Tag Archives: Christian

UEFA EURO 2020: Semifinal Predictions

Four teams left. Who will be the finalists for Sunday?

Hard to believe it took 135 goals in the 48 matches in 11 stadiums in 11 nations to decide the four semifinalists. Anyways the four semifinalists have all been decided: Denmark, England, Italy and Spain. All semifinals and the final for the Cup will be held in London’s Wembley Stadium. You can expect a lot of chants of ‘It’s Coming Home’ to echo. In the meantime, here’s my focus and predictions on the two Euro 2020 semi-finals:

SEMIFINAL #1: ITALY vs. SPAIN

Head-to-Head Stuff: Spain and Italy have played each other 33 times. Nine times they drew. The other 26 times, the results have been split! Their last head-to-head match was in September 2017 during World Cup qualifying which Spain won 3-0. Spain has won five of the last ten meetings including the 2012 Euro final for the Cup. Italy’s only won two of the last ten but their last win over Spain was a Euro 2016 rematch in the Round of 16 where they won 2-0!

Team By Team Analysis:

ITALY: Italy is a team that went from a national embarrassment to success in most recent years. We’re talking about a nation with one of the world’s biggest football legacies with three World Cup and winning Euro 1968. However recent years after their most recent World Cup win in 2006 would soon expose some of Italy’s weaknesses. They failed to win a game at the 2010 which they were defending World Cup champions and found themselves out in the Group Stage. Another out in the Group Stage happened at the 2014 World Cup. 2016 failed to redeem them as they were out in the quarterfinals of the Euro that year. And them World Cup qualifying. Italy was in Group G which was won by Spain. With Italy being second in the group, they were given a playoff chance where they were drawn against Sweden. The first game, that was played in Sweden, the Swedes won 1-0. The second game was to be in Italy, which seemed to assure they would take it. The whole game went scoreless and Sweden was the team going to the World Cup. World Cup 2018 was only the third World Cup without the Italian team present!

What happened after worked in their favor. There would be a new lead of the Italian Football Federation and the team would be managed under Roberto Mancini. The team also showed promise as they would finish third at the under-20 World Cup and fourth at the 2019 under-20 World Cup, showing a lot of potential for young talent to rise. The results turned out to be very winning. Italy’s last loss was to Portugal in September 2018. Italy went through straight wins in 2019. 2020 was a case where they won five of their eight matches and 2021 has been another case of nothing but wins so far. At Euro 2020, they won all three of their Group Stage matches without conceding a single goal. Italy would go on to win their Round of 16 match against Austria and their quarterfinal against Belgium.

Italy find themselves in the semifinal against Spain. Every Euro game, they’ve been showing their renewed strength and reminding people why Italy is a football superpower. However the Spaniards are an experienced team and they might lose out to them. Also if it becomes a case for penalty kicks, it can be a losing battle for Italy as penalty kicks are one of their weaknesses. It will all be decided Tuesday.

SPAIN: Spain is a team that for a long time has been commonly known as ‘football’s greatest underachievers.’ They have always been a team loaded with talent, but couldn’t seem to deliver during the biggest events. Then something changed around the late-2000’s. Spain won their second Euro in 2008. Could it be that Spain could win the World Cup in the near future? The World Cup in 2010 answered that with a big “Yes!” It started off with a loss on their first game, but game after game was win after win up to winning the Cup. Spain continued their success with a win of the 2012 Euro and runners-up at the 2013 Confederations Cup. Then the downfall. At the 2014 World Cup, Spain became the latest defending champion to be out in the Group Stage. Further humiliation came when Spain was out in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016 and the Round Of 16 at the 2018 World Cup.

Things have changed ever since Luis Enrique, who himself represent Spain at three World Cups and Euro 1996. The team began to regroup and reorganize itself better. Of the 35 matches Spain has played since the 2018 World Cup before Euro 2020, they have only lost three matches and won eighteen. Here at the Euro, they started out slowly with drawing the first two games, which is common for Spain, and then let out its best team traits by first winning 5-0 to Slovakia. This then led to a Round of 16 win against Croatia 5-3 in added extra time and a penalty kick win over Switzerland in the quarterfinals. Spain has what it takes to win the semifinal and even the Euro.

They know how to deliver. They just need to do all the right moves in order to make it happen. We should remember that Spain’s 3-3 tie against Croatia after regulation was because of an own-goal. They’re just as capable of losing to Italy as they are winning over Italy. They can’t afford any more bad mistakes or slack play as they’re getting closer to the final.

My Final Verdict:

Fourth straight Euro Italy and Spain cross paths. First was 2008 in the quarterfinals, then 2012 was group play and the final for the Cup, 2016 was the Round of 16, now this semifinal! This is a tough one considering both the head-to-head statistics and the way the two teams have played here in Euro 2020. I anticipate it will end up a 2-2 draw after added extra time that will go to penalty kicks, which Spain will win.

SEMIFINAL #2: ENGLAND vs. DENMARK

Head-To-Head Stuff: England and Denmark have faced each other 21 times. England won 12 of those games. Five have been draws. Denmark has won four. Three of those Denmark victories have been in the last six meet-ups. The most recent being a 1-0 victory over England in October 2020.

Team By Team Analysis:

ENGLAND: England has always been known to have a wealth of talent. And rightly so. Its Premier League showcases the best English football talent has to offer. However the difficulty always comes when trying to get a national team together. So many players who play great for their clubs, and they bring it to the national team. However the national team almost always falls short. Like the team players can’t function properly as a unified team unit. England did win one World Cup all the way back in 1966, but it’s been a struggle since with the most being two fourth-place finishes. England is the only team in the semifinals who never won a Euro; their best result being third-places in 1968 and 1996. However it was 2104 when England appeared to really hit rock bottom when they were out in the Group Stage of World Cup 2014 without a win. Being ousted in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016 didn’t help much either.

Then things changed when they introduced Gareth Southgate, a former Team England player himself, as head manager. Things really improved as the team started to show improvements in their play together. The 2018 World Cup was a case where they finished fourth, but they showed a remarkable improvement in their play and even won their first ever World Cup match on penalty kicks against Colombia! England has since shown impressive play since them. Before Euro 2020, they’ve only lost five of the 30 games they’ve played since and won 21 games. Since Euro began, they haven’t been like Italy and had straight wins, but they do have a tournament milestone that they have not conceded a single goal in the tournament so far. They appear to be getting better every game. For their Round of 16 match against Germany, they won on home soil: 2-0. And to think during Euro 1996, Southgate, who was a player for England at the time, was the one who delivered the missed penalty in the semifinal which got England out! Their 4-0 win over Ukraine was dazzling to watch.

England has the luxury of a talented team that performs better than ever as a team unit. Not to mention the home advantage with the semis and final in Wembley stadium. However it could fall apart right there. Plus that 1-0 loss to Denmark was back in October 2020, so not all that recent. England will have to keep on playing as well as they have in recent games if they want to reach the final for the Cup.

DENMARK: Normally you don’t think of Denmark as a football superpower. I mean they only competed in their first World Cup in 1986 and their best World Cup finish has been the quarterfinals all the way back in 1998. However Euro tells of bigger success. This is Denmark’s fourth time ever in the Top 4. Past success includes a third-place in 1984 and a win in 1992. Denmark did have a downturn in their success as they failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euro. Things changed after they were taken on by Norwegian manager Age Hareide. In qualifying for the World Cup, Denmark finished second in their group against Poland, was pitted against the Republic of Ireland in their playoff matches and won 5-1. Denmark would then go on to finish in the Round of 16. After that was the switch to a Danish manager, Kasper Hjulmand, who has helped make the improvements in the team.

The Danes played their first game in Copenhagen expecting to show the world what they’re made of. Instead the first half of their first game against Finland had a shocker of a moment when midfielder Christian Eriksen suddenly collapsed. The whole stadium was in shock. The whole Danish team was distraught and his wife was heartbroken. The game was ordered to stop. Over time, it became apparent that Eriksen was alive and conscious. Eventually he was taken to a nearby hospital where his condition was diagnosed as cardiac arrest. A bombshell would come the following day that he was deceased for five minutes!

Once it was clear Eriksen was alive and being hospitalized UEFA gave the go-ahead to resume the game more than an hour after it stopped. Many did not like the idea. In the end, Finland won 1-0. Denmark has not fully recovered from the shock when they were to play Belgium. They lost 2-1. Over time, the Danish team overcame the shock. Eriksen recovered well enough to visit his team mates. For their last game against Russia, they really showed what they were made of by winning 4-1. Their Round of 16 match was against Wales which they won 4-0, and then their quarterfinal over the Czech Republic which they won 2-1. As has happened in the past, Denmark has delivered the unexpected. They can deliver the unexpected again in Wembley. However it could easily be the end for them if they don’t play as well as they have in recent games. It can be just as much Denmark’s as it can be England’s on Wednesday. It’s about which team delivers the most.

CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN Update: For those wondering what happened to Christian Eriksen since his cardiac arrest, he has been released from the hospital and has met with teammates in Helsingor, but more importantly, he did undergo a successful operation beforehand on June 18 and he’s since returned to be with is family. No word if he’ll play professional football again. Most leagues won’t allow a footballer to play again after they suffer cardiac arrest.

My Final Verdict: This is a tough prediction, especially since the last England vs. Denmark match was a Danish victory, but I think the win will be England 2-1.

And there you have it. My predictions for the two semifinals of Euro 2020. Hard to believe the final for the Cup is coming so soon. Hard to believe we all had to wait forever for it! Anyways, stay toond!

VIFF 2020 Review: Undine

Paula Beer plays a Modern-day undine in Christian Petzold’s latest film Undine.

Undine was the first live-action foreign-language film I saw at the VIFF. It’s a very unique story.

The film begins with a man names Johannes breaking up with his girlfriend. She is distraught and even says she’ll have to kill him. Her name is Undine Wibeau. Undine tries to go about her daily life as she works as a historian at the Berlin City Museum. There she shows people a model of the city and tells of the history of Berlin. Undine has a unique ability to focus in on places and areas. She has an area of the Spree River in focus.

At a remote area of the Spree River, a man named Christoph works in the water to weld or to search out treasures found in the ocean floor. That is his profession. Undine returns to the cafe where she and Johannes used to drink at. That’s where she meets Christoph for the first time. The conversation gets friendly, but an accident happens. The accident causes them to bump into the cafe’s fish tank, causing it to break and spill all over. Both Undine and Christoph fall to the floor in love. However the owner is furious and bans the two from the cafe forever.

Over time the relationship between Christoph and Undine grows. They even move in together. One time during his job, Christoph offers to show Undine what he’s seen. Undine goes down, but without the scuba gear and she later floats off. He senses something peculiar about her. His sense of peculiarity grows right during his job he comes across a sunken ship with the name Undine on it.

Even though the relationship between Undine and Christoph grows, Undine still can’t help but think of Johannes. It strikes her as she goes about her job but when she looks at a part in the module that resembles the location of the cafe, she gets the sense that Johannes is there. Even while she’s walking romantically with Christoph in a park, she noticed Johannes with his new girlfriend. She turns her head, but returns back to Christoph. However Christoph sensed something. It wasn’t just the turn of the head but the the change of her heartbeat. It infuriates him, but Undine confesses the truth. That it was her ex.

Heartbroken, Undine goes to the cafe where Johannes is. Despite the owner being infuriated by Undine’s presence, she meets with Johannes and says he wants her back. The next day, an emergency happens at Christoph’s job site. The oxygen has been cut from his scuba outfit and he’s removed from the river unconscious. Undine is distraught to learn the news. She goes over to the hospital to see Christoph, but there’s a woman by his bedside. Christoph is unconscious and comatose. The woman tells Undine he’s brain-dead and she unleashes her anger on her. Undine leaves, going to Johannes’ place later that night. Johannes is in the pool while his girlfriend goes in the house to get a drink. Undine enters the pool. While Johannes is happy to see her, Undine drowns him. The then leaves and walks into the Spree River naked.

Two years pass. Christoph is alive and well. He recovered from his coma. The woman from the hospital, Monika, is his girlfriend and they are expecting their first child together. However Christoph is sensing something back to the Spree River. He returns one night alone, and there he sees her: Undine. She is alive and well and she belongs in the water. It becomes clear who is truly in Christoph’s heart.

One thing about this film is that it gets into the myth of the undine. For those who don’t know, the undine is a lot like the mermaid most us are familiar with. However the mermaid is just one of the images of the undine. The mythical undine is a lot darker than the mermaid who wants to please the man she meets. In fact one aspect of the undine is if the man is unfaithful to her, he is doomed to die.

What this film does is try to get to the common image of the undine in both its positive qualities and its negative qualities too. In a sense, the film is more of a reminder of the undine myth. The film also tries to set the myth of the undine in the modern world. In modern-day Berlin to be exact. Undine Wibeau is the undine in the modern world who lives along the humans, but gets to the true sense of who she is when she’s in the water.

One unique thing about the film is how they use Berlin as part of the telling of the story. Undine works as a historian with an urban development team. She knows a lot of Berlin’s history form centuries back to the days of division with the Berlin was to the present and its developments. The history also provides clues to Undine’s own past and own identity. One would be surprised how a story of an undine in modern Berlin would come to be.

This is another good film by Christian Petzold. Petzold has become one of Germany’s most heralded directors in recent years with films like Barbara, Jerichow and Phoenix. Here he delivers another good film. It’s very well-done, but it does have its flaws. The energy level does seem to get lost somewhere near the end. Nevertheless it is mostly well-written and well-acted. Paula Beer is also excellent as the mythical Undine. Her role may have lacked dimension, but she was very good in capturing the mythical figure of the undine well. The two leading men, Franz Rogowski and Jacob Matschenz, were good in their roles, but I felt their roles were underdeveloped. Hans Fromm did an excellent job with delivering the cinematography for the film.

Undine has done quite well on the film festival circuit. At the Berlin Film Festival in won the FIPRESI Prize and was nominated for the Golden Bear for Best Film. Beer herself won the Silver Bear Prize at that Festival for Best Actress. It’s also been a nominee for Best Film at the Denver Film Festival, Beijing Film Festival, Seville European Film Festival and a Best Narrative nominee at the Montclair Film Festival.

Undine is a good attempt at telling a modern-day story of the undine myth. It doesn’t keep the energy or the vibe consistent throughout the film, but it is picturesque and has a good sense of the characters.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Ford v. Ferrari

Ford Ferrari

Matt Damon (left) is Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale (right) is Ken Miles in the racing drama Ford v Ferrari.

At first you’ll think Ford v Ferrari is about cars. It is, and about car racing. However, you’ll be surprised how much more it’s about.

The Ford Motor Company is going through an image issue in the mid-1960’s. For decades starting at the very beginning of the 20th Century, Ford under the genius of Henry Ford manufactured cars that completely redid the way Americans travel. Ford is still on top and currently led by Henry Ford’s grandson Henry Ford II, but it’s trying to win over younger buyers of their cars. It’s a bit harder because young people have recently developed an interest in racing cars and see Fords as their ‘parents cars.’ In 1963, Vice-President Lee Iacocca recommends to Ford they strike a merger with the cash-strapped Italian company Ferrari. It seems like a good choice as Ferrari has been a big winner in racing. In fact Ferrari cars have won the most recent 24-hours of Le Mans races since 1960.

However over at the meeting at the Ferrari office, the meeting does not go well. Enzo Ferrari tells Ford that he accepted a deal with Fiat that’s more lucrative and allows him to keep the Scuderia Ferrari racing division. In the meeting, Ferrari insults the Ford cars and Henry II as ‘not Henry Ford but the grandson of Henry Ford.’ That infuriates Henry Ford and he plans a revenge on Ferrari. The revenge is actually one to take the Ford Car company into the future. He plans to have a Ford car designed to win auto races. He hires Carroll Shelby who won the Le Mans in 1959 but had to retire because of heart problems: a problem he consistently takes pills straight out of the bottle. Since retiring racing, Shelby devoted his time to developing cars for auto racing through his company Shelby American. Carroll Shelby is close friends with 47 year-old Ken Miles: a British auto racer who is infamous for his bad temper and struggles as a mechanic with owning his garage in Los Angeles. This is a burden not only to him, but his wife Mollie and young son Peter. Especially since the IRS is on his case.

Miles is Shelby’s first pick in his Cobra team to test out his cars. Miles’ racing style and car know-how allows Shelby to make good decisions. He is always very honest with Shelby whenever he notices something that needs an improvement or when something’s a weakness. However, the choice of Ken Miles does not go well with Henry Ford, especially since he feels Miles’ personality and notorious temper doesn’t fit the Ford image. Ford elects to send Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren to the 1964 Le Mans instead. Miles predicts none of the Ford participants will win the race, and he ends up right. Once again, the race is won by a Ferrari driver.

Despite the big loss at Le Mans 1964, Shelby tries to reassure Ford that one of the Ford drivers hit 218 mph on the Ford GT40 and that made Ferrari nervous. Meanwhile it’s back to the drawing board. Shelby continues development on the Ford GT40 Mk II and he has Miles test the cars with Peter watching frequently and Ford unhappy about the arrangement. On one practice run, the brakes fail and cause the car to crash in fiery manner, which Miles is lucky to escape.

In 1966, Ford takes an extra step in the efforts of their racing cards by creating a racing division of their company and has Ford’s Senior Vice-President Leon Beebe run it. Beebe wants the program a case where Miles is not a part of any of it, not even the testing. Shelby meets up with Ford on an opportunity and offers to take him into his car. Ford accepts, and Shelby drives like a racer on the track which scares Ford almost to death. It’s right there he convinces Ford that Miles is the best man to win Le Mans. Ford agrees, but with a compromise; Miles needs to win the 24-hours At Daytona first before he can race at Le Mans. Shelby visits Miles at a street corner near his house after he’s finished grocery shopping to tell him the news. That infuriates Miles so much, he has a fist-fight with Shelby at the corner, which wife Mollie watches entertainingly.

Shelby and Miles continue with the racing and testing as Peter continues to watch and Phil Remington is the mechanic doing the fixing. Beebe is hoping Miles doesn’t win as he has puts in a second Ford entry in Daytona with NASCAR team Holdman-Moody supporting it. The Holdman-Moody team is faster at pit stops, but Shelby allows Miles to push his car to 7000 RPM. The result: Miles wins Daytona. It’s Miles’ first win in five years. Miles also has continued success later by winning the 12 Hours Of Sebring. Le Mans will be Miles’ chance to win the rare Triple Crown of endurance races.

At the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, Miles is there as is Shelby, but so is Ford and Beebe. So is Enzo Ferrari in hopes of this being victory #7 for the Ferrari car. Ferrari has just released his latest racing prototype, 330 P3, and his best hopes in repeating rest with Italian driver Lorenzo Bandini. Mollie and Peter are listening to the race on the radio as Peter will be going through the race on the Le Mans racetrack he drew.

The race starts and Miles has problems on the first lap as the passenger door won’t close; he has to steer with his right hand and hold the door with his left. At the first lap, Miles alerts of the problem, which Remington fixes with a sledgehammer. Miles gets back to driving and has a lot of ground to make up. With each lap, he breaks the track record and passes numerous Ferraris as he gains ground on the leaders. However, as he’s pursuing Bandini, brake problems occur. At the pit stop, the team replaces the brake system, which infuriates Enzo Ferrari. He feels it’s against the rules, but Shelby is able to successfully convince race officials that the brake replacement is within the rules. As the race continues, Bandini is in hot pursuit by Miles, but Bandini is the last Ferrari driver in the race. As they duel again on the Mulsanne Straight, Bandini blows is engine and is out, making this the first Le Mans since 1959 Ferrari won’t win!

There’s still one more act of the drama. Three Ford cars lead the race nearing the finish with Miles leading them all. What should be a normal racing situation actually becomes a publicity opportunity for Henry Ford. He envisions all three Ford crossing the finish line simultaneously and even Beebe gets Shelby to tell Miles to slow down and set up for the opportunity. Miles is furious about this as this could put his Triple Crown in jeopardy and responds by setting more lap records, but eventually agrees with it. Miles does slow down and the three cross the finish simultaneously. However, it’s not a shared win as Ford driver McLaren is declared the winner. Shelby is mad that it ends all chances of Miles’ Triple Crown, but Miles is not down. Miles is just grateful for driving at Le Mans and giving the crowd a show.

That race would be Ken Miles’ last ever race. One day while testing a J-car, and with Shelby and Peter around, Ken crashed near a turn. It was a ball of fire and he didn’t get out. The fatal crash happened in Peter’s view. Some time later, Shelby goes to visit Mollie and Peter. He sees Peter still hurt but gives him words of comfort about his father and gives him a wrench Ken threw at Carroll years ago. As for Mollie, he just waves back from a distance after she waved to him. Then he drives off like a racer.

The film is unique as it is more than just a story about racing. It’s also how one race depended on taking a solid American business and a business legendary in making automobile travel the new norm for the USA into the future. Because of it, or maybe not exactly because of it, people still drive Fords today. Ferraris are still the most expensive sports cars today but Ford is still one of the biggest auto manufacturers in the World. The film also gave us some reminders about sports business. Businesses don’t simply look for sportspeople who win all the time. They also look for those with a marketable image. Michael Jordan may be a case where one of the best sportsmen ever becomes the most marketable ever, but it’s not always a guarantee. Seeing how a great racer like Ken Miles was shunned by everybody except by his family and those involved with Shelby American is one example. Also how Henry Ford looked at him was also unpleasant to see. I remember one person said that Henry Ford simply not liking you was enough for him to fire you. Goes to show he was cruel to whoever as he was to Ken Miles.

The story isn’t only about racing or even about a remarkable race. It’s about an auto racer whom at an age most would retire from the sport at was having the most successful year of his life. It was his love for his family. He wanted to win for them. And he especially wanted to be seen by his son as someone to be proud of. It was also of a friendship between Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby. Miles was the one person Shelby can best trust for an honest opinion about his cars, or should I say Ford’s cars. Shelby saw a lot of qualities in Miles most others overlooked. The friendship was strong, but it wasn’t without its friction as both men were temperamental and fighters. But the friendship was still very strong.

One thing about this film is that it doesn’t compromise in being an auto racing film. Being such, it knows that it has to make the audience feel like they are part of the race or they are in the driver’s seat. The camera angles as well as many of the scene shots helped greatly in creating the experience and intensity and leaving the audience at the edge of their seat. The film also does a great job of putting the audience in the races too. Despite the intimate story, the story does not forget what it’s about and makes the audience feel the moments too.

The film marks another great success for director James Mangold. This is his sixth film to earn Oscar nominations and his first ever to be nominated for Best Picture. Although he missed a Best Director nomination, he creates a great film that delivers just as good a story as it delivers in racing excitement. The story by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth along with Jason Keller becomes more than a racing story with a simple plot. It’s a deep plot with three-dimensional characters and reminds the audience that the story is as much about the man, the friend, the husband and the father as it is about the racer.

The film marks another great performance for Christian Bale. Again he succeeds in getting into character and delivering a deep role. Not a false note about the character nor the father-son relationship. Matt Damon was also great as Carroll Shelby. His role may not have been as deep as Ken Miles’ but he added dimension and character to the role. The other standout of the film was Noah Jupe as Peter Miles. Noah made the father-son relationship work as well as Christian did. Other standout efforts include the cinematography from Phedon Papamichael. He knew the shots he needed for this racing film and he delivered, especially in some of the most intense scenes. The visual effects were also excellent and perfect for the film. Also the score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders added to the excitement of the film.

Ford v Ferrari is the remarkable story how a driver and a race depended on the future of the Ford auto company. It’s also a story about a friendship between two racers few of us knew of. And a reminder of an overlooked great in the sport.

Movie Review: The Wife

The Wife

Joan (Glenn Close) may appear to be the happy wife of author Joseph (Jonathan Pryce), but The Wife will slowly expose the truths.

The Wife is another summer release I missed out on seeing at the box office. Ever since its Oscar chances for Best Actress, it sparked my interest. I’m glad I saw it.

The film begins in 1992 with Joan Castleman and her husband Joseph just waking up. Joan appears to be the happy wife of a renowned author. They receive the news that Joseph has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Both are overjoyed, at least on the outside. At the party to celebrate, their daughter Susannah, who’s having a baby, is happy, but son David is less so. David has desires to be a writer, but seems to consider his talent inferior to his father’s. Especially since he’s hesitant about hearing his father’s critique of his short story. As Joan and Joseph fly to Stockholm, a reporter named Nathaniel Bone tries to congratulate Joseph. That only causes discomfort for the two, but you notice a certain bitter feeling in Joan. A bitterness that grows even further whenever he acknowledges Joan in public.

The film goes frequently from 1992 to the past to back to 1992. In the flashbacks starting in 1958, Joan Archer is a writing student at her university. Her writing and her looks have impressed a young Joseph Castleman who’s a college professor. Joan refutes his advances at first, but things change when she works at a publishing company and hears from her boss Elaine Mozell that female writers don’t have a chance at competing against men. Joan continues to attend more classes with Joseph teaching and his encouragement wins her love to him. Joseph tries to make it as a writer while Joan just wants to be a housewife. But when Joseph’s writing is declined by publishers, Joan starts tutoring him. By 1968, it’s a case where Joan ghostwrites novels Joseph is to be credited with while he plays ‘househusband’ to the kids. Over the decades after many novels, and adulterous affairs, the narcissistic Joseph has become a Nobel Prize winner.

Back to Stockholm, Joseph and Joan are put in a hotel with all of his books present. Joan appears to be excite over seeing all of his books published in other languages. Later, Joseph meets with many important people leading up to the Prizes ceremony. Joseph has a heart condition that comes without notice and requires medication, as noticed during the ceremony rehearsal. One night, Joseph is lured away by a young female photographer named Linnea. Joan leaves, unhappy with what she saw. Nathaniel notices an unhappy Joan in the hotel lounge and invites him to drinks. Nathaniel reveals he’s been studying up on Joseph and has gotten the sense that it was Joan who was doing all the writing. Joan tries to call them lies and tell him to go away. Meanwhile Linnea comes onto Joseph. Joseph accepts, but his heart condition acts back up. Both confront each other about what was going on, but the heated argument ends when they receive a phone call learning of their newborn grandson.

The night of the ceremony occurs. before the Awards, David arrives. He confronts the two about what he heard from Nathaniel Bone. The two deny everything. As Joseph receives the Prize, Joan’s bitterness grows first at the Prizes ceremony and then at the dinner banquet. In the limo to the hotel, they get into a heated argument which causes Joseph to give the prize to Joan, only for her to refuse it. The argument continues on as Joan throws books at Joseph and tells him she’s divorcing him. Joseph goes into a heart attack. It’s apparent it’s fatal. As Joseph is dying awaiting paramedics, Joan tells Joseph she loves him. Joseph’s last words to her are “You’re such a good liar.” On the airplane home with David, Nathaniel Bone acknowledges the loss, but Joan’s response, and the film’s ending, will surprise you in a subtle way.

This year’s Oscars appear to be full of films with social messages. This film has a message about sexism in the arts. We have Joan who wants to write, but it’s Joseph who takes the credit for it. It’s not that uncommon as I once read a 1975 book called The People’s Almanac and they had an article in their chapter on literature titled “She Wrote It, He Got The Credit.” We shouldn’t forget that the time Joan chose to ghostwrite for Joseph was back in the early 1960’s. Female writers may have better chances not, but it’s still hard. Don’t forget J.K. Rowling went by her initials instead of Joanna Rowling with that belief she won’t be taken seriously as a writer. The story is very similar to Big Eyes as Margaret Keane ‘ghostpainted’ under the name Walter Keane because of the sexism in art. I think that explains why Joan was very willing to ghostwrite for Joseph back then. Because she felt the only way she can show her writing to the world was under a male name.

Nevertheless the film is more about the story and the woman rather than the social message. Joan is a woman who appears to be happy on the outside and very in love with her husband. However as each passing moment and instance comes up, Joan’s hidden anger of being the true writer and the wife of an adulterous man becomes more obvious in her silence. You had the feeling that Joan would explode any minute and her true feelings would show. It happens right there after Joseph wins the big prize. However the thing about Joan is that she is willing to keep her peace after his death and make the truth known to just David and Susannah, but hidden from everyone else including Nathaniel Bone. It takes a person of that much self-control underneath the hidden rage to have that much strength to let things be.

The story itself is pieced together very well. We have that moment in 1992 in the days from when Joseph’s award is announced to his eventual death. We also have the past where Joseph and Joan meet, and then become the ‘writing pair’ over time. We also have Joseph being lured to Linnea which would unravel another dirty secret. The film does a good job in moving scenes from 1992 to back in the past to returning to Stockholm to returning to the past and so on. The quality is that it keeps the audience in the wonder. You have the audience thinking one thing at first, sensing something’s wrong later on, and then finding out the truth near the climactic end. That’s an excellent quality because it provides the film with the mystery to keep the audience intrigued.

This is the first English-language film directed by Swedish director Bjorn Runge. He does a very good job of directing the film and the story. I have never read the novel The Wife, but scriptwriter Jane Anderson does a very good job in adapting Meg Wolitzer’s novel into a story to keep the audience intrigued. The highlight of course is Glenn Close’s acting. The best thing about the performance is not just how she delivers, but how she’s able to keep so many things hidden in her character only to come out at the right time. You could see the hidden hurt and disappointment in her character and that was the best quality. Acting is more of what’s unsaid than said. However the film is not only Glenn’s. Jonathan Pryce also delivered well as the husband who can’t confront his problems right. Annie Starke, daughter of Glenn, did a very good job of playing the younger Joan. She did a good job of showing Joan’s disappointment that early in her life, but mix it with her willingness. Max Irons, son of Jeremy Irons, played David very well, butI was not happy about seeing him have a role where he appears like he’s always hurting.

The Wife is more about the character than the social message. However it’s also about the story that makes it so intriguing to watch.

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Vice

Vice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: The Big Short

Big Short

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Movie Review: Frozen

Frozen

I’ll admit it’s rather late for me to be reviewing Frozen. I wasn’t interested in it at first. However its success at the box office coupled with its Oscar buzz helped me change my mind.

Normally I’d give a description of the film in my reviews but I won’t here since most of you have already seen Frozen by now. I’ll just go in to what I have to say. There are a lot of unique and great aspects of this movie. First is its unexpected twists. You’d first think it would be Kristoff that would save Elsa, Anna and the kingdom but it turns out to be Elsa. Already there are a lot of writers and bloggers comparing Elsa to Merida in Brave in terms of heroine status. I’ll bet you never thought Kristoff would be one of the bad guys. Second is its animation that truly mesmerizes. I was dazzled when I saw Elsa’s snow-spell and even the ‘ Castle Of Ice’ created on screen. Watching Frozen was like being taken to a world of ice at times.

Thirdly is the musical aspect of the movie. For many decades, even as close to about twenty years ago, animated movies were commonly musicals and excelled in telling the stories with catchy songs. From Someday My Prince Will Come in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Hakuna Matata in The Lion King, you could always rely on an animated feature to deliver charming music. When 3D became the staple of animated features, the features were predominantly non-musicals and the movies were more focused on the story and the animation. When was the last animated feature done as a musical that dazzled you? Yeah, that far back. Frozen is the first 3D animated musical that has won the movie-going public by storm. It’s refreshing to see the musical aspect come back in animated movies and even added to 3D animated movies successfully for the first time. I think the success of Frozen will churn out more musical-styled 3D animation features.

Frozen is a welcome relief in terms of animated movies for 2013. This year was a rather quiet year in terms of animated movies. Sure this summer featured the excitement of the comeback of the monsters of Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 took ‘minion mania’ to new heights but there was nothing new to create new buzz. Nor was there anything with writing that stood out. I’m sure that became apparent to a lot of my subscribers when I published my blog about Pixar appearing to have lost its spark. Frozen may have come late in 2013 but it sure came to the rescue. Its excellence is not just in having a thrilling story but also in having excellent animation.

Also Frozen has a bonus aspect: catchy songs. It’s not just something that’s been missing from animated movies but movies in general since the new century. You may remember before the 2000’s came there were many catchy songs that came from movies. Since 2000, the presence of a catchy song or even a hit song from a movie is something that has been very rare. I think the last hit song from a movie before Frozen was Slumdog Millionaire’s Jai Ho. I was especially surprised during 2006 when Dreamgirls was in theatres, none of the songs were released as singles despite Beyonce’s chart-topping prowess at the time. I know most of North America was in a hip-hop coma at the time but still… Frozen helped bring back the catchiness of movie music. Already two versions of Let It Go are on the charts right now: Idina Menzel’s version is currently #18 on the Hot 100 and Demi Lovato’s version is at #56 having peaked at 38. Recently Do You Want To Build A Snowman? started hitting the charts and is now at #57. I guess it’s no wonder that the movie has been re-released in a sing-along version.

It’s hard to pick who first to compliment. First off, I’ll say the animation was top notch. The Walt Disney Animation Studios did an excellent job in creating a charming trip to the past and a mesmerizing world of ice. Secondly, kudos should go to Christophe Beck and Kristin Anderson-Lopez for providing music that was not only entertaining but the catchiest movie music in years. Thirdly a great job in the acting and singling by both Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel. They’re already established actors and they’ve also had musical experience but this has to be the best combined singing/acting efforts from both of them. The supporting actors were also great in their roles too including Jonathan Groff and Santino Fontana. However it’s Josh Gad that steals the show as the goofy Olaf. Finally great acting/writing efforts from Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Shane Morris. It was something to take Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and turn it into an animated musical. They really delivered a winner. In fact you remember how Disney movies would give animated adaptations of children’s stories like Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio and The Lion King and turn them into beloved classics? I think Frozen is destined to go that same route over time.

Funny thing about Frozen is not just simply its current total success with its box office run but its lack of success when it first started. I’ve noticed on Box Office Mojo that it was only on one single theatre when it opened because it didn’t want to compete with the opening of the latest Hunger Games movie. It got better the following week when it was spread across North America and grossed $67.4 million that weekend but it was still in second to the Hunger Games by $7 million. The funny thing is while most movies came and went during the six weekends since, Frozen stuck around in the Top 3 and was even #1 on two different weekends. It was even #2 the weekend of January 31-February2nd: its eleventh weekend. Okay, the sing-along version release may have something to do with it but it just goes to show its lasting power. In fact it wasn’t until this weekend, its thirteenth, that it finally left the Top 5 and currently sits at #8 with a total gross of over $375 million.

Frozen has been the animated movie both moviegoers and fans of film alike have been waiting for all of 2013. It was definitely worth the wait because it delivers in terms of quality and entertainment value. Maybe I should go back for the sing-along version.

Movie Review: Of Gods And Men

The French/Arabic-language film Of Gods And Men doesn’t have the type of subject matter that would normally bring in a large crowd. The film is about Cicstercian Monks living in a small village in Algeria facing threats from fundamentalist terrorist groups. Nevertheless those lucky enough to see it will love it for what it is.

This film is based on an incident that happened in 1996. Seven French monks from the Algerian village of Tibhirine were found decapitated. The film focuses on the days just before they were killed. They were a group of eight monks who lived in a monastery in Tibhirine. They devoted their lives to monk rituals of gardening, distributing medical help to locals and religious devotions. They were present at the village during times of celebration and they conversed with the villagers regularly. They all did this during a time of the Algerian Civil War. Religious extremists were committing acts of brutality amongst foreigners and their own people. The pressure was felt by the monks. Christian, the leader and resident religious scholar, tells authorities they will not go. However this is hotly debated with the other monks as some fear for their own safety. Christian then gives the men time to decide whether to leave or not. News gets grimmer by the moment. They even face potential threats of their own. Authorities of the Algerian government request they leave for their lives. The villagers however convince them of how vital they are to the community. In the end, as one brother pays a visit to the monastery, they all vote to stay. Late in the night, seven of the nine are found, captured and taken away. Those would be their last minutes known to be alive.

The film has many great qualities. Its best technical quality was the cinematography as it added to the film in showcasing the landscape in its best splendor. The film was well-directed and well-written by French director Xavier Beauvois. The script he co-wrote with Etienne Comar was excellent and very no-nonsense as it cut at the heart of the monks and the village they served. As important as it was to show the events that happened leading up to the times, the script’s biggest focus was on the monks and their lives. It was more about people than events. Even the scene of the last dinner with the music of Swan Lake in the background was done with the focus on the men. 

 The biggest strength of the movie is definitely the acting. Of all performances, the two that stood out were that of Christian the leader and Luc the doctor. Lambert Wilson’s performance of Christian was excellent and the most intense. Often he said more in his scenes of silence than he did with his spoken parts. Michael Lonsdale’s performance of Luc the Doctor was the best supporting performance. There wasn’t a hint of phoniness in it.

As for the monks as a whole, the most remarkable thing about the film is its ability to give three-dimensional portrayal of monk characters. The film not only showed them in their prayer life but also showed the devotion during their prayers. The film showed them in their occupations and how important they were to the village. The film showed their convictions and their beliefs. The film showed the bond between the men. Above all, it was alll done in a three-dimensional manner. This is very rare for a film to accomplish that feat. Even back during the days of the Hays Code–where one of the rules was that religious figures were to be depicted in a positive manner–religious figures were still two-dimensional at the most. Even the negative depictions of religious figures that came once the Hays Code was dropped in the 60’s as ‘censorship’ or ‘restrictive of creativity’–were also two dimensional and often too stockish. This film has to be the most realistic and inside-out portrayal of religious characters, in both character and their vocation, that I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Even 1997’s The Apostle doesn’t compare as Robert Duvall’s portrayal of a minister had more focus on his passion and personal demons than on his vocation.

Also vital is the ending of the film. It is not known who exactly killed the monks. An Islamic extremist group has claimed responsibility but recent documents from the French secret service claim that the Algerian army carried it out as a mistake during the rescue attempt. The film doesn’t pick one group at fault as the monks are captured in the dead of night with the darkness hiding their identity.

There may be some nervous in seeing this film, feeling it might try to ‘convert’ them to Catholicism. For the record, director Xavier Beauvois has not directed a religious film in the past. One thing we should note is that while the monks lived at the monastery, there’s no scene of them trying to convert any of the villagers from Islam. In fact Brother Christian was as knowledgeable about the Koran as he was about the Bible. When religion extremists threatened to shoot the brothers in one instance, Brother Christian quoted a passage from the Koran which caused the leader to drop his gun and order his followers to leave. I believe Beauvois wanted to show that for the monks, the faith was mightier than the sword. Also in the script was a scene where the monks talk about the difference between the Islamics and ‘Islamists’. This is good for a time when religion faces a lot of flack from religious dissenters. I believe that may have been another point from Beauvois that it’s important for one to recognize the believers from the ‘beliefists’.

This film has won a lot of accolades. It won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The Grand Prix is second to the Palme d’Or as the most prestigious award at the Festival. Other nominations and awards have followed such as wins at France’s Cesar Awards, nominations at the European Film Awards, nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language at Britain’s BAFTA awards and was France’s official entry for the 2010 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was well received by critics here in North America and has a 91% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Although this is a movie that makes for excellent viewing for Catholic communities, it’s not completely 100% ‘safe’ for everyone. There is a few profanities utters, including one by a monk. There are also some scenes of violence. The most violence is the scene of soldiers being cut at the throat by the extremists. Most of the violence is only seen through news footage.

For writers and directors with religious values, this film offers a ray of hope for those who want to break into film making. It shows that a film showcasing religious values can not only be shown on the big screen but also be written and produced well. That has long been the dilemma ever since the Hays Code has been lifted. This was best summed up in a quote by Catholic scriptwriter/acting school director Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington: 

I realized coming (to Hollywood) that it’s not so much Hollywood is persecuting the Church as much as it was the Church was committing suicide in Hollywood. Big difference. So I basically wrote an article about it saying that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as so much as it’s anti-bad art, and we’re just giving it schlock.

She states a major hurdle here as all too often a lot of Christian writers have written a lot of scrpits viewed by Hollywood as sub-standard in skill while the more liberal writers seem to know how to write for the screen. It’s a hugely difficult task to write a film of positive values or strong faith for the general audience without crossing the line of being schmaltzy or manipulative. Of Gods And Men shows that it can be done and it’s just a matter of learning how to do things right.

If you’re fortunate enough to have it come to your city, I highly recommend you see Of Gods And Men. Even if you don’t buy the Catholic faith or want a movie with preachy religious themes, it’s a film worth watching. It’s as much about people and their devotion to their beliefs as it is about an incident that happened. Even with the tragic ending, it tells a lot about the human spirit that will stay with the viewer once they leave the theatre.