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Darkest Hour – ★ ★ ★ ½ Review

Darkest Hour35

Darkest Hour tells the story of how Winston Churchill came to be British Prime Minister at the height of WWII.  I found the story quite fascinating as it’s not one that I had ever heard.  I don’t think that British politics and British history were really taught in Canadian high schools, so it was interesting to learn of Churchill’s path to the Prime Minister’s office.

Darkest Hour was up for several Oscars, winning for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling and Gary Oldman took home the Lead Actor award, the film was nominated for Best Picture, Cinematography, Costume Design and Production design.  Oldman certainly delivered an excellent performance, while heavily made-up to look hauntingly like Churchill.  That Makeup and Hairstyling award was very well earned, but sometimes I’m torn when someone wins an award for playing the part of a real person, especially a famous historical figure. When the audience is familiar with the person there is an expectation of what the performance should bring.  We know what Churchill is supposed to look like, how he should walk and how he should talk.  Is there much room for interpretation by the artist?  We would cry foul if Churchill all of a sudden spoke with a French accent or only spoke in rhyme or something else completely and ridiculously “non-Churchill”.  When playing a figure like that, does the artist just have to follow the template?  Oldman’s Churchill was believable to me, and he brought great emotion to the role, and I suppose that’s what any award is recognizing in a way.

The rest of the cast was very good as well, though I didn’t really know the significance or the true roles played by some of the political figures.  I don’t know if Lily James’ secretary character was real, a combination of several real people who surrounded Churchill, or completely fabricated for the film, but I felt she gave an excellent performance as well.  Overall the film was good, and I enjoyed the story.  It was obviously quite serious but it managed to mix in some humour, and at the end some fairly emotional and heartfelt scenes.  The pace was a little slow, which is kind of to be expected with the dry subject matter it was covering, but the end result was worth the wait.

Bottom Line: Spoiler alert: WWII?  We win.


Arrival – ★ ★ ★ ★ DVD Review


Well, this one was a real treat!  It has been quite a while since I’ve seen a really good science fiction film, and Arrival really was good science fiction.  That being said, it won’t be for everyone.  Sure I loved the latest Star Wars movies but those are really more fantasy science fiction films this was in my opinion a true science fiction film.  It made you think, and if you paid attention, things were pretty obvious and made perfect sense.

The film opens with quick clips, almost like a dream, of a mother’s relationship with her daughter, from her birth through childhood to her premature death in adolescence from an incurable disease.   Twelve alien ships simultaneously arrive at different places on Earth.  One in America, one in Russia, one in China, one in the UK, one in Australia, and so forth.  Hovering above the planet, the ships silently wait as the armies and scientists of the world approach and study them.  In America, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician lead one of the teams attempting to make the historic “first contact”.  On-board the alien crafts they meet the seven-limbed aliens, who they call “heptapods”, and they begin attempt communication first by creating a written language.  The heptapods of course don’t look like we do, don’t sound like we do, don’t breath like we do, and seemingly don’t exist in dimensions the way that we do, so it is no surprise that their written language is nothing like ours, but eventually the team finds a way to decipher the circular symbols that they use for their words.  Naturally with humans being involved the process isn’t that easy, as some groups seek to attack the aliens rather than wait to see what they want.  It’s a race against the clock between militarized factions and science, with a “gift” promised by aliens as the reward and the fate of our planet hanging in the balance.  The film asks some pretty deep questions.  What is the gift?  Are the aliens giving each area only one-twelfth of their message to force humanity to unite and work together?  Why would the aliens offer a gift to Earth?  And why is Louise dreaming about a child she has never had?

I really enjoyed this one, it won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing, and was nominated for seven other categories including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  I really think Amy Adams deserved a Best Actress nomination, but for some reason that didn’t happen, though she was nominated for the Golden Globe.  The characters were well written, and the acting was top notch all around, as was the sound and the visual effects.  The film draws some comparisons to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact, but never feels like it is a simple derivative.  The story unfolds rather well, and for a moment, it seems like there is a massive twist in the plot, but a moment later you begin to realize there really is no twist, but just the realization that the film had already explained itself to you.  Arrival was a smart and sophisticated sci-fi that even those who don’t love sci-fi will enjoy.

Bottom Line: Arrival was based on the Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” which was first published in 1998.  Also, I really wanted to talk about the reveal here, but it’s a massive spoiler, just watch it for yourself!

Zootopia – ★ ★ ★ ½ DVD Review


Disney did it again, and Zootopia took home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but I wasn’t overly impressed by it.  Sure the animation was flawless, the characters were good, as was the story, but when I watch cartoons, I want to laugh, and I didn’t laugh as much as I thought I should have for a Disney cartoon.

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a bunny, who has wanted to become a police officer since she was a child.  But bunnies are small, weak and timid, so there has never been a bunny police officer in Zootoipa, the land where animals all live together in harmony.  Yes, in Zootoipa prey animals like sheep or bunnies no longer have to fear the predatory animals like jaguars or foxes.  Judy fights against prejudice and works hard to become the first bunny officer of the ZPD (Zootopia Police Department), but a case of missing animals comes up that she must solve within 24 hours or else she must quit the force.  To solve the case she turns to a street hustler fox (Jason Bateman) for help, and the two set off reluctantly together discover how and why several predator animals have apparently gone savage.  Their search leads them through all the habitats of Zootopia and brings them deeper into a web of crime and corruption than they ever expected…

The film naturally has a message as it deals with prejudice and also explores the role of implicit bias in policing, which is good, but I think might have been a bit heavy for the expected target audience.  It may be something that the older kids and parents in the audience will pickup on, but would be completely lost on someone like my five year old nephew.  Judy does solve the case and does get predator and prey animals to once again get along and live peacefully together but not before realizing her own prejudices.  Did Zootopia really need to be Serpico with animals though?  When I watch cartoons (and yes, I watch them fairly regularly and by choice as an adult), I want to go back to my childhood and be amazed and entertained and laugh and maybe even shed a tear.  Zootopia was entertaining, but to me it didn’t have that magic touch.

Bottom Line: Okay, the Shakira song from the film is still kind of stuck in my head….as is the Rock’s “You’re Welcome” song from Moana…. curse you Disney.

Room – ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ DVD Review

Room5.0 Stars

Wow.  What a story, what a film.  What a great cast and what great performances!

For Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the entire world is contained inside a single room.  “Room” is where he has spent his whole life.  A ten-foot by ten-foot prison, but it is the only world he has ever known.  Jack lives with his mother (Joy or “Ma” played by Brie Larson) who has lived in Room for nearly ten years after she was kidnapped as a teen and kept in what is little more than a shed with power and plumbing by “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers).  Old Nick brings them food and supplies and has sex with Joy.  Jack is a child of her repeated rapings.  While Joy has tried to keep that hidden from Jack, one night he sees Old Nick with his mother which leads Joy to make the decision to try to escape.  Not believing Ma that there is anything else but Room, and that there is nothing outside the door, Jack rejects the words of his panicked and frustrated mother, but eventually trusts her and the two enact a plan to break out.  The film is split into two acts, the first hour is Jack and Ma’s life in Room, and the buildup to their escape, the second hour shows how the pair cope with life and the larger world around them when they do finally escape.  Sorry, not a spoiler, because the picture on the cover of the DVD case shows them quite clearly outside and not in Room.  Both Jack and Joy are now ill-equipped to deal with the things that await them, from Joy’s family to doctors and reporters and lawyers.  Joy’s parents split up while she was gone, her mother (Joan Allen) is now in a relationship with a former friend of the family (Tom McCamus), and Joy has to deal with all the other aspects of the world that have moved on without her.  The life that she was taken from no longer exists, and that lost life is something she will never be able to get back pushing her through a range of emotions from anger to guilt and depression.  Jack has only ever seen two people before in his life, and the introduction of new lives into his universe is overwhelming.  Neither knows what to do in a world that doesn’t know what to do with them.

Based on the book by Emma Donoghue, Room is a well written story that is capped off by truly incredible performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.  The two had incredible chemistry together, which was very important since they had to effectively carry the entire first act of the film alone.  Jacob Tremblay may have only been 7 years old when filming Room, but he gave a performance that was easily on par with the other, established, adult actors of the piece.  I had seen Brie Larson in a few things before and enjoyed her performances (including her short turn as Abed’s kind of girlfriend in TV’s Community), but now I definitely think I’m a Brie Larson fan and look forward to her future films.  She absolutely deserved her Oscar for Best Actress this year.  I felt the supporting cast delivered equally spellbinding performances as well; I especially liked William H. Macy.  As Joy’s father he can’t even bear to look at Jack let alone talk to him, and through his performances you can see the weight, the emotion, the struggle, the anger and the sorrow he is feeling.  Director Lenny Abrahamson had  a difficult task ahead of him with the confined shooting quarters of Room, but also having to convey such an emotional story largely through the perspective of an isolated child.  The whole story worked but really wouldn’t have worked as well without the tandem of Larson and Tremblay.

Bottom Line: If Jacob Tremblay had been nominated for Best Actor, he would have easily beaten DiCaprio…

Life of Pi

Product Details5 Stars

Well, it’s nice that the last two movies I’ve watched have both earned my five star grade.  As a fitting end to Pi Day, March 14th,  I watched Life of Pi, the film that took home the Oscars for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Visual Effects.  I would have to agree with the Academy on all of these.

After watching the Oscars, and relishing in my victory of the Oscar Pool at work (21 out of 24 by the way), I was discussing the ceremonies and the awards with a friend, and mentioned how disappointed I was that I had missed seeing Life of Pi in theatres.  I do believe this film would have been an amazing experience in 3D, and when given the choice, there was only one other film I consciously wanted to see in 3D and that was Dredd.  I thought that there was a slight possibility that Life of Pi would return to theatres near me riding the high off their Oscar wins, but I don’t think that happened, or it did and I didn’t pay enough attention…story of my life.  I told my friend that I had read and enjoyed the book a great deal and was asked to nutshell the plot, here was my précis:

An Indian boy and his family are travelling by boat to Canada after selling their family zoo and delivering the last of the animals on their way to a new life.  A storm hits, and the boat sinks, but the boy (Pi; short for Piscine) manages to get to a lifeboat, which he soon discovers he is sharing with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker, the zoo’s tiger.  Very soon the number of lifeboat inhabitants dwindles to two; how will Pi survive adrift in the ocean with a tiger as his only, hungry, companion?

I believe it was a intended as a compliment that my description sounded like it could have come from the back of the movie box. 😉  We discussed the book a bit more, and remarked that the book is considered a classic.  I had read the book , and heard a lot about it, and from what we had both heard, it seemed like the book was older that it actually is.  Life of Pi was only published in 2001 by Yann Martel.  Of course with most book adaptations, there are parts added to the movie that didn’t really factor in to the book, as well as parts of the book that don’t have as much focus in the movie.  I still think that this was an excellent movie, and excellent book, and an excellent adaptation; certainly worth reading and viewing and perhaps the one example where I don’t think it matters if you read the book first.

This was more than just a movie, it was art.  It was a film that pushed the limit of the visual effects team, elevating their work from more than just routine explosions or aliens, and allowing them to create a work of beauty.  The right sky, the right light, the right waves.  All were very very well done, and critical to the film.  The film was shot mainly in blue screen in a water tank, and used a mix of animated and real animals.  Richard Parker looked so incredibly realistic that I couldn’t really tell which scenes had a real tiger and which did not.  Suraj Sharma as Pi, did a fantastic job, not only acting against real and invisible animals, but also performing all his own stunts.  All the wave scenes, all the storms, he actually did them which I think helped with the continuity of the film.  Pi got thinner as his journey went on, he gets sun burnt, and he looks weary.  I suppose the long shoots also contributed to that.  Sharma never actually filmed a scene with the real tiger for safety’s sake, so their scenes together are clever tricks of editing and the incredible use of a seamless CGI tiger.

Is this a story about friendship?  Is this a story about survival?  Self discovery?  The emotional journey?  Religion?  God?  Yes, it is all these things, and it really begins when the ship sinks, and Pi’s life really changes.  We understand him and have learned about his childhood and his beliefs, but now the emotional journey begins.  Pi’s journey on the sea represents the internal turmoil he is experiencing as well as his spiritual journey.  He is at first scared of the tiger, but adapts to live with him, finding peace.  The “Storm of God” comes and he finds it beautiful, similar to his curiosity about the storm that sank the boat and took his family from him.  I know how powerful the storm came through at home on my TV, I can only imagine how magnificent it must have been to see in the theatre with the full sound treatment.  In the end, Pi survives because of his mind, his resourcefulness, his faith, and his ability to care for and to train a tiger not to eat him.

Life of Pi is first movie I’ve watched on Blu-ray that deserved to be watched on Blu-ray.  Now the next step is to try and figure out if i can hook a Blu-ray up to my existing home theatre in the basement to enjoy it even more with the surround sound, because I definitely want to watch this movie again.


Product Details4 Stars

Catching up still, I will precede this review by stating that I successfully defended my title as Oscar Champ by winning the pool at work for the second year in a row.  I managed to pull a 12/24, so I only batted .500, but that was still good enough to win this year.  Most of the ones I missed were the “dart board” categories, because I’m not a member of the Academy, and I hadn’t seen; or really heard about; any of the shorts or documentaries.  Of course, if I had maybe seen Hugo I probably would have picked it and cleaned up in the technical awards that I missed.

Ah well, last year, I had seen almost all of the Best Picture nominees, this year I had only seen one movie that was nominated for anything.  I would like to say that I will catch up on the nominated films, but right now that is unlikely as we’re just about into the NHL playoffs, and currently are in the OHL (Ontario Hockey League) playoffs, where my hometown Niagara IceDogs just beat out the Oshawa Generals in Round One to advance.  With several of our players already drafted by NHL teams, it is a pretty good quality of hockey for $20 and a night out, so whenever possible these next few weeks, I will be trying to catch the home games.

Now, back to Beginners, first I would like to congratulate Christopher Plummer on his Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor.  Watching the awards show, I must say that the man is pure class.  Loved his speech, loved his velvet tux, and loved that on his lapel, he wore his Order of Canada pin.  Only his second nomination in a career that spans nearly six decades, Plummer was also nominated as Best Supporting Actor in 2009 for The Last Station.  I did pick a Plummer win then as well….

I had been seeing the previews for Beginners at work for months on one of the promo reels that we display throughout my store, and was quite intrigued.  Writer-Director Mike Mills based the movie on a series of events that occurred in his own life. Just months after Mills’ own mother passed away, his father announced that despite their 44-year marriage he was gay and intended to spend his remaining days exploring that side of his life.  Sadly, cancer cut short those plans.  That is the premise behind Beginners.  The film follows Oliver; played by Ewan McGregor, a fairly successful commercial artist, who must deal with the events of his father’s revelation, his failing health, and eventually his death; as well as his own struggles with relationships.

After the death of Oliver’s mother, his father Hal (Plummer) begins to embrace his newly revealed gay lifestyle.  Hal has been gay his whole life and yet he loved his wife.  She wanted to “fix him”, convinced that her love could do the trick.  He lived a heterosexual life with her, but now that she was gone he wanted to explore the life he kept locked away for so long, and Oliver sees his father truly in love for the first time.

After Hal’s death, Oliver closes out the world, until he is pulled to a Hallowe’en party by his friends, bringing with him Arthur, his father’s beloved Jack Russell terrier.  At the party, Oliver meets Anna, a beautiful and quirky French actress, played by the lovely Mélanie Laurent.  I thought she was fantastic in The Concert, and am really looking forward to seeing her in Requiem for a Killer where she plays an assassin, which comes out on DVD later this month.  We follow Oliver and Anna’s commitment-phobic relationship, with Arthur all the while bridging the gaps and speaking to us.  Brilliantly Mills has given the dog dialogue, that he conveys through subtitles.  We know Oliver and Anna are right for each other, Arthur knows it, (and tries to tell them);  but of course, they don’t realize it themselves.

The chemistry between the entire cast was wonderful.  Laurent and McGregor were very natural on screen; and McGregor and Plummer meshed perfectly.  The only one who may have upstaged them all was Arthur; and I am not a dog person.  It is hard sometimes to find a single scene in a movie that you can identify as the exact point where you began to really like the film.  For me, in the case of Beginners, it has to be a scene at the costume party.  Dressed as Sigmund Freud, Oliver who didn’t really want to go to the party, sits down, and begins to receive patients who he proceeds to analyze “in character” as Freud.  Eventually a laryngitis stricken Anna takes to his couch and in their half spoken, half silent exchange she asks a surprised Oliver (via a pad of paper) “Why are you so sad?”   Clearly, she’s seen through his disguise, as he asks her “How did you know?”   Anna passes another note: simply a drawing of his sad eyes.

I think that Beginners was a very enjoyable film.  It had a lot of humour, and a lot of drama packed into a rather quirky package.  Top that off with exceptional casting and performances, and you rarely can go wrong.

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