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VIFF 2018 Review: Studio 54

studio 54

The documentary Studio 54 is where co-founder Ian Schrager (right) finally tells the story of how he and Steve Rubell (left) did illegal dealings in the night club iconic with the disco era.

There are some things iconic with disco from the 1970’s. There’s the film Saturday Night Fever, the music of Donna Summer, and the night club Studio 54. Co-founder Ian Schrager has mostly been quiet about his years of Studio 54 and how he and Steve Rubell ran it. In the documentary Studio 54, he finally breaks his silence.

The film begins as Ian Schrager is about to have the book of Studio 54 published. Ian starts talking about his upbringing. He grew up in Brooklyn. He came from a neighborhood mostly of working class Jewish families who worked in hopes that their children would have a better life. Ian met Steve Rubell in college. He attended Syracuse University where he earned a BA and later earned a JD from St. John’s Law School. It was through a fraternity at Syracuse that he met Steve Rubell.

It was the mid-1970’s. Two important things were happening. Firstly, Manhattan had lost its charm. It became dumpy and seedy with the times. Instead of being this place of charm and pizzazz, it had fallen on hard times where it was full of crime and X-rated lewdness and trashiness. Secondly was the emergence of disco music and its style of partying. Already in areas of Brooklyn and Queens, there were night clubs or discotheques that were very popular with their free-spirited dancing and flamboyant styling. The feel of disco came at the right time as it was right after the end of the brutal Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal left many Americans disheartened. It’s like Ian said, “People were tired of being serious.”

Ian and Steve took it into a chance for opportunity. The first thing they did was rent out a theatre that was originally an opera house and was last used as a CBS Studio. Steve and Ian hired workers, most gay men, for months to do all sorts of construction and all sorts of decorations. They also hired Jack Dushey as their financial backer. It was their vision to create a night club no one on earth had ever seen before. Even before opening day, they went around advertising to celebrities that this was the place to go to.

Opening day, Studio 54 is a big hit.Celebrities do show and lots of people from the public were let in too. From that period on, you had what could be an oasis from the real world as you had all sorts of people of race, gender, sexual orientation and class status getting in and having a good time. While people mostly shunned others out in their day-to-day lives, people came together in Studio 54 and had a good time. The place was seen as a must-visit for celebrities and they had a blast with the dancing atmosphere and the special one-of-a-kind effects and decorations in the place. News had come about that Studio 54 was the place to be.

However there were some realities that would come about. First of all Studio 54 was known for Ian and Steve to go out into the crowd of people outside and pick-and-choose who got in. They let in a lot of people, especially gay men, but they left others out. At first people were understanding, but a backlash would soon brew. Also there was the hidden secret that there were people using drugs in Studio 54. The club had a reputation for freeness and drugs were part of it. Then there was the fact that Studio 54 couldn’t wait for their liquor license at first and relied on catering permits during their waiting period to serve liquor. The authorities didn’t overlook that and soon they had Studio 54 closed temporarily. It put a damper in a lot of attendee’s lives. It was within time that Ian and Steve finally did get the liquor license.

However the success of that would only be temporary. Soon Steve gave an interview to Playboy that was ‘Only the mafia does it better.’ He also said ‘don’t tell the IRS about our practices.’ That’s all it took for the club to get raided. What was found was cocaine with the intent to traffic and $2 million in unrecorded under-the-table money. The arrests of Schrager and Rubell made headlines. Soon Studio 54 was no longer the place to be. The club reopened, but for a life of only a few months. The two hired Roy Cohn and had recruited an army of lawyers to defend their case. In the end, the two plead guilty and were sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. They were let out after serving one year each.

After Studio 54, both Rubell and Schrager looked for other ways to succeed after their release. They tried their hand at opening new night clubs that fit with the 80’s times. Constantly before the opening, Rubell would be interviewed about Studio 54’s infamy. Rubell would confess that they did a lot of wrong things and that they both changed and smartened up. Rubell’s time to redeem himself after Studio 54 was short-lives. Rubell had AIDS and he died of it in 1989. Schrager was luckier as he would later open the night club Palladium and manage the Morgans Hotel Group. Ian married twice and has fathered three children. He even received an unconditional pardon from Barack Obama in January 2017; three days before Obama stepped down from his presidency.

The documentary is a film that allows Schrager to tell his whole story and break the silence of what he was holding back for a long time. Over the 35 years since his release from prison, Schrager has worked to make Studio 54 a thing of the past and establish himself as a responsible successful businessman. He has succeeded in doing so and even gives lectures for people involved in business.

However the film also reminds us of what we knew of Studio 54 and what we didn’t know. For a long time, it was seen as a place for celebrities, disco dancing and culture of freeness. It was a place where hundreds of celebrities came to visit or eventually became regulars. It was also a place which gave many gay men a sense of belonging. We should not forget that the 1970’s was a time when a lot of laws criminalizing same-sex activity were being struck down and declared unconstitutional. Gay men who were long seen as outsiders or scums of the earth were now given a sense of belonging and a sense of freedom and Studio 54 was the place in New York to do it. Even Steve Rubell who kept his homosexuality hidden from his own family found Studio 54 as a place where he could freely love.

One thing is that the image of Studio 54 as a place for celebrities and dancing would make it too iconic to the disco era. Many claim that it was the closure of Studio 54 that led to the end of the disco era and the slow fading of the freeness that came with it. We should remember that the 1980’s would come about heavy stock trading and Wall Street becoming the place to do intense business. There was also the AIDS epidemic as it not only took the life of Steve but the lives of many construction men and dancers. The documentary does give the sense that when Studio 54 died, that’s when these ugly realities came to be. The documentary even shows of Ian and Steve’s friendship and how it was something that still lived on after Studio 54’s demise. Upon Steve’s death, Ian felt it was like losing a brother.

Studio 54 is unique for that it tells all from those survivors who had a big impact in the business. There’s Ian and there’s Jack. There were also some men who did a lot of the construction and renovating. There was also Steve Rubell’s brother who told his side from what he witnessed of Steve. The film includes a lot of imagery through photos and footage. The film also includes a lot of disco music that was part of Studio 54’s heyday. Seeing Studio 54 almost takes you back to that time and you can feel the freeness of that era.

Studio 54 is the ideal documentary for those who still fondly remember the disco era of the 1970’s. It brings back a lot of memories and tells you things you never knew about the place to your surprise.

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Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: The Shape Of Water

Shape Of Water

Sally Hawkins (left) plays a mute who develops a bond with a sea creature (played by Doug Jones) in The Shape Of Water.

At first one would think that The Shape Of Water is another science fiction movie with a bizarre story, but it turns out to be a story that’s a lot more than that.

Eliza Esposito is a mute woman in Baltimore in 1962. Orphaned at a young age, she lives in an apartment just above a movie theatre and works as a janitor in a secret government laboratory. She only has two friends. The first is Giles: a gay advertising artist who lives next door to her. They often eat pie and watch entertainment together. The second is Zelda: an African American woman she communicates with in sign language. It’s through Zelda she can tell her biggest secrets.

One day, a creature is brought to the laboratory. It’s a sea creature from South America captured by Colonel Richard Strickland. Right when she sees the creature, she notices something about him. That the creature has some human-like traits. Both Zelda and Eliza sense something wrong with Colonel Strickland as he comes across in a gruff manner. They also notice he brought a cattle prod that has blood on it. Eliza notices the blood travels in a unique pattern.

Later Strickland is attacked by the creature, bleeding badly and lost two of his fingers which get reattached shortly after. As Strickland is being tended to, Eliza wonders who is this creature and what do they want from him? Eliza soon develops a bond with the creature and discovers it’s a humanoid amphibian. She gives him eggs to eat, music to listen to, and communicates with him through sign language.

There are different plans people have for this creature. General Hoyt wants Strickland to dissect it for the possibility of an advantage in the Space Race. Scientist Robert Hoffstetler, who is secretly a Soviet spy, tries to convince his masters to keep the creature alive for scientific study. The Soviet spymasters disagree and want him euthanized.

When Eliza learns of Hoyt and Strickland’s plans for the creature, she tried to persuade Giles to assist, but he rejects at first. It’s after a failed attempt at hitting on the pie man that he agrees to comply. Zelda is also opposed to it at first, fearing for but her job and Eliza’s, but she agrees to help. Hoffstetler tells Eliza he’s aware of her plan and is willing to help.

The plan is to help the creature escape where no one can see. Zelda keeps a close eye on the coast. Hoffstetler helps in the distracting of the surveillance cameras just as Zelda makes the adjustment, and even has a bomb on the power base set to explode at the right minute. Giles rents a truck and paints it to look like the laundry pick-up truck. Eliza is able to get the creature into the laundry bin. Just as it appears that Giles is about to get stopped by security, Hoffstetler injects sleeping medicine into the guard’s neck. The pick-up and escape is successful, but not without smashing Strickland’s new blue Cadillac!

Eliza keeps the creature in her apartment. She keeps it in her bathtub which she mixes with salt and plants. She plans to release it into a canal in a few days one it opens to the ocean. She’s well aware that Strickland still wants the creature. Strickland even meets with Eliza and Zelda to interrogate, but both are able to keep the truth hidden from him.

Back at the apartment, the creature leaves Eliza’s suite and visits Giles’ suite. He takes an interest in his drawings and the television, and thinks one of his cats is food! The creature runs off again just after he slashes Giles’ arm. Eliza goes searching for the creature and finds him in the movie theatre staring at the screen. The relationship between Eliza and the creature grows. She becomes more than just his protector, but his lover. She herself can even acquire the ability to make shapes with water. She even tells all to Zelda, to her surprise. The creature even helps Giles heal from his wounds. Giles eventually opens up to him just after. Eliza gets sexually involved with the creature even to the point she tries to flood her whole bathroom to have underwater sex! Much to the disappointment of the cinema owner down below!

However time is running out for all. General Hoyt gives Strickland an ultimatum of 36 hours to return the creature back. For not helping with keeping the creature, Hoffsteler is told by his superiors he will be extracted in two days. However the creature’s health is failing and he will have to be returned to the water. The day Eliza planned to take the creature to the canal comes. Giles agrees to help drive the creature to the canal when the day comes.

Meanwhile Hoffsteler meets with his handlers and is shot, but not until Strickland intervenes and shoots the handlers dead. He forces Hoffsteler to reveal who took the creature. Strickland then goes to Zelda’s house. To the shock of her and her husband, Strickland arrives and threatens Zelda to reveal Eliza has been keeping the creature. Zelda then telephones Eliza and Giles warning them of Strickland. The time to take the creature to the canal is now. The creature wants Eliza to come with him, but Eliza insists it’s better for him to go alone. The scene ends on a dramatic note and an ending that’s unexpected, but is the right ending for the film.

This does make for a bizarre story of a recently-discovered sea creature and a woman’s romantic connection to the creature. We’ve seen Beauty-And-The-Beast type of movies before like King Kong or Creature Of The Black Lagoon. The funny thing about this is that it actually succeeds as a romance. The first thing that makes it work is that there’s a real connection between the woman and the creature. Rightly so because Eliza is the first to connect with the creature and connects with him in the biggest way. All Eliza had before was her job and the friendships with Giles and Zelda. Here she finds a being that she not only connects with, but becomes her soul mate. The one that completes her. They were two lonely people who were united by fate of the most impossible kind. You could understand why the ending made sense. It was through the magic of the creature’s healing that she is able to live in his world and his world only.

The most interesting thing of the film is its connection of the various arts. It’s more than just nostalgia. It reminds you of the charm and the feel of such entertainment back then that most people overlook. However it’s through those various arts that the sea creature gets a sense of human vitality and even embraces it into his own life. The art he comes across helps him communicate in the human world and gives him his human-like qualities. From the music Eliza plays to the images on the movie screen to even watching a hokey episode of Mr. Ed on Giles’ television, the entertainment is his connection to his human traits. It even helps him experience his feelings of love which he has for Eliza. You could understand why that one scene where Eliza was not a mute –that musical number where she dances with the creature– makes sense. It’s through art that she’s able to express her love for the creature: the one being that doesn’t make her feel like an outsider at all.

The creature doesn’t just affect the lives of Eliza, but of the two closest to her too. Soon after Giles has a change of heart and helps the creature’s escape, Giles opens up to the creature and soon makes him a part of his own art. As Zelda helps the creature escape, she too develops an inner strength in her and is able to stand up for herself to her husband. It’s something to think about. The three main characters are all misfits in 1962 Baltimore. Eliza is a mute, Giles is gay, and Zelda is black. However it’s through this creature that Eliza finds a soul mate, Giles finds a purpose and Zelda finds an inner strength.

I give top credit to Gullermo del Toro. The story he directed and co-wrote with Vanessa Taylor is comical and had a lot of good drama, but it’s the human element that shines in the story line. Del Toro would admit in an interview that this is inspired by The Creature From The Black Lagoon and always dreamt of seeing Gill-Man succeed in the romance to Kay Lawrence. I can sometimes see hints of Pan’s Labyrinth in the story. It’s interesting how he creates this story that romanticizes the entertainment of the time as well as reminds us of the hysteria of Communism at the time too, as well as the racism. All of this makes the charm of the film.

The acting is the biggest strength of the film. The best comes from Sally Hawkins in playing a mute who best communicates to the sea creature with her feelings and with the power of art. Richard Jenkins is also excellent as Eliza’s loner friend who finds a new purpose in life through the creature. Another excellent performance is from Octavia Spencer playing the friend closest to her side. Also very good acting from Michael Shannon. You often wonder if Strickland is heartless or just plain under the thumb of the Colonel. You know he’s troubled when you see the amount of pills he takes. Excellent work for Doug Jones. One again, he does excellent work as the creature in Guillermo del Toro’s movies. Most of you remember him as the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth. You could say Doug Jones is to del Toro’s movies what Andy Serkis is to Lord Of The Rings’ Gollum.

The film has a lot of excellent technical aspects too. There’s the costuming and make-up team that made up the costume of the creature, as well as the visual effects team that made the ‘blue effect’ of the creature’s skin. There’s the production design team that made an excellent set that dates back to the early 1960’s to a tee, even with the movie theatre. There’s Luis Sequeira that designed the right costumes and outfits for the actors as well. Finally, there’s the mix of the music of the time mixed with the imaginative score of Alexandre Desplat. Desplat knows how to compose for a movie.

The Shape Of Water is more than just a creature-and-woman romance we’re familiar with. It succeeds in having the feel of an actual romance and successfully convey the feelings of love. In the end, the romance looks so right! That’s its magic.

VIFF 2017 Review: The Party

The Party

Patricia Clarkson (left) and Kristin Scott Thomas face the chaos at what is supposed to be a celebration in The Party.

Can you imagine a party where everything that could go wrong does? The British comedy The Party is a film that shows exactly that!

The film begins with Janet waiting for her party to begin. She just won a seat in parliament. The party is expected to be a private one with her husband Bill, best friend April and her husband Gottfried, close couple Martha and Jinny and her son Tom. Bill is frail and not in the most pleasant of moods. April has a very blunt mouth and isn’t afraid to say what she believes to be true, no matter how spiteful. Gottfried appears not to be with his wits. Tom is trying to keep his cocaine habit a secret. The couple of Martha and Jinny appear to be the only guests who have it together. Of course, they’re happy as they’re expecting triplets.

The party is supposed to go smooth, but April appears to be saying something to start a spat anytime soon. Gottfried is always embarrassing April. Tom’s frustrations about his marriage are becoming obvious. Nevertheless Janet is toasted by all.

Then the chaos begins. Janet first receives a text from a man wanting her back in her life, to which she declines. Bill announces he’s dying to all. Janet is broken, but he’s vague on what his condition is.  Only Gottfried appears to believe him and is willing to help him. Then unfaithfulness has been revealed about both Martha and Jinny and it threatens not just their relationship, but the birth of their children. Then Bill admits to Janet, he’s been seeing another woman. Janet is infuriated. Only Gottfried stands by his side. Tom does more coke and contemplates hosting himself, but later throws the gun in the garbage. Janet is upset by the whole thing with no one but April to give her words of comfort. However Janet soon finds Tom’s gun in the garbage. Then Bill reveals to Tom the ‘other woman’ is his wife. Tom responds by punching Bill. Bill appears dead on the floor and is being resuscitated. Martha and Jinny try to look like the happy couple they were. Then Janet goes to the door after hearing the doorbell. It’s the other man. To which, she points the gun at him: “You said you loved me. You liar!”

At first, I thought The Party would be a political film. I was tempted to think that at first glance. Instead it became the perfect location for a single-location film. It does a very good job in packing in just about anything and everything that can destroy all seven involved in the story. One thing does lead to another and the results are crazy. However a story like this about a party where everything goes wrong for everybody has to have situations that don’t come across as ridiculous. You have enough slapstick movies doing that.

To make a party where everything goes wrong, but still look intelligent takes a lot of effort in writing. It succeeds in doing that. The characters in which the actors adapt had to make the comedic situations work. The situations looked quite believable, despite the banality of all of them happening at once. Even the most bizarre situations didn’t come across as looking stupid. This is one of the best over-the-top comedies I’ve seen in a long time. The over-the-top elements aren’t even physical or slapstick; it’s all about the story and characters. Even filming this comedy in black and white added to the film.

The biggest accolades in making this bizarre story work goes to writer/director Sally Potter. This story packs in a lot of comedic punch that appears to work every time and does not cross over the line into stupidity and ridiculous. It takes a lot of effort to create something like that and make it work, and Potter made it work. Everyone who saw it the same time I saw it was laughing a lot. It’s hard to pick who the biggest performer was. Kristin Scott Thomas was definitely the protagonist, but Patricia Clarkson was able to steal the show with whatever she said each time. Bruno Ganz and Timothy Spall owned their moments by playing their characters well. Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer also grabbed their moments, and Cillian Murphy knew how to come out of nowhere to get his moments too. Basically it’s not on the strength of a single actor, but of all seven in the ensemble. They all made this comedy work with whatever they did or said.

The Party is 71 minutes of tragicomedy energy of the best kind. It’s a reminder of how writing rather than cheap one-liners is what works best in comedy. I guarantee you will be laughing.

Movie Review: The Peanuts Movie

The Peanuts Movie is full of surprises. Especially for Charlie Brown.

The Peanuts Movie is full of surprises. Especially for Charlie Brown.

Charlie Brown and the Peanuts characters are some of the most beloved cartoon characters in history. The Peanuts Movie brings them back into action in 2015. And in winning style.

It’s winter. While the kids are having fun skating and playing hockey on the ice, Charlie Brown is nervous. A family has moved into town and with them is a girl– the little Red Haired girl– he wants to win the attention of. However he has a track record of bad luck in the neighborhood and among his peers. He sees Lucy for ‘professional help.’ She advises him to make a winner of himself and be more confident.

First chance is at the school talent show. Charlie has a magic act planned with Snoopy and Woodstock assisting. Charlie’s last up. Sally is second -last up with her cowgirl act. However she gets ridiculed by the crowd. Charlie decides to help her win the contest at the expense of his own humiliation. It works. She wins and he makes a fool of himself.

Next chance is the school dance which consists of prizes going to the winning solo dances for both boys and girls. The little-red haired girl wins the female prize.  Charlie Brown appears to have winning form but a slip causes him to fall and disrupt the sprinkler system which disrupts the whole dance. Again a blockhead!

Next chance is a book report which he’s partnered with the little red-haired girl. Then comes aptitude testing which Charlie Brown is believed to score the highest. Just before Charlie Brown is to receive a medal for his perfect score, he learns the truth and declines his medal on stage. To make matters worse the book report Charlie Brown wrote for the little -red-haired girl is destroyed in the air by Snoopy’s plane.

Summer approaches and classmates are assigned to be pen pals. The little red-haired girl chooses Charlie Brown. The thing is she’s to spend the summer at camp. Charlie Brown has one last chance to meet up with her. Does he do it or doesn’t he? Those who saw the movie will know for sure.

What the filmmakers had in terms of bringing the Peanuts back to the big screen was a challenge. The first challenge was for possibly the first time, the Peanuts characters were 3D in a 3D world. The second challenge was what to include in the film. No doubt the film was to include the common traits of the characters as well as the common lines used by the characters throughout. The other challenge would be what kind of world would The Peanuts be in? Would they be in their past world consisting of common things like books, playing baseball and Snoopy using a typewriter? Or would they be in the modern world where kids use iPads, skateboard, hop onto Wikipedia for whatever info they want and save their essays as Word Documents?

I believe the writers and animators made the right choices to have the story situated in the traditional world of the Peanuts characters. That’s how fans of the cartoon series best remember them and converting them into the modern world would be very tricky stuff and may turn long-time fans off. Another element I liked is that it maintains a lot of familiar situations from Peanuts cartoon strips and Peanuts cartoon shows of the past. The humor of Charles Schulz had to be kept with the story as well as the familiar personality traits of all the characters.

However with this being a feature-length movie, it had to present a legible story with a beginning, middle and end. This was a challenge to write out such a story and mix in the common humor of the Peanuts characters and familiar moments of the Peanuts history. I feel it did an excellent job of creating a consistent story with mixing in the humor of the Peanuts franchise as well as giving all the other characters their moments too. It can’t all be about Charlie Brown. Plus I’m sure all of us wanted to see Charlie Brown win the ‘little red-haired girl.’

Kudos the Charles Schulz’ son Craig, grandson Bryan and Cornelius Uliano for writing an excellent story true to the Peanuts series as well as entertaining from start to finish. Additional kudos to director Steve Martino. To make such a movie work, they had to put it in the hands of someone who knows how to direct animation. Martino has proven himself in the past with Horton Hears A Who and Ice Age 2: Continental Drift. Here he delivers again. I also give the animators credit for making 3D characters of the peanuts characters for possibly the first time. That was another challenge: keep them 2D or make them 3D? They took the risk with 3D and it worked very well. I will admit I did see a few glitches in terms of speed but the form of the characters as well as the settings were flawless.

The vocal talent from the young actors were all there as they not only sounded like the characters but they personified them as we commonly knew them. Additional kudos for Christophe Back for providing the score familiar with Peanuts animation of the past as well as adding some things of his own.

The Peanuts Movie is an excellent movie with all the right moves to win over fans of Peanuts cartoons and introduce the Peanuts kids to a new generation of children.

Double Movie Review: Paddington and Cinderella

Normally I don’t see live-action family movies unless the renown for it catches my eye. In the last three months, there were two that caught my eye: Paddington and Cinderella. I’m glad I had the chance to see them.

PADDINGTON

Paddington Bear was adapted into a movie for the first time. The movie is an impressive result.

Paddington Bear was adapted into a movie for the first time. The movie is an impressive result.

For the first time, Paddington Bear comes to the big screen. And in live-action format rather than animation. However this did involve taking some chances. The first chance was making a movie that could entertain today’s children. The second was not having to mess with the Paddington Bear people know and love.

The film does a good job of keeping many aspects of Paddington such as his love of all things British, especially marmalade. The film also does a decent job of not trying to resort to too many cheap laughs like one would come to expect in today’s children’s films. It’s not to say there were some questionable moments, like the scene where Paddington thinks the toothbrushes are ‘earbrushes.’ The film also does a good job in presenting Paddington in today’s world and meeting the Brown family who are actually reluctant to adopt at first.

I give kudos to director/writer Paul King and co-writer Hamish McColl for coming up with a very good adaptation of Paddington Bear into a feature-length film. It was no easy task to make such a film especially when Paddington has resorted to being simple children’s books since the 1950’s.  The plot where Paddington boats from Peru to London only to find a cold country, a reluctance to adopt from the Brown family and being pursued by the daughter of a poacher whose goal was to make him hers to kill and stuff worked well to entertain crowds. The inclusion of the effects in the film couldn’t be avoided as nowadays family movies have to have some special effects to win crowds. Even though Paddington wouldn’t be the type of movie for a lot of visual effects, the effects included did things right without messing with the story.

I also give them credit for not messing with the spirit of Paddington whose sweet charm is the reason why he has become one of the most beloved children’s book characters in recent decades. He’s even so beloved in England to the point there’s a bronze statue of Paddington Bear at Paddington Station where he got his name from. I also give them kudos for adding character to the Brown family. They may not be much like the Browns in the Paddington books but the character of the Browns do fit well in the movie.

Just as much deserving of respect are the performances of the actors. Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins did a very good job playing the Brown parents. Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin also did well as playing the Brown children. They both played their roles well without being too overly-cutesy. Julie Walters succeeded in stealing scenes as the wise Mrs. Bird. Nicole Kidman also did a good job of playing the evil Millicent Clyde without becoming too hateable. Actually Millicent Clyde was rather entertaining as a villain. Finally Ben Whishaw did a very good voice-over as the voice of Paddington. Paddington needed a sweetness in order to make the story work and Whishaw was the right fit.

Paddington is now out on DVD and BluRay. For those that didn’t see it in theatres, it’s worth seeing. I don’t know if it’s the type of family movie one won’t need to see with a family of their own but it is entertaining and very good quality entertainment.

CINDERELLA

In ofor Cinderella to work as a live-action movie, the set design and costuming had to be top notch.

The live-action version of Cinderella had a lot of expectations placed on it but it delivered.

If you think making a film about Paddington Bear is difficult, try making a live-action version of Cinderella. And knowing that it will be Disney doing the work, you can understand they’d be under a lot of pressure. We’re talking about the film company that made their 1950 animated version a staple into many people’s hearts. So it would not be surprising that there would be a lot of questions surrounding the make of the new live action version. Will it have the same Disney spirit? Will it stray too much from the animated version that lives on in the hearts of millions? Or even the book? How will the sets and costumes be done? And will it entertain crowds of today?

There’s no question that making a live-action version of a fairy tale can be expensive in production. Cinderella wasn’t too expensive to make but $95 million is expensive enough. For a film like Cinderella to work, there’s no question that one of the top aspects to focus on would be the technical areas like set design and costuming. Dante Ferretti was a top choice for set design. We’re talking about a set designer whose works have earned him nine Oscar nominations and three wins for The Aviator, Sweeney Todd and Hugo. Ferretti did not let anyone down. In fact his set designs in all scenes worked perfectly for the movie. It was hard to notice a glitch.

Costumer Sandy Powell was another top pick with loads of cred including ten Oscar nominations and three wins. Here she again adds to the reputation by making costumes perfect not only for Cinderella but for all characters in the movie. My favorite costumes were actually the bratty looking outfits for Drisella and Anastasia. It fit their brattiness perfectly. However Cinderella’s glass slippers really caught my eye. They looked more like crystal slippers. The visual effects team also did a top job in adding the necessary visual effects for the film and giving them the magic that will remind people of the magic Disney movies are famous for. They even succeed in making the mice and lizards human enough without being too ridiculously cartoonish.

Credit should also be given to director Kenneth Branagh and writer Chris Weitz. People easily forget that Branagh is as much of a director as he is an actor directing films from Shakespeare (Henry V) to comedy (Love’s Labor’s Lost) to superhero action flicks (Thor). Now he ventures into the territory of fantasy films. The result is excellent. Just as excellent is the writing from scriptwriter from Chris Weitz. He does a very good adaptation by retaining the spirit of Disney and even including some aspects not included in the original. Actually his writing makes you forget he wrote American Pie!

Despite all those efforts, the success of the movie would have to bow down to the roles being done right. The inclusion of the king, the prince’s father, added to the story as did the appearances of Cinderella’s parents. The characterizations of the mice and lizards were well done and didn’t go over the top or even cheesy. The characters of the two stepsisters were very good depictions. They were nasty and bratty but you’ll actually find yourself laughing at how stupid they are rather than hating them. If there’s one character you will hate, it’s the stepmother Lady Tremaine. Cate Blanchett did an excellent job of depicting Lady Tremaine as both cruel and hurting on the inside to the point she feels she should hurt Cinderella. Her depiction also fits within the common Disney theme of featuring a female villain who’s beautiful rather than ugly. Blanchett’s depiction actually seems more like the queen from Snow White rather than the stepmother of the animated version.

There were some radical choices for character depictions in the movie. The first was the prince as being more of an awkward young adult rather than the flawless Prince Charming we come to expect. Even referring to himself as ‘an apprentice’ during the casual contact with Cinderella is something no one would have expected. The most radical of character depictions has to be Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother. I found it very different to have a clumsy fairy godmother this time around. I wasn’t expecting another fairy godmother that sang ‘Bibbity Bobbity Boo’ but this was way different from what I expected.

Finally I focus on the character of Cinderella. Lily James did a very good job as Ella. She’s already an experienced actress in her native England and she does a very good portrayal here. She portrays Ella as a young woman who doesn’t make having an imagination look like a weakness. We shouldn’t forget her imagination has kept her holding her head high during the toughest of times such as the deaths of her parents and keeps her going strong with her stepmother and stepsisters whom even her father described as ‘trying.’ Hah, ‘trying’ is an understatement! However she does not come across as naive as most would come to expect of her or anyone with an active imagination. In fact it’s the scene where she says to her stepmother: “You were never my mother and you never will be.” shows Cinderella to have more inner strength than most thought.

Focusing on Cinderella lastly seems appropriate because she is essentially the epitome of the theme of the movie. The movie showed two people who had a lot of tragedy in their lives: Cinderella and Lady Tremaine. One was bitter about it. The other did what her mother said: “Have courage and be kind.” Cinderella’s courageous positivity upset Lady Tremaine to the point she had to hurt her however she can. Cinderella stayed strong. There were some points where her courage was tested but she still stayed strong. I guess that’s what this version of Cinderella was trying to say. That staying positive is not being oblivious. That having an imagination is not a weakness. That’s what was not only shown in Cinderella but almost every Disney movie.

Both movies have had their own box office success stories. Cinderella has grossed $197 million in North America and over $500 million worldwide. Paddington was not as big of a hit but it did have its own success with $76 million in North America and $259 million Worldwide. Impressive since it was done with a $55 million budget. The marketers of Paddington did a common job but a smart job in releasing it in most of Europe, South America and Asia first during the latter weeks of 2014 before releasing it in the US on January 16th. That’s a common technique used to plug movies with characters common in European pop culture. They did that with Tintin back in 2012.

Paddington and Cinderella are two family movies that have pleased the critics and will also please audiences alike. Both have what it takes to entertain children but they both also have elements that will please adults.

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.

Movie Review: Lincoln

lincoln-2

I’m sure almost all of us are familiar with Abraham Lincoln. Even if you don’t live in the United States, you must have learned about him and his presidency somehow. Steven Spielberg has directed the epic biographic movie of Lincoln. Will it show the Lincoln we know or the Lincoln we don’t know?

It’s January 1865. Lincoln has been re-elected President back in November. However the Civil War is entering its fifth year. It has been the most brutal war on American soil in terms of destruction and fatalities. The Emancipation Proclamation, the law completely abolishing slavery, is being debated in the US House of Representatives. Politicians from both the American states and the Confederate states debate it. Both sided stand firm in their beliefs. Meanwhile Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens–a strongly anti-slavery Republican who demanded total war on the Confederate States– are waiting and debating as the Proclamation is nearing its vote into law as the Thirteenth Amendment. However the Republicans want the vote delayed because they fear the outcome and want the War to end. Lincoln doesn’t want to wait. He wants slavery over before the Confederate States can be reintegrated.

This takes an impact on how people view Lincoln. Lincoln is one president who’s willing to meet with Civil war soldiers on the ‘Yankee’ side and hear the stories they have to tell. Many politicians view him as a wise communicator who always has an interesting tale of past history that will make one think about the present. However Lincoln loses some appeal as he’s unable to convince Republican Party founder Francis Blair in his method of dealing with the Confederates instead of peace negotiations. He even senses possible political tension in Stevens desire for racial equality included with ending slavery, fearing the Thirteenth Amendment won’t pass. He a meets up with Secretary of State William Seward with a plan to convince the Democrats to support the amendment with offers of federal jobs.

His family life is also impacted by this all too. Lincoln is adored by his youngest son Tad. His wife Mary is known for her outlandish mouth and is frequently involved with spats with Abraham and even breaks down whenever their late son Willie comes up in conversation, especially since it’s possible their oldest son Robert might have to fight. Meanwhile Robert returns home from his law studies as he had just been named Union Captain to General Ulysses Grant. He’s studying to be a lawyer like his father but is willing to fight in the war if he has to. That leaves Abraham very uncomfortable and even coming to some confrontations with Robert.

Then the day comes for the Emancipation proclamation to be voted upon. Lincoln has gone far to get this voted upon fast to the point of even instructing Confederate envoys to be kept out of Washington. This was a moment of focus for all the nation. In the end, the Emancipation proclamation was voted into law by a margin of just two votes and the abolition of slavery was sealed as the Thirteenth Amendment of the American Constitution. People outside the White House, both black and white, celebrated. Lincoln finally meets with the Confederate envoys after the vote but they were willing to rejoin the Union if they could prevent the amendment from becoming law. Lincoln sent the message: “Slavery’s done.”

It would take time for the Civil War to end: April of 1865 to be exact. Then on April 14, 1865 Lincoln is in a meeting discussing measures to give suffrage to blacks when he is reminded Mary is waiting for him at Ford’s Theatre. That night…the rest is infamy. Nevertheless we’re reminded of the man who is an integral part of history with a flashback to his Second Inaugural Address.

The best thing about the film is that it does not just focus on Lincoln the maverick politician but Abraham Lincoln the person. He was a friendly talker and did his best to be a good father and a loyal husband but he was also stern in what he believed. It was not perfect because he wanted the Emancipation Proclamation to pass but knew that mention of equality for blacks would deter many Representatives from giving it a ‘Yay’ vote.  He was as much a strategist as he was an idealist. He knew any chances of equality would be a step-by-step procedure and emancipation was the first step. He knew of the bloody war happening and of the Confederate’s rebellion but he knew it had to be done.

Another excellent quality of this film is that it shows the political climate of the time. We should remember that the United States of America wasn’t even a century old at the time and slavery had existed in the South long before the United States of America was formed. There were many laws and disputes debating free states and slave states over the years to the point that slavery was going to reach its end but the South refused it to the point they would form their own nation: The Confederate States of America. The North, the United States, wanted to see slavery end throughout the whole United States and were even willing to have this war to make it happen even in the South. The South, the Confederates, knew that they would lose but they valued slavery to the point that they were willing to fight for it in such a brutal war. Even though they knew they were losing, they were willing to fight for it over these four long years and despite the huge losses they suffered.

The debates in the House Of Representative from the various states’ Representatives showcased the ideologies both the United States and the Confederate States felt. Nowadays we all can’t imagine slavery from happening but back then the South valued slavery to the point they would try to start their own independent nation and fight a long bloody war to keep it alive. And even the politicians in the American offices upheld their convictions in debates. The film also reminds us that the Emancipation Proclamation may have been written by Thaddeus Stevens and introduced to the House Of Representatives by Lincoln but it required the House to vote it into law. It almost didn’t happened and if it didn’t, Lincoln may have gone down in history as one of the lesser Presidents of the United States. We’re reminded in the film what kind of gamble Lincoln was making.

Another thing to notice in the film is Spielberg’s infatuation with war. We have seen it before with World War II with Saving Private Ryan and Empire Of The Sun, World War I with War Horse and we see now see Spielberg’s depiction of the Civil War and it has a lot of details. It details the artillery that was used at the time. It details the gruesome destruction and bloodshed that occurred. It even depicted the communication between officers and of relaying news to soldiers via Morse Code. Spielberg does it again.

Spielberg gives another directing effort under his belt. Already we know Spielberg to master sci-fi thrillers, sci-fi family adventures, and war dramas. Now he creates an ideological drama that focuses less on the war and more on the focus of the historic individual and the times he was facing. The film did an excellent job in focusing on the political climate of the times as much as the main politicians involved. The film however couldn’t have been done without the excellent acting. Daniel Day-Lewis gave an excellent performance as Abraham. The may have focused mostly on a single month of Lincoln’s presidency but his performance spoke volumes of the President we thought we knew. The movie however was stolen frequently by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. Tommy Lee did a great job in showing Stevens in his mannerisms, beliefs and how fierce of a man of conviction he was. Sally Field was also excellent as the troubled Mary Lincoln. History has documented her as a woman with mental illness. Field’s performances showcase her outlandish personality but also shows her as a woman both troubled by her losses and fearing for her future. Joseph Gordon Levitt was not so good at undoing his body and talking from modern mannerisms but he was better at conveying Robert the person in his ambitions and fears.

The screenplay by Tony Kushner is an excellent adaptation which is able to make that one month in 1865 to be the defining month in the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. It was as much focused on political details as it was on the people involved. John Williams delivers another fitting score to his list of movie scores. Janusz Kaminski gave good cinematography but there were many times I felt the use of zoom-ups were excessive. The depictions of war in the movie were mostly graphic only at the very beginning but were very well-detailed in not just the battles taking place on screen.

Lincoln is a surprising outlook on a president we’ve all come to know and celebrate but didn’t completely know. It’s also an excellent presentation of the political climate of the times. This reminds us of his celebrated greatness and how much of a gamble he made not just with his life but his political status to achieve it. Definitely worth seeing.