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DVD Review: Sing Street

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Sing Street is about a band in Dublin led by Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, left) , a boy with musical dreams.

2016 was seen as a weak year for comedies, unless they were animated. Possibly the most overlooked gem of 2016 was the Irish musical comedy Sing Street. I passed it up when it first came out, but I finally saw it recently. I’m glad I did.

We see Conor Lawlor strumming his guitar in his bedroom. Conor is a 15 year-old boy living in a shabby suburb of Dublin in 1985. Right now, Ireland is going through difficult times. It’s economy has been hit hard and many young people are fleeing to the UK, most notably London, for a future. His family is also going through difficulties as his father is struggling in his architecture practice and is struggling in his marriage and drinks excessively. Because of that, Conor is taken out of his high-class Catholic school and put into an all-boys free state school in Synge Street. A move older brother Brendan objects to, knowing how terrible the priests are there.

Things don’t go well for Conor on the first day. Being the new kid, he gets bullied. On top of it, he has the principal Br. Baxter giving him a hard time because he’s wearing brown shoes instead of black shoes in the dress code. Conor does end up with a bully name Barry but he makes a new friend in Darren who has big-time entrepreneur dreams. Conor also meets a 16 year-old girl named Raphina living at the orphanage nearby the school. He learns that Raphina is a budding model who’s headed to London. Conor impresses Raphina saying he’s in a band.

Now it’s up for Conor to create the band with the help of Darren. Darren is quick to act as Conor is introduced to Eamon: an awkward looking teen with a passion for music and can play many an instrument. Conor is able to meet a local black teen who is mostly shunned away from the others and two other awkward but musically-inclined students from his school. They start out pretty flat together and create a demo tape of popular 80’s songs. Conor gives it to Brandon but he’s unimpressed. He instructs Brandon not to be a cover band but do their own original stuff. That helps Conor to meet with Eamon to compose a song about his infatuation with Raphina: The Riddle Of The Model. The boys try on various costumes for filming a video and Raphina even volunteers to be their makeup artist and ingenue.

The song and video impress Brendan, feeling they’re off to a good start. However Conor’s rocker image of dyed hair and makeup gets on the nerves of Br. Baxter who insists in turning all boys into men at the school. Baxter even grabs Conor and washes the makeup off his face in a bathroom sink with hot water. But Conor and the band are undaunted. They continue making music and Raphina even advises that Conor be known as Cosmo. Conor develops the self-confidence to stand up to school bully Barry. The romance between Raphina and Conor heat up too, despite Raphina claiming an older man is her boyfriend. Conor even talks of sailing to London with Raphina.

However things soon take a turn for the worse. Conor’s parents are on the verge of separating with the mother moving in to her new lover’s place. Plus Raphina doesn’t show up when Sing Street are shooting a Back To The Future style video for their song Drive It Like You Stole It. Raphina later revealed she was set to leave for London, but her boyfriend abandoned her. A disheartened Conor breaks up with her. The breakup affects Conor in writing new songs for the band.

However it’s Brendan who encourages him to get back with Raphina and get back into playing. It’s through Brendan’s own personal feelings of past failures that drive him to give Conor the advise. Sing Street have a chance to perform a gig at school. Conor even offers Barry a chance to become a roadie for the band to escape his abusive household. The band performs their gig to the delight of the school and a condescending Br. Baxter looking on in disappointment, but they saved the best for last. The film ends not as one would expect but one that would leave the audience happy and hopeful.

I won’t deny this is a common story you’d expect to see in a film. I’m sure the story of a person growing up in a trash-bin of a city starting a band has been done before. The thing with this story is that for a common story like this to work again, the characters have to connect with the audience. They have to make the audience want them to succeed. The film succeeds in making the audience want Conor, or should I say ‘Cosmo,’ and Sing Street to succeed. The film succeeds in making the audience want Conor win Raphina’s love. The film succeeds in making the audience want the bullying of Barry to Conor to end and for Conor to get even with Br. Baxter. The connection of Conor with the audience is one of the biggest elements of magic in this story.

It’s not just the connection of Conor with the audience. It’s the connection with Raphina too. You get a sense Raphina is the right one for Conor, despite being confused about her love to her older boyfriend. However you get a sense that Conor will win her love. Raphina believes in the band and believes in Conor. You can see it in her eyes. Also Raphina shares Conor’s dreams of leaving for London. Seeing how unpromising Ireland looked with its economic drabness back then and the people seeing the priests as ‘rapists’ leaves you sensing life would be better for the both over in London.

It’s also the connection with Brendan with the audience too. Brendan is the first character in the film outside of Conor that’s easy to like because Brendan believes in Conor’s talents. Brendan’s also the type of brother that would be honest about how Conor is doing. Even after he disses what Sing Street does at first, he will give Conor words of encouragement. He will give Conor music albums to give him a sense about what makes rock and roll. It’s Brendan’s embrace of music in both its past influences and future directions that become a huge boost for Conor. However it’s also Brendan’s past failures that we get a better understanding. We see why Brendan pushes Conor in that scene after the parents’ separation and he throws a violent fit over his past failures. Because Brendan views himself as a failure who doesn’t have a chance, so he wants Conor to chase his dreams and be the one that has what it takes to go to London. It’s easy to feel for Brendan. It’s also easy for a viewer to see their own feelings of failure and regret in Brendan too.

With this being a film about a rock and roll band, the music has to be as important as the story itself. Brendan’s embrace for music is a big quality of the film, but it has to rub off on Conor as he’s the one with the gift of music. The film gets focused on the themes of music like themes of love, themes of heartache, themes of frustration, themes of emptiness and themes of hope. We learn about the ‘happy-sad’ feeling that we all get, but may  not know it. The ‘happy-sad’ element is definitely influential in music. Now once all the themes and elements of music are put together, the film has to have catchy songs. The film succeeds in doing so with songs like Riddle Of The Model, Drive It Like You Stole It and Brown Shoes. Brown Shoes made the perfect end-number for the school show. Even music from other musicians like Duran Duran, The Cure, The Jam, and many others add to the theme of music in the film. The film is as much about music as it is about love and dreams.

Writer/director John Carney succeeds in delivering an enjoyable film to the big screen. Music has been a common theme in past films of his like Once and Begin Again. He succeeds here again in delivering a film that’s enjoyable and keeping you engaged in the story. The film featured a very good debut performance for Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who was 16 years old when this film debuted at Sundance 2016. Ferdia is actually a singer who has performed professionally as a child in Ireland for years. This is his first acting role and he does an excellent job. Lucy Boynton also did a very good job in playing Raphina. The best thing is she made Raphina appear older than she really was. Jack Reynor was also very good as Brendan. He made Brendan into a likeable character, but also made you feel for him too.

Sing Street is a musical comedy that delivers excellently. It delivers a story and characters that connect with the audience very well. It also delivers entertaining music, which is what a film about a rock and roll band should do.

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DVD Review: Jackie

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Natalie Portman showcases a deep personal angle of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie most of us never saw.

At first I wasn’t too interested in seeing Jackie. I mean there have already been enough made-for-TV movies of JFK and Jackie Kennedy. The film would not only have to justify being made but also its big-screen release.

The film begins with a journalist interviewing Jackie Kennedy in her home just days after JFK’s assassination. It’s like one minute she’s the First Lady living in the White House and the next, she’s a young widowed mother living in a private home miles away. The journalist begins with small talk but the questions move to the assassination and the aftermath.

It is from that point the film flashes back to various moments. Moments when Jackie and John attended Camelot: a musical JFK was captivated by. Moments like Jackie right after the shooting cleaning the blood off her clothes. Moments like being comforted by Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, and White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman whom Jackie would later confide in. Moments like making funeral plans. Moments like her dealing with the priest and her questioning her faith more than ever.

It’s moments like those where Jackie feels more lost than ever as a person. It’s moments like these where Jackie wonders what to leave as a legacy for her husband. It’s during that time she uncovers truths many tried to hide from her, but she knew. It’s also moments when Jackie learns to be strong on the inside. In the end, she regains her faith while talking to the priest. In the end, she makes the final decisions on her husband’s funeral. In the end, she chooses to have her husband’s legacy remembered as ‘Camelot.’

Now keep in mind when this film came out, I was not too interested in seeing it. I mean the role of Jackie Kennedy has been included in too many made-for-TV film. When I saw this film about to be released, I was thinking “This film had better justify its big screen format.” This is not just simply a film that’s a biography. This film focuses on Jackie not even during ten days of her life. This is one of the most critical times of her life as she went from being Jackie Kennedy to a widow in an instant. Many of us know a lot of Jackie Kennedy, but this film presents an angle of Jackie Kennedy few of us knew. The smile and happy charm of Jackie Kennedy we are all familiar with is now replaced with a Jackie Kennedy that is hurting inside. She feels like she’s nothing without JFK. Her faith both in God and in the magic of Camelot has been challenged to more than what she can handle. She even feels like she’s worthless as a mother to her children. That was Jackie right after JFK died. That was Jackie those many days later dealing with the journalist.

We also see another angle to Jackie. This film goes through scenes happening in various moments of time in Jackie’s life. We see some scenes when JFK was still alive but most scenes are various times after his assassination. With those scenes, we see the different aspect of Jackie few knew. We have always known Jackie Kennedy the First Lady to be charming, charismatic, sweet and outgoing. Here in the film, we notice that Jackie is not the prissy, naive Jackie as most of us thought she was. She knew of her husband’s infidelity. She knew of Wanted For Treason posters published by dissenters days before his assassination. She did have concern about tax dollar use for her husband’s funeral. She even considered her publicity an interference: “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.” She even questioned her faith with the priest. These are all aspects most never knew of Jackie Kennedy. However the film also shows Jackie as a person who doesn’t lose faith in the things she believes in. Despite going through the hardest moment of her life, she still finds the inner strength to keep her faith in God and to believe in the power of books and theatre. “I believe the characters we read on the page become more real than the men who stand beside us.” That would take a lot for someone to still believe in especially after what happened.

This is an excellent breakthrough film for Pablo Llarain. This is his first English-language feature and he does a very good job in directing the story and scenes. Also done well is the script from writer Noah Oppenhein. He’s most famous as the scriptwriter for The Maze Runner. Jackie is a big change of pace for him. It’s very common nowadays to do films of a certain famous person and have it focus on a certain brief period of their life instead of the common biography-style film you’d expect. It’s done many times in films like The Queen, Capote and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. It’s also a difficult challenge because in doing so, they have to construct a story that looks like it sums up the protagonists lifetime in that brief period of time. Oppenheim succeeded in constructing a very 3D Jackie Kennedy in that brief period of her life.

It’s not just Oppenheim’s story of Jackie that worked well but also the performance of Natalie Portman. At first, I was skeptical of the idea of having Portman play Jackie Kennedy. She did not come as the type of personality to play her at first. However Portman did an excellent job in her portrayal of Natalie and portraying the personal traits and feeling of Jackie in the scenes of the story. The film also shows an excellent maturity in the acting of Natalie Portman. Sometimes we forget she was 35 when she was filming this film and Jackie Kennedy was 34 when this incident happened. This film shows Natalie’s acting maturity very well. For all intents and purposes, Jackie Kennedy was the role with the most depth and range in the film. Nevertheless there were supporting performances that delivered well despite their limited range, like Peter Saarsgard and Bobby Kennedy and Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman. The costuming from Madeline Fontaine and the music from Mica Levi also added to the quality of the film.

Jackie did justify its big screen format in the end. It’s an excellent film about carrying grace under such devastating heartbreak and reminded us why we admire Jackie Kennedy so much.

Oscars 2016 Best Picture Summary: Part 3

Most of you have already seen my first summary or even my second summary. This last summary will have a look at the last three Best Picture nominees I saw. They were Lion, Hidden Figures and Hell Or High Water.

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Dev Patel plays Saroo Brierley, an Australian searching for his family back home in India in Lion.

LION

Lion is one of those films which came out of nowhere to surprise everyone who has been lucky to see it.

We have seen many against-all-odds stories in the past. This is something because this is a true story of something that really was against all odds. It wasn’t just about making it happen but also of the family relations Saroo has developed over his lifetime. What will happen? Will he leave the family he’s always known? Is the family he’s searching for still alive? The best quality of this story is that it keeps us intrigued and hoping Saroo reunites, but also has us concerned of what will happen after.

Another quality of this story is that it does not forget the cause of the problem. Saroo is seen as the lucky one who was able to reunite with his family after all these years. However throughout the film, especially at the beginning, we see the cause of the problem. Saroo was unsupervised when he boarded the express train. The language barriers caused problems. Even Saroo’s mispronunciation of Bengali words caused problems. The train stations of Calcutta are loaded with stray children ready for abductors to prey on, and station police looking the other way. Even the missing posters advertised before his adoption were no good as his mother is illiterate. India failed Saroo and Saroo succeeded thanks to Google Earth and his fierce will. The film at the end lets people aware of the problem; 80,000 children go missing in India each year. The film’s website informs people of how they are making a difference in aiding to protect children in India.

This film is an accomplishment for the Australian film industry. I don’t know if Australia has ever had a film nominated for Best Picture before. This is director Garth Davis’ first ever feature length film. Bet you wouldn’t believe that. Luke Davies did an excellent job in adapting Saroo’s biography into a winning screenplay that keep the audience intrigued and hoping for the best in the end. Dev Patel’s performance as Saroo was the highlight as he did a great portrayal of a young man who’s angry on the inside and knows what he needs to do. Nicole Kidman was also excellent as the mother who appears grateful on the outside but has some inner hurt waiting to come out. Young Sunny Pawar was also very good playing the young Saroo. He was cute but he didn’t take it overboard. He played his part well. The film also featured top notch cinematography from Greig Fraser and excellent original music from Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka.

Lion is an excellent film featuring a story you won’t forget. A surprise contender this year and a worthy one.

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Hidden Figures is the story of three African American women working for NASA who broke new ground and brought down racial barriers.

HIDDEN FIGURES

It’s good that we have a film like Hidden Figures to tell us about a piece of history that we never knew about.

The film comes at the right time as it deals with a lot of situations that are relevant in our world. This may be set in the early 60’s and revolves around a moment in space history but it has a lot of situations relevant to today. One is of workplace racism. It’s not as bad now as it is then but there are still a lot of unsolved problems. The second is of technology being so good, it can replace workers. These three women had iron wills. They knew they had potential, they knew they had what it takes and they wouldn’t let racism or the threat of modern technology stop them from reaching for their achievements.

The year of 2016 was a crushing year. It was a year that constantly reminded us that there was still a lot of racism to overcome. Despite the improvement over the decades, it was able to show its ugly head with low employment rates and police beatings. This is a film that reminds us that racism can be overcome. When you look at it, the women were doing this all during a turning point in the history of African Americans. African Americans in Virginia had less rights than they do now and discrimination was perfectly legal. Back then there were still separate washrooms for colored people, separate library books for white and colored people, and police beatings during civil rights marches. The women overcame these barriers and they opened doors for other colored people for generations to come.

This is only the second film Theodore Melfi has directed and written. This is the first feature-length script Alison Schroeder has written. Does come across as like something you’d get from Hollywood, but it’s not a weakness. It does all the right moves. Taraji Henson was great as the protagonist Katherine Goble-Johnson, but the show-stealer was Octavia Spencer. She was not only good at playing a woman who wouldn’t let technology kill her job, and the jobs of 30 other black women, but she was a colorful scene-stealer too. Janelle Monae completes the trio as one who just wouldn’t say die to her ambitions. The male actors were mostly supporting roles but Mahershala Ali was the biggest one as Jim Johnson, Katherine’s new husband. The mix of Motown music mixed in with the original score from Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch also added to the spirits of the movie.

Hidden Figures showcases a little-known fact about a big moment in American space history. It’s also the right uplifting movie needed at this time.

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Hell Or High Water is about two Texas brothers on a robbing spree and a policeman (played by Jeff Bridges, right) trying to chase them down.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

I missed Hell Or High Water when it first came out in the theatres in August. I admit I was caught up in the summer fare and I overlooked it. I finally saw it recently and I’m glad I did.

One thing is I miss seeing is crime comedies. You know, the dark comedies featured in crime stories. This film has a good amount of comedy to it with their failures at robbing first. Even the situation where the brothers rob the Texas Midlands Bank and pay the mortgages they have with the bank off with the robbery money is full of surprising irony. It’s not even the robbery spree that has all the comedy. There’s the comedy when the rangers visit the places they question. There’s even comedy with that hard waitress at a restaurant they eat at: “What don’t you want?” The comedy doesn’t last as the story gets darker later on. However it does end on an ironic note as the now-retired Officer Hamilton does meet up with Toby Howard, perfectly free, and inquires of the robberies he and brother Tanner committed together.

One thing about this crime drama is that it has a lot to say. We have two brothers–Tanner who appears to have no redeeming values and Toby who’s as cool as a cookie– robbing various branches of the same bank. You see signs advertising debt relief. You hear from people– both family and people the brothers run into– talking of their own economic hardships. You see the indigenous people, who are still referred to as ‘Indians’ with their own outlook on things. Mostly negative. Looks like this story has a lot to say. Even hearing Alberto Parker say that he believes the true criminal is the Texas Midlands Bank does get you thinking. Maybe it’s the Bank that are the true robbers around here.

This is actually the first American production from Scottish director David MacKenzie. He has a reputation back in the UK with films like Young Adam, Hallam Foe and Starred Up. His first American production is top notch and really delivers as both a crime story and an offbeat Western. This is also an accomplishment for writer Taylor Sheridan. Already having made a name for himself in Sicario, he delivers again in what is actually his second feature-length script. Of all acting performances, Jeff Bridges is the one that was the best. He delivered a top job in character acting from head to toe. He was completely solid in character. Chris Pine was also good as the brother Toby who’s smart, tries to play it cool and possibly the one person in the world who could see redeeming qualities in brother Tanner. Ben Foster was also a scene-stealer as Tanner who a complete ruthless loose cannon who appears to have a bone to pick with everyone over anything and possesses a false sense of invincibility. Gil Birmingham was also good coming across as the wise partner who plays it cool. The country music in both recorded format and original from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis fit the film perfectly.

Hell Or High Water makes for an intense thrill ride that’s big on thrills but also takes you to the heat of the moments. The story even gets you thinking. Now why did I miss it during the summer?

That does it. My final summary of the Best Picture nominees for 2016. After seeing Hell Or High Water, that makes it 16 straight years of seeing all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar night. My predictions for the wins coming on Saturday.

 

 

Movie Review – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso: the heroine of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

One of my Christmas treats was seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I’m glad I had my chance because it was an excellent movie.

Now just a reminder to you all, this is not part of the nine-episode Star Wars saga we all know. This is part of the Anthology Films of the Star Wars franchise. Actually this is the very first Anthology film to be released. The film is a triumph for writers of ‘fan fiction’ or ‘fanfic’ as it’s commonly called on the internet. However bringing fanfic like this to wide release on the big screen was no easy task. We all know how Star Wars has become a cinematic phenomenon like no other. George Lucas knows about it. Lucas himself is comfortable with ‘standalone’ films based on the Star Wars stories but wanted to make very clear that any standalone stories could not carry characters between the Saga films.

Here we have a story that is to take place between Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith and the very verse Star Wars film that’s now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s a pretty lengthy amount of time between when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker seeks to become a Jedi. Nevertheless it does make for ample time for any Star Wars fan to create a story of what happens in between. Storywriters John Knoll and Gary Whitta aren’t just any Star Wars fans. Knoll has done camera operations and visual effects supervision for many science-fiction films including four Star Trek films and the three Star Wars prequels. Whitta is a scriptwriter for The Book Of Eli and After Earth.

The adaptation of the story to screenplay had to fall into the right hands as well. Scriptwriter Tony Gilroy may have had his biggest renown with 2007 Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton (for which he himself was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) but his he’s also made his biggest impact in writing the scripts for all four Jason Bourne movies. Chris Weitz has an eclectic resume of writing and directing from Antz to American Pie to About A Boy to The Golden Compass to one of the Twilight films. Then there’s the film being directed properly. Gareth Edwards may have not had the most experience in directing but he has developed his reputation in recent years upon films like 2010’s Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla.

Then there’s the story itself. There are possibly loads of Star Wars-inspired stories. The story would have to be true to the Star Wars saga without it being a rip-off. There’s lots of that and even professional writers can make something that’s a Star Wars rip-off. Most Star Wars fans will not go for something insulting. True, there are a lot of people that are Star Wars-crazy but most will not go for something if they sense it’s a rip-off. Don’t forget many felt insulted by the prequels so that’s a reminder.

They succeeded. They provided a very good story about the completion of the Death Star and the family behind it and the rebellion attempting to steal the plans leading to the hope in the end. The story had to be well-researched in order for it to make the right connection between Episode III and IV. Any new characters like the Ursos, Cassian Andor and K-2SO had to fit with the story as well as include original Star Wars characters like C3P0 and Darth Vader properly. On top of that, it had to have the right action scenes and the right battles done. Basically the whole movie had to have it all to work. The story could not be compromised despite the action sequences. The acting also had to be top notch from Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn and Forest Whitaker. Even the theme of the story of heroism has to be present. It’s there, but in a way like no other Star Wars saga film does it. For the first time, self-sacrifice is needed for heroism.

The story worked very well. The critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave a total percentage of 85% approval. Many praised it for its depth in the Star Wars mythology and for breaking new narrative and aesthetic ground while paving way to a potential future for other blockbusters. The film scored well with crowds too as it would become the 20th movie to gross over $1 billion worldwide.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not just an excellent movie. It’s an accomplishment. It’s proof that Star Wars standalone movies can not only be a hit but be excellent in their own right.

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

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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

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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.

Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond

STAR TREK BEYOND

Star Trek Beyond is the third installment of the revamped Star Trek series.

I was originally planning on saving my review for Star Trek Beyond for a summer movie summary on science fiction movies outside of superhero movies. That was not to be the case as most of the top sci-fi movies were superhero movies. Nevertheless Star Trek Beyond is a movie worth reviewing by itself.

For the third of four movies of the revamped Star Trek series, the writers and director Justin Lin had to deal with making a 2-hour movie that is a continuation of the series while leading to an ending setting up for the fourth and final movie, which currently has no set year of release right now. The trick is trying to make the right choices of what to include, whether it be pieces from the original television series of the 60’s or of movies of the past, and create the right third-movie.

One thing about this installment is that the focus is more about exploring new worlds which is what Star Trek is all about. However it’s also about friction as smaller ships ambush and wreck the USS Enterprise. Even the threat of an intergalactic race in another galaxy under a tyrannous villain adds to the drama this time. This is a case of a fresh story for the Star Trek franchise while trying to maintain the same spirit of the whole Star Trek series.

I mentioned back in my review of superhero movies that despite the action scenes, morals and values are essential for a superhero movie. Morals and values are also essential for a movie like Star Trek as well. The Starship voyage continues in its quest to discover new intergalactic worlds and develop ties between the life forms. The value of doing what’s right is present in this Star Trek movie as Kirk is about to go on a rescue mission that might endanger his life. He responds by saying; “I would rather die saving lives than live knowing that I took them.”

The movie sometimes seems like it wants to be a sweet farewell to Leonard Nimoy. It’s evident in the story as Spock receives news that Lieutenant Spock has died. Reminders pop up in the story line as Spock plans to leave the Starship to carry on the Lieutenant’s duties and even a sentimental scene near the end. I don’t think it did any wrong moves in doing so. Memorializing an actor, especially if they had such a memorable role in their lifetime, is never an easy thing. There are some times in retrospect I felt there were some wrong moves in memorializing Paul Walker in Furious 7 like the farewell image of his character played by his look-alike brother. However I feel they did it right here, including the toast ‘to absent friends.’ Even at the end the movie is dedicated ‘In Loving Memory’ of Nimoy.

yelchin

The film makers of the fourth and final revamped Star Trek film decided to drop the character of Chekov in respect to the late  Anton Yelchin.

Unexpected was the death of Anton Yelchin who played Chekov in the three revamped Star Trek films. He was a gifted actor capable of doing an excellent job in each role he played. In Star Trek, he delivered a Chekov that was half the age of the original Chekov but made it work on screen. He even added some charming humor to the movie series with lines like “Nine-Five-Wictor-Wictor-Two” or “I can do zat! I can do zat!” Unfortunately he was killed an a car accident one month before the film’s premiere. He was 27. The film didn’t make any major last-minute changes in editing or storyline upon news of his death but he is memorialized after Nimoy’s dedication with ‘For Anton.’

New to directing the Star Trek series is Justin Lin. He’s best known as the director of four Fast And The Furious movies. With his first attempt at directing Star Trek, he does a very good job in maintaining the spirit of the Star Trek franchise along with delivering the right storyline and right action to the movie. For the record, J. J. Abrams is producer this time. The script written by Simon Pegg who plays Scotty and Doug Jung who’s past work is mostly writing for television is consistent with the story and the spirit of Star Trek despite it being short on the expected action. All the returning actors still maintain their respective characters well. One thing noticeable is Chekov has more of a presence and he doesn’t deliver so many humorous lines this time. Another new addition is Idris Elba doing an excellent convincing role as the villain Krall. Visual effects were still good even if they weren’t the most spectacular. Also the addition of the Beastie Boys song ‘Sabotage’ got me thinking again to how Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Martian has made it a must to include musical moments in such movies.

The big surprise is the lack of box office success that came with this film. The film currently has a North American gross of over $157 million and a total worldwide gross of over $333 million. Since it cost $180 million to make, it’s labeled a ‘flop,’ especially knowing the first two revamped Star Trek movies starting back in 2009 both made over $200 million. People are wondering why? The film has an approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes of over 80% and there was expected to be big fare since this year is the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise starting all the way back with the TV series. Some are saying Yelchin’s sudden death may have a lot to do with it, like it ‘spoiled the fun.’ It’s wrong to make such an accusation. Nobody saw his death coming. Not even Anton himself, if you’ve bothered to read the news about it. Some are saying the story lacks excitement. Possibly but it still has a lot of ingredients win crowds and Star Trek fans alike. Hard to say exactly. My assumption is that simply this is the third movie, not the first and not the last. Plus it faced competition from a wide variety of other movies this summer. I feel that the final movie can achieve more at the box office because it will be the final movie of a revamped film series that worked rather than flopped.

Star Trek Beyond may not be as action-packed as most of the other summer fare out right now or even past Star Trek films but it is a movie that delivers on the Star Trek franchise and stays true to its spirit. It even paves way to the fourth and final Star Trek movie to come.

Rio 2016: Seven Canadians To Watch

Canada Olympic

I admit I’ve come to accept it after the Sochi Olympics. Since the late-90’s Canada has become a winter sports superpower but field a very good Summer Olympics team. In past Olympic Games, both Canada’s summer and winter teams were on the same levels. Very often the summer team would outperform the winter team. That has changes since the late-90’s as you can tell by the medal totals with each Games.

However it’s not fair at all to say our Summer Olympic team is lousy. Here in Canada, we have a lot to deliver. The 2015 Pan Am Games and the recent World Championships in various sports have shown we have a lot of athletes in contention. Sure we only won a single gold out of our 18 medals back in London but we have a solid team this year. Sports Illustrated predicts Canadians to win a total of seventeen medals including four gold.

Anyways you saw my focus on foreign contenders in Rio yesterday. Without further ado, here are the seven Canadians of focus:

Brianne Theisen-Eaton – Athletics: The last time a Canadian woman won a gold medal in track and field was in 1928 and that was the very first Olympics track and field events for women were contested! Canada was one of the best countries in women’s track and field in 1928 winning two of the five events and two additional medals. Yeah, what has happened since? Well the drought could very well be over. When Brianne Theisen graduated from high school, she went to the University of Oregon and it was the best decision. She represented Canada in London and finished 11th. She would later marry American decathlete Ashton Eaton and she’s been on a roll since finishing second at the last two World Championships. She also won the Goetzis HypoMeet this year with a points total that’s the highest of 2016 and has propelled herself as the favorite. She will face stiff rivalry from defending Olympic Champion and reigning World Champion Jessica Ennis-Hill and Worlds bronze medalist Laura Ikauniece-Admidiņa of Latvia. 2016 could just be Brianne’s year. Also look to see if Brianne and Ashton become the first married couple since the Zatopeks in 1952 to both win athletics golds in the same games.

Shawnacy Barber – Athletics: Canada is not known for its pole vaulters. Our last Olympic entry was back in 1992. Our only two medals in the men’s event came all the way back in 1908 and 1912. That can all change thanks to New Mexico-born Shawn Barber. He didn’t qualify for London at the tender age of 18 but his talent was obvious that year as he already broke the Canadian record. He has improved in both his vaulting heights and his competitive consistency over the years and even won the World Championship last year. He even vaulted six metres for the first time ever during an indoor meet this year. He will face challenges from defending Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie of France, American newcomer Sam Kendricks and even home-country threat Thiago da Silva. Whatever the situation, Barber is sure to deliver.

Brooke Henderson – Golf: Here in Rio there won’t be any new sports on the program but there are two sports that were part of the Olympic program in the past that were cancelled out. The two returning sports are Rugby, albeit in Sevens format, and Golf. Golf was contested at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics. The last Olympic gold in golf was won by a Canadian: George Lyon. Professionalism may have a lot to do with that. Since there’s now no such thing as ‘amateur’ anymore, it seems right that golf returns especially since it’s international enough. Canada has a strong shot at winning through 18 year-old Brooke Henderson. Already displaying a combination of talent, drive and youthfulness that has best been seen in the past through Se-Ri Pak and Nancy Lopez, Henderson has already won three LPGA events. Her last two– the KPMG women’s PGA Championship and the Cambia Portland Classic–came this June and propelled her to 2nd-place World ranking. She’s a heavy favorite to win in Rio but she will face challenges from World #1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand, latest American great Lexi Thompson and last year’s British Open winner Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand. Win or lose, Brooke has a bright future ahead of her.

Mark de Jonge – Canoeing: Until 2008, there were the 500m and 1000m events in flatwater canoeing for men. In 2012, the program replaced the 500m events with 200m sprints. That has worked for the advantage of Canadian kayaker Mark de Jonge. The Calgary-born Dalhousie grad won bronze in London the first Olympics it was contested. Since then, de Jonge has moved up in the ranks from silver at the 2013 Worlds to gold at the 2014 and 2015 Worlds. De Jonge will face challenges from France’s Maxime Beaumont and Sweden’s Peter Menning who finished second and third to him respectively last year. It could just well be de Jonge’s moment here in Rio.

Rosannagh MacLennan – Trampolining: Ever since trampolining has been introduced to the Olympic program in 2000, the Canadian team has left each Olympics with at least one medal. The women’s event has always had a Canadian medalist with Karen Cockburn winning 2000 bronze, 2004 silver and 2008 silver. In London, Rosie MacLennan became Canada’s first ever Olympic champion in trampolining. Rosie also had the bizarre distinction as being Canada’s only Olympic champion at those Games. Rosie has since won the 2013 World Championship and finished second the following year. She found herself out of the medals in 2015. She plans to return to her winning form in Rio but she will face the rivalry of 2015 champ Li Dan of China and two Belarussians: 2015 bronze medalist Tatiana Piatrenia and Hanna Harchonak. 2016 will be the arena for her to prove herself on top again.

Brittany MacLean – Swimming: Canada is known for its medal-winning swimmers. Sports Illustrated predicts Canada to win no medals. However one that could prove SI wrong is distance freestyler Brittany MacLean. The Etobicoke native who swims for the University of Georgia has a reputation in the distance freestyles with a 7th place finish in the 400 in London. However she was too injured in the 2015 season and had to miss out on the Worlds. This year, MacLean has the 6th-fastest time in the world in the 400 free and the 4th-fastest in the 800 free. Sure the distance freestyles are where Katie Ledecky is all the talk but Brittany MacLean just could win Canada’s first Olympic medal for a female swimmer since 1996. That feat could also be achieved by backstroker Kylie Masse or butterfliers Penny Oleksiak or Noemie Thomas. Actually Canada has its strongest women’s swim team in a long time. While the men’s team could only qualify ten swimmers. Looks like it’s the girls’ turn to shine.

AND ONE TEAM:

Canada’s Women’s Soccer Team: I’ll admit I didn’t review them when I did my pre-Olympic preview for London. And good reason why not. Back at the 2011 WWC Canada lost all three of their Group Stage games. However the turnabout the team made under the new coach John Herdman was evident as the team left the Olympics with the bronze medal. Their performance won the hearts of so many Canadians, I referred to them as ‘Our Girls.’ Canada has continued to show consistency with a quarterfinal finish at the 2015 WWC. Since then, the team have won most of their games losing only to Brazil, Denmark, USA and France. Canada won this year’s Algarve Cup and 19 year-old defender Kadeisha Buchanan was named the best player of the tournament. They’re not expected to win a medal in Rio but the team could just surprise the world again like they did four years ago.

And there you have it. My review of Canadian athletes to look out for in Rio. Notice that I reviewed the four Canadians Sports Illustrated predicts to win gold? Whatever the situation, I’m sure they’ll do our country proud.

 

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.

Movie Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a lot to offer fans of the Star Wars series including new characters like BB-8 and Rey (played by Daisy Ridley).

It never fails with me. I have the habit of ‘waiting until the crowds die down’ to see a blockbuster movie. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do when it involves a Star Wars movie, especially not Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I saw it three weeks after its release. I’m glad I finally saw it.

I won’t explain the story line like I do in most reviews, especially since most of you have already seen it by now, unless of course you’ve been under a rock. One thing about this movie is that it wasn’t just simply bringing another volume of the Star Wars series to the screen. The film’s job was also to bring back the magic of Star Wars people have come to know and love. No kidding the first three Star Wars movies from 1977 to 1983, those that are now referred to as episodes 4 to 6, captivated the world. Watch any one of them nowadays and you’ll see why.

However when George Lucas did the three prequels from 1999 to 2005, many fans felt something was missing. No doubt The Phantom Menace had huge expectations but they missed them and disappointed a lot of fans. Attack Of The Clones tried to be better but still something was noticeably missing. The scene of the fighting Yoda added excitement but it was one small added element. Revenge Of The Sith was the best of the prequels but the feel of Star Wars was still not there. I think it was best summed up by my sister who’s a huge Star Wars fan: “George Lucas knows how to direct sci-fi but he doesn’t know how to direct actors.” Good point because it’s been proven in other action movies or sci-fi movies in the past that special effects no matter how dazzling cannot overtake a lousy story or lousy acting.

Now we should remember that The Force Awakens or Episode Seven was actually thought up by George Lucas way back in the 1970’s as he was dreaming out and writing out the whole Star Wars series. Lucas made it clear after Revenge Of The Sith he will no longer direct Star Wars movies. In fact he sold LucasFilm to the Walt Disney Company in 2012. The first thing Disney did was bring The Force Awakens on screen. The director they hired was J.J. Abrams who has an extensive resume in writing and directing thrillers and sci-fi like Armageddon, Mission Impossible III (his directorial debut), Super 8 and the last two Star Trek movies. Hired to adapt the story to screenplay was Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan who co-wrote the scripts for Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi but didn’t help co-write any of the prequels, and rising writer Michael Arndt.

The mix turned out to be the right chemistry as it was able to bring the magic of the story back to life. The recreation of the two worlds also worked excellently. There was however one challenge I feel it didn’t overcome. That was when they brought back Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. There were a few times that I felt that instead of adding to the latest Star Wars story, it almost made it seem like a ‘Star Wars reunion.’ Even adding C3P0, Chew and R2D2 in there also added to that feeling this was like a ‘reunion” I don’t know if the huge following of Star Wars had a lot to do with why I felt that it seemed like a ‘Star Wars reunion’ but that’s how I felt.

One thing I have to say is the best thing about this Star Wars story are the new elements and the new characters of the story. One thing you hope to get with each Star Wars film are new characters that are able to charm us whether it be the philosopher Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back or even villains like Jabba The Hutt in Return Of The Jedi. Here was get appealing characters like Rey and Poe Dameron and even villains like Kylo Ren. I don’t know if they will deliver the same craze Luke, Leia and Han first did but moviegoers have welcomed them to the Star Wars saga. In addition we have a plot twist in this film as Storm Trooper Finn deserts his duty to fight against the Dark Side. That’s a key element leading into Episode Eight in anticipation in what will happen next.

In addition, adding BB-8 to the Star Wars saga was a plus. Usually adding in something cutesy to the Star Wars Saga is a risk. C3P0 and R2D2 had a big part in making the first Star Wars‘ greatness. The Ewoks of Return Of The Jedi helped make the story. However Jar Jar Binks of The Phantom Menace was too irritating and had a lot to do with that episode’s constant panning. BB-8 was cute but he was more the cute one would welcome and be entertained by rather than easily get irritated with. BB-8 actually added to the quality of The Force Awakens. Even the scenes where R2D2 meets BB-8 for the first time come across as funny instead of ridiculous.

It’s not to say the older elements weren’t good. They may not have stood out like the newer elements but they still fit the movie excellently. I know I talked about bringing Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill back made it feel like a ‘Star wars reunion’ but they were intended to be in the story from the start and intended to age 30 years. I can’t think of anyone else who could play their characters. The Dark Side and its darkness still maintained its mystery and villainous feel. The battles were also excellent to watch. Oh yes, the light saber battles. You can’t have a Star Wars episode without light saber battles. There weren’t as many this time around but they still dazzled.

I will have to say J.J. Abrams succeeds with flying colors in directing and co-writing the latest in the Star Wars saga. He’s proven in the past he can direct sci-fi and direct actors and he was the right man to take over the Star Wars series right after George Lucas let it go. The acting was not stellar but it was very good. The best acting came from those performing the ‘new roles’ like Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Oscar Isaacs. Driver especially delivered an unpredictable villain. The set designs fit the movie perfectly and were able to replicate the ships, planets and lands of the story perfectly. The visual effects were top notch again and worked the movie excellently. And of course they had to bring back John Williams as the score’s composer. Even at 83, Williams is still at it. It seems as though there’s no other composer who can do it for Star Wars and he delivers again.

Without a doubt the biggest news about Star Wars 7 is all the box-office records it’s breaking. It already broke the opening weekend record with $247.9 million: almost breaking the quarter-billion barrier. It would go on to break the North American total box office record held by Avatar on January 5th: the very day I saw it! It now stands at $879.3 million and currently sits at #2 at the box office. Worldwide it sits at $1.94 billion currently and appears poised to break Avatar’s record of $2.788 billion. Only time will decide that.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a very good addition to the Star Wars series. Not only that but it brings back a lot of the Star Wars magic that appeared missing from the prequels. What can I say? Star Wars mania is back and rightly so.

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn is the story of Irish girl Eilis (played by Saoirse Ronan) who comes to America and is swept away by a Brooklyn boy (played by Emory Cohen).

Brooklyn is the story of Irish girl Eilis (played by Saoirse Ronan) who comes to America and is swept away by a Brooklyn boy (played by Emory Cohen).

Brooklyn looks like a film that would be a favorite for a Best Picture Oscar, under traditional standards. Nevertheless it’s worth seeing.

It’s 1952 and Eilis Lacey is about to emigrate from Ireland to the United States through the arrangements of her sister Rose. It’s not like Eilis will miss much. Life in her hometown of Enniscorthy has been redundant as she works at the mercantile run by the spiteful Miss Kelly part-time and she’s also unable to win the affection of a man at the local dance hall while her best friend has better luck. So what does she have to lose?

She bids a tearful farewell to her mother and sister Rose as she departs. The ship ride is trying as she has to cope with rocky waves that make her seasick and cabin neighbors who lock her out of the bathroom. Nevertheless she finds a cabin mate whom she gets along with well. Her cabin mate is actually on her second trip to the United States returning home. She gives her advise on what to do at immigration and informs her of what to anticipate in the United States.

Once in New York she makes her home at an Irish boarding house in Brooklyn run by a traditionalist woman housing young women. She’s able to find a job at a Manhattan department store but is uneasy with it at first. She meets with Fr. Flood who helped her make her job arrangements and she’s able to enroll in bookkeeping classes. She goes to dances at the Irish hall but is surprised to learn the young man who’s interested in her is Italian. He’s smitten over her but she’s reluctant to admit she loves him. Eventually she finally does and meets his family.

Unfortunately tragedy in back in Ireland interrupts her stay in Brooklyn. Fr. Flood informs Eilis that her sister Rose died and her mother doesn’t know how to cope. Before returning to Ireland, Tony wants to marry Eilis. They wed secretly in a courthouse. Upon returning to Enniscorthy, Eilis already has a return to Brooklyn planned out but over time she feels more at home. Her best friend is about to marry, she gets offered an accounting job on an emergency basis at her sister’s business, and she wins the affections of Jim Farrell, an eligible bachelor who stands to inherit huge property.

Over time she wins the love of Jim, gets admiration from her workplace and starts falling in love with the town she left behind. It’s like the life that eluded her before she left has happened once she returned. Her feeling at home in Enniscorthy has left her comfortable to the point she doesn’t open the letters Tony send her. None of them. However a visit to Miss Kelly and what she has to say to Eilis seals her fate and where she makes her final decision.

This film is one that will remind one of Oscar winners or nominees of the past. Often you think you’re watching a film that would’ve had what it took to win Best Picture 20 years ago. However what it does is it helps bring back the magic of those films set in the past and takes one back to an easier time. Usually nostalgia pictures like these have become too cookie-cutter over the years especially as the critical ‘powers that be’ in the film world have recently been giving the lauds to more innovative fare. I will admit myself this looks like something the Weinstein brothers would have shelled out during their Miramax days. However the film succeed in making such a nostalgia film a refreshing alternative around the awards season. The film even adds a certain charm or magic that seemed to be missing in a lot of nostalgia films as of late.

It’s a question what the film’s best quality is. Whether it’s the story line or setting of the environment. However I think the best quality of the film has to be a very relatable story. Sure, we’ve seen many Ellis Island or ‘Coming To America’ stories before. What I feel is the movie’s best quality is a common story that’s relatable time over time. In fact just last week, a person I know who came here from Ireland years ago and just received her permanent residency just this month said she saw the film and it reminded her of her own homesickness and even her own frustrations of not knowing what will happen next or whether things will work out for the better. Reminiscing over the film, I think that’s it. I believe its magic is this is a common story that any Irish immigrant to the United States, whether they came early in the 20th century or in the 50’s like Eilis or even just recently, can relate to and even see themselves and their own stories in that film.

Saoirse Ronan is the perfect pick for Eilis Lacey. She has the grace and the youthfulness to play her well. She also does a very good job of playing a young woman from back in the 1950’s with the elegance and innocence coming with it. Overall, Ronan’s role of Eilis is the centerpiece of the film. Nevertheless there are good performances from the other actors despite not having as complex of roles. There’s Julie Walters who did a good job as Madge Kehoe as well as Jim Broadbent as Fr. Flood. There are even those that give comic relief like Emily Rickards and Eileen O’Higgins as Patty and Nancy, Eilis’ two laughing girl friends in Brooklyn, and James DiGiacomo as Tony’s littlest brother Frankie who knows how to steal the show. There were however roles that could have been more. Firstly, Emory Cohen was also good as Tony Fiorello and had the right charm to play him but the role lacked complexity. Also there were times I feel Jane Brennan’s role as Mrs. Lacey and Domhnall Gleeson’s role as Jim Farrell could have been more.

Nick Hornby wrote a very good adaptation for the screen despite having some underdeveloped roles. John Crowley also did a good job in direction. This film should be considered the Irish director’s North American breakthrough. The technical aspects of the film like the sets, the costuming, the hair and the make-up worked perfectly for the film as it fit the times and the cities perfectly. Michael Brook also gave a fitting score to the film.

Brooklyn may look like your common Ellis Island story but it’s a film that does all the right moves and captures the right feel that makes this film great.