Documented

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3
October 22nd, 2014 No comments

Documented, 2013, USA/Philippines

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas came out as an undocumented immigrant in 2011. Since then he has been acting as an advocate for immigration reform in the USA through his project Define American. This documentary is just another step in his advocacy process. Through telling his story, he hopes to raise awareness of the issues undocumented Americans face, and bring forth immigration reform.

The documentary tells Vargas’ personal story. He came to America to live with his grandparents (both legal immigrants) when he was 12, and discovered at 16 that his immigration papers were fakes and that he was an undocumented immigrant. For years, he kept this secret and lived in fear of being discovered, but went through college and worked a number of jobs without his secret being discovered. Eventually, he decided to out himself, and dedicate his life to working to bring change to the immigration system.

Documented is best when we see Vargas out in the community, talking to ordinary Americans about the issue of immigration. There is a lot of misconceptions about immigration, and Vargas sought to show people that he is contributing to the American economy, and paying taxes, despite not being a legal American. This is the case for many undocumented American residents. There are also no avenues for a person of Vargas’ age to go through in order to get legal residency (the Dream Act was passed during the course of shooting this documentary and is covered in the film).

I do wish Vargas had a few more subjects with similar stories. A few undocumented immigrants are briefly shown, and he even speaks to some, but we don’t hear any detailed stories. It’s understandable why this is the case; Vargas is a public figure and immensely successful, and as a result, is unlikely to be persecuted by immigration officials. However, an “average” undocumented immigrant could very well find themselves in trouble for appearing in this film.

Vargas is a likable subject, and the audience will find themselves rooting for him, and sympathizing with his story. By being as open and honest as he is, we gain an understanding of the challenges and sacrifices Vargas and his family made. For instance, he has not seen his mother since he was 12-years-old, something that has understandably had an impact on his relationship with her.

Documented was a powerful film about a subject I knew little about. It’s available to rent on Apple TV.

For Ellen

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 2.5
October 19th, 2014 No comments

For Ellen, 2012, USA

For Ellen stars Paul Dano as Joby Taylor, a washed up musician who is in the midst of a nasty divorce with his wife, Cindy (Dakota Johnson). As part of the divorce settlement, Cindy asks Joby to give up custodial rights to his daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo), who he’s never met. Joby is devastated by this, and insists on spending the day with her before signing any sort of paperwork.

The film is very minimalist in nature. In fact, the first half of it is little more than a glimpse into Joby’s life. This gives the audience the opportunity to discover who he is as a person – and we’re not meant to like what we see. He’s selfish, has anger issues, and is so consumed by his dreams of becoming a rockstar that he’s given up any sort of relationship with his wife and daughter. He is, frankly, a pathetic human being. Dano gives a remarkable performance as Joby; he’s captivating, yet painful to watch. And, despite how much you loathe Joby for being selfish and overly consumed with something that will never happen, your heart breaks for him as you watch what a failure his life is. He’s lost everything over a failed dream. His performance was the highlight of the film. He’s in every scene, and the film is his story.

My issue with the film is that the first half of the film feels painfully long. Nothing much happens (as I said: it’s very minimalist), but what does happen fails to grab the audience. I never felt captivated by anything other than Dano’s performance. I enjoyed the time Joby and Ellen spent together – they were very bittersweet, but that was a comparably small part of the film. I felt that perhaps the film would have been stronger if that part of the story had been expanded, and the first half of the film was cut considerably.

I wish I’d liked this film as a whole more than I did. Dano is one of the more underrated actors out there, and he can always be counted on to give a fantastic performance. He was just wonderful in this film, and this film could have been great with a stronger script and editing. It is available to watch on Netflix.

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Frankenstein (Play)

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4
October 16th, 2014 No comments

Frankenstein, 2011, UK

Frankenstein was my first National Theatre Live performance. For awhile now I’d been wanting to go to a National Theatre Live production, but hadn’t had the opportunity until now. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, because I imagined it must be difficult to film live theatre and ensure that it looks good and compelling on-screen. I needn’t have worried: the cinematography was excellent. While it could never replace the experience of being in a theatre watching a performance, it was excellently shot and edited.

For Frankenstein, lead actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller traded roles night after night. The play was recorded twice: once with Cumberbatch as the Creature, and once with Miller as the Creature. The performance I saw featured Cumberbatch as the Creature. I can’t emphasize enough just how wonderful his performance was. It’s a very physically demanding role: the first several minutes of the play featured just him on stage writhing and trying to walk as the newly “born” Creature, and he had to maintain the Creature’s gait and mannerisms for the entirety of the performance. He was amazing. Miller was very good as Doctor Frankenstein; he was especially good at evoking sympathy from the audience.

The brilliance of this play (and, of course, the book it was based on!) is that neither character is the hero or the villain. Over the course of the play, both do revolting things, but they are also real beings who suffer and feel pain. Ultimately, the story is about this eternal dance both characters are locked in: they detest one another, but they also drive each other. Cumberbatch and Miller’s chemistry further emphasizes this theme: this play is at its finest when they’re interacting together on stage.

When I saw the play yesterday, it was an encore screening of it. Here in Winnipeg, at least, it will be screening again next Wednesday, but with Miller in the role of the Creature. I’d be curious to see it again but I don’t really think I want to shell out the money to do so in the interest of frugality. However, this may be your last chance to see this play, so if you haven’t seen either version on it, I highly encourage you to go see it on Wednesday.

Hopefully this is just the first of many National Theatre Live productions I see. It’s so important to ensure that live theatre is readily accessible to all. And, until I can get back to London to see some theatre productions, the filmed versions will just have to do!

Belle

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4.5
October 13th, 2014 No comments

Belle, 2013, UK

I love period dramas. I love the costumes, the history, and the stories they tell. So, Belle was right up my alley, and I adored every moment of it.

Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate daughter of a Navy officer. She’s half black and half white, and her father (Matthew Goode) puts her in the care of his uncle, the Lord Chief Justice (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). Dido grows up fully aware of her station in society; too good to dine with the servants, not good enough to dine with the rest of the family. She meets John Davinier (Sam Reid), a man who was studying under her uncle, who happens to be an activist speaking out against crimes committed against slaves on a slave ship – a court case Dido’s uncle is scheduled to make a judgment on. Slowly, Dido and John get to know one another, and fall in love, despite her uncle’s vehement disapproval.

Belle beautifully balances the love story with the political story. Both aspects of the film are captivating and moving. Mbatha-Raw’s performance as Dido was beautifully understated. In the beginning of the film, you can see her acceptance of her station in life, and it broke my heart to see her accept being insulted so terribly, but she grows into herself by the end of the film with the help of John. Wilkinson is also excellent as a man torn between duty and class, and the great love he has for Dido. Everything he does, he does to protect her in his own way.

Rachel Porter’s soundtrack for the film was wonderful, as well. It uses string instruments heavily and features a main motif that is incredibly moving. The music matches the story perfectly, and it might be one of my favourite instrumental scores I’ve heard this year.

The film is based on a true story, and on an actual painting commissioned by the Chief Lord Justice. In reality, not much is known about Dido Belle, so much of the film would be fictionalized.

I’m not sure if this film will qualify for the Oscars this year, as it is a 2013 release, according to IMDB. I hope it does, because I would love to see Mbatha-Raw nominated for her wonderful work. I look forward to seeing more of her work!

Belle is available to rent on Apple TV. I highly recommend it.

Rock of Ages

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 2
October 10th, 2014 No comments

Rock of Ages, 2012, USA

A few years ago I saw the stage musical, Rock of Ages, and liked it, for the most part. I’d been avoiding this film because it got very mixed reviews, but I saw it on Netflix and decided to take the plunge and watch it.

Sherrie (Julianne Hough) has just moved to Los Angeles to make it as a singer when she’s robbed. Drew (Diego Boneta) saves her, and gets her a job at his employer, the Bourbon Room, a once popular rock music club that is now floundering. The mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are trying to get the club shut down, and the owner, Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and his second-in-command, Lonny (Russell Brand) are trying to make enough money to get out of debt. Legendary rocker Stacee Jax (Tom Cruise) is booked to play the club, but things don’t quite go as planned.

Rock of Ages is a musical built around classic rock songs. The songs are catchy, and are generally performed fairly well. The big surprise of the film is Cruise, who gives the best performance. He’s a surprisingly good singer, and he was captivating as the semi-washed up Stacee Jaxx. He gives a character that could have been a cliché surprising depth. Sadly, the other actors fail to do this with their characters. I was given no reason to care for either Sherrie or Drew, despite them arguably being the main characters. Cranston is criminally underused, but is excellent in the few moments he does have on screen.

Many plot points from the musical are changed in the film, to the detriment of the story. The movie is poorly written and none of the changes that were made add to the story. It’s a shame, really.

Ultimately, I watched the movie more for the musical numbers. The choreography fit the 80s setting of the film, and felt campy and fun. The rest of the film should have matched the campy and over-the-top tone of the musical numbers, but it didn’t, making it a very uneven and unsatisfying watch. I wouldn’t bother with the film – I’d wait and watch the musical on stage!

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Gone Girl

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
October 7th, 2014 No comments

Gone Girl, 2014, USA

It is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) Elliot Dunne’s fifth anniversary. Nick comes home to find the front door ajar, a suspicious scene in the living room and that Amy is nowhere to be found. He gets the police involved, and is labeled a suspect in the case due to his awkward demeanor, and the fact that he hides several troubling things. The case becomes a media circus, despite the fact that a body has not been found, and Nick is condemned as a sociopath. With only his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) by his side, Nick hires Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), a powerful defense attorney to take his case.

Gone Girl was a real ride of a film. It’s a chilling and disturbing portrait of suburbia gone to hell. Director David Fincher paints a portrait of two upper-middle class people once joined by love who discover they really don’t know one another at all. And, it’s a clever commentary on how contemporary media handles high profile murder cases. Missi Pyle perfectly portrays a TV host who is a clear parody of Nancy Grace and other talk show hosts of that nature. It seems that this sort of media attention can almost determine a person’s fate in the legal system. This film is cold, and dark, but it does have moments of remarkable humour.

Affleck did a solid job as Nick. He had the challenge of playing a character that isn’t especially likable, and who we are supposed to be wary of. The real star of the film was Pike, who gives an incredibly good performance. Amy has been commodified for her entire life; first by her parents, who wrote a series of popular children’s books based on her life, and then by her husband. Her reaction to this is utterly brilliant. Watch for her name come awards season. Perry did good work with his supporting role, and Coon was excellent as Margo, who had the thankless task of standing by her brother when everyone was against him.

Be very careful when reading about Gone Girl – this is a film you want to know as little as possible about when you watch it. I saw a single trailer for the film and that was enough for me. There are already spoilers all over the place, so take care to ensure that you are not spoiled. While the journey is just as important as the ride in this film, it’s really nice not to know where the ride is going.

Gone Girl is excellent and playing in theatres now.

Much Ado About Nothing

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4
October 4th, 2014 No comments

Much Ado About Nothing, 2012, USA

I will admit: I’ve read very little in the way of William Shakespeare’s work, and none of his work after high school. I enjoy classic literature, but my preferred time periods tend to be the Victorian era and Romantic era, as well as works from the 20th century.

However, I have found that I enjoy seeing adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, and that’s probably the best way to consume his work, anyway. With that in mind, I dove into Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. He uses Shakespeare’s text, but the film itself takes place in modern times, thus highlighting just how timeless his work is.

Leonato (Clark Gregg) is the Governor and invites Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his brother, the nefarious Don John (Sean Maher) to stay with him for a month. Don Pedro’s two officers Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) are both single. Claudio meets Hero (Jillian Morgese), Leonato’s daughter, and falls madly in love with her, while Benedick spars with Hero’s cousin, Beatrice (Amy Acker). Don John plots to destroy Hero and Claudio’s happiness, while Leonato, Hero, Don Pedro and Claudio plot to get Benedick and Beatrice to get together.

I was unfamiliar with the story of Much Ado About Nothing before going in, but I found that didn’t hinder the experience. It took me a few minutes to adjust to the Shakespearian dialogue, but once the actual story begins, I found it captivating and hilarious. It’s a very pointed commentary on relationships, including how fragile they can be and how easily manipulated they are by outside forces (for both good and evil!). My heart broke for Hero as Claudio rejected her so coldly after Don John’s manipulation. The evil was contrasted by the other well-meaning characters, who desperately wanted to see Benedick and Beatrice fall in love with one another.

Whedon cleverly updated the story in subtle ways by showing more sexuality between the characters. Shakespeare’s dialogue makes the implications; Whedon follows through on them. It’s amazing how a play written in the late 16th century can be told in a 21st century setting with only very minimal changes.

The story of how the film was made was quite amazing too. It was Whedon’s dream project, and it was shot in his very own house over the course of 12 days while he was doing post-production on The Avengers. The project was kept entirely secret until it had wrapped. It was shot in black and white, and the cinematography looks wonderful. Despite taking place in one location, it never feels claustrophobic or closed off; it feels as if the setting is far more expansive than it actually is.

Much Ado About Nothing is available on Netflix.

Ida

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4
October 1st, 2014 No comments

Ida, 2013, Poland/Denmark

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) has grown up at a Catholic convent in Poland, and is about to take her vows to become a nun. She’s informed that she’s actually Jewish and her birth name was Ida. She has one remaining relative, her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Before she will be allowed to take her vows, she must meet with her aunt. Together, they road trip to where she was born in an attempt to find out more about the death of her parents during the war.

The rapport between Anna/Ida and Wanda was an interesting one. Anna/Ida is very much a wallflower sort of character: she’s quiet, solemn, and is a typical nun-to-be in many ways. Wanda, on the other hand, is a broken soul. She drinks heavily, and was once a judge following the war. She mourns for her lost son, and is firmly determined to find out what happened to her sister, brother-in-law and son at any costs. The film tells both of their stories, and we see how Wanda’s influence changes Anna/Ida.

Ida is obviously a very emotional film. For much of it, there is a bittersweet undertone, until the heartwrenching climax, which features some incredible acting from Kulesza. She was wonderful in the entire film. Trzebuchowska was quite good as well: she was understandably far more subtle, and much of her story was told through facial expressions and flickers of emotion. They had chemistry, and worked well on screen.

One thing I really appreciated about Ida is its subtlety. The story isn’t spelled out for you, instead, you’re required to read between the lines, and make your own conclusions about the characters and their decisions. It was a beautiful, thoughtful film, and one that made me think long after it ended. And, of course, it is the story of two women, which is another thing I greatly appreciated.

Ida is now available to rent on Apple TV. I imagine this film could be a contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar next year.

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Dan in Real Life

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3
September 28th, 2014 No comments

Dan in Real Life, 2007, USA

Dan (Steve Carell) is a columnist who is a contender for national syndication. He’s a widower with three daughters, and has varying relationships with all three. He’s somewhat controlling, and convinced he will never find love again after the death of his wife a few years before. The family takes a trip to Rhode Island for a family reunion and Dan meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) at a bookstore. He buys her a coffee and they find they have a connection. Unfortunately, Marie has a boyfriend. They agree to meet again before they leave town, and Dan heads back to his parents’ place…only to find Marie there with her boyfriend, Dan’s brother, Mitch (Dane Cook).

Carell gives a wonderful performance as Dan, a character that I found to be thoroughly unlikable. Over the course of the entire visit with his family, he behaves awfully towards his extended family, as well as his daughters. He’s hypocritical, and neglectful and, frankly, I don’t know what on Earth the lovely Marie saw in him. Carell does some fine work – truly. I don’t believe we’re supposed to particularly like Dan. Dan is a character that has all of the answers as an advice columnist, but his own life is in shambles, and he doesn’t practice what he preaches. That is the basic theme of the film. It’s so easy to give advice and to act like you have all of the answers, but when it comes time to follow your own advice, it is immensely difficult.

The film did falter on some levels, though. There is an emotional scene towards the end of the film that makes reference to Dan’s late wife. This was presumably meant to be the emotional climax of the film. But, we’re not given nearly enough information about his wife, nor are we given much reason to care about her absence, so this moment instead feels awkward and a bit out of place. More should have been done to build her as a character (despite her absence), or they should have figured out another way to build an emotional moment. Cook’s performance as Mitch wasn’t particularly strong, either. He should have been developed as a more sympathetic character, but he was just there, seemingly to act as an obstacle between Dan and Marie. So much more could have been done with his character in the hands of an actor who can actually act.

Dan in Real Life is available on Netflix.

Divergent

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 2.5
September 24th, 2014 No comments

Divergent, 2014, USA

Every once in awhile you come across a film or a book that has a brilliant idea. But then that brilliant idea is wasted and marred by a terrible execution. This is Divergent.

It is dystopian Chicago. The society has been separated into five factions: Abegnation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), Candor (honest), Dauntless (brave), and Erudite (intelligent). Beatrice “Tris” (Shailene Woodley) is about to turn 16. Her and her family are members of the Abnegation faction. Her and her peers all undergo a test to determine which faction they are most suited for. Beatrice has an inconclusive test result, meaning she is equally suited towards several factions. She is Divergent, which puts her life in danger. She reluctantly chooses Dauntless, and hopes to hide her status there. While training, Beatrice, now known as Tris, initially struggles, but captures the attention of Four (Theo James), one of her instructors. He helps her with her training and discovers her secret.

Pretty cool sounding concept, eh? The first half hour – the “world building” stuff was fascinating. Then, once Tris started training to become a member of Dauntless, the film struggled to hold my attention. There’s only so many times I can watch Tris fail with the knowledge that she will inevitably succeed before my mind goes elsewhere. I suppose this all was necessary (I wouldn’t know – I haven’t read the book this film was based on), but it sure was dull. The climax of the film was also predictable, and far less interesting than it should have been. The filmmakers had every opportunity to create a tense and captivating climax, but it was almost as if they actively tried to make it dull.

I did quite like Woodley and James’ performances. Woodley was likable and easy to root for. James was initially an intimidating, badass sort, but you know that eventually they were going to develop feelings for one another. To his credit, Four never feels like a cliché, and the chemistry between the two characters felt natural.

The premise of the film was such that I would probably give the other films in this series a shot. It’s just too bad that they were handed such great ideas on a silver platter, and misused them every step of the way. But, in the world of young adult films, this one is far better than many that are out there. It’s firmly middle-of-the-road:  it’s not great, but it’s also not without redemption, either.

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