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VIFF 2019 Review: Mr. Jones

Gareth-Jones

Mr. Jones is about journalist Gareth Jones, played by James Norton (left) who seeks to expose a tragedy in Ukraine the USSR is determined to hide from the outside world.

I was interested in seeing Mr. Jones at the VIFF as it’s based on a topic of my interest: the Holodomor or Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. It’s an intriguing story with a relevant message for today’s world.

In 1933, Gareth Jones is a 28 year-old Welsh journalist who is very good at getting stories. He was the first foreign journalist to fly with Hitler and Goebbels at the start of Hitler’s regime while working as an advisor for British statesman Herman Lloyd George. During the time, he discovered of Hitler’s intentions to wage war. His story fell to deaf ears in the press and his job as advisor is dropped due to budget cuts. Despite being dropped, George gave Jones a letter of recommendation. He hopes to use it to go to the USSR to find an investigative journalist. Before he does, he gets a phone call from a friend named Paul Kleb in the USSR. He talks of how the economy is booming in Russia, but he is about to tell of something terrible happening in Ukraine… and then he gets disconnected.

Jones arrives in Moscow. His trip is regulated from start to finish: what he does, how long he stays and where he goes. That’s how things are in the USSR. In fact his job as a foreign journalist is under heavy scrutiny by national officials during his stay and no foreign journalist is allowed outside of Moscow. He arrives at the hotel in Moscow of New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty. Duranty welcomes him and introduces him to his assistant Ada Brooks. Jones is expected to be in the USSR for seven days but he can only stay at the hotel for two days. Duranty offers Jones to stay and partake in the late-night partying. At the parties is all kinds of debauchery from prostitutes to heroin shooting to even homosexual advances. Jones wants none of this as he knows Paul Kleb was killed in Ukraine and has to find out why.

Jones finds a train headed to Eastern Ukraine. He breezes past security to stow away on it. When he arrives in Ukraine, he steps off to see the farmed grains loaded onto trucks by the Soviet army, but people dead in the snow and farmers starving. He tries to get answers. He goes to soldiers putting the bagged grain in a truck. He asks in English where it’s going, but is suspected as a spy. Soldiers go out chasing and shooting after him. Fortunately, Jones is able to evade the pursuit. He comes across some children who sing a haunting song to him of the death and starvation happening around him. He goes to a house which is in a photograph he holds, but sees the residents dead in their beds. Jones goes into a town where he sees the Soviet army take the dead bodies in the snow and pile them in a sled to be buried in a mass grave. They even take a baby that’s alive and still crying. Jones goes into a house where he is able to find living residents. They give him something to eat, which appears to be meat, and from Kolya. He soon learns they’re staying alive by cannibalism, and Kolya is a famine fatality.

Soon Jones is captured by Soviet forces. The Communist government commands him to be silent by using the lives of six British auto workers as hostages. Jones tries to plead with Walter Duranty to expose the truth of what’s happening, but Duranty is ‘in bed’ with the Soviet regime. Duranty has a habit of writing of the ‘Worker’s Revolution’ in the USSR like he romanticizing it. In fact Duranty has the reputation of being known as ‘Our Man In Moscow.’ Ada however is more supportive towards Jones and believes he has to get the story out. This can’t be hidden and knowing that Jones is to be sent back to the UK, she encourages him to make the truth known.

Back in the UK, Jones can’t get any British paper to buy into his revelations of a man-made famine. The government either doesn’t want to believe it, or fear it will jeopardize diplomatic relations with the USSR. This upsets Jones as he knows this must be stopped. The events upset him so much, he can’t stop himself from breaking down in tears in his hometown. However he has an opportunity to talk to William Randolph Hearst while at a newspaper office. Hearst, however is extremely busy and will only allow Jones thirty seconds to state his case. However when he mentions of the death of Paul Kleb, that grabs Hearst’s ear and makes Hearst want to hear everything Jones saw. Finally the story ‘Famine In Ukraine’ makes the front page of the New York Times. Jones is defamed. He is not allowed in the USSR again. Duranty is also defamed, but never had his Pulitzer Prize rescinded. Nevertheless George Orwell is caught in the intrigue of Jones’ pursuits and it inspires him to write ‘Animal Farm’ published ten years after Jones was shot to death.

I’ll admit any story about the Holodomor catches my interest. I’m of Ukrainian ancestry. My great-grandparents arrived in Canada around the 1890’s-early 1900’s. They came here long before World War I even started, before Ukrainian land was annexed as part of the USSR and before the Holodomor. This film showcases the Holodomor and is possibly one of the best cinematic depictions of it, but the Holodomor is not the biggest theme of the film. The biggest theme of the film is about censorship in the USSR at the time. All the censorship that happened in the film is an example of the censorship that happened in the USSR since it began after World War II until it broke down in the mid-80’s to when it dissolved in 1991. All news was censored. Nothing but good news was to be published in Soviet newspapers and whatever negative news could not hit either Soviet news nor news to the outside world. Phone wires were tapped and letters were opened and investigated by authorities before it reached the mailboxes of the citizens or outsiders. Even speaking negative words of the Communist government would get one a jail sentence. The Soviet media promoted propaganda to glorify itself and its Communist system and vilify the capitalist system in the United States.

As seen through Gareth, the Soviet system was also restrictive to outsiders. The system decided if a person from an outside country could visit, where they could go and stay and for how long. There were already six British autoworkers who were treated like hostages at the time and threatened with death to have the UK comply to their demands. You can understand just what Jones had to face in order to get the truth out.

Gareth had good reason to pursue the story. It’s not just trying to find out why Paul Kleb died, but Ukraine had personal interest to him as his mother taught English in Ukraine in the 1890’s. Gareth even had barriers in journalism to overcome once he had his story. He had top journalist Walter Duranty to deal with. Duranty had a big reputation at stake and kept insisting that the Holodomor isn’t happening. It isn’t until Jones meets with William Randolph Hearst that he finally gets a willing ear. The big feud between Duranty and Jones shows how even in what is supposed to be the ‘free world,’ there is still a lot of truths that are suppressed or even denied. Seeing all that goes on can make one wonder if this is happening today in what is supposed to be free countries. If we are really getting this freedom of speech or if we’re getting a lot of concocted stories.

This film is great in making a point about journalism and getting the truth out. There are a lot of truth even in today’s world that need to be exposed, but are covered up. The film does a good job in making a moment of past history, and the journalistic feuding surrounding it, make for a relevant message for today. Even the fact that Gareth was shot to death in 1935 while investigating a story in Chinese territory bordering Russia (which many consider to be a Soviet plot of revenge) reminds us of how many journalists risk their lives to uncover truths.

The film was very good at making its point. However the story didn’t seem to be heading on a straight path. There were times when moments that only deserved a certain time, like all the debauchery at Duranty’s hotel party, was slowed down and given more screen time than necessary. Even the moments of the journalistic feuding and political feuding appeared to take too long. The moments involving Jones witnessing the Holodomor in Ukraine were given the best screen time and the best on-screen depiction. It showed a lot of brutal honesty of the Holodomor, including that of cannibalism. It may have taken over less than half the screen-time, but it was done in excellent detail and gave the right haunting feel to this moment of tragedy.

Veteran director Agnieszka Holland teams up with emerging writer Andrea Chalupa to bring this story to the big screen. The story is one of great personal interest to Holland as she is well-knowledged of the Holodomor. Holland also has renown for her depictions of the Holocaust in some of her films. She does a very good job in directing the story, even if there are some moments of irrelevance or moments drawn out longer than they should be. James Norton does a good job in his portrayal of journalist Gareth Jones, but his part could have been developed more. Most of the parts didn’t have too much development and could have had more done with it. Nevertheless, Peter Saarsgard was able to make Walter Duranty hateable on the big screen. Vanessa Kirby was able to make her role of Ada gain more dimension over time.

Mr. Jones is about more than just about the Holodomor. It’s also about the topic of censorship that is just as relevant now with the ‘freedom of speech’ we’re led to believe we have in the ‘free world.’

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Green Book

Green Book

Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen) is the driver for pianist Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) in Green Book.

Racism has been a common theme in a lot of films up for contention for this year’s Oscars. One of those is Green Book. It has caught a lot of attention since it was released this year.

It’s 1962. Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga is the best bouncer in all of New York City. However the night club he works at is going through two months or renovations. He needs to find work to pay for his one-room apartment he shares with his wife and two sons. At first the only way he could make money was in an eating contest. He’s offered an interview to be a driver for Dr. Don Shirley on an eight-week tour of the Southern US. He goes to the interview, in Don’s apartment above Carnegie Hall, and is unhappy to see Don Shirley is black. Tony rejects at first, Don is insistent due to the strength of his references. Tony consults with his wife Dolores first. She agrees. Tony promises to white her and the boys. One thing he notices is that his accompanying musicians, Oleg and George, will be going in a different car.

They begin the tour in the Midwest before going to the south. The two start clashing at the beginning; Tony being asked to act with more refinement and Don disgusted with Tony’s habits. Tony is especially surprised how Don is so well-educated, not into rock ‘n roll and blues and fried chicken, which Don takes into offence. However it’s during the tour that he notices just how good of a classical piano player Don is. He also notices the racist treatment Don gets when he’s off-stage, including one time having a shabby piano with junk on it on one stage. Then one night, a group of white men threaten to kill Don in a bar. Tony rescues him and instructs Don not to go out with him during the rest of the tour.

During the journey, Tony stays at his own hotel while Don stays at the hotels in the Green Book, which is a hotel guide for African American travelers. At times, Tony can see Don drinking. Don admits to Tony that he is a divorced man and has isolated himself from his brother and his professional achievements. Don also help Tony to write his letters to the family. One night, Tony finds Don arrested at the YMCA for a gay encounter with a white man. Tony is able to bribe the officer for Don’s freedom, which Don sees it as ‘rewarding’ the officer. Another night at a sundown town, a white officer arrest Don and then arrest Tony after being punched by him. Don goes to call ‘his lawyer,’ but the officers get a phone call from Bobby Kennedy to have them both released.

The tour is winding down, but not with one last dispute between Tony and Don. Tony tells Don he thinks he’s ‘blacker’ than him. That causes Don to lose it and lament that his affluence gives him the feeling he’s an outsider to other African Americans while white people treat him like an outsider. His homosexuality only adds to him feeling alone in this world.

The final performance is in Birmingham, Alabama. Before the performance, Don is refused a seat for dinner and being the guest musician changes nothing. Tony attempts to fight the manager, but Don refuses to play. The two find themselves at a predominantly black blues club. When Don performs, the crowd loves him. The two return back to NYC. Tony invites Don up for dinner, but Don shies away. It isn’t until sometime later that Don musters the heart to visit Tony’s apartment. Here he’s made a welcome guest.

The film has been generating a lot of attention, both good and bad. The film’s script was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son. This was mostly told through the point of view of Nick. However the family of Don Shirley was not happy with what they saw. Many claim that Don did not consider Tony his friend, but his associate. Peter Farrelly admitted his fault in not consulting with Don’s family before the film. Actually Peter didn’t know of how many members of Don’s family Don was still in contact with. In fact even that scene of Don arrested at the YMCA with another man raises a lot of eyebrows too since Nick admitted Don never ‘came out’ to them in his lifetime.

I can’t say much for a film that claims to be ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by true events.’ No such film is 100% true. There are always some plot twists and movie cliches added in. In fact one could simply call The Sound Of Music ‘a musical based on a true story.’ The accuracy may be in question, but the film does have a lot of relevance. We think we have racial tension now or a big racial divide now, it was bigger back then. This was a year before Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. This was a year or two before schools in the southern US were desegregated. That ‘Green Book’ for African American travelers was very needed in the South because they could be attacked by hostile whites. Discrimination was that bad back then. There were still public lynchings happening.

One thing the film does is that it gives us something to think about. We’re living in hostile times right now, especially on the subject of race. There are still a lot of misunderstandings between races. The film sent a message that maybe if we stopped, calmed down, and talked things out, we can learn we have more in common that we have differences. Another thing the film succeeds in is testing our expectations of what people of certain races are like. There were many scenes where Tony asked Don about rock ‘n roll musicians and fried chicken. Don was the complete opposite where he played classical piano, was very well-educated, and couldn’t stand the thought of fried chicken. A lot of traits most white people, and not only Tony, would be surprised to see in an African American. Also Tony and his life and lack of education may surprise a lot of African Americans of what whites are like. Like I say, if we took the time to talk, we’d be surprised.

The film may present Don Shirley to be a very wealthy, very successful African American, but the film does show that despite the wealth and high education, Don still feels like an outsider. That’s another theme of the film: personal insecurities. History can easily explain why Don would feel uncomfortable around white people. However his identity, wealth and background has made him feel like an outsider to other blacks also eats at him. That scene where the two stop in the south in a cotton field with a group of African Americans working on and they all stop to look at Don is a symbol of his insecurities. That’s a reminder to us of how there are some that feel they don’t fit into their own race. However that scene where Don plays rock ‘n roll at the jazz bar showed that he had a lot to overcome and that he actually does fit in. Also the scene at the end where Tony welcomes Don into the house at Christmas, though demanding his family not refer to black people by that certain slur, sends a message that a major way to overcome racism is simply befriending people of another race.

You can dispute the truthfulness of the story but you will have to acknowledge that the script and story are put together very well. Nick Vallelonga isn’t just Tony’s son. He’s had years of screenwriting experience. Teaming up with Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly on the script, they deliver a great story that’s worth knowing. Farrelly also does a very good job in directing this film. A complete change of pace from the charmingly crude comedies from the Farrelly Brothers. Viggo Mortensen was solid in character in his role as Tony, but Mahershala Ali was also excellent in his role. It will leave you questioning who was the lead actor in the film? The film also had some good supporting performances such as Linda Cardellini as Dolores and various other members of the Vallelonga family in their roles. The mix of previously recorded music and the original music of Kris Bowers helped make the film as well.

Green Book may leave you questioning the accuracy of the story, but it’s also an enlightening story nonetheless. It will leave you thinking as well, which is what we need at a time like this.

Movie Review – Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is about a teen who becomes a Spider-Man and becomes part of a ‘Spider-team.’

We’ve seen many live-action films of Spider-Man in this century. This year, we had an animated twist with the Spider-Man story with Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. The big question is will this story work? Or will it be an insult to Spider-Man fans?

Miles Morales is having the difficulty of going to a special private school, which includes a dorm. He doesn’t want to go to that school, but his police-officer father insists because of his intelligence. After school, Miles visits his uncle Aaron Davis to watch him spray paint graffiti, but is bitten by a radioactive spider. Miles son learns he has superpowers of his own.

Miles goes searching in the same area for the spider, but comes across a particle accelerator built by Wilson Fisk who desires to find the universe where his deceased wife and son are. Soon Peter Parker as Spider-man appears to destroy it, but is confronted by Fisk’s enforcers Green Goblin and Prowler. It’s a losing battle for Spider-Man as he lays dying, but hands Miles the USB drive to disable the accelerator before he dies. While still trying to learn his abilities, Miles damages the USB.

The whole of New York is in mourning over the death of Peter Parker. While at the grave, Miles meets up with Peter B. Parker: a down-and-out Spider-man who’s divorced from his wife. Peter B. had just been dropped out of the accelerator. To get back in, he agrees to train Miles. They soon learn after breaking into Kingpin’s laboratory and confronted by Fisk’s female associate in crime, Peter will die if he doesn’t get back into the accelerator to his universe.

Soon they’re rescued by Gwen Stacy: Miles’ classmate and also part of the universe. Gwen brings them to Peter’s Aunt May, whom Peter thought was dead. May is sheltering other displaced and deteriorating heroes of the Spider-Verse like Spider-Man Noir, Peni Parker and Spider-Ham, the spider bit by a radioactive pig. Miles attempts to help them, but his lack of experience with his new-found powers gives the Spider-Verse members a lack of confidence.

Things get worse for Miles as he learns his uncle Aaron is Prowler. He returns to May’s house, where Peni has the drive prepared, but he is followed by the team of villains of Wilson Fisk. Miles is able to free but is captured by Prowler. When Miles unmasks himself, Aaron is willing to be killed by Fisk rather than kill Miles. Miles’ father makes the conclusion Spider-Man killed Aaron.

The Spider-people retreat to Miles’ dorm and Peter B. webs him up and his mouth, feeling he doesn’t have what it takes to battle Fisk. Miles’ father, thinking that Miles isn’t talking, confesses his feelings for him and tries to make peace. However Miles soon learns he can master his powers.

Miles then goes to Aunt May where he’s able to help the other Spider-people work the accelerator and get back to their universe. However they leave Miles to defeat Fisk, insuring him they believe in him. Miles does face the courage to defeat Fisk, help the Spider-people return to their dimensions, and his team and make peace with his father.

Now one thing few people except die-hard Marvel comics fans knew about was that the Spider-Verse was not a new thing. The Spider-Verse came to be back in 2014. So those who think that this is something new and original, they’re wrong. In fact the Spider-Verse includes a Gwen Stacey. However one will be entertained by the Spider-Verse. This is rare in a movie that we get to see six ‘Spider-beings’ get together and be heroes. However the story does put the focus on one individual: Miles Morales, the new person into the Spider-Verse. It is a shame because we were just starting to get into this Spider-Verse. Nevertheless the movie allows it mostly to be Miles’ story and the other members of the Spider-Verse give Miles his chance to prove himself.

The story is very good as it does have a good beginning, middle and end. It actually had to have more of an extended beginning because it’s not just Miles who is affected by the radioactive spider, but five others too. Also it uses the death of a Peter Parker/Spider-Man set the road up for the story of the Spider-Verse to come. The story is not just about the Spider-Verse or even solely about Miles’ role in it. It’s also about family relations too. Miles has a hard time with his father sending him to a private school he hates. Miles idolizes his uncle Aaron, but would have to soon learn that Miles is The Prowler and keep it a secret from his father. That part of the story adds into the drama. However with this being an animated telling of the Spider-Verse, the story has to have humor in it. There’s no shortage of that here.

As for the animation, the animation is excellent. It’s not just 3D animation, but a mesh of comic-book images that add to the film. The mix of the imagery adds into the story, especially with this being a Marvel comic story.

Kudos to Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman for bringing the Spider-Verse to the big screen and creating a story that’s entertaining but not too confusing with all these Spider-beings. The directing team of Persichetti/Ramsey/Rothman do a great job of making the film work in both the story and its imagery. The vocal talent was very good, but top marks go to Shameik Moore for his performance as Miles Morales. He had the big task of being the voice of the lead and he did an excellent job. Mahershala Ali and Bryan Tyree Henry were both great as the uncle and father, respectively. Hailee Steinfeld was a scene-stealer as Gwen Stacy as was John Mulaney as Peter Porker.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse was the animated movie we all needed this year in which the only winning animated movies seemed to be sequels. This animated story of a team of ‘Spider-Beings’ all teaming up at once and then doing their own duties did not do any damage to the Spider-Man story at all. Instead it added an entertaining twist. Stan Lee would be proud.

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Rhapsody

In Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek captures the essence of Freddie Mercury to a tee.

The musical biopic Bohemian Rhapsody came out in movie theatres this year. We’ve seen music biographies before. The big question is does this film simply chronicle Freddy Mercury’s life? Or does it do much more?

The film begins just as Queen is about to step to the stage to perform in the 1985 Live Aid Concert. The film then flashes back to 1970 when Smile is an English band consisting of Brian May, Roger Taylor and singer Tim Staffell. Faroukh ‘Freddie’ Bulsara is a Farsi immigrant who studies and also works as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport. Freddie faces a lot of discrimination for the color of his skin and mockery because of his hyperdontia which makes him look like he has a mega-overbite. However Freddie does lose himself in rock and roll.

One night, Staffell quits Smile in disappointment. Freddie was there attending the show. When he sees what happened, he asks to join the band. The band gets a rocky start as they play at small college gigs, but it looks promising and Freddie fully believes in them all. The rock singer gig does not go well with his family who feels he should earn his living more ‘honestly.’ Freddie also wins the attraction of college student Mary Austin during a clothes shopping trip. They start dating and romancing.

Over time, Queen gets bigger and they soon have to record an EP. It will cost a lot of money and Freddie agrees to sell the van for money. The EP is a success and it attracts major music producers including one from EMI Records interested in the band. The band changes their name to Queen and Freddie even legally changes his name to Freddie Mercury. The band is acquired by John Reid, Elton John’s manager, and assistant manager Paul Prenter. They bring the band to a gig on BBC’s Top Of The Pops where the band lip syncs Killer Queen. As success grows, including success in the US, Mary and Freddie get engaged. However soon after Freddie learns of his bisexuality.

The band try to record their album A Night At The Opera and the song Bohemian Rhapsody, but the song is too long and hard to perform. On top of that, producer Ray Foster is antagonistic on the band for both the song and the music for the whole album. After Foster refuses it as a single, Freddie gets a local DJ to play Bohemian Rhapsody. The song opens to a lot of negative reviews, but also scores big on the charts worldwide. However Freddie starts an affair with Prenter and has to call off the engagement with Mary. Mary is devastated, but agrees to remain friends.

In the film, the band has continued success in the early 1980’s with We Will Rock You. However the band experience tension both by Freddie’s lavish partying lifestyle and the increasing controlling ways of Prenter. Freddie even cheats on Paul with a waiter, but the waiter tells Freddie to find him after he finds himself. The friction between Freddie and the band grows to the point Freddie leaves the band to record a solo album upon the direction of Prenter. However it becomes obvious how much Prenter wants a piece of the action and Freddie both breaks up with him and fires him.

Soon Freddie learns he has HIV right when the devastating AIDS epidemic was at its most troubling times. He returns to the band confessing it was wrong for them to leave. They’re offered an appearance at the 1985 Live Aid Concert which will be broadcast worldwide to raise money for food supplies during the famine in Africa. This will be the band’s comeback concert, but it will take a lot of effort to bring the band back to their level of performance.

Just before the concert, Freddie confronts his parents to make peace with them. Freddie is also supported backstage by a pregnant Mary along with her husband David. Bob Geldof is hoping for a lot of call-in donations through this concert. Then Queen get on stage and it’s like they never missed a step. The crowd is blown away, television crowds are dazzled, and the donations accelerate like nobody’s business. Queen was back and alive!

There have been musical biographies in films done many times before. In order to make a winning story about a musician, the film will definitely have to include the music. That’s what made the musician great. The film will also have to include key events of the person’s life: the artistic moments, the triumphant moments and the struggles, even any tragedies. It’s all a matter of deciding the right moments for the right beginning, middle and end of the film.

The film does a smart move in making the Live Aid Concert the pivotal moment for Freddie Mercury both as the scene where the movie starts before flashing back in time and ultimately ending. The film also does a good job in picking out moments such as when Freddie joins the band Smile, changes it to Queen, first hits it big with Killer Queen releases their iconic Bohemian Rhapsody, faces friction as well as declining fame in the early 80’s, Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, and their return to winning the public at Live Aid.

However the film also risks disappointing a lot of Queen fans because of how inaccurate the story is. Despite Jim ‘Miami’ Beach being the film’s co-producer and May and Taylor being music consultants, The five biggest inaccuracies Queen fans are most likely to notice are, firstly, Freddie was actually introduced to Brian May and Roger Taylor of Smile by singer Tim Staffell when Staffell wanted to pursue further studies. Secondly, We Will Rock You was written and recorded in the late-70’s rather than the early-80’s. Thirdly, John Deacon was actually Queen’s fourth bassist rather than the original bassist. Fourthly, Queen never split up nor did they get back together at Live Aid. Freddie may have had solo work — the most famous being Barcelona: the duet with Montserrat Caballet — but Roger Taylor also had a solo album too. Fifthly, Freddie learned he was HIV-positive in 1987: after Live Aid. Those that know the true Queen story will know that a lot of these moments in the film were mostly common music-movie cliches rather than the truth about Queen.

Despite failing a lot of Queen fans with some of the inaccuracies and cliches, the film does succeed in a lot of ways and even presents some truths even Queen fans knew. Freddie did credit his extra teeth for his singing, he adored his cats, he held outlandish parties, the song Bohemian Rhapsody was considered too long and too ridiculous at first, Freddie did keep his ordeal with HIV and AIDS private as he did not want to be an object of pity, and finally his friendship with Mary Austin lasted until his death and she did live next door to him even while married to David. The film does stick to the truth in a lot of areas, including that of how Paul Prenter was a controlling person in Freddie’s life. However another added quality is that the film does an excellent job of capturing the essence and feel of Queen’s music. Those that haven’t heard much of Queen’s music will experience songs they never heard before. Those that are fans of the band will fall in love with the songs again. Also those that want to be rock musicians themselves will be inspired to pursue their dreams after watching the film. You not only hear the music, but you can also get the feel of a rock performer too.

The film has already grossed $844.4 million worldwide at press-time with $210.6 million coming from North America. However the film has also faced a ton of heat during the awards season. The cause for all of this was for director Bryan Singer. As you know, Singer has faced criminal charges of being a sex offender. How it happened that Dexter Fletcher stepped into directing the remainder of the film upon the departure of Bryan Singer is that Singer was fired after having violent clashes with Rami Malek. Singer, and not Fletcher, was credited as the film’s director. The awards season has seen the film win many accolades which many have voiced their displeasure about. Possibly due to hostility during the #MeToo movement, many are speaking their mind as if they’re saying a win for Bohemian Rhapsody is a win for a sex offender.  I personally feel that Fletcher should have been credited as director. However despite the fact that Singer was fired, people are still unhappy. Makes you wonder what will satisfy them all? Denying the film a release and trashing it altogether? This is a reflection on how toxic and bullying the free speech of social media can be.

Anthony McCarten in cooperation with Peter Morgan may have written a story that was more cliched than truth, but it did capture a lot of the essence of Queen and a lot of the essence of Freddie Mercury. As for the ending, I can understand why they went for the heavy drama by ending with the Live Aid Concert. I’d rather they went with the moment Freddie records The Show Must Go On. Those who know the story behind that will recognize it as one of the biggest triumphs of Mercury’s career and a testament of his mental toughness.

The film also captured the essence of Brian, John and Roger well too. Co-director Dexter Fletcher did a very good job of picking up where Singer left off and creates an exciting experience for the audience. However the biggest triumph is the performance of Rami Malek. Until Bohemian Rhapsody, he was facing the common difficulty of actors of Middle Eastern descent with limited opportunities. It almost seemed like the biggest thing he would ever be known for is playing the Pharaoh in the Night At The Museum movies. This also was not an easy task because Malek was not originally a fan of Queen. However that all changed when he was given the role. Malek was excellent in his performance and will blow away anyone who sees this film.

The actors portraying Brian, Roger and John — Gwilym Lee, Ben hardy and Joseph Mazzello, respectively — also added to the film. Lucy Boynton was also excellent as the friend Mary Austin. Even minor performances like Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, Mike Myers as Ray Foster, and Allen Leech as Paul Prenter did very well with the roles they were given. Julian Day did a very good job with the costuming, Aaron Haye did an excellent job with the set design, and the producers did a very good job in choosing the right songs for the film.

Bohemian Rhapsody has some noticeable errors in the film. However the film succeeds in capturing the spirit of Freddie Mercury, capturing the music of Queen and capturing the experience of a rock star. No wonder it dazzles those that see it.

VIFF 2018 Review: Ben Is Back

Ben Is Back

Ben Is Back is about a son (played by Lucas Hedges) returning home from rehab for Christmas, but under the watchful eyes of his mother (played by Julia Roberts).

Another movie from the VIFF anticipated for bigger release later on is Ben Is Back. The film consists of a lot of dark subject matter, but does feature a lot of elements that make it worth seeing.

It’s Christmas Eve in a New England home. The Burns family is rehearsing at church for the Christmas play. Unbeknownst is that their son Ben has returned from rehab to spend Christmas with them. He sees that the house has an alarm system since he was sent there. Smart parents. When the family arrives, they are shocked to see him there. Ben has fun with his two younger half-siblings at first, but mother Holly, stepfather Neale and sister Ivy are nervous. Holly decides 24 hours and Ben must be in her supervision. Ben agrees.

On Christmas Eve, she tries to take his mind off things by going to the mall. The first person they see is the doctor: the one who prescribe painkillers he claimed weren’t addictive, but were. Holly gives the doctor a piece of her mind. To take Ben away from the frustration, she takes him to a store. Ben notices Clayton, the town pusher, going down an elevator. As Ben appears changing in a store,  Holly notices Ben is taking too long and suspects the worst. Holly shouts to get Ben out.

After that, they go to a church hall that’s holding an AA meeting. In the hall are two or three teens Ben deals drugs to, including one that wants to meet up with Ben later and get ‘done.’ Ben agrees, but that infuriates Holly to the point she takes him to a cemetery and tells him to pick his grave.

The family with hope the Christmas play will take their mind off things, until they see the mother of one of Ben’s ‘customers.’ The daughter died and the mother is looking distraught. Ben is moved to tears during the show. Coming home, they find the house broken into and the dog is stolen. The father pins the blame on Ben. Ben feels he has to help the family out and get the dog back. Ben learns the dog is with Clayton who’s holding it hostage for money Ben owes him. Ben and Holly go out together to get it solved. However there are people who want Ben dead.

Ben soon leaves Holly on his own pursuit to get things done. Holly takes the other car and searches like mad to find Ben. Holly finds herself in the home of the mother of the deceased daughter. Holly tries to be friendly with her. The mother gives her something in case Ben overdoses. Ben meets with Clayton to get the dog back, but Clayton expects a favor involving drug trafficking. While Holly feels lost, Ivy calls and says she’s able to track Holly and Ban through her iPad. As Ben does the ‘favor’ for Clayton, Clayton ‘pays’ him with a special pill. Meanwhile Holly senses Ben in a solitary location, thinking he’s dead. The story ends with a hugely climactic moment.

I’m sure when a lot of you first heard the premise of the film, some of you probably thought “I know where this is going.” The film I’ll bet you were thinking about is Rachel Getting Married. It does seem like it’s starting in similar fashion as Rachel Getting Married where a child who’s in rehab returns home for a special occasion. One thing to say is that a child returning from rehab during a holiday or a festivity is a common occurrence in real life and something a lot of families experience on a day-to-day level. It’s a story that can be played out in real life hundreds of different ways. Some may be redeeming and some may even be tragic.

Ben Is Back is a different story from Rachel Getting Married. Kym goes through her struggles at home, but returns back to rehab as a stronger person. Those who saw Rachel know that’s the main theme is about healing and the struggle to achieve it. Ben Is Back is a different story. Ben Burns is home for 24 hours in a town that’s full of memories of his drugged past. On top of it, Ben is a former dealer who is responsible for leading other teens of his town to their own drug addiction, including one fatal. You hope that Ben stays as strong through the fight the way Kym was, but you see that Ben succumbs to a lot of the pressures along the way. The film ended with a different ending from the message of hope Rachel appeared to have. True, Ben’s ending was more dramatic and almost ended up making for a tragedy, but it made for its own story.

One of the key themes of the film is that of family relations. Without a doubt, the biggest relation of focus is a mother for her son. Holly has seen the hardest of the issue. She has to lay down rules for Ben during these 24 hours. She is also very suspicious Ben will back to his old ways during that time. One key scene is when Ben is talking about drugs to a teen he saw during an AA meeting. Infuriated, she takes Ben to a cemetery and tells him to pick his grave. Of course that was very impulsive and very wrong of Holly, but it represents the frustration of dealing with a child of drugs Holly is supposed to have a ‘tough love’ attitude about it, but doesn’t go about it best. The whole film is a case where Holly wants to keep Ben sober during that period of time, but the events become a case where it’s down to where she just wants him to be alive.

Other family relations play a part in the film. There’s the sister Ivy who’s very nervous about Ben coming home feeling he’ll be a wreck again. In the end, she becomes the one who is best in helping Holly find Ben. Then there’s the stepfather Neal Burns. He feels a load of contempt for Ben and his addiction. When the dog is stolen, Neal touts the whole blame on Ben. Even while Holly is searching, Neal doesn’t bother helping, even referring to Ben as ‘that drug addict’ instead of his own stepson. It’s only until the end that he’s willing to help.

One weak thing about the film is the ending. I know that it ends right at the very moment of the drama, but it does seem like it ends the film abruptly and way too soon. I know directors have two or three alternate endings for a film, but it makes you wonder if this was the right choice for ending?

This is a good film for writer/director Peter Hedges. It may not be his best film as he has had bigger accomplishments in the past, but this is a film Peter can be proud of. Peter’s son Lucas has become one of the biz’s rising stars right now. It started happening with Manchester By The Sea and he’s been on a role. This film is one of two films he plays a lead role in. I have not seen Boy Erased, so I can’t compare. He does a very good very intense performance here. His career can only get better. However the film belongs to Julia Roberts. Even though Lucas plays the titular character, Julia stole the show as the mother. Her emotions and feelings shown in the film are like so many mothers in that situation. She played the part excellently and stole the show. There were other minor performances that were very good like Courtney B. Vance as the stepfather with an axe to grind, Kathryn Newton as the nervous sister and Michael Esper as the heartless drug supplier.

Despite the abrupt ending, Ben Is Back is an excellent movie about the struggles of drug addiction. You might first think it’s a rehash of Rachel Getting Married, but it tells its own story.

Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards

Frances McDormand faces off against Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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.

DVD Review: Jackie

Jackie

Natalie Portman showcases a deep personal angle of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie most of us never saw.

At first I wasn’t too interested in seeing Jackie. I mean there have already been enough made-for-TV movies of JFK and Jackie Kennedy. The film would not only have to justify being made but also its big-screen release.

The film begins with a journalist interviewing Jackie Kennedy in her home just days after JFK’s assassination. It’s like one minute she’s the First Lady living in the White House and the next, she’s a young widowed mother living in a private home miles away. The journalist begins with small talk but the questions move to the assassination and the aftermath.

It is from that point the film flashes back to various moments. Moments when Jackie and John attended Camelot: a musical JFK was captivated by. Moments like Jackie right after the shooting cleaning the blood off her clothes. Moments like being comforted by Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, and White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman whom Jackie would later confide in. Moments like making funeral plans. Moments like her dealing with the priest and her questioning her faith more than ever.

It’s moments like those where Jackie feels more lost than ever as a person. It’s moments like these where Jackie wonders what to leave as a legacy for her husband. It’s during that time she uncovers truths many tried to hide from her, but she knew. It’s also moments when Jackie learns to be strong on the inside. In the end, she regains her faith while talking to the priest. In the end, she makes the final decisions on her husband’s funeral. In the end, she chooses to have her husband’s legacy remembered as ‘Camelot.’

Now keep in mind when this film came out, I was not too interested in seeing it. I mean the role of Jackie Kennedy has been included in too many made-for-TV film. When I saw this film about to be released, I was thinking “This film had better justify its big screen format.” This is not just simply a film that’s a biography. This film focuses on Jackie not even during ten days of her life. This is one of the most critical times of her life as she went from being Jackie Kennedy to a widow in an instant. Many of us know a lot of Jackie Kennedy, but this film presents an angle of Jackie Kennedy few of us knew. The smile and happy charm of Jackie Kennedy we are all familiar with is now replaced with a Jackie Kennedy that is hurting inside. She feels like she’s nothing without JFK. Her faith both in God and in the magic of Camelot has been challenged to more than what she can handle. She even feels like she’s worthless as a mother to her children. That was Jackie right after JFK died. That was Jackie those many days later dealing with the journalist.

We also see another angle to Jackie. This film goes through scenes happening in various moments of time in Jackie’s life. We see some scenes when JFK was still alive but most scenes are various times after his assassination. With those scenes, we see the different aspect of Jackie few knew. We have always known Jackie Kennedy the First Lady to be charming, charismatic, sweet and outgoing. Here in the film, we notice that Jackie is not the prissy, naive Jackie as most of us thought she was. She knew of her husband’s infidelity. She knew of Wanted For Treason posters published by dissenters days before his assassination. She did have concern about tax dollar use for her husband’s funeral. She even considered her publicity an interference: “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.” She even questioned her faith with the priest. These are all aspects most never knew of Jackie Kennedy. However the film also shows Jackie as a person who doesn’t lose faith in the things she believes in. Despite going through the hardest moment of her life, she still finds the inner strength to keep her faith in God and to believe in the power of books and theatre. “I believe the characters we read on the page become more real than the men who stand beside us.” That would take a lot for someone to still believe in especially after what happened.

This is an excellent breakthrough film for Pablo Llarain. This is his first English-language feature and he does a very good job in directing the story and scenes. Also done well is the script from writer Noah Oppenhein. He’s most famous as the scriptwriter for The Maze Runner. Jackie is a big change of pace for him. It’s very common nowadays to do films of a certain famous person and have it focus on a certain brief period of their life instead of the common biography-style film you’d expect. It’s done many times in films like The Queen, Capote and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. It’s also a difficult challenge because in doing so, they have to construct a story that looks like it sums up the protagonists lifetime in that brief period of time. Oppenheim succeeded in constructing a very 3D Jackie Kennedy in that brief period of her life.

It’s not just Oppenheim’s story of Jackie that worked well but also the performance of Natalie Portman. At first, I was skeptical of the idea of having Portman play Jackie Kennedy. She did not come as the type of personality to play her at first. However Portman did an excellent job in her portrayal of Natalie and portraying the personal traits and feeling of Jackie in the scenes of the story. The film also shows an excellent maturity in the acting of Natalie Portman. Sometimes we forget she was 35 when she was filming this film and Jackie Kennedy was 34 when this incident happened. This film shows Natalie’s acting maturity very well. For all intents and purposes, Jackie Kennedy was the role with the most depth and range in the film. Nevertheless there were supporting performances that delivered well despite their limited range, like Peter Saarsgard and Bobby Kennedy and Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman. The costuming from Madeline Fontaine and the music from Mica Levi also added to the quality of the film.

Jackie did justify its big screen format in the end. It’s an excellent film about carrying grace under such devastating heartbreak and reminded us why we admire Jackie Kennedy so much.

VIFF 2015 Review: In Your Arms (I Dine Hænder)

In Your Arms is a Danish film that's about more than granting someone their wish to die.

In Your Arms is a Danish film that’s about more than granting someone their wish to die.

Let’s face it, films about euthanasia are rarely watchable. However Danish film In Your Arms (I Dine Hænder) succeeds in making a film that’s watchable and even entertaining and touching.

Niels is  a man with a debilitating illness. First it left his legs useless, then its making his arms more useless day by day, and Niels wants to die. Maria is a nurse at Niels’ hospital who longs for freedom, especially after the end of a troubling romance. Maria finds it very hard to be a nurse to Niels, one of her many patients. She finds him very stubborn and selfish, especially after he recently tried to slit his wrists.

Niels has a wish to die. He wants to be taken to a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland. His mother and brother don’t want it, feeling it’s just Niels being selfish again. Maria is reluctant at first but agrees to comply. She has decided to be the one to accompany Niels on his trip from Copenhagen to Switzerland which also consists of a stop in Hamburg, Germany.

After his family bids Niels good-bye, Niels and Maria board the train and it’s there that the two get to know more about each other, such as their likes and their personal lives. In Hamburg, Niels wants to be taken to places where he spent his younger years, especially the restaurants and bars.

During the time, he’s able to meet again with people from the past. Maria meets two key people. One is Niels ex-girlfriend from his ‘Hamburg Days.’ She learns he has a four year-old son. The other is the pub manager. He invites Maria to visit during the night. Maria agrees and it’s over at the pub that night it appears that Maria is able to live again. Unfortunately it comes at a price to Niels as she’s not there to help him first thing in the morning. Niels does not want his son to see him dying so she is able to make Niels watch his ex-girlfriend pick up his son so he can see him for the first and only time in his life.

During the trip, it appears as though the relation of Maria and Niels is growing. Often making one question it’s a friendship or even more. As Maria drives down the wide roads of Germany to the Swiss border, the two decide to take in the nature that they view. Maria even swims in the lake despite how snowy cold the day is. Then they finally reach Switzerland and visit the clinic where Niels wants to end his life. After receiving details of what the following day will entail, Maria spends one last night with Niels. The ending is somewhat predictable and melodramatic but done right.

I don’t think this film is trying to peddle the message of euthanasia, although it’s obvious the film maker has no qualms about it. As for me, I’ll save my view. However it appears the film is not about euthanasia. This looks like many film before it of a dying person spending their last days. Even still I believe it is to do about the relation between the two. At first, both Maria and Niels were polar opposites. He was an ailing patient in the care facility. She was a nurse who just happened to take care of him along with the others. The chances of the two being friends were slim to none but it was that trip that changed it. The film does question whether Niels did love Maria all along or if Maria did love Niels in any which way. The bond of friendship was obvious but was it more than that? I think the film maker wants to keep us guessing. Even despite whatever friendship occurred, Maria knew she still had to honor Niels’ wish even though it would hurt her dearly.

It’s not just about the two together but the two as individuals. Niels has had it with life. The disease has taken away all that he has to live for. Maria longs to live but her job and failures at relationships prevent her. It’s when the two join together on the trip that things become better for them. Niels is able to die content and Maria is able to discover her freedom within herself.

I will admit that this is a rather short film. Nevertheless this is a good melodrama that presents itself well. Samanou Acheche Sahlstrom has written and directed a good drama that centres on the characters both as individuals and as a pair. It’s the bond that occurs during the time of the trip that helps make the story. The acting from both Lisa Carlehed and Peter Palugborg made the story work as well as develop the necessary chemistry for the film. In Your Arms has won two awards at the Gothenburg Film Festival and was nominated for a producers award at the Hamburg Film Festival. Here at the VIFF, it made its North American debut.

In Your Arms may be short and may lack the qualities to make it a film of renown. What it achieves is honest sensitivity and a connection to the story and its main characters.

Movie Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy

Meet the Guardians Of The Galaxy: a superhero quintet that went from misfits to household names this summer.

Meet the Guardians Of The Galaxy: a superhero quintet that became household names this summer.

Oh boy. Now my time to catch up on movie reviews. This is the first of two reviews of summer blockbusters I saw. I will admit I’ve been a bit laxed in watching big movies this year. One of which I did feel I had to see was Guardians of The Galaxy. I’m glad I did.

I won’t go into giving a brief description of the story since it’s safe to assume most people have already seen it. This is one of those superhero movies that tries to balance out the comedic parts with the dramatic parts and the action parts. It does a very good job of it. It succeeds in giving the movie intriguing characters like Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket and Groot. However like every first movie or introduction movie of a superhero or superhero ensemble, it has to have a very good story of how the superheroes came to be or in this case, came to be an ensemble. It does a good job of creating an introduction movie of such. It may not be as heavily dramatic as your typical superhero movie. It’s a mix of drama and comedy that many will find entertaining. I will admit there are a couple of cornball scenes in there but the movie does a mostly good job.

I will admit that when I first saw the trailer for this months ago, I thought this would be a cheesy movie. I think what got me thinking it would be cheesy was seeing a raccoon as part of this superhero ensemble. It wasn’t until I learned the Guardians Of The Galaxy movie is based off of a Marvel Comics series that I thought that this might be something good. I will admit I’m like a lot of people that probably never knew of the Guardians Of The Galaxy until I saw this movie. Anyone else? Yeah, I’m sure there are a bunch of you guilty of it too. Guardians Of The Galaxy has probably been one of Marvel Comics’ least known comic heroes or hero ensembles. Actually the Guardians we know of are not the original Guardians. The first Guardians came out in 1969 and consisted of a different set of Guardians including one named Captain Marvel. Then came the 2008 ensemble of Guardians that consisted of some of the original characters but added in others like Groot, Rocket, Star Lord and Gamora but the total number of Guardians is in the dozens.

This also makes for an additional point for the challenge it had. Marvel and the producers had to work with creating a hit movie about a superhero ensemble that most of the general public are not very familiar with. It’s definitely more challenging as doing such a movie with a more celebrated superhero like Superman or Captain America. The example of John Carter demonstrates the challenge; Disney hoped to introduce the world to John in a big way but it didn’t work. Here it’s Marvel’s challenge to introduce the Guardians to the world and no doubt it would be a huge cost risk: $170 million to be exact. It paid off as it was the #1 movie for a total of five weekends. Its total box office is $313.7 million in North America and $632 million worldwide which is a modest number for a movie of that much success. Nevertheless I’ll save it for when I give my upcoming movie year forecast. The movie’s success also has paved the way for an upcoming sequel in 2017. The question is will they stick to the original five Guardians or will they add some additional Guardians in?

The first person who deserves acclaim for the success is director James Gunn. He hasn’t had too huge of a resume as far as directors go. Actually he has a major blemish as he is one of the many directors with the atrocity Movie 43. However this is his breakthrough and should make a good name for him in the future. Possibly even a director of the sequel. Additional kudos to Nicole Perlman who co-wrote the script with Gunn. The collaboration paid off in giving a story full of action and humor and being what a script for a superhero movie should be.

Chris Pratt was entertaining as Peter Quill. He does a good job of balancing the role of a superhero with adding comedy plus he doesn’t make dealing with his late mother too seriously dramatic. Zoe Saldana seems to be the actress made for sci-fi. First Avatar, then Star Trek and now this. Nevertheless I can’t think of a better choice as she nails it again here. Dave Bautista also did a good job. And it’s good to see since I don’t normally think wrestlers make good movie stars as seen by past wrestlers. Bradley Cooper added great character to the voice of Rocket and Vin Diesel was good as Groot. Actually some of his better acting as of late. Other highlights include the visual effects of the movie which are probably some of the best of the year. Another plus is the inclusion of 70’s music. At first you’d think it was cornball. However it becomes more evident why it’s incorporated as it’s this music that connects Peter to his mother. It also adds to the humor too.

Guardians Of The Galaxy is not just another good movie from the Marvel Comics team but a commercial achievement too in making household names of their lesser-known comic book characters. Good job.

DVD Review: Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a socialite with all the wrong moves, in Blue Jasmine.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a socialite with all the wrong moves, in Blue Jasmine.

I’ll admit I did not see Blue Jasmine when it first came out in theatres. The Oscar buzz for it prompted me to watch the DVD. I’m glad it did and now I know why it’s buzzing.

Jasmine comes off a plane from New York to San Francisco. She tells the elderly female passenger next to her the story of how she used to be a top socialite in New York but is near broke and hoping to start a new life. She appears to have impressed the passenger but we learn in a conversation to her husband she didn’t welcome herself to Jasmine. Jasmine then goes to her sister Ginger’s apartment. The bizarre thing is Jasmine hardly ever gives Ginger any contact but is now seeing her because of her dire straits. It’s funny since Ginger–whom is actually sister to Jasmine via her parents’ adoption–always credited Jasmine as having the good genes. The problem is that even though Jasmine is drowning in debt, she’s still set in her opulent ways.

Frequently Jasmine flashes back to her luxurious past with her husband Hal and her stepson Danny. Life was good for Jasmine and Hal appeared to be very successful as an investor It’s years ago when Ginger and her original husband Augie come to visit her in New York that things started to decline. First Jasmine offers an investment opportunity for Augie through Hal with the $200,000 he won in the lottery: money Augie was planning to use to start a business opportunity for himself. Augie and Ginger thought they’re being treated by Jasmine with a stay at the Marriott and their car and driver but Jasmine put them there because they cramped her style. It’s right during one of their sightseeing tours they noticed Hal kissing another woman.

It later became clear that Hal is a fraudster who would eventually get arrested, convicted of fraud, sentenced to prison and later committing suicide. Augie’s money was lost and it led to Augie and Ginger’s divorce. Ginger forgives Jasmine even though Augie is still resentful but is now dating a mechanic named Chili, a man Jasmine resents at first sight and gives Ginger snide remarks about him. The remarks cause Ginger to leave Chili much to his hurt.

Jasmine comes to San Francisco in hopes of starting a new life. She missed completing her anthropology degree because she fell for Hal. She wants to become an interior designer but has to take courses online and lacks computer skills. She reluctantly takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office. Nevertheless it does not work out as Jasmine finds the job too stressful for her and receives unwelcomed sexual advances from the dentist.

Things do improve for Jasmine as she falls in love with a wealthy widower named Dwight who’s a diplomat with plans to become a congressman. Ginger also meets a new love named Al at the same party. Jasmine is able to win Dwight’s affection through lies of her being married to a doctor who died of a heart attack. The lies fall through when Augie bumps into them on the street and tells the whole story, including the details that her stepson Danny is working in a record store in Oakland. Right in the car ride home Dwight calls off the engagement and leaves Jasmine on the street. She visits Danny at the record store to no avail. Danny didn’t even want Jasmine to know his whereabouts. He wants to leave the past behind which means never seeing Jasmine again.

It’s right in a flashback at the end we learn of when Jasmine confronted Hal of his many affairs. Hal confesses he wants to divorce her in favor of a teenage maid for Danny. That was when she called the police and had Hal arrested for fraud which led to his imprisonment and suicide. In the end, Jasmine has to face the music for what she did to Danny, to Augie, for her interference with the love between Ginger and Chili, and herself in general.

It seems odd at first to see a Woody Allen movie classified as a drama. We’re all used to Woody Allen doing comedies. Mind you it’s after seeing this movie that there are a lot of elements that are darker than what one would expect in a Woody Allen film. It succeeds in not being too comical and even serious in some of the harsher parts of the movie. Nevertheless there are a lot of comical elements in this film despite the situation.

If there’s one thing that it does have in common with Woody Allen movies, it’s that it ends completely unexpectedly. It’s bizarre that you think things are going to go better for Jasmine in the end. Instead it all ends up worse, she fails at making peace with whatever wrongs of the past she did, whatever improvements in her own life fell through the cracks and she’s left all alone. She’s even confronted of her real name: Jeanette. She is the type of rich phony whom could easily charm and impress anyone but had a lot to hide and hid it well at the time. In the end, she has nothing left to hide and no one left to charm. She goes from being the life of the party to a person not even one on a park bench would want to be around. It’s also surprising since Jasmine would remind some of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with The Wind. Sure, Scarlett lost it all in the end too but she still held her head high at the very end with a sense of hope. Here, you don’t see a hint of ‘Tomorrow is another day’ in Jasmine.

Sometimes I think it’s not just a story to do about a socialite who gets a reality check but sometimes I think it’s a message from Woody Allen. For all intents and purposes, you’d probably know that Woody Allen is not the type who likes to go to big Hollywood parties. He hardly even makes visits to the Academy Awards. Sometimes I think his is his statement about the social scene and the phonies involved with it. It’s also a story with a lot of good relevance. It may have been more relevant had it been done ten years ago as Paris Hilton was constantly embarrassing moment after embarrassing moment upon herself, and getting more famous off of it in the meantime. Nevertheless it still does show relevance as Kim Kardashian’s exploits still make a lot of copy, if not the same hugeness of copy as say two years ago.

Yes, Woody Allen did a very good job of directing and writing this story but it was Cate Blanchett who did the greatest effort in making the character of Jasmine. The interesting thing is that Cate succeeds in making Jasmine to be the charismatic but snooty, phony, superficial, self-indulgent, materialistic socialite who deserves to be looked down upon. But she does something else. Right at the very end, she succeeds in making us actually feel from sympathy for Jasmine. Sure she went from impressing everybody to causing great personal and financial harm to others and ending up with nobody. But for some reason, the end scene actually succeeds in making us feel for Jasmine. What was it? Her willingness to try to do better? Her coming to her senses too much too late? Whatever it was, that was something hard to do and I give Cate great kudos for pulling that off. I think that’s why she has that edge in the Oscar race.

The best supporting performance has to go to Sally Hawkins as Ginger: the sister that’s supposedly the inferior one but comes off as the winner in the end. Sally also did a very good job of character acting and made Ginger into a believable and colorful personality. Finally we see which sister has the ‘good genes.’ The female leading roles were the best of the film but the male roles were also great from Alec Baldwin playing the scamming superficial Hal, to Bobby Canavale as the ‘inferior’ Chili, to Michael Stuhlbarg as the sleazy dentist, to Peter Saarsgard as the politician Jasmine has a second-chance with to Andrew Dice Clay as the distraught ex-husband of Ginger (and I hardly noticed any of the ‘Dice Man’ in him). The women ruled the movie but the male supporting roles also added to the story and contained character flares of their own. The movie didn’t really have too many stand-out technical aspects but the scenic cinematography and the music tracks added to the movies charm.

Blue Jasmine has all the ingredients of a Woody Allen movie. Only it’s more of a drama than a comedy. Nevertheless it’s something Woody and the actors pull off excellently to make it work.