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Movie Review: It

Pennywise

Bill Skarsgard plays Pennywise, the creepiest clown in movie history, in It.

Until now, It appeared to be the one big Stephen King novel that has not had a big screen adaptation. Sure, there was a miniseries back in 1991, but nothing beats a big-screen showing. Finally it’s here, and the excitement is just beginning!

The story beings in the fall of 1988 in Derry, Maine. Sick and in bed, a stuttering Billy Denbrough makes a paper boat for his younger brother Georgie to play with on a rainy day. While playing with the boat, it falls into a sewer. Georgie goes to get it, but comes across a clown named Pennywise who manipulates Georgie by biting off his arm and taking him down the drain.

The story progresses to June 1989: the end of the school year. Bill has found himself with a clique of three misfits which include bespectacled big-mouth Richie Tozier, sickly asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak, and fearful Stanley Uris who’s the son of the rabbi. End of the school year won’t mean the end of torment from a group of bullies led by Henry Bowers, son of a police officer. Bullying is Henry’s favorite past-time as he loves tormenting almost every kid. His last victim on this last day of school is Ben Hanscom, an overweight kid new to the town. The bullying however does result in Beverly Marsh, who’s bullied by the popular girls in school and called a ‘slut,’ coming to the rescue. She takes a liking to Ben as she learns he too likes the New Kids On The Block. She doesn’t appear bothered by her own bullying at school because she gets it worse by her father at home. Last day of school just means work on the farm for Mike Hanlon, an orphaned African-American boy who’s raised by his grandfather.

The abduction of Georgie is still very much on Bill’s mind. Actually it’s on the minds of most people in Derry. Derry has a dirty secret that children disappear six times more often than the national average. Bill tries to get his friends to locate the possible whereabouts of Georgie, believing he may still be alive and in a marshy wasteland known as the Barrens. Ben does research into the town of Derry. He learns of the explosion of 1908 which killed many children. He also learns of how children of Derry go lost most frequently: a curse going back centuries. Ben encounters a headless boy in the basement and runs off, only to be encountered by Henry’s group. Ben successfully fights them off and runs away bumping into Bill’s group. Adding to the drama of Derry, the group including Ben find the sneaker of a young girl. Patrick Hockstetter, one of Henry’s bullies who is chasing after Ben, is killed by Pennywise and becomes the latest of the missing.

The following day, all five of the boys have some type of nightmarish encounter with It. Later they encounter Mike Hanlon after he was bullied by Henry’s group. Mike becomes part of the group which now calls itself the Losers Club. Mike also possesses some knowledge about this entity and how it’s haunting Derry. Later in the summer, the group get together to do research into this entity that haunts them each. Bev finds her way into the group, thanks to Ben. They come across some interesting facts: they are all haunted by the same entity in the guise of what they each fear; awakens every 27 years to prey on children before returning to hibernation; and uses the sewers to travel about the town upon where a shabby abandoned house on Neibolt street is built.

They see the house on Neibolt as a chance to get to It. Most are afraid, but Billy wants to do this for the sake of finding Georgie dead or alive and to prevent other children of Derry from receiving this same threat. All agree the first time, but after having to wrestle with Pennywise the first time. Inside, Eddie breaks his arm, making him vulnerable to Pennywise. Fortunately Bev impales Pennywise, forcing him to retreat vowing revenge. However the group is threatened to disband as Eddie’s mother is furious with what had happened. Bill insists on continuing to fight It, but all except Bev and Ben leave.

August comes. Bev is threatened by her abusive father and threatens to rape her, but she kills him with a toilet lid. Unfortunately Pennywise abducts her. This prompts Bill to reassemble the Losers Club to rescue Bev. Even Eddie returns to the group after he learns that his asthma is fake and drug-induced by his mother. Meanwhile It goes into the guise of a children’s television host to compel Henry to kill his abusive father and then kill the Losers Club over at the Neibolt house. Henry fights Mike only to pushed down a well to his death. Inside the Neibolt house, they try to make their way to It’s central location, only to have Pennywise bite Stanley’s head with It’s sharp teeth. Soon they make their way to a cooling tower where they find It’s lair, containing a mountain of decaying circus props and children’s belongings. They also find Bev floating in a catatonic state. The group are able to bring Bev down and it’s Ben’s kiss that restores her consciousness. Now it’s up to the Losers Club to defeat It. The film ends with a spectacularly haunting ending that’s both triumphant, tragic and in anticipation for what’s next.

Adapting a Stephen King movie to the big screen is very much a case of hit-or-miss. Not everything can be adapted from the novel so the writers and directors have to work to bring it to life within two to two-and-a-half hours. That would mean a lot of picking and choosing and a lot of pairing down. There have been a lot of cases where it has worked excellently like Carrie, Christine, The Shining, Stand By Me, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption to name a few. There have been duds too like Maximum Overdrive, Needful Things, Dreamcatcher and Cell. YouTube countdown channel WatchMojo even did a countdown on how movie adaptations of novels actually differed greatly from the real thing.

Before there could be a big-screen adaptation of It, the film had to be organized. This is a movie that took eight years and the efforts of three directors to develop and loads of casting changes. It started when David Kajganich decided to adapt the screenplay when he learned Warner Bros. would be in charge of it. In 2012, direction then went into the hands of Cary Fukunaga. He had a vision of the story and originally planned to cast Will Poulter as Pennywise and Ty Simpkins as Bill. That changed when New Line Cinemas stepped in. Fukunaga withdrew from directing feeling that New Line and their concern with budget cuts was interfering with the creative process.

Then in July 2015, it was announced Argentinian director Andy Muschietti would be signed on to direct with Fukunaga remaining as scriptwriter. Muschietti has had a modest success that took off overnight with his 2008 short film Mama being expanded to an English-language release in 2013 with Jessica Chastain as lead actress. Casting changes came about with a new Bill and a new Pennywise most noticeable. Muschietti is the only director that went the full distance.

Then the adaptation of the story. This adaptation from It makes a lot of notable changes from the original novel. First we must remember the novel was released in 1986. The characters as children were set in the 1950’s. The characters as adults were set in the 1980’s. Here, we have the child characters set in the summer of 1989: a summer that’s close to my heart, too. Setting that part in the 1950’s would seem like a good choice as made evident in Stand By Me, but it could also be a hindrance. 2001’s Hearts In Atlantis was set in the late-50’s and it flopped. I feel it made sense to adapt the Losers Club part of It to 1989. It worked here.

Then there’s the choice of whether to do the full novel in this It movie or have this as a movie series. We’re talking about a novel that first required the format of a mini-series in order to get its first adaptation. It made sense to have the first It movie with focus exclusively on the Losers Club as children and then have a second It film possibly with the Losers Club all grown up. It would also be a gamble as this first It film would have to avoid performing poorly at the box office to get a second It film happening, despite the chances of that being extremely slim. I’ll mention later why they won’t have to worry about that.

One thing we shouldn’t forget is that this is a Stephen King film. Adaptations of Stephen King novels have been known to be a case of a lot of paring down of the story to mish-mashing to including only one part of a multi-chapter novel. Stephen King’s novels have a lot of common elements. For those unfamiliar with Stephen King novels, the first common element is the setting in a smalltown in Maine, most commonly the fictional town of Derry. Another is the case of main child characters being the misfits in a harsh time in their lives. Another is the situation of parents who are either negligent, manipulative or downright abusive to their children. Another is of religious figures or religious people with some even possessing a warped sense of blind faith. Another is the element of evil that King works into his villains.

The film included a lot of elements common to a Stephen King story. It’s set in Derry and the misfits form a clique of their own: The Losers Club. As for parents: Billy’s parents are too distraught with the loss of Georgie to pay attention to his issues; Stanley faces the pressure of being the rabbi’s son; Eddie’s mother has a case of Munchhausen syndrome which explains the fake Asthma she induces with pills; Henry Bowers’ father uses his gun to ‘traumatize’ sense into him; and Bev’s father… I don’t want to go there. Religion or religious figures are not seen as so much of a threat, curse or interference in It, but some could argue Stanley’s strict religious upbringing made him a fearful person. As for evil, the character of It is one that messes with the characters minds and fears it took a group of seven children to solve who It is and to end It once and for all.

The film also had to leave some things from the novel out. It’s not just changing the setting of 1958 to 1989. There were some guises of It in the novel that didn’t appear on film. Henry’s bullying of Stanley includes anti-Semitic slurs in the novel. Here in the film, it’s limited to throwing Stanley’s yarmukel like a frisbee. Patrick Hockstetter is not killed by It as Pennywise, but It as an army of leeches. Henry attempts to kill the Loser Club with his friends Vic and Belch in the novel, but he’s on his own in the film. In the novel, Bill confronts It through the Ritual Of Chud. And finally, Bev has sex with all six of the Losers Club boys in the novel after they make a blood oath. You can understand why that ending was changed to what it is.

In the end, Andy Muschietti delivers a winner of a film. He was not the most experienced director when being hired on to do It but it paid off and delivers an excellent thriller that frightens and gets one excited for the next It film. Kudos to scriptwriters Chase Palmer, Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman for putting together an excellent adaptation and making a lot of choices that worked. The story of the Losers Club bonding as one to fight It gives one memories of Stand By Me and even a lot of similarities to Stranger Things. Having Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhart adds to that factor even under those big glasses. The film also did a good job of adding humor into the film. The film is situated around a bunch of 12 year-olds so having some humor adds to it, despite how dark a story it is. Plus the music from 1989 adds to it too.

For those who are complete ‘virgins’ to It— I’m taking about those who have never read the book or seen the miniseries– it will keep them intrigued and scared. It will also seem confusing at first with most being haunted by Pennywise but others scared by other images too. In the end, it will all come together. All are being haunted and tormented by It. They will first think Pennywise is It, but It takes the guise of many figures like Bev’s abusive father, the children’s TV show host that pushes Henry to commit murder, the animated picture from the painting that haunts Stan. Pennywise is the most dominant guise of It and used mostly to lure young children. It’s right and proper that It meets its match as Pennywise and from Billy.

For those who are fans of the novel It and even the miniseries, they will admire that this is a film that captures the best and truest aspects of a Stephen King horror thriller. It doesn’t stray off like so many other adaptions nor is it a victim to too much studio tweaking of the story. Sure, it sets the Loser Club part of the story 30+ years of when the novel sets it, but the characters of the Loser Club and those surrounding them are very much in tune with the novel. Most of the incidents that happen in the movie It closely match what happens in the novel too. I’m sure fans of Stephen King novels will be proud of this movie. Also I feel Stephen King fans will feel that the producers made the right decision to have this first It movie focus strictly in the Losers Club story and have the incidents of 27 years later focused in It: Volume 2, which I will elaborate on in conclusion.

However the best thing about It is that this is a rare case of a horror movie that delivers excellence. The genre of the horror movie is very hard to master. Most horror movies often come across as junk loaded with blood, gore and other elements for the sake of shock value. Us 80’s kids had that with all the Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street movies. Millennial kids got that with the Saw movie franchise. Most of the time, these horror films become horror ‘comedies’ because of how stupid the situations are and how the actors are told to act idiotic on purpose. It takes a lot of effort to deliver a horror story on screen with a good story and good character development to add to it. It’s even possible to create a masterpiece of a horror movie. Movies like Psycho, The Exorcist, Carrie and even Get Out from this year are some of the best examples. Even good acting can come out of a horror movie as Sissy Spacek’s performance in Carrie earned her the first of her six Oscar nominations as did a nomination for Piper Laurie. It delivers in having a well-written script, a well-directed story and dead-on acting from the actors. This should be a template on how to do a horror movie right.

Jaeden Lieberher did a very good job in playing Bill Denbrough, especially in making the stutter look natural instead of wooden, and in making the quest to fight It a personal battle for Bill. The best thing about Lieberher was he was good at being unselfish with his lead role as he knew the other members of the Losers Club had their moments too. Sophia Lillis was possibly the biggest scene-stealer as tomboy Bev as was Finn Wolfhart whose role of Richie Tozier will entertain you, but also make you want to tell him to shut up! Good performances included Wyatt Oleff as the fearful Stanley Uris, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben the misfit who finds his way, Jack Dylan Glazer as sickly Eddie who develops an inner strength over time and Chosen Jacobs as the farmboy who becomes a help to the clique. All seven of the Losers Clubs kids not only had to play their parts but also make their characters grow. We see it in all the characters, especially Bill. Bill didn’t lose his stutter but he gained a new inner strength.

The actors in the Losers Club did a good job in playing salty-mouthed 12 year-olds that were not afraid to let loose, get sassy and even act like jerks at times. That’s definitely an appeal as Hollywood has a way of making child performances to innocent or ‘sugar-coated.’ Just turn on the Disney Channel and you’ll see what I mean. The kids of It were very unlike the squeaky-clean crystal-clear purity-ring-wearing Disney Channel kids; more like the foul-mouthed kids of Stranger Things. And all the better for it.

It’s not just the Loser Club that delivers in terms of acting. There’s also Bill Skarsgard who did a good job in giving Pennywise his sinister demeanor. There’s also Nicholas Hamilton who succeeds in transforming Henry from simply a jerk bully to being possessed by It’s evil leading to his own death. The mix of music of 1989 hits and the score of Benjamin Wallfisch blended well and fit the scenes of the film well. The visual effects of the film are also excellent and needed to be top-notch to make the movie work.

Already It has broken a load of records in its opening weekend. It set a September opening weekend record of $123.4 million, breaking the old record held by Hotel Transylvania 2 of $48.4 million: more than 2 ½ times that! Usually September is a quiet month for movies and they usually yield low box office results. Mainly because people had their fix during the Summer Movie Season. Summer’s over and now it’s time to get back to regular life and wait for the movie excitement to return in November as is custom. It proved that the September movie season had something to deliver, and right on the weekend after Labor Day, of all weekends! Usually that’s the lowest-grossing weekend but not this year! Other records It broke and feats It achieved according to Box Office Mojo are Widest R-Rated Releases, Widest R-Rated Openings, Highest-Grossing Fall Opening Weekend, Second-Highest Opening Weekend for an R-Rated film, Highest Grossing Stephen King Film (in just five days!), right now the third-highest grossing R-Rated horror film and second only to Deadpool for the biggest opening weekend for an R-rated film! And I’ll bet there will be more to come!

SPOILER ALERT: Do Not Read This Paragraph If You Don’t Want To Know The Ending! The film gives evidence that this will be the first It movie and there’s a Volume Two coming. It’s in the end credits and it’s very well-hinted when the Loser Club makes a ‘blood promise’ to return to Derry in 27 years if It returns. There’s already talk of It: Volume Two on IMDB. There’s a lot of talk about it from Muschietti to the producers to even the young actors. As of yet, nothing is finalized. It’s possible one could assume the film could be set in 2016–27 years from the first It— and Pennywise makes a return to the Losers Club all grown up. It’s very possible the original Losers Club from this film might have a low presence in Volume Two. That could help or hinder the story because all seven of the Losers Club helped make this adaptation of It a hit and their absence might mean the absence of their charm in Volume 2. However nothing is finalized and it leaves those that saw It in big anticipation of what’s to come.

It delivers as a Stephen King horror movie that has all the right moves–a rarity for horror movies as a whole– a hotly-anticipated Stephen King adaptation that works on the big screen, and a big reason for people to go to the movie theatres in September! Some say this could be the best Stephen King movie since 1976’s Carrie. You be the judge.

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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

manchester

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.

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.