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Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: 1917

1917 Chapman mackay

A journey to deliver a message to stop a battle during World War I leads to an intriguing drama in 1917.

There has been a lot of anticipation of what will win Best Picture for the past two months. Lately the recently-released 1917 has become the front-runner. Does it have what it takes to win it?

One thing we should keep in mind is that this is not a completely true story that takes place during World War I on April 6, 1917. This is a story about a messenger delivering a message during the war. According to Sam Mendes, this is a story that has been lodged with him as a child. It’s quite likely the stories came while listening to the tales his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, would tell. In fact he dedicates the film to him ‘for telling us the stories.’

Another thing we should remember about World War I is not just how it would be the most brutal war in history before World War II, but also of how it changed how wars are fought. In the past, soldiers would fight on horses with swords. Here in World War I, it was mostly ammunition related which made horse fighting useless from this point on. Also with the airplane being invented back in 1903, this was the first war ever that would involve airfighting. That would present a new danger for soldiers fighting on the ground as they would also have to avoid shooting from the air.

We should also take into account that despite the advances in warfare, communication between infantries were limited. It seems odd to see the need for a message to stop a battle to be sent through two men. I remember seeing messages submitted in such fashion in Lincoln which was set during the Civil War. One in today’s modern world would find ‘walking’ this message from the trenches to former enemy territory to the infantry to be an odd thing, considering the technologies we now have. We shouldn’t forget that during World War I, the most communication they had was either Morse Code or landline telephone. As you would see when the scene approaches, the infantry of which the leader would need to receive the message would have no access to any of those forms of communication. Telephone lines were cut out in the field and ‘walking’ the message to the infantry would be the only way they can be reached.

We’ve seen war movies in the past. Most war movies consist of frequent battles and action scenes. Mostly to stir up excitement for the purpose of being an action movie. This is a different story. This is a message of two men who are given the responsibility to deliver a message to a battalion to cease fighting and prevent huge loss. This is not just a message a soldier has to relay to prevent a devastating battle, but one in which threatens his brother. Blake not only must deliver the message but have someone else as the second should one die. He chooses his best friend Schofield who’s reluctant at first. The two put themselves out in the mission but encounter danger after danger. Blake is stabbed to death and then it becomes Schofield’s mission to deliver the message. This is a story that focuses less on battles and more on getting a task done. If you get into the story, you will see this is a task which will put one in the middle of the horrors of war. This being a war movie, there are scenes of action and intensity. Those are scenes that can’t be compromised in a war movie and there’s no compromise here. This film also shows a lot of the horrors and devastations caused during World War I like a devastated town, a brutal plane crash, rat-infested areas, bodies left around decaying, and even how every soldier had to see people from another army as the enemy. No exceptions. This story is a telling account of what those fighting in the war had to deal with.

I know I’ve seen many films by Steven Spielberg where he not only tells a war story but also shows how the war was done back then. Often when he does his story that occurs during times of war, it’s like we receive a lesson of how war was done and are even reminded of the politics and hostilities of the time. Sam Mendes takes a different approach in telling his story in 1917. It’s not as telling as how World War I was done as a Spielberg movie would be, but it does remind you of many horrors a soldier would endure. Keep in mind, this is a single story of a message to be delivered and the treacherous journey to deliver it. One can go through enough horrors in that one journey to know how much war is hell. Even the stories from one person is enough to be a telling account.

Mendes does do something in which Spielberg never did in any of his war movies. Mendes makes this a ‘follow-around’ story. I’ve seen films which have been cases where the story is told by following the lead protagonist around. It’s added to the story in most cases. Here in this film, it not only tells the story but makes one part of the journey. It makes the audience experience the horrors and dangers as they happen. Another addition to the story is how it makes like this film is all one take. It’s not really a single take for almost two hours. In fact I saw in Birdman how they’re able to make a film set in real-time appear to be only one take through some cinematography and editing angles. This is the same here where it does an excellent job of making it look like one take from start to finish. There are many times in which the story is done in real-time and there are time elapses where the audience won’t notice. Nevertheless it works for the film and for the storytelling.

Top acclaim has to go to Sam Mendes. I have something to tell you all. Back when I first arrived in Vancouver, I celebrated my first weekend there watching American Beauty in the movie theatres. It left me captivated from start to finish and I never checked my watch once! Which was rarely the case for me back then. That film, as well as other films that made 1999 a landmark year for film, and the Oscar race that followed would kick-start my enthusiasm for film and the Oscar Race.

Mendes does an excellent job in directing the story and using multiple angles that add to the story instead of distract. The story in which he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns is actually the very first feature-length film script both have written! Wilson-Cairns however has had more experience as she’s written for television and various short films. This is a unique story and a unique way in filmmaking of telling the story. The story succeeds in delivering excitement and intensity as the viewer watches it. The journey ends in a manner different from how the viewer would expect it to end, but it ends on the right note. It even ends on a personal note as Schofield confronts Blake with the bad news. The ending is possibly the most human note of the film and it reminds you of the dignity of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives to fight or prevent tyranny. I admire Mendes and Wilson-Cairns for incorporating that in the story.

As for acting, this is a film that doesn’t allow too much in terms of a developed ensemble cast. Many action films and war films usually don’t have room for well-developed acting; it’s mostly action-oriented. Even the role of the protagonist Schofield, played by George MacKay, is not exactly a role with too much dimension. I do give it credit as the film is more about the story than it is about the characters. Nevertheless I do admire for MacKay delivering a solid performance with a role that lacked dimension. Actually he succeeds in giving the role its most feeling at the very end. The acting of the main supporting role of Dean-Charles Chapman was also very good. His role was given more feeling as this was the character’s brother he was most concerned about. Chapman also does a good job with his role. Most of the other supporting roles had minimal screen time in the film. Nevertheless the performances of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Maaser and Richard Madden were well-acted despite how limited their roles were.

The film also has a lot of stand-out technical efforts too. First is the cinematography of Roger Deakins which is unique for a war-film and it adds to the thrills and excitement. Next is the film editing by Lee Smith who successfully makes it look like a single take. Next is set designers Lee Sandales and Dennis Gassner for recreating the trenches, battlefields and sunken bridges of the war. Another of top acclaim is the score from Thomas Newman. Newman has composed scores for six of Mendes’ seven films and this is his fourth Oscar nomination for a score for a Mendes film. The score fits the intensity of the story and moments of action. Finally the visual effects team did an excellent job of recreating the war and the battle scenes.

1917 isn’t your typical war movie. It’s a movie that takes you on the journey and involves you in the drama. It even reminds you of the horror while restoring your belief in humanity.

And there you have it! That’s the last of my reviews of the Best Picture nominees! This makes it nineteen straight years of seeing all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar Night! Just a review of the Oscar Shorts and my Oscar-winner predictions yet to come.

VIFF 2019 Review: In The Tall Grass

In-The-Tall-Grass

In The Tall Grass is a thriller of people lost in a field of tall grass and come across something of the paranormal that’s terrifying to their existence.

With the VIFF comes the return of films in the Altered States category: of thrillers, horror and even the paranormal. My first chance came with the film In The Tall Grass. It was worth it.

The film starts with a pregnant Becky DeMuth and her brother Cal traveling to San Diego to find a way to give up her baby. They pass an old bowling alley and stop by a church. Just as they stop by, they hear the voice of a young boy crying for help. The voice is coming from a field of tall grass they’ve parked beside. They also hear the mother of the boy begging anyone to not come in. Becky and Cal are naturally curious and walk in top help the boy. It’s only a matter of time they find themselves lost and even risk getting stuck by the wet sticky mud. Even as they’re distant, they hear each other’s voices which is not really theirs, but mystically transmitted. They decide to leave, but they can’t and are stuck for the night.

During the night, Cal encounters Tobin, the lost boy, who is scared, bruised and holding a dead crow. Becky meets up with a man named Ross, who is very friendly and offers to lead her. Tobin reveals to cal that the field the grass does not move dead things and Becky will not make it out of the field alive. Tobin leads Cal to the centre of the field which consists of cut grass bordering a big mystical rock with hieroglyphics which Tobin tells Cal to touch. Before he does, Becky arrives, but is taken away by an unseen figure.

Travis, the father of Becky’s child, arrives in the same area of Becky and Cal. He notices the car parked by the church. He also notices the field of tall grass. He hears Tobin’s voice and is led into the field. Tobin leads Travis to Becky’s corpse. Travis breaks down, but loses sight of Tobin. At the same time, we see Tobin with his father Ross and mother Natalie at the church along with their dog Freddie. Possibly a reference of what happened earlier. Freddie runs into the field of tall grass and the three chase after him. It’s there where Travis hears Tobin’s voice and the three of the family are scattered around the field. Ross comes to the centre with the rock and touches it as night falls. Tobin is discovered by Becky and cal all all are confused by the timelines.

As the three are one group, Becky and Cal decide to leave and use Tobin to navigate a path back to the road on top of Cal’s shoulders. Becky receives an unknown phone call saying that Cal should quit hunting Travis.The grass soon appears to be entering Becky’s uterus and she becomes unconscious. Cal and Tobin come across Ross, who reunites with Tobin. Ross brings them to the rock but are startled when they see Natalie and she says she saw Becky’s corpse earlier. As they try to make their escape, Ross is chasing them all down and gives them the impression there’s no escape and they’re all under Ross’ control. Ross tells them all the rock shows them of what’s happening.

Becky, Cal, Travis and Tobin succeed in escaping the field into the abandoned bowling alley. As Cal and Travis make their way to the top, they discover the dog Freddie escaped via a hole. However a spat between Travis and Cal brew as Travis brings up he senses incestuous feelings between Cal and Becky. Cal throws Travis off the roof. That succeeds in alerting Ross to their location. Tobin, knowing how this alerted Ross to their whereabouts, runs back into the field. Becky and Cal try to escape together, but Becky won’t leave Travis alone in the field. After she runs off to find Travis, Cal is strangled by Ross. It’s evident anyone in the grass field is affected by a time loop. If anyone dies, there will be another of them alive. If anyone touches the rock, they get a sense of control and invincibility.

During the return to the grass, Becky admits she was going to give the baby up for adoption. Becky is soon captured by Ross who tries to sexually assault her, but she escapes. Grass creatures however emerge and grab a hold of her and carry her to the rock. There, the rock develops imagery that detail the baby will die and Becky will be tortured. Becky passes out in reaction. As she awakens, she is tricked by Ross who poses his voice as Cal. Travis meanwhile stumbles across Becky’s unconscious body. Ross then kills Travis and captures Tobin to get him to touch the rock. Becky stops him, but dies. Travis decides to touch the rock to get a better understanding of the grass.

The film ends with one last scene involving Becky, Cal, Tobin and Travis. It gives the impression that all know what is happening and the film ends with what should be.

This film is a film that is based off of a short story written by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill. We’ve had Stephen King adaptations before and often adapting a Stephen King story to the big screen is hit-or-miss. This is a very complex story. This involves six people who go into a field of grass with paranormal powers. It threatens their lives and creates another life for them. Then there’s the rock that gives whoever it touches a sense of invincibility and control and threatens others.

Overall this film is a maze and a puzzle. Trying to piece this puzzle together is a tricky thing. Trying to create this maze of confusion is also a tricky thing. Watching it, it’s easy to get thrilled by the paranormal and nervous for what will happen next. However in looking back, I felt there were some areas that didn’t make too much sense. Even when it becomes clear that Ross starts as the controlling one and then it becomes Travis, that seemed odd. Even how Ross was the controlling conniving one, that even seemed cheesy at times.

The film does however keep one intrigued in the paranormal elements. Depite its flaws in the script and storyline, it does succeed in grabbing a hold of your attention and keeping you intrigued in the story. The paranormal elements don’t come across as cheeseball as it adds to the thriller aspect of the film. Overall despite its flaws as a film, I feel this is a good story for fans of paranormal fiction. I just feel it could have been done better as a movie.

This story is a mixed bag for Vincenzo Natali. Yes, it’s confusing, but the paranormal will keep one intrigued from start to finish and it will keep one hoping for the best for the main characters. Laysla de Oliveira was very good as Becky. Isn’t it something how the first two VIFF films I saw starred Laysla? She captured the role well in both it’s comedic elements and it’s dramatic elements.

Avery Whitted was also good as Cal. Will Buie Jr. also did an excellent job as Tobin: the frightened boy in the middle of it all. His role was the best at keeping the horror/thriller aspect of the film and was the most no-nonsense performance of all. Patrick Wilson was hard to make sense of as Ross. He came across as a conniver, but I feel he lacked the sinister element. Harrison Gilbertson was good as Travis, but he appeared he could have done more.

In The Tall Grass is a Netflix thriller that works well to be shown on the big screen, if imperfectly. It may not make the most sense, but it does keep people thrilled and intrigued about what will happen next and how it will end.

VIFF 2016 Review: Under The Shadow (زیر سایه‎‎)

under-the-shadow

Under The Shadow is a film of a woman and her daughter who should leave their war-threatened apartment in Tehran but can’t for some mysterious reason.

One of the objectives of the VIFF is to show films each year that take us to another dimension or the supernatural. That’s shown in their Altered States film category/ The first Altered States film I saw was Under The Shadow which showcases a supernatural occurrence during a moment in world history.

This takes place in Tehran during the later 1980’s during the Iran/Iraq war. The war has been going on since 1980 with lots of lives lost, everyone in Iran threatened, and no end in sight. Shideh, just recently expelled from her law school for participating in a protest, has returned to her apartment as a housewife. Only she learns her husband has been drafted in the War. She’s left to tend to her daughter Dorsa alone. Her workout tape to Jane Fonda– forbidden under her country’s religious law along with the VCR hidden in a locked box– becomes her one escape from the stresses in her life.

One night, an Iraqi missile hits the apartment but doesn’t explode. There’s only one fatality but he dies of a heart attack. Mysteriously Dorsa won’t stop crying for her doll until she has it despite the wreckage to the apartment building.

Shideh decides to stay with Dorsa despite other tenant leaving the building for a safer place to live one by one. Dorsa mentions of a mysterious man, or djinn, and that’s what keeps her there. It’s not easy for Shideh to deal with this as she’s constantly being left behind by the tenants, worrying about her husband constantly, looking after Dorsa all alone and dealing with authorities in a country under strict religious law. Things take a turn for the worse as this djinn causes things to move out of place. It even rips up her Jane Fonda tape.

Soon the last of the other tenants– the daughter of the man who died in the missile hit– leaves the apartment with Shideh and Dorsa on their own. Nevertheless Shideh is determined to face the djinn before she leaves and despite the threat of a collapsing roof. Shideh does have her moment to finally confront the djinn and deal with it.

There are a lot of stories about the supernatural in the past. The unique thing about this film is that it features a supernatural character traditional to Arabic literature: the Djinn. The djinn are common in ancient Arabic mythology and are even mentioned in the Qu’ran. The most common form of the djinn in entertainment is the ‘genie in a bottle’ or the ‘genie in a lamp’ that’s common in the most popular Arabic stories. Yes, the genie we all commonly know originates from the djinn myth. However the djinn goes beyond the genie most of us commonly know. The djinn can be either good, evil or neutrally benevolent possessing the same free will of humans. In fact the word djinn comes from the primary meaning ‘to hide.’ It’s the ‘shaytan djinn’ that are the most demonic.

Here the djinn Shideh is dealing with is far from a genie that will grant you three wishes. It’s obvious that this djinn has something to do with Shideh’s personal issues. And she has a lot of them as seen in her life. Her education was cut short because she participated in something that’s a right in most other countries. Her husband has to fight in the war. She’s now on her own looking after her daughter. The only place she appears to find relief in is in her Jane Fonda workout tape which is banned by the government along with her VCR. However this is a djinn that goes beyond just appearing to Shideh. It also carries a sense that it’s present in Dorsa’s doll, too. It’s apparent Shideh has to deal with this djinn to the point she refuses to vacate the apartment with her daughter like all the others until she’s finished.

It’s interesting how this story intertwines with both the supernatural and both a moment in world history. You can notice how there are so many things mixed in with this story that tells of the times in Iran during the war. There’s the forbidden Jane Fonda tape, there’s Shideh punished for being in a demonstration, there’s the police threatening to arrest Shideh for not being in a hijab. You even hear it echoed by the police there: “This is not the same country. We now have our values back. We have men fighting for those values.” Sometimes you wonder if the times of Iran have a lot of influence in the djinn Shideh has to deal with. I often feel that’s what the filmmaker is trying to do here.

I will say one of the top things of the film is that it often succeeds at adding horror elements to the film. The djinn is a mysterious spirit but it does a good job at scaring Shideh in her dreams. It also does a good job in scaring the crowds. I know the film succeeded in scaring me a few times.

It may seem odd for the United Kingdom to submit a film in the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Oscars but it can be done since Iranian-born director Babak Anvari lives in London. Anvari was actually born during the Iran/Iraq war so this is an incident in history that really touches upon him and has a lot to do with why he prefers to live in the UK. This is his first feature-length film and it’s an impressive work as it does a good job in capturing a moment in history and incorporating the supernatural into it. It was also successful in scaring me too at times. Narges Rashidi did a very good job of playing Shideh: a woman who’s both scared and angry. Rashidi herself was born in Iran and is familiar with the Iran/ Iraq war she had to endure with before escaping to Turkey. Young actress Avin Manshadi was also very good as Dorsa.

Under The Shadow is an intriguing story of a mysterious spirit that comes to a woman during wartime. It also makes for a fitting scary movie too.

VIFF 2011 Review: Miss Representation

One of the most notable things about the VIFF is that it features a huge selection of documentaries both in the number of films aired and the variety of topics. Many documentaries are focused on topics revolving Canada. The documentary of Miss Representation is focused in the United States but one can see a lot the issues discussed in the documentary facing Canada in similar ways too.

Tired of your daughter trying to make a sex object of yourself? Tired of your daughter imitating the stupidities of reality show stars? Ever stop to think about how women are depicted on television? Ever feel a lack of female roles or smart female roles in movies? Tired of the lack of females in CEO positions or politics? While some people, including other women, overlook it, there are women that don’t and are unhappy about the state of things. This dilemma is well-stated in the documentary Miss Representation.

Miss Representation has an impressive lineup of women interviewed for this documentary from actresses like Geena Davis, Jane Fonda and Rosario Dawson to feminists like Dr. Jean Kibourne and Gloria Steinem to newscasters like Katie Couric and Rachel Maddow to politicians like Condoleeza Rice and Nancy Pelosi. It does an impressive investigation of how women are portrayed in today’s media, in both entertainment and news. It highlights the negative depictions of them in ‘reality shows’ and misogynistic treatment in hip-hop videos. It shows how computer enhancements shorten a model’s waistline to an unrealistic width. It shows sexist depictions in television ads. It shows networks’ news shows hiring women for sexiness over professionalism. It shows the negative role models girls are given via reality shows and MTV. It also highlights how these images have affected their self-esteem, especially in terms of eating disorders, depression and even undergoing cosmetic surgery.

It doesn’t just stop at entertainment but also focuses on politics too. It points out the United States ranks 90th in the world in terms of the percentage of female politicians in office and noticed a decline in 2010 that was enough cause for alarm. It shows how American female politicians get more copy over what they wear than what they have to say in office. It shows how right wing conservative pundits and their ridiculing of female politicians also are part of the blame. Even conservative groups who hurl slurs at Hillary Clinton like “Iron my clothes” have their part in this. It also focuses on the business world, on how it’s like being a woman with a top position in a room full of men. It also talks of the lack of female CEOs. Funny how when we’ve made progress in the last 40 years, we learn there’s more to be done, and at a faster pace.

Mind you it doesn’t completely dwell on the negative. It also features messages of hope. It also shows of the efforts of young teenage girls in their own political pursuits. It shows a discussion with teenage students–both boys and girls– and how they feel about this. Just when you think teenage America is eating it up and enjoying it all, there are some teens that are concerned. It even talks of Miss Representation, the campaign. The documentary Miss Representation is as much a campaign as it is a documentary film. Its goals are to empower women and girls to challenge limiting labels in order to realize their potential. They are encouraging actions that lead to a cross-generational movement to eradicate gender stereotypes and create lasting cultural and sociological change. They are using various media outlets like girls using social media to speak their mind, a school curriculum to educate and encourage activism, community screenings where discussion is encouraged, and consumer empowerment to encourage the success of female-friendly entertainment.

The unique thing is that the film is done from the point of view from the director and the founder and CEO of the Miss Representation campaign. The filmmaker is Jennifer Siebel Newsom. She is married to former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. Siebel has a Masters Degree from Stanford, completed acting studies at the American Conservatory Theatre and had done environmental work overseas through Conservation International.  Her acting credits include films like Something’s Gotta Give, Rent and In The Valley Of Elah. Her television credits include Strong Medicine, Numb3rs and Mad Men. This documentary is her directorial debut. Miss Representation is as much a personal focus of hers as it is a documentary as she filmed it just after she had given birth to her daughter and wonders what type of world she would grow up in. Anyone else who has a daughter might want to question the same thing too.

I found this documentary quite intriguing. I especially took note of what they said about entertainment. Entertainment and how it’s delivered to various peoples is a big interest of mine. Interesting is during the film, they pointed out to entertainment in the early 90’s that took women’s roles in new directions, like Thelma & Louise and A League Of Their Own. It brought back memories back in the 90’s when women were defying convention in entertainment. We had the sitcom Roseanne where the star Roseanne Barr looked like an actual mother. We had A surge of female singer/songwriters whose intimate work helped spawn off the Lilith Fair festival. Nowadays you could say it’s a memory with profit-oriented entertainment more competitive than ever. We shouldn’t forget about entertainment sinking to new lows for the sake of new highs in profits. In fact I myself could even right an essay on how the improvement of women’s image and role in music in the 90’s suddenly grounded to a halt thanks to Britney and “Oh Baby Baby…” I could also write how Paris Hilton reversed the women’s movement. Or even my thoughts on Snooki. But I’ll save it for now. I’m sure you have your own annoyances too. I’m just glad Lilith Fair hasn’t been replaced by Tartapalozza.

It also got me thinking about how things are doing in Canada. I often feel that Canada is not as sexist as the US but I’m frequently reminded that there’s still work to be done. Even though wage parity between male and female workers is closer than its ever been, female workers are still paid less than male workers. Canada ranks 50th on the world scale of females holding political office. 70 on the 308 seats in the House Of Commons are women; 27 from the victorious Conservative party. Canadian teenage girls have done their share of idolizing Britney and other reality show stars. In fact it encouraged one Canadian magazine journalist, Anne Kingston to write an article that made the cover story for Maclean’s, Canada’s national magazine. For those who want to read it, here it is: http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/08/10/outraged-moms-trashy-daughters/ Glad to see that while Americans mostly ignored this issue, one Canadian writer decided to speak up.

Miss Representation is a film that’s angry about the portrayal of women without having to ‘shout’. It shows stats and views to show its disappointment but also offers messages of hope. Jennifer Siebel Newsom put in a lot of effort and research to get her message across. I’m sure her frustration would not only be shared by mothers like her but fathers of daughters as well. For those interested in the Miss Representation campaign, go to: http://missrepresentation.org/