Tag Archives: Lee

VIFF 2018 Review: Burning (버닝)

Burning

One of my goals at the VIFF is to see at least one film which is a nation’s entry into the Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The first of three I saw during the VIFF was Burning from South Korea.

The film begins with Lee Jong-su performing odd jobs in Paju. One day he runs into a former neighbor and classmate from his childhood. Her name is Shin Mae-hi.  Mae-hi confesses to Jong-su that she always liked him but he always ignored her. Could it be because he was a farmer’s son and she was more urban? At the date later on, Mae-hi tells Jong-su that she has pursued an acting career. She’s disappointed to see that Jong-su hasn’t pursued a career in writing as he wanted to do in college.

The romance sparks up so high, they have sex in her apartment. She lets Jong-su know she will have an acting gig in Nairobi very soon and she wants him to feed her cat. He agrees. Jong-su never sees the cat, but always sees the food gone and the litterbox used. Also when he’s at her place, he masturbates in her bedroom. Mae-hi returns, but three days later than expected because of a terror warning. Mae-hi also returns with a Korean man named Ben: a man she bonded with during the crisis. The three have dinner together. Mae-hi recalls a sunset she saw during the trip. She cries, confessing she wanted to disappear. Ben doesn’t understand why people cry and admits he never cried himself.

Jong-su has things to take care of back home. He has to look after the family house and farm as his father is awaiting trial. Jong-su often watches the relationship with Mae-hi and Ben from afar with envy. However he’s suspicious of Ben. Ben is confident, but doesn’t mention what he does for a living. Jong-su pays a visit to Ben’s place and notices an area where there is a lot of women’s jewelry and decorations in the bathroom. Jong-su later joins the couple in a restaurant. There Mae-hi shows them the dance she learned in Nairobi. Jong-su likes what he sees, but he notices Ben is unamused.

The trio then go to Jong-su’s farm where they find themselves getting high and Hae-mi dancing topless. Hae-mi recalls a memory where Jong-su rescues her from a well. After Hae-mi falls asleep on a sofa, Ben makes a confession to Jong-su that he like to burn an abandoned greenhouse every two months. He notes his area is full of greenhouses. Ben claims the next burning will be close to Jong-su’s house. Ben also tells Jong-su that Hae-mi considers him her best friend. But as she awakens from her drunkenness, Jong-su calls her a whore as they leave.

Jong-su takes this to heart as he is careful over the neighborhood to spot out of any gas houses are burned down. None are, but he receives something even more disturbing. He received a phone call from Hae-mi one night that cut out after that cut off after a few seconds of ambiguous noises. The concern grows as Jong-su makes call after call to Hae-mi with no response. He goes to her apartment which is surprisingly clean and shows no sign of the cat. Jong-su contact’s Hae-mi’s family, but they say they haven’t heard from her in some time and she owes them a lot of money. Even Ben makes claim of Hae-mi not returning calls as Jong-su approaches him.

Suspicious of it all, Jong-su starts stalking Ben. Ben is unaware that Jong-su is stalking him, but treats Jong-su with friendliness. Ben even introduces Jung-su to his new girlfriend and even says they have a new cat. As Jong-su makes his way to the bathroom, he sees the watch he gave Hae-mi. Looks like the truth about Ben and what happened to Hae-mi came out. It’s just after Jong-su’s father has been sentenced that we get the final act of the drama.

The film is a quiet mystery. I call it quiet because there is little if any score. The film quietly lets the events unravel as they happen. It lets the facts quietly but surely become clearer over time. We learn more about what happened to Mae-hi. Mae-hi may be very free as is expected of an artistic person, but no sign of her for a long time does rise to suspicion. We soon learn more about Ben. He comes across cool and confident and the type of person who wouldn’t hurt anyone, but it’s Jong-su who sees Ben’s true colors. We also learn more about Jong-su. Jong-su comes off as an awkward son of a temperamental farmer undecided about his dreams. Jong-su comes as the type of person too awkward to do anything seriously violent, but as truths unfold, the monster inside him comes out. The story comes just as his father is sentenced for his violent actions, Jong-su becomes judge, jury, and executioner on Ben. Having all this happen in a film with no score or any other cinematic gimmicks works well for the film. I think something like a musical score may have hurt the drama.

In addition, the film answers more with what we don’t see than what we see. The value of the unseen is first given credit involving the scenes of tending to Hae-mi’s unseen cat. We never see the cat and neither does Jong-su, but the food is eaten and the litterbox is used. The unseen is key for resolving the mystery of Ben. The unseen is where Ben acquired all the female jewelry and decorations. He talks of his ‘hobby’ of burning gashouses down. However it becomes more obvious about what these burning are. And it took the piece of Hae-mi’s jewelry just after Hae-mi goes missing to get the sense that Ben is a killer, and the burnings is a secret word for murder. It’s at the end that the burnt gashouse ends up being Ben’s car with a fatally-wounded Ben inside.

Top credits go to Lee Chang-dong. Lee has had an impressive film making career in South Korea. However it was 2003’s Oasis where he won the Best Director award at the Venice Film festival that he first caught international notice as well as the Chief Dan George Humanitarian Award at VIFF 2003. Poetry took his career to a new height after he won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. This film in which he directs and co-wrote the script with Oh Jung-mi is an excellent work of its own. It won the FIPRESCI Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Fest. Awards aside, the film does keep one intrigued. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense at first, but the drama slowly builds over time. Yoo Ah-In does a very good job as Jong-su. He does a great job of playing a character who first seems harmless, but has a monster inside of him. Steven Yeun, a Korean émigré to the United States, does a good job as playing a character cool and calm, but has a dark secret. Jeon Jong-seo is also very good as the free-spirited Hae-mi.

Burning is a suspense that starts quiet but slowly builds over time. Its quiet drama is its best asset and adds to the film.

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VIFF 2018 Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can Ever Forgive

Melissa McCarthy plays author-turned-forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Most of the time I like going to the VIFF to check out the out-of-the-ordinary cinema. However when a film with a lot of Oscar buzz hits the VIFF, I admit I’m tempted to see that. I was lucky to have my chance with Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The story begins in 1991 with 51 year-old Lee Israel at her customer services job. She obviously hates her job because she has a bad attitude and gets a lot of ‘old’ comments from the younger workers. She shows up at work with a glass of scotch in her hand, curses at her co-workers and then curses at her boss. That’s it. She’s fired. After being fired, she just simply downs the rest of her scotch.

The thing is Lee Israel was born to write. She wrote for Esquire magazine for many years and published biographies of Talullah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estee Lauder. However her status as a successful writer ended years earlier after her biography of Lauder flopped. On top of that, she’s trying to publish a biography of Fanny Brice, but her agent says it’s not going to be a hit. Her lack of commercial success in writing couldn’t come at a worse time. She has expenses up to her eyeballs with a cat who’s sick and needs new medicine, outstanding veterinary bills form past visits, overdue rent from a landlord, and an old typewriter that keeps breaking down. Whatever money she can get, it comes from typed original letters of famous authors. She doesn’t get much money from the bookstore; one where the young author isn’t afraid to run into Lee what a has-been author she is.

One day she goes for her usual drink of scotch at her local bar. Also getting a drink is a washed-up stage actor named Jack Hock. Hock himself had a downfall after irreverent behavior at a party while drunk: peeing in a closet! This is a chance to rekindle a past friendship. They have a lot of catching up to do. This comes around the same time Lee is continuing research for her book about Fanny Brice. One day at a library while doing research on Brice, she comes across an original typewritten letter written by her. She takes it home and notices the font on the letter matches the font on Lee’s own typewriter. That gives Lee an idea to add in a juicy P.S. sentence about Fanny’s ‘love’ for a woman. She takes it to a bookstore that buys original letters from authors and they buy it for good money. However she’s told that letters with juicier detail get bigger money.

That gives Lee an new idea for success: making fake letters of renowned deceased authors. Her next subject is Noel Coward. Here she tries to get information on the type of letterhead Coward typed his letters on, the typewriter used and the subjects Coward normally talked about. Her letters are of Coward talking about his homosexuality. Israel also gets practice of forging signatures. She goes to a bookstore that buys letters for bigger money and it works! Lee can afford to pay off the vet, buy medicine for her ailing cat, pay off her landlord and even go out on a first-class night with Jack Hock to a drag cabaret performance. Soon she goes to a memorabilia show with Jack and learns all about authenticators. That just makes her more determine to succeed. She picks more deceased authors like Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Louise Brooks and Ernest Hemingway,  buys the right typewriters, bakes the letters and envelopes to make the right aging, does the right forgery on the signatures. The work pays off. The authenticators fall for it and Lee gets paid good money! Lee’s also good at making phone calls disguising herself as director Nora Ephron. Lee also makes friends with a bookshop owner named Anna.

However reality does catch up. Lee is told by one of the bookowners that he senses a forgery as a friend of his who knew Noel Coward wouldn’t be so public about his homosexuality. Within time, all bookstore owners are given a fax from the FBI alerting them of Lee and her alleged fraud. Even an unscrupulous bookdealer threatens to report her to the FBI unless she pays him $5000. Does that stop her? No, as long as she has Jack. Jack is the one making the sales with the bookstore owners on the juicy forged letters. She even goes to libraries with access to archives and steals letters to cash in on. Jack brings her the money, but starts getting suspicious of whether he’s trying to steal from her. FBI agents threaten her with interrogation, but she garbages all her typewriters to avoid being caught.

One time she goes away for a three-day trip of ‘consulting’ archives and leaves Jack to take care of her cat, which includes giving him medicine. Lee steals more letters, and even meets up with her ex-girlfriend. The ex tells her of how distant she became after the flop of her Estee Lauder book. Meanwhile Jack gives the cat the wrong medicine and even gets his new boyfriend to stay overnight at her place. It’s when she returns that it all falls apart. She finds Jack making love to a man in her place, she finds her cat dead, and she soon finds herself arrested for her forgery. After much talking from her lawyer, she’s told she will most likely be found guilty and her persona and alcoholism could works against her for her sentence. She confesses her wrongdoings in court despite having no regrets. Her sentence is six months house arrest, to repay the booksellers she ripped off and to attend AA meetings.

The story ends on a positive note. She rekindles her friendship with Jack, who’s dying of AIDS. She buys a new cat and does her writing from a computer. One day, she even passes a bookseller who has the ‘Can you ever forgive me’ letter where Lee forged Dorothy Parker’s likeness. Lee sends an appropriate response. It’s up for you to see what the response was. And the response from the store owner.

When one does a story about a person in the past doing all these actions, it’s always a question on whether the film is relevant for the present. Would a film about a washed-up author forging letters about deceased celebrities and authors most of today’s generation don’t have a clue about be relevant? I can see relevance in it as it is a reflection of our present. Firstly we live in a time of celebrity worship as lots of people go to Instagram or Twitter to check out the latest dirt from their celebrity. Gossip pages get huge hits because people love shoving their nose in others’ dirty laundry. It’s easy to see why these fake letters about these celebrities’ personal lives would spark a lot of interest and make Lee Israel rich.

The interesting thing is that it sheds a light on the literary industry as well. I know we live in a culture where we’re encouraged to appreciate authors for their literary efforts, but all too often we forget that authors are subject to the same cruel industry that musicians face in the movie industry and actors face in businesses like Hollywood. The New York Times Bestseller list is the Bestseller list to end all Bestseller lists that decides the happening writers and the wash-ups. It’s no wonder Lee felt the frustration of this. You could understand why despite Lee’s success in forgery, she still wanted to be known as an author.

The film is not just about the act of crime and the difficulties of being an author. It’s also about Lee herself. Basically overall it showcased her biggest weakness: her attitude. She blamed her loss of her customer service job on ageism, but she swore at her bosses and drank gin on her last day. Her attitude cost her relationship with her ex-girlfriend. It also almost cost her friendship with Jack. It may even had to do with why she wasn’t getting writing jobs. A bad attitude can be costly. Lee would have to face the music of her wrongdoing. The biggest statement was when Lee was too afraid to face Anne in the store just as she was about to get sentenced.

Marielle Heller directs a very clever comedy about a writer starving for success, even if it’s illicit. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty took on Lee’s memoirs and deliver a script that tells the story and more. Nicole provided the edge of a 50-something woman just trying to make something of herself. Whitty provided the backdrop of the difficulties of Lee and jack being LGBT in New York in 1991. The script not only tells the story but tells a lot more too.

Also what adds to the film is Melissa McCarthy playing Lee Israel. Hard to believe the first pick for the role was Julianne Moore. Melissa caught moviegoers’ attention when she played the feisty Megan Price in Bridesmaids. It’s been success ever since and she’s one of the most happening things in big-screen comedies right now. However most of her comedy roles in popcorn comedies have been over-the-top performances. Here, McCarthy takes on a role of a literary figure with humor and makes it three-dimensional. Possibly her best performance since Bridesmaids. Stealing the show from Melissa is Richard E. Grant. He makes the film as much Jack’s as it is Lee’s. He played Lee’s partner in crime well and the two had good chemistry. Jane Curtin was also good, and unnoticeable, as the literary agent. Dolly Wells was also good as Anne: the lonely shop keeper.

Can You ever Forgive Me? makes for a smart and entertaining comedy. So entertaining, you just might want to buy one of Lee Israel’s forged Dorothy Parker letters soon after.

Animated Movies Review

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

Ferdinand

Ferdinand

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

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

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

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

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

coco

Coco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kinopoisk.ru

Loving Vincent

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

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

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

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

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

PyeongChang 2018: Ten To Watch

Olympic Flame

After thirty years, the Olympics are returning to South Korea. After 20 years, the Winter Olympics return to an Asian country. The region of PyeongChang will be ready to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. There are expected to be over 2000 athletes from 92 nations competing. From February 9th to the 25th, medals are to be awarded in 102 events in 15 sports. Here are ten athletes and teams expected to catch your eye during the Games.

Marcel Hirscher/Austria – Alpine Skiing: Much the same way the Dutch always shell out new greats in speed skating, Austria always seems to create a new great in alpine skiing. Seeking to be the next Austrian great is Marcel Hirscher. Hirscher has been the Overall World Cup winner for the past six years and has won gold at the world Championships six times. The one title that eludes him is an Olympic gold. His one and only Olympic medal is a slalom silver at the Sochi Games of 2014.

He currently leads the World Cup standings in slalom, giant slalom and overall. He’s expected to win slalom, giant slalom and combined here in PyeongChang. He will face rivalry from Norway’s Kjetil Jansrut and France’s Alexis Pinturault. PyeongChang will be the scene where he could become a ‘best ever’ or a ‘best never.’

Mikaela Shiffrin/United States – Alpine Skiing: Back at the Sochi Olympics when Shiffrin was 18, people were already anticipating her to be the next great. She was already world Cup slalom winner and World Champion in the slalom the year before. Her gold medal in the slalom in Sochi would set in stone that she was one to watch.

Since Sochi, Shiffrin has won the World Cup in slalom every year except 2016 and finally won the World Cup overall title last year. She is expected to win slalom, giant slalom and the combined here in PyeongChang, but she will face challenges from France’s Tessa Worley, Italy’s Sofia Goggia and Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather. PyeongChang is her chance to crown herself a great.

Martina Sablikova/Czech Republic – Long-Track Speed Skating: There have only been two long-track speed skaters that have won the same event twice: American Bonnie Blair in the 500m from 1988 to 1994, and German Claudia Pechstein in the 5000m from 1994 to 2002. One of two seeking to be the third is Czech Martina Sablikova in the 5000m.

Sablikova has won three of the Czech Republic’s seven gold medals at the Winter Olympics. Before Sablikova, no Czech speed skater has won a medal. At the Turin Games of 2006, an 18 year-old Sablikova missed a medal in the 5000m by a second. The following year, Sablikova set the first of her world records in the 5000m. Her Olympic coming-of-age came in Vancovuer 2010 as she won two gold and a bronze. Success continued for her in Sochi as she repeat at 5000m champ and won silver in the 3000m. She serves message she’s prepared to threepeat in the 5000m and return to gold in the 3000m, but she faces rivalry from Canadian Ivanie Blondin and two Dutch skaters: veteran Ireen Wust and newcomer Antoinette de Jong. Whatever happens, Sablikova has already solidified her greatness in the sport.

Johannes Thingnes Bø/Norway – Biathlon: Norway has always fielded greats in the Nordic skiing events. The sport of biathlon is no exception with greats like Magnar Solberg and Ole Einar Bjorndalen. This year with Bjorndalen failing to make the Olympic team, Norway’s future rest with their latest protege Johannes Thingnes Bø.

Bø is actually the youngest brother of Tarjei Bø who won Olympic gold in the biathlon relay in 2010. Johannes Bø first competed at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 at the age of 20, but did not win a medal. However talent was yet to come as he finished third in the overall category in that year’s World Cup. He first burst onto the scene at the world Championship the following year when he won gold in the Sprint and two additional relay medals. The following year, he won the Mass Start event and a relay gold. At last year’s worlds, he won silver in Sprint, Pursuit and Mass Start. He hasn’t won a World Cup title yet, but he has eight World Cup victories this season. Sports Illustrated predicts him to win three gold medals, but he will face rivalry from his own brother Tarjei, Slovenian Jakov Fak and Frenchman Martin Fourcade, who leads Bø in the World Cup overall this season. PyeongChang should make for an exciting showdown.

Martins Dukurs/Latvia – Skeleton: Latvia has never won a winter Olympic gold medal. In the past 15 years, Latvia has sent top contenders in the sledding sports. Latvian lugers, bobsledders and skeleton sledders have won a total of seven medals in the sledding sports since the Turin Games of 2006. Poised to win Latvia’s first ever winter Olympic gold is skeleton sledder Martins Dukurs. Martins and his brother Tomass have become two of the top skeleton sledders in recent years. Both are tndrained by their father Dainis who was a former bobsledder.

Dukurs has had the Olympic misfortune of being the silver medalist to sledders from the host nations: Canada’s Jon Montgomery in 2010 and Russia’s Aleksandr Tretyakov in 2014. The last one is biting because Tretyakov is one of many Russian athletes in which the IOC had on a lifetime ban for their part in their systematic doping for the Sochi Olympics, which I will talk about later. Their stripping of their Sochi medals, including Tretyakov’s gold, was overturned by the Court of Arbitration of Sports just on February 1st. It’s also biting for Tomass as he finished fourth in 2014 and would have been elevated to the bronze medalist.

Dukurs serves notice he is finally ready to claim the elusive gold medal. He has won every World and European skeleton title since Sochi. However he is ranked fourth in the World Cup standings this season with South Korea’s Yun Sung-bin leading, German Axel Jungk second and his brother Tomass third. PyeongChang could be his last chance to seize Olympic gold.

Marit Bjorgen/Norway – Nordic Skiing: Some of you may remember from my Sochi Olympic preview blog that I anticipated more greatness for Marit Bjorgen. I was right as she added three more gold to her legacy. She’s one of only three females with ten winter Olympic medals and one of three with six Winter Olympic golds. She continued her legacy at last year’s world Championships where she won three individual events and the relay.

Leading up to the Olympics this year, Bjorgen’s success has been lackluster, compared to previous seasons. This season she’s only had two World Cup victories and a second-place: her lowest ever. On top of that, young talent like Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, American Sadie Bjornsen and her own teammates Ingvild Østberg and Heidi Weng are seeking to overtake her supremacy. PyeongChang looks like to be her last Olympics. However even without a gold medal, she can still add to her legacy. She’s just needs to win a single medal of any color to become the first woman with eleven winter Olympic medals and even just one gold away from being the first woman with seven golds. Keep in mind the men’s records are eight for golds and thirteen for total medals. Both records are owned by Norwegians. These Olympics are the place for Bjorgen to send the message that she’s not done yet. There’s still more to win.

Felix Loch/Germany – Luge: The nation of Germany pretty much owns luge. German lugers have won 32 of the 44 Olympic gold medals awarded. Felix Loch ranks as one of their greats. When he won at the Vancouver Games of 2010 he became the youngest male winner ever at the age of twenty. He has won almost every World Championships he has been in since 2008, only finishing second in 2011 and 2015. He also won gold again in Sochi both in individual and as part of the inaugural mixed relay.

However he has had his difficulties. He was too injured to compete at last year’s world Championships. In addition, he finished second at this year’s European Championships held just last week. Semen Pavlichenko of Russia who won will be there to block Loch’s path to a third straight gold medal, as well as Austria’s Wolfgang Kindl who won the Worlds last year. 2018 should prove to be an interesting challenge for Loch, but he definitely intends to rise to the occasion in PyeongChang.

Team Of Olympic Athletes From Russia: It all started at the Sochi Olympics where Russian athletes won the most gold medals. Then the secrets were unraveled before the Rio Olympics of 2016 of systematic doping of Russian athletes. They were told to accept the doping or be dropped from the team; reminiscent of the East German Olympic teams of the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was the IAAF, the governing body of Athletics, that was the first whistleblower. The International Olympic Committee responded by banning all Russian athletes from the athletics events and allowing Russian athletes to compete in the other sports, as long as the sports’ governing bodies can prove then clean through consistent testing results.

The doping even extended as far back as the Sochi Olympics. The IOC made the move to have athletes on the list face lifetime suspensions and even be stripped of their gold medals. This involved 28 athletes who had won ten medals including three gold in Sochi. However the moves to have the athletes banned and their medals stripped were overturned by the Court of Arbitration of Sport on February 1st because of lack of evidence. Not only are their bans overturned, including those banned for life, but they are allowed to keep their medals from Sochi.

Now PyeongChang. The IOC faced pressure to ban Russian athletes because of past controversies and also because there’s no evidence to suggest the doping system has ceased since Rio. In December, the IOC rules that athletes under the Russian Olympic Committee were banned from the Olympics in all sports. The IOC also ruled that like Rio, Russian athletes who have passed all doping tests and have been cleared by their respective sports federation and even the IOC’s own accreditation commission would be allowed to compete in PyeongChang. However they will compete under the label ‘Olympic Athletes From Russia.’ They will complete under the Olympic flag and if any of them win a gold medal, the Olympic hymn will be played.

As for the team, the team currently stands at 168 athletes across all fifteen sports. There have been restrictions as Russia originally qualified eleven biathletes, but only four are allowed to compete. Luge has also seen their entries reduced from 10 qualifications to eight invited and skeleton go from five qualified to two competing. Only one athlete in Nordic Combined is invited. The level of competition has gone down–Sports Illustrated predicts Russian athletes to take 11 medals including two gold– however some events will remain unscathed. Russian figure skaters are ones who are still expected to contend well and the men’s hockey team is still expected to win a medal. Russian athletes’ results should prove to be interesting and get one thinking about their future if they want to compete any further.

AND FROM THE HOST COUNTRY:

Lee Sang-hwa – Long-Track Speed Skating: Martina Sablikova isn’t the only long-track speed skater seeking a threepeat. South Korea’s Lee Sang-hwa is seeking to do that in the 500m. She first competed at the Turin Games of 2006 at the age of 16 and finished fifth in the 500. She would grow in world supremacy over the years as she would win the event in Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 as well as win the event at the World Championships three times.

She is anticipated by the home country to win again, but she will face challenges from China’s Yu Jing, who finished third at last years’ Worlds, and two Japanese skaters: newcomer Arisa Go and 2017 World Champion Nao Kodaira. Whatever the situation, she will celebrate her 29th birthday on the day of the closing ceremonies!

Choi Min-jeong – Short Track Speed Skating: If there’s one Winter Olympic sport South Korea dominates, it’s short-track speed skating. Ever since short-track speed skating became an official Olympic event in 1992, South Korea has won 21 of the 48 golds warded in the sport. All but five of South Korea’s Winter Olympic golds and all but eleven of South Korea’s total Winter Olympic medals have been won in short track.

Their latest great is expected to be Choi Min-Jeong. She was too young to compete at Sochi in 2014, but she has come a long way since. She first burst onto the scene at the 2015 World Championships when she took home three gold and a bronze at the tender age of 16 including winning the Overall title. She would repeat her success the following year by repeating as Overall champ and winning two more gold and a silver. However 2017 was a bad year as she left those Worlds empty-handed. She has served notice that she will be on fire in PyeongChang, but she will face rivalry from last years’ Overall World Champion Elisa Christie of Great Britain, last year’s Overall runner-up Marianne St. Gelais of Canada, and even her own teammates Shim Suk-hee and Kim Ji-yoo. Her chance to prove herself a national hero on home-turf awaits.

One More From The Host Country (Added After Publishing):

Yun Sung-bin – Skeleton: Here’s a bit of trivia. All of South Korea’s 53 Winter Olympic medals, including 26 golds, have been won on skates. Short-track speed skaters account for 42 medals including 21 gold. Long-track speed skaters won a total of nine medals including four gold. The remaining gold and silver were won by figure skater Kim Yu-na. That could all change thanks to 23 year-old skeleton sledder Yun Sung-bin. Back at the Sochi Games in 2014, the 19 year-old Yun didn’t seem like muck of a future threat as he came in 16th. A lot can change in four years. Since then, he won this year’s World Cup season and finished second in the previous two. He even won a silver at the 2016 World Championships. In fact many anticipate he’s the one person most likely to block Martins Dukurs from winning the elusive gold medal. We’ll wait and see.

And those are ten athletes to watch for in PyeongChang. My blog of Canadians to look for in PyeongChang was published Thursday.

VIFF 2016 Review: Yourself And Yours (당신 자신과 당신의 것)

yourself-yours

Kim Ju-Hyuck (left) and You-Young Lee play a couple who were meant to be but they don’t know it in Yourself And Yours.

Yourself And Yours isn’t just simply a Korean film that’s a love story. It’s a story about a couple and will leave you wondering whether the two are right as a couple.

The story begins with a young woman named Minjung flirting with men at a nearby soju bar. Some time before Minjung left her boyfriend Youngsoo. Youngsoo heard from someone Minjung was drinking with another man and the meeting ended in a fight. Minjung denies this but Youngsoo is still suspicious. Minjung decides that it’s best the two be apart for some time.

Minjung later meets with an older man. He’s a man Minjung met at a park one given day. Youngsoo hasn’t looked for another woman since Minjung left. Since the time, all Youngsoo can think about is Minjung. He knows he loves her and regrets the way he acted that night. He even goes to the house where he believes Minjung to be residing at with no luck.

Meanwhile Minjung eventually breaks up with the older man. Days later another older man thinks he recognizes Minjung. He believes he rank with her. Minjung denies it but does strike up a conversation with him. Then the older man who Minjung just broke up with returns but Minjung claims not to recognize him. The other man appears to start an argument with him only to later find out they were both classmates in high school many years ago. Both men strike up a friendly conversation completely forgetting about Minjung, who leaves in tears embarassed and heartbroken.

Coincidentally Youngsoo meets up with Minjung. Minjung doesn’t take to friendly towards him at first but she soon starts to warm up to him realizing how much he loves her. They then return back to Youngsoo’s house. Later Youngsoo wakes up without Minjung by his side. He wonders where she went. Then the film ends leaving you feeling this was meant to be.

The film is a bit of a play on both the couple and the two individuals. You see a single Minjung hitting on men and being this woman of mystery even denying past happenings. You see Youngsoo as a man who’s nothing without Minjung. He’s convinced of it. It’s in his heart. You see the moment that led to their split. You see them reconcile unexpectedly and you see the morning after. The film also allows the audient to have their own opinions of both Youngsoo and Minjung individually and as a couple. Youngsoo loves Minjung but should he love her? Especially since she’s the type to deny knowing past boyfriends or past incidents. You are even left wondering if that drunken incident that led to the split was true after all? Is Minjung too deceptive or manipulative of a woman for Youngsoo to love? No wonder the opening of the final scene of Youngsoo alone in bed will get one questioning what next.

The story itself is a good story with a lot of focus on the couple and the individuals. However the film also has many scenes that are too boring or too drawn out. There have been times in which I felt there were scenes that either appeared drawn out or lacked energy or even the proper opening. I think it could have been done better. I know the point of the film is to focus on the relations and present the scenarios but I believe it could have been done with more liveliness.

Writer/director Sang-soo Hong did a very good job with the film. It makes for a n interesting love story despite some scenes seeming to lack the energy. Lee Yoo Yeung was the standout as MinJung. She did a very convincing job of delivering a character of a young woman you could easily question. Kim Ju Hyeok was also good as Youngsoo but I feel his character could have been developed better.

Yourself And Yours is a love story that’s a unique look at love as well as a good focus on the two characters.

Oscars And Diversity: The Struggle Continues

Elba

Idris Elba in his supporting performance in Beasts Of No Nation had the best chances for a non-white actor to receive an acting nomination for this year’s Oscars. Despite being heavily favored, it didn’t happen.

Remember last year I talked about the issue of Oscars and race that took over headlines? Yes, it’s nice to see people pay attention to something about the Oscars besides who wears what? However it did focus on a problem in which many people including myself hoped would only exist last year. Unfortunately it was not the case.

THIS YEAR’S HOPE

Last year was a big focus of the lack of diversity. I even did a focus on it myself and even explained how things worked in all my 15 years of ‘OscarWatching.’ Many including myself were hoping that this year would not have the same mistake this year. And this year had a performance by a black actor eligible for a nomination: Idris Elba in the Supporting Actor category for Beasts Of No Nation. It had all the eligible clout: a Golden Globe nomination, a Screen Actors Guild nomination and a BAFTA nomination. Although nothing is guaranteed or earned in showbiz, it had the right amount of juice to clinch the nomination in that category. Many wanted to see the nomination happen. I also wanted to see it happen. I know that if it didn’t happen, there would be a whole whack of controversy and outrage. I even thought the Academy wouldn’t deny him the nomination, not after the #OscarsSoWhite embarrassment from last year.

The nominations were announced on January 14th. Elba was not among the nominees in that category. There were the nominations of Christian Bale and Mark Rylance which were also nominated for the same awards previously mentioned, the was Golden Globe winner Sylvester Stallone. However there was Mark Ruffalo who had earned a SAG nomination and Critics Choice nomination and Tom Hardy who had amassed only a Critics Choice nomination. All the acting nominees were white. All eight Best Picture nominees consisted of a predominantly white cast and predominantly white crew. As for directing and writing, the only non-white nominee was Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

The lack of diversity wasn’t just the black-and-white issue. Gay director Todd Haynes was heavily favored to be nominated for Best Director for Carol and even for Carol itself to be nominated for Best Picture but those didn’t happen either. If there’s one positive thing, there were four women who receive scriptwriting nominations: up from zero from last year.

THE BACKLASH

People were already speaking their outrage. A new Twitter hashtag– #OscarsStillSoWhite– came about. Civil Rights leader Al Sharpton, whom last year said he would set up a ‘diversity task force,’ was outspoken in his outrage and urged boycotts. Boycotts did happen from Spike Lee, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Some actors who did not intend to boycott like George Clooney, Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o spoke their criticism. Host Chris Rock was under pressure to boycott the Oscars. He declined but he will be focusing on it during his opening routine at this year’s ceremony. Even Barack Obama spoke out about the controversy: “I think that when everyone’s story is told then that makes for better art, it makes for better entertainment it makes everybody feel part of one American family, so I think as a whole the industry should do what every other industry should do which is to look for talent, provide opportunity to everybody. And I think the Oscar debate is really just an expression of this broader issue. Are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?”

racist-oscarsThe Academy especially came under fire as they were scrutinized and analyzed and it was revealed that over 90% of the Academy were white in comparison to 65% of the population of the United States being white. In addition three out of every four Academy members were male. Despite the criticism and outrage, there were defenders coming from the likes of actress Penelope Ann Miller:  “I voted for a number of black performers, and I was sorry they weren’t nominated. To imply that this is because all of us are racists is extremely offensive. I don’t want to be lumped into a category of being a racist because I’m certainly not and because I support and benefit from the talent of black people in this business. It was just an incredibly competitive year.” Even black actors like Ice Cube and Whoopi Goldberg  dismissed the labeling of the Academy as racist. Ice Cube described the labeling of racism as “crying about not having enough icing on your cake.” Whoopi whom herself has won an Oscar and even host the Oscar ceremonies for many years stated: “Even if you fill the Academy with black and Latino and Asian members, if there’s no one on the screen to vote for, you’re not going to get the outcome that you want. I won once, so it can’t be that racist. I’ve been black the whole time.”

THE AMPAS PRESIDENT

With all the criticism the Academy faced this year, the one person who had to do the responding was AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1949, Boone Isaacs grew up in a middle-class African-American family. She graduated from Springfield Central High School in 1967 and from Whittier College in 1971 with a degree in political science. Her studies in college included a program studying abroad in Denmark.

Her introduction to showbiz came at the age of 25 through her older brother Ashley Boone Jr. who worked as an executive in Hollywood. She started work in Hollywood as a publicist for Columbia Pictures. Her first job was being a publicist for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. She would work for various film companies as a publicist. Her publicity work on films would eventually lead to higher stature such as Vice President, Worldwide Advertising and Publicity of Melvin Simon Productions and Director of Advertising and Publicity for The Ladd Company. Under Paramount Pictures starting in 1984, she would start as Director, Publicity and Promotion, West Coast and then eventually become the Worldwide Publicity Director. Some of her marketing campaigns included successful Oscar campaigns for Best Picture winners Forrest Gump and Braveheart.

Success continued for Boone Isaacs as she would become President of Theatrical Marketing for New Line Cinema, the first black woman to hold such a position. She even has her own promotion company, CBI Enterprises, Inc., where she has worked on successful promotion of Best Picture winners: The King’s Speech and The Artist.

Boone Isaacs has been a member of the Academy since 1988. In 2013, she was promoted to the position of AMPAS president in 2013and became the first African-American president of the Academy as well as only the third woman, after only Bette Davis and Fay Kanin. Since her inception as president, he achievements have included lifting the cap or restriction on the number of Academy members. she also initiated a drive to invite over 400 new members coming from many ages and backgrounds.

THE PRESIDENT AND THE ISSUE OF DIVERSITY

“It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be the head of a studio.”

-Spike Lee

The issue of the Academy and diversity appeared to be making progress since the start of the new millennium. Actors of various races were earning nominations more than ever before as well as non-white directors. Even in the minor categories, minorities were getting an increasing number of nominations. However it’s almost always in the acting categories where the issue of the Academy and racial diversity gets the heaviest scrutiny. That was the case last year when the first hashtag #OscarsSoWhite came out.

Isaacs

AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs didn’t hesitate to make changes to the Academy in response to the backlack which included boycotts from Spike Lee and Will Smith.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American woman herself, knew this was an issue that needed looking into and she made her efforts. This was especially noteworthy at the AMPAS’s annual Governor Awards  on Saturday November 14th. One of those awarded was Spike Lee where he was given an honorary Oscar. Before Boone Isaacs announced her plans, Lee talked about the lack of diversity even commenting that when he goes through Hollywood offices, he only sees white faces and the only non-white is the person checking his name at the door.

At those Awards, Boone Isaacs announced her plan which she called A2020: an initiative to age, gender, race, national origin and point-of-view, in Hollywood over the next five years.  Her A2020 initiative is a five-year plan to study practices at the Academy with the aim of improving the diversity of its own staff and governance while also bringing new voices into the organization. Outside of the Academy, the plan is also intended to encourage and to push the industry to examine its hiring practices and to begin to make changes. Boone Isaacs stated: “When it comes to fair and equal representation in our industry, words are not enough. We also have a responsibility to take action and we have an unique opportunity to do so now.” At those ceremonies, Lee thanked her and said: “she’s trying to do something that needs to be done.”

THE PRESIDENT RESPONDS TO THE CONTROVERSY

“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.”

-Cheryl Boone Isaacs

If there’s one thing most people would feel upon learning of this year’s nominees, it’s that Cheryl’s A2020 plan isn’t happening fast enough. Even though the set of 51 new members of the Academy was more diverse especially with 17 of them being women, the end result on nomination day was one of disappointment. Boone Isaacs herself came under fire by some for not doing enough. Even civil rights leader Al Sharpton ridiculed her by referring to her as a pawn in a predominantly white members-only club.

No doubt Boone Isaacs felt the heat. It was only a matter of a mere eight days after the nominations were announced that Boone Isaacs announced the sweeping changes to the membership rules for Academy members. This was published on the AMPAS website under the title ‘Academy Takes Historic Action To Increase Diversity.’ For those interested in the plans, click here to the official document.

The day before, the Board Of Governors approved through a unanimous vote a set of sweeping changes coming to the Academy’s membership. Its intent was to make the Academy members more diverse and open the door to more women and visible minorities. However one of the things they most wanted to get tough on was the membership of their older members. Examples of the proposed changes starting this year are:

  • New members lasting 10 years and renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade.
  • Lifetime voting rights after three ten-year terms or if they’ve won or have been nominated for an Academy Award. Standards also applied retroactively to current members.
  • Current members that have not been active for 10 years can still qualify if they meet the other criteria.
  • Members not qualifying for active status will be moved to emeritus status and will be denied voting privileges.
  • An ambitious global campaign will be launched to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.
  • To increase diversity in its Board Of Governors, the Academy will establish three new governor seats that will be nominated by the president for three year terms and confirmed by the board.
  • New members who are not governors will be added to its executive and board committees where key decisions about membership and governance are made. This allows for new members to become more active in the Academy’s decision-making and help the Academy identify and nurture future leaders.

Most of the response has been good. Some of the biggest came from Selma director Ava DuVernay through Twitter: “One good step in a long, complicated journey for people of color + women artists. Shame is one helluva motivator.” Lee stood by his boycott but applauded Boone Isaacs and the Board of Governers for: “trying to do the right thing. It’s a start.” Steven Spielberg also reminded us: “I do think that what the Academy is doing, in a proactive way, to open up the membership to diversity, I think that’s very, very important. But it’s not just the Academy, and I think we have to stop pointing fingers and blaming the Academy. It’s people that hire, it’s people at the main gate of studios and independents. It’s the stories that are being told. It’s who’s writing diversity — it starts on the page. And we all have to be more proactive in getting out there and just seeking talent.”

I admire Cheryl Boone Isaacs for taking the initiative for making these needed changes. The Academy always was aboard with its own membership rules and needed reform back in the 1960’s because of its own issues then. Issues came again now and reform was needed. The changes proposed look great: less members for life.

However I do believe they are not a 100% guarantee of diversity happening on a consistent basis. No kidding diversity will be increasing at double the rate it’s been happening in past years. However it doesn’t mean that every year from next year onward will feature a diverse array of nominees. I’ve seen the various film seasons over the years and see how certain films excel more than others. I’ve seen years that have been very generous towards minority actor and have given them roles that can contend for glory at various awards shows including the Oscars. However I’ve also seen years which have been lackluster for them and they would lack parts that can propel them among the ‘elite of the year.’ I know it’s a start and there will be more to come but I’m still a bit cynical it’s a solve-all.

Also it also depends on the media too. I’ve seen them label some films long before the Oscars full of ‘Oscar buzz.’ And most of them are predominantly white. The media can’t just simply label a film ‘Oscar bait’ because it has characteristics that are common with what wins the Academy over. They should call it ‘Oscar bait’ because of top notch quality, and skin color should not matter.

Nevertheless next year is the first year when these changes are to come into effect. Hopefully over time we will see a more diverse Academy. And not just more blacks; more women, more Hispanics, more Asians, more of all minorities. As for 2016, potential is already showing as this year’s Sundance showed The Birth Of A Nation: a film with a predominantly African-American cast that had rave reviews and huge buzz. The release date to the box office has not been set but Fox Searchlight has bought the film’s rights at $17.5 million, the most ever for a Sundance film.

The outrage over the lack of diversity at this year’s Academy Award nominees was just the catalyst needed for the necessary changes to happen. The future will tell if these changes pay off or not. However the lack of diversity is still an ugly reminder of what happens when you turn art into a competition.

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: 88th Academy Awards. Wikipedia.com. 2016. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/88th_Academy_Awards>

WIKIPEDIA: Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Wikipedia.com. 2016. Wikimedia Foundation Inc.  <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheryl_Boone_Isaacs>

Kilday, Gregg. “Spike Lee: Getting a Black President Is Easier Than a Black Studio Head” The Hollywood reporter. 14 November 2015 <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/spike-lee-getting-a-black-840371>

Gray, Tim. “Governors Award Winner Spike Lee to Hollywood: ‘You Better Get Smart’” Variety. 15 November 2015 <http://variety.com/2015/film/news/governors-award-winner-spike-lee-to-hollywood-you-better-get-smart-1201640307/>

“ACADEMY TAKES HISTORIC ACTION TO INCREASE DIVERSITY” Oscars.org 22 January 2016 <http://www.oscars.org/news/academy-takes-historic-action-increase-diversity>

 

Movie Review: Frozen

Frozen

I’ll admit it’s rather late for me to be reviewing Frozen. I wasn’t interested in it at first. However its success at the box office coupled with its Oscar buzz helped me change my mind.

Normally I’d give a description of the film in my reviews but I won’t here since most of you have already seen Frozen by now. I’ll just go in to what I have to say. There are a lot of unique and great aspects of this movie. First is its unexpected twists. You’d first think it would be Kristoff that would save Elsa, Anna and the kingdom but it turns out to be Elsa. Already there are a lot of writers and bloggers comparing Elsa to Merida in Brave in terms of heroine status. I’ll bet you never thought Kristoff would be one of the bad guys. Second is its animation that truly mesmerizes. I was dazzled when I saw Elsa’s snow-spell and even the ‘ Castle Of Ice’ created on screen. Watching Frozen was like being taken to a world of ice at times.

Thirdly is the musical aspect of the movie. For many decades, even as close to about twenty years ago, animated movies were commonly musicals and excelled in telling the stories with catchy songs. From Someday My Prince Will Come in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Hakuna Matata in The Lion King, you could always rely on an animated feature to deliver charming music. When 3D became the staple of animated features, the features were predominantly non-musicals and the movies were more focused on the story and the animation. When was the last animated feature done as a musical that dazzled you? Yeah, that far back. Frozen is the first 3D animated musical that has won the movie-going public by storm. It’s refreshing to see the musical aspect come back in animated movies and even added to 3D animated movies successfully for the first time. I think the success of Frozen will churn out more musical-styled 3D animation features.

Frozen is a welcome relief in terms of animated movies for 2013. This year was a rather quiet year in terms of animated movies. Sure this summer featured the excitement of the comeback of the monsters of Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 took ‘minion mania’ to new heights but there was nothing new to create new buzz. Nor was there anything with writing that stood out. I’m sure that became apparent to a lot of my subscribers when I published my blog about Pixar appearing to have lost its spark. Frozen may have come late in 2013 but it sure came to the rescue. Its excellence is not just in having a thrilling story but also in having excellent animation.

Also Frozen has a bonus aspect: catchy songs. It’s not just something that’s been missing from animated movies but movies in general since the new century. You may remember before the 2000’s came there were many catchy songs that came from movies. Since 2000, the presence of a catchy song or even a hit song from a movie is something that has been very rare. I think the last hit song from a movie before Frozen was Slumdog Millionaire’s Jai Ho. I was especially surprised during 2006 when Dreamgirls was in theatres, none of the songs were released as singles despite Beyonce’s chart-topping prowess at the time. I know most of North America was in a hip-hop coma at the time but still… Frozen helped bring back the catchiness of movie music. Already two versions of Let It Go are on the charts right now: Idina Menzel’s version is currently #18 on the Hot 100 and Demi Lovato’s version is at #56 having peaked at 38. Recently Do You Want To Build A Snowman? started hitting the charts and is now at #57. I guess it’s no wonder that the movie has been re-released in a sing-along version.

It’s hard to pick who first to compliment. First off, I’ll say the animation was top notch. The Walt Disney Animation Studios did an excellent job in creating a charming trip to the past and a mesmerizing world of ice. Secondly, kudos should go to Christophe Beck and Kristin Anderson-Lopez for providing music that was not only entertaining but the catchiest movie music in years. Thirdly a great job in the acting and singling by both Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel. They’re already established actors and they’ve also had musical experience but this has to be the best combined singing/acting efforts from both of them. The supporting actors were also great in their roles too including Jonathan Groff and Santino Fontana. However it’s Josh Gad that steals the show as the goofy Olaf. Finally great acting/writing efforts from Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Shane Morris. It was something to take Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and turn it into an animated musical. They really delivered a winner. In fact you remember how Disney movies would give animated adaptations of children’s stories like Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio and The Lion King and turn them into beloved classics? I think Frozen is destined to go that same route over time.

Funny thing about Frozen is not just simply its current total success with its box office run but its lack of success when it first started. I’ve noticed on Box Office Mojo that it was only on one single theatre when it opened because it didn’t want to compete with the opening of the latest Hunger Games movie. It got better the following week when it was spread across North America and grossed $67.4 million that weekend but it was still in second to the Hunger Games by $7 million. The funny thing is while most movies came and went during the six weekends since, Frozen stuck around in the Top 3 and was even #1 on two different weekends. It was even #2 the weekend of January 31-February2nd: its eleventh weekend. Okay, the sing-along version release may have something to do with it but it just goes to show its lasting power. In fact it wasn’t until this weekend, its thirteenth, that it finally left the Top 5 and currently sits at #8 with a total gross of over $375 million.

Frozen has been the animated movie both moviegoers and fans of film alike have been waiting for all of 2013. It was definitely worth the wait because it delivers in terms of quality and entertainment value. Maybe I should go back for the sing-along version.

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: Philomena

Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman looking for he long lost son, in Philomena.

Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman looking for her long lost son, in Philomena.

The premise of Philomena may make many people nervous about seeing it. The questions before watching it will be “Will it be too disturbing?” or “Will the Catholic Church get knocked on screen again?” There’s only one way to find out.

The film begins in 1951 with a teenage Philomena Lee. She meets a young boy at a town fair whom she completely falls for that one day. Fast forward to 2004. Martin Sixsmith is an unemployed journalist since the Labour Party, the party he works as a government advisor, is beset by scandal. He goes to a party and meets the daughter of Philomena Lee who encourages him to write a story about her mother who was forced to give up her baby boy Anthony more than 50 years ago. Martin is uninterested in writing a human interest story and is more intent on writing a book on Russian history. However it’s after he meets Philomena and hears her story about how it all happened that he changes his mind and investigates further.

Once she was pregnant, she was sent by her father to Sean Ross Abbey, a mother-and-baby home that young unwed pregnant girls were sent to. It was terrible to live there while under the orders of the strict Sister Hildegarde, especially if she was assigned to do the laundries for four year to cover her stay. Nevertheless she was able to see her baby Anthony whom grew attached to her friend’s girl Mary. Then one day Philomena saw Mary and Anthony adopted out of the house. All Philomena could do was watch in heartbreak 30 feet away as her infant son was taken away.

Philomena had tried for years to find out what happened to her son by visiting the convent to no avail. Martin goes with Philomena to the convent only to hear from the nuns the records were lost in a fire years earlier. It’s over at the pub they hear from locals that the records were purposely destroyed in a fire and the children were sold to rich Americans. It’s after Martin’s searches in Ireland coming to a dead end that he decides on an arduous task. He decides to get the answers by visiting the United States and having Philomena accompany him.

Upon arrival in the United States, he learns through various search sites that Anthony and Mary were adopted by Doc and Marge Hess who renamed him Michael. Michael grew up to be a lawyer and a senior official to the Republic Party during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. He also learns news of heartbreak. Michael died in 1995 at the age of 43. The news naturally breaks Philomena’s heart but soon she wants to meet with people who knew Michael.

She meets one colleague and learns Michael was gay and died of AIDS. She meets up with Mary who grew up with Michael and eventually became a mother. Mary reveals Michael had a boyfriend named Pete Olsson. Pete is unwilling to cooperate despite Martin’s please but it’s not until Philomena pleads face to face with Pete that he complies. The visit with Pete is warm as he tells her of Michael’s childhood and even shows home videos. It’s when Philomena sees a video of Michael at the Sean Ross Abbey that she learns Michael tried looking for her while he was dying. She also learns he was buried over at the Abbey.

It’s then when Martin and Philomena return to the Abbey where it all started. It’s there where Martin can confront Sister Hildegard for being strict on the girls and being deceptive to both Philomena and Michael, whom she told Michael he was abandoned and they lost contact with the mother. Hildegard is unrepentant but surprisingly Philomena approaches her and forgives her. It’s right at Michael’s grave that she can finally meet the son she’s always looked for and finally make peace with her past.

The best quality of the movie is its unpredictability for those who’ve never learned the story. There may be some who have already learned the story of Philomena Lee but most who haven’t. If you don’t, then this movie will surprise you in many areas. It’s not just about Philomena’s search but learning of her son and what happened in the end. The film is full of moments. Moments of happiness, moments of tension, moments of relief, moments of surprise, moments of sadness and moments of humor. The film shows that the trip Philomena went on was not just about leaning about what came of her son but also her own personal journey of healing. A healing that needed to happen and occurred in unexpected ways.

Another great quality is the portrayal of the characters themselves. Philomena comes across as a very likeable and charming woman. Nevertheless one would question how smart she is at times and even question her faith if it’s just routine or even strong. Philomena is seen as simple and sometimes blames herself for a lot of wrongs in her life. However she comes across at the end as a stronger person than one would originally think. The biggest surprise is it would be Martin who most seems to have problems and issues while Philomena, who is the one who actually endured trauma, who still smiles at life in the end despite the harshness she went through.

Martin himself comes across as your typical egotistical journalist who appears to want to destroy the Catholic Church with his pen but somehow has a softening of heart once Philomena comes into his life. He will first make one wonder what his true intentions of helping Philomena learn of her son is: to really help Philomena or to get a great story published. In the end, he comes off as rather likeable for a journalist. Proof that even a journalist can have a heart!

I know there may be some Catholic readers that may be hesitant about seeing this film and the way the Catholic Church is portrayed. Yes, it’s surprising that Catholics would be more concerned about their depiction of the Church in a film that’s not by Martin Scorsese than whether Scorsese’s latest has another slamming of the Catholic Church in his latest. Even I myself was a bit concerned about seeing this as I saw The Magdalene Sisters ten years ago and it really was a nasty depiction of nuns and priests as well as a harsh but true look at the abuse the girls received. Philomena doesn’t show the girls in the laundries suffering abuse. It shows then doing the laundry but it does show the heartbreak of a teenage Philomena as she sees Anthony taken away from a distant window. It also shows Sister Hildegard to be unapologetic for all she’s done, not even for the girls that died during childbirth.

Actually in retrospect, I think it makes the Catholic Church look like the bad guy while the Catholic faith comes across as a positive thing in the end. One will first think of Philomena’s Catholic faith as something too ritualistic or forced upon her and even prone to break at one point but one will see in the end that it’s her faith that helps her through her hard times. In fact Philomena’s response to why she forgives Sister Hildegard in from of Martin will astonish the audience and will surprise many about how forgiveness is actually a form of personal strength.  As for The Wolf Of Wall Street, Catholics should relax as the most there is in it is a joke about nuns which is the tamest taunting of the Catholic church I’ve seen is a Scorsese movie in years. I feel Philomena’s story of her search is an uplifting story of hurt and eventual healing.

Without a doubt, the standout of the film is the performance of Judi Dench. Judi is one of those actresses who really knows how to excel with age. I may have seen better acting performances from her but her portrayal of Philomena was excellent in showing the many dimensions of Philomena Lee as well as adding a charm to her. Steve Coogan was also very good in what I feel to be the best acting I’ve seen from him. His role as Martin didn’t have the same dimension as Philomena but it was a very good performance. Coogan also did a very good job of scriptwriting with Jeff Pope. The story keeps one interested especially for those who don’t know the story of Philomena Lee. Stephen Frears may not as done as spectacular job in directing as Judi did in acting and as Jeff and Steve did in writing but it is worthy of respect. It may not be as great as his Oscar-nominated directing in The Queen but it’s still a very good job. Finally, Alexandre Desplat does it again in making the film with his score composition.

Philomena may first appear like a harsh movie about a woman hurt by her past and finally looking for answers. In the end it turns out to be more bittersweet than harsh and will leave one feeling Philomena did win in the end.

Movie Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Forest Whitaker plays a butler in The Butler who serves the White House and includes himself in history.

Forest Whitaker plays a butler in The Butler who serves the White House and includes himself in history.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is another surprise hit movie of the summer. It doesn’t feature the typical fare for what one would call a ‘summer movie.’ Actually it features more mature fair that’s meant for a release around October, November or even December. So how did it manage to become a hit this summer?

The Butler is a unique story of Cecil Gaines. Born in a cotton field, he was forced into labor by the Westfalls, a Georgia family who owned the plantation. Even though slavery was out of existence, it didn’t stop people from treating their black employees like slaves. The son raped Cecil’s mother and shot his father dead. The state’s caretaker, the mother, takes Cecil out of the farms and assigns him to be a house servant. However it would be a businessman whom encounters Cecil after he breaks into a bakery and steals a cake after running away. The businessman turns him into a successful butler who’s able to provide a good income for his wife and children. Something very rare for an African-American man to be able to do before 1960.

A breakthrough occurs when Cecil is offered a job as a butler at the White House. This is a big breakthrough for the Gaines family as they can improve their way of life. However it does not come without its prices as Gloria feels alienated from Cecil and his workaholic manner and turns to adultery. His son Louis becomes very involved with political activism and the Civil Rights Movement from restaurant sit-ins to the Black Panthers movement. That doesn’t sit well to Cecil at all to the point they fight and they don’t speak for years. His 34 year career as a butler in the White House takes some turns as he’s able to converse with the president and even influence many on how they deal with African-Americans. Cecil is also involved in other incidents such as the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination to losing his son in the Vietnam War. The story intertwines with his career with social changes for Black America during that time period with his own family life from his childhood to his career to Obama’s inauguration.

A short while back when I was doing a Wikipedia search on the movie, I learned that this film is loosely based on Eugene Allen: an African-American butler who first served in the White House in 1952, advanced to Maitre d’Hotel in his career and finally retired in 1986. The movie admits that this is inspired by a true story rather than actually being a true story. Though one can doubt the truthfulness of the story, the script by Danny Strong does capture one’s attention and is able to mix the White House life of Cecil with moments of history and even the struggle of one family dealing with the changes and trying to make life better for themselves and for their race. It’s almost like Cecil could be labeled the ‘Black Forrest Gump.’ The relationship between Cecil and Louis also highlights the divisiveness between two generations of African Americans. One learned he had to work hard to get places. Another adopted the new attitudes of Black pride during the 60’s. The clashes between the two represent the clashes of the two generations of Black America. Lee Daniels also does a very good job of directing the movie with its complexities. This is a big move for him to go from something like Precious to something more polished. Nevertheless it’s a very good move and can allow him to replace Spike Lee as the top African American director in the business.

The actors were also excellent, especially Forest Whitaker as Cecil. I’m not sure if Forest is trying to imitate Eugene Allen or trying to make Cecil into his own character–I admit that I myself have never seen video footage of Eugene Allen–but he gave an excellent performance both in terms of the character’s personality and his aging. Oprah Winfrey also gave an excellent performance as Gloria encompassing the struggles of maintaining family unity while dealing with a husband that seems too preoccupied with success. David Oyelowo achieves a personal breakthrough here as Louis Gaines. He does a very good job of representing the new black attitude of his times in both life and personal political attitude through Louis Gaines. Supporting acting was also very good from star actors like Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey and Jane Fonda. The supporting acting performances from the lesser-known actors like Mika Kelly, Nelsan Ellis, Elijah Kelley, Clarence Williams III and Yaya da Costa were also very good and added to the ensemble cast. One thing that struck me about Yaya da Costa’s performance of Louis’ girlfriend is the Black Panthers scene where she has a big afro and admits her desire to kill. Didn’t she remind you of Angela Davis in that scene?

There’s one glitch in the movie, it’s the casting for those who portray presidents in the past. At first I thought Robin Williams as Eisenhower was a good choice but the others didn’t seem so.  John Cusack made Richard Nixon seem awfully young as did Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson and James Marsden as John F. Kennedy. All three of them were at least ten years younger than the presidents they played when they assumed office. I feel the biggest miscast was Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Reagan had a charming personality and Reagan was not seen as charming at all in the film but rather a toughie. Makes me wonder what was with this? Was it miscasting? Or were those the ways the presidents looked to Lee Daniels or through the eyes of Cecil Gaines?

One final note of the movie. This was the scene near the end showing Obama’s election to the Presidency in 2008. I know that there has been a ton of flack given to Obama over what he’s done or what he’s failed to do as President of the United States. One thing you can’t deny is that even in the five year’s since his election, he’s still the face of hope for a race and other racial minorities. That’s one thing that can’t be taken away.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an excellent movie worth watching. I have sometimes co-related to movie to Forrest Gump where a man is part of history. Despite some of its flaws, it was an excellent intelligent alternative to the hyped-up summer stuff and still draws audiences now.

Movie Review: Life Of Pi

Pi Patel and the tiger Richard Parker learn to survive in Life Of Pi.

Pi Patel and the tiger Richard Parker learn to survive in the Pacific Ocean in Life Of Pi.

“I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go. But what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”

Life Of Pi is a novel by Yann Martel you may have already read or not. It now hits the big screen just eleven years after its publishing and is directed by Ang Lee. How well does it entertain?

Pi Patel is a man of fascination for a young Montreal writer. The writer was refered to him by a man in India named Mamaji and one day he’s fortunate to meet Pi in his own Montreal home and he tells him his story:

Pi Patel was born in India and named after the legendary French pool Piscine Molitor. Having the name Piscine Patel was not easy as he would have to endure taunts from his classmates. Then on the first day of school at the age of eleven, he decided he would be known as Pi from now on. He’d even try to recite all the numbers that make up pi to get it through to their heads.

Pi grew up with a wealthy family in India. His family owned a zoo and he experienced a love for the animals. Nevertheless he was taught to fear the wild ones. The zookeeper gave Pi a lesson in wild animals as a child after he tried to feed a bengal tiger who is named Richard Parker by the zookeeper.

Also during his childhood, Pi developed an interest in religion and experiencing God. He was born and raised a Hindu but would soon experience Roman Catholicism and Islam. As a teen he falls in love with a girl named Anandi. However all that has to change as Pi’s family has lost the zoo to land owners. The family decides to move to Canada and sell the zoo animals.

The family travel across the Pacific in a Japanese freighter named the Tsimtsum. The trip is mostly calm except for having a bigoted cook. However tragedy strikes as the ship is caught in a storm in the middle of the Marianas Trench. The ship sinks taking Pi’s family and the crew with them. Pi miraculously survives and manages to get himself in a lifeboat. Pi’s lifeboat overcomes the storm but there’s one surprise: his lifeboat includes a hyena, a zebra and orangutan. The hyena soon kills both the zebra and the orangutan only to find himself killed by the tiger Richard Parker who comes out of nowhere.

So that’s all it is: a lifeboat, Pi and the tiger Richard Parker. He’s able to retrieve the food and water supplies from the lifeboat. He builds a raft tied to the boat to keep a distance from Richard Parker. Pi soon loses much of the food supplies after a whale dives near them so Pi is left with no choice but to fish and collect rain water for Richard Parker and himself. The fish was hard as Pi is a vegetarian through his Hindu upbringing. Over time he realizes that Richard Parker is as vital to his survival as Pi is to Richard Parker’s.

After months at sea they find an island. It seems like a relief. It’s a floating island full of animals, a forest and fresh water. It seems like relief until they learn that the ‘fresh’ water turns acidic in the night and the island has carnivorous plants. They must return to sailing.

The lifeboat does reach land: the coast of Mexico after a total of 227 days. Richard Parker discovers a jungle for him to live in. Pi hopes Richard Parker will acknowledge him before entering but instead walks into the jungle without looking back. Mexican rescuers discover a weak exhausted Pi crying because Richard Parker walked away without him. Recovering in his hospital bed, Japanese insurance agents ask Pi for the story but don’t buy the story with the animals. Pi then gives a second story consisting of his mother, a sailor with a broken leg and the ship’s cook to the same story line. They’re left with the dilemma which story to believe as does the young novelist.

It does seem odd that the movie is tiled the Life Of Pi but the movie focuses mostly on Pi lost at sea for nine months. I think that was the point that there’s always one moment or one situation in a person’s life that seems to define them more than any other moment in their time. It turns out it was Pi surviving in the Pacific Ocean with Richard Parker in the boat. It seems appropriate that this was his moment especially since he was named after a swimming pool and it the Pacific Ocean–the biggest swimming pool in the world–that he’s able to prove what he’s made of. The movie is also a testament of Pi’s character as well. He wouldn’t put up with being mocked because of his name. He was determined to survive at sea despite losing all his family and despite dealing with a life boat with a wild tiger. And he appears to the local novelist as if he was never scathed. I think the incident did a lot to change Pi and helped him to tough things out and move past tragedy.

The movie may be about one boy’s will to survive but it’s also about Pi’s ability to tell a story. He’s good at telling stories about others and about his own life. It’s his storytelling ability at a young age where he gives the Japanese ship authorities two different stories of the sinking that shows Pi’s biggest gift. That could be the best reason for his survival. I will admit that the story overall does seem like an over-the-top story. A teenage boy surviving in a lifeboat with a tiger for over nine months in the Pacific Ocean, surviving typhoons and whale dives, finding temporary relief on an Atlantis-like island, and Richard Parker disappearing in the Mexican forest never to be seen again. Nevertheless this is what’s best about seeing a movie in a cinema. It makes you a believer of that story for two hours. I really enjoyed seeing that movie. It was escapism at its best.

The acting was quite good. Suraj Sharma did a very good job of acting for an actor so young and especially for a debut. You could bet the hardest part had to be simulating the tiger in the boat. I’m sure that in the scenes the actual tiger was used, the tiger had to be well-trained if he was to work in a movie. Ang Lee did a very good job of directing. I mentioned in my review of Hugo of how many renowned directors have done family movies in the last ten years and Ang is the latest. Directing a family fantasia like this and doing an excellent job of it adds to his versatility as a director. He’s already established himself as a maverick director with movies like Sense And Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and now this.

David Magee did a very good job in adapting the book to screen. The storyline itself is one that can easily appeal to families as some of the most famous family movies have been animal stories. Magee does a good job in creating such a story to charm people of all ages. Claudio Miranda delivers some of the best cinematography of the year. The music of Mychael Danna adds to the film’s magic. The biggest ingredient of the film’s magic has to be the visual effects. The creation of storms, the simulating of the ship sinking, the simulating of animals, the mysterious island, that had to be the biggest and best quality in adding to the magic of the movie. And to have it in 3D is a bonus addition to the magic.

I hate to compare the Life Of Pi to Hugo in terms of which is the bigger family movie masterpiece. Life Of Pi is a masterpiece of its own and makes for a great escape for the whole family. Definitely worth seeing.