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Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Jojo Rabbit

Jojo rabbit

A young Hitler youth (played by Roman Griffin Davis) seeks guidance from an imaginary Adolf Hitler (played by director Taika Waititi) in Jojo Rabbit.

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”

You’ll think that now is not a good time for a film like Jojo Rabbit. A film about a Hitler youth who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend? I mean you have the rise of neo-Nazi groups and alt-right factions creeping up as well as the ‘woke’ people on the internet getting offended and hostile over things. Is this the right film to have out now?

The film begins in Berlin in the latter years of World War II. A ten year-old boy named Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler is all dress for the weekend at Hitler Youth, or Hitlerjugend, camp. He’s not confident he can do this; he’s socially awkward and can’t even tie his shoelaces right. However he does receive encouragement from his imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler. Hitler hypes him up with so much excitement, Jojo goes running down the street shouting “Heil Hitler” like a maniac! That is until he meets up with his best friend Yorki just before arriving for what he expects to be the ‘best weekend ever.’

The camp is being taught by former army officer Captain Klenzendorf and assisted with Fraulein Rahm who’s dedicated to the Third Reich and even gave birth to fifteen children! The boys are taught all sorts of attack games and they end the first night with a book burning rally. The next day during a training session, some older boys give a lecture to the younger boys about being brutal and having no mercy when killing. They hand-pick Jojo to kill a rabbit with his bare hands. Despite all the boys except Yorki urging Jojo to kill it, he doesn’t have what it takes. The older boy then snaps the rabbit’s neck and calls Jojo ‘Jojo Rabbit’ which all the other boys except Yorki do. Hitler spots Jojo alone crying. Hitler then reminds Jojo of the cunning feisty traits of the rabbit and encourages him to ‘be the rabbit.’ This pumps Jojo up so much, he’s““` all in to try the next exercise, which is throwing a Stielhandgranate. Jojo yanks it out of Klenzendorf’s hand and throws it without fear. Thing is the grenade bounces off a tree and lands by Jojo’s feet which Hitler runs off from. The grenade explodes with Jojo alone!

After months of hospitalization, Jojo has mostly recovered but his left face has visible facial scars and walks with a limp on his left leg. His mother Rosie is happy to take him home for some time. However Rosie does bring him to the office where she kicks Klenzendorf for allowing Jojo to be exposed to something so dangerous. Klenzendorf has been demoted to the office and is given the task by Rosie to make Jojo feel included. Klenzendorf agrees to let Jojo spread propaganda leaflets and collect scrap metal for the war effort, which Jojo does wearing a cardboard robot outfit and carry a wagon!

Jojo comes home one day expecting his mother. Instead he hears a rattle in the house. He senses it’s coming from the room of his older sister Inge, who died of an illness years ago. Jojo later finds out a teenage girl is hiding between the walls. The girl is a Jewish girl his mother is hiding and is a former classmate of Inge’s. Jojo threatens to expose her to the Gestapo but the girl named Elsa reminds him if he does, his mother will be executed. Hitler is shocked when he hears a Jew is hiding in the house. Hitler asks Jojo to work something out. Jojo works out he will keep Elsa a secret as long as she helps him with a book he’s writing: a book about Jews. Elsa agrees to do the writing and drawing. Elsa makes up things like Jews having horns and mind-reading. That especially shocks Hitler to learn about this girl and her powers. The book impresses Klenzendorf as he meets Jojo at the army pool as Jojo undergoes physical rehab.

This puts a strain on the relationship between Jojo and his mother, which Hitler slyly observes at the dinner table. Jojo accuses Rosie of being unpatriotic and his angry that his father has been away for a long time. Rosie tries to reassure Jojo of having a positive attitude, even as she knows the truth of what happened to her husband. There’s even one day Rosie gets Jojo out of his Nazi uniform and into real clothes for a nice day out and a fun bike ride home, much to Hitler’s chagrin! As time passes, Jojo continues to ask Elsa questions and even tries to deliver fake letters in the name of Elsa’s boyfriend Nathan. Elsa helps Jojo with his book and Jojo realizes he’s in love with Elsa. This gets on Hitler’s nerves as he’s insisting to Jojo that she’s evil.

One day the Gestapo search Jojo’s house along with Klenzendorf. They come across Elsa and she poses as Inge. She even answers the question about Inge’s birthday properly. The Gestapo decide to leave them alone. However it doesn’t stop Elsa from fearing she will die soon. That day out while collecting metal, Jojo is mesmerized when he sees a butterfly, but soon sees his mother hanged. He tries to take his heartbreak out on Elsa with a knife, but fails. Elsa nevertheless hugs Jojo as he’s crying. As the two watch the city get bombed, they both learn that they’re both orphans who lost all their family.

As the city lays in ruins, war action have to be carried out. Jojo is shocked to see Yorki as a soldier and given military actions. All the Hitler Youth have to become soldiers now! He’s even shocked to learn from Yorki that Hitler committed suicide and Germany’s being attacked by almost every front. The boys are given military actions by Fraulein Rahm including Yorki as a sniper and Jojo given a soldier’s coat to disguise himself. Jojo is shocked at everything he sees from dead civilians to children firing guns off to an explosion that kills Rahm. At first Jojo is imprisoned by Soviet soldiers. However he bumps into Klenzendorf. As he knows he will be executed by the Soviets, Klenzendorf tells Jojo he has an admiration for his late mother’s courage. He also tries to get Jojo out of any Soviet mistreatment and has him passed off as a Jew.

As the war ends, Jojo is relieved that Yorki survived the warfare. He just won’t die! However with the war over, it might mean saying goodbye to Elsa, which Jojo doesn’t want to do. Jojo gets that message as Elsa has the book completed with an image of Jojo next to a rabbit in a cage. Before he could, Hitler returns with a bullet-wound in his head. He’s lost it all, but Jojo has had it with him. Hitler tries to get one last piece of appreciation from him, but fails in grand style. The film ends on a positive uplifting note that’s fun to watch.

Now a lot of people have the attitude that Hitler and Nazism and the harms they caused should not be parodized. Especially in a time when even the slightest off-color comment from a well-known person can unleash a wave of wrath on social media like Twitter and could pave their way to their downfall. We should not forget that there have been parodies of Adolf Hitler in the past. There was animation like Looney Tunes’ The Ducktator, Walt Disney’s Stop That Tank and even Der Fuehrer’s Face where Donald Duck poses as Hitler. There has been live action film, especially from some Mel Brooks’ movies like The Producers and To Be Or Not To Be, and even recent examples like in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The most famous film parody of Hitler is 1940’s The Great Dictator. Charlie Chaplin didn’t exactly play Hitler but its obvious who he’s parodizing in his character of Adenoid Hynkel. Actually it was around World War II where Hollywood unleashed possibly released the most parodies of Hitler. And rightly so because Hitler wanted to take over the world, including the USA.

We should also keep in mind that this parody is not an original creation of Taika Waititi. Jojo is actually based off of a book by New Zealand-Belgian author Christina Leunens titled Caging Spies. The novel caught the attention of Waititi and he took a liking to it, especially since he himself is half-Jewish and half-Maori. Waititi has frequently described New Zealand as a racist country and a lot of negative comments about Jews you hear in this film are comments Waititi himself heard. So if anyone is alarmed with the Anti-Semitism they hear, basically it’s what has been said in the past and what was common belief in the past. Both the film and the novel also touch on a lot of things and experiments the Nazis used to do in the past. They may not have successfully cloned humans, but they did experiment with it. Fraulein Rahm may have shocked us in saying she had fifteen children, but there were women who bred constantly for creating more Aryan children. That scene where Yorki becomes a soldier and the scenes where the children have to fight as Germany was losing is also a disturbing truth. The Hitlerjugend was created to raise the boys to become soldiers as they reach adulthood but when it became clear Germany was losing, the Hitlerjugend became soldiers in vain to keep the Nazi regime alive. Those scenes were possibly the biggest non-comedic scenes of the film.

This film concept of a Hitler Youth having Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend is a concept that’s supposed to fail, but somehow it works like a charm. One thing we should keep in mind is that the Adolf Hitler we see on the screen is not the Adolf Hitler we know but the Adolf Hitler in Jojo’s mind. This Adolf who’s idiotic, incompetent, immature and even jealous represents the boy’s feelings of nationalism and there are many times he’s pushed to confront his feelings or even question them. In the end it’s clear Adolf is nothing but a bad influence on him. The film does not shy away from the anti-Semitic attitudes most of the Hitler Youth had, albeit making it look comedic.

The story is also a case where that grenade accident is the best thing to happen to Jojo. Being too injured to be involved with the Hitler Youth, it’s his mother Rosie that reminds him of the truth about love and beauty and what being a child should be. It’s also Elsa who is best at teaching Jojo about love and how it helps to overcome prejudices. Not to mention that Jews are people too with similar feelings like Jojo. It’s also where we learn the true heroes are Jews like Elsa who survived and Rosie who was hanged for being part of the resistance. Even that scene where Klenzendorf is captured by the Russians and about to face execution is powerful. There he admits to Jojo that being left out of the Nazi Youth was the best thing for him and his mother is the true brave one, and Jojo should have no part in any of the imprisonment or executions the Nazis like him are about to face.

SPOILER WARNING: This paragraph has details of the end. The ending is a unique situation. Elsa experiences the freedom she never thought she’d get in her lifetime. Even though she learns Jojo lied about who won. That dance scene is important as you have two children. One is Jewish and the other was a Nazi boy who first saw her as someone to bully but fell in love with her. Elsa lucked out from being captive from the Nazis. Jojo lucked out as he isn’t seen as a Nazi and he’s spared by Russian and American soldiers. Elsa lost her family and the boy she loves. Jojo lost his family. They have nothing but each other but they dance together. That’s a powerful scene, especially as Rosie talks of how dancing means freedom. The dance represents those two free orphans who lost a lot but both won in the end.

I have to give top acclaim to director/writer Taika Waititi. He takes an oddball story about a Hitler-obsessed Nazi child and turns it into a story with both humor and heart. He doesn’t shy away from humor that punches. It doesn’t punch as brutal as some of the humor from South Park or The Family Guy, but it does punch and somehow can even make those that claim they’re ‘woke’ laugh. Even the Anti-Semitic comments. I would describe this as ‘evil genius,’ but it’s the ‘evil genius’ of the best kind! Also deserving of acclaim is Roman Griffin Davis playing the little protagonist. This is his first-ever film role but he holds the film together from start to finish and masters it with near-perfect comedic charm. I expect to see more of him in the future. Back to Waititi, he was also excellent in playing the idiotic Hitler. Playing Hitler as an idiot is a big gamble in any film. I’ve seen portrayals of idiot-Hitlers before and most fail. Waititi’s Hitler works like a charm in this film.

Also worthy of acclaim is Scarlett Johannson. She does an excellent job of portraying a mother who’s hurting of loss of her husband and daughter, knows that her days are numbers as being a member of the resistance, and trying to get her son to adopt human values and lose his Nazi ways. Thomasin McKenzie is also excellent as Elsa, the girl who is determined to make Jojo see the light, but knows she’s up for a big challenge. Archie Yates is also a delight as Yorki, Jojo’s best friend, who adds in the right comedic touches. Additional humorous performances include Sam Rockwell as the depressed Captain Klenzendorf and Rebel Wilson as the ruthless, but colorful, Fraulein Lahm.

Jojo Rabbit also has a lot of standout technical efforts too. There’s the editing from Tom Eagles, the costuming from Mayes Rubio, the set designs from Ra Vincent and Nora Sopkova and the music from Michael Giacchino. Actually the mix of Giacchino’s score and classic rock songs, including some with a German-language version from the original artist, fit the film perfectly.

At the end, you will be convinced that Jojo Rabbit is the ideal comedy to be having in a hostile time right now. I will guarantee that even the ‘superwoke’ on Twitter who are set out to vilify any famous person who makes even the slightest off-color comment will be laughing too.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: The Irishman

Irishman

Robert de Niro (second from left)  plays Frank Sheeran and Al Pacino (second from right) plays Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. A story about loyalty and betrayal.

Just when you think Martin Scorsese has done everything he could in film, along comes The Irishman. This film may not be his best, but it adds to his stack of films one can call great works.

Martin Scorsese is undoubtedly the master of gangster films or Mafia films. We have sensed there would be successors in the likes of Quentin Tarantino, but that has not yet come to be. Tarantino has his own gangster style, but Scorsese films are the Mona Lisa’s of gangster movies, if you can truly call a gangster movie a Mona Lisa! Scorsese has shown his versatility in film making since the beginning of this century. His films since the new century began have taken a wide range of genres from epic to fantasy to a family film to business-scam drama to dark comedies to religious biopics. However when watching The Irishman, his first gangster movie since The Departed, it only seems natural that gangster movies were what Scorsese was born to do. Although films in the other genres he tackled are very good, it just seems natural that way. Even the excitement of having Scorsese ‘all-stars’ like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel adds to the excitement. Additions like Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Anna Paquin also add to the excitement.

Now the film has a lot of common elements you’ll expect from a Scorsese gangster movie. It tells of a man and his involvement with the mafia and of his daily duties. It also goes back to his past in how he developed the right type of insensitivity to become as consistent hitman. It also tells of some of his more legendary kills. The film also adds something different. It adds in the story of the ‘vacation of a lifetime.’ It’s not something you’d expect to be in a Scorsese film, but it’s done in a fashion you’d expect to see from Scorsese.

However it’s the aftermath that one would not expect to see in a Scorsese film. It’s like it almost shifts to a completely different film for the last half-hour. That’s what hit me about the film. It not only tells the story of a man who committed a lot of murders and also allegedly committed the murder of the man behind the most intriguing missing person case in the past half-century. It tells of the aftermath of how he would come to regret his actions over the years. Even of how he appeared to have it all and win it with fear during his lifetime, but would be doomed to die alone. You can pinpoint exactly where in the scene where Peggy ask Frank about Jo and Frank calls a distraught Jo up trying to comfort her, but knowing he’s the one who killed her husband. That’s a change of pace from Goodfellas about a mobster who lived the mob life, was imprisoned for it and regrets nothing. Even before the scene of the killing of Hoffa, there are freeze-frame montages that mention of the aftermaths of others involved in the Philly mob Frank Sheeran and Russell Bufalino were a part of, including those shot dead or imprisoned for life.  I think the whole theme of the movie wasn’t just mob life, but how everyone involved pays in the end.

Now one thing we should remember is that we should not completely embrace this story as a true story, even though it’s very accurate. The film is based off the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. Brandt is a former homicide prosecutor, investigator and defense attorney and he’s the man who interviewed Frank Sheeran shortly before his death. During the interview, Sheeran told of his life as a hitman and of his own involvement with Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran confessed it all to Brandt months earlier and saw a priest the last few months of his lives so he could die with a clear conscience in December of 2003. The case of Jimmy Hoffa is still unsolved and his body has never been found. The FBI have had a lot of stories and sources, but it’s Sheeran’s story that’s the one they’re most going with. However there are still some naysayers that are claiming that Sheeran lied in the interview. Whatever the situation, this missing case is still unclosed. I won’t completely call Sheeran’s story the whole truth, but I believe he makes a strong case and it’s hard for me to sense him lying.

Once again, Martin Scorsese proves himself to the be master of gangster movies. Quentin Tarantino may take ruthless killers to a new level, but Martin is still the master. This film that he directs with a script written by Steve Zaillian is a complex film to pack into 3 hours and 20 minutes. Usually if a film is that long, I would expect the director to justify it. Martin has delivered a lot of three-hour films in the past, but I’m convinced he has justified the time here. If you yourself are one of the people that has been fascinated by Jimmy Hoffa and his missing story, this will be a film that will intrigue you.

It’s not just the story that will intrigue you, but how the Scorsese/Zaillian creates it and arranges it from beginning to end. It starts as the audience visits a nursing home, tours around seeing family after family and comes across a lonely man: Frank Sheeran. Then it jumps into 1975 and the story of how Frank, his wife, his mob boss Russell Bufalino and Russ’ wife Carrie were going on a ‘trip of a lifetime’ from Philadelphia to Detroit. Then it paves on how it led to all this from Frank’s days of truck driving to introduction to the mob to being a hitman for hire to a close friend of Jimmy Hoffa. The story shows of Hoffa’s rise, downfall and attempted comeback. It also shows Frank’s struggle of who should he be loyal to: Hoffa or the mob? It slows the moment of the ‘big day’ down and it delivers the aftermath with feeling that cuts deep. Also it treats the film as if Sheeran is giving us an interview. Almost like we’re Charles Brandt! I have to say the format of the film works and will keep one intrigued whether they’re a fan of Scorsese films, fan of mob films, or just have an interest in Jimmy Hoffa. It’s interesting how the film begins with “In The Still Of The Night” and it’s nice to hear and is replayed at the end, but it sounds haunting at the end. The film and its layout of the story makes it work.

Big credit to Robert de Niro for playing the role of Frank Sheeran. To do Frank, he has to cut deep into the man and how he went from a fearless killer who was able to adopt the coldness of killing to being the man with regrets in the end and wants to die with a clear conscience. Robert does an excellent job of it. Also excellent is Joe Pesci playing the mob boss who wants to call the shots of Sheeran and Hoffa. Pesci really knew how to steal the scenes in the film. Al Pacino was also great as Hoffa. He did an excellent job in delivering a multi-dimensional and complex performance of a man in history who was just as complicated as he was a legend. There were a lot of good supporting performances from Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Harvey Keitel. However one of the biggest standout performances came from one with little dialogue: that of Anna Paquin. Her role of Peggy Sheeran required her to say with her physical actions and facial expressions and she did an excellent job. Even one of the few spoken lines she had in the film “Why haven’t you called Jo?” would pave the way to where the film changed from a story of mob work to the story of regret.

The film should also be admired for its technical merits too. There’s the visual effects team that did the top-notch CGI effects to take the ages of de Niro, Pesci and Pacino back 30 years without them needing heavy make-up. It’s not just the actors acting younger than their ages but the CGI too! There’s also the costuming of Sandy Powell and the set designs by Bob Shaw and Regina Graves to take the film back to the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. There’s also the inclusion of music into the film that takes the film back to its set times. The score from Robbie Robertson also ads to the film.

The Irishman may be a true story, or it may be one big lie. However you put it, it’s a very telling story that paints a vivid but dark picture of what might have happened in one of the most intriguing missing cases ever. It’s also another film Scorsese directs and puts together in excellent fashion. It’s easy to see why it’s another contender for this year’s Oscars.

VIFF 2019 Review: In The Tall Grass

In-The-Tall-Grass

In The Tall Grass is a thriller of people lost in a field of tall grass and come across something of the paranormal that’s terrifying to their existence.

With the VIFF comes the return of films in the Altered States category: of thrillers, horror and even the paranormal. My first chance came with the film In The Tall Grass. It was worth it.

The film starts with a pregnant Becky DeMuth and her brother Cal traveling to San Diego to find a way to give up her baby. They pass an old bowling alley and stop by a church. Just as they stop by, they hear the voice of a young boy crying for help. The voice is coming from a field of tall grass they’ve parked beside. They also hear the mother of the boy begging anyone to not come in. Becky and Cal are naturally curious and walk in top help the boy. It’s only a matter of time they find themselves lost and even risk getting stuck by the wet sticky mud. Even as they’re distant, they hear each other’s voices which is not really theirs, but mystically transmitted. They decide to leave, but they can’t and are stuck for the night.

During the night, Cal encounters Tobin, the lost boy, who is scared, bruised and holding a dead crow. Becky meets up with a man named Ross, who is very friendly and offers to lead her. Tobin reveals to cal that the field the grass does not move dead things and Becky will not make it out of the field alive. Tobin leads Cal to the centre of the field which consists of cut grass bordering a big mystical rock with hieroglyphics which Tobin tells Cal to touch. Before he does, Becky arrives, but is taken away by an unseen figure.

Travis, the father of Becky’s child, arrives in the same area of Becky and Cal. He notices the car parked by the church. He also notices the field of tall grass. He hears Tobin’s voice and is led into the field. Tobin leads Travis to Becky’s corpse. Travis breaks down, but loses sight of Tobin. At the same time, we see Tobin with his father Ross and mother Natalie at the church along with their dog Freddie. Possibly a reference of what happened earlier. Freddie runs into the field of tall grass and the three chase after him. It’s there where Travis hears Tobin’s voice and the three of the family are scattered around the field. Ross comes to the centre with the rock and touches it as night falls. Tobin is discovered by Becky and cal all all are confused by the timelines.

As the three are one group, Becky and Cal decide to leave and use Tobin to navigate a path back to the road on top of Cal’s shoulders. Becky receives an unknown phone call saying that Cal should quit hunting Travis.The grass soon appears to be entering Becky’s uterus and she becomes unconscious. Cal and Tobin come across Ross, who reunites with Tobin. Ross brings them to the rock but are startled when they see Natalie and she says she saw Becky’s corpse earlier. As they try to make their escape, Ross is chasing them all down and gives them the impression there’s no escape and they’re all under Ross’ control. Ross tells them all the rock shows them of what’s happening.

Becky, Cal, Travis and Tobin succeed in escaping the field into the abandoned bowling alley. As Cal and Travis make their way to the top, they discover the dog Freddie escaped via a hole. However a spat between Travis and Cal brew as Travis brings up he senses incestuous feelings between Cal and Becky. Cal throws Travis off the roof. That succeeds in alerting Ross to their location. Tobin, knowing how this alerted Ross to their whereabouts, runs back into the field. Becky and Cal try to escape together, but Becky won’t leave Travis alone in the field. After she runs off to find Travis, Cal is strangled by Ross. It’s evident anyone in the grass field is affected by a time loop. If anyone dies, there will be another of them alive. If anyone touches the rock, they get a sense of control and invincibility.

During the return to the grass, Becky admits she was going to give the baby up for adoption. Becky is soon captured by Ross who tries to sexually assault her, but she escapes. Grass creatures however emerge and grab a hold of her and carry her to the rock. There, the rock develops imagery that detail the baby will die and Becky will be tortured. Becky passes out in reaction. As she awakens, she is tricked by Ross who poses his voice as Cal. Travis meanwhile stumbles across Becky’s unconscious body. Ross then kills Travis and captures Tobin to get him to touch the rock. Becky stops him, but dies. Travis decides to touch the rock to get a better understanding of the grass.

The film ends with one last scene involving Becky, Cal, Tobin and Travis. It gives the impression that all know what is happening and the film ends with what should be.

This film is a film that is based off of a short story written by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill. We’ve had Stephen King adaptations before and often adapting a Stephen King story to the big screen is hit-or-miss. This is a very complex story. This involves six people who go into a field of grass with paranormal powers. It threatens their lives and creates another life for them. Then there’s the rock that gives whoever it touches a sense of invincibility and control and threatens others.

Overall this film is a maze and a puzzle. Trying to piece this puzzle together is a tricky thing. Trying to create this maze of confusion is also a tricky thing. Watching it, it’s easy to get thrilled by the paranormal and nervous for what will happen next. However in looking back, I felt there were some areas that didn’t make too much sense. Even when it becomes clear that Ross starts as the controlling one and then it becomes Travis, that seemed odd. Even how Ross was the controlling conniving one, that even seemed cheesy at times.

The film does however keep one intrigued in the paranormal elements. Depite its flaws in the script and storyline, it does succeed in grabbing a hold of your attention and keeping you intrigued in the story. The paranormal elements don’t come across as cheeseball as it adds to the thriller aspect of the film. Overall despite its flaws as a film, I feel this is a good story for fans of paranormal fiction. I just feel it could have been done better as a movie.

This story is a mixed bag for Vincenzo Natali. Yes, it’s confusing, but the paranormal will keep one intrigued from start to finish and it will keep one hoping for the best for the main characters. Laysla de Oliveira was very good as Becky. Isn’t it something how the first two VIFF films I saw starred Laysla? She captured the role well in both it’s comedic elements and it’s dramatic elements.

Avery Whitted was also good as Cal. Will Buie Jr. also did an excellent job as Tobin: the frightened boy in the middle of it all. His role was the best at keeping the horror/thriller aspect of the film and was the most no-nonsense performance of all. Patrick Wilson was hard to make sense of as Ross. He came across as a conniver, but I feel he lacked the sinister element. Harrison Gilbertson was good as Travis, but he appeared he could have done more.

In The Tall Grass is a Netflix thriller that works well to be shown on the big screen, if imperfectly. It may not make the most sense, but it does keep people thrilled and intrigued about what will happen next and how it will end.

Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Get Out

Get Out

Get Out is a horror-thriller that’s definitely out of the ordinary.

I admit I was very late on the draw for watching Get Out. Could’ve been the schoolwork I had to deal with or I just didn’t rush out like I should’ve. I finally had the chance to see it a month ago and I can easily see why it’s one of the best films of 2017.

The story begins with a young black man abducted on the street. Soon after, black photographer Chris Washington is packing with white girlfriend Rose Armitage for a meet-the-parents visit. Rose insists to Chris that his race won’t matter, even though he is her first black boyfriend. Chris says goodbye to his friend Rod, a black TSA agent, and insists to him things will be fine. On the ride there with Rose driving, they hit a deer. The police visit the two and the white officer wants to look at Chris’ identification, even though he wasn’t driving. It took Rose’s intervention to stop this.

The two arrive at the home where they meet Rose’s brain-surgeon father Dean, hypnotist mother Missy and student brother Jeremy. All three make discomfiting comments about black people. Additional uneasiness to Chris comes when he notices housekeeper Georgina and groundskeeper Walter, both black, show strange behavior. Things get even weirder when Chris steps outside to smoke and notices Walter sprinting through the grounds and Georgina prowling through the house.

To try and take his mind off things, Missy gives Chris a hypnotherapy session to cure his smoking. During the session, he’s taken back to his childhood and the memory of his mother’s hit-and-run death: a death he feels guilty of. After that comes the void Missy calls ‘the sunken place.’

Chris wakes up the next morning wanting to think it was all a nightmare. Instead he’s surprised to learn that cigarettes turn him off and Walter even confirms Chris was in Missy’s office. Chris also notices Georgina unplugged his phone leaving the battery to die, but she claims it was an accident.

The next day, Chris is at a get-together hosted by the Armitage with dozens of wealthy couples; most of them white. However the topic is almost always the same from person to person. They all ask about his race and even bring up talk of prominent black figures. The only person who doesn’t bring up race is Jim Hudson, a blind art dealer, who takes an interest in Chris’s photography.

Chris meets one other black person at the party. His name’s Logan; he’s married to a white woman and he acts rather strangely. Chris telephones his friend Rod and lets him know of all the suspicious activity at the Armitage house. Chris snapped a flash photo of Logan from his phone, but Logan’s personality changes to a hostile manner, shouting for him to ‘get out.’

Despite Dean claiming it’s an epileptic seizure, Chris isn’t fooled. He knows there’s something wrong happening and persuades Rose to leave with him. Meanwhile Rod notices the Logan in the photo is Andre Hayworth: the man who went missing earlier. Rod tried to get his police department to go to the Armitage household, get Chris, and arrest whoever’s involved. His colleagues all think it’s a joke. Rod is on his own.

As Chris is about to leave, Chris comes across photos of Rose with other black boyfriends. As he tries to leave, Chris is blocked by the family from leaving and even Rose is part of the heist to abduct him. Jeremy acts violent but as Chris tries to fight back, Missy imposes hypnosis to make him weaker. While wrapped in bondage in a chair, Chris watches a video from Rose’s grandfather Roman where they take the brains of white people and puts them into black people. The host remains in the ‘sunken place’: watching but powerless. Hudson tells Chris through the screen he wants his body for his sight and his artistic talents. Meanwhile Rod telephones Rose to find out what’s happening, but Rose declines, making like Rod is a past boyfriend.

The night before surgery, Chris puts the cotton stuffing from the chair in his ears to block the hypnosis. The day of a surgery is when Chris has to make his getaway. The movie ends with a lot of surprises– including some surprising facts about the surgery — but it ends with the pleasing ending many would have hoped for.

This is a rarity. A horror film where racism is one of the main themes of the film. The story starts out as something simple: boyfriend meets girlfriends’ parents. The fact that he’s black shouldn’t make that much of a deal. I mean Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was 50 years ago and lots has changed, right? You get the first impression race will be a topic when they hit a deer and Chris is asked for his identification. It becomes further evident when Chris is with Rose’s family and the father brings up Jesse Owens. I was actually surprised to see how often race was brought up in conversations between Chris. It was always a topic in Chris’ conversations with people, if not the first. And then a case of mental enslavement: white brains in black bodies. I notice the familiarity here.

I’m sure race has a lot to do with the police scenarios, but even then, there was one area that didn’t seem about race. That’s when Rod describes the situation to the police and all three laugh. The three Rod talked to were of various races, even one black woman. I felt that was trying to send me a message that even African Americans in the police force look at their own in a negative light. The end definitely had something to say. A cop car arrives with Rose shot and dying on the ground and Chris thinks he’s about to get arrested, only for Rod to be the cop. Glad to see it gave a happy ending. I think it was also trying to say something; about the importance of having friends who know the truth.

Even without the subject of race, this stands out as a psychological thriller in its own right. One of the difficulties of horror or thriller movies is including supernatural or paranormal things without looking ridiculous. The theme of hypnosis and mind control really makes itself present in a smart way. The inclusion of such themes even the addition of the brain surgery right in the family’s house didn’t look cheesy at all, fitting well within the story. Showing how Chris broke the mind-control aspect when he took a photo of Andre/Logan is shown intelligently and added to the story without looking ridiculous. The scene near the end where Walter shoots himself after shooting Rose didn’t appear dumb as it showed this mind-control was something only death can free them of.  Even the goriness of the deaths didn’t look dumb. In summary, all the thriller or horror aspects had to make sense in order for them to work, and they did.

This film had to be 2017’s ‘sleeper success.’ The film made its debut at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Lately Sundance movies haven’t been as big of a draw to the box office as they were ten or even twenty years ago. This film really caught people’s attention and grossed $176 million at the box office. It was no wonder it would be one of the stand-out films of 2017. It reminds you that 2017 wasn’t such a bad year in movies after all, and Get Out was one of the highlights. Get Out also contributed highly to the resurgence of the horror/thriller genre. Sure, the biggest news came from It, but Get Out is admired for its ability to create an original story and even add African-American elements to the horror genre, which is extremely rare.

The person who deserves the most acclaim here is writer/director Jordan Peele. He is one driven person. Past work of his includes acting and writing for MadTV as well as stand-up comedy. This is his first feature-length film as a writer and director and it really stands out because of its excellent story line. Also excellent is the lead acting from Daniel Kaluuya. He succeeded in making a performance in a horror movie three-dimension: something very rare. There were also good standout supporting performances from Lil Red Howery as Rod. Makes sense as Rod was the comic relief. Also a good scene-stealer was Betty Gabriel. Her portrayal as Marianne/Georgina best personified what it was like to be under this mind-control lobotomy. Smiling on the outside, but mentally-enslaved on the inside. Alison Williams also made a good villain, switching from the loving girlfriend to helping the family get their next ‘slave.’

Get Out did two things that most people would believe is impossible to do nowadays. The first is create a horror film that is as intense as it is smart. The second is for an African-American to create such a horror film. The film achieves all that, and more.

Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is the story of Winston Churchill (played by Gary Oldman) and his struggle to convince the people of the UK that fighting Hitler is the right thing to do.

Usually around the latter part of the year, historical dramas are common for release. Darkest Hour is one, focusing on Winston Churchill and World War II. The question is does it fare well as a film? And does it have relevance to the present?

The film is set in May 1940. World War II had just begun eight months ago with the fall of Poland. France is next. The film hits hard in the UK as they fear war is looming. It hits so hard, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is pressured by the opposing Labour Party to resign for not doing enough. Neville needs to find a successor, but his first choice, Lord Halifax, declines. He goes for his second choice: Winston Churchill.

Now Winston Churchill was seen as a bad choice as the successor to Chamberlain. He has a bad record with his roles in the Admiralty, the Gallipolli Campaign During The First World War, his views on India, and his support for Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis. Even his own personal manner is of question as he is oafish and has a reputation for infidelity and a quick temper. He’s even temperamental to his new secretary when she mishears him, but his wife Clementine gets him to come to his senses.

King George VI encourages Churchill to form a coalition government along with Halifax and Chamberlain. Churchill’s first response to Hitler’s invasion of France is fast and immediate: no surrender to Hitler and fight if we have to. He made it clear on May 13 1940 in his ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’ speech.

The speech is not well-received by the Parliament. They think he’s delusional. The Nazi army is too powerful. It even gets flack from King George VI. The French Prime Minister thinks he’s delusional for not admitting the Allies lost in the Battle Of France. People in his party offer Churchill to accept Hitler’s offer to negotiate for a peaceful end to the War, but Churchill declines. He does not trust Hitler.

The situation gets frustrating to the point both Halifax and Chamberlain are looking to use the Italian Ambassador as a route to negotiate peace with Hitler. Both plan to resign from the Government if Churchill doesn’t comply, hoping to cause a ‘vote of non-confidence’ to allow Halifax to become Prime Minister. Meanwhile Churchill is trying to seek support from the US with President Franklin Roosevelt, but he declines as the US signed an international agreement preventing military action in Europe years ago.

However war is pressing. The UK find themselves in battles in Dunkirk and Calais. Churchill, against the wishes of the War Brigade, orders a 30th Infantry Brigade in Calais to organize a suicide attack to distract the Nazis allowing the soldiers in Dunkirk to evacuate.

The defeat at Calais causes the War Cabinet to want to negotiate with Germany. However as Churchill is about to make his way to Parliament, he receives support from his wife, support from King George VI fearing exile if Germany wins, and support from a group of citizens in the London Underground he takes to parliament. Even members of the Outer Cabinet and other members of Parliament give him their support. News comes that the evacuation in Dunkirk ‘Operation Dynamo’ is successful. At parliament in front of cabinet members and members of the War Cabinet, Churchill delivers his speech of ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ to the support and applause of all, even Halifax and Chamberlain.

Lately there have been a lot of biographical films that don’t thoroughly focus on the person’s life, but instead focuses on the one moment that defined them as a person. We saw in Lincoln how getting the Emancipation Proclamation made constitutional and the political fight to get it done is what defined Abraham Lincoln the most. We saw in Capote that it was the making of In Cold Blood that would become Truman Capote’s biggest legacy of a writer, and would eventually lead to his downfall. Here we see the period of one month how Churchill couldn’t just simply say that Hitler needed to be fought, but had to convince the people and especially the parliament that fighting him is the right thing.

Such a situation in our world history is not uncommon. If you remember Lincoln, you will remember that Abraham Lincoln had to do political campaigning in order to get the Emancipation Proclamation made constitutional. The Proclamation itself was up for vote in the House. Just a reminder that even the most righteous political laws still have to go through the same political processes. Even for powerful speeches, it’s about saying it at the right time and the results to follow. We may remember how back in 1987, Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This is something JFK could have told Nikita Khruschev to do, or Nixon telling Brezhnev to do, or even Reagan himself telling Brezhnev or Andropov to do, but it would not result. The Soviet leaders were just that stubborn and dead-set on their rigid ways and dismiss what the POTUSes said at hot air. But Reagan said that just during a time when it appeared the Cold War appeared to be thawing and Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to appear cooperative with the US, but not without its friction. That sentence is memorable because the Wall did come down in a matter of two years.

Here in Darkest Hour, we see another example of how words that are true in conviction and the right thing to say still faced political opposition. When Churchill was placed as Prime Minister, he didn’t waste time in speaking his opposition to Hitler and that the UK should not surrender. However those in the office all thought his words were deluded. They knew of the Nazi army and the invasions it’s caused already in less than a year. Hitler and the Nazi army were just that menacing. They also saw the efforts, or lack thereof, from the previous Prime Minister fail. On top of that, France had just fallen to the Nazis. They were simply afraid.

It was easy for people to think of Churchill’s words as deluded. He already had a reputation in the British parliament of being quite the buffoon. In fact the opening scene of the film shows his buffoonish nature. Churchill knew in his heart that the UK had to fight the Nazis, but he had to convince the British parliament. And he had to do it fast. Over time, more tyranny from the Nazis occurred and the UK was feeling the heat. Churchill was denied support from US president Franklin Roosevelt because of an agreement signed the year before. That negotiation for peace from the Germans would seem like something one would cave into and it was easy to see why the British politicians thought it right, even though we all know it to be wrong.

The last fifteen minutes of the film just as Churchill is about to deliver the ‘fight on the beaches’ is a very powerful scene as it shows how Churchill is able to win support in his stance from his wife, the King of England and even people on the subway as he makes his way to parliament. I don’t know if that really happened to Churchill in real life, but that subway scene is a powerful scene. Sometimes I think that scene is telling me that all too often, the common person has a better sense of what’s right than the people in power.

For the most part, the film is as much of a biographical drama as it is an historic drama. The film is very much about the speeches of Churchill and the start of the mission of British forces to fight Nazi Germany. The film not only focuses on Churchill’s quest to fight in the war, but his quest to convince the people in political power to believe him. It focuses on Churchill as a man of great conviction, but also a man of noticeable flaws. That had a lot to do with why people first thought he was a madman or deluded. It reminds you that a head of state can sometimes be reduced to a pawn in their political building. The film does remind people of the common saying that: ‘What’s right isn’t always what’s popular and what’s popular isn’t always what’s right.” Churchill knew in his heart he was right, but he had to fight to make it believed by all. It was necessary as the Battle of Dunkirk would soon happen

It’s interesting how Darkest Hour is release in the same year Dunkirk is. I find it very appropriate because it was actually just right after the Battle Of Dunkirk and the subsequent evacuation that Churchill delivered his speech of “We shall fight on the beaches.” The fight on the beaches of Dunkirk and the evacuation and rescue mission was the first significant sign of what the UK needed to do to win against the Nazis. Churchill was there to pay all respect to those heroes, the survivors and fatalities, who were a part of it.

Director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten deliver a very good historical story. However there are times when it does feel like it’s completely restricted to being about Winston Churchill. I understand what the story is all about, but they could have explored some additional angles to go with it. Without a doubt, the film is owned by Gary Oldman. He does an excellent job of delivering a performance of Winston Churchill. His depiction of Churchill first appears cartoonish at the beginning, but the depth and dimension develops over the film and he really comes out shining.

Although the film is dominated by the portrayal of Winston Churchill, there are supporting performances from Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton that are able to steal the moment. Also capturing the moment are Ben Mendelsohn as King George who slowly supports Churchill and Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain who supports Churchill despite his own political downfall. The film also does an excellent job in the technical aspects such as the Production Design to reconstruct parliament, costuming from Jacqueline Durran and the makeup and hairstylists to fit the era, the cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel and the musical score from Dario Marianelli which capture the intensity and triumphs of the moments.

Darkest Hour is more than just an historical drama or biographical drama. It’s an excellent film about standing by your convictions without crossing the line of being preachy.

Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Lady Bird

Lady Bird

Lady Bird is about a 17 year-old girl (played by Saoirse Ronan) dealing with her life and her future, and her mother (played by Laurie Metcalf) trying to steer her in the right direction.

Lady Bird is a top contender for this year’s Academy Awards. If you’ve seen it, you can see how this film is not a typical ‘teen movie’ and actually a story with a lot packed in.

Christine McPherson is a frustrated 17 year-old girl living in Sacramento in 2002. She has a stormy relationship with her parents as well as her adoptive brother and his girlfriend. To make things more frustrating, she’s put in Catholic school for Grade 12 because there was a shooting at her public school. She appears unclear about her life direction and frequently insists that all people refer to her as ‘Lady Bird,’ including family.

Starting school, she has a close friendship with Julie Steffans whom she joins the drama club with. Through the club, she meets a sweet talented boy named Danny O’Neill. They soon start dating and they appear to be a match made in heaven until Lady Bird catches Danny in a bathroom stall kissing another boy.

Throughout her time at the school, Lady Bird develops a mean streak of rebelliousness. One minute, she’s consuming Eucharist wafers with Julie. The next, she vandalizes the nuns’ car with a sing saying “Just married to Jesus.” Another moment, she lashes out at a pro-life speaker who visits her school, which leads to a two-week suspension. This leads to a lot of friction with her friend Julie who sees her as one who does things for attention.

During this time, it all leads to a lot of friction with her mother Marion, who has a lot of high expectations for Lady Bird and her life, especially with applying for colleges. Marion often feels that Lady Bird lacks goals or appears like she doesn’t want to do anything meaningful with her life. Marion feels that way because she had to work hard to achieve. This generation gap appears to Lady Bird that her mother is an interference to her life and her own goals. To make family struggles worse, her father loses his job and is struggling with depression.

Lady Bird tries to escape from those headaches. She gets a job at a cafe where she meets Kyle Schieble, a boy from school she knows is part of a rock band. She strays away from Julie and starts hanging out with popular girl Jenna Walton. She sees opportunity after Jenna was reprimanded by the school for wearing short skirts. Thus Lady Bird bring Jenna into the ‘just married to Jesus’ prank. However none of her efforts to mix with the ‘cool kids’ works out. She lied to Jenna about her house so she can fit in, but Jenna finds the truth out. Also she agrees to have sex with Kyle, believing his claim that he’s a virgin, only to find out he’s had other girls before.

As graduation nears, things change for the better for Lady Bird. She gets a letter from a college in New York saying she’s on the waiting list, though she tells her mother she’s been accepted. She’s willing to go shopping for a prom dress with her mother. Her relationship with her brother and his girlfriend gets better as he gets a major job. On prom night, she forsakes a party with Jenna and Kyle to meet up with Julie. There, she rekindles the friendship and they go to the prom together. She even attends Danny’s school performance.

Over at the graduation party, Lady Bird admits to her mother that she was on the waiting list to the university in New York, to which Marion appears either hurt or angry. Lady Bird’s 18th birthday comes soon after. Marion has a letter written for Lady Bird to read when she’s settled in her college dorm. Then it’s the flight to New York. Marion does not talk to Lady Bird, appearing like she’s disappointed with her. Marion even drives away when Lady Bird enters the airport, but cries soon after. It’s in her first month in New York after reading the letter and a near-fatal bout of alcohol poisoning that she leaves a heartfelt message to her mother.

The biggest quality of this film is that it’s a story many people can relate to. Sure, it’s about a 17-year-old tart-tongued girl from Sacramento who’s clueless about which direction to go, but one will find themselves relating to this story. Many can watch what Lady Bird is going through at school, through her job, through falling in love, or through her stormy relationship with her mother and say: “That’s also what I went through,” or “That was my attitude at 17,” or “I knew someone like that.”

One of the things is about the character of Lady Bird is that despite her eccentricities, it also captures the essence of being a seventeen year-old well. Seventeen is that bizarre age where one is just a year away from becoming an adult. It’s a bumpy road as they are in the process of defining one’s self and making choices of what direction in life they want to pursue. We see that in all of the seventeen year-old characters in the film like Julie, the best friend who’s a social misfit, Jenna who thinks she’s too cool, Kyle who thinks he’s all that just like every rock star, and Danny who’s struggling with being gay in a conservative Catholic family.

Lady Bird is at the centre of being seventeen. The character of Lady Bird captures being 17 in a lot of its best traits, but also in some of its worst traits too. Lady Bird is all about her self-definition where she feels she has to find herself in the drama club. Lady Bird is one who also still feels social pressures despite her individualism and tries to fit in with the cool students despite leaving close friends behind. Lady Bird is also about her spiritual confusion too. She wants to be an individual and think for herself, even rebel against the Catholic Church at times, but somehow shows that she longs to believe in a god despite her rebellion.

Lady Bird is also about having that teen frustration towards her parents, especially her mother. In fact, the mother-daughter relationship between Lady Bird and Marion has to be one of the biggest elements of the film, if not the biggest. Lady Bird has desires for her life, but Marion has goals for her. Often Lady Bird feels she has to explode at Marion, but she learns to calm down and have the normal frustration a 17 year-old has to their mother. As for parent-teen relations, the film is also about Marion too. The personalities of Marion and Lady Bird are like oil and water trying to mix. Marion had her own upbringing and her own difficulties resonate in her personality and even how she raises Lady Bird. Marion feels that the best way she can steer Lady Bird down the right path is to tell her off about her misdoings and wrong directions. She has expectations for Lady Bird, but often feels she falls short. Over time, Marion becomes more accepting of Lady Bird, but she does show disappointment when she finds out Lady Bird lied about her application. That scene near the end where Marion is unemotional in the ride to the airport but cries after dropping Lady Bird off is an example of her personality.

I’m sure many people first thought that this film would be about Lady Bird Johnson. The funniest thing about this film is that there is not a single reference to the former First Lady! Not even a case of one of her classmates uttering out: “Hey Lady Bird, where’s LBJ?”

The true star of the film isn’t exactly an actor, but writer/director Greta Gerwig. After years of having an acting career of mixed results, she came up with this story that is not completely biographical. There are some similarities in Lady Bird that tie into Greta’s own teenage years, but Gerwig insists it’s its own story. Whatever the situation, Gerwig did an excellent job of constructing an entertaining story about a 17 year-old that anyone could relate to. I’m sure anyone no matter what race or gender can identify with moments in Lady Bird to moments in their own life at 17.

Additional top kudos go to Saoirse Ronan for delivering a character that is quirky, but shares a lot of common traits of teens. She does an excellent job of making the role of Lady Bird multi-dimensional. Also worthy of praise is the performance of Laurie Metcalf. She succeeds in turning this film into Marion’s story as much as it is Lady Bird’s story. She’s good at capturing the essence of the mother of a teenager both inside and out. She also does a good job of blending in Marion’s own personality traits of hardship and having a hard attitude. Laurie’s also very good at leaving out all traces of Jackie from Roseanne. Fans of the show would be surprised how different she acts here.

The actors in their supporting roles also did a great job of owning their moment. The most noticeable being Beanie Feldstein as the best friend who sometimes appears to be Lady Bird’s better half, Lucas Hedges as a boy who loves to act but is troubled by his sexuality in school, Timothee Chalamet as the teenage bad boy girls drool over but parents hate, Stephen McKinley Henderson as the priest that’s troubled on the inside, Jordan Rodrigues as the brother caught in the middle, and Tracy Letts as the father trying to make sense of it all.

Lady Bird is a quirky and humorous film about a mother-daughter relationship and the difficulties of being seventeen. Despite its off-the-wall humor, it’s also deep and touching and will resonate with the audience.

VIFF 2017 Review: Indian Horse

Indian-Horse-Film-1

Indian Horse follows the life of Saul Indian Horse (played here by Ajuawak Kapashesit) and his struggle with himself and his Indigenous heritage.

I was lucky to see a lot of Canadian film this year at the VIFF. The last Canadian film I saw was Indian Horse. It touches on a dark moment of Canada’s history, but it also gives a ray of hope.

The story begins with Saul Indian Horse in a rehab clinic for alcoholism. He is around other First Nations people who tell of their experiences being raised in a Residential School. It’s there where Saul needs to make sense of his past.

His first memories come back to 1958: before he was taken to the School. He had a grandmother who spoke in her Ojibway language and still practiced Indigenous spirituality. Her daughter, Saul’s mother, was raised in the School. It changed her terribly. She called the mother’s religion blasphemy and would only speak English. The grandmother would be undaunted and would comment on how she was drinking the ‘white man’s drink.’ Their first son, Saul’s older brother, was to be home from the School temporarily, but was terribly sick. Eventually the brother died. Saul never saw his parents again.

It was just Saul and his grandmother shortly after. The grandmother took Saul to a remote location to try to hide Saul from being taken by authorities to the School, but she died. The authorities did find Saul and took him to the School. The first day was terrible. Saul was joined by a boy named Lonnie who spoke nothing but Ojibway. They were told how they would be made to speak English, revoke their ‘pagan Indian religion’ and not act like ‘savages.’ It all started with the cut of Saul’s ponytail.

The School was where the First Nations children were ‘schooled’ and ‘raised.’ They weren’t taught much in school as far as education went, but they were taught a lot of the Catholic religion. As far as ‘raising’ the children, the priests and nuns ‘raised’ them through abuse and humiliation, even keeping them captive in the basement cage at times. Saul witnesses it all and is even victim to the abuse. He witnesses Lonnie constantly beaten for speaking Ojibway, Lonnie’s failed escape and being held captive for punishment, one girl held captive for behavior and even dying in the cage, and her sister later committing suicide.

Saul did find a way out of the horror. There was one priest, Father Gaston, who appeared to be less strict than the others. He introduced the boys of the school to the sport of hockey. The school had a hockey team and the boys were allowed to watch Hockey Night In Canada. Saul wanted to play but he was too small at first. Fr. Gaston allowed him to tend the uniforms and clean the ice. That time allowed Saul to learn skating for himself and to learn hockey…using frozen horse turds as pucks. Fr. Gaston is astounded by Saul, but the head priest is reluctant to let Saul on the team. After a year, Saul is allowed on. It was a smart decision as the team came the surprise winner at many games with Saul outpowering and outplaying players way bigger than him.

Saul improves so much over the years in hockey, he’s allowed to leave the school early to play for a team on a nearby reserve. Before he leaves, he promises Lonnie he’ll see him again. He’s given a rooming home by an Indigenous couple who are empathetic to what he went through. He even blends well with his new team: The Moose. The Moose are not just a team that plays well, but a team with a brotherly bond. Whenever they win, they celebrate together no matter who the big star is. When they go to a bar to drink, they stand their ground against any bigoted white men why try to fight them.

Years later, Saul is offered a big opportunity to play with a team from a big city, and play professionally for money. The coach, Jack Lanahan, makes an offer in from of Saul’s teammates. Saul refuses at first, but his teammates encourage him to go for it. Saul accepts. Saul is the only member of the team that isn’t white and the team makes him feel like a misfit. On the ice, things aren’t any less discomforting. The crowds taunt him and whenever he scores a goal, they throw Indian figures on the ice. The media isn’t any kinder as a drawing depicts him as a warrior and even the journalist writes him as a warrior. Saul can’t take it anymore and he quits the team, and hockey as a whole. Years later, Saul is doing menial jobs like dishwashing for a restaurant. As he walks the streets of the town, he sees so many First Nations people with drinking problems. Then one day he notices Lonnie on the street with a bottle in his hand. That leads to Saul dealing with his own bout of alcoholism.

It’s 1989. Saul was hospitalized with liver problems. The doctor tells him any more drinking, and he will die soon. Saul check into a rehab centre specifically for First Nations people. There he hears many residential school stories similar to what he endured or what he saw happen to others. One of the counselors ask him if he ever cried. He never has; Saul has always made himself stoic in emotions. He’s asked to go retrace his past. Saul goes back to all the places he knew. First place he returns to is the residential school. It’s no longer running and is now just a shabby building. As he tours the place, he’s reminded of the memories of the ice rink where he learned to play, of the basement where students were locked up, and even the stairway where we learn Fr. Gaston used to perform ‘abuse’ on him. Saul returns to the land in the woods where he lived as a child before being sent to the school. It’s there Saul cries for the first time. It’s also there where he experiences a reconnection with his family and his indigenous heritage. This time he feels the pride. Then he returns to the reserve and is welcomed by his foster parents and The Moose with open arms.

This film is remarkable because it touches on a subject that remains the darkest blemish in Canadian history. The residential school system was set up with contempt in indigenous culture. The white English-French Canadians who ran Canada over a century ago always saw indigenous culture as ‘pagan,’ ‘wicked’ or ‘demonic.’ They felt they were doing the right thing by ‘whitewashing’ the indigenous people. Instead they created a huge mess that was very hurtful to the indigenous people. I attended high school in downtown Winnipeg and I saw firsthand the social problems the indigenous people endured from the late 80’s onward like alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness, teenage pregnancies, gang violence and suicides. One scene that stuck out for me was when the white authorities were taking Saul away to the schools as his grandmother lay dead beside him. They only cared about taking Saul: they didn’t care about the recently-deceased grandmother at all. What does that tell you?

It’s only until revelations of abuse at the schools, both physical and sexual, surfaced in the 90’s after the system was dismantled that we finally got our answers why the indigenous had all these problems. It’s only now since the beginning of the 21st century that efforts have been made to reconcile and to clean up this mess. The stories experienced by the children that were put in the schools were echoed in the 2012 novel Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. The novel has earned huge renown and even won awards since its release. The story of Saul is a story commonly echoed by many indigenous people that were ‘prey’ to this system.

Now adapting Wagamese’s novel into a film would prove to be a challenge. This was a story that needed to be told, no matter how painful the details. However the goal was not just to simply create a film, but create it in a ‘movie’ format so it can be viewed by a wider audience. Direction ended up in the hands of Stephen Campanelli who actually has a reputation in Hollywood as a cameraman, mostly for Clint Eastwood’s films. Campanelli has become Clint’s most trusted ‘camera eye’ since The Bridges Of Madison County. Scriptwriting was given to reputed Canadian scriptwriter Dennis Foon, but not without consultation with Wagamese himself.

The film had to include a lot of important elements of what happened both in the lives of the protagonist and what the indigenous peoples endured over the decades. However if this was to be a movie, the film had to be made into something watchable. The days back in the 90’s when we used to admire directors like Harmony Korine and Lars von Trier who’d take the unwatchable and shoved it in people’s faces are long gone. Making it ‘watchable’ would be a huge challenge. The subject of child abuse is never easy to write about. Seeing images of bigotry toward the indigenous children makes it additionally harder to watch. I don’t deny that anyone who went through the system will say that the depictions of abuse were ‘light’ in comparison to their experiences. However they were very good in telling exactly what they went through. The priests and nuns insulted them, humiliated them and even tortured them whenever they did wrong or didn’t live up to their standards. I may be Catholic, but I felt a lot of wrath towards the priests and nuns who taught at the schools when I was watching. I even thought: “They’re in hell now!” However the film also pointed to their mindset too. The film gave the impression that the priests felt the using abuse to teach and punish was the right thing to use not just on the indigenous, but in raising children as a whole. We shouldn’t forget there were people back in the 50’s that thought using abuse to raise children and punish them was the right thing.

Another element the film had to include was the common prejudices indigenous people received which helped lead to their lifelong identity crisis. The image of indigenous people has always had a difficult time. I don’t want to get started about all those ‘cowboys and indians’ movies of decades past. Imagine an indigenous child watching one of those. How’s he supposed to feel about his identity? The film does a good job in showing the identity crisis the indigenous continued to face just after Saul leaves the school. They would face prejudice whenever they’d go into a bar or any other place mostly filled with white people. Whenever an indigenous would make news of an accomplishment, they would be subject to journalism depicting them as a ‘warrior.’ That scene of Saul reading over that news story is something very common. There are a lot of white people who think that depicting the indigenous as ‘warriors’ through sports names like Redskins or Tomahawks are doing the right thing. Instead it only adds to their inferiority complex.

I think the purpose of the film is to show Saul’s experience as an indigenous person from childhood to adulthood as difficulties shared by most indigenous people in Canada. Throughout the film, I was thinking that this film is not based on a true story. It’s based on a thousand true stories. I’m sure there are many indigenous people who will see the abuse or bigotry or feelings of inferiority happening to Saul and the people around him and feel that this is their story too. This is a mirror of what happened in their lives too.

However going back to how this film was to be in a ‘movie’ format, it still needed to be watchable. There were certain harsh truths that could not be hidden from the movie, but the story is about finding a way out of the harshness and even finding a feeling of belonging after it all. The story of hockey makes for excitement and gets you cheering for Saul. Those in the audience who never read the novel want Saul to come out the winner. Even after we see all that Saul has been through, we want Saul to come out triumphant after all the ordeals he had been through in his life. The ending is the highlight because the end scene of Saul’s recovery and coming to terms with his past shows a ray of hope. All of Canada has seen the harm the system has done to the indigenous people. Even the indigenous peoples of Canada themselves don’t want to hurt anymore. They want to live their lives and be seen as people deserving of respect. The end scene may be a bit simple and may be seen as ‘sugar coated’ by some, or even a ‘prodigal son’ moment by a few, but it’s also part of the theme of hope. That scene where Saul returns to his foster parents and the Moose greeting him is a reminder of those that will never leave you no matter what. There are people that will find you when you’re lost.

Director Stephen Campanelli and writer Dennis Foon did a very good job of bringing the novel to the big screen in movie format. There were some noticeable imperfections and even a thing or two that could have been done better, but that doesn’t stop this for being an accomplishment for Canadian cinema. As for author Wagamese, unfortunately Wagamese died on March 10th of this year at the age of 61. It’s unfortunate Wagamese didn’t live to see its debut at the TIFF. Many in the indigenous communities say he’s still here in spirit.

The actors did a very good job in their roles. All the actors who played Saul did very well, but the standout had to be Sladen Peltier who played Saul at 9. He never acted before, but he was excellent. Forrest Goodluck was also very good too. The 19 year-old from Albuquerque has professional experience already through roles like Hawk in The Revenant and has two films to be released soon. Even newcomers like Ajuawak Kapashesit and Bo Peltier were impressive. The film shows a lot of good young indigenous talent in Canada that have a promising future. The music was a good mix of original score by Jesse Zubot and modern-day indigenous music or indigenous pop.

I know I’ve often said about Canadian film that there’s two groups: Quebec and English Canada. I’ve often elaborated how Quebec is the class of the field while English Canada is struggling with its identity in film. This is a film that I feel can change that. This is a very professionally-done film about a story that creates a lot of intrigue and gets one hoping for the protagonist. Oh, remember I said that Campanelli was a cameraman on many of Clint Eastwood’s films? Well, Eastwood himself is an executive producer of this film! This film was a big hit at the TIFF and won the Audience Award at the VIFF. I heard during a Q&A that this film will have an American release in April. That could open more doors for Canadian film in the future.

Indian Horse attempts to do something tricky in film making: attempt to make a ‘movie’ out of a hard subject in Canadian history. It succeeds in doing so, albeit imperfectly, and even serves as a ray of hope for the future.

Movie Review: It

Pennywise

Bill Skarsgard plays Pennywise, the creepiest clown in movie history, in It.

Until now, It appeared to be the one big Stephen King novel that has not had a big screen adaptation. Sure, there was a miniseries back in 1991, but nothing beats a big-screen showing. Finally it’s here, and the excitement is just beginning!

The story beings in the fall of 1988 in Derry, Maine. Sick and in bed, a stuttering Billy Denbrough makes a paper boat for his younger brother Georgie to play with on a rainy day. While playing with the boat, it falls into a sewer. Georgie goes to get it, but comes across a clown named Pennywise who manipulates Georgie by biting off his arm and taking him down the drain.

The story progresses to June 1989: the end of the school year. Bill has found himself with a clique of three misfits which include bespectacled big-mouth Richie Tozier, sickly asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak, and fearful Stanley Uris who’s the son of the rabbi. End of the school year won’t mean the end of torment from a group of bullies led by Henry Bowers, son of a police officer. Bullying is Henry’s favorite past-time as he loves tormenting almost every kid. His last victim on this last day of school is Ben Hanscom, an overweight kid new to the town. The bullying however does result in Beverly Marsh, who’s bullied by the popular girls in school and called a ‘slut,’ coming to the rescue. She takes a liking to Ben as she learns he too likes the New Kids On The Block. She doesn’t appear bothered by her own bullying at school because she gets it worse by her father at home. Last day of school just means work on the farm for Mike Hanlon, an orphaned African-American boy who’s raised by his grandfather.

The abduction of Georgie is still very much on Bill’s mind. Actually it’s on the minds of most people in Derry. Derry has a dirty secret that children disappear six times more often than the national average. Bill tries to get his friends to locate the possible whereabouts of Georgie, believing he may still be alive and in a marshy wasteland known as the Barrens. Ben does research into the town of Derry. He learns of the explosion of 1908 which killed many children. He also learns of how children of Derry go lost most frequently: a curse going back centuries. Ben encounters a headless boy in the basement and runs off, only to be encountered by Henry’s group. Ben successfully fights them off and runs away bumping into Bill’s group. Adding to the drama of Derry, the group including Ben find the sneaker of a young girl. Patrick Hockstetter, one of Henry’s bullies who is chasing after Ben, is killed by Pennywise and becomes the latest of the missing.

The following day, all five of the boys have some type of nightmarish encounter with It. Later they encounter Mike Hanlon after he was bullied by Henry’s group. Mike becomes part of the group which now calls itself the Losers Club. Mike also possesses some knowledge about this entity and how it’s haunting Derry. Later in the summer, the group get together to do research into this entity that haunts them each. Bev finds her way into the group, thanks to Ben. They come across some interesting facts: they are all haunted by the same entity in the guise of what they each fear; awakens every 27 years to prey on children before returning to hibernation; and uses the sewers to travel about the town upon where a shabby abandoned house on Neibolt street is built.

They see the house on Neibolt as a chance to get to It. Most are afraid, but Billy wants to do this for the sake of finding Georgie dead or alive and to prevent other children of Derry from receiving this same threat. All agree the first time, but after having to wrestle with Pennywise the first time. Inside, Eddie breaks his arm, making him vulnerable to Pennywise. Fortunately Bev impales Pennywise, forcing him to retreat vowing revenge. However the group is threatened to disband as Eddie’s mother is furious with what had happened. Bill insists on continuing to fight It, but all except Bev and Ben leave.

August comes. Bev is threatened by her abusive father and threatens to rape her, but she kills him with a toilet lid. Unfortunately Pennywise abducts her. This prompts Bill to reassemble the Losers Club to rescue Bev. Even Eddie returns to the group after he learns that his asthma is fake and drug-induced by his mother. Meanwhile It goes into the guise of a children’s television host to compel Henry to kill his abusive father and then kill the Losers Club over at the Neibolt house. Henry fights Mike only to pushed down a well to his death. Inside the Neibolt house, they try to make their way to It’s central location, only to have Pennywise bite Stanley’s head with It’s sharp teeth. Soon they make their way to a cooling tower where they find It’s lair, containing a mountain of decaying circus props and children’s belongings. They also find Bev floating in a catatonic state. The group are able to bring Bev down and it’s Ben’s kiss that restores her consciousness. Now it’s up to the Losers Club to defeat It. The film ends with a spectacularly haunting ending that’s both triumphant, tragic and in anticipation for what’s next.

Adapting a Stephen King movie to the big screen is very much a case of hit-or-miss. Not everything can be adapted from the novel so the writers and directors have to work to bring it to life within two to two-and-a-half hours. That would mean a lot of picking and choosing and a lot of pairing down. There have been a lot of cases where it has worked excellently like Carrie, Christine, The Shining, Stand By Me, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption to name a few. There have been duds too like Maximum Overdrive, Needful Things, Dreamcatcher and Cell. YouTube countdown channel WatchMojo even did a countdown on how movie adaptations of novels actually differed greatly from the real thing.

Before there could be a big-screen adaptation of It, the film had to be organized. This is a movie that took eight years and the efforts of three directors to develop and loads of casting changes. It started when David Kajganich decided to adapt the screenplay when he learned Warner Bros. would be in charge of it. In 2012, direction then went into the hands of Cary Fukunaga. He had a vision of the story and originally planned to cast Will Poulter as Pennywise and Ty Simpkins as Bill. That changed when New Line Cinemas stepped in. Fukunaga withdrew from directing feeling that New Line and their concern with budget cuts was interfering with the creative process.

Then in July 2015, it was announced Argentinian director Andy Muschietti would be signed on to direct with Fukunaga remaining as scriptwriter. Muschietti has had a modest success that took off overnight with his 2008 short film Mama being expanded to an English-language release in 2013 with Jessica Chastain as lead actress. Casting changes came about with a new Bill and a new Pennywise most noticeable. Muschietti is the only director that went the full distance.

Then the adaptation of the story. This adaptation from It makes a lot of notable changes from the original novel. First we must remember the novel was released in 1986. The characters as children were set in the 1950’s. The characters as adults were set in the 1980’s. Here, we have the child characters set in the summer of 1989: a summer that’s close to my heart, too. Setting that part in the 1950’s would seem like a good choice as made evident in Stand By Me, but it could also be a hindrance. 2001’s Hearts In Atlantis was set in the late-50’s and it flopped. I feel it made sense to adapt the Losers Club part of It to 1989. It worked here.

Then there’s the choice of whether to do the full novel in this It movie or have this as a movie series. We’re talking about a novel that first required the format of a mini-series in order to get its first adaptation. It made sense to have the first It movie with focus exclusively on the Losers Club as children and then have a second It film possibly with the Losers Club all grown up. It would also be a gamble as this first It film would have to avoid performing poorly at the box office to get a second It film happening, despite the chances of that being extremely slim. I’ll mention later why they won’t have to worry about that.

One thing we shouldn’t forget is that this is a Stephen King film. Adaptations of Stephen King novels have been known to be a case of a lot of paring down of the story to mish-mashing to including only one part of a multi-chapter novel. Stephen King’s novels have a lot of common elements. For those unfamiliar with Stephen King novels, the first common element is the setting in a smalltown in Maine, most commonly the fictional town of Derry. Another is the case of main child characters being the misfits in a harsh time in their lives. Another is the situation of parents who are either negligent, manipulative or downright abusive to their children. Another is of religious figures or religious people with some even possessing a warped sense of blind faith. Another is the element of evil that King works into his villains.

The film included a lot of elements common to a Stephen King story. It’s set in Derry and the misfits form a clique of their own: The Losers Club. As for parents: Billy’s parents are too distraught with the loss of Georgie to pay attention to his issues; Stanley faces the pressure of being the rabbi’s son; Eddie’s mother has a case of Munchhausen syndrome which explains the fake Asthma she induces with pills; Henry Bowers’ father uses his gun to ‘traumatize’ sense into him; and Bev’s father… I don’t want to go there. Religion or religious figures are not seen as so much of a threat, curse or interference in It, but some could argue Stanley’s strict religious upbringing made him a fearful person. As for evil, the character of It is one that messes with the characters minds and fears it took a group of seven children to solve who It is and to end It once and for all.

The film also had to leave some things from the novel out. It’s not just changing the setting of 1958 to 1989. There were some guises of It in the novel that didn’t appear on film. Henry’s bullying of Stanley includes anti-Semitic slurs in the novel. Here in the film, it’s limited to throwing Stanley’s yarmukel like a frisbee. Patrick Hockstetter is not killed by It as Pennywise, but It as an army of leeches. Henry attempts to kill the Loser Club with his friends Vic and Belch in the novel, but he’s on his own in the film. In the novel, Bill confronts It through the Ritual Of Chud. And finally, Bev has sex with all six of the Losers Club boys in the novel after they make a blood oath. You can understand why that ending was changed to what it is.

In the end, Andy Muschietti delivers a winner of a film. He was not the most experienced director when being hired on to do It but it paid off and delivers an excellent thriller that frightens and gets one excited for the next It film. Kudos to scriptwriters Chase Palmer, Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman for putting together an excellent adaptation and making a lot of choices that worked. The story of the Losers Club bonding as one to fight It gives one memories of Stand By Me and even a lot of similarities to Stranger Things. Having Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhart adds to that factor even under those big glasses. The film also did a good job of adding humor into the film. The film is situated around a bunch of 12 year-olds so having some humor adds to it, despite how dark a story it is. Plus the music from 1989 adds to it too.

For those who are complete ‘virgins’ to It— I’m taking about those who have never read the book or seen the miniseries– it will keep them intrigued and scared. It will also seem confusing at first with most being haunted by Pennywise but others scared by other images too. In the end, it will all come together. All are being haunted and tormented by It. They will first think Pennywise is It, but It takes the guise of many figures like Bev’s abusive father, the children’s TV show host that pushes Henry to commit murder, the animated picture from the painting that haunts Stan. Pennywise is the most dominant guise of It and used mostly to lure young children. It’s right and proper that It meets its match as Pennywise and from Billy.

For those who are fans of the novel It and even the miniseries, they will admire that this is a film that captures the best and truest aspects of a Stephen King horror thriller. It doesn’t stray off like so many other adaptions nor is it a victim to too much studio tweaking of the story. Sure, it sets the Loser Club part of the story 30+ years of when the novel sets it, but the characters of the Loser Club and those surrounding them are very much in tune with the novel. Most of the incidents that happen in the movie It closely match what happens in the novel too. I’m sure fans of Stephen King novels will be proud of this movie. Also I feel Stephen King fans will feel that the producers made the right decision to have this first It movie focus strictly in the Losers Club story and have the incidents of 27 years later focused in It: Volume 2, which I will elaborate on in conclusion.

However the best thing about It is that this is a rare case of a horror movie that delivers excellence. The genre of the horror movie is very hard to master. Most horror movies often come across as junk loaded with blood, gore and other elements for the sake of shock value. Us 80’s kids had that with all the Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street movies. Millennial kids got that with the Saw movie franchise. Most of the time, these horror films become horror ‘comedies’ because of how stupid the situations are and how the actors are told to act idiotic on purpose. It takes a lot of effort to deliver a horror story on screen with a good story and good character development to add to it. It’s even possible to create a masterpiece of a horror movie. Movies like Psycho, The Exorcist, Carrie and even Get Out from this year are some of the best examples. Even good acting can come out of a horror movie as Sissy Spacek’s performance in Carrie earned her the first of her six Oscar nominations as did a nomination for Piper Laurie. It delivers in having a well-written script, a well-directed story and dead-on acting from the actors. This should be a template on how to do a horror movie right.

Jaeden Lieberher did a very good job in playing Bill Denbrough, especially in making the stutter look natural instead of wooden, and in making the quest to fight It a personal battle for Bill. The best thing about Lieberher was he was good at being unselfish with his lead role as he knew the other members of the Losers Club had their moments too. Sophia Lillis was possibly the biggest scene-stealer as tomboy Bev as was Finn Wolfhart whose role of Richie Tozier will entertain you, but also make you want to tell him to shut up! Good performances included Wyatt Oleff as the fearful Stanley Uris, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben the misfit who finds his way, Jack Dylan Glazer as sickly Eddie who develops an inner strength over time and Chosen Jacobs as the farmboy who becomes a help to the clique. All seven of the Losers Clubs kids not only had to play their parts but also make their characters grow. We see it in all the characters, especially Bill. Bill didn’t lose his stutter but he gained a new inner strength.

The actors in the Losers Club did a good job in playing salty-mouthed 12 year-olds that were not afraid to let loose, get sassy and even act like jerks at times. That’s definitely an appeal as Hollywood has a way of making child performances to innocent or ‘sugar-coated.’ Just turn on the Disney Channel and you’ll see what I mean. The kids of It were very unlike the squeaky-clean crystal-clear purity-ring-wearing Disney Channel kids; more like the foul-mouthed kids of Stranger Things. And all the better for it.

It’s not just the Loser Club that delivers in terms of acting. There’s also Bill Skarsgard who did a good job in giving Pennywise his sinister demeanor. There’s also Nicholas Hamilton who succeeds in transforming Henry from simply a jerk bully to being possessed by It’s evil leading to his own death. The mix of music of 1989 hits and the score of Benjamin Wallfisch blended well and fit the scenes of the film well. The visual effects of the film are also excellent and needed to be top-notch to make the movie work.

Already It has broken a load of records in its opening weekend. It set a September opening weekend record of $123.4 million, breaking the old record held by Hotel Transylvania 2 of $48.4 million: more than 2 ½ times that! Usually September is a quiet month for movies and they usually yield low box office results. Mainly because people had their fix during the Summer Movie Season. Summer’s over and now it’s time to get back to regular life and wait for the movie excitement to return in November as is custom. It proved that the September movie season had something to deliver, and right on the weekend after Labor Day, of all weekends! Usually that’s the lowest-grossing weekend but not this year! Other records It broke and feats It achieved according to Box Office Mojo are Widest R-Rated Releases, Widest R-Rated Openings, Highest-Grossing Fall Opening Weekend, Second-Highest Opening Weekend for an R-Rated film, Highest Grossing Stephen King Film (in just five days!), right now the third-highest grossing R-Rated horror film and second only to Deadpool for the biggest opening weekend for an R-rated film! And I’ll bet there will be more to come!

SPOILER ALERT: Do Not Read This Paragraph If You Don’t Want To Know The Ending! The film gives evidence that this will be the first It movie and there’s a Volume Two coming. It’s in the end credits and it’s very well-hinted when the Loser Club makes a ‘blood promise’ to return to Derry in 27 years if It returns. There’s already talk of It: Volume Two on IMDB. There’s a lot of talk about it from Muschietti to the producers to even the young actors. As of yet, nothing is finalized. It’s possible one could assume the film could be set in 2016–27 years from the first It— and Pennywise makes a return to the Losers Club all grown up. It’s very possible the original Losers Club from this film might have a low presence in Volume Two. That could help or hinder the story because all seven of the Losers Club helped make this adaptation of It a hit and their absence might mean the absence of their charm in Volume 2. However nothing is finalized and it leaves those that saw It in big anticipation of what’s to come.

It delivers as a Stephen King horror movie that has all the right moves–a rarity for horror movies as a whole– a hotly-anticipated Stephen King adaptation that works on the big screen, and a big reason for people to go to the movie theatres in September! Some say this could be the best Stephen King movie since 1976’s Carrie. You be the judge.

Oscars 2016 Best Picture Summary: Part 2

Some of you may be confused about the order of how I do each film of my Best Picture summary. It’s definitely not alphabetical. How I do it is in the order in which I saw the nominees. For example, I saw all the films in my first summary before Christmas. I saw La La Land on my father’s birthday, Fences the day after New Years, and Manchester By The Sea on the day of the Golden Globes. That explains why they’re the three films part of my next Best Picture summary.

LA LA LAND

la-la-land

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as an actress and a pianist united in their dreams of stardom in La La Land.

We don’t see musicals on the big screen as often as we did back in the 60’s and 70’s. La La Land may not make the musical phenomenon come back but it is very entertaining.

We’re constantly reminded that bringing a musical to the big screen is a very tricky job. In the past 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of cases of musicals being put on the big screen– most of which are adaptations of Broadway musicals– and it’s always been a case of sink-or-swim. There have been those done successfully like Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Dreamgirls and Les Miserables. There have also been adaptations with bad results like Rent, Nine, The Phantom Of The Opera and Mamma Mia. It’s a very tricky job and it may explain why we don’t have musicals as frequent as in decades past.

Now try putting a fresh original musical on the big screen. That’s what writer/director Damien Chazelle does here in cooperation with composer Justin Hurwitz who was Chazelle’s Harvard classmate. The musical is a story we’re familiar with: boy meets girl, boy learns girl also has showbiz dreams, both boy and girl are supportive of each other’s dreams, boy and girl both have long bumpy roads to get to their successes, boy and girl both achieve their own successes but their love is put to the test. One could argue anyone could create a musical with that kind of premise. Whatever the situation, it would have to take a lot of hard work and a lot of brainstorming to make a very good musical out of this. In addition, it would have to have the right songs, the right singing moments and the right dancing moments to make it succeed.

Chazelle and Hurwitz succeed in pulling it off. The story is familiar but they deliver all the right moves in making the story and the songs of the musical work. It’s not just about making a common story work as a musical on screen but have it set in the modern times too. I’ll admit that opening in the movie where there’s a song-and-dance number on a jammed-up freeway was unexpected. It’s not just set in modern time but it also brings back a lot of the classic scenes of Hollywood; the Hollywood we’ve all come to know and love. I think that’s why La La Land comes off as a gem. Because it’s a reminder of the great musicals of the past and why we love them so much. It’s just that charm.

It’s not just up to Chazelle and Hurwitz to make this musical work but also the actors too. Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone had to make things work as well both as individuals and both as the couple Mia and Sebastian. They had to tell their own stories of love and passion for their crafts and the heartbreak they had to endure to achieve their dreams. They both also had to play a couple with the right chemistry to work. They pull it off excellently both as a couple and in their own individual moments too. The supporting actors/singers/dancers also had their parts to play too and add to the zest of the musical. Their own participation also added to the movie. Sure some of the bigger supporting performances from John Legend, J.K. Simmons and Tom Everett Scott lacked range–I mean Mia and Sebastian were the dominant focus of the musical– but they did very well too. The film did a very good job in terms of the use of sets both set up and various Los Angeles locations. The film even scouted out some ‘old L. A.’ locations to add the charm. That was not an easy find, I’m sure.

And now onto the songs. My father who likes musicals believes having a memorable song is what makes a musical a masterpiece. I have to agree. I’ll say I agree with him that there is no single song in La La Land destined to be a memorable classic. True, ‘City Of Stars’ is getting a ton of awards but I don’t think it will be a classic 20 years from now. Actually my favorite songs were the opener ‘Another Day Of Sun’ and ‘Audition (Here’s To The Ones Who Dream).’

It’s funny. Years ago, I jokes the unique thing about my father is that he’s straight and he likes musicals. He was quick to remind me that back when he was dating my mother, musicals were the ideal date movie. My how times have changed. What defines a date movie has changed as much over the decade as ‘real man’ standards.

La La Land may not have what it takes to bring the musical phenomenon back to the big screen but it’s winning in it’s own right. Anytime soon I’m expecting a stage adaptation of this.

FENCES

fences

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis bring Troy and Rose Maxson to the big screen in Fences.

Fences is a play by August Wilson that won raves when it first came out in the 1980’s. Denzel Washington brings Fences to the big screen at long last and the end result is something wonderful.

Fences is unique as a stage play. It’s a story about Troy Maxson: an African-American man in 1950’s Pittsburgh who makes like he has it together but he doesn’t. He thinks he could have been the next Jackie Robinson but feels racism kept him from moving out of the Negro League. He wants to mould his son the way he feels right and wants him to be better than him but doesn’t sense how harsh he is. He wants to be seen as a loving husband to his wife Rose but secrets of his infidelity are about to unfold. He gets an opportunity as a driver of a garbage truck–the first ever for a black man in Pittsburgh– but is reminded of his weaknesses when he accidentally signs for his brother to be admitted into a mental hospital. He has his own feelings about what should be right such as how he feels it’s better to raise his son right than like him only to see it backfire. I’ve heard some writers say that every African-American male has some aspect of Troy Maxson in them. Some people say that Troy Maxson is the African-American everyman. Some can even say Troy Maxson is the black Willy Loman. Whatever the situation, it was the toast of the 1987 Tony Awards and definitely made a legend out of scriptwriter August Wilson.

Now Wilson had always dreamed of bringing Fences to the big screen. I know one of the things he insisted on was that it be directed by an African-American. That may or may not have been the biggest obstacle but it was never realized in Wilson’s lifetime; he died in 2005. Hope was revived in 2013 when Denzel Washington expressed interest in bringing it to the big screen and star as Troy Maxson. Washington played Maxson in a Broadway revival in 2010. He’s even had experience as a director with 2002’s Antwone Fisher and 2007’s The Great Debaters. The production was realized early in 2016 when Washington was joined by producer Scott Rudin who also produced the 2010 revival. Viola Davis who was also part of the revival as Rose Maxson soon joined in along with other actors from the revival like Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby and Stephen Henderson. One thing was that Washington wanted to remain true to Wilson’s own adaptation in respect to his work.

Now adapting a play to the big screen is as much a tricky challenge as bringing a musical to the big screen. It’s a matter of choices of what to include and what to keep as is. Theatre and film are two different formats of medium. Film scenes are numerous and can be set in an unlimited number of  places in various amounts of time. Theatre scenes are often few, often quite lengthy, set in a limited number of places, and often consists of ‘moments of monologues.’ There’s even that 20-minute final scene in Fences where the family is getting ready for Troy’s funeral. Rarely in film do you have a scene after the death of the protagonist that’s even five minutes long. It’s a matter of making the adaptation work on the big screen. It’s also about what choices to add to the film adaptation and if they work. It was about choosing to add the scene of Troy and Jim Bono on the back of the garbage truck at the start. It was about including the scene without dialogue of Troy and Gabriel in the mental hospital. It was about keeping Alberta the mistress from being seen in the film in any which way.

Then there’s the acting. Of course it’s beneficial for most of the actors to have previous experience with the roles. However, it’s a known fact that stage acting and film acting have their differences. The biggest difference for film is that the audience expects a 100% believable performance, especially since it will be witnessed on a screen five-stories tall.

Overall I feel that Denzel Washington as a director/producer did a good job in adapting the play to the screen. It may not have the fast brief dialogues you get in your typical big screen fare but it was still done well and with the same truthfulness. The choices of what to add to the big screen adaptation were good choices, if not perfect. Denzel as an actor was definitely phenomenal in embodying the role of Troy in all of his triumphs and struggles. You could feel the pride and demons Troy was struggling with. Just as excellent is Viola Davis as Rose. The role of Rose was also a strong challenging role: a wife who appears happy and loving on the outside only to suddenly let out her hurt and inner wrath towards Troy and somehow come to peace with him upon his death. She does an excellent job of finally exposing Rose’s inner hurt and inner personal strength at the right times and even ending with believable delivery. The acting of the whole ensemble was very much there and as excellent as it can get. Of all the supporting performances, the one that stood out most was Stephen Henderson whose performance as Jim Bono came across as a common man at first but would soon come off as the man with a lot of wisdom and was able to see the good in Troy even while his terrible misdoings were being exposed. The ‘newcomers’ Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney were also very good in their roles. Jovan especially did well as the son struggling to relate to Troy.

Fences is a triumph of a twelve year-old dream coming true. August Wilson dreamed it. Denzel achieved it. The end result is a masterpiece.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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Manchester By The Sea is the story of an uncle (played by Casey Affleck, left) and a nephew (played by Lucas Hedges, right) who suddenly become closer through death.

Manchester By The Sea is a film that has been loaded with Oscar buzz ever since it made its debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s easy to see why all the buzz.

The film presents a hurting person and showcases all the things that led to his hurt. It shows why he had to leave the town he always had as his home and why returning can’t be done. It shows why Lee Chandler comes across as a jerk in the present when he wasn’t like that at all years ago. The film is also about the relationship of Lee and Patrick. Rarely do we see a film about an uncle-nephew relationship. You think the relationship is something all of a sudden at first forced by something in his brother’s estate but it was always there even when the two were apart.

The film also presents a situation where healing or leaving the past behind is next-to-impossible. I’ve always believed people need to heal. It’s not right to hurt. I still believe it. However I can easily see how healing is very hard. You can see why it’s extremely hard for Lee to heal, especially upon returning to Manchester By The Sea, Massachusetts. His negligence that one night is why all three of his children were killed in that fire. The divorce from his wife Randi was bitter and she gave him hurtful words in the process. The town has not forgiven him for what he did: his name is still mud. Even moving to a suburb of Boston has not ended his hurt as he’s rude during his job and starts bar fights over the simplest thing.

The film does showcase Lee’s attempt to assimilate into the town and try to become the guardian to Patrick he hopes to be. The story does not water down as it exposes Lee’s failings. It also exposes how complicated the situation is as Patrick’s mother is a recovering alcoholic and still under strict control by her husband. It also shows how hard it is for Lee to forgive himself. Even as Randi says she’s forgiven him, Lee still can’t heal.

The story does not water down the situation or try to aim for the type of happier ending you’d get in a film like Arrival. The story does not end the way you hope it does. Nevertheless it does end with a ray of hope. Patrick is the closest relative to Lee. His parents and brother are gone and his other brother lives with his own family in Minnesota. Patrick is the one person in Manchester By The Sea outside of family friend George who doesn’t see Lee as this terrible person or rubs into Lee the tragedy he caused.

The film was not just about Lee trying to heal for Patrick but about Patrick too. Patrick is a teen with a lot of common ‘teenage make jerk’ traits like starting fights in hockey and cheating on girls but you know he has a naïve, innocent and even sensitive side and it comes out in his relationship with Lee that starts uneasy at first. Patrick still wants to live a normal teenage life by dating around, playing with his band, and talking about Star Trek with his friends, but you know he has feelings of hurt and frustration on the inside and you know they’ll come out eventually.  For all the teenage jerk traits Patrick has, his respect for Lee is his best quality. Patrick could have easily come across as a rebellious teen and gone as far as calling Lee a ‘child killer’ but he doesn’t. Possibly it’s being Joe’s son that may be why Patrick is the person most forgiving to Lee now that Joe is gone. Joe was the one person willing to help Lee live life again after the tragedy and Patrick accompanied Lee and Joe during that time. You can see how Patrick adopted his father’s sensitivity to Lee.

The story of this film is definitely not a crowd-winner. You can understand why a film like this would rely on the Film Festival circuit to get its exposure and its chances of making it to the box office. Nevertheless it is an excellent story about loss, grief, hurt and an attempt at healing. The film fest circuit was the best way for a story like this to get a box office release. It’s good because it is a story worth seeing.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan delivers an excellent original story. Lonergan has few works writing and/or directing to his credit but they have a lot of merit: like Analyze This, You Can Count On Me and The Gangs Of New York. This is his best work to date. He delivers a story that’s honest and even brutal at times and doesn’t water down but doesn’t try to rip at your heartstrings too often. He also gives characters that are three-dimensional and will remind you of people or situations you may know about.

Actor Casey Affleck fit the role of Lee excellently. He captured Lee’s inner demons excellently and played them very truthfully. He was able to make you hate Lee at first but come to understand him later, even feel for him, and make you want the best to work out for Lee in the end. Also excellent was Lucas Hedges. Hedges’ role of Patrick grows in its complexity over time and he does an excellent job of it. The two together had to have the right chemistry to make an uncle-nephew relationship like this work and they had it.

The only other significant supporting role in the film is Michelle Williams as Randi. The various scenes as the typical wife before the tragedy to being the remarried ex-wife who healed better than Lee and wants to make peace with him is also a complex role too and she does an excellent job of it too. Actually the whole cast did an excellent job of acting and they delivered one of the best ensemble performances of the year. It’s not just the basics that made this film great. There’s also the cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes where she’s able to get some of the most picturesque shots of the east coast. There’s the editing of the story shifting from the present to the past back to the present on a constant basis at the right times. There’s the inclusion of dialogue at the right moments and even moments of dialogue muted at the right times where you just know what they’re saying. The muted parts work to the story’s advantage. There’s also the arrangement of music–original, classical and choral– that add to the story.

Manchester By The Sea may come across as a film that’s unwatchable if you take its premise at face value. In the end, it turns out to be a great story that’s worth seeing.

And there you go. That’s the second of my review of the nominees. One’s an original musical, one’s an original story and one’s an adaptation of a renowned stage play. All three make it obvious why they were nominated for Best Picture as all three have what it takes to be among the Top 10 films of the year.

Final Best Picture summary is expected to be up by Tuesday.

Summer Movie Summary: Superhero Movies

If there is one genre of movie that stands out during the summer movie season, it’s the superhero movies. Every year they win crowds and give them their enjoyment for the most part. For this summary, I will review two such movies: Captain America: Civil War and The Suicide Squad. Both are two different types of superhero movies in the way the people try to be heroes and with the comic franchises: Marvel vs. DC once again.

Captain America: Civil War

captain-americaWhile DC Comics has the two biggest superheroes, Marvel’s edge is its multitude of different superheroes: take your pick. This time around in Captain America: Civil War, the focus is on Captain America. Or is it?

Watching the film, I was expecting it to be a story about Captain America. You can imagine my surprise to see all the other Avengers characters. I was cool with it at first. However things started getting uncomfortable for me when I saw them take up so much screen time. They all took up so much time, I even questioned whether Captain America was even the lead role in the film. I even thought if it was to have one hero as the lead role, it should probably be Iron Man.

Nevertheless the film does have a lot of excellent qualities. The first is a story that is thought-provoking. There’s a situation where international rules are imposed on the Avengers. Right when an incident happens, it causes friction within the team and even division. The question remains of what is the right thing to do? The movie attempts to give you the answer. Virtues and morals are an uncompromisable ingredient in superhero movies no matter how much action is involved. Even top directors will say that the values of humanity are necessary for a winning superhero movie. Here we have a movie that gets one questioning what is the right thing to do considering the situation. That adds to the film as it gets the audience thinking.

Of course high-tech special effects and action battles are a must in superhero movies. The crowds come to get blown away. Captain America: Civil War delivers on such action just like most of the Marvel comic movies before it. It has moments that will leave you on the edge of your seat. In addition, it adds some comedy too as it gives us a young Peter Parker, played by Tom Holland, as a preview for the new upcoming Spider-Man installment. Here Peter comes across as your typical young idiotic yuts. Gives anticipation of what to expect when Spider-Man comes out.

The Russo brothers return to direct the movie. They directed the last Captain America movie. They did a very good job of delivering another great superhero movie. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely return with the Russos to write the latest installment. They did a good job despite the push of some actors to have more screen time. Of course, Robert Downey Jr. stole the movie and Chris Evans appeared to have a supporting role this time. The other actors did their parts well and didn’t appear to get into too much of the mix-up. The special effects delivered and Henry Jackson’s music added to the film.

For all intents and purposes, Captain America: Civil War is an Avengers movie in disguise. Don’t be fooled. However the quality of the story is maintained as it gives a thought-provoking story with the superhero action to deliver.

Suicide Squad

suicide-squadThere’s something about the knack to do an anti-hero movie. We saw that with Marvel when they released Deadpool. Now we see DC Comics making the attempt with the Suicide Squad. Do they succeed?

You’d think after Sausage Party, I’d start again on how this movie of a bad-guy superhero squad is trying to ‘bring back the 90’s’ but you’re wrong. A story where it takes bad guys and makes heroes out of them is actually a very common theme. It’s even been done in film as far back as the 1930’s as I once saw 1939’s Stagecoach take the outcasts of society and turn them into heroes. It’s a theme that has been done decade after decade. We see it done here again with the Suicide Squad. The people recruited to be part of the Squad are criminals and crazies that look like they deserved to be shunned away from society but an intelligence operative sees them as the right people for the job. They even make clear that they’re bad, not evil.

The ‘bad vs. evil’ theme is what makes this movie unique among the superhero movies of this year. Even from Deadpool. While Marvel’s Deadpool is about a selfish man who’s disinterested in being the superhero bestowed upon him, Suicide Squad is about a conscience present in even the baddest of badasses. A reminder that bad and evil are two completely different things. Don’t forget we’re dealing with a world where Superman is deceased, as exhibited in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice months earlier.

Now the Suicide Squad is not a team of badass superheroes created in vain after Deadpool: an attempt at having ‘anti-Avengers.’ It’s a team that actually debuted in DC Comics in 1959 in their monthly Brave And The Bold series and made a return in 1987 in their Legends series back then. The comic would be a monthly series that would issue for some months, end temporarily for a year or two and then make a comeback from time to time. Now seems like the right time to bring them to the screen. I must say their craziness and eccentricities were big time scene-stealers. While Deadpool mostly relied on the idiotic actions and lines from its lead characters, the characters of the Suicide Squad were more about their crazy and even eccentric personalities. That was their edge and I’m sure that’s what won the crowds to them this year. It’s no wonder it’s the 4th highest grossing movie of the summer.

This is David Ayer’s first attempt at directing and writing a superhero movie. He has a resume for writing and directing a lot of good police dramas and action movies in the past. However his experience doesn’t completely translate the best. Imperfections are easy to notice and it seems the movie does get a bit disjointed at times. Even in terms of the characters, there’s not that much depth to their roles and it often appears like the actors are trying to play characters more than acting out roles. I’ve noticed that DC Comics movies this year are lacking in terms of writing. It’s noticeable in Batman vs. Superman too.

Nevertheless the actors do deliver on character acting and that’s one quality I feel made the movie. In addition the actors succeeded in making characters you want to hate at first and then surprise you as they become heroes and then return as bad guys. Margot Robbie was the standout as Harley Quinn. Her character was the one that knew how to grab your attention, even upstaging Will Smith.  Others standouts include Jared Leto as the Joker, Jay Hernandez as El Diablo and  Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang. Visual effects were top notch and loaded with bright color that’s eye catching and very rare to see in most other movies, especially superhero movies. The mix of music was also an added quality. It seems like after Guardians Of The Galaxy, filmmakers are playing around and even experimenting with use of songs in the movies. Here they mix in music spanning five decades and it produces an entertainingly winning result.

Suicide Squad may be lacking in the script and in the editing but it’s the on-fire character acting, colorful visual effects and the eclectic music track that make the movie entertaining and a winner for the summer.

Sure, I only have two superhero movies in my summary of the genre but both do shed some light on the presence of the superhero movies of the summer and why they continue to win us over. They have spectacular action but they also test our conscience as well. I saw that in Batman vs. Superman earlier in the role of a superhero even after they cause destruction to do good. I see it again in Captain America as the Avengers question whether it’s right to break the law to do what’s right. I also see it in the Suicide Squad as outcasts get a shot at redemption and even remind themselves as well as others that they do possess a conscience and can even do what’s right despite their criminal minds.

Once again, the superhero genre remains one of the most winning movie genres of the summer. Even with the surprise success of Deadpool, families still come to the movies to see the good guys win. Some even like to get their ‘bad boy/bad girl’ kicks. All deliver in terms of action and a message.