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Oscars 2019 Shorts Review: Animation, Live-Action and Documentary

Cinema

This year marked another year I was able to see the Oscar-nominated shorts in the Animation and Live-Action categories. This year was also the very first year I was able to see the nominated Documentary shorts. That’s my Oscar milestone for this year. Here are my reviews of the films:

LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILMS

Two films are set in Middle eastern countries. One is set in Central America. One is set in Belgium while one is set in New York City. Three are dramas from start to finish. One starts as a comedy, but ends in dramatic fashion. One is a comedy from start to finish. Here are my thoughts on the live-action shorts nominees:

Brotherhood: dirs. Meryam Joobeur and Maria Gracia Turgeon – This is a story set in Tunisia. Two brothers are awaiting their older brother Aladinne to return from Syria. The father Muhamad appears to be looking forward to this. The brother returns. However he reveals Aladinne’s now married to a teenaged Syrian woman who is pregnant. The father is suspicious of Aladinne, fearing he may have joined ISIL in Syria. Muhamad makes a phone call Over time though, truths come out from both Aladinne to his other brothers over by the beach and to Muhamad though the wife. Including the truth about her pregnancy. The ending will leave one asking questions.

This is a relevant story as it is a situation that’s possibly happening in families in the Middle East now. It leads one thinking which brotherhood Aladinne is part of: his blood brothers or the ‘brotherhood’ of a terrorist group. It’s a story that gets one thinking. That’s why I predict it as my Will Win pick.

Nefta Football Club: dirs. Yves Piat and Damien Megherbi – The film begins with two men in the hills of Algeria who lost a donkey. It then leads into two brothers on a motor bike arguing over who the best footballer is. Then to a group of boys playing in a nearby football club. The boys get into an argument where the out-of-bounds is as there are no lines. The younger brother has to stop to urinate. After he’s finished, he notices the stray donkey who has earphones tuned into Saharan music. The older brother notices bags of cocaine with the donkey. The older brother decides to sell it but keep it secret. The two men are baffled. Especially one man who put the music onto Hadel instead of Adele. The older brother tries to sell it but something goes wrong. The ending will leave all surprised, and delighted.

This short was actually the last of the five that were shown. Knowing how the previous four had dark or tragic stories, you will expect something terrible or tragic to happen. You might even anticipate a social message out of this. I think those of us watching all needed some comic relief! It will make you glad this film is last in running order. End on a positive note.

The Neighbors’ Window: dir. Marshall Curry – Alli and Jacob are a middle-aged couple with two preschool-aged children and expecting a third soon. They live in a block of apartments in New York. They notice there is a young couple that moved into the apartment right across from them. Their window is a view to their apartment and they notice the two naked and making love. Did they forget to put up the drapes already? Three months pass. Alli gave birth to their third child. Jacob works from home and has a perfect view to watch the couple from the window as he works. That gets on Alli’s nerves. During Christmas, the Alli and Jacob have a family Christmas while that couple have a big party. Soon Alli becomes the voyeur. She notices the man has a bald head. Jacob thinks she shaved it. Soon it becomes evident he’s sick as he can be seen from his bed. Eventually Alli and the woman connect, but through unfortunate circumstances.

This is a film of a story where time elapses over eighteen months. It starts simply as a story of two voyeurs. Then it leads into a story of a couple who get reminded how much they miss their young-and-stupid days when they see those two having fun. The fun ends when sadder truths become obvious. I think the point of the story is to remind us of our own judgementality and even how prone we are to compare ourselves to others and making ourselves feel inferior without knowing the truth. It speaks volumes.

Saria: dirs. Bryan Buckley and Matt Lefebvre – The film begins in an orphanage one day in March 2017 in Guatemala. The fifty-one girls are woken up by the leader. The leader acts as the teacher. Before classes Saria learns that her sister has fallen in love with a male from the orphanage named Appo. During class Saria says a comment of defiance. This angers the teacher so much, she commands her to the guard who has her raped and beaten. Ximena learns from Saria that she and Appo have a plan to escape and walk to the United States for freedom. The opportunity arises when the girls hold a protest over the dirty and unsafe conditions of the orphanage. During police action, Saria and Ximena make their escape with Appo. However it’s a hopeless cause as the police have then cornered by dogs. Appo decides to throw himself to the dogs for the girls’ safety. All the 51 girls are brought back into a single room with just mattresses and the woman guarding. Two girls plan an escape by using fire, but it fails as the guard ignores them all.

This is a story based on real events. There was a protest over the conditions of the orphanage on March 7, 2017 and there was a planned escape. The girls were locked in that room and there was an escape plan that involved fire. The guard, who was a female, ignored them all until after ten minutes. 41 girls died. There were only ten girls who survived and they exposed the story. It’s not meant to be a true story. Instead it gives the girls who were victims characters and personalities. It exposes a truth of what’s happening in Guatemala while also reminding us these orphan girls were girls with hopes and dreams. I like the humanistic approach to the story. That’s why I call it my Should Win pick.

A Sister: dir. Delphine Girard – The film begins inside a car. The man is driving and the woman appears to be a passenger making a phone call to her sister. The film then goes to the emergency call centre. A woman is picking p this very call. She sorts out the confusion. It’s evident the woman in the car is making an emergency call and disguising it to look like it’s a call to her sister. The woman on the other end tries to work with her and even poses as the sister when the man talks on the line. This sets up for a climactic, but positive, end.

This is a film that keeps the viewer in the moment. There’s what one knows at the start and then what one knows as time goes on. At the same time, it puts the viewer in the intensity of the situation. You know it’s an abduction but the last thing you want is the worst. Throughout the film it’s a case of scenes of the woman and the man in the car and the woman at emergency control. It’s a story that will get you interested once you fully understand it and then keep you in the intensity of the story until the end.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

Interesting how not a single nominated short is 3D computerized animation. Even the computerized ones are 2D. The 3D ones are all stop-motion. All of them are unique in the stories they have to tell and the styles of animation they display.

Dcera (Daughter): dir. Daria Kashcheeva – The daughter watches her ailing father from his hospital bed. Suddenly a bird crashes through the window of the room. That still bird reminds her of the time she saw a dying bird and tried to get her father to resuscitate it. He was too busy cooking. She was in tears, but it inspired her to make a bird mask. She then remembers the time she was on a subway to a festival where she had to wear red makeup. She refuted and left the subway. He has the mask she made and decides to wear it. Then the film flashes to the present. He’s not in his bed. She then notices he slept with the mask she made. She goes to meet up with her father, who is being taken to surgery. Suddenly he becomes all better and the bird that crashed through is alive, just like that bird in her childhood.

I think the motif of birds can be interpreted in one of two ways: either the girl loves birds or she want to be free as a bird in her life pursuits. The story is told with marvelous artistry through stop motion on knit dolls and paper eyes. The animation style makes the artistry of the film and magnifies the beauty of the story.

Hair Love: dirs. Matthew Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver – A young African-American girl in an apartment wants to style her hair just like the woman in the YouTube video styles it. The man, a neighbor, however tries to style it differently. The girl leaves crying. It isn’t until he sees the drawing and learning that the woman in the instruction video is the girl’s mother that he agrees to do it that way. He watches and does her hair at the same time, and the result is perfection. Then he takes the girl to see her mother in the hospital, in a wheelchair, and bald from chemotherapy.

This is a story that starts as being entertaining during the first half. Then you see the human moments at the very end of the story. The story goes from fun to touching deep down inside with surprising results. This is definitely a heart-warmer for anyone. You have to be hard-hearted not to like it. It will touch anyone who has gone through cancer or knows someone close who is going through cancer. That’s why I give it my Will Win pick.

Kitbull: dirs. Rosanna Sullivan and Kathryn Hendrickson – The film starts with a black stray kitten going throughout the neighborhood. He finds an area near a house full of boxes and wood blocks to make his own shelter. He also learns the owners own a big vicious dog and they keep him chained outside. The dog first wants to make food out of the kitten, but the kitten shows the dog he stands his ground and can fight vicious when provoked. Soon the kitten notices the dog is being abused by the owner. The kitten then sends the message to the dog that he can help him find a way out. Then the two plan their escape together. Soon the dog’s wounds heal and they find themselves adopted by an interracial couple.

This is a film from Pixar that was on the Disney+ channel. I find it surprising that Pixar created a 2D story! Usually they do 3D, but I still like it nevertheless. I’ve seen stories in animation before of how the cat and the dog go from enemies to the best of pals. This is unique as it tells that story with the theme of interracial relations. I admire how they do that in this story. It makes for a story that crosses from the humorous to the serious. However it still ends on a happy note, as we all hope it will.

Memorable: dirs. Bruno Collet and Jean-Francois le Corre – A painter gets into an argument with his wife, or so it appears. It turns out he has either dementia or Alzheimers and his wife has died. The conversations he has with his wife are in his mind. He still continues to paint, but it’s not easy to do. Then one day he decides to do a simple painting of simple unattached strokes. The strokes come alive and it’s in the shape of his wife. They even speak with her voice. It’s like she’s alive through the painting. The two share one dance together and it’s a dance full of color.

This is a dark story. However it’s told in touching form and even through a positive tone through the animation. This animation style is claymation and brush-stroke on glass. It’s like the story about the painting is trying to be like paintings themselves. It’s as much about the style in which the story is told as it is about the story. I make this my Should Win pick because this is the most unique and colorful of the nominees.

Sister: dir. Siqi Song – This is a story told by an adult male of how he experienced his baby sister: when she was born and when she was growing up. Boy did she have bratty behavior. Then you learn this is just a story of his. The sister he was supposed to have was aborted because of China’s One-Child policy. The story is just his story of how he fantasizes of what his baby sister would have been like. Somehow the film ends on a positive note.

Some would rush to dismiss this story as pro-life propaganda. I won’t state my stance but I don’t consider this propaganda. Keep in mind the sister was aborted because of China’s One-Child policy. The abortion was not the mother’s choice. The story is told in a unique way as it’s told through stop-motion animation and through knitted dolls. I have seen similar animation. At first I didn’t think an Oscar-nominated film could come through this style of animation, but it does here. I find it unique for the animator to tell a dark story with some humor into it. It’s worth admiring.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

Some of you may ask why haven’t I seen the Documentary Shorts in past year? It’s hard to say. Money? Lack of interest? Time? Those were the most likely reasons. However I did have the time and money this year, and I made myself interested in them. So here are my thoughts of this year’s nominated documentary shorts:

In The Absence: dirs. Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam – This is a story that focuses on the sinking of the Sewol ferry off the waters off the coast of South Korea on April 16, 2014. 304 people of the 476 on board perished. Most were high school students. The documentary shows a lot of film footage from the day of the accident which includes news footage, rescue footage and footage from passenger smartphones. The film includes hearing dialogue between the Coast Guard, the transportation office and President Park Geun-hye. The film also includes footage of the inquiry and of footage when the Sewol was raised out of the sea three years later.

This film is good in letting the moments of the accident tell the story as well as expose a lot of ugly truths that people already knew. The film showcases the root of the problem: negligence on many parts. It shows the negligence and lack of action of the coast guards, the negligence of the transportation board, the negligence of the captain who instructed passengers to stay in before he escaped, and the negligence of the government. There are some interviews with parents of fatalities, survivors, and volunteer divers who dove to bring bodies up. I liked how this film used a combined set of video, film and audio to expose the truth of the matter. It also proved insightful as I believe this is the first disaster I know of leading to the overthrow of a world leader. That’s why I pick it as my Should Win pick.

Learning To Skate In A Warzone (If You’re A Girl): dirs. Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva – The film shows girls in Kabul, Afghanistan who attend a school privately after boys leave the school. This is in an area of Afghanistan that is strongly against girls going to school. Not only do they go to school, they also learn skateboarding at a park called Skateistan. The film interviews the young girls about their family background, what they like about school and what their ambitions are. The film also interviews the teachers and instructors throughout the whole year.

This is an excellent documentary reminding us of the threats women in Afghanistan still face. However it also shows us the hope of a better tomorrow. The film shows the girls as they learn the five basics of skateboarding over time. It also shows how their skateboarding lessons aren’t simply for fun. They’re life skills along with their education for a better tomorrow. The film includes the interviews as well as footage of the girls at school and at their skateboarding lessons. The film also includes audio of news stories of bomb blasts in Kabul reminding us that they still face threats to their future. The film then ends with an image of hope. Overall an excellent short documentary, which is why I make it my Will Win pick.

Life Overtakes Me: dirs. John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson – This film is of a dark subject matter: Resignation Syndrome. It’s a coma-like psychological problem that mostly happens in children and is common in Sweden. The film shows three children who have suffered this syndrome for many months. All lay in bed most of the time and are fed by tubes and syringes. The film also shows how the families work to resuscitate the child out of the illness by giving them exercises and taking them out in the open. The film allows the parents to tell the stories of what led them to flee their countries. The film also includes doctors showing their insights into the problem.

This film is good at exposing a problem that exists in many countries but is rarely talked about. It presents the examples and even shows how the syndrome happens most when the parents are facing a distressful situation regarding their refugee status. The film shows the children and their families in one time setting and the follow-up many months later. Two of the children show progress in their recovery while the other shows that her sister is showing signs she will soon suffer from it too. The main child at the start is given a third filming where she’s seen fully recovered. The film also presents a puzzling situation of why Sweden is the country with the highest rate of of Resignation Syndrome. This is a very insightful informative film that ends with a ray of hope.

St. Louis Superman: dirs. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan – The film opens with Bruce Franks Jr. talking with his son who’s about to turn five. The son was born on the same day African-American Michael Brown was shot to death by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri: a suburb of St. Louis. That event shapes Bruce into joining the St. Louis chapter of Black Lives Matter. That also made Bruce run as a State Representative and win. As Bruce is now a lawmaker and judges laws being passed in state congress, Bruce now has a new battle as he seeks to have passed laws labeling youth violence as a public epidemic and having Christopher Harris Day on June 7: the day in 1992 Christopher, his nine-year-old brother, was shot by someone using him as a human shield.

The film is a telling of Bruce’s life. It shows him as a congressman, a lawmaker, a rapper by night, an activist, a youth leader, and a family man. It showcases the many battles he goes through with getting his bill passed both by debate through the opposition and even other African-Americans who see him as a conformist to ‘the system.’ This film is also a ray of hope and a reminder at even in the days of Trump’s America where there appears to be a lot of ignorance and red tape, that efforts for the better can happen and that the marginalized can have a hope for a better future. Excellently done.

Walk Run Cha-Cha: dirs. Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt – The film begins with a Cha-Cha lesson taught in a dance hall in a Los Angeles neighborhood. The students are Asian and middle-aged and the teachers are Ukrainian emigres Maksym Kapitanchuka and Elena Krifuks. The film focuses on the couple Paul and Millie Cao. Paul and Millie first met each other in Vietnam back in the 1970’s. Communism took over and both had to leave for the United States, albeit six years apart. They’ve become successful professionals but have taken dance as a way to rediscover themselves. Maksym and Elena even work with them privately for a competition dance.

This is a story where we get to learn about a couple and their life experience about what brought them to the United States. We learn about their love back home, their loss of connection as both left Vietnam at different times, their families who also emigrated to the United States to their dance number. This film reminds us that for many, dance is more than just a hobby or an activity. It’s a chance for one to rediscover themselves. The film doesn’t end with the Caos in a competition. Instead it ends with their performance to a cover of We’ve Only Just Begun. Even though the two were reunited decades earlier, the film makes the dance performance look like the two are truly reunited at that moment. Not just a delight to watch, but insightful.

It’s interesting watching the documentary nominees for the first time. They all tell a lot in their limited time. Even for those that focus on a certain issue, it makes its point very well in that time. It even adds the human element to add to their point. Usually I’m skeptical to documentary films because all too often, it shows an issue through one side and one side only. You can thank Michael Moore for that suspicion of mine. However I was impressed with what I saw. It was hard to detect them as one-sided. They all made their point well.

And there you have it! Those are my reviews and predictions of the short films nominated at this year’s Academy Awards. It should be interesting to see the winners. Also it will be interesting to see how far these directors go in the future.

Christmas Movie Review: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

wonderfullife

George Bailey (played by James Steward) learns that life is worth living in It’s A Wonderful Life.

This is something new I thought I would try. I thought I would try reviewing a few Christmas movies around this time. The first movie I thought I would do is It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s a Christmas staple, but I finally saw it in its entirety last year! Here are my thoughts.

It begins as Heaven is alerted of prayers for a George Bailey from Bedford Falls, New York. As it reaches Heaven, the angel assigned to save George is Clarence Odbody. Clarence is a second-class angel who needs to earn his wings. George is about to commit suicide and it’s up for Clarence to save him to earn his wings. Clarence needs to learn about George, so he learns more about his life. He learns that George saved his younger brother Harry from drowning in a sledding accident, but lost hearing in his left ear. Also in George’s younger years, he prevented a druggist Mr. Gower from giving away a prescription after it was accidentally poisoned.

As George enters adulthood, he plans to travel the world and visit college. He is re-introduced to Mary Hatch, his childhood crush, by Harry at his graduation party and the two hit it off. However his plans have to be put on hold after his father Peter suffers a stroke and dies. Peter was head of Bailey Brothers’ Building And Loan. George agrees to continue it, mainly to keep it from being overrun by the ruthlessly hypercompetitive banker Henry Potter.

George wants to keep the Building And Loan business a family business as he promises brother Harry a job after college, and even resorts to hiring his incompetent uncle Billy. The times pass and George is successful in keeping the Building And Loan active, but not without his challenges. He had competition from Potter to face, including a tempting deal from Potter himself, although he knew Potter’s true attempt was to shut him down. He is understand when Harry receives a bigger job offer from another place. He build Bailey Park: a neighborhood of housing for low-income people while Potter made apartments of overpriced slums. He fell in love with Mary and married, eventually fathering four children.

World War II happens. George can’t fight because of his deaf ear, but Harry joins the Navy and earns a medal of honor by shooting down a kamikaze plane. Uncle Billy causes a big blunder on the day Harry is to receive his heroes’ welcome. Billy taunts Potter with the newspaper honoring Harry. Billy places $8000 to be deposited in a newspaper only to pick up the wrong paper to give to the teller. Potter knows what happened but says nothing and sees it as a chance to get the Building And Loan once and for all.

George most feels the heat. He learns that this will face scandal and that the Building And Loan will crumble. George even faces an arrest from Potter. All George does is take out his frustration on the family and on others. Then George gets drunk at the bar and receives a punch from the husband of the woman he told off over the phone. George feels he’s worthless and he needs to kill himself. As George is about to jump, he notices a man who has landed in the river. He goes to help. He learns the man is Clarence and Clarence introduces him as his guardian angel. At first George doesn’t believe him. Clarence tries to find ways to convince George not to commit suicide but they appear to be going nowhere.

Finally George says “I wish I was hadn’t been born.” That’s the perfect opportunity for Clarence; show George life if he had never been born. He shows him that Bedford Falls would be Potterville: a dark and corrupt town with amoral people. Mr. Gower was just released from prison for manslaughter, because George wasn’t there to stop him from poisoning. The Building And Loan closed down because George was not there to take over after his father’s death. George’s mother doesn’t recognize him and says Uncle Billy was institutionalized after the Building And Loan failed. The area that was Bailey Park is a cemetery and Harry Bailey is buried there; drowned from the sledding accident because no George to save him. I addition, the soldiers from the transport ship died because Harry wasn’t there to save them. Finally he learns Mary is an unmarried librarian and screams for the police as she sees George a stranger.

It’s after seeing life had he not existed that George decides not to commit suicide. He’s finally convinced Clarence is his guardian angel and begs for his life back. Back in the full present, George goes back to his house, grateful to see Mary and his children and unafraid to face arrest. He’s happy to see his family and Uncle Billy was able to get the towns people to pay the missing $8000. Right as the sheriff is about to arrest George, he sees the amount of money raised and rips up the arrest warrant. Harry returns and toasts George as the ‘richest man in town.’ In the pile of money, George sees a novel Clarence carried. Inside the novel is an inscription from Clarence: “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.” The daughter notices the sign that an angel has earned his wings. George knows it’s Clarence.

This is a film that gets replayed Christmas after Christmas. Hard to believe when it first came out, it did not do so hot at the box office. Over time, it would become beloved for many reasons such as its Christmas setting or even how it related to how people sometimes see themselves as failures. That feeling can often trigger around Christmas time. The film shows one example of a person who sees themselves around Christmas as a failure. George Bailey did a lot of great things throughout his life and meant a lot to a lot of people, especially people who feared the mere idea of the town being overrun by Henry Potter. Then a mistake happens and Henry sees it as the perfect opportunity to get George. George actually had it good for most of his life. Some people could even argue he’s the angel of Bedford Falls. But now that George fears arrest, all of that doesn’t matter anymore and George wants to take his own life. It’s Clarence who shows him the world had he not existed that changes George.

Sometimes it leaves you thinking there would be less suicides if people saw all the accomplishments they did in their lifetime and knew how many people loved them. It’s so easy to get caught and brought down in the ‘now’ of things.

The film’s ‘beloved’ status was not immediate. It didn’t do so hot at the box office. It would be relay on television around Christmas that would lead it to become one of the most beloved Christmas movies ever. The film was nominated for five competitive Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for Frank Capra and Best Actor for James Stewart. It was given an honorary Oscar for technical achievement for the  effect of simulating falling snow. There have been numerous depictions and versions of the story redone in media from a Married With Children episode to a cartoon of The Smurfs to the Billy Joel video of “You’re Only Human.” There have been dozens and dozens of adaptations. There have even been spoofs such as one sitcom, one ‘guardian angel’ shows an oafish male how life would be if he didn’t exist… and it’s better for everyone! That’s comedy for you!

Looking back, it’s better that the film was made in 1946 than today. 1946 would be more welcoming of a story like this. Stories of people starting as down and out only to end on a happy note were quite common and quite welcome at the time. If It’s A Wonderful Life was released today, some people would think of it having a corny premise. A lot of people don’t buy into guardian angels today. Some would find the ending of the film too hokey. Even that ending where people actually give money to keep George Bailey from being arrested would seem too farfetched for today’s people to buy. Even I don’t think you’d see the same monetary support for a fallen person if what happened to George would happen to someone else today. It’s a film that came out at the right time and had what it took to go the distance all these years. Plus it’s a good reminder of past great talents and stars like James Steward, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers. Interesting enough, Travers would retire from acting three years after the movie was released!

It’s easy to see why It’s A Wonderful Life is one Christmas movie that stands the test of time. Even if the ending seems too farfetched to happen in today’s world, it’s good it came out when it did and grew in its legendary status over the years.

 

Summer Movie Summary: Animated Movies

If there is one style of film that reigned supreme at the box office this summer, it’s the animated movies. It had some of the best results not just of the summer but the whole year as Finding Dory grossed more than any other movie in 2016 and The Secret Life Of Pets is also in the annual Top 10 so far. There were a wide variety of animated movies from sequels to stop-motion to even an animated movie for adults only. For my summary, I will review four animated films for the summer: Finding Dory, The Secret Life Of Pets, Sausage Party and Kubo And The Two Strings.

Finding Doryfinding-dory

It’s been thirteen years since Finding Nemo hit the big screen and captivated crowds. This time around it’s Finding Dory. The question is does it still have the same magic?

The magic of Disney/Pixar films is that it’s not only about top notch animation but also about taking the audience to new and exciting worlds of the imagination. The magic of Finding Nemo is that it captured the magic of the sea world. Finding Dory attempts to capture the magic of the sea world again but it also tries to capture another magic. This time it’s the magic of the Marine Life Institute. It does a very good job of creating a universe out of a marine life park. I’m sure that when Pixar was writing the script for this film, it had to create its own map on how the park would be for Dory to go from place to place. It even had to create the system of communication through pipes.

In addition, the story had to focus on the animals headed to quarantine. That was intertwined with Dory’s search for her parents. It gives a story with many facets. It starts with Dory’s search for her parents and leads to much more. Whatever the situation, it leads to a story that the audience will find thrilling as well as enchanting to look at.

Pixar does it again with writing out an excellent story and giving it top-notch animation. Once again I doubt if you’ll find a glitch. Andrew Stanton returns as director and co-writer with Victoria Strouse and they deliver an excellently entertaining movie. This time it’s Ellen De Generes’ time to own the show. She stole Finding Nemo and now this is her time to have the show as her own. Albert Brooks is back again and he delivers an excellent performance as Marlin too. The film features a lot of other big names as voices like Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Ed O’Neill, Bill Hader, Alison Janney, Sigourney Weaver (of course) and Idris Elba.

If there’s one glitch about Finding Dory, it’s that a lot of children may not understand the story in its entirety. For the most part, it’s us older adults who have seen Finding Nemo that understand Dory and her situation. I think that was it. Pixar was making a film that would be meant for both children who love animated movies and the grown up adults who have a special place in their heart for Finding Nemo.

Finding Dory continues on the excellence of Disney/Pixar and continues the charm we first saw in Finding Nemo and entertains crowds this summer in big numbers.

The Secret Life Of Petslife-of-pets

Ever wonder what your pets do when you go to work or school? The Secret Life Of Pets attempts to answer that question of what happens, as long as you live in modern Manhattan. And boy does it give some interesting answers.

This movie creates a humorous premise: pets that come across as your typical house pets but have a sneaky double-life when their owners aren’t home. However they find themselves in trouble and they all have to get back home in time before their owners return.

The thing about this movie is that it’s not focused too much on the story or taking the audience to another world the way Pixar movies do. Instead its focus is on creating crazy humor and funny characters. It’s obvious from the start its intention is to be a crazy goofy comedy to get us all laughing and it succeeds.

However such a movie cannot compromise on things like a solid story with the right beginning, middle and end, characters that fit the story and top quality animation. The movie does exactly that. Actually this movie is more driven on the humorous characters rather than be story-driven like Pixar films. Hey, we’re talking about the same animation studio that gave us the Minions. It works for such a movie and it wins over movie audiences young and old.

Pixar is not the only animation studio alone at the top. Illumination Entertainment has given it some rivalry especially with the Despicable Me movies and the Minions. Here Illumination brings back its main director Chris Renaud and its writer Bryan Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio to create another entertaining film. The film even includes a lot of great vocal talent from Albert Brooks, Kevin Hart, Louis C.K. and Steve Coogan just to name a few.

The Secret Life Of Pets isn’t so much about creating a mesmerizing world the way Pixar’s movies are. What it does is create a story that’s entertaining to watch and full of fun intriguing characters. No wonder it charmed crowds this year.

Sausage Partysausage-party

Sausage Party is the first wide-release animated film since South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut to earn an R-rating. And rightly so. And I’m sure the animators, directors and actors of the movie wouldn’t want it any other way.

It’s obvious right from the start that Sausage Party is a spoof of Disney/Pixar movies but as you watch over time, and even as you look back in retrospect, it’s obvious it’s a lot more.

Those of you who’ve seen Sausage Party will know that it’s not like most of the animated movies released today. Sometimes you may even get the feeling the movie is trying to sabotage all those family-friendly movies and the wholesome values they stand for. It sure seems that way.

I hate to bring up retro 90’s assimilations but it reminded me of a lot of 90’s entertainment that pushed envelopes and had sadistic pleasure slaughtering sacred cows and skewered values and morals we held dearly, and somehow charmed us into wanting more. Yes, such entertainment that knew we’re all gluttons for punishment. And we saw that in Sausage Party as they were definitely doing lot of tricks in the book to freak us out, whether it be the storyline or characters or images, and succeeding. We also see how it’s even skewering the wholesome values that are normally promoted in the family-friendly animated movies.

One major difference that keeps it from being 90’s-style envelope-pushers. One thing about all those envelope-pushing balls-to-the-wall entertainment of the 90’s that they not only pushed boundaries but they were also successful in making squeaky clean entertainment or entertainment with morals and a conscience look either wimpy or look like a complete joke. Yep, entertainment that broke all the rules and changed the game in the process. Can you blame me for calling them ‘The Nasty Nineties?’

I don’t think Sausage Party succeeded in doing that. Despite the ‘Dixar’ bumper sticker, it’s not as much the punch-in-the-stomach comedy or middle-finger to squeaky clean entertainment from Seth McFarlane or the South Park duo is. Yes, it does mess with wholesome entertainment but it’s more interested in having fun and pleasure making us squirm in our seat. Even though it did warp my brain, I will admit this was the most fun I had in a movie theatre this summer. It’s definitely my ‘guilty pleasure’ movie of the year.

Some people have complained that the movie is anti-religion. I don’t deny that as made obvious by the characters which include one Jewish and one Arabic and most of the lot appearing to resemble Christianity. You get the first hind right at the beginning as the groceries refer to the humans as ‘the gods’ and of the mustard coming back scared over the reality of what they’ve always called the ‘great beyond.’ I knew it would be critical of religion from the reviews I’ve read and I was expecting to get my tolerance on that subject tested. However I will state it’s not the obvious blasphemy as one would commonly see in South Park episodes or a lot of works done by Seth MacFarlane. I will also state that even atheism is also looked upon critically as it will state some common traits among many atheists like a feeling of misery or a ‘smarter than thou’ attitude.

If there is one glitch, I will have to say it’s the ending. What you first think will be the ending isn’t. Instead it will lead into what should be known as an ‘animation orgy party’ and then into a bizarre ‘reality check.’ I don’t have problems with them being in the movie or even in the ending but there are many times I feel the ending could have been done better or mapped out better.

Since I’ve been doing a lot of animation studios talk, it’s interesting to know that heading this film is a Canadian studio: Nitrogen Studios Canada Inc. The head of the studios, Greg Tiernan directs his first ever feature length film along with Conrad Vernon who has directed films like the Shrek movies, the Madagascar films and Kung Fu Panda too. You could say Vernion is spoofing his own films here. Interesting that while most animated movies of this summer have big budgets, this one only cost $20 million to make. Even though the animation was not as flawless as Pixar–and I noticed some technical glitches– its top focus was the humor and it definitely succeeded at that.

Without a doubt, Seth Rogen owned the film. It was pretty much his idea to do such a film like this for years. He not only acts in this but is co-producer and co-writer along with Kyle Hunter, Evan Goldberg and Ariel Shaffir with a story he wrote along with Goldberg and Jonah Hill. He has the delightfully evil charm of the film in his hands and knows how to deliver it well. Additional acting highlights come with Kristen Wiig and Brenda Bunson, Salma Hayek as Teresa del Taco, Bill Hader as Firewater, Nick Kroll as Douche and Edward Norton as Sammy Bagel Jr. just to name a few.

Sausage Party is a film that deserves to be hated but you can’t help but love it. Yes, it will warp your mind but it has a delightfully evil charm that will make it your guilty pleasure of the year. Just don’t bring the kiddies.

Kubo And The Two Stringskubo

After Sausage Party warped my mind, I had to watch Kubo And The Two Strings to reclaim my sanity. Good choice as it was a marvel to watch.

Normally it’s the Pixar movies that have the animation magic that mesmerize us and take us all to another world. This summer, I’d have to say it’s the world of Kubo. It was best at creating a world and an adventure that was enchanting and mesmerizing. It took a unique story that isn’t exactly one that’s best at winning big crowds and turned it into a spectacular marvel.

The thing with Finding Dory is that it does succeed in doing that but it’s a world we’ve been to before and whatever new world is in the story doesn’t differ to much from the world of Finding Nemo. In Kubo, we have a fresh new world of the imagination and that’s its advantage.

The story element of the film is just as strong. It’s about the fate of humanity and good in the world being threatened by evil and the mortality of souls and it resting in the fate of Kubo. Especially since it includes the fates of the souls of Kubo’s own parents. It’s the story of a son of a late master samurai who goes from master storyteller to the one to fight the evil forces. The very cinematic values that make the superhero movies make Kubo. In addition, it gives an alternate definition of ‘destroying the enemy’ one would come to expect. And a definition that appears to be the right thing.

While most of the films this summer were 3D computer animated films from start to finish, Kubo was a mix of both 3D computer animation and 3D stop-motion. This is a common trademark of Laika studios as seen in their past releases like Coraline, ParaNorman and The BoxTrolls. Such style of animation works to its advantage and comes off as a refreshing alternative to the 3D computerized films. It also works best in what makes this movie so captivating. I don’t think 3D computer work alone would make this film work as well.

This film is the directorial debut of Travis Knight, son of Nike CEO Phil Knight. He has actually been an animator with Laika during their first three features and now he takes the step into directing this time. He does an excellent debut job in directing. I was actually surprised to learn this is an original story. It was created by Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes with the screenplay written by Haimes and Chris Butler. Very excellent and very true to spirit of common mythology. Vocal talents were also very good. Game Of Thrones actor Art Parkinson does a very good job in voicing Kubo and creating his personality. Charlize Theron captures the mysterious side of the Monkey excellently and Matthew McConaughey does a very good job in capturing Beetle in both his bravery and his idiocy. Dario Marianelli does a very good job with making the music fit the film. It captures the whimsy of it perfectly.

Kubo And The Two Strings is my favorite animated film of this summer. It had the best combination off all ingredients that make a great animated film from great animation to a great story to a great redeeming message. Sure, Sausage Party was fun in how it was the complete opposite of your typical family-friendly animated movie but Kubo is a reminder of why such movies win us over time after time. Also it helped me get my sanity back.

And that’s my review of animated movies of the summer. Three were strictly 3D computer animated while one mixed it with 3D stop-motion. Three were mostly family-friendly while one was obviously adults only and proud of it. Three were comedies while one was mostly a drama. Three were fresh new stories while one was a long-awaited sequel. All were entertaining in their own way and wouldn’t let you down. In addition the comedic animated movies had the box office success that eluded the live-action comedies of the summer. So yes, today’s moviegoers do have a sense of humor after all!

In conclusion, the animated movies were this summer’s top box office fare. If you’ve even seen one of the films I reviewed, you’d know why.

VIFF 2014 Review: Still Life

Still Life is a story of a man who's as alone as the deceased subjects he works with.

Still Life is a story of a man (played by Eddie Marsan) who’s as alone as the deceased subjects he works with.

Still Life was the last film to do with the VIFF that I saw. It was a surprise that I saw such a downer film as my last one but it wasn’t a complete downer. In fact it has a lot of good elements worth watching.

The film begins with John May doing his job. He’s a council case worker in South London who looks for relatives of those found dead and alone. It’s not an easy job to do. In fact it’s very hard sometimes when he deals with relatives who want nothing to do with the deceased. Not even their own children. He arranges funerals for them even if he ends up being the only one attending and gives them a respectful burial. He even takes the pictures of those whom he was the sole attendee at their funeral and puts them in his own personal album.

Problem is John himself is an ‘alone’ person living by himself in an apartment with no real contact with neighbors. His job which he’s been doing for 22 years appears to be his only real purpose or his only interaction. However the news breaks one day. The company’s changed ownership and he’s about to be laid off by the new owners, feeling his services to those he buries are too ‘costly’ and are making the move to ‘efficiency.’

John wants to make his last case work especially since the deceased, Billy Stoke, lives in the same apartment as him. He comes across a photo album that shows pictures of his daughter ending in her teen years. He tries to get more information like from two people on the streets who used to drink with Billy. He finds out that Billy used to live in Truro. He meets with people who knew him like his ex-wife and former co-workers but none are interested in paying their last respects to Billy.

Finally John meets his daughter Kelly but she doesn’t want anything to do with Billy either. John proceeds with having a tombstone made and finding a burial spot. Just when John thought it was all over for him, he gets a call from Kelly. Kelly hears all that John has done and is happy about it. She even invites John to come see her on the weekend, to which John accepts and appears to finally come to life. Then comes a moment no one expects. It appears to set up for a very sad ending but instead ends on a positive note that appears appropriate.

It’s a question whether the film was trying to convey a message about lonely people or not. Mind you it does touch on a lot of things such as some who left other relatives estranged, some who lost all their friends because of their surly attitude or some who just have no one. There’s one scene that catches my eye and that’s where John looks over the photo album of those he arranged a funeral for. As each picture was seen, it reminds you that those people that died alone with no other loved ones used to be a somebody to others some time ago in their life. Sad how life made a turn for the worse for them. It is good to see someone like John May out there who does give such people found dead and alone a dignified last respects. Another scene that stands out is when John arranges Billy’s grave at the cemetery. Soon he sees the people that are to replace him and what they do is just simply cremate the bodies and pour the ashes in a mass grave. No funeral, no last respects, no nothing. Hey, it’s more ‘efficient.’ It only makes what John’s always been doing look like the right thing.

The most surprising thing about this film is that this first appears to be the downest of the down films ever made. It has all the making for it: a story of a man who has no family and friends trying to give a respectful last respects to those who died alone. The film does have a morbid feel to it and even John looks like the walking dead at times. What kept it from being a complete downer were some humorous moments. They were easy to spot. The film had a way of making humor of certain moments come unexpectedly like John at the intersection, John eating that shepherd’s pie after being told what Billy did after he was fired or even when a drunkard pours liquor on Billy’s coffin as a farewell. Even the scenes near the end as John is seen smiling to Kelly gives the movie an unexpected warmth and a welcomed warmth. That scene as John sees Kelly off was that moment where John appeared to truly be alive. Even the ending added to the quality. It didn’t end suddenly fluffy and happy like so many Hollywood movies would do.  The audience would first think this will be the saddest ending in all of movie history added to the quality. Instead it doesn’t as it ends with an ending that will have you saying: “Yes, very appropriate.” To this day, the ending of Kids remains the most depressing film ending I’ve seen.

This was a very good film written and directed by Unberto Pasolini. He takes what would normally be a very down topic and makes a very good and very watchable story about it. This has to be his best work since his production work on The Full Monty. Also good to see he didn’t give a fluffy ending that was still positive despite the circumstances. It’s not to say that it didn’t have its imperfections. Like we don’t know exactly why John himself is all alone. Did his parents die? Was he ostracized? Was he so fixated on his work, he ignored everything and everyone else around him? There’s that lack of clarity.

Excellent acting from Eddie Marsan. For all intents and purposes, this was his film. He does a very good performance of a character who actually feels like the walking dead. Only he adds humorous elements to him and makes him into a 3D person rather than a stock character he can easily become. The supporting actors were also good as a whole however it’s Joanne Froggatt who’s the one with a role with the most dimension. The only other standout is the music from Rachel Portman. It does a good job of creating the mood.

Still Life is a surprising film in more ways than one. It makes a film about loneliness with a protagonist being its epitome and actually makes it quite watchable rather than completely depressing.

And that does it for reviewing VIFF films. I didn’t have time to see them all. In fact there some I had a chance for but I was either ill or too exhausted to see. Anyways it made for an exciting festival. My wrap-up of this year’s VIFF coming soon.

Has Pixar Lost Its Spark?

The release of Monsters University shows Pixar putting more emphasis on commercialism and less in remarkable writing.

The release of Monsters University shows Pixar putting more emphasis on commercialism and less in remarkable writing.

Remember how for many years Pixar animated movies would be some of the best made of the year? Monsters University showed signs of Pixar heading in a more commercial direction with more emphasis on profit than on script quality. The question is will Pixar return to the greatness it had for many years?

Pixar started off as a small animation studio that made computer animated shorts. Actually shorts was as far computer animation got as far back as 20 years ago. That all changed when they received a phone call from Disney. There they teamed up to make the first ever animated feature. The end result, Toy Story, was history in the making. Released in the fall of 1995, it won over the critics and was a big hit at the box office. Director John Lasseter even received a special honorary Oscar for his achievement.

Eventually over the years the success of Toy Story would pave the way for successes of other 3D animated features over the years. Much of which was done by Pixar itself with the successes and critical renown of A Bug’s Life in 1998 and Toy Story 2 in 1999. In fact in teaming up with Disney/Buena Vista, it became clear that 3D would be the next big thing in animation as it would even fare better with the critics and outgross 2D animated movies from Disney like Mulan in 1998 and Tarzan in 1999.

However it would soon be clear that Pixar would soon get some rivalry in terms of 3D pictures. DreamWorks animation would release Antz just weeks before A Bug’s Life. Then they’d release Shrek in 2001 which did even better critically and financially than Pixar’s Monster’s Inc. that year. The rivalry would eventually lead to the eventual domination of 3D animation in shelling out animated features.

Pixar teamed up with Disney would have continued success and critical renown with other pictures like Finding Nemo in 2003 and The Incredibles in 2004. The movies were not your typical Disney movies in terms of marketing characters in toys but they did continue to score well with the public with both grossing over $250 million and score excellently with the critics. However 2006 gave a sign that Pixar was leaning into commercial directions with Cars. The movie scored 74% on Rotten Tomatoes—the lowest for a Pixar feature at the time—but the movie succeeded in toy merchandise. Its gross was also an impressive $244 million.

2007 to 2010 saw continued success and critical renown with Pixar’s features like Ratatouille in 2007, Wall-E in 2008 and Up in 2009. The big bang came in 2010 with the release of Toy Story 3, the finale to the Toy Story series. Like most of Pixar’s previous movies, it scored excellently with the critics. Its box office result was also excellent as it grossed $415 million: the most ever for a Pixar feature.

Vanity Fair saluted Pixar for its fifteen years of remarkable entertainment with this picture in its Oscar issue.

Vanity Fair saluted Pixar for its fifteen years of remarkable entertainment with this picture in its 2011 Oscar issue.

I still remember right after Toy Story 3 came there was countless mention of the success Pixar has made both financially and critically over the years. Entertainment webpages around that time made note of the successes they gave over the years. Rotten Tomatoes even pointed out that except for Cars, each Pixar movie up to then scored 90% or higher on its Tomatometer. Even Vanity Fair had a picture during the time of the Oscars of all the characters of Pixar movies. It was almost like around that Oscar time there was a big salute to Pixar for the 15 years of entertainment they gave. 15 years of excellent quality entertainment. 15 years of entertaining families and charming critics. A total of almost $3 billion gross. Forty-one Oscar nominations and eleven Oscar wins including seven wins in the Best Animated Feature category. In fact you could give credit for movies like Toy Story or Toy Story 2 for why the Best Animated Feature category was added by the Academy back in 2001.

Then it seems like right after Toy Story 3 and the glory that followed, things went downhill for Pixar. First came Cars 2 in 2011 with a lot of hype and merchandise. The film grossed a humble $191 million at the box office. However it was the Rotten Tomatoes result that was the big shocker. 39%: the first Pixar feature ever to be certified a Rotten Tomato. It even became the first Pixar feature to fail to receive a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination ever since the category’s inception. As for the merchandise…

2012 gave a bit of hope that Pixar would be back into the swing of things with Brave. Brave was also a milestone as this would be the first Pixar feature with a female protagonist and would include two female co-writers and a female co-director. Unfortunately Brave received 78% at Rotten Tomatoes: falling short of Pixar’s finest efforts. The film did gross $237 million at the box office but still something was missing.

2013 seemed like another year where Pixar was aiming for quantity instead of quality. Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters Inc., was the only Pixar feature released in 2013. That hit a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes but still grossed an impressive $260 million. In terms of merchandise…

This weekend came Planes, a movie that was going along the same line as the Cars movies. It’s not necessarily a Pixar movie but it did have John Lasseter create the story for it. It scored only 24% on Rotten Tomatoes and opened the weekend with a paltry $22.2 million. That could be bad news about Lasseter’s creative juices.

It’s a question to what happened to Pixar as they always aimed for quality not just in terms of animation but also in the story and script. In fact seven of Pixar’s features have also been nominated in the screenplay categories and it’s those that have stood out as Pixar’s finest achievements. However as seen in the past, the desire to go more commercial does make the quality take a backseat. The animation is still top-of-the-line however the lack of inventiveness in its writing is making itself more evident.

It’s not to say that this is the end of Pixar’s legacy. 2014 will have The Good Dinosaur coming out. This was made from a concept of John Lasseter and will introduce a new scriptwriter to Pixar’s dream team. 2015 also shows Pixar keeping its creativity active with The Inside Out and also giving another commercial try with Finding Dory. How these movies will do both commercially and critically is something only time will tell.

Pixar has left a legacy of animated movies over the past twenty years. However it has been right after the release of Toy Story 3 that they appeared to be taking their legacy for granted. Their upcoming releases should send the message if they’ll return to it or not.

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.

My Top 10 Movies of 2011

A while back I remember one writer I’m subscribed to  posted their Top 10 list in may with the title ‘Better Late Than Never’. Now here I am three months later with mine. I’ll bet the reason for her list being published late is the same reason for mine. While the professional critics have the luxury of access to all the preview DVDs or special screenings before the year end. I have to wait until they’re released on the big screen or the DVD store to see them. I’m sure it’s probably the same reason for her too.

As for me being extra-late, I’m sure all my writing about Euro 2012 and the London Olympics can explain that. Yeah, I was so hyped up over those sporting events as well as the feedback and the record-setting hits I was getting from my articles about them, I forgot about my movie list. In fact I just watched the last DVDs of 2011 I had left to watch just yesterday. Believe me three DVDs in one day is no easy chore. Interestingly enough one of my articles about certain athletes to watch for the London Games is still getting hits even though the London Games ended two weeks ago.

Anyways it’s about time I created my Top 10 of last year, especially since some people are still hitting my Top 10’s of past years. So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Movies of last year along with five films worthy of Honorable Mention:

MY TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2011

1) Hugo

2)The Descendants

3)The Artist

4)Moneyball

5)The Help

6)Midnight In Paris

7)A Separation

8)50/50

9)The Tree Of Life

10)Of Gods And Men

HONORABLE MENTION:

-Drive

-Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

-Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

-The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn

-Super 8

Oscars 2011 Best Picture Nominee: The Tree Of Life

The Tree Of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The film isn’t the typical drama you’d come to expect. Instead it’s more introspective and delivers a message of a common theme of the human existence.

The movie’s story starts upon Mrs. O’Brien receiving the news of her son’s death. Mrs. O’Brien had always been taught everyone must choose between the path of grace or the path of nature. The son’s death would throw the family in turmoil. The movie then focuses on present-day Jack O’Brien, now an architect. When a tree is planted in front of his building, he reminisces about his life as a young boy during the 1950’s.

A pre-teen Jack is living with his family in suburban Waco, Texas and is now forced to choose the path for himself. His parents have equal bout opposite influences on him. His mother represents grace as she is gentle and nurturing but authoritative, presenting the world as a place of wonder. His father represents nature as he is loving but strict and authoritarian as he tries to make his boys tough for a world here perceives as corrupt and exploitative. He often questions giving up his passion of becoming a musician and instead became an engineer and hopes to achieve wealth through filing patents of his inventions.

Before Mr. O’Brien goes on a trip to market his inventions, a drowning death of a child at the town pool happens. Mr. O’Brien suddenly turns violent and unleashes an abusive rage on his boys and Mrs. O’Brien. While he’s away, Jack and the boys are raised exclusively by their mother and his feelings of rebelliousness start happening. Jack follows along with the other boys in his town and commits acts of vandalism and animal abuse, even theft of women’s underclothing from a neighbor’s house. It’s after that where Jack gets the first natural sense of his consequences and throws the stolen underwear in the river. Mr. O’Brien returns home having failed to sell his inventions. His plant closes and is given the option of staying with the company with an unpromising job or be terminated. He chooses the unpromising job which means the O’Brien family would have to move away from Waco. Upon leaving he asks Jack to forgive him for the harsh treatment of him.

What I just stated in the above synopsis was of the events that happened in the drama. That’s only half of it. The other half is what happens in the more sublime parts. The opening image of the movie is the mysterious flame that flickers in the darkness. We see it at the beginning of the film as it leads to the opening scene of Mrs. O’Brien receiving the news of her son’s death. Just as soon as an older Jack O’Brien reminisces of his childhood in the 50’s, the movie doesn’t shift back to Jack in the 50’s but of the very beginning of the universe. Galaxies are formed, planets are formed, volcanic activity and the existence of life begin on Earth, dinosaurs fight to survive and fight to conquer, an asteroid hits the Earth, and then the O’Briens marry and have Jack and his two brothers. This leads into the main drama of the story.

After Jack reconciles with his father the sublime returns as it fast forwards to an Earth five billion years later incinerated and shrunken by the sun and left completely devoid of any life. The movie returns to the present as Jack leaves work and encounters a vision of walking on rocks. As he walks through a lone wooden door frame, which is probably the door from the house in Waco which doesn’t exist, and is reunited with his family and all those who were in his life. Even those that died including his brother have been resurrected. The movie ends with the mysterious flame seen at the beginning continuing to flicker in the darkness.

For those who’ve seen the movie, there’s no question that the movie is very much thematic and gets you thinking. The biggest theme of the movie has to be the constant dilemma of the way of grace vs. the way of nature. It’s a constant choice everyone has to face in their life. It’s also made present in the movie that this dilemma has existed ever since there was life on Earth even before the human race. It’s a dilemma Jack is forced to confront as a child and witness his parents representing the two opposites. The way of grace is given additional support by the messages given by the priest. The way of nature is given additional support by all the rough, even destructive games the boys play. That theme and the various part of the film, both in terms of the plot and the sublime, focus on the theme of grace vs. nature being the universal pulse.

If there’s one weakness of the film that stands out, it’s that it tries too hard to be artistic and creative. I actually admire films that try to be original and take artistry to new levels. The only problem is all too often, many artistically inclined films look like they forget they are to be shown in front of an audience. When I critique movies, my attitude towards the more artsy films is: “Okay, I know you are trying to be artistic and creative but don’t forget you’ll be seen in front of an audience.” I also have a tough attitude towards commercial movies: “Okay, I know you want to make big money but give the audience their money’s worth.” Overall I feel a film doesn’t have to be entertainment but it should do something with the audience, like connect with them or get them thinking.

Enough about my critiquing guidelines. The problem with the Tree Of Life is that firstly it takes a subject matter that is common. It also tries to connect the dealings of loss and lost innocence with the existence of earth and the universe itself and even the spiritual world. Yes, it makes for some creative film crafting and original themes but it doesn’t succeed in grabbing the crowd or make them involved in the story line. Often the story tries too hard to let its sublime side get inside the audience that the story comes across as humorless and even unwatchable or confusing at times. That has to be the biggest glitch and that’s why I feel it doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture. Terrence Malick does his best to write and direct a watchable movie about lost innocence and reconciling with the past that tries to get inside the audience, but it misses in a lot of ways.

The best acting performance overall had to come from then-newcomer Jessica Chastain. It was her performance as Mrs. O’Brien, the struggling housewife, that was the most complex as she plays a character who struggles to keep the calm of the family despite the many fierce adversaries that come their way. Even though Chastain earned an Oscar nomination in The Help, I felt her supporting performance here was much scronger and deeper. Brad Pitt also did well but it was not his best acting performance. Actually his performance was more of a supporting performance as was that of Sean Penn. The leading performance of the movie actually comes from young Hunter McCracken. As young Jack O’Brien, he embodies the loss of innocence unraveling through its joy, anger and its heartbreak. Through young Jack, we see the embodiment of what being a young boy is all about in both a boy’s toughness and tenderness. Young Jack sees all that is happening and what would lead to the decline in relationship with his father that would pave the way for the reconciliation. The film’s best qualities are the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and the musical score by Alexandre Desplat.

The Tree of Life tackles familiar themes of coming of age, loss of innocence and reconciling with the past. The problem with it is it tries too hard to connect it with the existence of the universe, all life on earth, the end times and even the spiritual world. Although it didn’t really appeal to me, I’ll just sum it up by saying it’s a love-it-or-hate-it film.

Dine Out For Life, And A Good Cause

I would like to take a break from my usual writing to promote a good cause that’s hosting an event this week. Here in most of BC, specifically Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler, Thursday will have Dining Out For Life happening at many restaurants. Dining Out For Life is not strictly a BC event but it will be held in most of BC during this coming Thursday, the 24th.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dining Out For Life, it is an annual fundraiser where for one night, restaurants will donate a portion of their proceeds to their local AIDS foundation. The causes can be for awareness groups, volunteer groups and food services for patients. Most cities that take part in Dining Out For Life will hold their dinners during the last weekend in April or on International AIDS Day, December 1st. Here in Vancouver, we’re lucky to get it early. Also hundreds of restaurants have agreed to participate. The number keeps growing every year.

So if you’re looking for someplace to dine out on Thursday, you’ve got plenty to choose from and you’ll be supporting a good cause. So dine out for life this Thursday. You’ll be glad you did.

For more information on Dining Out For Life, just go to The Main Website or Vancouver residents interested in picking a restaurant, just click here.