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.
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.
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.
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.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that has got a lot of people talking since its release. Talk is of its unique story line, but also of its themes.
The film begins seven months after a teenager from Ebbing, Missouri named Angela Hayes was brutally raped and murdered. The case remains unsolved. Mother Mildred Hayes goes to the office of businessman Red Welby to rent three billboards outside her home and unused for 30 years to post a message directed to the police of Ebbing, especially officer Willoughby, advertising what she sees of a lack of action. She isn’t even afraid to be interviewed by the media where she doesn’t hesitate to mention the negative treatment of African Americans by the police.
This hits the police hard. Chief Willoughby is angry about this, but sympathetic to her situation as DNA tests failed to result in a lead. Officer Jason Dixon is a lot more hostile as he goes about angrily arguing with Mildred, threatening Red, and even arresting Mildred’s African American co-worker from her shop on suspicious marijuana charges. Dixon is the cop in ebbing who has been acting the most hostile to African Americans.
Outside the police, the hype surrounding the billboards creates a lot of heated discussion throughout the town. Many throughout the town find it insensitive as Willoughby is battling terminal pancreas cancer. Robbie is upset about it, especially since it made him a victim of harassment at school. Her ex-husband Charlie, who’s currently dating a 19 year-old named Penelope, even visits and violently blames her for Angela’s death.
Nevertheless Mildred stays firm, even despite knowing she can expect violence any minute. Mildred even receives a surprise when she learned an anonymous person gave her money to keep the signs active for another month. Her dentist makes mention that he heard the story, but she impulsively reacts by using his dental drill on his fingernail. Chief Willoughby brings her into questioning after the incident, but accidentally coughs up blood on her. It’s obvious his cancer is getting worse and he will die very soon. Willoughby is to be in the hospital for a set period of time, but leaves early despite doctor’s demands. Willoughby sets out to the lake to have an idyllic day with his wife Anne and two daughters. The next day, he commits suicide, leaving behind suicide notes for Anne, Mildred and Jason.
The police react with hurt over Willoughby’s death. A male customer in Mildred’s store reacts angrily over his death and even threatens her. Jason reacts to his death by assaulting Red in his office and even throwing him out of the window. This is all witnessed by Ebbing’s new chief of police, who happens to be black. On his first day, the new Chief fires Dixon. Dixon however does not return his badge, claiming it’s missing. Right after Anne reads her suicide note, she angrily hands Mildred her note. Willoughby tells her she’s not responsible for his death and he’s the one who paid for the extra month, admiring her stunt and wishing her justice in the future. Shortly after, the billboards are set ablaze.
Jason learns he has a note from Willoughby waiting at the police office. He goes during a night during the closed hours. Willoughby writes he thinks Dixon would make a great detective as long as he learns to slow down, think and not react so hostile. Mildred reacts to the sign burning by burning the police office, believing it to be closed and no one there. Right in the blaze, Dixon comes falling out of the building in from of Mildred with the suicide note and the Angela Hayes case in his hands. Dixon is hospitalized for his burns in the same room as Red, recovering from Dixon’s assault. Dixon apologizes.
After Dixon is released, he goes into a bar. He comes across the male customer who threatened Mildred. What catches his ear is that he brags about an incident similar to the Angela Hayes murder. Dixon gets into a brawl with him, but only to use the brawl as opportunity to gather DNA evidence for the Angela Hayes case, as well as his Idaho license place number. He even phones Mildred to inform her. However the DNA results prove unsuccessful and that the man was an armed forces officer overseas at the time. To which, Dixon returns his badge.
After an unsuccessful date with James, who witnessed Mildred torch the police officer and cover her up, Mildred sees Charlie on a date with Penelope and even learned he was the one who burned the signs. Mildred gives him a bottle of champagne and tells him to treat her well. The film ends in a way one doesn’t expect and even leaves one questioning.
The thing about this film is that the audience will expect the film to be about something and for it to end in a certain way, but it doesn’t. Most of you probably expect this film to be like a crime story where those billboards succeed in bringing Angela Hayes’ killer to justice, but it ends in a completely different way. The film may be about the themes you think it’s about, but its main theme appears to be something else. Yes, there’s the theme of racism in there. We see that even in the name of racist officer Jason Dixon; possibly a reference to the Mason/Dixon line under which Missouri was a ‘slave state.’ Sure, there’s the theme of police brutality and how they sometimes act before they think, especially in Ebbing as we witness. However the film is a lot more. The film has themes about stories and truths. There are the stories we hear, the ‘truths’ we assume, and what is the real story. We see that in the town of Ebbing, Missouri, we see it in the individual residents, we see it in people’s family members, we see it in their police force, and we see that in the media team filming story after story.
I feel the biggest theme of the film had to be about two people who were polar opposites that somehow found themselves coming together at the end as they’re both fighting their personal demons: demons they both had in common and their own personal demons.
The first demon is their impulsiveness. Mildred Hayes is a mother angry because of what she sees as justice denied. She wants her daughter’s murder solved and hopes those three billboards will be the trick to do it. She appears ignorant towards how her son Robbie feels about the issue and is ignorant over his hurt and depression. Mildred is a woman fast on the draw with what she says and fast on the draw for the way she reacts. We learn how impulsive a person she is when she impulsively attacks her dentist just by simply mentioning he learned of the story. He didn’t voice support for it or show anger for it. He just mentioned it and that’s all it took for her to drill that hole in his fingernail. We also see her impulsiveness as the billboards are set ablaze right after Chief Willoughby’s death and she rushes out to put out the flames. The sign company would later fix the signs as it was part of her policy. Jason Dixon’s impulsiveness and acting before he thinks is also a problem. He feels that using brute force or use arrests to look menacing would get justice done. His violence even becomes a case of revenge on Red Welby. He doesn’t hesitate to use his racism when carrying out his police ‘efforts.’ This all makes the police unit of Ebbing look bad.
Both also had their own separate demons. Jason had his racism problem. It’s evident as he lives with his mother who also has a racist attitude. It’s obvious where he learned to be bigoted. Mildred also had her problem with her family life. She had just gone through a divorce with her abusive husband and is trying to live life again despite everything. Her ex-husband has not lost his abusive ways despite the divorce and even while he’s dating a woman half his age. There’s even the memory of the last words she said to her daughter. Words of anger: “I hope you get raped!” And it happened as she was murdered. Maybe it’s her own personal blame.
The most bizarre thing is that Chief Willoughby eventually ends up being the mediator between the two and hit was his suicide that would lead the two onto their meeting and their eventual road to healing. However it was not without its friction immediately after. First came the hate from the male customer to Mildred , then Jason assaulting Red Welby witnessed by the new Chief of Police, then Jason’s firing and finally the billboards being torched. It was through the suicide notes to Mildred and Jason that we all learn what really happened despite what everyone else thought. It’s that scene when Jason comes out of the burning police building in from of Mildred holding the Angela Hayes file for protection that it was a turning point for the behavior of both. The film does a very good job of placement of both the main characters and the events. That scene where Jason is in the hospital recovering from his burns in the same room as Red especially serves as a scene of the main characters knowing they need to change.
One of the top qualities of a film is delivering an ending of a film that the audience doesn’t expect or anticipate, but turns out to be right. We all thought that Mildred’s hopeless date with James would end up in a brawl with Charlie just after Mildred buys the bottle of champagne. Admit it! We all thought she’d smash it across his head! Instead she gives it to him and tells him to treat Penelope well. A sign of her personal changes. Most of us all thought that Jason’s evidence he collected from the brawl with that customer would lead to Angela Hayes’ killer being identified, but it doesn’t. It shows how Jason has become a person who now thinks before he acts, but not the result we hoped for. Even that common plotline in police movies where a cop saves the day after losing his job gets defeated there too.
SPOILER ALERT – Do Not Read This Paragraph If You Don’t Want To Know The Ending: That end-scene where we see Mildred and Jason in the same car on their vigilante mission against that man will surprise a lot of people and even ask “That’s it?” I even thought that too. However it does seem appropriate as it’s a case of two impulsive people who were two polar opposites and even at each other’s throats find themselves together as allies. It even makes one wonder if the ‘abrupt’ ending was the right decision. However I constantly remind myself of what Sean Penn said many years ago: “Movies should leave people asking questions rather than give the answers.” Maybe that’s the quality of the ending; get the audience to decide for themselves what happens next.
This film is the best work of writer/director Martin McDonagh. Dark comedies appear to be McDonagh’s expertise as he has delivered before with In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Here, McDonagh delivers something I thought would be impossible. I was surprised to learn this is a drama-comedy of a mother trying to get justice for the rape-murder of her daughter. I find nothing funny at all about rape and murder, or even the hurt family members go through. However McDonagh achieved it through clever plotting of the story and the events as well as placing of the humorous dialogue without compromising the drama behind it. He delivers a story that’s very thematic and gets people thinking.
The acting performances definitely boosted the film’s excellence. Frances McDormand’s performance as the protagonist was an excellent mix of both drama and humor. For those who saw her in Fargo, you’ll know she knows how to make that work. That’s where she won her Best Actress Oscar. Her ability in handling a character that’s both dramatic and humorous again shines here and could win her another Oscar. Also Oscar-worthy is Sam Rockwell who plays what first appears to be a stock character of a redneck cop, but later shows his dimension after the later chain of events. Also a standout is Woody Harrelson. He delivers an excellent performance as the cop under fire who handles the billboard situation cooler than Dixon and even uses his suicide as the event to start the resolve. His character even makes the words in his suicide notes sound like poetry. There were also minor supporting performances that stood out and owned the film like Lucas Hedges as the son hurting inside, Caleb Landry Jones as the well-meaning businessman, Peter Dinklage as the man trying to win Mildred despite his hopeless chances, Abbie Cornish as the wife of the chief, and John Hawkes as the abusive ex-husband trying to change.
The film also features a lot of standout technical aspects too. There’s the cinematography from Ben Davis that add to the power of the story. There’s the editing from Jon Gregory that places the chain of events and plotlines together in a creative way. There’s also the addition of music from the mix of classic songs from the 60’s and 70’s to the blending of Carter Burwell’s score in between scenes
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film whose best qualities are delivering a story different from what you thought it would end up being. You will appreciate it for being just that.
Two days ago, I did a blog focusing on the foreign athletes to watch for at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Now it’s time for me to focus on the Canadians to watch out for. We may not have the superteam we had back at the Vancouver 2010 Games, but we’re still a winter sports superpower and feature some top contenders throughout the sports. Sports Illustrated predicts Canadian athletes to win a total of 30 medals including nine gold. That’s third only to Norway and Germany. Without further ado, here are some Canadians to look out for:
Mark McMorris – Snowboarding: Now Saskatchewan doesn’t come to mind to most in terms of producing top-notch skiers. However the hills and mountains are high enough to breed some good snowboarders. Mark McMorris is one of the best ever. He already has 16 X-Games medals, including seven gold, won in both the Slopestyle and Big Air events. He’s also famous for being the first ever to perform a ‘cork 1440’ in slopestyle. His feats and charming personality have made him a huge celebrity for fans of snowboarding and extreme sports.
Major titles have eluded him in the past. His best result at a World Championships is a silver in 2013. As for the Sochi Olympics, McMorris had broken a rib two weeks before. His bronze in Slopestyle is actually seen by him as a miracle. Here in PyeongChang, he wants to win gold. He has two chances: in Big Air and Slopestyle. In both events, he will face rivalry from Norway’s Marcus Kleveland, who is the first ever to do a ‘cork 1800.’ In Slopestyle, he will be challenged most by the US’ Red Gerard and Japan’s Hiroaki Kunitake. In Big Air, he will face rivalry from American Chris Corning and his Canadian teammate Maxence Parrot. The hills in Korea will determine his fate.
Kaillie Humphries – Bobsledding: Women’s bobsledding has only been contested four times in the past, but Canadians Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse are already the only female double-gold medalists. However Kaillie appears poised to achieve a feat none of the male bobsledders have ever achieved: winning the same event three times.
It’s not to say it hasn’t been without its difficulties. After Sochi, she traded partners with Melissa Lothholz. She has won two World Championship silvers since. Here in PyeongChang, she will have former hurdler Phylicia George as her partner. As her former partners of Heather Moyse and Melissa Lothholz, they will both compete in PyeongChang with different drivers. Humphries’ attempt to return to the top will be challenged by the German sled driven by Stephanie Schneider and the American sled driven by Elana Meyers, which actually won at last year’s Worlds. PyeongChang could be the final chapter for Kaillie’s legacy in the sport.
Alex Harvey – Cross Country Skiing: Cross country skiing is in Alex Harvey’s blood. His father Pierre competed in cross country skiing in 1984 and 1988 and gave Canada its best ever results at the time, and they weren’t even Top 10 finishes! That just shows how much progress Canadians have made in nordic skiing. In fact Alex himself delivered two Top 10 finishes at the Vancouver Games, including a fourth in the Sprint.
Harvey has won a medal at every World Nordic Championships ever since the Vancouver Olympics including two golds: the most recent being in the 50km last year. He’s hoping to win the Olympic medals that have eluded him throughout his career. However he has only made the podium in three World Cup events this season. His biggest challenges come from Switzerland’s Dario Cologna and two Norwegians: Martin Johnsrud Sundby and rising 21 year-old Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. PyeongChang could finally give him the break he’s always been pursuing.
Mikaël Kingsbury – Freestyle Skiing: Canada has won three of the seven golds in men’s moguls skiing. There’s Jean-Luc Brassard in 1994 and Alexandre Bilodeau in 2010 and 2014. Mikaël Kingsbury is seeing to make it four for eight. Kingsbury has developed a top reputation in the event. He first finished third in the 2010-2011 World Cup season but has come out on top every World Cup season since including this year.
Major events have been his weakness. He’s been on the podium for moguls at every World Championship since 2011 but has only won gold once: in 2013. Also it was in Sochi in which he, not Bilodeau, was the Canadian most expected to win gold, but won silver instead. He will be challenged here in PyeongChang by Japan’s Ikuma Horishima, who handed him is only World Cup defeat this year, and Kazakhstan’s Dmitriy Reikherd. This could be Kingsbury’s year.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir – Figure Skating: Ah yes. Figure skating. Ever since 1984, Canada has bagged at least one figure skating medal in every Olympic Games since. Many expect 2018 to be Canada’s strongest team ever. Leading the pack is star ice dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. The pair have been inseparable on the ice since 1997 when Tessa was eight and Scott was ten. Their skating magic has resulted in Olympic gold and silver as well as seven World Championship medals, including three gold.
After they won silver at the Sochi Games of 2014 behind their American training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White, it appeared they won everything they needed to and retired after Sochi. However they returned to amateur competition starting in 2016 and acquired former Canadian ice dance pair Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon as their coaches. The plan worked to success as they returned to the top of their sport. Of course they want to end their careers with a final gold medal, but they will face challenges from all three American pairs, most notably Maia and Alex Shibutani, and the French pair of Gabrielle Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron. This is their chance to end their Olympic careers as they started.
The Canadian Hockey Teams: The news broke months ago. The NHL won’t allow any of their players to play at the Olympics. This is not permanent for the Olympic Games, but it is a drag for many who enjoyed. Heck, opening the Olympics to NHL pros allowed Canada to win gold in three of the five occasions. It does not however mean Canada doesn’t have a chance for the gold. Canada’s men’s team consists of pros, but mostly from the American Hockey League, the predominantly Russian Kontinental Hockey League, the Swedish Hockey League and Switzerland’s National League. Canada’s team is predicted by Sports Illustrated to win bronze with Sweden to win and Russia to take silver. Chances are the Canadians could surprise.
As for the women, Team Canada has always made it to the gold-medal final of every Olympic tournament since women’s hockey made its Olympic debut back at the Nagano Games of 1998. The inaugural competition is their only loss of the gold. The team in PyeongChang is coached by Lauren Schuler from that team in Nagano consists of thirteen from Sochi 2014 and ten newcomers. All but one play for Canadian teams. However Team Canada has finished second to the US at ever Worlds since the Sochi Games and the Americans promise to be the Canadians’ toughest rival. They’re coached by Cammi Granato who was part of the US’ gold-medal winning team in 1998: the US’ only victory in women’s hockey. Can Team Canada make it five in a row? Only time will tell.
Canada’s Curling Teams: If hockey is our national past-time, curling would rank second. Many people wonder how? It’s a gift from Scottish immigrants to us. Canada has a habit of blending things from the ‘old country’ into our national fabric. Our love for curling has paid off on the Olympic level. Ever since curling was officially added to the Olympic program at the Nagano Games in 1998, all ten Canadian teams have won medals and have even won gold five of the ten times. Sochi was especially a treat as it was the first Olympics where both the men’s and women’s team won gold.
As for the lineup in PyeongChang, the men’s team is headed by Kevin Koe who headed the Canadian team that won at the 2016 Worlds and the women’s team is headed by Rachel Homan whose team won the World Championships last year. New for Pyeongchang is mixed doubles curling. Canada’s team is headed by Winnipeggers Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris. Both have gold medals from past teams: Kaitlyn in 2014 and John in 2010. However they’re not the favorites as Swiss pair of Jenny Perret and Martin Rios beat the Canadian pair 6-5 to win. As of yet, Canada has never won gold at the Mixed Doubles Worlds. Could this be their year to finally shine?
And there you have it. Seven Canadians to watch out for in PyeongChang. There’s many more to talk about but I’ll let the action at the Olympics do more telling. It all starts Friday the 9th at 3am PST. Can I wake up that early to see the opening ceremonies live? We’ll see.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.