“You’ve only got this time in your life to be young and stupid, so go for it!”
-my advise to young people
Winter Flies is the third of three entries in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars I saw at the VIFF. This Czech film is one that will surprise you.
The film starts on a winter’s day with a young boy carrying what appears to be a gun and wearing an outfit that makes him look like a bear. Turns out it’s a pellet gun. The boy’s name is Hedus. Soon an Audi arrives. It’s driven by a teenage boy with a shaved head named Mara. Despite the meeting together starting on a bad note, Mara decides to invite Hedus along.
The film then flashes to a police office. Mara has just been arrested for grand theft auto of that Audi. The female police officer, Officer Freiwaldova, is not impressed with Mara. He’s 15 and has a pregnant girlfriend back home, or at least he claims so. The film goes frequently from their ‘road trip’ to Mara being interrogated. They interrogate him about the trip and as well about the pink female sweater they found in the car.
Flashing back to the trip, Hedus drams of joining the French legion and asks Mara advise over girls. Mara acts like he knows it all, but soon they spot a girl on the road. She’s an older girl named Bara and looks like she’s abused. However she accepts a ride from the two as they don’t appear too threatening. During the trip, they stop at a park near a small lake. Hedus is having fun being up a tree and talking to Mara. Meanwhile a man is trying to sell them a dog. The boy laugh it off, only for the laughter to end when it appears the man is trying to drown the dog. They go to the rescue of the dog and Hedus even fires his pellet gun at the man. The dog is now theirs.
Back at the police office, Freiwaldova tries to get Mara to map out the trip, but he refuses and even hits on the Officer. Freiwaldova is frustrated with dealing with Mara. This is a long process as the Officer keeps on asking questions as she’s smoking cigarettes she puts in an ashtray with a fly in it. Continuing on the trip, the three come to a man who’s willing to give the three shelter for the night. They think it’s okay, and Bara sees no problem as long as she can protect herself. However things go wrong when they notice the man is about to rape her. That’s when Hedus and Mara act in and start acting violently to the man. They then take off again. However it’s soon where Hedus tries coming onto Bara. It’s there where she demands to be let out. So that’s all that’s left in the trip. The two boys, the dog and Bara’s pink perfume-scented sweater for them to masturbate over.
Overnight doesn’t seem to stop them. They learn they’re in a self-driving Audi as it can drive itself even while Mara is asleep at the wheel! In the morning, Mara learns they’re close to the town where his grandfather lives. However when they get to his house, Mara find his grandfather on the floor suffering from a heart attack. Mara, more concerned for anyone, gets his grandfather to a nearby hospital. Flashing back to the interrogation scenes, Freiwaldova is hoping to use this incident to find out more information about Mara. She calls the hospital to find out the name and tells Mara one of the men died last night. That makes Mara cry and confess information. It’s right after that where she admits she lied and says she did it to get any info out of him. No doubt Mara is pissed off.
Reflecting back to the trip, the Audi does eventually find itself caught by police in a small Czech town. It’s only a matter of time that the car is stopped and Mara is arrested. Hedus was nowhere to be seen. It’s the end of the road for Mara with him being at the police office, or is it? Hedus is outside the police office and the Audi is close outside. Hedus also found a ladder that reaches up to the office Mara is interrogated in. Hedus is sly enough to fire his pellet gun on all the police vehicles. That’s enough to distract all the officers and leave Mara alone in the office. Alone except for the fly in the ashtray coming back to life. Then Hedus climbs up the ladder and tries to get Hedus to escape. They’re back on the road again!
We should really hate those two jerks. One is stupid with an overactive imagination. The other is an irresponsible rebel with complete disrespect to just about everyone, including the police. We should also hate the two at the very end. However one critic made a point that I agreed with. They said the two make the rebellion and the irresponsibilities of adolescence look charming and even funny. I have to agree because that is the magic of art. It can take characters that we would look down on in the real world and make them look likable and even charming. We see that here as Mara does bring out the charm of the anti-authority jerk we really should hate. Hedus also brings out the charm of the weird boy with an over-the-top wild imagination. That was what the story is about in a nutshell: two adolescent misfits on a wild ride.
The film not only brings out the characters’ charms but may also remind us of our own adolescent ‘glory days.’ There are many scenes that were funny and hilarious, but would look terrible or disgusting in real life. Like when Mara is being a jerk to the officer, or when the two start hitting on Bara right after she was about to be raped the night before, or even when the two masturbate over Bara’s perfume-scented sweater. It’s a guilty pleasure to laugh at moments of stupidity like that because they will remind us of us and our own stupidities. I’m sure you remember the days you used to flip the tweeter to whoever you wanted! The film has other humorous moments as well like when the fly in the cigarette ashes appears to come back to life or when the two boys are able to sleep in the self-driving Audi with no problem. The latter should also be symbolic as it appears the two boys appear to be on a trip to nowhere. Maybe they don’t really care if they don’t have a destination, as long as they’re away. That’s another joy of being young: venturing into the unknown.
One thing to take note is that even though the two are characters of teens we should hate, Mara does show some vulnerability. One case is when a man is about to drown a dog. Mara gets Hedus to fire his pellet gun at the man while Mara goes to rescue the dog. Also that scene where Mara and Hedus are seen helping their grandfather who is having a heart attack. It sends you the message that Mara does have a heart, despite his rebellion and carelessness. Also that scene where Mara is crying when he thinks his grandfather has died shows he still has a child-like innocence in him that comes out when you least expect it. Those are scenes that bring out Mara’s redeeming qualities and make you actually like him and feel for him. He’s not the heartless jerk we’re first led to believe he is.
We should give a lot of respect to Slovenian-born director Olmo Omerzu and Petr Pycha. Who would’ve thought this was Pycha’s first ever feature-length script? Pycha’s story and Omerzu’s direction help make this film and its characters entertaining and charming in ways you least expect it. Tomas Mrvik was very good at the young protagonist Mara. This is Mrvik’s first film but he succeeds in making Mara hatable, but charming at the same time. Also acting for the first time is Jan Frantisek Uher. He did the idiocy of Hedus very well and surprised us all in showing Hedus is trickier than we thought. Lenka Vlasakova was excellent as Officer Freiwaldova. She did an excellent job in delivering the more dramatic parts and made them work for the film.
Winter Flies is the Czech Republic’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was nominated for the Crystal Globe for Best Film at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival where Omerzu won Best Director. The film is also quite remarkable for including a lot of elements in a story of teenagers most teen films, especially those made by the Hollywood system, wouldn’t include. Stealing an Audi, allowing it to self-drive while asleep at the wheel, teen boys talking about getting ‘pussy,’ the two masturbating and climaxing in their pants, I doubt Hollywood would dare to make a teen-themed film with scenes like those!
Winter Flies is a humorous story. However the funniest thing about the film is that it makes likable characters out of two we should really hate!
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that has got a lot of people talking since its release. Talk is of its unique story line, but also of its themes.
The film begins seven months after a teenager from Ebbing, Missouri named Angela Hayes was brutally raped and murdered. The case remains unsolved. Mother Mildred Hayes goes to the office of businessman Red Welby to rent three billboards outside her home and unused for 30 years to post a message directed to the police of Ebbing, especially officer Willoughby, advertising what she sees of a lack of action. She isn’t even afraid to be interviewed by the media where she doesn’t hesitate to mention the negative treatment of African Americans by the police.
This hits the police hard. Chief Willoughby is angry about this, but sympathetic to her situation as DNA tests failed to result in a lead. Officer Jason Dixon is a lot more hostile as he goes about angrily arguing with Mildred, threatening Red, and even arresting Mildred’s African American co-worker from her shop on suspicious marijuana charges. Dixon is the cop in ebbing who has been acting the most hostile to African Americans.
Outside the police, the hype surrounding the billboards creates a lot of heated discussion throughout the town. Many throughout the town find it insensitive as Willoughby is battling terminal pancreas cancer. Robbie is upset about it, especially since it made him a victim of harassment at school. Her ex-husband Charlie, who’s currently dating a 19 year-old named Penelope, even visits and violently blames her for Angela’s death.
Nevertheless Mildred stays firm, even despite knowing she can expect violence any minute. Mildred even receives a surprise when she learned an anonymous person gave her money to keep the signs active for another month. Her dentist makes mention that he heard the story, but she impulsively reacts by using his dental drill on his fingernail. Chief Willoughby brings her into questioning after the incident, but accidentally coughs up blood on her. It’s obvious his cancer is getting worse and he will die very soon. Willoughby is to be in the hospital for a set period of time, but leaves early despite doctor’s demands. Willoughby sets out to the lake to have an idyllic day with his wife Anne and two daughters. The next day, he commits suicide, leaving behind suicide notes for Anne, Mildred and Jason.
The police react with hurt over Willoughby’s death. A male customer in Mildred’s store reacts angrily over his death and even threatens her. Jason reacts to his death by assaulting Red in his office and even throwing him out of the window. This is all witnessed by Ebbing’s new chief of police, who happens to be black. On his first day, the new Chief fires Dixon. Dixon however does not return his badge, claiming it’s missing. Right after Anne reads her suicide note, she angrily hands Mildred her note. Willoughby tells her she’s not responsible for his death and he’s the one who paid for the extra month, admiring her stunt and wishing her justice in the future. Shortly after, the billboards are set ablaze.
Jason learns he has a note from Willoughby waiting at the police office. He goes during a night during the closed hours. Willoughby writes he thinks Dixon would make a great detective as long as he learns to slow down, think and not react so hostile. Mildred reacts to the sign burning by burning the police office, believing it to be closed and no one there. Right in the blaze, Dixon comes falling out of the building in from of Mildred with the suicide note and the Angela Hayes case in his hands. Dixon is hospitalized for his burns in the same room as Red, recovering from Dixon’s assault. Dixon apologizes.
After Dixon is released, he goes into a bar. He comes across the male customer who threatened Mildred. What catches his ear is that he brags about an incident similar to the Angela Hayes murder. Dixon gets into a brawl with him, but only to use the brawl as opportunity to gather DNA evidence for the Angela Hayes case, as well as his Idaho license place number. He even phones Mildred to inform her. However the DNA results prove unsuccessful and that the man was an armed forces officer overseas at the time. To which, Dixon returns his badge.
After an unsuccessful date with James, who witnessed Mildred torch the police officer and cover her up, Mildred sees Charlie on a date with Penelope and even learned he was the one who burned the signs. Mildred gives him a bottle of champagne and tells him to treat her well. The film ends in a way one doesn’t expect and even leaves one questioning.
The thing about this film is that the audience will expect the film to be about something and for it to end in a certain way, but it doesn’t. Most of you probably expect this film to be like a crime story where those billboards succeed in bringing Angela Hayes’ killer to justice, but it ends in a completely different way. The film may be about the themes you think it’s about, but its main theme appears to be something else. Yes, there’s the theme of racism in there. We see that even in the name of racist officer Jason Dixon; possibly a reference to the Mason/Dixon line under which Missouri was a ‘slave state.’ Sure, there’s the theme of police brutality and how they sometimes act before they think, especially in Ebbing as we witness. However the film is a lot more. The film has themes about stories and truths. There are the stories we hear, the ‘truths’ we assume, and what is the real story. We see that in the town of Ebbing, Missouri, we see it in the individual residents, we see it in people’s family members, we see it in their police force, and we see that in the media team filming story after story.
I feel the biggest theme of the film had to be about two people who were polar opposites that somehow found themselves coming together at the end as they’re both fighting their personal demons: demons they both had in common and their own personal demons.
The first demon is their impulsiveness. Mildred Hayes is a mother angry because of what she sees as justice denied. She wants her daughter’s murder solved and hopes those three billboards will be the trick to do it. She appears ignorant towards how her son Robbie feels about the issue and is ignorant over his hurt and depression. Mildred is a woman fast on the draw with what she says and fast on the draw for the way she reacts. We learn how impulsive a person she is when she impulsively attacks her dentist just by simply mentioning he learned of the story. He didn’t voice support for it or show anger for it. He just mentioned it and that’s all it took for her to drill that hole in his fingernail. We also see her impulsiveness as the billboards are set ablaze right after Chief Willoughby’s death and she rushes out to put out the flames. The sign company would later fix the signs as it was part of her policy. Jason Dixon’s impulsiveness and acting before he thinks is also a problem. He feels that using brute force or use arrests to look menacing would get justice done. His violence even becomes a case of revenge on Red Welby. He doesn’t hesitate to use his racism when carrying out his police ‘efforts.’ This all makes the police unit of Ebbing look bad.
Both also had their own separate demons. Jason had his racism problem. It’s evident as he lives with his mother who also has a racist attitude. It’s obvious where he learned to be bigoted. Mildred also had her problem with her family life. She had just gone through a divorce with her abusive husband and is trying to live life again despite everything. Her ex-husband has not lost his abusive ways despite the divorce and even while he’s dating a woman half his age. There’s even the memory of the last words she said to her daughter. Words of anger: “I hope you get raped!” And it happened as she was murdered. Maybe it’s her own personal blame.
The most bizarre thing is that Chief Willoughby eventually ends up being the mediator between the two and hit was his suicide that would lead the two onto their meeting and their eventual road to healing. However it was not without its friction immediately after. First came the hate from the male customer to Mildred , then Jason assaulting Red Welby witnessed by the new Chief of Police, then Jason’s firing and finally the billboards being torched. It was through the suicide notes to Mildred and Jason that we all learn what really happened despite what everyone else thought. It’s that scene when Jason comes out of the burning police building in from of Mildred holding the Angela Hayes file for protection that it was a turning point for the behavior of both. The film does a very good job of placement of both the main characters and the events. That scene where Jason is in the hospital recovering from his burns in the same room as Red especially serves as a scene of the main characters knowing they need to change.
One of the top qualities of a film is delivering an ending of a film that the audience doesn’t expect or anticipate, but turns out to be right. We all thought that Mildred’s hopeless date with James would end up in a brawl with Charlie just after Mildred buys the bottle of champagne. Admit it! We all thought she’d smash it across his head! Instead she gives it to him and tells him to treat Penelope well. A sign of her personal changes. Most of us all thought that Jason’s evidence he collected from the brawl with that customer would lead to Angela Hayes’ killer being identified, but it doesn’t. It shows how Jason has become a person who now thinks before he acts, but not the result we hoped for. Even that common plotline in police movies where a cop saves the day after losing his job gets defeated there too.
SPOILER ALERT – Do Not Read This Paragraph If You Don’t Want To Know The Ending: That end-scene where we see Mildred and Jason in the same car on their vigilante mission against that man will surprise a lot of people and even ask “That’s it?” I even thought that too. However it does seem appropriate as it’s a case of two impulsive people who were two polar opposites and even at each other’s throats find themselves together as allies. It even makes one wonder if the ‘abrupt’ ending was the right decision. However I constantly remind myself of what Sean Penn said many years ago: “Movies should leave people asking questions rather than give the answers.” Maybe that’s the quality of the ending; get the audience to decide for themselves what happens next.
This film is the best work of writer/director Martin McDonagh. Dark comedies appear to be McDonagh’s expertise as he has delivered before with In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Here, McDonagh delivers something I thought would be impossible. I was surprised to learn this is a drama-comedy of a mother trying to get justice for the rape-murder of her daughter. I find nothing funny at all about rape and murder, or even the hurt family members go through. However McDonagh achieved it through clever plotting of the story and the events as well as placing of the humorous dialogue without compromising the drama behind it. He delivers a story that’s very thematic and gets people thinking.
The acting performances definitely boosted the film’s excellence. Frances McDormand’s performance as the protagonist was an excellent mix of both drama and humor. For those who saw her in Fargo, you’ll know she knows how to make that work. That’s where she won her Best Actress Oscar. Her ability in handling a character that’s both dramatic and humorous again shines here and could win her another Oscar. Also Oscar-worthy is Sam Rockwell who plays what first appears to be a stock character of a redneck cop, but later shows his dimension after the later chain of events. Also a standout is Woody Harrelson. He delivers an excellent performance as the cop under fire who handles the billboard situation cooler than Dixon and even uses his suicide as the event to start the resolve. His character even makes the words in his suicide notes sound like poetry. There were also minor supporting performances that stood out and owned the film like Lucas Hedges as the son hurting inside, Caleb Landry Jones as the well-meaning businessman, Peter Dinklage as the man trying to win Mildred despite his hopeless chances, Abbie Cornish as the wife of the chief, and John Hawkes as the abusive ex-husband trying to change.
The film also features a lot of standout technical aspects too. There’s the cinematography from Ben Davis that add to the power of the story. There’s the editing from Jon Gregory that places the chain of events and plotlines together in a creative way. There’s also the addition of music from the mix of classic songs from the 60’s and 70’s to the blending of Carter Burwell’s score in between scenes
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film whose best qualities are delivering a story different from what you thought it would end up being. You will appreciate it for being just that.
I was lucky to see a lot of Canadian film this year at the VIFF. The last Canadian film I saw was Indian Horse. It touches on a dark moment of Canada’s history, but it also gives a ray of hope.
The story begins with Saul Indian Horse in a rehab clinic for alcoholism. He is around other First Nations people who tell of their experiences being raised in a Residential School. It’s there where Saul needs to make sense of his past.
His first memories come back to 1958: before he was taken to the School. He had a grandmother who spoke in her Ojibway language and still practiced Indigenous spirituality. Her daughter, Saul’s mother, was raised in the School. It changed her terribly. She called the mother’s religion blasphemy and would only speak English. The grandmother would be undaunted and would comment on how she was drinking the ‘white man’s drink.’ Their first son, Saul’s older brother, was to be home from the School temporarily, but was terribly sick. Eventually the brother died. Saul never saw his parents again.
It was just Saul and his grandmother shortly after. The grandmother took Saul to a remote location to try to hide Saul from being taken by authorities to the School, but she died. The authorities did find Saul and took him to the School. The first day was terrible. Saul was joined by a boy named Lonnie who spoke nothing but Ojibway. They were told how they would be made to speak English, revoke their ‘pagan Indian religion’ and not act like ‘savages.’ It all started with the cut of Saul’s ponytail.
The School was where the First Nations children were ‘schooled’ and ‘raised.’ They weren’t taught much in school as far as education went, but they were taught a lot of the Catholic religion. As far as ‘raising’ the children, the priests and nuns ‘raised’ them through abuse and humiliation, even keeping them captive in the basement cage at times. Saul witnesses it all and is even victim to the abuse. He witnesses Lonnie constantly beaten for speaking Ojibway, Lonnie’s failed escape and being held captive for punishment, one girl held captive for behavior and even dying in the cage, and her sister later committing suicide.
Saul did find a way out of the horror. There was one priest, Father Gaston, who appeared to be less strict than the others. He introduced the boys of the school to the sport of hockey. The school had a hockey team and the boys were allowed to watch Hockey Night In Canada. Saul wanted to play but he was too small at first. Fr. Gaston allowed him to tend the uniforms and clean the ice. That time allowed Saul to learn skating for himself and to learn hockey…using frozen horse turds as pucks. Fr. Gaston is astounded by Saul, but the head priest is reluctant to let Saul on the team. After a year, Saul is allowed on. It was a smart decision as the team came the surprise winner at many games with Saul outpowering and outplaying players way bigger than him.
Saul improves so much over the years in hockey, he’s allowed to leave the school early to play for a team on a nearby reserve. Before he leaves, he promises Lonnie he’ll see him again. He’s given a rooming home by an Indigenous couple who are empathetic to what he went through. He even blends well with his new team: The Moose. The Moose are not just a team that plays well, but a team with a brotherly bond. Whenever they win, they celebrate together no matter who the big star is. When they go to a bar to drink, they stand their ground against any bigoted white men why try to fight them.
Years later, Saul is offered a big opportunity to play with a team from a big city, and play professionally for money. The coach, Jack Lanahan, makes an offer in from of Saul’s teammates. Saul refuses at first, but his teammates encourage him to go for it. Saul accepts. Saul is the only member of the team that isn’t white and the team makes him feel like a misfit. On the ice, things aren’t any less discomforting. The crowds taunt him and whenever he scores a goal, they throw Indian figures on the ice. The media isn’t any kinder as a drawing depicts him as a warrior and even the journalist writes him as a warrior. Saul can’t take it anymore and he quits the team, and hockey as a whole. Years later, Saul is doing menial jobs like dishwashing for a restaurant. As he walks the streets of the town, he sees so many First Nations people with drinking problems. Then one day he notices Lonnie on the street with a bottle in his hand. That leads to Saul dealing with his own bout of alcoholism.
It’s 1989. Saul was hospitalized with liver problems. The doctor tells him any more drinking, and he will die soon. Saul check into a rehab centre specifically for First Nations people. There he hears many residential school stories similar to what he endured or what he saw happen to others. One of the counselors ask him if he ever cried. He never has; Saul has always made himself stoic in emotions. He’s asked to go retrace his past. Saul goes back to all the places he knew. First place he returns to is the residential school. It’s no longer running and is now just a shabby building. As he tours the place, he’s reminded of the memories of the ice rink where he learned to play, of the basement where students were locked up, and even the stairway where we learn Fr. Gaston used to perform ‘abuse’ on him. Saul returns to the land in the woods where he lived as a child before being sent to the school. It’s there Saul cries for the first time. It’s also there where he experiences a reconnection with his family and his indigenous heritage. This time he feels the pride. Then he returns to the reserve and is welcomed by his foster parents and The Moose with open arms.
This film is remarkable because it touches on a subject that remains the darkest blemish in Canadian history. The residential school system was set up with contempt in indigenous culture. The white English-French Canadians who ran Canada over a century ago always saw indigenous culture as ‘pagan,’ ‘wicked’ or ‘demonic.’ They felt they were doing the right thing by ‘whitewashing’ the indigenous people. Instead they created a huge mess that was very hurtful to the indigenous people. I attended high school in downtown Winnipeg and I saw firsthand the social problems the indigenous people endured from the late 80’s onward like alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness, teenage pregnancies, gang violence and suicides. One scene that stuck out for me was when the white authorities were taking Saul away to the schools as his grandmother lay dead beside him. They only cared about taking Saul: they didn’t care about the recently-deceased grandmother at all. What does that tell you?
It’s only until revelations of abuse at the schools, both physical and sexual, surfaced in the 90’s after the system was dismantled that we finally got our answers why the indigenous had all these problems. It’s only now since the beginning of the 21st century that efforts have been made to reconcile and to clean up this mess. The stories experienced by the children that were put in the schools were echoed in the 2012 novel Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. The novel has earned huge renown and even won awards since its release. The story of Saul is a story commonly echoed by many indigenous people that were ‘prey’ to this system.
Now adapting Wagamese’s novel into a film would prove to be a challenge. This was a story that needed to be told, no matter how painful the details. However the goal was not just to simply create a film, but create it in a ‘movie’ format so it can be viewed by a wider audience. Direction ended up in the hands of Stephen Campanelli who actually has a reputation in Hollywood as a cameraman, mostly for Clint Eastwood’s films. Campanelli has become Clint’s most trusted ‘camera eye’ since The Bridges Of Madison County. Scriptwriting was given to reputed Canadian scriptwriter Dennis Foon, but not without consultation with Wagamese himself.
The film had to include a lot of important elements of what happened both in the lives of the protagonist and what the indigenous peoples endured over the decades. However if this was to be a movie, the film had to be made into something watchable. The days back in the 90’s when we used to admire directors like Harmony Korine and Lars von Trier who’d take the unwatchable and shoved it in people’s faces are long gone. Making it ‘watchable’ would be a huge challenge. The subject of child abuse is never easy to write about. Seeing images of bigotry toward the indigenous children makes it additionally harder to watch. I don’t deny that anyone who went through the system will say that the depictions of abuse were ‘light’ in comparison to their experiences. However they were very good in telling exactly what they went through. The priests and nuns insulted them, humiliated them and even tortured them whenever they did wrong or didn’t live up to their standards. I may be Catholic, but I felt a lot of wrath towards the priests and nuns who taught at the schools when I was watching. I even thought: “They’re in hell now!” However the film also pointed to their mindset too. The film gave the impression that the priests felt the using abuse to teach and punish was the right thing to use not just on the indigenous, but in raising children as a whole. We shouldn’t forget there were people back in the 50’s that thought using abuse to raise children and punish them was the right thing.
Another element the film had to include was the common prejudices indigenous people received which helped lead to their lifelong identity crisis. The image of indigenous people has always had a difficult time. I don’t want to get started about all those ‘cowboys and indians’ movies of decades past. Imagine an indigenous child watching one of those. How’s he supposed to feel about his identity? The film does a good job in showing the identity crisis the indigenous continued to face just after Saul leaves the school. They would face prejudice whenever they’d go into a bar or any other place mostly filled with white people. Whenever an indigenous would make news of an accomplishment, they would be subject to journalism depicting them as a ‘warrior.’ That scene of Saul reading over that news story is something very common. There are a lot of white people who think that depicting the indigenous as ‘warriors’ through sports names like Redskins or Tomahawks are doing the right thing. Instead it only adds to their inferiority complex.
I think the purpose of the film is to show Saul’s experience as an indigenous person from childhood to adulthood as difficulties shared by most indigenous people in Canada. Throughout the film, I was thinking that this film is not based on a true story. It’s based on a thousand true stories. I’m sure there are many indigenous people who will see the abuse or bigotry or feelings of inferiority happening to Saul and the people around him and feel that this is their story too. This is a mirror of what happened in their lives too.
However going back to how this film was to be in a ‘movie’ format, it still needed to be watchable. There were certain harsh truths that could not be hidden from the movie, but the story is about finding a way out of the harshness and even finding a feeling of belonging after it all. The story of hockey makes for excitement and gets you cheering for Saul. Those in the audience who never read the novel want Saul to come out the winner. Even after we see all that Saul has been through, we want Saul to come out triumphant after all the ordeals he had been through in his life. The ending is the highlight because the end scene of Saul’s recovery and coming to terms with his past shows a ray of hope. All of Canada has seen the harm the system has done to the indigenous people. Even the indigenous peoples of Canada themselves don’t want to hurt anymore. They want to live their lives and be seen as people deserving of respect. The end scene may be a bit simple and may be seen as ‘sugar coated’ by some, or even a ‘prodigal son’ moment by a few, but it’s also part of the theme of hope. That scene where Saul returns to his foster parents and the Moose greeting him is a reminder of those that will never leave you no matter what. There are people that will find you when you’re lost.
Director Stephen Campanelli and writer Dennis Foon did a very good job of bringing the novel to the big screen in movie format. There were some noticeable imperfections and even a thing or two that could have been done better, but that doesn’t stop this for being an accomplishment for Canadian cinema. As for author Wagamese, unfortunately Wagamese died on March 10th of this year at the age of 61. It’s unfortunate Wagamese didn’t live to see its debut at the TIFF. Many in the indigenous communities say he’s still here in spirit.
The actors did a very good job in their roles. All the actors who played Saul did very well, but the standout had to be Sladen Peltier who played Saul at 9. He never acted before, but he was excellent. Forrest Goodluck was also very good too. The 19 year-old from Albuquerque has professional experience already through roles like Hawk in The Revenant and has two films to be released soon. Even newcomers like Ajuawak Kapashesit and Bo Peltier were impressive. The film shows a lot of good young indigenous talent in Canada that have a promising future. The music was a good mix of original score by Jesse Zubot and modern-day indigenous music or indigenous pop.
I know I’ve often said about Canadian film that there’s two groups: Quebec and English Canada. I’ve often elaborated how Quebec is the class of the field while English Canada is struggling with its identity in film. This is a film that I feel can change that. This is a very professionally-done film about a story that creates a lot of intrigue and gets one hoping for the protagonist. Oh, remember I said that Campanelli was a cameraman on many of Clint Eastwood’s films? Well, Eastwood himself is an executive producer of this film! This film was a big hit at the TIFF and won the Audience Award at the VIFF. I heard during a Q&A that this film will have an American release in April. That could open more doors for Canadian film in the future.
Indian Horse attempts to do something tricky in film making: attempt to make a ‘movie’ out of a hard subject in Canadian history. It succeeds in doing so, albeit imperfectly, and even serves as a ray of hope for the future.
Learning of Martin Scorsese doing Silence caught my intrigue: Scorsese doing a film about Catholic missionaries. The big question would be how would it turn out? Would it be pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic? Or something else entirely?
It it the 17th Century. Portuguese Jesuit priests Rodrigues and Garupe are sent to Japan to spread the faith and to find Father Ferreira. Ferreira was sent as a missionary from Portugal, but has been forced to watch the brutal executions of people he helped convert to the faith and has since apostatized. In their first stop in Macau, they came across one of the converts who himself watch executions happen. He’s now a paranoid alcoholic.
Once they arrive in Japan, they arrive in the village of Tomogi. They learn that Catholics have resorted to an underground church. The people are relieved to see they have a full priest available but the priests learn of the samurai searching out Christians to execute: commonly called ‘The Inquisitor.’
Both priests go to different islands. Garupe goes to Hirado Island to avoid having the village threatened and Rodrigues goes to Goto Island in search of Ferreira. He comes across the man from Macau who betrays him in front of an old samurai. The samurai has Rodrigues and the Catholic converts arrested and taken to a prison in Nagasaki. The samurai warns Rodrigues to renounce his faith or else the other captured Christians will be tortured. The samurai give the Christians a chance to step on a rudely-carved crucifix to renounce their faith. One man refuses and he’s beheaded on the spot. Rodrigues has to witness this from his prison cell. Later, Rodrigues is taken to a shoreline where three Christians from Hirado and even father Garupe are to be executed by drowning. Even though Garupe refuses to apostatize, Rodrigues is horrified by what he witnesses.
Finally Rodrigues gets to meet up with the apostate Ferreira. Ferreira tells him after 15 years in Japan, Christianity is futile in Japan. It’s best that he apostatize. They day before Rodrigues goes on trial, he hears the torture of five Christians who had apostatized. Then the day comes. Rodrigues is brought to trial by the shogun and is presented the chance to step on the crude carved crucifix to apostatize. Rodrigues appears to hear permission from Christ and steps on it. He is distraught. Rodrigues spent his remaining years in Japan married and searching out goods from ships incoming from Europe. His job was to identify Christian items from non-Christian items. The ending will definitely lead to a lot of conversation.
We should keep in mind this is not exactly a true story. Instead this is a film adaptation of a book of the same name written in 1966 by Japanese author Shusaku Endo. Whatever the situation, this is a film that presents a huge challenge to one’s faith. Even one with the strongest of faith and convictions can find themselves questioning what they would do in a situation like this. We should remember this is not a case of Christian martyrdom where the priest is the first to be executed. The followers are executed first as a pressure to get the priest to apostatize. The methods of execution are also horrific such as slowly dousing prisoners in hot spring water slowly and painfully to burning them alive wrapped in grass. I’m sure some would ask what would they do in this situation? Is it a selfish thing to hang on to one’s faith while the others are tortured and killed?
I’m sure a lot of people would be suspicious of a film like this coming from Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has had a reputation of a lot of negative and even blasphemous depictions of Catholicism and the Catholic faith. The biggest controversy was in 1988 when The Last Temptation Of Christ hit the theatres and there were protests galore. This film does not give a negative depiction of the priests. Instead it presents the challenges of faith such as the pressure to apostatize or the treatment of sacred images. One thing about the film is that the ending of the film is sure to give a lot of discussion of the final fate of Rodrigues. They say endings should have you asking questions rather than give you answers. It sure worked here as a lot of debate of the ending has sure come about. Even the end scenes after Rodrigues apostatized prompted a discussion between me and another person. This film will have you talking.
One thing it goes to show about this film is that it shows just how difficult it is for a director to make a labor-of-love film. No matter how many hit movies a director may produce, they still have stories deep in their heart they can only dream of putting on film. Even a renowned director like Scorsese would face such challenges. It’s not just in the amount of time it would take to develop such an idea on film– this film is 25 years in the making– but also the willingness of executives to allow it. We forget that film making is a business first and foremost, and business is ruthless. Even after all is completed, it’s then up to how the general public will receive it. In the end, Silence became Scorsese’s lowest-grossing film since 1997’s Kundun. It is a shame because the film is wonderful to watch and showcases a lot of excellent aspects. The film did make the AFI’s annual Top 10 list of the best films as well as the Top 10 list of the National Board of Review.
Martin Scorsese does another good job of directing, even if it’s not his best. He works the film very well and presents it well without his usual trademark of over-the-top blood-and-guts. Sure, there were torturous scenes, but they were a far cry from what you’d normally see in Scorsese film. I feel the adaptation he wrote along with scriptwriter Jay Cocks included the right parts and right moments from the novel as none of the scenes seemed pointless. Also he did a good job of maintaining the dignity of the priests and of the Catholic faith. Maybe this is a change in Scorsese.
Andrew Garfield did a very good job in his portrayal of Rodrigues. This was one year where Garfield played roles of people with strong faith. First was Hacksaw Ridge and now this. He did a very good job in presenting a man with a huge spiritual struggle. Adam Driver was given less screen time and it didn’t allow well for his part to develop. He did do well with what he had. Lia Neeson was also good in his part despite how brief and how limited it was. If there was one supporting actor who could steal the film from Garfield, it’s Issey Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue. He came off as cartoonish at the odd time but he succeeded in making you hate him. Other great works in the film include the cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto. He did a lot of good shots in creating the drama and even capturing the beauty of the scenery. Also worth noting is the excellent production design from Dante Ferreti in both the natural and man-made settings and the costuming also by Ferreti which were top notch.
Silence will most likely go down as Scorsese’s most overlooked masterpiece. It was a labor of love of his that didn’t pan out at the box office. Nevertheless, it’s a good think he made this film as it features a lot of cinematic qualities and gives a lot to marvel at.
You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here.
Every now and then, I like to check a classic movie that’s lucky enough to get shown on the big screen again. This summer I was lucky enough to catch Taxi Driver shown on the big screen. It’s one of my favorite Martin Scorsese films and it was a delight to see it on the big screen. It reminded me how much I missed the first time. Especially of its purpose at the time it was out.
The film is about Travis Bickle: a Vietnam marine honorably discharged who came to New York City from New Jersey to make a living for himself. He takes a job as a taxi driver and his job involves dealing with a lot of dirty work in the city as he’s often taken to the rubbish areas of the City.
He makes an attempt to win the love of a woman named Betsy who volunteers for presidential candidate Charles Palantine. His attempts are not that successful as he buys her a Kris Kristofferson album she already owns and takes her to a movie theatre showing a Swedish sex education film. She leaves the theatre immediately. Travis tries visiting the Palantine campaign office to win her back but is unsuccessful. Though he senses a hint she may still have feelings for him.
Two moments during his cabbie job change Bickle. One day he’s lucky enough to drive Charles Palantine when he comes to NYC. He tells Palantine he’s a supporter and wants him to clean up this town. Another case is when a child prostitute named Easy enters his car to evade her pimp Sport only to be taken away by him. Despite it being brief, he can’t forget her.
Throughout the time in NYC, Travis is lonely and disheartened to see how trashy of a city NYC has become. He’s completely disgusted and he feels he might snap any minute but his fellow cabbies believe he’ll be alright. However he goes out and purchases illegal guns from a dealer named Easy Andy, sets up some personal gun mechanisms and even rehearses what he’s about to say when confronted. On that day, he goes to a store where a robbery happens and he shoots the robber dead.
He has a chance meeting with Easy. He pays money for her but he’s not interested in sex with her despite Easy coming onto him. Instead he has a frank talk with her in a café during breakfast. He learns Easy is not simply some sleazy young teen girl but a young naïve teen runaway named Iris Steensma. He wants to take her out of the prostitution business but she is disinterest, or maybe afraid of Sport.
The following day, Travis has a letter for Iris with money in the envelope. He believes it will be a death wish. However Sport gets a hold of the letter and gives the money to Iris’ next customer. Travis attends a public rally led by Palantine telling the people of New York what he has planned. Travis appears with a Mohawk haircut and appears to attempt to assassinate Palantine but is able to run away.
Then he goes to the hotel where he knows is Sport’s brothel. He approaches Sport, asks one question, and shoots him. Sport survives but Travis is after the bouncer and Mafioso in Sport’s ring in order to free Iris. Travis shoots all three dead but is unable to shoot himself in the end like he intended to. Travis recovers from his coma of three months returning to his job. Iris is back home with her parents whom they consider Travis a hero. The film ends with Travis giving Betsy a ride, leaving us to question what will happen next.
The film rested mostly on the character of Travis Bickle. We have a Vietnam vet trying to reassimilate himself back into daily life. He possesses a set of values and beliefs but his uncoothed attitude causes a lot of social interference with those around him. On top of it, he’s disgusted with what he sees in New York City. He comes across a man who’s about to snap any minute and he knows it. However you wonder when he will snap. We think it will be an assassination the Palantine speech where he could have died a bad guy. Instead he takes a shot at redemption: one that he felt would cost him his life but didn’t. It almost made you feel like he was about to become a martyr figure but is given a second chance in life. It does seem like when Betsy quotes the lyrics from the Kris Kristofferson song The Pilgrim, she’s setting up for what Travis is about to become.
It’s the prostitute Easy/Iris whom changes him and is able to bring about a positive human side of him few notice, including himself. He knew his duty was to free Easy from Sport or whoever else got in his way and it might mean his life but he was willing to do it. He just needed the right motive to do it. He just asked Sport for Iris and he didn’t know who he was talking about. That was all the motive Bickle needed. You often wonder why he did it. For himself? For Iris? To redeem himself in the eyes of Betsy?
Somehow I think Scorsese is trying to make a certain statement with this film. Throughout the movie we see images of Charles Palantine running for president and promising to clean up New York. However it was Bickle who did a small deed of ending crime involving a teenager in a single act. I believe Scorsese had something to say about politicians which he wanted to say through Bickle but it didn’t entirely make sense. We see Bickle dating Betsy who volunteers for Palantine’s campaign, Bickle having Palantine posters in his bedroom, Bickle driving Palantine and even speaking his support to him but we also see Bickle fake what appears to others as an assassination attempt. It’s obvious the message of politicians being cowards who are all talk was the message of that but it surprised me how Bickle would pull that on a candidate he appears to support. He’s even seen after his recovery with Palantine posters. Hard to understand.
Without a doubt, this is one of Scorsese’s best films. It still tells a story that captures people’s intrigue and lets people interpret their own version of the story. It still causes a lot of debate on what certain scenes mean and what the film is all about. One film expert claims the film is about the decline of New York coinciding with the decline of the male hero at the time. Good points. One person even stated how Bickle goes from human trash to almost like a saint-like figure.
No doubt the film was controversial in its time. It would still make people uncomfortable today. The violence however got a lot of people talking. However it’s nothing compared to the violence of movies throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Those movies went all out. Nevertheless the violence here does resonate with you. Even the theme of an act of vigilantism being made heroic in people’s eyes makes one question Scorsese’s feelings of vigilantes. Also that scene where Easy comes onto Bickle after he pays her the money would definitely anger people today. People have less of a tolerance to scenes like that today than they did back in the 70’s.
The film has you asking a lot of questions as you leave the theatre. You wonder was such a shootout necessary to free Iris from Sport? Or was it a case where Bickle was a person bound to explode any minute and it turns out this was the right minute? Also was the incident with Palatine a case where it almost happened instead of ‘faking it’ like I thought it was? Still gets you questioning once you leave the theatre.
One thing a lot of young people would not understand is how Travis Bickle would be disgusted by what he sees out in New York City. Most of us under the age of 50 have grown up accepting the trashy side of our cities as a fact of life and we’ve even seen it turned into a culture via hip-hop music and shown on videos on MTV. However this was the mid-70’s and this trashiness wasn’t as accepted. In fact, it was disheartening. I’m sure Travis represented the disgust seen by many people of how a great city can turn into a trashbin and how buildings that used to be lovely and elegant could turn into dirty places of sleaze. I’m sure that was a common feeling of many from the city. The thing is Bickle is a character who had just moved to the city. Often when I hear Bickle’s disgust of what happened to the city, I think I’m actually hearing Scorsese’s disgust. Scorsese was born and raised in the NYC area and I’m sure what Travis Bickle was seeing was stuff that was breaking Martin’s heart about the city he had always known and loved, until then.
The film is Martin’s. He does a good job of creating a melodrama that’s bound to reach a big climax any moment and you know it will come with a bang. He does an excellent job in capturing the dirt of New York and try to make a redeeming figure of a misfit like Travis Bickle. Days ago, I heard some young people talk about film. They talked how there are no longer any good directors that do film making for the love of it. All for top of the box office. And they talked about directors like Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese who did it for the love it. I do agree with them. However I also believe that the 70’s was the heyday for visionary directors. Hollywood always was a case of top-of-the-box-office. Back in the 70’s, the counterculture crowd welcomed films that defied the rules of the Hays code and took new directions. That’s why Kubrick and Scorsese are considered legends. It’s not to say their spirit has been abandoned. I remember with the increase of film festivals in the 90’s, that spurned about directors of Quentin Tarantino and Lars von Trier who wanted to do their part in film making. Nowadays it doesn’t seem as present as most of the movie going public are more demanding in what they want. They don’t want to feel guilty about ignoring a unique talent or even liking a flavor-of-the month. We’ll see in time if more visionary directors come about.
The film’s excellence is also the result of scriptwriter Paul Schrader. He himself delivers a story that keeps us intrigued as well as allowing us to make our own assumptions of what the story is even after we leave the theatre. Also adding to the excellence of the film is Robert de Niro. He’s the one who has the best sense of who Travis Bickle is both inside and out and keeps us guessing. Also adding to the excellence is Jodie Foster. She plays a prostitute whom you know doesn’t belong on the streets and neither does Travis. Her role was an excellent performance for someone so young. Cybill Shepherd was also good as Betsy but her role was rather lightweight. Nevertheless she did give more to it. Finally a very fitting score from Bernard Herrmann. He already had an excellent resume in film compositions including Citizen Kane, The Day The Earth Stood Still and North By Northwest. Taxi Driver would be his last one before he died months later in 1975. The score is not the John Williams type of score you’d expect in a drama but it does capture the unhappy feeling of the film.
I’m sure Taxi Driver stands the test of time as one of the best thrillers ever. However I feel younger people may not get it. I do believe it’s a movie that still has a loyal following all these years and still maintains its original charm.
The premise of Philomena may make many people nervous about seeing it. The questions before watching it will be “Will it be too disturbing?” or “Will the Catholic Church get knocked on screen again?” There’s only one way to find out.
The film begins in 1951 with a teenage Philomena Lee. She meets a young boy at a town fair whom she completely falls for that one day. Fast forward to 2004. Martin Sixsmith is an unemployed journalist since the Labour Party, the party he works as a government advisor, is beset by scandal. He goes to a party and meets the daughter of Philomena Lee who encourages him to write a story about her mother who was forced to give up her baby boy Anthony more than 50 years ago. Martin is uninterested in writing a human interest story and is more intent on writing a book on Russian history. However it’s after he meets Philomena and hears her story about how it all happened that he changes his mind and investigates further.
Once she was pregnant, she was sent by her father to Sean Ross Abbey, a mother-and-baby home that young unwed pregnant girls were sent to. It was terrible to live there while under the orders of the strict Sister Hildegarde, especially if she was assigned to do the laundries for four year to cover her stay. Nevertheless she was able to see her baby Anthony whom grew attached to her friend’s girl Mary. Then one day Philomena saw Mary and Anthony adopted out of the house. All Philomena could do was watch in heartbreak 30 feet away as her infant son was taken away.
Philomena had tried for years to find out what happened to her son by visiting the convent to no avail. Martin goes with Philomena to the convent only to hear from the nuns the records were lost in a fire years earlier. It’s over at the pub they hear from locals that the records were purposely destroyed in a fire and the children were sold to rich Americans. It’s after Martin’s searches in Ireland coming to a dead end that he decides on an arduous task. He decides to get the answers by visiting the United States and having Philomena accompany him.
Upon arrival in the United States, he learns through various search sites that Anthony and Mary were adopted by Doc and Marge Hess who renamed him Michael. Michael grew up to be a lawyer and a senior official to the Republic Party during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. He also learns news of heartbreak. Michael died in 1995 at the age of 43. The news naturally breaks Philomena’s heart but soon she wants to meet with people who knew Michael.
She meets one colleague and learns Michael was gay and died of AIDS. She meets up with Mary who grew up with Michael and eventually became a mother. Mary reveals Michael had a boyfriend named Pete Olsson. Pete is unwilling to cooperate despite Martin’s please but it’s not until Philomena pleads face to face with Pete that he complies. The visit with Pete is warm as he tells her of Michael’s childhood and even shows home videos. It’s when Philomena sees a video of Michael at the Sean Ross Abbey that she learns Michael tried looking for her while he was dying. She also learns he was buried over at the Abbey.
It’s then when Martin and Philomena return to the Abbey where it all started. It’s there where Martin can confront Sister Hildegard for being strict on the girls and being deceptive to both Philomena and Michael, whom she told Michael he was abandoned and they lost contact with the mother. Hildegard is unrepentant but surprisingly Philomena approaches her and forgives her. It’s right at Michael’s grave that she can finally meet the son she’s always looked for and finally make peace with her past.
The best quality of the movie is its unpredictability for those who’ve never learned the story. There may be some who have already learned the story of Philomena Lee but most who haven’t. If you don’t, then this movie will surprise you in many areas. It’s not just about Philomena’s search but learning of her son and what happened in the end. The film is full of moments. Moments of happiness, moments of tension, moments of relief, moments of surprise, moments of sadness and moments of humor. The film shows that the trip Philomena went on was not just about leaning about what came of her son but also her own personal journey of healing. A healing that needed to happen and occurred in unexpected ways.
Another great quality is the portrayal of the characters themselves. Philomena comes across as a very likeable and charming woman. Nevertheless one would question how smart she is at times and even question her faith if it’s just routine or even strong. Philomena is seen as simple and sometimes blames herself for a lot of wrongs in her life. However she comes across at the end as a stronger person than one would originally think. The biggest surprise is it would be Martin who most seems to have problems and issues while Philomena, who is the one who actually endured trauma, who still smiles at life in the end despite the harshness she went through.
Martin himself comes across as your typical egotistical journalist who appears to want to destroy the Catholic Church with his pen but somehow has a softening of heart once Philomena comes into his life. He will first make one wonder what his true intentions of helping Philomena learn of her son is: to really help Philomena or to get a great story published. In the end, he comes off as rather likeable for a journalist. Proof that even a journalist can have a heart!
I know there may be some Catholic readers that may be hesitant about seeing this film and the way the Catholic Church is portrayed. Yes, it’s surprising that Catholics would be more concerned about their depiction of the Church in a film that’s not by Martin Scorsese than whether Scorsese’s latest has another slamming of the Catholic Church in his latest. Even I myself was a bit concerned about seeing this as I saw The Magdalene Sisters ten years ago and it really was a nasty depiction of nuns and priests as well as a harsh but true look at the abuse the girls received. Philomena doesn’t show the girls in the laundries suffering abuse. It shows then doing the laundry but it does show the heartbreak of a teenage Philomena as she sees Anthony taken away from a distant window. It also shows Sister Hildegard to be unapologetic for all she’s done, not even for the girls that died during childbirth.
Actually in retrospect, I think it makes the Catholic Church look like the bad guy while the Catholic faith comes across as a positive thing in the end. One will first think of Philomena’s Catholic faith as something too ritualistic or forced upon her and even prone to break at one point but one will see in the end that it’s her faith that helps her through her hard times. In fact Philomena’s response to why she forgives Sister Hildegard in from of Martin will astonish the audience and will surprise many about how forgiveness is actually a form of personal strength. As for The Wolf Of Wall Street, Catholics should relax as the most there is in it is a joke about nuns which is the tamest taunting of the Catholic church I’ve seen is a Scorsese movie in years. I feel Philomena’s story of her search is an uplifting story of hurt and eventual healing.
Without a doubt, the standout of the film is the performance of Judi Dench. Judi is one of those actresses who really knows how to excel with age. I may have seen better acting performances from her but her portrayal of Philomena was excellent in showing the many dimensions of Philomena Lee as well as adding a charm to her. Steve Coogan was also very good in what I feel to be the best acting I’ve seen from him. His role as Martin didn’t have the same dimension as Philomena but it was a very good performance. Coogan also did a very good job of scriptwriting with Jeff Pope. The story keeps one interested especially for those who don’t know the story of Philomena Lee. Stephen Frears may not as done as spectacular job in directing as Judi did in acting and as Jeff and Steve did in writing but it is worthy of respect. It may not be as great as his Oscar-nominated directing in The Queen but it’s still a very good job. Finally, Alexandre Desplat does it again in making the film with his score composition.
Philomena may first appear like a harsh movie about a woman hurt by her past and finally looking for answers. In the end it turns out to be more bittersweet than harsh and will leave one feeling Philomena did win in the end.
“My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26 as the head of my own brokerage firm, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”
“Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.”
I was curious about Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf Of Wall Street. I was wondering if it was something Martin’s never done before or just simply a great movie to have out at the time.
The film is a semi-biographical picture of Jordan Belfort, Wall Street scammer extraordinaire. At the start of 1987, Jordan is just a rookie in the stock-broking business who manages to come through and successfully woo clients. He even wins the appeal of his boss who tells him during a dinner that a lifestyle of casual sex and cocaine will help him succeed. However Black Monday happens and the business collapses, leaving Belfort unemployed. While looking for work, his first wife Teresa recommends he work for a small boiler room office that invests in penny stock. He agrees and the rest…is infamy.
That penny stock job pays off for Belfort as his aggressive style of selling earns him top sales and a higher commission rate than at his former Wall Street job. That inspires him to start his own business. It’s starts rather humbly first with furniture salesman Donnie Azoff who lives in the same building as him, along with his accountant parents and several friends of his, three of which were experienced marijuana dealers. He forms Stratton Oakmont, a penny stock company with a professional-sounding name. The business however is fueled by ‘pump and dump’ scamming promoted by Belfort. The business is so successful, it lands Belfort in a Forbes magazine article of him titled ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ and soon attracts hundreds of financers who are ‘young, hungry and stupid.’
The business skyrockets and every successful salesperson benefits with bonuses and privileges. Belfort however benefits the most with big-time pay. With it however came the lavish lifestyle of parties, sex and drugs where Belfort frequents prostitutes and becomes addicted to cocaine and Quaaludes. His excess even leads to the end of his marriage with Teresa as she catches him having sex with Naomi LaPaglia, an attendee at one of his parties whom Belfort eventually marries after the divorce and gives birth to their daughter Skylar months later.
Meanwhile the FBI get suspicious and it prompts agent Patrick Denham to begin investigation of Stratton Oakmont and include the Securities and Exchange Commission in on it. While Belfort doesn’t know what the FBI is doing, he even opens a Swiss bank account to evade being taxed for the $22 million deal made with Steve Madden Ltd. and uses Naomi’s wealthy aunt’s name to disguise it. He even uses friends with European passports to smuggle in cash to the account. However there were some close calls to that scheme when the participation of Donnie and friend Brad would get into fights.
Belfort does sense the FBI is on his case, especially after Denham meets with him personally in his yacht. He hires his own private investigator Bo Dietl to stay one step ahead of the law. But there are soon giveaways, like the time Donnie made a phone call to the Swiss Bank associate from a wire Jordan knew was tapped. He tried to stop him but the seemingly-weak Quaaludes given by Donnie suddenly kick in. By the time he tries to stop Donnie, Donnie himself his high on the Quaaludes during the phone call and is choking on a ham sandwich. Fortunately through a sniff of cocaine, Jordan is able to save Donnie’s life. Nevertheless it doesn’t take away from the threat of legal enforcement. It gets to the point even Jordan’s father is pressuring him to step down. Jordan refuses and the whole office cheers on the rebellion from Belfort and Donnie to the FBI’s subpoenas.
It’s not long before Jordan gets signs that his luck is about to run out. The first big sign came on a yacht trip with Donnie and their wives in Italy. They’re given the news that Naomi’s wealthy aunt has died of a heart attack. Jordan decides to sail to Monaco to avoid capture along the way to Switzerland for the bank accounts but a violent storm sinks the ship. All survive but the rescue plane sent to take them to Geneva for the accounts explodes. This causes Jordan to decide break free from drugs.
Eventually the FBI do crack down on Jordan, while filming an infomercial. The Swiss banker, who was arrested in Florida over an unrelated charge, tells the FBI everything about Belfort. The evidence against Belfort is overwhelming but Belfort decides to cooperate by giving the FBI information about his colleagues in exchange for leniency. Jordan’s optimism over the possibility of leniency starts to run out as his wife decides to divorce him with full custody of their children. Jordan reacts angrily, even abusively, and attempts unsuccessfully to abscond with his daughter while high on cocaine behind the wheel. Any hope of leniency all ends when Jordan interrogates Donnie, warning him in a piece of paper about the wire. Agent Denham finds out about it and it’s the end for Jordan’s freedom and Stratton Oakmont. However after his three years in prison, Jordan has found a new life…hosting seminars on sales techniques.
Looking back, I don’t think Martin Scorsese was trying to reflect on too much of a current theme in his movie. I feel he was trying to tell the story of Jordan Belfort most of the time. Often it would come across as another example of the American Dream gone wrong or how it’s often mistaken as the quest to be the richest. Nevertheless the narration from Leonardo as Jordan does give a reflection of our business society. Many of the quotes Jordan and others say are reflections of the drive of the business world and sometimes a reflection of how many in the business world often are oblivious to the difference between their own greed and personal drive and ambition to be #1.
Another reflection Martin was probably trying to show was how being at the top of the game in the United States is like living in a jungle. The office of Stratton Oakmont did come across as a wild jungle in the corporate wilderness known as Wall Street. All the workers who wanted to excel came across as the vicious ferocious animals with a false sense of invincibility, especially Jordan. Sometimes you’re left thinking the business world is so vicious, one has to make a wild animal of themselves to excel. Is it worth it?
If there are any core themes of this movie, I believe it would have to be about lust and addiction. Right as a young investor when he gets the advice from his boss about a steady habit of sex and drugs, it already set the stage. Jordan became addicted to sex with his wives and other women. Jordan also made a steady habit of drugs to make him excel in the business world only to end up addicted to them. However it appears that the biggest drug in Jordan’s life had to be the money. Working in the stock market, Jordan gets the popular first-hand feel that ‘more is never enough.’ Money gave him that sense of power and invincibility one can get from a steroid. It also made him a slave to his habits and act out of control like any other addictive drug. “We were making more money than we knew what to do with it,” Jordan says. Eventually it would hurt him and everyone else around him in the end.
There was a lot of talk about all the elements Martin included in a film like this like over-the-top swearing, sex and drug use. Even with the violence being rather tame for a Scorsese film, there was question of that too. One thing I have to say is that my expectations in film have changed quite a bit since I was a Generation-Xer of the 90’s. I know I first talked about my Generation X attitude towards entertainment back then in my review of Django Unchained. Back then I had the common attitude that the arts should push envelopes and was convinces that the best artists or best works of arts challenged the status quo of their times. I’ve changed since then and even though I like envelope pushing, I don’t believe it should make compromise for entertainment value or showbiz expectations. Yeah, don’t let being an artist get in the way of doing your job in this biz.
Getting back to the content, I came to the movie with the full knowledge of the 500+ f-words and all kinds of raunch and obnoxiousness anticipated for it. So I went with the attitude: “If you’re going to have this many F-words and all sorts of over-the-top stuff, you better justify it.” I wouldn’t approve of censorship but I would question a lot of what happened in those offices. Was it really loaded with foul language and flipping the tweeter at everyone including the boss? Was there really sex on the workfloor? Or a monkey in the office? Or a marching band one day? Did Donnie really pee on his subpoena on his desk for all the office to see and cheer on? Did a female worker really volunteer to have her head shaved if the team hit a target? I find that hard to believe especially since my own workplace imposes professional behavior. However Jordan Belfort has maintained in many interviews it did happen. Scorsese refused to water things down and Leonardo agreed it shouldn’t have been. I myself wasn’t shocked or outraged by the content on screen. As mentioned earlier, I was more shocked at these things as chronological events. Nevertheless it does have me asking: “Blue Is The Warmest Color got an NC-17 rating but this is rated R?”
This was a very good biographical movie done by Martin Scorsese. It’s not done epic-style like The Aviator. Nevertheless it is central to its themes and depicts Jordan as anyone on Wall Street who’s determined to do what it takes to rise amongst the top. Martin and scriptwriter Terence Winter knew how to do a movie very thematic of that. The main glitches is that I feel three hours is too long for a story like this. I question the length of it and I also question certain scenes like the one of Jordan and Donnie having delayed highs from the dated Quaaludes. If there’s one thing I give it kudos for, it’s that human elements didn’t get lost in it. In fact one scene I liked was near the end when Jordan’s parents are in tears when they hear of his sentence. The parent/son part of the whole story was a good addition and it was most valuable in that end scene. For the record, this is not the first movie of Jordan Belfort’s exploits. The first was 2000’s Boiler Room where a rising star by the name of Vin Diesel played Belfort.
As for the acting, Leonardo was excellent as Jordan Belfort. I was first expecting Jordan to be like Gordon Gecko of Wall Street. However while Gordon was more of a control freak, Jordan was like a Trojan warrior on a mission to conquer. Leonardo did an excellent balance of doing a character who appeared invincible but was oblivious to how out of control he was and ignorant to the limits of his power. Name any movie character synonymous with power–Braveheart, King Kong, Maximus from Gladiator— you can see it in Leo’s depiction of Jordan. Jonah Hill also did an excellent job of character acting in his role of Donnie. I have to say Jonah has really grown with his acting abilities ever since I first saw him play his big doofus roles early in his career. His performance as Donnie is a sure sign of his maturity as an actor over the years.
Margot Robbie has the most underrated role in the movie as wife Naomi: possibly the one person that can bring Jordan back to Earth and remind him of the limits of his powers. Sometimes Naomi appears to be one of Jordan’s drugs and Margot did a great job. There were also good minor performances from Jean Dujardin, Kyle Chandler and Joanna Lumley but the best had to come from Rob Reiner. He was great as the father watching both nervously and heartbreakingly as it all comes crashing down. Actually the whole ensemble caught your attention from start to finish. Hardly ever a dull moment. And the mix of music from various decades also added to the energy rush of the movie.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is an intriguing movie and will leave you shocked at the story being told. However it is not worth the three hours of running time given. Yes it does entertain and there’s rarely a dull moment but it makes you question whether all that time is worth it. Yes, it’s worth seeing but worth three hours of time?
How many of you were surprised to hear of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death? How many of you were surprised to hear of the motives? And now how many of you are shocked over the verdict? I can’t blame you. I won’t talk of this being an issue of racism but I will talk about this being an issue of faulty self-defense laws. Even if racism was an issue of this, it wouldn’t be the only issue. These laws need to be looked at in good detail.
First of all let us have a look at the Stand Your Ground law in the state of Florida that started this hullabaloo. It’s a law passed into legislation in 2005 while Jeb Bush was governor of the state at the time. If you want to have a look at the exact text of the law ,click here. The law states deadly force is unnecessary unless it appears the person feels such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. The law appears to pretty much set the grounds for self-defense and its boundaries, right?
Obviously not. This was brought to my attention from a year-old video from Adam Buckley of A Dose Of Buckley. In that video he pointed out that in the year the Stand Your Ground law was enacted (2005), the number of murders in Florida increased by over 25%. He also pointed out that the per-year number of ‘justifiable homicides’ in the five years of the passing of the law was triple the number of justifiable homicides in the five years before the passing. That’s sad. Stats like those should make anyone want to reconsider either the law or the police and legal system involved in this. Also I liked how he referenced the mentality of the state of Florida. That could have something to do with it!
Now onto the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin side of that law. It was February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon Martin had celebrated his 17th birthday three weeks earlier. He lived in Miami Gardens with his mother and brother. He was an A and B student at Dr. Michael Krop High School. However it didn’t stop him from succumbing to the typical peer pressures of a teen like spray-painting graffiti and owning a marijuana pipe. He was also suspected of burglary once because of police searching him and finding jewelry and a screwdriver. However no evidence was found against him and he was dismissed.
Born to a German-American father and a Peruvian mother, 28 year-old George Zimmerman was an insurance underwriter on his way to completing a degree in criminal justice at the time. He had been married for years and had just moved to The Retreat at Twin Lakes just three years earlier. The previous year he was part of a citizens forum and even protested the fatal beating of a black homeless man by the son of a white police officer. Zimmerman had a history of violence such as assaulting a police officer while intoxicated in 2005. That same year he was also charged with assaulting his ex-fiancée.
Then there’s the neighborhood of Twin Lakes. The Retreat is a gated 260-home community in Sanford. The community was racially mixed with almost half the population white with 23% Hispanic and 20% black. Both George Zimmerman and the fiancée of Trayvon Martin’s father rented homes in The Retreat. The Retreat however had an unsafe feel for many of the residents. From the beginning of 2011 up to the date of Trayvon’s shooting, there were eight burglaries, nine thefts and one shooting. Police received over 400 calls to The Retreat during that period of time, mostly for suspected burglaries. Twin Lakes decided to start a neighborhood watch in September of 2011 and Zimmerman was selected to be the program’s coordinator. During the six-month period Zimmerman, who has been licensed to own a gun since 2009, made seven calls to the non-emergency line to the police. The most recent was more than three weeks before the shooting
Then the evening of February 26, 2012 was the moment when all hell started to break loose. Martin was returning to his father’s fiancée after leaving a convenience store. Zimmerman was driving by on a personal errand. Zimmerman then called police about what looked like to be a ‘suspicious person’ in the neighborhood. Zimmerman observed that Martin was walking around homes with his hand in his waistband. Two minutes later he told the police martin was running. Zimmerman followed him but was told by police not to do so. He stopped and the call ended. However Martin and Zimmerman encountered each other again, things turned violent and that’s when Zimmerman drew out his shotgun and fatally shot Martin. The bombshell: all Martin had on him was a can of Arizona ice tea and a pack of Skittles.
It took weeks of court meetings and legal discussions before Zimmerman was finally arrested for second-degree murder. Zimmerman pleaded ‘not guilty’ due to self-defense. The ‘Stand Your Ground’ law was not used by Zimmerman’s defense team during the trial but is part of the required Jury Instruction of all Florida murder trials. Zimmerman even requested a ‘Stand Your Ground’ hearing but his defense elected to bypass it. Nevertheless Zimmerman was found not guilty.
I’m not going to deny that racial stereotyping may have something to do with the whole mess-up of justice but if it does, it’s not the only thing that is a mess-up. Just as much of a mess-up is the Florida self-defense laws like the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law. In fact current Florida Governor Rick Scott responded to the heat of the highly-publicized news story by commissioning a 19-member task force to review that law just three weeks after the shooting. There were seven public hearing held all around Florida and there was a total of 11,000 comments from the public with three comments opposed to the law for every comment in support. Nevertheless the task force recommended against repealing the statute defending the use of self-defense. Several bills attempting to revise or repeal the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law since the task force have died before a committee hearing.
To sum it up, the shooting of Trayvon Martin was the result of a very paranoid person. George Zimmerman acted before he thought. He caused many alarms in the past and the shooting of Trayvon Martin tragically was his actions coming back to bite him. However a declaration of innocence would not be considered valid, except in the state of Florida. I’m confident in most other states, George Zimmerman would be found guilty and would receive a stiff sentence. They would see his shooting as a result of his paranoia rather than justifiable self-defense. Many people would believe that a black teenage boy in a hoodie is no excuse to panic and suspect crime in one’s area. However the jury in Florida thought otherwise. This is a failure of the law.
The Stand-Your-Ground law was already showing signs of the problem but were overlooked. The verdict of ‘innocent’ on George Zimmerman shows that the law cannot be overlooked any more. Not while someone like Trayvon Martin would be a victim of this. Will they revise the law, or bring it up for debate at the very least? Only time and the efforts of the state of Florida will tell.
WIKIPEDIA: Shooting Of Trayvon Martin. Wikipedia.com. 2013. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trayvon_Martin#Trayvon_Martin>
Hugo is a delightful movie based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. It’s a unique story about how a chance stealing by a young boy changed everything forever.
It all starts in a train station in Paris in 1930. Hugo Cabret has a life no child would want. He lives in the train station completely orphaned and with nothing but a bed and an automaton from his late father whom he hopes to repair. He ended up there after his widowed father was killed in a fire and taken by his alcoholic uncle who would look after the station clock. After his uncle died, Hugo steals food and runs the clock himself from revealing the death of his uncle. If the truth is found out, he will be sent to an orphanage.
One steal by Hugo of a toy part from the station’s toy store owner would change everything. Hugo was able to escape the station policeman thanks to his leg brace being caught in a train. Hugo however loses a book of animated drawings to the toy store owner. For Hugo to get it back, the toy store owner punishes Hugo by making fix his broken toys. The toy store owner is surprised to see that Hugo is very skilled at fixing toys thanks to his father’s teachings.
Soon Hugo catches the attention of Isabelle, the girl who frequently visits the train station. She is an orphan too who is being looked after by the toy store owner, whom she refers to as Papa Jacques. He notices the key she wears: it is heart-shaped. His automaton has a heart-shaped lock. Another link to the mystery. The two spend time together. She sees the clock area Hugo lives and the view of Paris. The two sneak into a movie theatre and see a movie, something Papa Jacques forbids her to see. Later Hugo uses Isabelle’s heart-shaped key on the automaton. The automaton draws a picture of the moon with a spaceship in his eye and the name Jacques Melies.
The two try and search further to see if Papa Jacques really is Jacques Melies. Upon a return visit to the house, they try to uncover the top drawer in his bedroom. Out comes a wide variety of imaginative artist images. Nevertheless Jacques is distraught to learn the children have learned of his secret. It’s only until the children bring a young film student to Jacques that Jacques finally reveals that he really is Jacques Melies, director extraordinaire of the early 20th Century. He explains to all why he became a recluse, because of his films failing as the First World War was taking place. He even burned most of the master copies of his films in a fit of rage during his downtime. It is through Hugo and the film student that he’s able to receive an acclaim from a new generation of film enthusiasts. It is also where Hugo finally finds a family.
The movie is more than just a salute to Jacques Melies and his contribution to film in general. This movie is also a salute to moviemaking and movie watching. Movies achieved their greatness by making people’s fantasies come to life. They took them to worlds never before imagined. They took them to adventures and thrills they wouldn’t experience in their own lives. And to think it all started when a film of a train approaching the station made the audience duck for their lives. Nowadays movies face a lot of rivalry from many entertainment sources. Its biggest rival is now video games which allow the viewer to live the fantasy via an avatar, but movies still capture people’s attention and take them to worlds they never dreamed of.
Even though the movie is very much a salute to movies, it’s also a reminder that even then, great directors like Melies faced downtimes too. Jacques created hundreds of movies in his lifetime but as soon as most of the French public lost their liking for movies his fortune disappeared, his studio became useless, burned his films in anger and lived in obscurity for years. Nowadays we hear countless stories of people, especially greats, who had their moment but fade fast and die in obscurity without a penny. It happens to greats as often as it happens to ‘one-hit wonders’. Showbiz is cruel. Fortunately there does come a time long after their downfall when their achievements are recognized once again. It may be while they’re still alive or it may be post mortem but their greatness does become remembered and honored again.
Overall the movie was top-notch quality. That’s something you rarely see in most live-action family movies. There was no one acting performance that stood out or was spectacular but the performances of all worked excellently with the movie. Ben Kingsley was very good as Jacques. Sacha Baron Cohen who’s known for his comedic characters was great as the comic relief of the movie. The child actors of Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz did an excellent job in their lead roles. The story was very well-adapted and well-edited as it’s able to keep the audience excited, thrilled and interested from start to finish. Martin Scorsese did another excellent directing job. He’s tackled a lot of genres of film excellently and now he achieves another triumph in directing family movies. The score by Howard Shore fit the movie perfectly. The visual effects were also amongst the best of the year. The movie being shown in 3D worked. This was one of the rare times in which the 3D viewing appeared to be less in vain or for extra money and more for the delight of the crowd. It looked like Scorsese knew that if he was to have a movie in 3D, he should have the effects that make it work.
One thing that’s been unique in the film world of recent years is that a lot of well-renowned directors have started to make family movies. Seven years ago, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire) released Millions: a story about a boy who encounters a bag of stolen money and consults patron saints for advice. Many years ago, Roman Polanski did his version of Oliver Twist to make a movie for his children who were twelve and under at the time. Two years ago, Spike Jonze directed the film adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are. Even Quentin Tarantino says he’s interested in doing a family film if the right idea comes around.
Now we have Martin Scorsese with a family movie out. It may come as a surprise since he has been renowned for his filmmaking of some of the grittiest legendary dramas. Nevertheless if Martin was to make a family movie, Hugo would be the perfect fit. The celebration of film in Hugo is something Martin would do well because Martin is known to have a love for film itself. Martin even did a documentary series for the BBC years ago where he narrated the history of film and its genres. In Hugo we see Martin’s love for film as much as we see the reasons why movies have become so beloved. Even Roger Ebert described the move as “in some ways, a mirror of his own life.” And the love of film started with Jacques Melies. Martin Scorsese does more than just make a family movie. He also makes a masterpiece that even adults can appreciate, especially those who love film. The film has been nominated for Best Picture and ten other categories at this year’s Oscars. It is the first live-action family movie since Babe to be nominated for Best Picture.
Hugo is a pleasant film not just in terms of family movies but all films. Very rarely is a family movie able to be referred to as a masterpiece. Very rarely does a family movie deserve to be referred to as a masterpiece. Hugo is that rare.
NOTE: Usually around this time, I start my reviews of the Best Picture nominees. I have five more reviews coming. Best Picture nominees already reviewed are: Midnight In Paris, The Help and Moneyball.