Sochi 2014: Making Press For More Than Just The Games

The Sochi Olympics has made news who won what medals. And a lot more.

The Sochi Olympics has made news who won what medals. And a lot more.

DISCLAIMER: I’ll admit that I originally planned to post this blog on the day of the opening ceremonies. In retrospect, I’m glad that I waited until the halfway point because I learned more about them in the last while.

The Olympic Games are being held in Sochi, Russia from February 7th to 23rd. 2800 athletes from 88 countries will be competing in the 98 medal events in fifteen different sports. In this, I will look at the city of Sochi, the new events, what Russia and especially Putin plan to get out of these games and the side-news that has been making headlines before the Olympics.

SOCHI THE CITY:

Sochi is a city in Russia with a population of 420,000. Sochi sits at the foot of the Sochi River on the east coast of the Black Sea just 20 miles north of the Russia-Georgia border with the Caucasus Mountains on the horizon. The city had been formed over various years of wars and conquering tribes. It was after both  the Caucasus War and the Russo-Turkish War that was ceded to the Russians back in 1829. British intervention would occur in monitoring the weapons of the war. The Fort of Alexandria would be constructed in 1838 at the mouth of the Sochi River. That would later have an impact on forming the city. Many more forts would be set up close to the Fort of Alexandria including the Fort Dakhovsky. Fighting would continue until the end of the Caucasus War in 1864.

Starting in 1866 people of various ethnicities settled around the coast of the Black Sea. In 1874 the first Russian Orthodox church was built on the former Fort Dakhovsky and the settlement was renamed the Dakhovsky Posad. The Sochi Lighthouse was built in 1890 and the Dahkovsky Posad renamed themselves the Sochi Posad and incorporated themselves into the Black Sea governate. Sochi opened its first sea resort in 1909 and the town was granted full town status in 1917. Then came the war between Russia and Georgia. The war ended in 1923 with Sochi declared Russian territory. Joseph Stalin helped promote Sochi as a fashionable resort. After the fall of the USSR, Sochi has been promoted in Russia as the capital of summer.

THE GAMES AND THEIR HOPES:

These Olympic Games cost $51 billion to build: $39 million more than originally anticipated and more than any other Olympic Games in history. This was not only for the sake of building more facilities for hosting events. This also included telecommunications improvements in the region, power infrastructure upgrades, transportation improvements on all means of transportation, over 10,000 additional hotel rooms and six additional post offices.

The Olympic sites have been divided into two clusters: the Coastal Cluster inside the town and the Mountain Cluster into the Caucasus Mountains. The Coastal Cluster consists of the Olympic Park containing the Olympic Flame, the Fisht Olympic Stadium, two hockey arenas, a figure skating arena, a speed skating oval, a curling centre, the Olympic village, and the International broadcasting centre. The Mountain Cluster–located in the area called Krasnaya Polyana or ‘Red Hills’–consists of five venues including a Nordic skiing complex, a ski jumping centre, an alpine resort including an extreme park for snowboarding and freestyle skiing, a sliding centre and an Olympic village.

This isn’t all completely in vain for the sake of these seventeen days, or at least they’re not intended to be. The city of Sochi is expecting to make big improvements and grow considerably after the Olympic Games. Fisht Olympic Stadium plans to be continued as a football facility after the Olympics and is even one of the venues for the 2018 World Cup. The city of Sochi itself is signed on to be host of the Russian Formula 1 Grand Prix from 2014 to 2020. The RusSki Gorki ski jumping hills are to be used as a training facility for jumpers and two smaller hills for youth training are planned to be added after the Games. The ski hills at Rosa Khutor have been designed by a 1972 Olympic champion and plan to be part of future World Cup seasons. In fact Vladimir Putin is hoping to have Sochi become a winter resort that can compete with the resorts of France, Switzerland and Italy. In fact Putin had a conversation with one world leader where he said: “The rich travel to France and Switzerland to go skiing. Why not Krasnaya Polyana?”

Even as shown in the Opening Ceremonies, the Games hope to present a positive picture of Russia especially since it has made a lot of bad news in terms of politics, social problems, alcoholism, poverty, crime and even terrorism. Putin is hoping to improve ties with other countries. Putin is also hoping to improve the family structure in Russia with declining birth rates. Putin is also hoping these Games will stimulate the Russian economy. Let’s hope those $51 billion pay off, Vlad.

Even for venues planned for just those seventeen days, they too have post-games uses planned for them. The Bolshoi Ice Dome, the biggest of the hockey/skating venues, has plans for further ice events and concerts. Shayba Arena is a temporary hockey venue which is planned to be dismantled and shipped off to another city. The Iceberg Skating Palace has two post-games options of remaining an ice arena or a cycling velodrome. The Adler Oval for speed skating is slated to be an exhibition centre after the Games. The Ice Cube Curling Centre plans to stay a sports facility but can be moved to another location. Whether the plans will follow through and whether they will pay off in the end is something only the future will tell.

NEW TO THE PROGRAM:

Back in Vancouver there were 86 events. Here in Sochi there were an additional 12 events added to the program:

  • Figure Skating Team Event-There will be three mixed events where both men and women compete together contested for the first time here in Sochi. The Figure Skating Team event consists of ten countries competing in both short programs and free skates of men’s singles, ladies’ singles, pairs and dance. Points are based on the country’s entry’s placeage in each program. Team with the highest total of points wins the gold.
  • Freestyle Skiing Halfpipe (men and women)- The halfpipe event that’s one of the highlights of the snowboarding events have now been added to freestyle skiing.
  • Slopestyle events in snowboarding and freestyle skiing (men and women)- It’s like skateboarding on snow. Consists of first skiing or boarding on rails and then doing daring jumps off the three kickers. Points are scored on difficulty and execution.
  • Snowboarding Parallel Slalom (men and women)- Since 2002, snowboarding has had the Parallel Giant Slalom where two racers are paired together for two runs with last racer standing as winner. This Olympics marks the debut of the Parallel Slalom with tighter turns. Same method of deciding the winner as the Parallel Giant Slalom.
  • Biathlon Mixed Relay-two women on each team ski and shoot for 6 km, two men ski and shoot for 7.5 km. Not even cross-country skiing has a mixed relay.
  • Luge Team Relay-the relay consists of a men’s singles sledder going down first, touches a touch-sensitive pad that releases the gate for the next sled, the ladies’ singled sledder, to go down and then she touches the pad to let the men’s doubles sled go. The team with the fastest combined time wins.
  • Women’s ski jumping (normal hill)-You may remember before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics there was a brouhaha about getting Women’s Ski Jumping added to the Olympic program. The IOC decided the event wasn’t competitive enough to be added to those Games. Since then the event has become competitive enough to be added to the Olympic program. Women will compete in one event: the normal hill.

GAMES PROBLEMS:

With every Olympic Games come problems and they will get a lot of notice in the months leading up to an Olympic Games. Same with Sochi and there were two issues that received huge notice:

PUTIN’S ANTI-GAY LAWS

The administration of Vladimir Putin has not sit well with the many human rights groups on various issues but the biggest firestorm in the last few months came because of recent laws passed against the GLBT population and didn’t appear to make tourists immune to those laws. The laws were the prevention of distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors, which effectively makes it illegal to suggest that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships or to distribute material on gay rights and even bans gay pride parades. The media has reported of an arrest of a gay rights activist and an increase in ‘hate crimes’ against the GLBT population including against GLBT minors.

The laws have been protested against a multitude of people including GLBT rights activists and their supporters, famous celebrities like Lady Gaga and 27 Nobel Prize winners from arts and sciences. Putin has responded to the pressure by saying that GLBT tourist during the Sochi Olympics will not be under threat. Some heads of state chose not to come to these Olympic Games allegedly because of the laws. Thomas Bach wants to keep the Olympic arena free of politics just like past presidents of the IOC and has even threatened to ban athletes who protest the laws. As harsh as that is, we shouldn’t forget we’re dealing with the same IOC that punished the two black sprinters from 1968 that gave the ‘black power’ salute on the victory podium. I’m sure most of you know the story. Bach has responded back to the protests both in pre-Olympic announcements and in his speech during the opening ceremonies: “Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue and not on the backs of these athletes.”

My Personal Vent: Personally I wasn’t happy about all those protests over Putin’s anti-gay laws. Now, don’t get me wrong. Yes, it is a problem. However it’s one of a whole whack of human rights problems inside the Russian Federation under Putin right now. The GLBT community isn’t the only set of people being hit hard or legally punished in Putin’s regime. Remember the free speech problem many months ago involving feminist punk band Pussy Riot? Even that’s one of many. The reason why I found it irritating is because I saw it as another case of the GLBT community ‘hijacking’ issues. Much the same way they ‘hijacked’ the issue of Eminem’s lyrics in 2000 while the GLBT people were one of many groups of people verbally slammed in Eminem’s records. And how they ‘hijacked’ the bullying suicides issue in 2010. It didn’t last as recent suicides from bullying involving non-GLBT teens like Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons reminded the public that bullying suicides occur indiscriminately. I don’t have a problem with pre-Olympic protests but I do wish other groups of people were just as loud at speaking their concerns rather than GLBT activists hogging the show.

ETHNIC CIRCASSIAN DISSENT:

A bit of a history lesson. The Circassian peoples used to have the area around Sochi and the Krasnaya Polyana as their own centuries ago. Unfortunately most Circassians were killed during the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Russian-Circassian War from 1763 to 1864. Today there are 900,000 ethnic Circassians in Russia.

Some Circassian groups objected to the Games being held on land that was held by their ancestors before the war. There are two other factors that also leave many Circassians unhappy with the Games. One is the fact the Games are being held in 2014 which coincides with the 150th anniversary of the end of the Russian-Circassian war. The second being events held on the Krasnaya Polyana which were named the ‘Red Hills’ because of the bloodshed of a group of Circassians that attempted to return to their homes in a bloody battle in 1864.

Reactions amongst Circassians have been mixed. Some demand the Games be moved outside Russia unless Russia apologizes. Some accept the Games but want symbols of Circassian history be included the same way indigenous culture was included in past Games like Vancouver in 2010 and Sydney in 2000. There has been no response as to what has been done in this matter.

THREATS OF TERRORISM

The threat of terrorism has been taken seriously since the death of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Sochi is located in an area prone to terrorism. It’s located close to a set of provinces in the North Caucasus such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia to name a few. A lot of them have been fighting over their rights of their ethnicity and of their religion. Chechnya has been in the news the most firstly because of the First Chechen War that occurred between 1994 and 1996 just as Russia was defining itself in the post-USSR era. Wars have continued and Putin has responded with many human rights group call brutal force.

Islamic Chechen terrorists have declared a jihad and created a lot of terrorism since the First Chechen War which first started with hotel bombings in Russia in 1999 and has consisted of many incidents since. Most within the past five years like numerous car bombs, an express train bombing, Moscow subway bombings, an attack on Chechen parliament, a bombing at Moscow’s international airport and even links to last year’s Boston Marathon bombing.

The Chechen Islamist commander Dokka Umarov called for an attack in the Games back in July 2013 stating that the Games will be held: “on the bones of many Muslims killed.” Athletes that were to compete before the Games and many national Olympic Committees received threatening e-mails from terrorist groups threatening to blow them up. It got to the point the US ski and snowboard agency hired a private security agency to protect them during the Games. Even the US government added to the scare a week before when they talked about the possibility of ‘toothpaste bombs’ that can be made in tubes of toothpaste of 100ml or more.

Security during these Games will be handled by 40,000 law enforcement officials including police and the Russian Armed Forces. Putin even signed a Presidential Decree at the beginning of the year declaring that any protest in Sochi or the surrounding areas be approved by the Federal Security Services. There’s also an unmanned aerial vehicle squadron with defense rockets to protect Olympic airspace. There are four gunboats along the Black Sea to protect the coastline. Forces are also set up along the Russia-Georgia border and even the US has agreed to lend Navy ships and other assets for security purposes.

The closest thing to an incident was on February 7th during the opening ceremonies when a Pegasus Air Line from Kharkiv, Ukraine to Istanbul, Turkey was hijacked by a person claiming to have a bomb and wanted it flown to Sochi. The plane arrived at its destination in Istanbul and the passenger was arrested with no weapons or bombs found on the place. Since then there have been no incidents occurring.

The Sochi Olympics sure made a lot of news in the months leading up to their opening. They are currently making news mostly for the good in the days of competition held. The Games end on February 23rd with the Paralympics opening on March 7th. It remains to be seen whether the Games will pay off, whether they will continue to run smoothly without incident and whether Sochi and Russia itself make improvements in the months and years after.

WORK CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: 2014 Winter Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Winter_Olympics>

Movie Review: Iron Man 3

Robert Downey Jr. makes it Tony Stark's last hurrah in UIron Man 3.

Robert Downey Jr. makes it Tony Stark’s last hurrah in Iron Man 3.

The first weekend in May certifies the official beginning of the summer movie season. This is where the big studios are the most competitive where they deliver big-time attention-grabbers in an attempt to hit new highs at the box office. As expected, the first movie to kick off the 2013 summer movie season is a sequel of a huge-grossing series: Iron Man 3. The question is does it live up to the hype?

Tony Stark is back but instead of setting up for his third adventure, it goes back in time to the turn-of-the-millennium. Tony had a fling with a scientist named Maya Hansen who worked for a mechanics company named Extremis that’s experimenting with regenerating amputated limbs. Her boss, scientist Aldrich Killian who’s disabled himself, offers Stark a job but Stark refuses much to Killian’s humiliation.

Fast forward to the present, Stark and girlfriend Pepper Potts build several Iron man suits in immediate response to an alien attack which left him with panic attacks. Meanwhile Stark learns of a new rival villain: The Mandarin, who assaults his butler Happy Hogan. Stark challenges The Mandarin with a televised threat only to be faced with battle with The Mandarin and his army who leave his mansion demolished. The world believes Stark and Potts to be dead but they’re both alive with Stark being rescued by Hansen and Stark dawning an Iron Man suit whose JARVIS technology lands him in Tennessee. Stark learns more about the Mandarin thanks to the help of a young boy named Harley. Harley directs Stark to an alleged bomb explosion. Stark learns that the explosion is not only by Extremis but a possible fake to cover up Extremis’ flaws.

After a failed attack by two Extremis agents, Stark is able to get the location of The Mandarin through Harley’s help and through using improvised makeshift technology. Stark soon learns that The Mandarin is an impostor, an actor named Trevor Slattery. The Mandarin is actually a decoy of Killian who used Hansen’s program to fix his own disability and create an army of his own who successful has Potts hostage in hopes of getting Stark to fix Extremis’ flaws. That’s not all Killian has planned. Killian also stole James Rhodes’ Iron patriot outfit in an attempt to hold the plane with the President Of The United States hostage. Stark attempts to save the plane and those on board. He succeeds but misses the President whom Killian intends to kill and have the Vice President as his puppet to follow his every order to make Extremis succeed in its business.

The end battle features a lot of twists and turns but gives a surprise but somewhat expected ending to the movie and the Iron Man series as well.  Oh yeah, I encourage you to sit through the credits for a surprise end.

Usually I’m not a huge fan of movie sequels. I consider Hollywood sequels to be the actors, directors and producers masturbating for two hours. However I did find Iron Man 3 to be enjoyable. This was movie that was to be, or appears to be, the end of the Iron Man series. It had quite a lot to work with and it did a very good job of it, even though I feel it could have been better. Yes it was a story with a lot of clichés and yes there were a lot of areas that felt very formulaic. Even the addition of a cute kid felt like Hollywood up to its usual tricks. What it lacks in terms of inventiveness and unpredictability, it does make up in terms of its visual effects. The fights still thrill and the effects still dazzle. It’s what one should come to expect from a superhero movie. Surely director/co-writer Shane Black knew what he had to deliver when he agreed to do Iron Man 3. He’s written for popcorn movies before. Even though he delivers an ending to a series that could have been better, he does mostly end the Iron Man series on a positive note. One thing is that even though this may mean the end of the Iron Man series, it doesn’t mean that Tony Stark won’t be back for the next Avengers movie. There was even a hint or two of The Avengers in the script.

Once again, Robert Downey Jr. brings out the character of Tony Stark, but it felt like something was missing. I don’t know what it was but I felt there was a certain quality of Tony that was present in the first Iron Man and made him a scene-stealer in The Avengers that was missing here. Pepper Potts was given more of a role as being the one getting Tony to smarten up although Gwyneth is not as much of a scene stealer as she could be. Guy Pearce could have done more with his role of Killian but keeps him as a stockish villain. Rebecca Hall was good as Maya Hansen even though her role was nothing out of the ordinary. Don Cheadle was good at being a comedic sidekick Iron Patriot but he too lacked the scene-stealing quality. Ty Simpkins was given a typical child actor role where he’s made to look cutesy. And Ben Kingsley’s turn as the Mandarin succeeded in being both intense and comical when it was required to be.

As is to be expected with any big release of the summer movie season, Iron Man 3 succeeds in challenging for top box office results. It achieved $174.1 million in its opening weekend making it second only to last year’s The Avengers for the biggest opening weekend ever. Even now it continues to remain strong at the box office even though it was replaced at the #1 spot in its third weekend by Star Trek Into Darkness. I don’t think it will supersede The Avengers‘ total gross since The Avengers was still #1 after three weekends. I am confident that Iron Man 3 will finish its box office run in the Top 10 of all time. It’s only $86 million away right now.

Iron Man 3 is a series-ending movie in which first seems surprising but turns out to be typically expected on second-thought. It’s better than the second but not as entertaining as the first. Nevertheless it ends on a good note, if slightly flawed.

‘Hot Problems’ And The Charm Of Awful

‘Hot Problems’ girls Lauren Willey and Drew Garrett

I was watching the latest React video on Youtube from the Fine Bros’ various React shows: Teens React To Hot Problems. Actually first I paused the video after ten seconds so I can hear Hot Problems for myself.  As I was listening to the intro of that video which will soon hit 30 million views, I noticed that the number of dislikes was more than 90% of the likes. That had me wondering. Then I heard it for myself. It was so dreadful I had enough after two minutes. I could not blame the teens that were irritated with it. Then the song  grew on me: I actually liked it because of how awful it was. I’m sure I’m not alone, but why does this happen?

I’ll admit there are times when our society is charmed by things that are downright awful. Possibly the reason why we have a term called ‘guilty pleasure’. I’m sure it has existed since the beginning of time. We should remember that there was such thing as B-movies when movies started coming out. Some of the best of the worst came either during the 30’s or the 50’s. It was movies people loved because of its awfulness. I’m sure B-movies continued in the 60’s but who remembers those?

Then came the 70’s. This was the decade when awful really started to take off. B-movies became ‘cult films’ with all sorts of blood, gore, exploitation and purposely-bad acting. There was also the raunchy Rocky Horror Picture Show: a musical where the house of Frankenstein meets the sexual revolution that made no real sense. TV also had its variety of bad taste to offer too. Remember the $1.98 Beauty Show and The Gong Show? Yeah, I especially remember the latter. Even now I love watching clips of old Gong Show acts on Youtube. It’s my guilty pleasure.

Awful had a bit of a lull in the 80’s or 90’s but there was the occasional hit that was loved for its awfulness, like the infantile man/boy Pee-Wee Herman or the sitcom Married With Children. Those who saw Married With Children would remember it for its awful episodes, awfully acted superstock-like characters and very off writing as much as it was for its raunchiness. Nevertheless it was all those factors why people loved it. On the opposite side, there was Saved By The Bell: a Disney Channel show that found its way on NBC in 1989. Its lame writings, characters and over-the-top cutesy scenarios were eaten up by young teens and preteens and help pave the way for many fluffy sugar-coated Disney Channel shows that have become phenomenons in the past 7 years.

However it seems like in the 21st Century, bad taste and awful have aimed to become either legendary or competitive, or both. It seems like in a multimedia world we live in that has so much to offer, one has to stand out above the rest. That even includes performances of bad and terrible. And it’s produced some legends too along the way. I don’t know the first 21st Century instance of bad being catchy but I assume it’s the 2003 movie The Room. It’s so bad it earned its own Rocky Horror like following. The difference being Rocky Horror was basically bad acting and bad writing done professionally. The Room is just completely amateurish from the acting to the writing to the stunts to the cinematography. I can’t see a single trace of professionalism in it. Nevertheless it was The Room’s pathetic awfulness that garnered its cult following.

2004 would see the temporary stardom of non-singer William Hung; the right no-talent at the right time. He arrived right while the nation was so fixated on American Idol shelling out the next big thing in pop music with contestants groomed and dressed to perfection and voices pitch perfect. Hung didn’t have the look at all and he sounded dreadful with his version of Ricky Martin’s She Bangs. But his horrid audition was catchy enough for him to garner a fan following including the release of a disc tiled Inspiration and numerous talk show appearances. Weird how a singer could become so famous for their awfulness and imperfections. Today William is out of music altogether and now works for the LA County Sherriff’s Department.

Then along came this thing called Youtube in 2005. Youtube went from being a channel that simply showed home movies to also changing the fame game. People could become famous for simply saying things like “Leave Britney alone,” or “Charlie bit my finger.” It was a place musicians can play their own music which would pave the way for the popularity of Chocolate Rain. It was also where a teenager could become hugely famous for a hyperactive 6 year-old character named Fred.

Youtube was also seen as a domain for professional skilled musicians to show their stuff and hopefully get their big break. It worked for launching the careers of recent teen phenoms like Justin Bieber and Cody Simpson. It also allowed a 13 year-old girl named Rebecca Black perform a song called Friday. Tailor-made by an amateur music producer with a $5000 promise to her parents it would make her a star, it was done with cheesy lyrics, Rebecca Black singing either monotoned, nasally or to auto-tune, and the producer rapping. The song was placed on Youtube back in February of 2011 and has received 31,000,000 hits so far and 810,000 ‘thumbs’: almost 80% are dislikes. It worked to propel Rebecca to fame but the kind of fame with a lot of ridicule. Yet its awfulness also started a huge following with a lot of satire videos to follow. A lot of people will admit the awfulness was catchy. Even Lady Gaga thinks Rebecca Black is a genius.

Now 2012 brings a new chapter to awful entertainment and yes, it’s courtesy of Youtube. Two California high school girls going by the name of Double Take recorded a song entitled Hot Problems about the problems girls that are labeled ‘hot’ go through and had the video placed on the OldBaileyProductions channel on April 15th. Since then the song has gone viral to the point it has already received 12,000,000 hits. The reactions are mostly negative as the song has received over 520,000 dislikes and not even 40,000 likes. It even has many people comparing the song to Friday in terms of its awfulness. It has cheesy lyrics and the singing of the two girls sound like they don’t have a hint of skill or unison. Yes, it too has had its own spoof videos too. Some are even calling it the ‘worst song ever’. Didn’t they say the same thing about Friday last year?

All parties involved in this have responded to the feedback from the song. OldBaileyProductions responded saying they have nothing to do with the song and that they created the video as a favor for a sibling of a friend. The two girls of Double Take, Drew Garrett and Lauren Willey, also responded to the feedback to their ‘masterpiece of maladroit’. They admit they were not good singers and that they were just simply ‘talk-singing’. They also said they made the video to simply have something funny for their friends and didn’t mean anything from it. Hey, at least they’re not desperate for fame the way Rebecca Black and her parents were. Also unlike Rebecca Black, they’re brushing all negative criticism aside. They are heading to college with career plans for real careers but they do admit that they’re ‘open’ to careers as songwriters. Also they admit they don’t consider themselves ‘hot’.

Nevertheless it’s a surprise how another awful song or awful act gets a following. I’m sure that in this Youtube world, there will be more to come. Who knows? Maybe next year we might have a new ‘worst song ever’. You gotta love this planet.

WORK CITED:

“’Hot Problems’ Dubbed Worst Song Of The Year.” ABC News.go.com. 2012. ABC News. 20 April 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2012/04/hot-problems-dubbed-worst-song-of-the-year/>

VIFF 2011Review: Black Bread (Pa Negre)

On Friday October 14th, the Vancouver International Film Festival came to a close. The film shown at the Closing Gala in the Visa Screening Room at the Vogue Theatre, where all the festival’s awards were given out, was the French-language film The Kid With A Bike. The very last film to start running at the film fest was the 9:45 showing of The Kid With A Bike again at the Visa Screening Room.

However the last film to finish at the festival was the Catalan-language Spanish film Black Bread (Pa Negre). It was actually at the former location of the Visa Screening Room; Theatre 7 at the Granville 7. Fortunately for me, I had a ticket for Black Bread. I have to say I’m very glad I had a chance to see it. It’s an intriguing story of innocence lost and of the scarring of hard truths.

The film starts with a murder taking place. A man and his son are killed as their coach falls off a cliff led by their horse who had been slapped by a rock. The film’s protagonist, young Andreu, discovers the wreckage and sees the wounded boy utter his last words: “Pitorliua.”

We soon learn that the victims were Dionis, a bird dealer, and his son. Dionis was a bird dealer who raised and dealt birds with Farriol, Andreu’s father. Farriol is suspected of the murders by the town major. He’s an easy target for his Marxist beliefs and supported the Second Spanish Republic whom Generalissimo Franco opposed, and because he rivaled the major for the love of Florencia who’d eventually marry Farriol. Things take a turn in the family as Farriol flees across the border into France, Florencia starts working in a fabrics factory in another town and Andreu is sent to live with paternal relatives. The house he lives in consists of his grandmother, a widowed aunt who has a son slightly older than Andreu, an unmarried aunt who’s pressured into marrying a man she doesn’t love and Nuria, an orphaned cousin of his who lost her hand while playing with a grenade. He and Nuria would develop a friendship and it’s his time with Nuria that would most change his life forever.

Now Andreu is a smart boy with a very promising future but the surroundings he lives in are unpromising. His father is on the run, his mother works in a factory, the village teacher is an alcoholic who teaches the wrong things, and the relatives he lives with work as servants to the wealthy Manuben family. Soon over time, the first dark secrets about Andreu’s family would be exposed. His unmarried aunt is having a secret affair with a civil guard. Nuria is engaging in sexual games with the teacher. Meanwhile he also meets a teenage boy naked in the woods: a sickly boy living in a monastery who believes he has angel wings. Andreu befriends him and even sets food aside for him daily.

Soon Andreu accidentally learns his father was hiding inside his relative’s attic raising birds, instead of fleeing to France. The major eventually searches the house, finds Farriol, and imprisons him. Farriol tells Andreu to convince his mother to ask the Mrs. Manubens for help. Mrs. Manubens, childless herself, is impressed with Andreu and writes a letter to the major interceding for Farriol. When Florencia tries to deliver it, the major makes a sexual advance to her.

Soon a secret about his mother would be exposed with the unraveling of the truth about Pitorliua. Since the coach crash, Andreu had been told by villagers that Pitorliua was a ghost that believed to live in a cave. However there was a person many years ago who would be given the name Pitorliua after death. He was a delicate young man whom his mother befriended in her youth. When Andreu and Nuria go to Pitorliua’s tomb, they encounter Pauletta, the half-demented widow of Dionis. Pauletta exposes that the man known as Pitorliua was Mrs. Manubens’ only brother and a homosexual who was castrated in ‘punishment’ for his orientation. The two children discover the cave where Pitorliua was castrated and discover the names of the culprits on the wall: Farriol and Dionis. As Andreu confronts his mother, Florencia reveals that they were paid by Mrs. Manubens to scare Pitorliua off but things went too far.

Farriol is sentenced to death. Florencia and Andreu visit him the day before he is executed. Andreu shows him the bird he raised. Farriol tells Andreu to never forget his ideals and to go with his heart. After the execution and burial, Pauletta reveals to Florencia with Andreu listening that it was Farriol killed Dionis and her son. Farriol was instructed by Mrs. Manubens to get revenge on Dionis for blackmailing her. In return, Mrs. Manubens bought Farriol’s silence in exchange for Andreu to get an excellent education. Angry at all the lies he had heard of his family, this was the last straw for Andreu. He immediately rejects his family and even goes as far as trying to kill all his father’s birds. After, he and Nuria bury dead birds and Nuria’s severed hand in a box. They first plan to run away together but Andreu accepts the education offered at the expenses of Mrs. Manubens. Even as Florencia visits Andreu at the school, Andreu still hasn’t forgiven his parents.

The major theme of the film has a lot to do with children’s innocence being exposed to the dark secrets of their family and learning the truth about the lies adults tell. Andreu is a carefree child at the beginning of the film but the coach crash would signal the beginning of the end. It is upon meeting Nuria, already insane from the grenade explosion and her ‘encounters’ with her teacher, that Andreu would be lead into ultimately unleashing his inner monster. Even though Andreu is innocent enough to reject Nuria’s sexual advance at first, Nuria would lead Andreu along that path as she would lead him to the cave where Farriol killed Pitorliua. As each additional lie and dirty secret about his family and village is exposed to him, his innocence withers away. It is when Pauletta reveals the truth about Farriol and the coach crash that it’s finally all over and Andreu explodes in rage. In the end, Andreu’s heart is so hardened, he still can bring himself to forgive his parents or even associate in any which way with his mother. I believe the death of the children’s innocence is best symbolized with the burial of the box with the dead birds and Nuria’s severed hand. In retrospect, it seems as though the children, even the crazy and deluded ones like Nuria and the teenage boy, are more trustworthy than the adults.

The motif of birds is key in this film as it is birds or bird-like people that are linked to the unraveling of events. It is the last words of Dionis’ son ‘Pitorliua’ that would start the unraveling of truths to Andreu about his father and village. It is the father’s raising of birds that connects Andreu with his father in both Farriol’s life and death. It is the real Pitorliua who is the exposure of truth behind the myth claimed by the village and the truth of Farriol exposed to Andreu. It is how the crash where the boy uttered Pitorliua where the hardest truth about Farriol would be exposed to Andreu some time later. It is Andreu’s killing of his father’s birds that would symbolize his severing of ties with his family and his inner monster breaking out. Even the statement Nuria gives him; “That would be your portrait: portrait of a bird killer” would symbolize the dead innocence in Andreu. It is the teenage boy that resembles the spirit of Pitorliua that Andreu would be the one connection to Andreu and his innocence. It is when Andreu hugs the boy goodbye that symbolizes the end of Andreu’s innocence.

What adds to the film’s story is the political situation in the time set. This is the 1940’s. Catalonia lost to Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s Spain in the Civil War in the 1930’s and is under its tight rule. The Catalan language and culture is repressed under criminal punishment and Marxism is also grounds for arrest too. The rich Manubens not being punished for their role in the planned killing of Dionis and his son, and even paying people to carry out duties they wanted, can also be seen as something political too. I strongly believe director Augusti Villaronga is making a statement about the politics of the past. What made me nervous in the film was hearing the teacher teach the children “History is written by winners.” That made me nervous because Catalonia was on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War. I also feel Villaronga is making an additional statement as Farriol appears to be a Marxist to the end but is later revealed to be a murderer and one willing to commit acts of atrocity for a rich family in exchange for either payment or other favors.

The overall acting of the actors was excellent. Nora Navas and Roger Casamajor are excellent as the parents. Young actors Marina Comas and Francesc Colomer are also excellent and very believable in what is their acting debuts. Supportive roles from Marina Gatell and Laia Marull were also excellent. Augusti Villaronga did an excellent job in directing and adapting the novel to screen.

Black Bread already has a lot of buzz surrounding it. It was a big hit at the San Sebastian Film Festival. It won nine Goya Awards, Spain’s national film awards. Then the day before the VIFF began, news was made that it beat out Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In as Spain’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Academy Awards. It’s especially ironic since The Skin I Live In was the film shown at the VIFF’s Opening Gala. Black Bread is one of seventeen films at the VIFF that are its respective country’s official entry into that category. It was the first time a film shot primarily in Catalan–the predominant language the northeastern region of Catalonia– was entered into that category As Spain’s official entry.

Black Bread was a great film to end my year at the Vancouver International Film Festival. It’s haunting story of innocence lost stays with you and leaves you thinking. The world does seem less truthful and less noble. The past seems more brutal and more chaotic than the images of peace and harmony that we often associate it with. A definite eye opener.

Is The End Of Gadhafi A New Beginning For Libya?

The news just broke days ago. After months of fighting, warfare and rebellion, the rebels deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi and have just raided his compound as of now. Gadhafi is currently in hiding but refuses to believe he has been removed from power. The news of Gadhafi’s overthrow was expected over time. After 42 years, many feel this will be a new change for Libya but the question is will it be positive or negative?

Before 1969, Libya was a kingdom with increasing oil wealth. It adopted a constitution to model the freedoms and liberties similar to that of European and North American states. It also received huge foreign influence from countries like the United States, Italy and Great Britain in aiding increased levels of wealth and tourism. While most welcomed these contributions, there were many who saw it as a threat.

On September 1, 1969, a group of young soldiers led by 27 year-old Muammar Gadhafi staged a coup d’etat on King Idris and launched the Libyan revolution. In 1973 Gadhafi imposed Sharia law on all of Libya, purged of the ‘politically sick’ and a ‘people’s militia would ‘protect the revolution.’ The revolution was both in culture and administration. 20% of workers in Libya were under heavy surveillance by Gadhafi. Executions of dissidents were made public and broadcast on state television. In 1977 Gadhafi officially declared Libya the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahirya and adopted a national flag that was completely green. Gadhafi opposed any Arab country that sided with Israel and even declared a four day war on Egypt. He also supplied arms to any of its allies, both nations and terrorist groups.

Another key note is that Gadhafi was heavily influential in terrorism during the first two decades of his reign.  Some believe he was the tour de force of terrorism at the time that would pave the way for groups like Al Qaeda. He formed the Black September movement which caused many attack in the 1970’s including the Olympic Attack in Munich where 11 Israeli athletes were killed. His terrorists were also instrumental in hijacking airplanes which led to the tight security on airplanes that still continue and become stricter to this day. In 1985, it was discovered by the United States that Gadhafi harbored a camp for training terrorists. This led to President Ronald Reagan to declare an airstrike on Libya in 1986. The strike failed to kill or depose Gadhafi but killed his daughter. His terrorist activities died down soon after but not without one last infamous attack of a bomb on a flying plane exploding over Scotland in 1988, killing hundreds. Even despite his terrorist activities dying down, he still talked tough and sided with Arab leaders who were anti-Israel.

In 2011, people’s movements in Tunisia and Egypt led to the overthrow of their heads of state. The revolutionary spirit spread to other Arab countries including Libya starting in the month of February. Gadhafi quickly condemned the uprising and claimed it was being engineered by Western elements and Israel.  By March, much of Libya had tipped out of Gadhafi’s control where even members of the Libyan army were joining the revolt. Gadhafi loyalists were encouraged to kill the protesters. Soon international forces from the United States, the United Kingdom and France had joined forces to declare a military operation to remove Gadhafi. In June, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for systematically planning and implementing attacks on civilians. By August 22, 2011, rebel fighters had gained influence and control of Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square. Meanwhile Gadhafi asserts he’s still in Libya and will not concede power to the rebels.

Now the overthrow of Gadhafi is definite or eventual, if not official. There comes the big question. What will come of Libya in the future? Will it become a better stronger country? Or will it face its own problems?

The country is now mostly controlled by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Gadhafi’s former justice minister who established the National Transitional Council shortly after the Libyan revolt began. The Declaration of the council includes many key aims like: ensuring safety of its citizens and liberating the rest of Libya, restoring normal civilian life, have the military council achieve a doctrine protecting Libyan citizens and defending the borders, draft a new constitution, pave the way for free elections and guide the conduct of foreign policy and international relations.

The policies appear promising but the big question is can it be attained over time? Many Arab countries that have established new freedoms and new liberties have faced the threat from dissidents, terrorists and loyalists of the former dictators. Afghanistan and Iraq have held elections and drafted new constitutions after their revolutions but have constantly faced attacks from many dissident factions that still happen to this day. Also it is possible of another coup d’etat in the future from a new dissident or Gadhafi loyalist with military power. The future of Libya has yet to be determined in the wake of the deposition of Gadhafi that continues as we speak.

Libya also has the 10th largest oil reserves in the world and the 17th highest petroleum production. It’s high petroleum production and low population has given it the fourth-highest GDP in Africa. During Gadhafi’s reign, the money was used to buy arms which led to many of the terrorist attacks. The wealth was not evenly spread out amongst the people. Under a new government in Libya, will the wealth be used more generously for the sake of developing the nation and the quality of life for its citizens? Or will it be a heated political debate in the future?

Since Gadhafi’s official overthrow is eventual, the future of Libya is a big question. The future of the country and the leadership that follows will be a new chapter in the country’s history but which direction it goes, and whether the new intended freedoms and liberties will be successfully carried out, still remains a question that only time can answer.

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: Libya. Wikipedia.com. 2011. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libya>

WIKIPEDIA: National Transitional Council. Wikipedia.com. 2011. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Transitional_Council>

Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda 2

Yes, I’m playing catch-up with my movie reviews of the summer. Hope you like this late review.

I’m sure you remember the first Kung Fu Panda. Po was the lumpy clumsy Panda who came from nowhere to become the Dragon Warrior. It charmed audiences, made people laugh and even rivaled Disney/Pixar in making 3D animated movies. Now Po’s back in Kung Fu Panda 2. But does this new version of Kung Fu Panda still have its kick?

We begin the movie learning of the clash between the peacock clan and their son Lord Shen stealing the power of the fireworks and using them as weapons. When Shen learned from a soothsayer that a warrior in black and white would defeat him, Shen exiled the pandas from the village. Shen’s parents exiled him soon after to which Shen swore revenge.

Flash forward 20 years, we see Po as the Dragon Warrior protecting the Valley Of Peace with the Furious Five who are now his friends and allies. Master Shifu senses Po lacks inner peace. At first Po doesn’t know what he meant until the five attack a band of wolf bandits. During the fight, Po is distracted by a symbol on the head wolf’s armor which causes a flashback to memories of his birthmother. He then learns from his father, the goose Mr. Ping, that he found him as a baby in a radish basket and adopted him since. Learning that truth leaves Po frustrated and upset.

Later Master Shifu learns that Master Thundering Rhino has been killed by Lord Shen with a cannon he build and plans to use to destroy kung fu tradition and conquer China. Po and the five go to Gongmen City to end Shen’s control. They come across two imprisoned council members and try to chase down Shen’s wofl pack, only to be captured. Upon being brought before Shen, Po and the Five break free and destroy Shen’s cannon. However Po is again distracted by the symbol that caused flashbacks of his mother which allows Shen to escape and destroy the tower with an arsenal of cannons. After escaping, a concerned Tigress confronts Po of his distraction. Po knows of Shen’s presence on the day he was separated from his parents and has to ask him about his past

Despite Tigress fearing for him, Po breaks into Shen’s cannon factory and confronts him. Shen tells Po his parents abandoned him before blasting him out of the factory and capturing the Five. Po finds himself rescued by an exiled Soothsayer in the city he was born in. The Soothsayer guides him to embrace his past where Po learns his village was raided at the time he was born as Shen’s forces killed every panda and burned the village. Po’s father was fighting the war and told Po’s mother to run and escape with their baby. Po’s mother ran throughout the snow and left him in a radish box at a place she knew he’d be safe, Mr. Ping’s place. It’s upon returning to his old home and finding his childhood toy that he learns he was given up out of love and raised out of love. Finally he attains inner peace.

Po then returns to Gongmen City to save the Five and stop Shen from conquering China. Po and the Five along with Ox and Croc block the gates to shop Shen but Shen’s cannon clears the way and lands them all in the ocean. While Shen attacks Po with his cannon, Po is able to use his inner peace to redirect Shen’s cannon fires to Shen’s cannon, destroying it. He then urges Shen to let go of his past, but Shen refuses and attacks Po. In the fight, Shen accidentally cuts the ropes to his own cannon and is crushed to death. Po achieves victory and freedom for Gongmen City. He returns to Mr. Ping and lovingly declares him as his father. The very end may hint to many that there may be a Kung Fu Panda 3.

While I’m not a big fan of most Holywood sequels, I have to say that I was impressed with Kung Fu Panda 2. It managed to have a story different from the first movie. Its fights and special effects were just as dazzling as the first. The characters still had their charm from the original and especially kept the appeal of Po. The movie had an excellent range of voice-over talent with renowned actors like Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and many others. The animation graphics were excellent and top notch to the slightest detail.

For the most part, I believe the movie would be fine for parents of children but not for most adults. It is a movie that doesn’t have the same level of adult appeal as a Disney/Pixar animated movie would. Some things that may appeal to parents is the actors doing the voiceovers. Overall, the movie, storyline and humor are more tailor made for families of young children.

 Overall Kung Fu Panda 2 makes for an enjoyable night out at the movies for families of young children. Even some older children or teenage fans of the first movie will enjoy it.