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VIFF 2019 Review: Mr. Jones

Gareth-Jones

Mr. Jones is about journalist Gareth Jones, played by James Norton (left) who seeks to expose a tragedy in Ukraine the USSR is determined to hide from the outside world.

I was interested in seeing Mr. Jones at the VIFF as it’s based on a topic of my interest: the Holodomor or Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. It’s an intriguing story with a relevant message for today’s world.

In 1933, Gareth Jones is a 28 year-old Welsh journalist who is very good at getting stories. He was the first foreign journalist to fly with Hitler and Goebbels at the start of Hitler’s regime while working as an advisor for British statesman Herman Lloyd George. During the time, he discovered of Hitler’s intentions to wage war. His story fell to deaf ears in the press and his job as advisor is dropped due to budget cuts. Despite being dropped, George gave Jones a letter of recommendation. He hopes to use it to go to the USSR to find an investigative journalist. Before he does, he gets a phone call from a friend named Paul Kleb in the USSR. He talks of how the economy is booming in Russia, but he is about to tell of something terrible happening in Ukraine… and then he gets disconnected.

Jones arrives in Moscow. His trip is regulated from start to finish: what he does, how long he stays and where he goes. That’s how things are in the USSR. In fact his job as a foreign journalist is under heavy scrutiny by national officials during his stay and no foreign journalist is allowed outside of Moscow. He arrives at the hotel in Moscow of New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty. Duranty welcomes him and introduces him to his assistant Ada Brooks. Jones is expected to be in the USSR for seven days but he can only stay at the hotel for two days. Duranty offers Jones to stay and partake in the late-night partying. At the parties is all kinds of debauchery from prostitutes to heroin shooting to even homosexual advances. Jones wants none of this as he knows Paul Kleb was killed in Ukraine and has to find out why.

Jones finds a train headed to Eastern Ukraine. He breezes past security to stow away on it. When he arrives in Ukraine, he steps off to see the farmed grains loaded onto trucks by the Soviet army, but people dead in the snow and farmers starving. He tries to get answers. He goes to soldiers putting the bagged grain in a truck. He asks in English where it’s going, but is suspected as a spy. Soldiers go out chasing and shooting after him. Fortunately, Jones is able to evade the pursuit. He comes across some children who sing a haunting song to him of the death and starvation happening around him. He goes to a house which is in a photograph he holds, but sees the residents dead in their beds. Jones goes into a town where he sees the Soviet army take the dead bodies in the snow and pile them in a sled to be buried in a mass grave. They even take a baby that’s alive and still crying. Jones goes into a house where he is able to find living residents. They give him something to eat, which appears to be meat, and from Kolya. He soon learns they’re staying alive by cannibalism, and Kolya is a famine fatality.

Soon Jones is captured by Soviet forces. The Communist government commands him to be silent by using the lives of six British auto workers as hostages. Jones tries to plead with Walter Duranty to expose the truth of what’s happening, but Duranty is ‘in bed’ with the Soviet regime. Duranty has a habit of writing of the ‘Worker’s Revolution’ in the USSR like he romanticizing it. In fact Duranty has the reputation of being known as ‘Our Man In Moscow.’ Ada however is more supportive towards Jones and believes he has to get the story out. This can’t be hidden and knowing that Jones is to be sent back to the UK, she encourages him to make the truth known.

Back in the UK, Jones can’t get any British paper to buy into his revelations of a man-made famine. The government either doesn’t want to believe it, or fear it will jeopardize diplomatic relations with the USSR. This upsets Jones as he knows this must be stopped. The events upset him so much, he can’t stop himself from breaking down in tears in his hometown. However he has an opportunity to talk to William Randolph Hearst while at a newspaper office. Hearst, however is extremely busy and will only allow Jones thirty seconds to state his case. However when he mentions of the death of Paul Kleb, that grabs Hearst’s ear and makes Hearst want to hear everything Jones saw. Finally the story ‘Famine In Ukraine’ makes the front page of the New York Times. Jones is defamed. He is not allowed in the USSR again. Duranty is also defamed, but never had his Pulitzer Prize rescinded. Nevertheless George Orwell is caught in the intrigue of Jones’ pursuits and it inspires him to write ‘Animal Farm’ published ten years after Jones was shot to death.

I’ll admit any story about the Holodomor catches my interest. I’m of Ukrainian ancestry. My great-grandparents arrived in Canada around the 1890’s-early 1900’s. They came here long before World War I even started, before Ukrainian land was annexed as part of the USSR and before the Holodomor. This film showcases the Holodomor and is possibly one of the best cinematic depictions of it, but the Holodomor is not the biggest theme of the film. The biggest theme of the film is about censorship in the USSR at the time. All the censorship that happened in the film is an example of the censorship that happened in the USSR since it began after World War II until it broke down in the mid-80’s to when it dissolved in 1991. All news was censored. Nothing but good news was to be published in Soviet newspapers and whatever negative news could not hit either Soviet news nor news to the outside world. Phone wires were tapped and letters were opened and investigated by authorities before it reached the mailboxes of the citizens or outsiders. Even speaking negative words of the Communist government would get one a jail sentence. The Soviet media promoted propaganda to glorify itself and its Communist system and vilify the capitalist system in the United States.

As seen through Gareth, the Soviet system was also restrictive to outsiders. The system decided if a person from an outside country could visit, where they could go and stay and for how long. There were already six British autoworkers who were treated like hostages at the time and threatened with death to have the UK comply to their demands. You can understand just what Jones had to face in order to get the truth out.

Gareth had good reason to pursue the story. It’s not just trying to find out why Paul Kleb died, but Ukraine had personal interest to him as his mother taught English in Ukraine in the 1890’s. Gareth even had barriers in journalism to overcome once he had his story. He had top journalist Walter Duranty to deal with. Duranty had a big reputation at stake and kept insisting that the Holodomor isn’t happening. It isn’t until Jones meets with William Randolph Hearst that he finally gets a willing ear. The big feud between Duranty and Jones shows how even in what is supposed to be the ‘free world,’ there is still a lot of truths that are suppressed or even denied. Seeing all that goes on can make one wonder if this is happening today in what is supposed to be free countries. If we are really getting this freedom of speech or if we’re getting a lot of concocted stories.

This film is great in making a point about journalism and getting the truth out. There are a lot of truth even in today’s world that need to be exposed, but are covered up. The film does a good job in making a moment of past history, and the journalistic feuding surrounding it, make for a relevant message for today. Even the fact that Gareth was shot to death in 1935 while investigating a story in Chinese territory bordering Russia (which many consider to be a Soviet plot of revenge) reminds us of how many journalists risk their lives to uncover truths.

The film was very good at making its point. However the story didn’t seem to be heading on a straight path. There were times when moments that only deserved a certain time, like all the debauchery at Duranty’s hotel party, was slowed down and given more screen time than necessary. Even the moments of the journalistic feuding and political feuding appeared to take too long. The moments involving Jones witnessing the Holodomor in Ukraine were given the best screen time and the best on-screen depiction. It showed a lot of brutal honesty of the Holodomor, including that of cannibalism. It may have taken over less than half the screen-time, but it was done in excellent detail and gave the right haunting feel to this moment of tragedy.

Veteran director Agnieszka Holland teams up with emerging writer Andrea Chalupa to bring this story to the big screen. The story is one of great personal interest to Holland as she is well-knowledged of the Holodomor. Holland also has renown for her depictions of the Holocaust in some of her films. She does a very good job in directing the story, even if there are some moments of irrelevance or moments drawn out longer than they should be. James Norton does a good job in his portrayal of journalist Gareth Jones, but his part could have been developed more. Most of the parts didn’t have too much development and could have had more done with it. Nevertheless, Peter Saarsgard was able to make Walter Duranty hateable on the big screen. Vanessa Kirby was able to make her role of Ada gain more dimension over time.

Mr. Jones is about more than just about the Holodomor. It’s also about the topic of censorship that is just as relevant now with the ‘freedom of speech’ we’re led to believe we have in the ‘free world.’

VIFF 2019 Review: Boyz In The Wood

Boyz Wood

Boyz In The Wood are of four English boys who you think would fail an orienteering assignment in the Highlands, but you’ll be surprised.

Sure, teenagers are a source of comedy. Boyz In The Wood looks to be the right stuff give you the laughs at a teenager’s expense you’re looking for.

The film starts with four English teenage boys who are commissioned by the school to do an orienteering session in the lowlands of the English/Scottish border as part of an orienteering assignment. There’s Duncan who has a knack for destroying public property, Dean who likes to do unique drugs, one boy who thinks of himself as a rising rap star under the name DJ Beatroot, and Ian who’s the nerd just trying to fit in and wants to win the Duke Of Edinburgh award. Under their supervision is Mr. Carlyle who is hoping this exercise will help the three delinquent boys learn some responsibility. Meanwhile the police are trying to solve a crime in the area, but don’t know what crime they’re trying to solve.

Ian appears to be the only one taking the assignment seriously as Duncan brags about what he did at school, DJ Beatroot fancies his future rap career and Dean attempts to smoke a joint of certain concoction and it explodes. The others want to try the drug too. However Dean is too weirded out by the experience. Unknown to the boys at the time are a fancy-dressed rifleman from the Highlands. He’s soon joined by a woman in similar dress. They’re pursuing ‘the Dukes,’ but their pursuits change when they see the four teenage boys. Now the boys’ lives will soon be at stake.

The boys soon learn they are targeted by the two Highlanders. They try fend them off by using a container of Dean’s drugs as a bomb. That only causes the Highlanders to get even more furious. The boys try to get help from the police, but it doesn’t help as they’re more concerned about stolen bread in the region. They try and use a van but end up hitting Mr. Carlyle. Thinking he’s dead, they try and make something like he was in an accident by leaving the van with Mr. Carlyle in reverse. Then Ian is shot by one of the Highlanders. He tries to walk but is stuck. Instead of the boys helping, they leave him for dead.

As time passes, the police are still confused on the issue and the Highlanders are still on pursuit. However the boys appear lost. DJ Beatroot goes into a meeting lodge where he bumps into some local farmers. They recognize him and talk about how much they love his raps. DJ Beatroot gives them a show they just go for. The boys are attracted to the noise and they meet up again. Soon DJ Beatroot leads to where Ian is lying and they rescue him.

The boys have one last blast of fun as they learn that rabbit droppings make for a good hallucinogen. All four engage for one last blast. However as the orientation is nearing its time limit, Ian talks about his issues about being a misfit and left out. That’s when all three admit that they too are the losers of the school too. However they still have to get focused. On top of it, the Highland couple meet up with their fellow Highlanders in pursuit of the four boys.

Soon the police finally get it. They’re searching for a bread thief. The missing bread is the biggest problem in the area. Nothing else happens. So they set out to the Highlands to find the thief. In the Highlands, all the Highlanders have the boys hostage and ready to shoot them at the sound of three. Before the sound of three, the van lands on them all! The police get there and they not only found the boys safe and sound, but they found the stolen bread. The boys are heroes of the region! In the van, Mr. Carlyle isn’t dead! He’s alive and slowly gets his consciousness back and wonders what the heck went on while he was out.

The whole theme of this comedy is idiocy. We have three groups of people and they all show their own unique idiocy in the film. We have the group of teens that are obnoxious or misfits, or both. We have the police force that can’t seem to sort out their priorities on crime in the region. We also have the half-masked Highlanders who feel they have to use brutal violence to solve their issues. This adds to the humor of the film and adds to the story line where the ones most likely to fail end up being the ones that win in the end. The boys unwittingly accomplish their goal and become town heroes at the same time.

This is an against-all-odds comedy that plays out in crazy fashion. Four teens are given an orienteering session as part of an assignment and the hopes of a teacher straightening them out. You have one teen who’s into crazy drugs, one who’s naturally obnoxious, one who only cares about his rapper ambitions, and one nerd who’s trying to belong. Yeah, it sounds pretty similar to The Breakfast Club, or Stand By Me. Take your pick. Their personalities make it look like they’re all bound to fail and everything imaginable goes wrong. Or if it does work out, it will be done in hilarious fashion. It does work out and Ethan finds himself with three new friends: the three you last thought would befriend him. Even that scene where he gets left behind leaves you wondering, but it all works out.

The interesting thing about the film is that is occasionally goes from a story with a beginning, middle, and end to a music video. It’s understandable. The story does feature a rapper with big dreams, even if all he raps about is his penis. The story also focuses on some of the boys trying to get high and it’s trying to recreate a lot of hallucinations and have it done in musical fashion. However there are times when this mesh is a bit distracting and does make the story seem uneven. Yes, it’s fun and entertaining to watch, but it does make you wonder if it was overdone or not.

This is the first feature-length film done by Ninian Doff. He’s done a lot of film shorts and video shorts in the past. Here he’s trying to make a film that is part comedy/drama and part music video. It’s entertaining, but its imperfections are noticeable. Nevertheless it is worth enjoying. The film even caught the attention of Tobey Maguire. Yes, the Tobey Maguire from the Spider-Man movies from fifteen years ago! Tobey is executive producer of this film. The acting was also good and humorous. All of the actors played their parts well. However I feel the show-stealer is Viraj Juneja. DJ Beatroot was quite the charming idiot and he did it very well.

Boyz In The Wood is an imperfect but humorous and entertaining comedy about a group of teen males and orienteering. It may not exactly reach the level of stupidity of Beavis And Butt-head, but it is funny and it ends in sensible fashion.

Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

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Stephan James (left) and KiKi Layne are Fonny and Tish: a young couple in love in If Beale Street Could Talk.

There have been some adaptations of James Baldwin’s literature in the past, but I don’t think there’s ever been one ever to hit the big screen. Director Barry Jenkins brings If Beale Street Could Talk to the big screen and it’s quite the experience.

The film opens with a quote from James Baldwin of how most of America’s African-Americans were ‘born’ on the Beale Street of Memphis. The story opens in a prison just outside New York City in the late-1960’s with 19 year-old Tish visiting 22 year-old Fonny behind glass and communicating via telephone. She announces to Fonny she’s pregnant. Fonny is overjoyed and looks forward to being a loving husband and a good father once he’s proven innocent. The crime Fonny is charged for is rape of a Puerto Rican woman: Victoria Rogers. She knows Fonny didn’t do it because he was three blocks away with his friend Daniel when the rape happens. She knew he was arrested because of the racist Officer Bell.

Tish always knew Fonny was the right man for her. They were friends since childhood. Then months earlier Fonny wanted to take the friendship to the next level and date. She agreed. Both Fonny and Tish are people willing to work for a living. Fonny went to community college and had plans of going into woodworking. Tish found a job as a perfume saleswoman at a department store, which considered hiring a black woman in that role to be progressive.

Tish announces the news to her parents and sister. She’s very nervous about it, even though the family see Fonny in high regard. She first announces to her father, and he’s happy. Soon the mother Sharon and sister Ernestine are happy, though nervous as the trial is coming. Fonny’s family, who call him by his real name Alonzo, come to visit. The mother and Fonny’s sisters always had contempt for Tish. When the news is announced, Fonny’s father is happy, but the mother is the complete opposite. The sisters look down upon her and the highly-religious mother even goes as far as saying the child will be a child of sin because he’s conceived out of wedlock. The mother and sisters leave in disgust.

The film goes frequently from the present of the story to the past quite often. Tish reflects back to when they were walking the street and the feelings of love they had for each other. She reflects on the Mexican restaurant and the waiter Pedrocito that made them feel welcome there. She even remembers the time when she and Fonny were searching for an apartment. Fonny came across a loft being sold by a Jewish developer. She didn’t like the idea of a loft, but Fonny saw potential. They were both surprised that the owner had no problem with them being black, but he just loves seeing couples in love.

Soon Tish flashes back to the present. There is a trial they have to work on. The lawyer claims that this is a difficult case to manage, but they feel this white lawyer just doesn’t care about justice for a black man like Fonny. Tish’s and Fonny’s father team up to do illegal trading in order to raise the right money for Fonny’s case. Victoria Rogers returned to Puerto Rico because she couldn’t handle the reminders of her rape in NYC. Sharon has a mission to go to Puerto Rico to get Victoria to come back to New York and testify for Fonny’s innocence, but it will be very costly. In the meantime, the months add up and the child inside Tish is developing. Tish goes to see Fonny again at the prison, but Fonny has gone through months of torture there. He wants to get out so he can live the life he was meant to live and love Tish.

Memories go back to the harder memories. The first is when Fonny is reunited with his friend Daniel. Daniel had just come out of prison for grant theft auto; the result of a plea bargain after being arrested for marijuana possession. Daniel tells him how it’s hell in prison and how he knows how racist the justice system is. She also flashes back to when she and Fonny were just shopping at a grocery store. Tish is harassed by a man and Fonny throws him out. The throwout is witnessed by Officer Bell, who things that Fonny has committed aggravated assault. However the white storeowner comes out and vouches for Fonny that Officer Bell lets him go, but not without that look of the desire to arrest in his eye.

Sharon did it. She was able to get enough money to confront Victoria Rogers and convince her to come back to New York for the sake of Fonny’s freedom. Victoria’s long stay in Puerto Rico is what’s delaying the trial. Victoria is not happy to see Sharon. The rape is the whole reason she left NYC and has no plans to go back. It’s too upsetting for her. Sharon tries pleading to Victoria to come back and give the true story for the sake of Fonny’s innocence, but that just causes Victoria to break down mentally and emotionally. Sharon returns back to NYC and the trial is still delayed. Tish gives birth to the baby in a bathtub with Sharon’s help while Fonny is still in prison. It’s a boy. As the wait drags on, Fonny accepts a plea deal. Years later, Tish and Alonzo Jr. visit Fonny in jail as they all hope for Fonny’s eventual release.

James Baldwin has been known to be an outspoken civil rights leader as well as a renowned author and poet. Racism is one of his biggest themes in his works. The film which is based on his novel of the same title definitely focuses on racism. It’s set in the mid- to late-1960’s just after more civil rights for blacks had been championed. However it was still a struggle as a lot of rights were limited, a lot of racial riots were happening, and many wrongful arrests were taking place. The novel and the film give a depiction of what it was like at the time. Especially with a black man in jail for a crime he didn’t commit as seen through his pregnant fiancee. The film also shows the hopes and dreams of a young black couple in love. They will have a future previous generations before them couldn’t have, but it would still take a fight. Very often, you hear Tish and others having negative things to say about white people. Even having a mistrusting attitude towards them. Those who saw the documentary I Am Not Your Negro will know about the mistrust towards white people had back then. I’m sure it was a mistrust shared by many African Americans at the time and we hear it echoed in the characters, mostly from Tish

However the novel and film are about more than that. It’s about undying love through hard times. Tish knows Fonny is innocent and she and her family team up to get Fonny free in time for the birth of their son. We see that Fonny is a good honest man. She’s known Fonny since she was a child. She knows Fonny would never hurt anyone like that. When they started dating months before the arrest, she knew right there and then she was the right man for her. We feel that love in the film. Interesting how a gay author like James Baldwin can deliver a better sense of love between a man and a woman than most straight authors. The novel and film however isn’t all ‘whites are bad’ and ‘all blacks are good.’ That meeting between Tish’s family and Fonny’s family showed a certain friction. While the fathers got along well, the mother’s, especially Fonny’s, looked down upon Tish’s family and the sisters had the same snooty attitude. It’s possible that scene was meant to send a message about how certain African Americans aren’t all unified or there’s a superficiality between certain types.

The film does a very good job in adapting the novel, but it does more than that. Barry Jenkins adds his own unique flair to the film. One flair he has in the film just like his previous success Moonlight is the inclusion of a lot of music. The film is a good mix of original score and songs from years past. It fits the movie well. However one thing he does that’s different from Moonlight is he includes a lot of imagery to set the theme of the time. He also includes a lot of scenes where many of the characters involved in the story have their own shots where they face the camera standing still. That adds to the film. Also what Jenkins does is during many scenes, he slows the moment down and softens it so that one can get a feel of the moment. That happens many times during scenes with Fonny and Tish, the scene with Tish working the perfume counter, and the scene with Fonny and Daniel. Sometimes it’s half-muted and we hear Tish’s narration, but we get a very good sense of the situation. I think Jenkins made some good choices in making the film.

Barry Jenkins does it again. It’s hard to say if it’s as good as Moonlight, but the film is nothing short of excellent. He not only plays out the novel on film, he allows us to feel the story. I feel James Baldwin would be very proud. KiKi Layne was very good as Tish as was Stephan James as Fonny. The whole cast was excellent, but the standout was Regina King as the mother. She really did an excellent job as the mother-in-law going out of her way for Fonny’s innocence. For the technical, James Laxton did a great job with the cinematography, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders made the right editing moves and Nicholas Britell delivered a great score that fit with the film and blended in with the tracks of past songs.

If Beale Street Could Talk is more than about racism and social injustice. It’s also about the undying love of two. It’s a love no prison system or injustice can destroy.

Animated Movies Review

2016 was a stellar year for animated movies from Zootopia to Moana to Kubo And The Two Strings to Finding Dory. 2016’s line-up gave people lots of reason to come to the movie theatres. 2017 was very lackluster in comparison. We’re talking about a year when The Boss Baby was nominated for Best Animated Feature and even the mere existence of The Emoji Movie. 2017 almost made it look like if Sausage Party were released that year instead, it would be a Best Animated Feature nominee! However the best animated movies of 2017 slowly made its way on the screen in the latter months of 2017. I was lucky to see Ferdinand, Coco and Loving Vincent: three of the best of the year.

Ferdinand

Ferdinand

When I was about to see Ferdinand, I wondered how they would able to take the small story and turn it into a feature-length picture. I myself remember an animated short made by the Walt Disney studios made decades ago that was very humorous. However I wondered how would a feature-length adaptation play out?

The story starts out well with an entertaining look, but a bit of sadness at the beginning. As it progresses to adult Ferdinand, Ferdinand is funny and charming as a husky but flower-loving bull. John Cena adds to the characterization of full-grown Ferdinand. The characters of Lupe, Una and the other bulls add to the story.

There were times I wondered how will they get to where Ferdinand is scouted out by his accidental outburst? How will it be written out? Although it’s not true to the fable, the writers were able to create a way for Ferdinand to be discovered and sent to the bull rings to fight.

Another case that had me wondering was right in the middle of the story. It had me wondering how on earth the story would have a happy ending? Of course the film needed to have a kid-friendly happy ending, but in a situation where the bull either becomes a fighting bull who dies in the ring or to the slaughterhouse as meat? Nevertheless the writers were able to make the story work with good events to the plot and not just simply drag it out over the time. Even creating an ending where Ferdinand wins over the crowd and getting them to want him to live works for the film.

For the most part, Ferdinand is not all about the type of intricate story you’d expect to find in a Disney/Pixar film. Instead Ferdinand is about creating a charming modern adaptation of the short fable with charming and entertaining characters. It succeeds in charming the audience as well as entertaining the children. Despite the story being elongated into a feature-length picture, the film does not waste time. It succeeds in being entertaining. It also adds in some other elements that gets one nervous of what will happen to Ferdinand, even if they know the story. The story works in its feature-length and will not disappoint fans of the fable. It’s also good at winning crowds too as it made a good $282 million at the worldwide box office.

coco

Coco

Very often you know the Disney/Pixar collaboration will deliver something fresh and original in its arsenal that’s able to win us over. This year, they deliver Coco. Coco is unique because it’s of a Mexican family situated in Mexico. The question is will they make something original and unique entertaining to the public?

The team of writers and animators at Disney/Pixar are known for their innovations and their frequently-successful way of trying new concepts. First there was 1995’s Toy Story: the first-ever 3D animated feature. Then came A Bug’s Life which created an engaging story revolving around insects. Then Finding Nemo not only told a story about fish, but successfully took us to another world. The Incredibles was good at teaching morals in an entertaining way. Ratatouille made an entertaining story involving a rat. Wall-E magically gave us an engaging story about two robots in love with very little dialogue. It was Brave where they not only gave us their first female protagonist, but welcomed a female writer on their ‘dream team.’ And there was Inside Out which made character out of emotions.

Coco is not just a new movie from the Disney/Pixar collaboration, but a new chapter for them. They hired Mexican/American writer Adrian Molina as the scriptwriter along with Matthew Aldrich. Molina had already been part of Pixar as a 2D animator for Ratatouille, a storyboard artists for Toy Story 3 and Monsters University, and even wrote the script for Walt Disney Studios’ The Good Dinosaur. The voice cast is predominantly of Mexicans or Mexican Americans. Disney/Pixar even hired a ‘cultural consultant’ group of three Mexican-Americans including one former CEO of the Mexican Heritage Corp to make sure they were doing a film respectful of Mexican people.

The result is a film that has garnered praise even from both critics and even Mexican-American communities. The film even received excellent reviews from Latin American film critics. The film was also a top box office winner having grossed $730 million so far. Even in Mexico, it spent three weeks at #1 in the Mexican box office and grossed a total of $57.8 million in Mexico.

Now the film itself does what Disney/Pixar films have a reputation for: taking the audience to a new world. Here they give an excellent depiction of the Land Of The Dead that looks very intricate and maybe too big, but succeeds in making sense to the viewer. Once again the animation team does an excellent job in creating this new world and even the smallest detail is done with perfection. Once again Disney/Pixar is tops in animation quality.

However there was one time I was confused by the story. I’ll admit like most, I thought Ernesto was the great-great-grandfather. I was shocked when I learned that Ernesto killed Hector with poison. It left me wondering if Miguel’s great-great-grandfather was in fact a dirty killer. Even seeing Ernesto send Miguel to die in the cenote pit left me shocked. ‘Why would Ernesto do this to his own great-great-grandson?’ It’s in the pit with Hector that we learn that Hector is really the great-great-grandfather. That was a relief. It was there where it became better sense why Miguel needed to redeem the name of the family through the spirit of Hector. The story was very well-written and very entertaining. Also the song ‘Remember Me’ is an excellent song for the movie that makes for the perfect tearjerker moment you don’t feel manipulated by.

One again Disney/Pixar delivers a masterpiece in Coco. It is as top-quality as it is magical to watch.

kinopoisk.ru

Loving Vincent

Now the previous two films in which I just talked about are both the more family-friendly films. Loving Vincent is the polar opposite of both. It’s not cute, it’s less family-friendly, and it’s not even 3D computerized animation. It also didn’t even make $10 million at the box office. Nevertheless it is charming in its own ways.

The film is a plot where Armand Roulin is asked by his father Joseph to deliver a letter from Vincent Van Gogh who died a year earlier to his brother Theo. After learning Theo died, Armand looks to find the right person to give the letter to. Throughout the journey, Armand tries to get the answer to whether Vincent’s death was a suicide or not? He was released from a hospital after found to be in good mental capacity six weeks before.

Armand comes across many people in Vincent’s life. Some have positive things to say. Some negative things. All have something to say about the person of Vincent, the various people he met with or fought against, and his personal feelings before his death. This still leaves Armand confused and his question of Vincent’s death unanswered. It’s right after Dr. Gachet promises to give the letter to Theo’s widow that he learns van Gogh’s suicide wasn’t of mental agony, but to free himself and his brother. Later Armand receives a letter from Theo’s widow thanking him.

This animated film about Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t be a simple animated film. Instead this is a film in which the images were done by 100 painters trained to paint like Van Gogh. The object of the film was to create a story involving characters of people Van Gogh painted and was close to in his life across a backdrop that’s just like the paintings he painted. Basically an animated story about Van Gogh that captures the essence of Van Gogh’s art. The story may be fictional, but it succeeds in playing out like a Van Gogh painting. It even gets one that knows very little about Van Gogh’s works or his life intrigued. It even gets fans of Van Gogh’s art admiring the film for capturing the essence of the artist and his works. I also like how the film ended as “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” was playing. It would make those who never understood what the song was all about understand it better.

So there’s my look at three of the best animated films of 2017. All three are nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. All three are enjoyable in their own way.

Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By

Call Me By Your Name is the story of a son of a professor (played by Timothee Chalamet; right) who falls in love with an academic (played by Armie Hammer).

Call me by your name,

And I’ll call you by mine.

This year’s Best Picture nominees feature a wide variety of themes and subjects. Call Me By Your Name may get note about its gay subject matter, but it’s a lot more.

Elio is a 17 year-old American boy living with his father, a Jewish-American archaeology professor, and his Italian mother in his father’s summer getaway in Northern Italy in the summer of 1983. He has a passion for reading and is prodigious in playing the piano. During the summer, his father invites Oliver, a 24 year-old Jewish American graduate student, up for three months to help with his academic paperwork.

Elio’s first impressions of Oliver are not the best, especially since Elio has to give up his bedroom for him. He finds him arrogant, a show-off, and it annoys Elio when Oliver flirts with one of the local Italian girls he knows. Why should it matter to Elio? He has a girlfriend named Marzia.

However Elio and Oliver develop a friendship as the two spend a lot of time together. You don’t know if something’s happening between them or not. You’re tempted to think the latter as Elio is trying to get more sexual with Marzia and even talks about it at the dinner table. However it becomes obvious Elio is attracted to Oliver as Elio smells his swimsuit and masturbates. Elio makes the first move, but Oliver tells Elio he should not act on his feelings. Even a kiss at the post office doesn’t work on Oliver.

After being distant for a few days, Oliver gives Elio a note to meet him at a tree by midnight. The two kiss. The relationship grows more intimate and more sexual, but they have to keep it a secret, not knowing how their Jewish families will react. Meanwhile Marzia notices Elio has become more distant with her.

Then the time comes when Oliver’s stay is nearing its end. They don’t know what to do. The parents sense the relationship with them, but recommend the two spend a three-day trip in Bergamo. The trip eventually becomes their last intimate time together. Oliver leaves for the US and Elio returns home brokenhearted. Marzia gives him sympathy and agrees to stay friends and his father tells him he should be lucky because a true love like that is rare. A phone call from Oliver on Hanukah where Oliver discloses that he is to marry a woman, leaves Elio with mixed feelings over what should be but will never be.

The story is not as thick on the drama as the other Best Picture nominees. This is a story that simply unravels itself slowly and quietly. Nevertheless the events are consistent and they all fit within the story. This story bears a lot of similarities with Blue Is The Warmest Color where the protagonist is just becoming an adult and just learning of their same-sex attraction after believing they were hetero the whole time. Like Blue, the story is as much about the protagonist’s progression into adulthood and meeting their first same-sex love. Like Blue, the protagonist struggles with their same-sex attraction even as they pursue love with someone of the opposite sex. Also like Blue, it’s about a person of the same gender that sweeps them of their feet. Another element where it’s like Blue is that the story takes place along an artistic setting. While Blue is about Adele becoming infatuated with Emma through her paintings, it’s Elio becoming infatuated with Oliver in Northern Italy in an environment full of art: both natural and man-made. It’s also Oliver becoming infatuated with Elio through his readings and his piano playing. It’s a unique story how two young men– one who’s artistically-inclined and one who’s academically-inclined– both feel like polar opposites at the beginning, but come to love each other over time.

Another element in common with Blue is that it features a lot of elements one would commonly find in French films. We see how the imagery of the Northern Italian country side and even all the art and artifacts in the more urban areas play in with the story. We see how the elements of Oliver’s academia and Elio’s passion for the arts also help colorize the story and even heat up the romance. We also see the environment of the 1980’s and the music in the film adds to the story line. And we especially see how the theme of apricots plays into the romance. It goes from simple academia discussion to an element of their love. The film could have simply been titled Love And Apricots! Such background elements found here are common in French films as it helps provide a lot of value and background to the story and even the themes of the film.

However the biggest difference between Blue and Call Me By Your Name is that the story of Adele meeting Emma is more about meeting her first same-sex love and Emma being more like a chapter in Adele’s life. Call Me By Your Name is different because it’s a case where Olivier is more than Elio’s first same-sex love, Oliver becomes his soul-mate. The film is also a sad love story because it’s a case of what was meant to be can’t be. We don’t learn of the true divide of the two until the very end. While Mr. Perlman is supportive of Elio’s love to Oliver, Oliver has to marry as he knows his parents not only would disapprove, but send him to a psychiatrist for therapy. I won’t say the reason being because Oliver’s family’s Jewish, but more because the US in the early 1980’s was still very hostile towards homosexuality. That was it. Two soul mates from two different worlds that would face their big divide at the end.

The film is the accomplishment of the collaboration of director Luca Guadagnino and scriptwriter James Ivory. Both openly gay, they did a very good job of creating a story about meeting the love of one’s life and placing it in a glorious picturesque background that gives the story its charm and its feel. The film is also an accomplishment for young actor Timothee Chalamet. Most of the film revolved around Elio and Chalamet delivered an excellent job of a 17 year-old who learns of his sexuality through meeting the love of his life. That end scene where the film focuses on his face and his various emotions is as much the best part of Chalamet’s acting as it is a heartbreak for the audience to see.

Also excellent is the acting of Armie Hammer as Oliver. He portrays a man who first appears arrogant, but possesses an excellent gift of making his academia sound almost like poetry. It’s easy to see why Elio would be charmed to him. Also very good is Michael Stuhbarg. He first just appears in the movie simply as the father and a professor, but his characters fruition comes out at the end as he tells Elio of how happy he is Elio loved Oliver. The choreography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom was spot-on as it was the various camera angles and capturing the Italian beauty that was needed to make the story.

It’s funny how most people thought that Sherwin and Johnathan from the viral animated short In A Heartbeat were to be 2017’s top gay pair on film. Looks like Elio and Oliver overtook them in the end. They may not be as cute-as-a-button as Sherwin and Johnathan, but they are better at giving the romantic feel to their respective film.

Call Me By Your Name may be a gay-themed film, but it’s a lot more. It’s a film that will charm those who see it with its beauty and its story.

Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is the story of Winston Churchill (played by Gary Oldman) and his struggle to convince the people of the UK that fighting Hitler is the right thing to do.

Usually around the latter part of the year, historical dramas are common for release. Darkest Hour is one, focusing on Winston Churchill and World War II. The question is does it fare well as a film? And does it have relevance to the present?

The film is set in May 1940. World War II had just begun eight months ago with the fall of Poland. France is next. The film hits hard in the UK as they fear war is looming. It hits so hard, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is pressured by the opposing Labour Party to resign for not doing enough. Neville needs to find a successor, but his first choice, Lord Halifax, declines. He goes for his second choice: Winston Churchill.

Now Winston Churchill was seen as a bad choice as the successor to Chamberlain. He has a bad record with his roles in the Admiralty, the Gallipolli Campaign During The First World War, his views on India, and his support for Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis. Even his own personal manner is of question as he is oafish and has a reputation for infidelity and a quick temper. He’s even temperamental to his new secretary when she mishears him, but his wife Clementine gets him to come to his senses.

King George VI encourages Churchill to form a coalition government along with Halifax and Chamberlain. Churchill’s first response to Hitler’s invasion of France is fast and immediate: no surrender to Hitler and fight if we have to. He made it clear on May 13 1940 in his ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’ speech.

The speech is not well-received by the Parliament. They think he’s delusional. The Nazi army is too powerful. It even gets flack from King George VI. The French Prime Minister thinks he’s delusional for not admitting the Allies lost in the Battle Of France. People in his party offer Churchill to accept Hitler’s offer to negotiate for a peaceful end to the War, but Churchill declines. He does not trust Hitler.

The situation gets frustrating to the point both Halifax and Chamberlain are looking to use the Italian Ambassador as a route to negotiate peace with Hitler. Both plan to resign from the Government if Churchill doesn’t comply, hoping to cause a ‘vote of non-confidence’ to allow Halifax to become Prime Minister. Meanwhile Churchill is trying to seek support from the US with President Franklin Roosevelt, but he declines as the US signed an international agreement preventing military action in Europe years ago.

However war is pressing. The UK find themselves in battles in Dunkirk and Calais. Churchill, against the wishes of the War Brigade, orders a 30th Infantry Brigade in Calais to organize a suicide attack to distract the Nazis allowing the soldiers in Dunkirk to evacuate.

The defeat at Calais causes the War Cabinet to want to negotiate with Germany. However as Churchill is about to make his way to Parliament, he receives support from his wife, support from King George VI fearing exile if Germany wins, and support from a group of citizens in the London Underground he takes to parliament. Even members of the Outer Cabinet and other members of Parliament give him their support. News comes that the evacuation in Dunkirk ‘Operation Dynamo’ is successful. At parliament in front of cabinet members and members of the War Cabinet, Churchill delivers his speech of ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ to the support and applause of all, even Halifax and Chamberlain.

Lately there have been a lot of biographical films that don’t thoroughly focus on the person’s life, but instead focuses on the one moment that defined them as a person. We saw in Lincoln how getting the Emancipation Proclamation made constitutional and the political fight to get it done is what defined Abraham Lincoln the most. We saw in Capote that it was the making of In Cold Blood that would become Truman Capote’s biggest legacy of a writer, and would eventually lead to his downfall. Here we see the period of one month how Churchill couldn’t just simply say that Hitler needed to be fought, but had to convince the people and especially the parliament that fighting him is the right thing.

Such a situation in our world history is not uncommon. If you remember Lincoln, you will remember that Abraham Lincoln had to do political campaigning in order to get the Emancipation Proclamation made constitutional. The Proclamation itself was up for vote in the House. Just a reminder that even the most righteous political laws still have to go through the same political processes. Even for powerful speeches, it’s about saying it at the right time and the results to follow. We may remember how back in 1987, Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This is something JFK could have told Nikita Khruschev to do, or Nixon telling Brezhnev to do, or even Reagan himself telling Brezhnev or Andropov to do, but it would not result. The Soviet leaders were just that stubborn and dead-set on their rigid ways and dismiss what the POTUSes said at hot air. But Reagan said that just during a time when it appeared the Cold War appeared to be thawing and Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to appear cooperative with the US, but not without its friction. That sentence is memorable because the Wall did come down in a matter of two years.

Here in Darkest Hour, we see another example of how words that are true in conviction and the right thing to say still faced political opposition. When Churchill was placed as Prime Minister, he didn’t waste time in speaking his opposition to Hitler and that the UK should not surrender. However those in the office all thought his words were deluded. They knew of the Nazi army and the invasions it’s caused already in less than a year. Hitler and the Nazi army were just that menacing. They also saw the efforts, or lack thereof, from the previous Prime Minister fail. On top of that, France had just fallen to the Nazis. They were simply afraid.

It was easy for people to think of Churchill’s words as deluded. He already had a reputation in the British parliament of being quite the buffoon. In fact the opening scene of the film shows his buffoonish nature. Churchill knew in his heart that the UK had to fight the Nazis, but he had to convince the British parliament. And he had to do it fast. Over time, more tyranny from the Nazis occurred and the UK was feeling the heat. Churchill was denied support from US president Franklin Roosevelt because of an agreement signed the year before. That negotiation for peace from the Germans would seem like something one would cave into and it was easy to see why the British politicians thought it right, even though we all know it to be wrong.

The last fifteen minutes of the film just as Churchill is about to deliver the ‘fight on the beaches’ is a very powerful scene as it shows how Churchill is able to win support in his stance from his wife, the King of England and even people on the subway as he makes his way to parliament. I don’t know if that really happened to Churchill in real life, but that subway scene is a powerful scene. Sometimes I think that scene is telling me that all too often, the common person has a better sense of what’s right than the people in power.

For the most part, the film is as much of a biographical drama as it is an historic drama. The film is very much about the speeches of Churchill and the start of the mission of British forces to fight Nazi Germany. The film not only focuses on Churchill’s quest to fight in the war, but his quest to convince the people in political power to believe him. It focuses on Churchill as a man of great conviction, but also a man of noticeable flaws. That had a lot to do with why people first thought he was a madman or deluded. It reminds you that a head of state can sometimes be reduced to a pawn in their political building. The film does remind people of the common saying that: ‘What’s right isn’t always what’s popular and what’s popular isn’t always what’s right.” Churchill knew in his heart he was right, but he had to fight to make it believed by all. It was necessary as the Battle of Dunkirk would soon happen

It’s interesting how Darkest Hour is release in the same year Dunkirk is. I find it very appropriate because it was actually just right after the Battle Of Dunkirk and the subsequent evacuation that Churchill delivered his speech of “We shall fight on the beaches.” The fight on the beaches of Dunkirk and the evacuation and rescue mission was the first significant sign of what the UK needed to do to win against the Nazis. Churchill was there to pay all respect to those heroes, the survivors and fatalities, who were a part of it.

Director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten deliver a very good historical story. However there are times when it does feel like it’s completely restricted to being about Winston Churchill. I understand what the story is all about, but they could have explored some additional angles to go with it. Without a doubt, the film is owned by Gary Oldman. He does an excellent job of delivering a performance of Winston Churchill. His depiction of Churchill first appears cartoonish at the beginning, but the depth and dimension develops over the film and he really comes out shining.

Although the film is dominated by the portrayal of Winston Churchill, there are supporting performances from Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton that are able to steal the moment. Also capturing the moment are Ben Mendelsohn as King George who slowly supports Churchill and Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain who supports Churchill despite his own political downfall. The film also does an excellent job in the technical aspects such as the Production Design to reconstruct parliament, costuming from Jacqueline Durran and the makeup and hairstylists to fit the era, the cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel and the musical score from Dario Marianelli which capture the intensity and triumphs of the moments.

Darkest Hour is more than just an historical drama or biographical drama. It’s an excellent film about standing by your convictions without crossing the line of being preachy.

Movie Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

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The Guardians are back, even with a Baby Groot, in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.

We first met the Guardians Of The Galaxy back in 2014. The Guardians are back in Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2. But do they have what it takes to deliver this time?

Back when the first Guardians Of The Galaxy came to the big screen, most people have not heard of them. This was a chance for Marvel to introduce them to the world. It was a unique mix of quirky characters, both virtual and live, loads of action, and a mix of both music and humor that made it a hit with families and superhero movie fans alike. The movie became the third-highest grossing movie of 2014 and turned the Guardians into household names. In fact “I am Groot,” became the top movie line of that year.

This time around is about bringing about the sequel.  Most of you already know my feeling of Hollywood sequels in my review of Furious 7. However sequels can either propel a movie franchise further or sink it. Sequels are hit and miss. I’ve seen so many sequels where they simply rehash the formula of the first movie plot-for-plot, moment-for-moment. That’s why I’m mostly turned off sequels. That’s also often all one needs to do to end a franchise. Nevertheless there are a good number of sequels or second-movies that do differ a lot from the original. That’s often the better idea but even that’s a gamble. One example is the second and third film of The Matrix. It was too different from the original film that blew audiences away in 1999 and they disappointed fans.

This sequel for Guardians takes the chance of being very different from the first film. One can already notice the differences here: animosity between the members, the stormy family relations of Peter and his father and Gamora and her sister, the people of the various galaxies going against each other and all galaxies being threatened by Ego. I appreciate them creating a scenario different from the original. Nevertheless there were some things from the original that they had to bring back into the sequel like the humorous tones in various scenes, the unique and sometimes crazy personalities of each of the Guardians, and of course the use of 70’s songs in the many scenes. It was all a case of making the right choices of what to include from the first and what to change up. I feel they made a lot of the right choices here.

Another difference I noticed in Volume 2 is that there are a lot more ‘salty’ and ‘spicy’ things in the film. For example, I noticed there was more swearing included and a lot more lewd talk. There were even scenes hinting towards sex or even showing suggestive situations like a stripper bar in another galaxy. Sometimes I think ever since Deadpool shook things up in the world of superhero movies, directors are less afraid of including risque stuff even if they know children will be watching. However unlike Deadpool, the film knows it’s supposed to be a superhero movie and the theme of heroes and the values they stand for and fight for is definitely not forsaken. Whether it’s okay for parents to take their children to see it or not is completely the parents’ call. I’d say it’s best for 11 and older.

James Gunn again delivers as a director and a writer in this sequel. He takes some of the first, some new ideas, and some racy choices and turns it into a movie that works. Chris Pratt delivers again as Peter and Kurt Russell does a very good job in playing a deceptive villain. Zoe Saldana again proves why she’s the top actress in sci-fi movies with her performance as Gamora. Dave Bautista was hilarious as Drax as was Bradley Cooper as Rocket. Michael Rooker was also good as Nebula. Baby Groot had a lot of funny moments but there are times I felt in retrospect that he went too much on the ‘cutesy’ side. Michael Rooker was also good as Yondu. The two newcomers–Karen Gillan as Nebula and Pom Klementieff–were good in their roles even if Mantis did come across as too weird or ditzy. Judianna Makofsky did a very good job in designing the costumes to fit the story, Tyler Bates delivers a fitting score to the film, and the visual effects team with hundreds of credits again delivered effects to make the action and drama that more exciting.

It seems appropriate that Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2 kicks off the 2017 Summer Movie Season. It’s a sequel that delivers the right stuff most of the time. It’s able to deliver some new magic without compromising the magic of the original and keeps one thrilled one moment, laughing another moment, and entertained throughout.

Movie Review: Black Mass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIFF 2015 Review: Deathgasm

Deathgasm is a New Zealand horror comedy of metalheads taming up to save the day.

Deathgasm is a New Zealand horror comedy of metalheads taming up to save the day.

Deathgasm was one of those fringy movies shown at the VIFF that was shown at the Rio Theatre at 11pm on certain days. It was entertaining to watch after a long night and became a guilty pleasure of mine.

Brodie is a metalhead coming from a dysfunctional home. His mother was institutionalized and he is sent to live with his devoutly religious Uncle and Aunt and his obnoxious jock cousin David. Life at his new school isn’t the best and it’s only made worse by his cousin David’s bullying. However he is able to catch the eye of a classmate named Medina and he meets a few metalheads like him: Zakk, Dion and Giles. The band goes well and with good camaraderie but Brodie doesn’t know Zakk came onto Medina

Since the four of them all like heavy metal, they form their own band which Brodie names Deathgasm. One day, they break into an old house which they later find one of their heavy metal idols Ricky Daggers living there. Ricky gives them some magical sheet music but only before he’s killed by a cult leader after they left. The band plays the music only to find that one part of the song sends to send off demonic spells. Nevertheless they’re tempted to play it.

One day they play the ‘demonic’ part so intensely, it casts a curse on the neighborhood. Almost everyone outside of the band affected by the music has turned into a zombie. On top of it, the demon has been released and must be destroyed. It’s a gory battle trying to kill all the zombies in town. Fortunately David finds himself an eventual casualty. He had it coming! However that was just half the battle. They have to find the demon to end everything for once and for all. It ends on an entertaining note and leaves you thinking “That was fun!”

Overall it was a funny movie. It was an entertaining horror comedy to watch and it appeared like the real gruesome moments happened at the right time. I’ve seen a lot of horror movies that didn’t want to be comedies but ended up that way. This is one that tries to be a comedy and knows how and when to place the shots. In many ways, it reminds me of when I saw Housebound: a New Zealand movie that tries to mix thriller moments with comedy and succeeds as well. I’m sure most people will get the joke and treat the more gruesome moments as the jokes they’re intended to be. Scenes such as the airborne severed penis and one enemy strangled and decapitated with their bloody spinal column coming out, how can one not take it as a joke? I figure if people can sit through Saw, they can watch this.

The funny thing about this film is its inclusion of ‘metalheads’ in the story. Seeing the images of the metalheads, the ‘demonic’ heavy metal music and of the heavy metal fantasia brought back a lot of memories of the heavy metal phenomenon. It’s probably still in existence for some teens. You just have to look around. However this element is questionable if it could win over young people outside New Zealand. Would they be able to identify with metalheads or even get a lot of the humor? That’s something to think about.

I give credit to writer/director Jason Lei Howden for creating this comedy which happens to be his directorial debut. It was hilarious and enjoyable in a gory sort of way. Milo Cawthorne was funny and did his role as Brodie right. James Blake and Kimberly Crossman were great supporting players in this film. Even the minor supporting actors added to the humor of the film in their own way.

Deathgasm was a funny horror comedy from New Zealand that was a great entertaining way to end the VIFF with.

And there you go. Those are my reviews of the Vancouver Film Fest films I saw. Blog about how the VIFF went for the year coming soon.

VIFF 2015 Review: Cop Car

A corrupt cop (Kevin Bacon) had his car stolen by two eight year-old boys in the dark comedy Cop Car.

A corrupt cop (Kevin Bacon) had his car stolen by two eight year-old boys in the dark comedy Cop Car.

What do you get when you mix two eight year-old boys, a corrupt cop, a crooked man, a female witness and an empty cop car all out in the middle of Colorado? You get a bizarre dark comedy called Cop Car.

The film starts with two eight year-old boys, Harrison and Travis, walking along the Colorado farm land cussing and having fun. During their fun, they notice an empty sheriff car not running and nobody inside. They go in to check it out and find the keys. They’re able to turn it on and the two start their fun.

We found out how it got there. A corrupt sheriff named Kretzer appears to have killed two men; there’s one lifeless in the trunk and one Kretzer buries in a hole. Kretzer returns to where his car was parked only to find it gone. All that remains is his empty beer bottle. He goes to town to try and steal a car for himself. Nobody can know of his plot. Once he steals one, he goes to town and alerts the police of what happened. Meanwhile the boys are driving superfast on the highway and catches the eye of a passing motorist who questions what she sees. She reports it to police but they think she’s crazy. Even she’s seen sitting at a diner questioning what she saw.

Kretzer believes it and sends the boys a radio message letting them know they’re in trouble. But they don’t hear it because they’re playing around with the police tape and assault rifles in the car. All of a sudden, they hear a thump coming from the trunk. The other man is alive and scared as hell. However he’s shocked to see two boys looking at him. The two help free the man from his ‘shackles.’ Sheriff Kretzer sends another message to the two boys, this time more comforting. They boys say to meet him at a location but it’s at the gunpoint of the man who threatens them and their families if they don’t do as he says. Then he goes with the two assault rifles hiding behind the windmill right in the remote rural highway.

SPOILER ALERT: The ending of the movie will be revealed from this point on. If you want it a complete surprise, do not read any further.

Sheriff Kretzer arrives. He sees the two boys in the car but suspects something suspicious. Coincidentally the witness is driving on that same highway and bumps into the sheriff car again. She gets out relieved that she is not as crazy as they say she is but ready to give those two boys a good talking to. However she’s shot and that’s when the shootout between Kretzer and his hostage occur. The hostage is dead. Kretzer is badly injured and the two boys are scared as hell. They shoot the car window down by accident and Travis is accidentally shot. It’s up to Harrison to drive back to town for safety. But not without one last pursuit by Kretzer which proves fatal for him. The film ends with Harrison still driving over 70 mph with the lights flashing and the sirens on.

I don’t think the film was intended to give a social message. I don’t need to see this film to know how corrupt a lot of cops can get. What I think director Jon Watts and co-writer Christopher Ford are trying to do is tell a story and have fun with it. They have fun showing the wonders of what it’s like to be a child to the point their cussing and diarrhea joke seem like a disgusting but charmingly funny reminder of how we were kids. They have fun showing the two boys having fun in this bizarre and even dangerous situation. They have fun with a corrupt policeman whose stuck in the middle of his crime right and tries to ‘set things right.’ They have fun with the witness who questions what she saw. They have fun with the hostage in the trunk who doesn’t seem to have a clue what’s going on.

They also have fun with the audience. One of the elements in making it a dark comedy is that they have us at the edge of our seats. They show two boys driving off in the sheriff’s car shouting ‘this is our cop car!’ and leaving us the audience nervous and afraid of what will happen next. They show police tape by the car as Sheriff Kretzer sends the boys a message only for us to learn the two boys are having fun with it. They show the boys playing with the guns, even the assault rifles, leaving us afraid a bullet will go off any minute but it doesn’t. They show the hostage threatening the boys and demanding they relay Kretzer a message only to appear clueless in what he’s about to do. I think that’s one thing Watts and Ford try to do: play with our fears. I know I was afraid as hell what would happen next. Even that scene at the beginning of the boys trying to crush the snakes in the snakehole was the first sign of the fun Watts and Ford were going to have with us.

However both Watts and Ford do set a moment where the fun ends and things become more serious: right at the shootout. The carefree fun even ends for the boys as it finally sinks into them the danger they’re about to face. I think the moment when it gets darkly serious was timed right.

The film shows a lot of surprises. Firstly we’re all surprised not to see the two boys land the car in any dangerous hill. We’re also surprised the hostage in the trunk is alive right while the boys are playing around. We’re surprised to see the witness actually bump into the site of where the boys are with the car. We’re surprised of the hostage’s plans of his own on Kretzer. We’re surprised the sheriff not only survives the shootout but is fit enough to drive. We’re surprises that Harrison is able to turn to avoid the truck while Kretzer smashes into it. We’re also surprised to see despite playing around with the car and the guns, the moment Travis gets shot is when he uses it for help. We’re also surprised to see the best driving of the boys come from Harrison as he’s rushing back to town for safety in the pitch dark and the police lights flashing.

The film is full of ironies. However one of the best qualities of the film is not just of what we know but of what we don’t know. In fact the film will leave us asking a lot of questions. Why did Kretzer kill one man and hold another hostage? What exactly was the hostage after that he was trying to kill Kretzer? Why did the witness have to get shot? I think it’s trying to have us decide for yourself why things were this way. Even the ending leaves us asking a lot of questions. Will Travis be okay? Will Harrison drive back to town safely? I think that was the quality of the ending. I believe it lets us create our own ending to the story.

Watts and Ford delivered a good fun dark comedy. I wouldn’t call it a stellar movie but it’s hard to notice the imperfections. Kevin Bacon’s performance as the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer may be Golden Globe worthy but I don’t think it’s Oscar worthy. He made the right comedic choices in his character for it to work and fit with the story. Shea Whigham was funny as the bumbling hostage. Camryn Mannheim made the most of her brief appearances in her minor role. The two boys, Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson, owned the show. It’s funny how they cussed, played dangerously and told a crude joke but still managed to maintain the innocence of childhood.

Cop Car first got a lot of good buzz at the Sundance Film Fes5tival and has been an attraction at various film festivals this year. It was given a box office release in August but only grossed up to $150,000. That’s odd for a film starring Kevin Bacon.

Cop Car is a surprise treat. I’ll admit the movie left me so nervous and afraid of what will happen next, I wanted to walk out. Nevertheless it was a delight to watch.