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Oscars 2019 Shorts Review: Animation, Live-Action and Documentary

Cinema

This year marked another year I was able to see the Oscar-nominated shorts in the Animation and Live-Action categories. This year was also the very first year I was able to see the nominated Documentary shorts. That’s my Oscar milestone for this year. Here are my reviews of the films:

LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILMS

Two films are set in Middle eastern countries. One is set in Central America. One is set in Belgium while one is set in New York City. Three are dramas from start to finish. One starts as a comedy, but ends in dramatic fashion. One is a comedy from start to finish. Here are my thoughts on the live-action shorts nominees:

Brotherhood: dirs. Meryam Joobeur and Maria Gracia Turgeon – This is a story set in Tunisia. Two brothers are awaiting their older brother Aladinne to return from Syria. The father Muhamad appears to be looking forward to this. The brother returns. However he reveals Aladinne’s now married to a teenaged Syrian woman who is pregnant. The father is suspicious of Aladinne, fearing he may have joined ISIL in Syria. Muhamad makes a phone call Over time though, truths come out from both Aladinne to his other brothers over by the beach and to Muhamad though the wife. Including the truth about her pregnancy. The ending will leave one asking questions.

This is a relevant story as it is a situation that’s possibly happening in families in the Middle East now. It leads one thinking which brotherhood Aladinne is part of: his blood brothers or the ‘brotherhood’ of a terrorist group. It’s a story that gets one thinking. That’s why I predict it as my Will Win pick.

Nefta Football Club: dirs. Yves Piat and Damien Megherbi – The film begins with two men in the hills of Algeria who lost a donkey. It then leads into two brothers on a motor bike arguing over who the best footballer is. Then to a group of boys playing in a nearby football club. The boys get into an argument where the out-of-bounds is as there are no lines. The younger brother has to stop to urinate. After he’s finished, he notices the stray donkey who has earphones tuned into Saharan music. The older brother notices bags of cocaine with the donkey. The older brother decides to sell it but keep it secret. The two men are baffled. Especially one man who put the music onto Hadel instead of Adele. The older brother tries to sell it but something goes wrong. The ending will leave all surprised, and delighted.

This short was actually the last of the five that were shown. Knowing how the previous four had dark or tragic stories, you will expect something terrible or tragic to happen. You might even anticipate a social message out of this. I think those of us watching all needed some comic relief! It will make you glad this film is last in running order. End on a positive note.

The Neighbors’ Window: dir. Marshall Curry – Alli and Jacob are a middle-aged couple with two preschool-aged children and expecting a third soon. They live in a block of apartments in New York. They notice there is a young couple that moved into the apartment right across from them. Their window is a view to their apartment and they notice the two naked and making love. Did they forget to put up the drapes already? Three months pass. Alli gave birth to their third child. Jacob works from home and has a perfect view to watch the couple from the window as he works. That gets on Alli’s nerves. During Christmas, the Alli and Jacob have a family Christmas while that couple have a big party. Soon Alli becomes the voyeur. She notices the man has a bald head. Jacob thinks she shaved it. Soon it becomes evident he’s sick as he can be seen from his bed. Eventually Alli and the woman connect, but through unfortunate circumstances.

This is a film of a story where time elapses over eighteen months. It starts simply as a story of two voyeurs. Then it leads into a story of a couple who get reminded how much they miss their young-and-stupid days when they see those two having fun. The fun ends when sadder truths become obvious. I think the point of the story is to remind us of our own judgementality and even how prone we are to compare ourselves to others and making ourselves feel inferior without knowing the truth. It speaks volumes.

Saria: dirs. Bryan Buckley and Matt Lefebvre – The film begins in an orphanage one day in March 2017 in Guatemala. The fifty-one girls are woken up by the leader. The leader acts as the teacher. Before classes Saria learns that her sister has fallen in love with a male from the orphanage named Appo. During class Saria says a comment of defiance. This angers the teacher so much, she commands her to the guard who has her raped and beaten. Ximena learns from Saria that she and Appo have a plan to escape and walk to the United States for freedom. The opportunity arises when the girls hold a protest over the dirty and unsafe conditions of the orphanage. During police action, Saria and Ximena make their escape with Appo. However it’s a hopeless cause as the police have then cornered by dogs. Appo decides to throw himself to the dogs for the girls’ safety. All the 51 girls are brought back into a single room with just mattresses and the woman guarding. Two girls plan an escape by using fire, but it fails as the guard ignores them all.

This is a story based on real events. There was a protest over the conditions of the orphanage on March 7, 2017 and there was a planned escape. The girls were locked in that room and there was an escape plan that involved fire. The guard, who was a female, ignored them all until after ten minutes. 41 girls died. There were only ten girls who survived and they exposed the story. It’s not meant to be a true story. Instead it gives the girls who were victims characters and personalities. It exposes a truth of what’s happening in Guatemala while also reminding us these orphan girls were girls with hopes and dreams. I like the humanistic approach to the story. That’s why I call it my Should Win pick.

A Sister: dir. Delphine Girard – The film begins inside a car. The man is driving and the woman appears to be a passenger making a phone call to her sister. The film then goes to the emergency call centre. A woman is picking p this very call. She sorts out the confusion. It’s evident the woman in the car is making an emergency call and disguising it to look like it’s a call to her sister. The woman on the other end tries to work with her and even poses as the sister when the man talks on the line. This sets up for a climactic, but positive, end.

This is a film that keeps the viewer in the moment. There’s what one knows at the start and then what one knows as time goes on. At the same time, it puts the viewer in the intensity of the situation. You know it’s an abduction but the last thing you want is the worst. Throughout the film it’s a case of scenes of the woman and the man in the car and the woman at emergency control. It’s a story that will get you interested once you fully understand it and then keep you in the intensity of the story until the end.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

Interesting how not a single nominated short is 3D computerized animation. Even the computerized ones are 2D. The 3D ones are all stop-motion. All of them are unique in the stories they have to tell and the styles of animation they display.

Dcera (Daughter): dir. Daria Kashcheeva – The daughter watches her ailing father from his hospital bed. Suddenly a bird crashes through the window of the room. That still bird reminds her of the time she saw a dying bird and tried to get her father to resuscitate it. He was too busy cooking. She was in tears, but it inspired her to make a bird mask. She then remembers the time she was on a subway to a festival where she had to wear red makeup. She refuted and left the subway. He has the mask she made and decides to wear it. Then the film flashes to the present. He’s not in his bed. She then notices he slept with the mask she made. She goes to meet up with her father, who is being taken to surgery. Suddenly he becomes all better and the bird that crashed through is alive, just like that bird in her childhood.

I think the motif of birds can be interpreted in one of two ways: either the girl loves birds or she want to be free as a bird in her life pursuits. The story is told with marvelous artistry through stop motion on knit dolls and paper eyes. The animation style makes the artistry of the film and magnifies the beauty of the story.

Hair Love: dirs. Matthew Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver – A young African-American girl in an apartment wants to style her hair just like the woman in the YouTube video styles it. The man, a neighbor, however tries to style it differently. The girl leaves crying. It isn’t until he sees the drawing and learning that the woman in the instruction video is the girl’s mother that he agrees to do it that way. He watches and does her hair at the same time, and the result is perfection. Then he takes the girl to see her mother in the hospital, in a wheelchair, and bald from chemotherapy.

This is a story that starts as being entertaining during the first half. Then you see the human moments at the very end of the story. The story goes from fun to touching deep down inside with surprising results. This is definitely a heart-warmer for anyone. You have to be hard-hearted not to like it. It will touch anyone who has gone through cancer or knows someone close who is going through cancer. That’s why I give it my Will Win pick.

Kitbull: dirs. Rosanna Sullivan and Kathryn Hendrickson – The film starts with a black stray kitten going throughout the neighborhood. He finds an area near a house full of boxes and wood blocks to make his own shelter. He also learns the owners own a big vicious dog and they keep him chained outside. The dog first wants to make food out of the kitten, but the kitten shows the dog he stands his ground and can fight vicious when provoked. Soon the kitten notices the dog is being abused by the owner. The kitten then sends the message to the dog that he can help him find a way out. Then the two plan their escape together. Soon the dog’s wounds heal and they find themselves adopted by an interracial couple.

This is a film from Pixar that was on the Disney+ channel. I find it surprising that Pixar created a 2D story! Usually they do 3D, but I still like it nevertheless. I’ve seen stories in animation before of how the cat and the dog go from enemies to the best of pals. This is unique as it tells that story with the theme of interracial relations. I admire how they do that in this story. It makes for a story that crosses from the humorous to the serious. However it still ends on a happy note, as we all hope it will.

Memorable: dirs. Bruno Collet and Jean-Francois le Corre – A painter gets into an argument with his wife, or so it appears. It turns out he has either dementia or Alzheimers and his wife has died. The conversations he has with his wife are in his mind. He still continues to paint, but it’s not easy to do. Then one day he decides to do a simple painting of simple unattached strokes. The strokes come alive and it’s in the shape of his wife. They even speak with her voice. It’s like she’s alive through the painting. The two share one dance together and it’s a dance full of color.

This is a dark story. However it’s told in touching form and even through a positive tone through the animation. This animation style is claymation and brush-stroke on glass. It’s like the story about the painting is trying to be like paintings themselves. It’s as much about the style in which the story is told as it is about the story. I make this my Should Win pick because this is the most unique and colorful of the nominees.

Sister: dir. Siqi Song – This is a story told by an adult male of how he experienced his baby sister: when she was born and when she was growing up. Boy did she have bratty behavior. Then you learn this is just a story of his. The sister he was supposed to have was aborted because of China’s One-Child policy. The story is just his story of how he fantasizes of what his baby sister would have been like. Somehow the film ends on a positive note.

Some would rush to dismiss this story as pro-life propaganda. I won’t state my stance but I don’t consider this propaganda. Keep in mind the sister was aborted because of China’s One-Child policy. The abortion was not the mother’s choice. The story is told in a unique way as it’s told through stop-motion animation and through knitted dolls. I have seen similar animation. At first I didn’t think an Oscar-nominated film could come through this style of animation, but it does here. I find it unique for the animator to tell a dark story with some humor into it. It’s worth admiring.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

Some of you may ask why haven’t I seen the Documentary Shorts in past year? It’s hard to say. Money? Lack of interest? Time? Those were the most likely reasons. However I did have the time and money this year, and I made myself interested in them. So here are my thoughts of this year’s nominated documentary shorts:

In The Absence: dirs. Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam – This is a story that focuses on the sinking of the Sewol ferry off the waters off the coast of South Korea on April 16, 2014. 304 people of the 476 on board perished. Most were high school students. The documentary shows a lot of film footage from the day of the accident which includes news footage, rescue footage and footage from passenger smartphones. The film includes hearing dialogue between the Coast Guard, the transportation office and President Park Geun-hye. The film also includes footage of the inquiry and of footage when the Sewol was raised out of the sea three years later.

This film is good in letting the moments of the accident tell the story as well as expose a lot of ugly truths that people already knew. The film showcases the root of the problem: negligence on many parts. It shows the negligence and lack of action of the coast guards, the negligence of the transportation board, the negligence of the captain who instructed passengers to stay in before he escaped, and the negligence of the government. There are some interviews with parents of fatalities, survivors, and volunteer divers who dove to bring bodies up. I liked how this film used a combined set of video, film and audio to expose the truth of the matter. It also proved insightful as I believe this is the first disaster I know of leading to the overthrow of a world leader. That’s why I pick it as my Should Win pick.

Learning To Skate In A Warzone (If You’re A Girl): dirs. Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva – The film shows girls in Kabul, Afghanistan who attend a school privately after boys leave the school. This is in an area of Afghanistan that is strongly against girls going to school. Not only do they go to school, they also learn skateboarding at a park called Skateistan. The film interviews the young girls about their family background, what they like about school and what their ambitions are. The film also interviews the teachers and instructors throughout the whole year.

This is an excellent documentary reminding us of the threats women in Afghanistan still face. However it also shows us the hope of a better tomorrow. The film shows the girls as they learn the five basics of skateboarding over time. It also shows how their skateboarding lessons aren’t simply for fun. They’re life skills along with their education for a better tomorrow. The film includes the interviews as well as footage of the girls at school and at their skateboarding lessons. The film also includes audio of news stories of bomb blasts in Kabul reminding us that they still face threats to their future. The film then ends with an image of hope. Overall an excellent short documentary, which is why I make it my Will Win pick.

Life Overtakes Me: dirs. John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson – This film is of a dark subject matter: Resignation Syndrome. It’s a coma-like psychological problem that mostly happens in children and is common in Sweden. The film shows three children who have suffered this syndrome for many months. All lay in bed most of the time and are fed by tubes and syringes. The film also shows how the families work to resuscitate the child out of the illness by giving them exercises and taking them out in the open. The film allows the parents to tell the stories of what led them to flee their countries. The film also includes doctors showing their insights into the problem.

This film is good at exposing a problem that exists in many countries but is rarely talked about. It presents the examples and even shows how the syndrome happens most when the parents are facing a distressful situation regarding their refugee status. The film shows the children and their families in one time setting and the follow-up many months later. Two of the children show progress in their recovery while the other shows that her sister is showing signs she will soon suffer from it too. The main child at the start is given a third filming where she’s seen fully recovered. The film also presents a puzzling situation of why Sweden is the country with the highest rate of of Resignation Syndrome. This is a very insightful informative film that ends with a ray of hope.

St. Louis Superman: dirs. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan – The film opens with Bruce Franks Jr. talking with his son who’s about to turn five. The son was born on the same day African-American Michael Brown was shot to death by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri: a suburb of St. Louis. That event shapes Bruce into joining the St. Louis chapter of Black Lives Matter. That also made Bruce run as a State Representative and win. As Bruce is now a lawmaker and judges laws being passed in state congress, Bruce now has a new battle as he seeks to have passed laws labeling youth violence as a public epidemic and having Christopher Harris Day on June 7: the day in 1992 Christopher, his nine-year-old brother, was shot by someone using him as a human shield.

The film is a telling of Bruce’s life. It shows him as a congressman, a lawmaker, a rapper by night, an activist, a youth leader, and a family man. It showcases the many battles he goes through with getting his bill passed both by debate through the opposition and even other African-Americans who see him as a conformist to ‘the system.’ This film is also a ray of hope and a reminder at even in the days of Trump’s America where there appears to be a lot of ignorance and red tape, that efforts for the better can happen and that the marginalized can have a hope for a better future. Excellently done.

Walk Run Cha-Cha: dirs. Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt – The film begins with a Cha-Cha lesson taught in a dance hall in a Los Angeles neighborhood. The students are Asian and middle-aged and the teachers are Ukrainian emigres Maksym Kapitanchuka and Elena Krifuks. The film focuses on the couple Paul and Millie Cao. Paul and Millie first met each other in Vietnam back in the 1970’s. Communism took over and both had to leave for the United States, albeit six years apart. They’ve become successful professionals but have taken dance as a way to rediscover themselves. Maksym and Elena even work with them privately for a competition dance.

This is a story where we get to learn about a couple and their life experience about what brought them to the United States. We learn about their love back home, their loss of connection as both left Vietnam at different times, their families who also emigrated to the United States to their dance number. This film reminds us that for many, dance is more than just a hobby or an activity. It’s a chance for one to rediscover themselves. The film doesn’t end with the Caos in a competition. Instead it ends with their performance to a cover of We’ve Only Just Begun. Even though the two were reunited decades earlier, the film makes the dance performance look like the two are truly reunited at that moment. Not just a delight to watch, but insightful.

It’s interesting watching the documentary nominees for the first time. They all tell a lot in their limited time. Even for those that focus on a certain issue, it makes its point very well in that time. It even adds the human element to add to their point. Usually I’m skeptical to documentary films because all too often, it shows an issue through one side and one side only. You can thank Michael Moore for that suspicion of mine. However I was impressed with what I saw. It was hard to detect them as one-sided. They all made their point well.

And there you have it! Those are my reviews and predictions of the short films nominated at this year’s Academy Awards. It should be interesting to see the winners. Also it will be interesting to see how far these directors go in the future.

VIFF 2019 Shorts Segment: To Live In Infamy

Cinema

Those who know my film watching during the VIFF know that I try to watch at least one segment of short films. I saw a segment of seven films by Canadian directors entitled To Live In Infamy. In each of the films, there is some element of crime or taboo. Even some things that don’t qualify as a penal code may be seen as a crime of some sort, or even a simple wrongdoing. All of them are interesting in their own way.

Delphine (dir. Chloe Robichaud): A woman named Nicole looks back to a girl she only encountered for two brief times in her childhood. Her name was Delphine and she was a Lebanese immigrant to Quebec. The first flashback is in a private grade school where Delphine could only say one word in French: ‘oui.’ The other classmates make fun of her. Nicole, who is Lesbian-Canadian, doesn’t participate with her peers, silently shares in Delphine’s ostracism. The vice-principal of the school however does scold Nicole and the girls for lewdness. The second meeting between Nicole and Delphine is at sixteen in a public school. Delphine has a bully named Aminata who appears to try to dominate over every female. She attempts to dominate over Nicole too, but Nicole is physically resistant.

The story leaves us with the necessary questions. Some may ask were Nicole and Delphine lesbians? However the story is reflective of childhood. It reflects on fun memories like of some mischief and of family warmth. But also of upsetting memories like of being made to feel different and facing nemeses either violent or non-violent. We all have those moments in our childhood where we’re reminded how the world is a cruel place. It’s a story many can connect with, even if they didn’t live it exactly.

I’ll End Up In Jail (dir. Alexandre Dostie): A woman named Maureen is frustrated with her life. She tries to cover it up from her son and his boyfriend, but she can’t take it no more. One day, she drives off on an icy hilly road hoping for an escape but crashes into a parked car. It appears the car is parked so that a teen boy and his girlfriend can get stoned in the trunk of a car together. The girlfriend is dead. The boy learns she’s the mother of his classmates. They work to hide the body of the girl, but while Maureen is stuck underneath a tree, she learns a truth. She acts out in a way where she really has to be on the run from the law.

This film is a dark comedy that makes a lot of humorous situations in crime and personal problems. Even the uncovering of a dark truth appears humorously surprising, if not disturbing. The ending however feels a bit incomplete or doesn’t appear clear enough. I know it’s about Maureen’s escape and how it doesn’t go as planned, but it still looks like it’s missing something.

Shadow Trap (dirs. Damien Gillis and Michael Bourquin): In 1909, a white bounty hunter is out searching for Gitxsan business man Simon Gunanoot who is wanted for murder. The bounty hunter stocks up with a lot of supplies ready to find Simon, a reputed trapper and fur-trader, for a big reward. However the frontiers of Okanagan B.C. prove too much for him and he is in danger of freezing to death, until he’s rescued and sheltered by an Indigenous man. Is it Simon in hiding? He returns to the town with hides to trade.

This is a fictionalization of a true incident in Canadian history that says a lot. The message I seemed to get from the story may be about the common perception of Indigenous peoples by whites at the time as ‘savages,’ and how wrong they are. Even now as we’re trying to make reconciliation happen, I feel this story has a lot of value.

The Beach Raiders (dir. Tyson Breuer): A teen couple– the boyfriend having photography ambitions– is savoring the last days of summer at an Ontario beach. They have one last summer goal: steal some beer. They try to get it from the kitchen of a restaurant. However their attempt is not only in danger of being stopped by the owner, but their own relationship as both have differing goals. However their pursuit ends with a bang!

This film is a bit of an ode to the ‘young and stupid’ days. What starts with stealing one beer leads to a chance for something bigger. The film does however focus on a reality, though it is resolved in light fashion at the end.

Main Squeeze (dir. Brendan Prost): It’s Christmas. Benjy and Kiersey, a couple in an open relationship, are having fun in their apartment. However the fun is threatened when a young drunk woman smashes their window. It’s not just any woman, but Jacqui: Kiersey’s ‘other woman.’ He is not comfortable about having Jacqui in, but Kiersey insists. Benjy had every reason to be nervous because Jacqui says things making it clear she’s his rival. This not only threatens the relationship but the Christmas spirit too.

It’s a story that makes good use of a single location. It consists of a lot of moments where you don’t know what will happen next. It surprisingly ends with all conflict over.

Ghoulish Galactic Grievances (dir. Josh Owen): Wanna have some weird fun? A ghoul lives in a swamp, but she has a desire to pursue her friends in outer space. Her swamp friends want her to stay.

This is a fun and entertaining story of ghouls and aliens and creatures. It is definitely a fun comedic story to watch, but it succeeds in delivering a smart message within the theme.

Finding Uranus (dir. Ivan Li): This is the one short of this segment that is animated. A man is lost in a sea of internet porn and desires to find real sexual satisfaction. He pursues it through a very unorthodox trip.

This was entertaining, but bizarre at the same time. However I admire how the animator is not afraid to go crazy and let his creativity tread in territories many would not touch!

All seven shorts were entertaining in their own way. Some had a story to tell, while some were more about the show. Many were dramatic while some aimed more for comedy. All were good at telling their story, even if told in a bizarre style.

At the end, I can understand why this shorts segment is called To Live In Infamy. All of them had an infamy of some kind, whether big or small. Nevertheless all of them told their story well.

Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Dunkirk is the telling of one of the most historic battles of World War II on land, sea and air.

Admit it. This summer was one of the most lackluster summers in a long time. Very few reasons to get people to come to the cinemas. Dunkirk, however, was one of the films that gave people one of the best reasons to go to the cinemas. One can see why.

The film does share some minor similarities with Titanic. Firstly, it’s a film that features a lot of action as part of the story. This being about the Battle of Dunkirk and the evacuation would be a film that would feature a lot of action and a lot of intense drama. Also like Titanic, it features some fictional stories or story lines inside a moment of history. Like Titanic, they also include historical figures who were part of the Battle, however even there the depictions of incidents do stray away from what really happened and go for the story.

Basically film is so loose, I’m okay with seeing a fictional depiction of moments in history as long as I’m made aware of its fiction. This film is a very good, very complex story of the Evacuation of Dunkirk. We should remember that the Battle Of Dunkirk was very important in the history of World War II. It was the first sign to the Allied forces that Hitler and the Nazi army had a vulnerable side and that the Nazis could be the losing side of World War II, despite how menacing Hitler and the German forces appeared. The rescue mission that accompanied it is a sign of the heroism as 300,000 Allied soldiers survived. The story focuses on three different aspects of the Battle– land, sea and air– and captures in the time frame of a week about what the heat of the moment must have been like for soldiers, civilians, casualties and leaders. The stories of what happened during the Battle of Dunkirk can be told through many different aspects and from many different viewpoints. This film succeeds in capturing the moments as the tension begins, the battles ensue, the devastation is done, the rescue has its own friction and the eventual triumph happens. It allows the viewer to relive the moment of all that happened. I even remember for a brief period of time that I thought the Allied soldiers would lose. Of course I learned in history that they did not lose, but the film succeeded in making me forget it sense that they might lose. That’s the magic of film.

The film is not just about giving a moment in history three different sub-plots. The film also captures the human element of the battle for those part of it. Although the characters are fictitious, they are based on real people from the Battle Of Dunkirk. First there’s young Tommy who goes from being the sole survivor of a battle to joining two other Allied survivors in a new fight for survival and shelter. There are the Dawsons who find themselves rescuing a shell-shocked soldier and seeing their friend George die because of his violent reactions. There’s the RAF pilot who goes from one one of the following pilot to leader of the battle as his leader is shot down. All three stories may not be exact true stories, but they capture the human side of the battle. In all three scenarios, it’s the story about surviving right as they’re witnessing death and destruction around them. It’s likely that what we see in the stories of Dunkirk are similar stories that thousands faced during the very battle. It’s even a reminder of why we should look at those who were part of the Battle, both soldiers and civilian participants, as heroes.

This film is arguably writer/director Christopher Nolan’s best film to date. He came across the idea of doing this film in the 1990’s as he and his wife sailed across the English Channel along the same path of the Dunkirk evacuation. This was no easy film to make. He had his concept of three different scenarios of the Battle Of Dunkirk. He not only had to give the human element to his stories, but also include the action of the battles and the intensity of the various moments. He did an excellent job of constructing such a story that was not only well-done and well-pieced, but was also able to engage the audience as well.

As for the acting, there was not a single stand-out role. Nolan even admitted he didn’t want to put emphasis on the characters for who they are, but instead on will they survive this. Even the role of Tommy was kept very minimal, but Fionn Whitehead did a very good job in his performance as the young soldier struggling to survive. I believe the best acting performance came from Mark Rylance as Peter the mariner who’s caught in the intense situation, but tries to remain cool and calm. Another standout is Tom Hardy as the Spitfire pilot who’s thrown into the leadership role. I know some that are loyal to One Direction may take interest in this because of the appearance of Harry Styles. His performance is good, but his role is limited.

The film needed to have top technical efforts in order to be successful and it had some of the best of the year. There was cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema who delivered excellent camera angles,editor Lee Smith who was able to piece the three stories together very well, production designers Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis who did an excellent job of constructing seaside Europe in 1940, composer Hans Zimmer who delivered yet another score that fits the movie to a tee, and the visual effects team for recreating the battles and attacks that occurred.

On an Oscars note, the craziest thing about the months before December is that one does not know which films will have enough juice to qualify for a Best Picture nomination. It’s become very obvious in the last few decades that the big studios save the release for their ‘Oscar bait’ movies for December because they know how things work. Most of the time, a lot of excellent movies that get released in the summer or earlier often miss getting nominated for Best Picture. The year when it was best made obvious was 2002 when all five Best Picture nominees were films either released in December or given wide release in the New Year. Winning an Oscar or even getting nominated is as much about studios doing a strategy or ‘playing the game’ as it is about doing an excellent effort. Don’t forget this is showbiz. Even awards of merit like the Oscars, guild awards or even critics circle awards need to be campaigned and marketed for the win.

The expansion from five Best Picture nominees to a maximum of ten back in 2010 opened doors to a lot of films that were released in much earlier months to have better chances of earning a Best Picture nomination. Dunkirk is one of two films released before the month of November that received a Best Picture nomination. Even before the Oscar season began, Dunkirk was seen as a favorite to be nominated for Best Picture. I myself am relieve to see it as a ‘summer survivor.’

Dunkirk is not just a simple re-enactment of one of the first major battles of World War II. It delivers in the human side of the story as it delivers in the action of the battles. This explains why while the summer movie season of 2017 was known for being lackluster, this movie was a top highlight. And a top-quality highlight too.

Oscars 2016 Best Picture Summary: Part 2

Some of you may be confused about the order of how I do each film of my Best Picture summary. It’s definitely not alphabetical. How I do it is in the order in which I saw the nominees. For example, I saw all the films in my first summary before Christmas. I saw La La Land on my father’s birthday, Fences the day after New Years, and Manchester By The Sea on the day of the Golden Globes. That explains why they’re the three films part of my next Best Picture summary.

LA LA LAND

la-la-land

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as an actress and a pianist united in their dreams of stardom in La La Land.

We don’t see musicals on the big screen as often as we did back in the 60’s and 70’s. La La Land may not make the musical phenomenon come back but it is very entertaining.

We’re constantly reminded that bringing a musical to the big screen is a very tricky job. In the past 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of cases of musicals being put on the big screen– most of which are adaptations of Broadway musicals– and it’s always been a case of sink-or-swim. There have been those done successfully like Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Dreamgirls and Les Miserables. There have also been adaptations with bad results like Rent, Nine, The Phantom Of The Opera and Mamma Mia. It’s a very tricky job and it may explain why we don’t have musicals as frequent as in decades past.

Now try putting a fresh original musical on the big screen. That’s what writer/director Damien Chazelle does here in cooperation with composer Justin Hurwitz who was Chazelle’s Harvard classmate. The musical is a story we’re familiar with: boy meets girl, boy learns girl also has showbiz dreams, both boy and girl are supportive of each other’s dreams, boy and girl both have long bumpy roads to get to their successes, boy and girl both achieve their own successes but their love is put to the test. One could argue anyone could create a musical with that kind of premise. Whatever the situation, it would have to take a lot of hard work and a lot of brainstorming to make a very good musical out of this. In addition, it would have to have the right songs, the right singing moments and the right dancing moments to make it succeed.

Chazelle and Hurwitz succeed in pulling it off. The story is familiar but they deliver all the right moves in making the story and the songs of the musical work. It’s not just about making a common story work as a musical on screen but have it set in the modern times too. I’ll admit that opening in the movie where there’s a song-and-dance number on a jammed-up freeway was unexpected. It’s not just set in modern time but it also brings back a lot of the classic scenes of Hollywood; the Hollywood we’ve all come to know and love. I think that’s why La La Land comes off as a gem. Because it’s a reminder of the great musicals of the past and why we love them so much. It’s just that charm.

It’s not just up to Chazelle and Hurwitz to make this musical work but also the actors too. Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone had to make things work as well both as individuals and both as the couple Mia and Sebastian. They had to tell their own stories of love and passion for their crafts and the heartbreak they had to endure to achieve their dreams. They both also had to play a couple with the right chemistry to work. They pull it off excellently both as a couple and in their own individual moments too. The supporting actors/singers/dancers also had their parts to play too and add to the zest of the musical. Their own participation also added to the movie. Sure some of the bigger supporting performances from John Legend, J.K. Simmons and Tom Everett Scott lacked range–I mean Mia and Sebastian were the dominant focus of the musical– but they did very well too. The film did a very good job in terms of the use of sets both set up and various Los Angeles locations. The film even scouted out some ‘old L. A.’ locations to add the charm. That was not an easy find, I’m sure.

And now onto the songs. My father who likes musicals believes having a memorable song is what makes a musical a masterpiece. I have to agree. I’ll say I agree with him that there is no single song in La La Land destined to be a memorable classic. True, ‘City Of Stars’ is getting a ton of awards but I don’t think it will be a classic 20 years from now. Actually my favorite songs were the opener ‘Another Day Of Sun’ and ‘Audition (Here’s To The Ones Who Dream).’

It’s funny. Years ago, I jokes the unique thing about my father is that he’s straight and he likes musicals. He was quick to remind me that back when he was dating my mother, musicals were the ideal date movie. My how times have changed. What defines a date movie has changed as much over the decade as ‘real man’ standards.

La La Land may not have what it takes to bring the musical phenomenon back to the big screen but it’s winning in it’s own right. Anytime soon I’m expecting a stage adaptation of this.

FENCES

fences

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis bring Troy and Rose Maxson to the big screen in Fences.

Fences is a play by August Wilson that won raves when it first came out in the 1980’s. Denzel Washington brings Fences to the big screen at long last and the end result is something wonderful.

Fences is unique as a stage play. It’s a story about Troy Maxson: an African-American man in 1950’s Pittsburgh who makes like he has it together but he doesn’t. He thinks he could have been the next Jackie Robinson but feels racism kept him from moving out of the Negro League. He wants to mould his son the way he feels right and wants him to be better than him but doesn’t sense how harsh he is. He wants to be seen as a loving husband to his wife Rose but secrets of his infidelity are about to unfold. He gets an opportunity as a driver of a garbage truck–the first ever for a black man in Pittsburgh– but is reminded of his weaknesses when he accidentally signs for his brother to be admitted into a mental hospital. He has his own feelings about what should be right such as how he feels it’s better to raise his son right than like him only to see it backfire. I’ve heard some writers say that every African-American male has some aspect of Troy Maxson in them. Some people say that Troy Maxson is the African-American everyman. Some can even say Troy Maxson is the black Willy Loman. Whatever the situation, it was the toast of the 1987 Tony Awards and definitely made a legend out of scriptwriter August Wilson.

Now Wilson had always dreamed of bringing Fences to the big screen. I know one of the things he insisted on was that it be directed by an African-American. That may or may not have been the biggest obstacle but it was never realized in Wilson’s lifetime; he died in 2005. Hope was revived in 2013 when Denzel Washington expressed interest in bringing it to the big screen and star as Troy Maxson. Washington played Maxson in a Broadway revival in 2010. He’s even had experience as a director with 2002’s Antwone Fisher and 2007’s The Great Debaters. The production was realized early in 2016 when Washington was joined by producer Scott Rudin who also produced the 2010 revival. Viola Davis who was also part of the revival as Rose Maxson soon joined in along with other actors from the revival like Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby and Stephen Henderson. One thing was that Washington wanted to remain true to Wilson’s own adaptation in respect to his work.

Now adapting a play to the big screen is as much a tricky challenge as bringing a musical to the big screen. It’s a matter of choices of what to include and what to keep as is. Theatre and film are two different formats of medium. Film scenes are numerous and can be set in an unlimited number of  places in various amounts of time. Theatre scenes are often few, often quite lengthy, set in a limited number of places, and often consists of ‘moments of monologues.’ There’s even that 20-minute final scene in Fences where the family is getting ready for Troy’s funeral. Rarely in film do you have a scene after the death of the protagonist that’s even five minutes long. It’s a matter of making the adaptation work on the big screen. It’s also about what choices to add to the film adaptation and if they work. It was about choosing to add the scene of Troy and Jim Bono on the back of the garbage truck at the start. It was about including the scene without dialogue of Troy and Gabriel in the mental hospital. It was about keeping Alberta the mistress from being seen in the film in any which way.

Then there’s the acting. Of course it’s beneficial for most of the actors to have previous experience with the roles. However, it’s a known fact that stage acting and film acting have their differences. The biggest difference for film is that the audience expects a 100% believable performance, especially since it will be witnessed on a screen five-stories tall.

Overall I feel that Denzel Washington as a director/producer did a good job in adapting the play to the screen. It may not have the fast brief dialogues you get in your typical big screen fare but it was still done well and with the same truthfulness. The choices of what to add to the big screen adaptation were good choices, if not perfect. Denzel as an actor was definitely phenomenal in embodying the role of Troy in all of his triumphs and struggles. You could feel the pride and demons Troy was struggling with. Just as excellent is Viola Davis as Rose. The role of Rose was also a strong challenging role: a wife who appears happy and loving on the outside only to suddenly let out her hurt and inner wrath towards Troy and somehow come to peace with him upon his death. She does an excellent job of finally exposing Rose’s inner hurt and inner personal strength at the right times and even ending with believable delivery. The acting of the whole ensemble was very much there and as excellent as it can get. Of all the supporting performances, the one that stood out most was Stephen Henderson whose performance as Jim Bono came across as a common man at first but would soon come off as the man with a lot of wisdom and was able to see the good in Troy even while his terrible misdoings were being exposed. The ‘newcomers’ Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney were also very good in their roles. Jovan especially did well as the son struggling to relate to Troy.

Fences is a triumph of a twelve year-old dream coming true. August Wilson dreamed it. Denzel achieved it. The end result is a masterpiece.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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Manchester By The Sea is the story of an uncle (played by Casey Affleck, left) and a nephew (played by Lucas Hedges, right) who suddenly become closer through death.

Manchester By The Sea is a film that has been loaded with Oscar buzz ever since it made its debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s easy to see why all the buzz.

The film presents a hurting person and showcases all the things that led to his hurt. It shows why he had to leave the town he always had as his home and why returning can’t be done. It shows why Lee Chandler comes across as a jerk in the present when he wasn’t like that at all years ago. The film is also about the relationship of Lee and Patrick. Rarely do we see a film about an uncle-nephew relationship. You think the relationship is something all of a sudden at first forced by something in his brother’s estate but it was always there even when the two were apart.

The film also presents a situation where healing or leaving the past behind is next-to-impossible. I’ve always believed people need to heal. It’s not right to hurt. I still believe it. However I can easily see how healing is very hard. You can see why it’s extremely hard for Lee to heal, especially upon returning to Manchester By The Sea, Massachusetts. His negligence that one night is why all three of his children were killed in that fire. The divorce from his wife Randi was bitter and she gave him hurtful words in the process. The town has not forgiven him for what he did: his name is still mud. Even moving to a suburb of Boston has not ended his hurt as he’s rude during his job and starts bar fights over the simplest thing.

The film does showcase Lee’s attempt to assimilate into the town and try to become the guardian to Patrick he hopes to be. The story does not water down as it exposes Lee’s failings. It also exposes how complicated the situation is as Patrick’s mother is a recovering alcoholic and still under strict control by her husband. It also shows how hard it is for Lee to forgive himself. Even as Randi says she’s forgiven him, Lee still can’t heal.

The story does not water down the situation or try to aim for the type of happier ending you’d get in a film like Arrival. The story does not end the way you hope it does. Nevertheless it does end with a ray of hope. Patrick is the closest relative to Lee. His parents and brother are gone and his other brother lives with his own family in Minnesota. Patrick is the one person in Manchester By The Sea outside of family friend George who doesn’t see Lee as this terrible person or rubs into Lee the tragedy he caused.

The film was not just about Lee trying to heal for Patrick but about Patrick too. Patrick is a teen with a lot of common ‘teenage make jerk’ traits like starting fights in hockey and cheating on girls but you know he has a naïve, innocent and even sensitive side and it comes out in his relationship with Lee that starts uneasy at first. Patrick still wants to live a normal teenage life by dating around, playing with his band, and talking about Star Trek with his friends, but you know he has feelings of hurt and frustration on the inside and you know they’ll come out eventually.  For all the teenage jerk traits Patrick has, his respect for Lee is his best quality. Patrick could have easily come across as a rebellious teen and gone as far as calling Lee a ‘child killer’ but he doesn’t. Possibly it’s being Joe’s son that may be why Patrick is the person most forgiving to Lee now that Joe is gone. Joe was the one person willing to help Lee live life again after the tragedy and Patrick accompanied Lee and Joe during that time. You can see how Patrick adopted his father’s sensitivity to Lee.

The story of this film is definitely not a crowd-winner. You can understand why a film like this would rely on the Film Festival circuit to get its exposure and its chances of making it to the box office. Nevertheless it is an excellent story about loss, grief, hurt and an attempt at healing. The film fest circuit was the best way for a story like this to get a box office release. It’s good because it is a story worth seeing.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan delivers an excellent original story. Lonergan has few works writing and/or directing to his credit but they have a lot of merit: like Analyze This, You Can Count On Me and The Gangs Of New York. This is his best work to date. He delivers a story that’s honest and even brutal at times and doesn’t water down but doesn’t try to rip at your heartstrings too often. He also gives characters that are three-dimensional and will remind you of people or situations you may know about.

Actor Casey Affleck fit the role of Lee excellently. He captured Lee’s inner demons excellently and played them very truthfully. He was able to make you hate Lee at first but come to understand him later, even feel for him, and make you want the best to work out for Lee in the end. Also excellent was Lucas Hedges. Hedges’ role of Patrick grows in its complexity over time and he does an excellent job of it. The two together had to have the right chemistry to make an uncle-nephew relationship like this work and they had it.

The only other significant supporting role in the film is Michelle Williams as Randi. The various scenes as the typical wife before the tragedy to being the remarried ex-wife who healed better than Lee and wants to make peace with him is also a complex role too and she does an excellent job of it too. Actually the whole cast did an excellent job of acting and they delivered one of the best ensemble performances of the year. It’s not just the basics that made this film great. There’s also the cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes where she’s able to get some of the most picturesque shots of the east coast. There’s the editing of the story shifting from the present to the past back to the present on a constant basis at the right times. There’s the inclusion of dialogue at the right moments and even moments of dialogue muted at the right times where you just know what they’re saying. The muted parts work to the story’s advantage. There’s also the arrangement of music–original, classical and choral– that add to the story.

Manchester By The Sea may come across as a film that’s unwatchable if you take its premise at face value. In the end, it turns out to be a great story that’s worth seeing.

And there you go. That’s the second of my review of the nominees. One’s an original musical, one’s an original story and one’s an adaptation of a renowned stage play. All three make it obvious why they were nominated for Best Picture as all three have what it takes to be among the Top 10 films of the year.

Final Best Picture summary is expected to be up by Tuesday.

Movie Review: Whiplash

J.K. Simmons plays a jazz instructor inflicting tyrannical teaching methods on Miles Teller in Whiplash.

J.K. Simmons plays a jazz instructor inflicting tyrannical teaching methods on a drumming student played by Miles Teller in Whiplash.

There are no two words in the English language more harmful that good job.

One of the year’s biggest surprises has to be Whiplash. You think a movie about a jazz drumming student and his teacher wouldn’t be one to win people over but you’ll have to see it for yourself.

Andrew Neiman is a 19 year-old jazz drummer who has been accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory to pursue his dream of being one of the greats like Buddy Rich.  Despite practicing long hours, he does take time to take things easy watching movies with his father and even dating the girl working at concessions.

That all changes one day when during class, instructor Terence Fletcher who already has an infamous reputation among students substitutes for one instructor. It’s more than instruction as Fletcher is looking for a new drum alternate for the school band he conducts. Sure enough, Andrew catches his eye. Actually Andrew caught his eye days before while practicing alone.

On the first session, Neiman learns that part of Fletcher’s rehearsal methods is manipulating emotions out of his students. It is while rehearsing the Hank Levy song ‘Whiplash’ that Fletcher makes Andrew his target of attacks including berating him verbally especially when Andrew is brought to tears, throwing a chair at him and even slapping him for going off tempo. The rehearsal ends with Andrew being the alternate drummer and relegated to page turner for the lead drummer.

Instead of quitting, Andrew is determined to win over Fletcher and master ‘Whiplash.’ He listens intensely to its drumline and studies videoclips of the drummers. He even cuts his movie time with his father and breaks up with Nicole to intensely pursue his ambition. Then bad luck happens during a competition when Andrew misplaces the drummer’s sheet music. However Andrew is determined to perform ‘Whiplash’ without the notes. To the astonishment of all including Fletcher, he does it perfectly and becomes Fletcher’s new lead drummer.

However it’s short-lived as Ryan a drummer from Fletcher’s former class, is promoted to lead drummer. Andrew is frustrated to the point he confronts Fletcher only to learn Fletcher decides who has earned the part. That only drives Andrew to practice intensely to the point his hands bleed. Just before Fletcher starts rehearsal one day in tears, he reveals to all that one of his former students from six years ago Sean Casey, whom he describes as a ‘marvelous musician,’ died in a car accident. He starts rehearsal on ‘Caravan’, the next competition piece, but has a hard time picking out the right drummer for the song. Fletcher gets all three drummers including Andrew continually trying out the piece for several brutal hours until he makes his final decision at 2:30 am. He decides it to be Andrew.

Andrew buses to the competition but the bus suffers a flat tire. Andrew’s determined to be there on time to the point he rents a car but forgets his drumsticks at the rental office. Andrew only finds that out once he arrives and Fletcher dismisses him for not having his drumsticks. Determined to play, Andrew rushed back to the agency to get the sticks. Speeding to the concert hall and talking to Fletcher on his phone, Andrew is hit by a car. Despite the car flipping over and Andrew bloody and injured, Andrew rushes to the hall to play. A stunned Fletcher lets him play but it’s obvious Andrew is off as his injuries cause him to drop his drumsticks continuously. Fletcher gives him the words onstage: “You’re finished.” That causes Andrew to attack Fletcher onstage in front of the audience.

The attack caused Andrew to get expelled form the school. Soon Andrew learns from the lawyer of Sean Casey’s parents that Casey actually committed suicide and believes it was because of the personal torment endured by Fletcher’s teaching methods right from when he first started. Andrew agrees to testify, leading Fletcher to be dismissed from the school. Just when it seemed to be all over for Andrew, he learns months later Fletcher is performing in a club. Andrew and Fletcher meet up again and it’s during a drink together that Andrew learns why Fletcher teaches the way he does. Because he drives his students to be the next jazz great. And he saw it in Andrew more than the other two. Fletcher agrees to have Andrew as part of the band he’s conducting for the upcoming JVC festival where they will be playing the same songs. Andrew agrees. However things do not go as planned as Fletcher tells Andrew he knew he got him out. On top of it, the band opens with a piece Andrew never rehearsed. This leads to an ending that’s unpredictable and entertaining.

One can simply say it’s a story about a student with the drive and the teacher determined to make him succeed no matter how soul-crushing his teaching methods. I myself saw a lot more to it. I see it as about music and arts in general. We see and hear a lot of great pieces of music, great acting performances and great pieces of art. One thing we don’t often see is that it takes everything out of a person, especially their heart and soul. We also see that here in teaching as Fletcher verbally beats his students into the ground to bring out the best in them. He feels he’s doing the right thing even as he was blamed for Sean Casey’s suicide. He even brings up the example of Charlie Parker who was a substandard saxophone player until his bandleader threw a cymbal at his head. That was the turning point. I myself have taken acting courses and there have been times in which I was encouraged to dig deep into my soul even to the point of remembering some of the more upsetting moments of my life. It’s not uncommon for teacher sin the art to be that tyrannical to their students to bring out the best in them.

It’s not just about a teacher putting his students through such agonizing torturous methods to better his students and bring the best out of them. It’s also about the drive of a student. Andrew is determined to be the best drummer ever. In his mind, he thinks it’s better to be a success even if it means dying in his 30’s and having no friends than it is to be not so successful but live a long life and be beloved. Andrew is willing to practice drumming until his hands bleed, willing to give up his girlfriend and even determined to make a competition even if he’s in a car accident and the car flips over. The crazy thing is that there are a lot of people in the arts that feel that same way. That success in their art is better than being loved and even worth dying for. We see that in Andrew.

Even there, it’s not just about the teacher and about the student, it’s the relationship between the two. Fletcher can be brutal and abusive both verbally and physically but he pushes Andrew because he sees a quality in him he has not seen in a student before. Andrew is driven to succeed but he sees something in Fletcher’s tutelage that he feels he can’t get anywhere else. He senses Fletcher and only Fletcher can help him to be the best jazz drummer ever. And he’s willing to take it on even with the physical, verbal and emotional abuse. Even after both Andrew and Fletcher are both dismissed from Shaffer, Andrew still relies on Fletcher’s judgment on his abilities. Often Fletcher’s teaching and pushing Andrew can remind a lot of people of sports coaches who are that tough on their athletes but are determined to bring out the best in them. Andrew willing to endure it all to be the great he wants to be will remind you of athletes who wholeheartedly trust their coach to the point that they’ll willing to do illegal things like steroids upon their urging.

Without a doubt, J.K. Simmons owned the movie. His portrayal of Fletcher determined to bring out the best in his students even if it requires him to deliver physical or verbal abuse stole the movie. His focus on perfectionism, his love for jazz music and the greats, his portrayal of that kind of teacher will keep you glued to your seat. Even though Simmons owned the film, credit should be given to Miles Teller. He as well delivered an excellent performance of a student with a dream and determined to succeed even if it means taking physical abuse from a teacher. He also did an excellent job of showing how Andrew’s determination to succeed almost destroys him at times. Miles himself also drummed as a kid so it’s kind of natural he was chosen. Plus if director Damien Chazelle was interested in making his film bankable, he could have chosen Nick Jonas as Andrew. Miles was one who could both drum and act.

The film is actually the brainchild of director/writer Damien Chazelle. Chazelle wanted to become a successful jazz drummer in high school. He was in a very competitive jazz band in high school and had an intense music teacher who would become the inspiration of Terence Fletcher. However unlike Andrew, Chazelle knew he wasn’t good enough to excel in jazz drumming and turned to film making instead. You could rightfully call this film his baby. This film has won the Sundance Audience and Jury Award for Best Drama and the reception has been excellent.

 Whiplash is as much about the punishing training and studying music students go through to pursue their dreams as it is about the determined teacher, the driven student and the turbulent but solid chemistry between the two. It will also remind all you young ones with musical dreams that if you think chasing your musical dreams is a cakewalk, you couldn’t be wronger.