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Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread

Fashion designer  Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day_lewis) is about to be swept away by his ‘assistant’ (played by Vicky Kreips) in Phantom Thread.

 

This year, there have been some good romances and some not-so-charming romances. Phantom Thread is one of those romances that is quite off the wall, but also one of the most beautiful of the year.

Reynolds Woodcock is a top British fashion designer of the 1950’s. His fashions attract the high society with its charm, originality and impressive design. Reynolds, however, is unmarried in his 50’s. His sister Cyril, who manages his business in a very controlling manner, knows this too well. She knows it may have to do with his pride, but she senses it may be to do about his mother’s death, which he constantly thinks of. Reynolds is also noted for stitching hidden messages into his fashions.

One day, he drives off from his business and goes to a restaurant for breakfast. He meets a charming young waitress named Alma. He asks her out and she accepts. As the relationship grows, Alma moves in, but wants to act as his muse and his assistant as well as be his love interest. Reynolds is mistrustful at first, but he grows to earn her trust.

Alma actually becomes one of his best helps to his business and helping to put on fashion shows. She also works well as a cook, dealing with Reynolds’ hard-to-please picky demands. However, Alma wants more than just to be a cook and assistant. She wants Reynolds’ love. She cooks him a romantic dinner, but Reynolds just lashes out how the meal is prepared and insists he will not put up with any deviations.

Alma is hurt, but knows just the thing to get back her control. Just while Reynolds is getting a wedding dress prepared for the Belgian royal family, she takes some of the poisonous mushrooms, crushes them, and mixes it in with his tea. Soon Reynolds begins to hallucinate the ghost of his mother and collapses over the wedding dress. Alma agrees to take care of him, despite the chance the mushrooms may be revealed. As Reynolds recovers, he is deeply moved by Alma’s devotion and asks her to marry her.

Alma and Reynolds are married. The marriage begins wonderfully, but it soon leads to bickering and fighting. Reynolds even makes it clear he feels Alma is becoming an interference to his business. Not even Alma leaving the place to go to a New Years Eve ball changes his mind. One day, Alma creates an omelet made with the poisonous mushrooms. Reynolds knows they are poisonous. Alma confesses to him she wants him to be weak and vulnerable so she can take care of him, help him recover, and then poison him again. Reynolds accept. She then envisions her future with Reynolds as he’s sick in bed and she’s confessing everything to the doctor.

This is definitely a bizarre romance. It’s about the feelings of love and love-sickness. It’s about a young common woman wanting to win the love of a fashion designer who’s a control freak and a man of immense pride. It’s about the battle of control between the two. Those don’t exactly sound like the elements of a winning romance, but Paul Thomas Anderson makes it work.

He sets it in an atmosphere of high society and high fashion. He creates the appropriate atmosphere for both the romance, the tension and the madness. Despite all that happens, in all the craziness and the differences between the two people, the movie ends with you feeling this love is so right. The two were actually made for each other, even though he’s poisoned and in bed. I think that’s it. I think Anderson wanted to create a romance about love sickness and make it oddly charming and oddly fitting. Sure, she’s going to poison him constantly from then on, but she seems like the right woman for him. She’s definitely the one woman who knows how to take his immense pride away from him. It’s very odd how a woman as sinister as her ends up being his fitting soul mate! The film even gives an appropriate ending where Alma envisions the future of the two together. Perhaps it’s for us the audience to envision our own future of the romance.

Top credits go to writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. I’ve never thought of a director like Anderson to be able to create a good romance. Here he doesn’t simply create a good romance, but also a story loaded with charm despite its eccentricities. He does a good job of capturing the feelings of romance as well as the feel of tension within the marriage and makes it work on screen. Also excellent is the acting from Daniel Day-Lewis of a fashion designer torn between love and his pride towards his status. Some say this may be Day-Lewis’ acting role as he is talking of retirement. If that holds out to be true, this role will definitely be one of his best portrayals of an original character. Vicky Krieps is very good as the sinister yet charming love interest, but the one actress who upstages Day-Lewis is Lesley Manvile. Playing the sister, she works well both when she’s the observant one who says nothing and when she’s one who has something to say. She does a lot with a part that appears to be very little at first.

For technical credits, top credits go to costume designer Mark Bridges. For a romance about a big-name fashion designer, you need to have dresses that stand out and show why he’s the best in his field, and Bridges delivers! Also excellent is the composed music of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood that captures both the dramatic elements and romantic elements of the film.

Phantom Thread does make it look odd for a story like this to work as a romance, but Paul Thomas Anderson made it work. He makes the sinister side of love sickness work.

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Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Dunkirk is the telling of one of the most historic battles of World War II on land, sea and air.

Admit it. This summer was one of the most lackluster summers in a long time. Very few reasons to get people to come to the cinemas. Dunkirk, however, was one of the films that gave people one of the best reasons to go to the cinemas. One can see why.

The film does share some minor similarities with Titanic. Firstly, it’s a film that features a lot of action as part of the story. This being about the Battle of Dunkirk and the evacuation would be a film that would feature a lot of action and a lot of intense drama. Also like Titanic, it features some fictional stories or story lines inside a moment of history. Like Titanic, they also include historical figures who were part of the Battle, however even there the depictions of incidents do stray away from what really happened and go for the story.

Basically film is so loose, I’m okay with seeing a fictional depiction of moments in history as long as I’m made aware of its fiction. This film is a very good, very complex story of the Evacuation of Dunkirk. We should remember that the Battle Of Dunkirk was very important in the history of World War II. It was the first sign to the Allied forces that Hitler and the Nazi army had a vulnerable side and that the Nazis could be the losing side of World War II, despite how menacing Hitler and the German forces appeared. The rescue mission that accompanied it is a sign of the heroism as 300,000 Allied soldiers survived. The story focuses on three different aspects of the Battle– land, sea and air– and captures in the time frame of a week about what the heat of the moment must have been like for soldiers, civilians, casualties and leaders. The stories of what happened during the Battle of Dunkirk can be told through many different aspects and from many different viewpoints. This film succeeds in capturing the moments as the tension begins, the battles ensue, the devastation is done, the rescue has its own friction and the eventual triumph happens. It allows the viewer to relive the moment of all that happened. I even remember for a brief period of time that I thought the Allied soldiers would lose. Of course I learned in history that they did not lose, but the film succeeded in making me forget it sense that they might lose. That’s the magic of film.

The film is not just about giving a moment in history three different sub-plots. The film also captures the human element of the battle for those part of it. Although the characters are fictitious, they are based on real people from the Battle Of Dunkirk. First there’s young Tommy who goes from being the sole survivor of a battle to joining two other Allied survivors in a new fight for survival and shelter. There are the Dawsons who find themselves rescuing a shell-shocked soldier and seeing their friend George die because of his violent reactions. There’s the RAF pilot who goes from one one of the following pilot to leader of the battle as his leader is shot down. All three stories may not be exact true stories, but they capture the human side of the battle. In all three scenarios, it’s the story about surviving right as they’re witnessing death and destruction around them. It’s likely that what we see in the stories of Dunkirk are similar stories that thousands faced during the very battle. It’s even a reminder of why we should look at those who were part of the Battle, both soldiers and civilian participants, as heroes.

This film is arguably writer/director Christopher Nolan’s best film to date. He came across the idea of doing this film in the 1990’s as he and his wife sailed across the English Channel along the same path of the Dunkirk evacuation. This was no easy film to make. He had his concept of three different scenarios of the Battle Of Dunkirk. He not only had to give the human element to his stories, but also include the action of the battles and the intensity of the various moments. He did an excellent job of constructing such a story that was not only well-done and well-pieced, but was also able to engage the audience as well.

As for the acting, there was not a single stand-out role. Nolan even admitted he didn’t want to put emphasis on the characters for who they are, but instead on will they survive this. Even the role of Tommy was kept very minimal, but Fionn Whitehead did a very good job in his performance as the young soldier struggling to survive. I believe the best acting performance came from Mark Rylance as Peter the mariner who’s caught in the intense situation, but tries to remain cool and calm. Another standout is Tom Hardy as the Spitfire pilot who’s thrown into the leadership role. I know some that are loyal to One Direction may take interest in this because of the appearance of Harry Styles. His performance is good, but his role is limited.

The film needed to have top technical efforts in order to be successful and it had some of the best of the year. There was cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema who delivered excellent camera angles,editor Lee Smith who was able to piece the three stories together very well, production designers Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis who did an excellent job of constructing seaside Europe in 1940, composer Hans Zimmer who delivered yet another score that fits the movie to a tee, and the visual effects team for recreating the battles and attacks that occurred.

On an Oscars note, the craziest thing about the months before December is that one does not know which films will have enough juice to qualify for a Best Picture nomination. It’s become very obvious in the last few decades that the big studios save the release for their ‘Oscar bait’ movies for December because they know how things work. Most of the time, a lot of excellent movies that get released in the summer or earlier often miss getting nominated for Best Picture. The year when it was best made obvious was 2002 when all five Best Picture nominees were films either released in December or given wide release in the New Year. Winning an Oscar or even getting nominated is as much about studios doing a strategy or ‘playing the game’ as it is about doing an excellent effort. Don’t forget this is showbiz. Even awards of merit like the Oscars, guild awards or even critics circle awards need to be campaigned and marketed for the win.

The expansion from five Best Picture nominees to a maximum of ten back in 2010 opened doors to a lot of films that were released in much earlier months to have better chances of earning a Best Picture nomination. Dunkirk is one of two films released before the month of November that received a Best Picture nomination. Even before the Oscar season began, Dunkirk was seen as a favorite to be nominated for Best Picture. I myself am relieve to see it as a ‘summer survivor.’

Dunkirk is not just a simple re-enactment of one of the first major battles of World War II. It delivers in the human side of the story as it delivers in the action of the battles. This explains why while the summer movie season of 2017 was known for being lackluster, this movie was a top highlight. And a top-quality highlight too.

PyeongChang 2018: Seven Canadians To Watch

Canada Olympic

Two days ago, I did a blog focusing on the foreign athletes to watch for at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Now it’s time for me to focus on the Canadians to watch out for. We may not have the superteam we had back at the Vancouver 2010 Games, but we’re still a winter sports superpower and feature some top contenders throughout the sports. Sports Illustrated predicts Canadian athletes to win a total of 30 medals including nine gold. That’s third only to Norway and Germany. Without further ado, here are some Canadians to look out for:

Mark McMorris – Snowboarding: Now Saskatchewan doesn’t come to mind to most in terms of producing top-notch skiers. However the hills and mountains are high enough to breed some good snowboarders. Mark McMorris is one of the best ever. He already has 16 X-Games medals, including seven gold, won in both the Slopestyle and Big Air events. He’s also famous for being the first ever to perform a ‘cork 1440’ in slopestyle. His feats and charming personality have made him a huge celebrity for fans of snowboarding and extreme sports.

Major titles have eluded him in the past. His best result at a World Championships is a silver in 2013. As for the Sochi Olympics, McMorris had broken a rib two weeks before. His bronze in Slopestyle is actually seen by him as a miracle. Here in PyeongChang, he wants to win gold. He has two chances: in Big Air and Slopestyle. In both events, he will face rivalry from Norway’s Marcus Kleveland, who is the first ever to do a ‘cork 1800.’ In Slopestyle, he will be challenged most by the US’ Red Gerard and Japan’s Hiroaki Kunitake. In Big Air, he will face rivalry from American Chris Corning and his Canadian teammate Maxence Parrot. The hills in Korea will determine his fate.

Kaillie Humphries – Bobsledding: Women’s bobsledding has only been contested four times in the past, but Canadians Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse are already the only female double-gold medalists. However Kaillie appears poised to achieve a feat none of the male bobsledders have ever achieved: winning the same event three times.

It’s not to say it hasn’t been without its difficulties. After Sochi, she traded partners with Melissa Lothholz. She has won two World Championship silvers since. Here in PyeongChang, she will have former hurdler Phylicia George as her partner. As her former partners of Heather Moyse and Melissa Lothholz, they will both compete in PyeongChang with different drivers. Humphries’ attempt to return to the top will be challenged by the German sled driven by Stephanie Schneider and the American sled driven by Elana Meyers, which actually won at last year’s Worlds. PyeongChang could be the final chapter for Kaillie’s legacy in the sport.

Pyeongchang medalsAlex Harvey – Cross Country Skiing: Cross country skiing is in Alex Harvey’s blood. His father Pierre competed in cross country skiing in 1984 and 1988 and gave Canada its best ever results at the time, and they weren’t even Top 10 finishes! That just shows how much progress Canadians have made in nordic skiing. In fact Alex himself delivered two Top 10 finishes at the Vancouver Games, including a fourth in the Sprint.

Harvey has won a medal at every World Nordic Championships ever since the Vancouver Olympics including two golds: the most recent being in the 50km last year. He’s hoping to win the Olympic medals that have eluded him throughout his career. However he has only made the podium in three World Cup events this season. His biggest challenges come from Switzerland’s Dario Cologna and two Norwegians: Martin Johnsrud Sundby and rising 21 year-old Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. PyeongChang could finally give him the break he’s always been pursuing.

Mikaël Kingsbury – Freestyle Skiing: Canada has won three of the seven golds in men’s moguls skiing. There’s Jean-Luc Brassard in 1994 and Alexandre Bilodeau in 2010 and 2014. Mikaël Kingsbury is seeing to make it four for eight. Kingsbury has developed a top reputation in the event. He first finished third in the 2010-2011 World Cup season but has come out on top every World Cup season since including this year.

Major events have been his weakness. He’s been on the podium for moguls at every World Championship since 2011 but has only won gold once: in 2013. Also it was in Sochi in which he, not Bilodeau, was the Canadian most expected to win gold, but won silver instead. He will be challenged here in PyeongChang by Japan’s Ikuma Horishima, who handed him is only World Cup defeat this year, and Kazakhstan’s Dmitriy Reikherd. This could be Kingsbury’s year.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir – Figure Skating: Ah yes. Figure skating. Ever since 1984, Canada has bagged at least one figure skating medal in every Olympic Games since. Many expect 2018 to be Canada’s strongest team ever. Leading the pack is star ice dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. The pair have been inseparable on the ice since 1997 when Tessa was eight and Scott was ten. Their skating magic has resulted in Olympic gold and silver as well as seven World Championship medals, including three gold.

After they won silver at the Sochi Games of 2014 behind their American training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White, it appeared they won everything they needed to and retired after Sochi. However they returned to amateur competition starting in 2016 and acquired former Canadian ice dance pair Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon as their coaches. The plan worked to success as they returned to the top of their sport. Of course they want to end their careers with a final gold medal, but they will face challenges from all three American pairs, most notably Maia and Alex Shibutani, and the French pair of Gabrielle Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron. This is their chance to end their Olympic careers as they started.

The Canadian Hockey Teams: The news broke months ago. The NHL won’t allow any of their players to play at the Olympics. This is not permanent for the Olympic Games, but it is a drag for many who enjoyed. Heck, opening the Olympics to NHL pros allowed Canada to win gold in three of the five occasions. It does not however mean Canada doesn’t have a chance for the gold. Canada’s men’s team consists of pros, but mostly from the American Hockey League, the predominantly Russian Kontinental Hockey League, the Swedish Hockey League and Switzerland’s National League. Canada’s team is predicted by Sports Illustrated to win bronze with Sweden to win and Russia to take silver. Chances are the Canadians could surprise.

As for the women, Team Canada has always made it to the gold-medal final of every Olympic tournament since women’s hockey made its Olympic debut back at the Nagano Games of 1998. The inaugural competition is their only loss of the gold. The team in PyeongChang is coached by Lauren Schuler from that team in Nagano consists of thirteen from Sochi 2014 and ten newcomers. All but one play for Canadian teams. However Team Canada has finished second to the US at ever Worlds since the Sochi Games and the Americans promise to be the Canadians’ toughest rival. They’re coached by Cammi Granato who was part of the US’ gold-medal winning team in 1998: the US’ only victory in women’s hockey. Can Team Canada make it five in a row? Only time will tell.

Canada’s Curling Teams: If hockey is our national past-time, curling would rank second. Many people wonder how? It’s a gift from Scottish immigrants to us. Canada has a habit of blending things from the ‘old country’ into our national fabric. Our love for curling has paid off on the Olympic level. Ever since curling was officially added to the Olympic program at the Nagano Games in 1998, all ten Canadian teams have won medals and have even won gold five of the ten times. Sochi was especially a treat as it was the first Olympics where both the men’s and women’s team won gold.

As for the lineup in PyeongChang, the men’s team is headed by Kevin Koe who headed the Canadian team that won at the 2016 Worlds and the women’s team is headed by Rachel Homan whose team won the World Championships last year. New for Pyeongchang is mixed doubles curling. Canada’s team is headed by Winnipeggers Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris. Both have gold medals from past teams: Kaitlyn in 2014 and John in 2010. However they’re not the favorites as Swiss pair of Jenny Perret and Martin Rios beat the Canadian pair 6-5 to win. As of yet, Canada has never won gold at the Mixed Doubles Worlds. Could this be their year to finally shine?

And there you have it. Seven Canadians to watch out for in PyeongChang. There’s many more to talk about but I’ll let the action at the Olympics do more telling. It all starts Friday the 9th at 3am PST. Can I wake up that early to see the opening ceremonies live? We’ll see.

VIFF 2017 Review: Suck It Up

Suck It Up

Erin Carter (left) and Grace Glowicki play two old friends trying to rekindle their friendship after a tragedy in Suck It Up.

The VIFF is my best chance to see a Canadian feature film each year. I got my chance with Suck It Up. I’m glad I saw it.

The film begins with Ronnie collapsing by a lawnmower drunk. Ronnie has just lost her older brother Garrett. Faye is in Vancouver having a job interview for a school board job she really wants when she learns the news about Ronnie. Ronnie was her best friend until Faye broke up with Garrett last year. She is encouraged by Ronnie’s guardian aunt and uncle to come over to Calgary. Faye meets with them all and they feel the best way to help Ronnie recuperate is for her and Faye to go someplace for a getaway. Faye decides to go to their old cabin in Invermere.

At first, you think things won’t work. Faye is the cool one under control while Ronnie is outrageous enough to flash her breasts to any car full of guys passing by. Once in Invermere, they try to make themselves comfortable in the cabin. However it seems Ronnie is making herself all too comfortable with every guy she meets up with. Especially this creepy guy names Dale who rubs Faye the wrong way. As Ronnie is getting closer to a guy names Shamus and his freewheeling friends from the bowling alley, Faye meets a guy of her own. His name is Granville. Granville may come across as geeky at first because of his asthma and diabetes, but the two connect as Faye is charmed by his artistic dreaminess.

Things prove too much for Faye as Ronnie’s craziness is cramping her style and her life. Faye tries to have a good time, but can’t deny that she has things to take care of in her life, like a potential job in Vancouver. One day, Ronnie and her friends come after a day of fun and give Faye some lemonade. It’s after Faye drinks it that she finds out it’s laced with MDMA, and just 1/2 an hour before her job interview on Skype! Faye humiliates herself during the interview.

Even though Faye is given a second interview days from now, Faye appears to be the one falling apart now. It’s not just about the interview and dealing with Ronnie. It’s because Faye is having trouble dealing with Garrett’s death. She can’t handle that she didn’t answer the call from Garrett’s phone just hours before he died. She came to Invermere with Garrett’s ashes and two envelopes from Garrett: one for her and one for Ronnie. She open’s Ronnie’s envelope instead. Even hearing info about Garrett from a woman names Alex who works at the town ice cream parlor makes things all that more frustrating for Faye.

Then the two decide to hold a party at the cabin. All of their Invermere friends are invited and they all show up, including shady Dale and his mud-filled inflatable pool for mud wrestling. Ronnie’s in a partying mood but Faye is having issues. It’s still all about Garrett. Spending time with Granville doesn’t make things easier and talking with Alex makes things worse. Then Ronnie films out what Faye did with her letter. She confronts Faye with harsh words about the phone call from Garrett’s phone. This leads to a fist fight where they both end up in the pool of mud. But after that, the two suddenly make peace and resolve all that happened. Even the opened letter. It turns out Garrett was a controlling person in his life and tried to control both of them. Faye and Ronnie pack up with Ronnie being in great spirits and not looking as troubled as she was at the beginning. They promise to get together again soon.

At first, I found this comedy entertaining. Then I did a bit of thinking. This is a kind of comedy that I can see the script working in Hollywood. Have you seen a lot of the Hollywood comedies in theatres now? They’re pretty dreadful, eh? They’re relying too much on jokes with shock value and even lewd or crude one-liners to get a laugh. They make you think they’re that desperate for laughs. This comedy doesn’t need to rely on one-liners or crude jokes. All it has to rely on are the characters and the scenarios to make this work. That’s what made this comedy work. We have a bizarre situation of two friends who are two opposites going away to a resort town to help one recover from her brother’s death. The other friend has unresolved issues over his death too. The mix of the two causes havoc, but it all ends when they get into a fight where they accidentally end up in the mud wrestling pool. Then the friendship is rekindled and they’re both able to make peace with his death. To think Hollywood couldn’t think this up, but Canadians did!

The film is also about ironies. The two girls are complete opposites. You first wonder how on earth they became friends in the first place. You first think Granville is a nerdy guy, but he becomes the perfect one for Faye. There are even times later on when you wonder which of the two are having a harder time dealing with Garrett’s death.  It’s the fistfight that becomes the turning point where Faye and Ronnie are finally able to resolve things and go back to being the good friends they were. In the end, both get over his death when they come to terms with what a control freak he was in his lifetime. Even seeing Ronnie toss Garrett’s ashes off a cliff with them still in the jar is a bit of comedic irony too.

One thing about the film is that it doesn’t try to mess with the crowd too much. The subject of death and how Ronnie’s family is full of cancer-related deaths even makes you wonder if this would become a tragedy soon, but it doesn’t. It’s able to take a dark troubling matter and turn it into a good comedy. It also won’t get too manipulative. One thing you’ll notice is that there are no flashbacks to when Garrett was alive, nor are there scenes of Garrett coming from nowhere to talk to either of the two. Another thing about this film is that the story lines are placed out very well. I’ll admit the film starts on a scene that makes you think it could have been given another take, but the film gets better over time and the whole story is kept consistent from start to finish.

This film directed by Jordan Canning and written by Julia Hoff was very well-done and well put-together, even more than most Hollywood comedies nowadays. This is kudos for Julia because this is her first screenplay for a feature-length film. Erin Carter did a great job as Faye and Grace Glowicki was great as Ronnie. The film needed them to be in their characters to make it work, but they were able to keep their roles from being one-dimensional. I addition, they had the right chemistry together to make this story work on screen. Dan Beirne was also very good portraying the misfit Granville who wins Faye’s love. Toby Marks was also great as Alex: the one caught in the middle between Faye and Garrett.

Suck It Up is a Canadian-made comedy that is way better-done than most of today’s Hollywood comedies. It starts out sluggish and even may appear to tread into ‘drama territory’ at times, but it ends on the right note.

 

DVD Review: Sing Street

sing-street-banner-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rio 2016: Seven Canadians To Watch

Canada Olympic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AND ONE TEAM:

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

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

 

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: Bridge Of Spies

ST. JAMES PLACE

Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, a lawyer in the middle of the height of the Cold War, in Bridge Of Spies. Mark Rylance (centre) steals the show as his subject.

Bridge Of Spies is a Spielberg drama I missed out on seeing during its original theatrical release. I only saw it once it was a choice on a flight I took heading home. It was a good choice.

The film begins in 1957 with Rudolf Abel arrested by CIA agents as he’s trying to read a secret message. He is taken away but is able to keep the message. As Abel awaits trial, American lawyer James Donovan is assigned to defend him. The US government believes him to be a KGB spy but Donovan wants to have a fair trial because an unfair trial may be used as propaganda in the USSR. Donovan meets Abel whom is very welcoming to Donovan but will not cooperate with the US Government for any revelations in the intelligence world.

Donovan knows he has a heavy task in defending Abel. He’s serious about it but no one, not even his closest family, expects him to make a strong defense for Abel. Nevertheless Donovan is persistent and continues to seek acquittal for Abel despite an angry American public, persistent hate mail and threats on the lives of him and his family. Abel is found guilty on all charges. Before sentencing, Donovan asks the judge that Abel receive a prison sentence of 30 years instead of the death penalty because he feels Abel may become a bargaining chip with the Soviet Union. Further difficulties continue as Donovan is unable to win a Supreme Court case where evidence against Abel was tainted by an invalid search warrant.

Meanwhile two innocent Americans find themselves in the hands of Communists. One is US air force pilot Francis Powers whose plane is just shot down between the USSR-Turkish border. He’s able to escape his doomed plane and tries to steer his parachute into Turkey but fails and becomes captive. The other is Frederic Pryor, an American economics student studying in Germany just as the Berlin Wall is being built. He studies in West Berlin but has a girlfriend in East Berlin. He tried to bring her with him to the West but is arrested as a spy.

News gets to Donovan of the two men arrests. He’s even offered a deal from the USSR of the exchange of Abel for Powers. Donovan is insisting in a 2-for-1 deal of exchanging Abel for both Powers and Pryor. However he has the challenge of dealing with Soviet agents and a CIA that’s interested in only getting Powers back. The whole deal puts the governments of three nations– East Germany, the USA and the USSR– in a heated debate with Donovan make the outcome work out right. The end result is historic.

This is yet another film about war Steven Spielberg does focus on. There have been many films of the theme of war he’s done in his career. The wars he have depicted on screen have spanned time from World War II in Empire Of The Sun and Saving Private Ryan to World War I in The War Horse to the Civil War in Lincoln to even revenge missions in Munich.

Here he tackles a war that’s less about brutality but more about ideology and had victims of their own: the Cold War. Although there wasn’t as much blood shed, the Cold War did put a sense of paralyzing fear in the world, especially in the United States, with a possibility of nuclear war and armageddon. Thus the ‘duck and cover’ scene. Ask anyone over the age of 60 about doing all those ‘duck and cover’ practices at school. People were constantly being suspected as spies on both sides and there were reactions of hysteria to those accused of spying or treason. The construction of the Berlin Wall at a time when Germany was divided between the capitalist West and the Communist East is an example of the war.

The story takes us back to the 1950’s at a time when Cold War hysteria was at its highest. Neither side could be trusted if one from the other country came in to visit. That explains why even innocent visitors could be seen with suspicion. People arrested as spies for the other side were huge headline news. Most of the public wanted them dead with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg still fresh in their minds. It’s easy to see why someone like James Donovan would be so easily vilified by the American public and even face a possible shooting. The film shows why James’ efforts in the prisoner trade were necessary in the Cold War. It was something that was able to ease some tension on both sides.

Spielberg does a very good job of showing what the Cold War was like. Instead of showing fighting that’s common in the wars, he focuses on the more tense moments of the Cold War and captures its tense feel most people of that time felt. The screenwriting by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers was very good in providing insight to the moments in history and keeping the key elements of the situation. It didn’t focus too much on Jim’s personal life but it did focus on his efforts and even on the prisoners themselves. It may lack some historical accuracy but it does provide knowledge and keep the audience intrigued. Its one glitch is that it had too sweet of an ending. I don’t think it ended on the right note.

Tom Hanks was very good as Jim Donovan but it’s not at the same level as his most stellar roles. The biggest scene-stealer of the film was Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. He not only matched Abel physically but also gave him character with his love for art and his ability to say persuasive things. Other good supporting performances came from Amy Ryan as Jim’s wife and Alan Alda as Thomas Watters. Janusz Kaminski did a very good job of cinematography, the production designers did a very good job of recreating the 1950’s and 1960’s with their sets and Thomas Newman delivered a very good score to the film.

Bridge Of Spies is very much a story about a lawyer and his pursuits but also the times he had to deal with. Reminds you of some of the political tensions and paranoia that’s currently happening now. Spielberg does a good job of capturing the feel of the intensity as well as the political climate of the story.

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: Spotlight

Spotlight stars Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and MArk Ruffalo as journalists ready to settle the score.

Spotlight stars Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo as journalists ready to settle the score.

I’ll admit I saw Spotlight two months ago and I’ve been procrastinating at writing my review. Now that the Oscar nominations are out–actually only an hour ago– this is a better time than ever.

The film begins in the 1970’s of a priest being fired from his job as a teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Boston. Fast forward to 2001. The Boston Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron. He first learns of the investigative Spotlight team of the paper headed by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson.

Baron gives the Spotlight team a story to chase: a story of a priest sexual abusing children and Cardinal Bernard Law knowing about it and doing nothing about it. It first starts as a pursuit on a single priest who was continuously moved around from school to school. Over time it they would uncover that there were many priests who also committed acts of sexual abuse on school children and they were all covered up by the Archdiocese.

This is one story they had to get to the bottom of. However they’re limited in terms of resources. Plus they need permission to access sealed documents and have a trial or even an inquiry happen and they doubt they can get it from a Catholic judge. They talk with a head of a victims rights group who himself was abused, they talk to other abuse victims, they talk to a lawyer who’s handling the cases of some of the victims and they even find through an ex-priest who tried to rehabilitate pedophile priests that there could be as 90 sex offenders in the clergy. Further research uncovers additional priests moved about upon their actions being revealed and being listed as ‘relocated’ or ‘resigned.’

In September 2001 it appears the Spotlight team is finally ready to release the story. Then 9/11 happens which makes every other news story in the world take a backseat and cause even a further delay of the story being printed. However the wait works for the better as one of the Spotlight reporters, Michael Rezendes, uncovers proof through publicly available documents that Law knew all about the abuse going on and ignored it. Then a major victory. The judge grants them the right to look into sealed documents. Just as they are about to print the story, Robinson confesses he published a list of pedophile priests in 1993 but he never followed up on it. As the story is published, it creates history.

I’m sure that some people would be nervous about this film and declare it ‘anti-Catholic.’ In fact if I were a conservative conspiracy theorist, I would say Spotlight is a film released by an anti-Catholic director who wonders where all the Catholic hate from liberals went once Pope Francis came to power and wants Spotlight to bring it back. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist nor am I a conservative pundit. In fact the film has received positive feedback from Vatican Radio and even the current Cardinal of Boston praised it in showing how the Archdiocese had to confront its wrong.

I will say that I’ve seen bigger even more savage attacks on the Catholic Church in films in the past, especially from Martin Scorsese. In fact I remember watching 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters where the nuns were depicted as total monsters. I feel films nowadays are less anti-Catholic than that of 20 years ago or even 40 years ago. In fact one thing I give the film credit for is that it looks at all sides. It may portray Cardinal Law as a conniver but it wasn’t hard on depiction of the priests. In fact one scene that stuck out to me was when one of the alleged priests was interviewed. He not only appeared confused in how he didn’t know what sexual abuse was but admitted that he was raped as a boy. That not only shocked me but left me wondering how many of the abusive priests were themselves sexually abused as a boy?

On a personal note, I will admit that when I first saw the film, I left the theatre asking myself “Jon, why did you return to the Catholic Church?” It was a dilemma for days but it did solve itself over time. In fact shortly after, I wrote on my Facebook page: “I gave the Catholic Church a second chance in 2003 and it better not blow it this time.” I will never excuse a priest for sexually abusing any child. I believe they should be brought to justice. In fact, Pope Benedict clarified the issue when he said: “Forgiveness is not a replacement for justice.” I know you can’t take back the past however you can improve the future. The Catholic Church has not become blind to the issue of sexual abuse. In fact I learned from one man who tried to enter into education for the priesthood he had to get a criminal record check, an HIV test and a psychiatric assessment. I’m happy that the Catholic Church is taking the best preventative measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

In fact off topic from the film, I will admit that sexual abuse and the various Diocese’s and Archdiocese’s bad handling of it is a problem but I will also say that it’s a problem that goes far beyond the Catholic Church. It’s a problem that exists in other churches as well, it exists within certain families, it exists within school and it even exists within children’s sports programs. In fact this decade’s biggest sexual-abuse-and-cover-up story came not from a Catholic institution but from coach Jerry Sandusky and the cover up from Penn State university. Makes you wonder why the priesthood gets a lot of defamation from the sexual abuse of those while children’s sports coaches don’t get the same defamation. A sex offender is a sex offender no matter what their profession or even if it’s not to do with a profession at all.  Same thing with Universities, especially since it’s only come to light that colleges have a known rape problem but they’re doing next to nothing about it.

Back to the film, I think the biggest thing the film was focusing on was the bad marriage of church and state. Separation of church and state is enforced in the American constitution but it’s not to say it does find its way mixed into politics one way or the other. In fact I don’t think Spotlight attacks the Catholic Church as a whole but actually attack the Archdiocese of Boston. The film presents how the Archdiocese of Boston has such a huge influence over the city. We’re talking about a city with a huge percentage of Catholics and with a history of the Catholic Church giving, providing and influencing the city. No wonder a city like Boston would have such high regard for the Archdiocese. No wonder most Bostonians would look at priests as father figures. No wonder also would that present the biggest difficulty in terms of getting the ugly truth out, especially with people having a high regard for the Church in power and with a Cardinal sweet-talking those determined to get the truth.

The theme of sexual abuse may be very prevalent in the film but I think the biggest focal point of the film was to show a group of reporters uncovering a scandalous story and bringing it to print. One thing is the film doesn’t make like the Spotlight team are the blemish-free good guys of the film. It’s made known near the beginning of the film that this information was given to them five years earlier. They themselves made a big mistake of their own by delaying the story. Sure, they did a whole whack of effort to finally bring it to press in 2002 but they could have done it sooner. I think that was the whole thing of Spotlight is that it was a movie disinterested in making the image of a hero out of anybody. Besides we already hear of the mistakes of having an image of somebody is a bad thing as one abuse victim admitted he looked at priests to be like God. I’m sure millions more have had that deluded image of the priest being like God in their head. However it also shows how easily people can be feel a sense of betrayal by a Church when such atrocities occur. You can’t really blame them for being that disheartened.

I give top credit to director/writer Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer for directing a complex film that’s like a bunch of pieces of a puzzle that had to be put together. This is a story that’s set in the Spotlight room of the Boston Globe and set in various other places throughout and they had to both show all the different parts of the story and make them come together from time to time. They did a good job of making this complex story come together without straying off into unimportant territory. Also they did a very good job of writing a story of sexual abuse that was watchable. I’ve seen other films of sexual abuse that were more explicit like 1992’s The Boys Of St. Vincent. Mind you it was a 90’s thing to do explicit entertainment because envelope-pushing was all the rage back then because 1; you could never put enough nails in the coffin of the Hays Code and 2; because back then softening of scenes or leaving such things out was considered a form of ‘denial’ in art. Anyways these are not the 90’s anymore and watchability is values more. I’m sure if they showed scenes of abuse in the film, it would make it somewhat unwatchable for many. I feel they made a good choice of limiting the topic of abuse to conversations of victims with the journalists. Especially since the top point of the film is how they brought the story to press. Besides I don’t consider compromising elements in a film for the sake of making it more watchable to be a filmmaking weakness. It’s not the 90’s anymore and Tom McCarthy’s not among the likes of Lars Von Trier.

As for acting, there were a lot of great individual performances most notably from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams but none of them owned the film. In fact another top quality of the film is that it’s a combined effort from all the actors to play parts that don’t steal the show and add to the story telling by making it look like a unified effort. Even acting of the smaller roles that that of the abuse victims were excellent and added to the story. Overall this not simply a film that’s well-crafted. This is a film that does capture your intrigue. It’s a combined accomplishment from McCarthy, Singer and the actors.

Spotlight isn’t strictly about the incident. It’s about getting the story to the presses and the battles the Boston Globe had to go through to break the silence and finally get the word out. Keeps you interested from start to finish.

Movie Review: Black Mass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review: Foxcatcher

John DuPont (Steve Carell) tries to be a wrestling mentor to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in Foxcatcher.

John DuPont (Steve Carell) tries to be a wrestling mentor to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in Foxcatcher.

Foxcatcher isn’t just simply an Olympic story with a tragically bizarre ending. It isn’t completely a crime story either. It’s about the people involved.

It’s 1987. Mark Schultz is an Olympic wrestling champion who’s about to do a talk at an elementary school substituting for his brother Dave who was expected to be the talker. The school gives him a small payment for his time. Dave is coach of the wrestling gym married with two small children and trainer of Mark. Although Dave tries to be a good mentor to Mark, you could tell something’s eating at him.

One day unsuspectingly, he’s greeted by John DuPont, heir to the E.I. DuPont family fortune. He offers to have Mark train at the Team Foxcatcher gym in Pennsylvania he created to promote wrestling. Mark agrees but John also wants Dave to coach. Dave turns it down because he has family commitments miles away. Despite that, Mark continues on with John coaching him even living in a DuPont guest house which John sometimes visits. The training pays off as Mark wins the World Championships later that year. John is even seen as a mentor to Mark and all the other wrestlers at Team Foxcatcher.

However something’s not right. John wants the wrestling trophies won by Team Foxcatcher to overtake one shelf of horseracing trophies his family have won over the years. Mark and John develop a friendship to the point John gets Mark to use cocaine. John even mentions his mother paid a boy to be his ‘friend’ when he was younger. His mother Jean who’s part of the DuPont legacy of horseracing is disapproving of his coaching wrestling feeling that it’s a ‘low’ sport. Then one day it happens. While Team Foxcatcher’s wrestlers take a day off to watch a Mixed Martial Arts event, John becomes furious especially when Mark insists Dave won’t join team Foxcatcher. John tells him he will get Dave by any means necessary.

Dave agrees to Team Foxcatcher where he even moves his wife and family over there. Mark however is going through self-esteem issues with the mental abusiveness of John and moves away to train for the 1988 Olympics. Just before the Olympic trials, John has his mother Jean escorted in her wheelchair to see what John has accomplished. She leaves in disgust after seeing John give his back to one of his students.

At the Olympic trials, you can tell something is bothering Mark. He loses his first match and in response cries, wrecks his room and goes on an eating binge. Dave is alarmed at discovering Mark in his condition in his hotel room and works to get him to lose weight in time for the weigh-in. As Mark competes on, he notices Dave prevent John from speaking to him. Mark wins the Olympic trials but both he and Dave notice John is absent. He returned home as his mother died. Mark lets Dave know he can’t stay with John and Team Foxcatcher after the Olympics and asks Dave to leave with him even though John created a promotional video of Team Foxcatcher with Dave asked to do a speech. Mark finishes sixth at the 1988 Olympics where he loses his last match 14-0. As he said, he leaves Team Foxcatcher for home while Dave agrees to remain training Team Foxcatcher in exchange for John giving Mark financial support.

It’s 1996. John watches the promotional video with the part of Mark’s speech about John. This would pave way to the depiction of the eventual murder. However the film ends showing what happened to Mark shortly after.

It’s funny how around Oscar time, it’s common to expect that most movies with big Oscar buzz would have some sort of political message or humanistic message. So it was quite natural for me to think that Foxcatcher might be a film with things to say about Olympic athletes or how they’re treated in the US. I don’t think it was but it did present a unique time in Olympic sport. Many older people remember that until the 80’s, you had to be a complete amateur in an Olympic sport. Even if you made a single penny off your sport, you were ineligible to compete at the Olympics. That all changed in the early 80’s when the IOC changed its constitution from allowing only ‘amateur’ athletes to allowing ‘eligible’ athletes to compete and it would be each sport’s respective federation decide who’s eligible. There were some sports like track and field, swimming and gymnastics that were the first to make the transition and the pay and sponsorship money was good albeit not the same level it is today. Wrestling was one of the sports to catch on later. In Mark’s time, wrestlers could not make a living off their sport unless you were also a coach like Dave. In fact I remember a quote from Olympic gymnast Bart Conner: “The big myth is that Olympic gold medalists can get rich off their gold medal. I know a lot of Olympic champions that are flipping burgers.” So it’s no wonder that Mark would find sponsorship from John DuPont and the state-of-the-art Team Foxcatcher wrestling gym a welcome relief.

I don’t even think it’s a statement about rich people in the United States. Sure, John was born into money as the DuPont family have a dynasty going all the way back to the 18th century. Sure, John appears to be spoiled living in the same gigantic mansion in the middle of nowhere as his parents. Sure, John has the money to make his dream of being a great wrestling coach come true. Sure, John had a sheltered childhood where he was the youngest of four and had a ‘paid friend’ during his childhood. And sure, John has a mother with a superficial attitude as made evident in her comment of wrestling being a ‘low sport.’ However I don’t feel it’s about the American rich.

What I do feel the movie is to do about are the people. Yes, it’s a crime story but it’s also about the people. John appears to be a person who may have been belittled all his life and dreamed of being a successful wrestling coach or manager. He has written successful books on birds but wanted to become successful as a wrestling coach. This is especially hard for him since his family has a tradition of horse racing. Throughout the movie, we get a sense that he felt that something was missing in him. Even after hiring Dave as the coach, we see friction between the two as they’re both training and managing Mark. Sure, it’s common for two coaches on the same team to have disputes but the disputes make you wonder. In fact that scene where John is watching the video of himself promoting him and his gym just before the shooting may be sending the message he always felt underrespected. Maybe it was because he felt like the misfit of the family. Maybe it was because his family never knew or honored his achievements. We’ll never know. There’s no question he shows his mental illness, especially at the end, but it’s just a wonder if his inferiority complex is what caused him to shoot Dave.

The film is not just about John. It’s about Mark too. The 1984 Olympics was of him and Dave winning gold but the time since then was a struggle. Dave was able to marry, become a father and continue as an athlete by coaching at the same time. He was well to do. Mark was the one who struggled. He lived single in a shabby home, he worked a measly job, he received spare cash from school appearances, he was always living in the shadow of Dave. Even though Dave was never the type of brother that would try to make Mark feel inferior, You could tell it was bothering him in that training scene at the beginning where he gives Dave a bad hit. It was easy for him to see John’s offer as a breakthrough for him but a struggle as he was trying to create his own identity while Dave and John had coaching disputes over him. It seemed more like a threesome rather than him. Possibly even sensing Dave was becoming the apple of John’s eye rather than him. Even after his win of the World Championship, you could tell the whole thing would take a toll on him especially seeing how he had to purge himself at the Olympic trials and struggled to make the team. Eventually it did take its toll right at the Seoul Olympics with his sixth-place finish and the threesome ended there. You can easily understand why when Mark moved out, he wanted to move without turning back.

The highlight of the film was the performance of Steve Carell. In fact even his biggest fans would be surprised to see Steve looking different and acting completely different from the way they’ve always known Steve to act. He embodied John DuPont well in terms of physicality and his mental illness but he also made us feel John’s feelings of inferiority which definitely added to the film. The film also has Channing Tatum’s best acting ever. He also embodies the character of Mark well in terms of his desire to succeed and in terms of his insecurities. Although the film focuses more on the characters of Mark and John than on Dave, it’s Mark Ruffalo’s performance that gives added dimension to a person who is both a coach and a father and tries to do the right thing but ends up an unsuspecting victim in the end. Even supporting performances from Sienna Miller as Dave’s wife and Vanessa Redgrave as John’s mother were done great despite being less than what they should be.

The directing of Bennett Miller was also impressive as he focused on both the story and insight into the people involved in the story. The script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman was also good in taking us to the right events even though it did feel slow at times. Even there, I think they were trying to make a murder story that didn’t just simply tell of the events but also give us portrayals of the characters. It’s not to say they haven’t experienced friction about it. There was a story that Mark felt the film made it look like John had a homosexual attraction to him. I didn’t notice it. Besides I later learned John was married for the first and only time at 45 and the divorce occurred just before he met Mark.

Foxcatcher is more than a murder story. It’s also a portrayal of the people involved in both their desires and their insecurities. Often it did feel more like the film was about who than what.