What I am Reading: “The Glass Castle” – a story of an unconventional family and the love that binds.

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

Image result for the glass castle book pdf

I got a hold of this book at a friend´s house. She was getting rid of some old stuff and showed me a small shelf full of old books. I picked out two based on the title and cover alone. I figured this one had to be some sort of science fiction novel about a society divided by those that had (living in their glass castles) and those that had not, but it wasn´t.

It took me a while to get around to reading it, as my schedule usually got in the way of my leisure reading. But when I finally did open the first page, it immediately drew me in with its crisp narrative.

We begin with a curious scene of a woman in a taxi, who is off to a fancy party, spotting her mother rummaging through a dumpster on the streets of New York. The woman hides from mother´s view and tells the taxi driver to take her back home. We are then transported back to this woman´s childhood and the eccentric and very unstable life that she lived while being brought up by two adults with hearts of gold but perhaps not the perfect fit for parenthood.

It´s a wonder our narrator survived the fires, the moves, the lack of any structure, but this story is about resilience, and she has plenty.  This story is also about the importance of understanding that our parents are not perfect but that they are trying their best.

A curious thing about reading this book is that it took me about 100 pages to realize that I was reading a memoir. The adventures of this family are so outlandish and deliciously written that I lost myself in the prose. It was only after reading yet another exceptionally written passage, that I took a moment to look at the cover of the book again (a habit I have had since my early years, mostly to see how the cover art reflects on the material inside) and saw, at the bottom, in small letters: A Memoir.

Fact is indeed stranger than fiction, I suppose – or whatever makes for a good story. If all the accounts are true or not are not of great consequence, as the narrative springs along confidently and each chapter is more entertaining than the last. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in light reading that still manages to carry an air of wit and wryness.

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What I am Watching: The Mechanism (Netflix’s Brazilian political drama) and La Casa de Papel (a Spanish heist show).

When news hit that Netflix would produce a series based on the Brazilian CarWash (Lava Jato) corruption probe, I was not very interested at all. Here in Brazil, I have lived through the investigations, which have just included the arrest of former President Lula as another chapter in its story. So, why would I want to see it all again?

Then a few things piqued my interest.

One, the campaign by Brazil’s leftists block to cancel Netflix for airing the show. They were happy to post their cancellation notices on Twitter and take a stand against the show. When a people boycott a show, it is usually the best promotion. I had to check out what the fuss was about.

Two, former president, Dilma demonstrated her outrage at Netflix for airing the show. She said that Netflix “didn’t know where they were sticking their nose.” and that they “couldn’t make political campaigns”. She was especially angered by the phrase, “We need to stop the bleeding,” which in the show is attributed to a character who represents her political ally, ex-president Lula. In real life, the phrase was said by someone she considers a political opponent.

Padilla, (the show’s creator) responded by saying that if she knew how to read, we wouldn’t have this problem. He is referencing the disclaimer at the start of each show which states that The Mechanism is a work of fiction and drama based on actual events. Making an ex-president angry to the point where she feels the need to threaten Netflix will automatically catch my attention. Much like the Twitter-campaign people, Dilma was doing more free promotion.

Last on my list of reasons why I decided to watch the show were statements from ex-President Lula of the PT (Worker’s Party). Before he was jailed on April 7th of 2018, he threatened to sue Netflix for spreading more lies about his political party, which has been mired in corruption scandals for years now. Anything that gets him on his moral high horse and threatening to sue people will definitely have me sold.

So with all that as a springboard, I sat down to watch the show.

My verdict – The Mechanism is not amazing but it is somewhat unevenly entertaining.

The series falters mostly because of what Padilla tried to do – make a fiction out of facts. And I don’t say this for the reasons Lula and Dilma (and their followers) allude to but because we flip back and forth from some semi-hard hitting cop show fodder to semi-soap opera-ish “yawn moments”. The show never seems to find its groove because it is trying to play both sides of the entertainment aisle.

The positives are most definitely the procedural parts of the show. Seeing how the justice (or injustice) system works in a country as corrupt as Brazil is eye-opening. The problem, dramatically-speaking, is that although there are liberties taken with the facts the show tries to remain grounded in reality. This means that the bad guys aren’t really as much of a threat who connive their way out of trouble like in Padilla’s masterpieces, Elite Troup 1 and 2, but rather, a bunch of rich elites who try not to shit their pants as the police noose tightens around them. The action also becomes quite anti-climatic given how most of us know how many of the investigations will play out. Perhaps a foreign audience will have this suspense advantage over those of us who have kept up with the real-world events.

Padilla is unable to give us an angle from the inside which is unique enough to make any of the criminal´s fate feel more like a justified pay off for their deeds. He also doesn´t give us the criminal´s outlook. While some were in it just for the money, others believed they had some moral ground to stand on when sacking state-run companies and receiving bribes from powerful businessmen. Spending some time to explore the “bad guy’s” motivations always makes for a good counter-point to the “good guy’s” crusades.

Looking at it from a big-picture point of view, though, the show’s exploration of the road that Lava-Jato took to arrive at a full-blown investigation, involving the arrest of top executives, is fun to watch. It’s great to see each one of them being carted away even as they do their best to burn the evidence. Padilla also makes it clear that it was not just the PT government that was involved in the corruption scheme, but everyone in Brasilia (Brazil’s capital). Each political party is trying to simply wash their hands of the matter by making the other party look worse in a case of who looks “less” dirty.

As I had alluded to earlier, the show hits its biggest road bumps when it tries to show the ordinary lives of the police officers involved in the investigation. These characters are pretty boring and any attempt to create drama is a grade level above a Brazilian soap opera – which, for what it’s worth, is usually better produced than an American or even a Mexican one.

The lead cop on the case, Marco Ruffo, (overplayed by Selton Mello) talks and does voice-over narration as if he were a worn out Batman. If this is Padilla’s attempt to give us a gritty film noir feel, he fails miserably. He gets an A for effort, though as Mello is your stereotypical lone cop whose marriage is falling apart and whose obsession with arresting all the “bad people” disrupts his own mental health.

Another lead cop, Verena Cardoni, (played well by Caroline Abas) is certainly tenacious but she also has the Batman syndrome with her voice-over narration of some episodes. We get it, Padilla, these cops are hard asses, but no need to lower all their tones to bass level 10.

She at least has a bit more to do when she is off-duty. She is an off-and-on relationship with someone from Public Ministry office, which sometimes affects her investigations – the guy is a dick. She also runs into a medical issue towards the end of the season, which I didn’t quite see the need for.

Everyone in the series is pretty one-dimensional – including the Otto Jr. who plays Judge Rigo who represents the real-life Judge Moro. For those that do not know, Judge Moro is a Federal judge who has been mostly in charge of the prosecution in the Car Wash operation. He is heralded as a hero to many in Brazil for his arrest of many high profile people, including most recently, the very popular ex-president Lula.

Although Padilla has never made his political stances very secret, he makes his political bias shine too bright with this character who comes off as a squeaky clean Superman-type hero. There are a few scenes where they hint at what the weight of what he is attempting to do (bring down the biggest government corruption scheme in Brazilian history) means to him, but they are sparse. Judge Rigo seems to only be there for the ride, without contributing much beyond a pen stroke on a warrant to further the investigation.

Fortunately, Padilla knows pacing and he hired a crew who match his style. The show never lingers too long on its attempt to make us care for these people on a personal level, which I would have liked for him to do but will accept only because I am not forced to stick with those scenes for very long.

The story is how the corruption scandal started small and got huge. That story is told as well as it can be told considering the millions of pages of text that have already been written about it – and the fact we are now still living through it.

I doubt this show would interest anyone who isn’t keyed into Brazilian politics, and sadly the show didn’t allow for the scope of the size of the corruption scandal to be truly explored – perhaps that is next season.  As it stands, this first season feels like a miniature house of cards, when in fact, many incidents in the real-life Lava Jato case make House of Cards seem minuscule.

So, I say to all the leftists, and to Dilma, and to Lula, “don’t lose your marbles.” This show plays for entertainment while sprinkling in bits of headline stories. I wish it had been more hard-hitting, but instead, it’s nothing more than a semi-interesting cop show with an ending we have yet to reach in the real world. I recomment it to anyone who wants the short story, but real life trumps fiction on this one.

La Casa de Papel  (Money Heist)

 

I had a few people tell me about this Spanish drama and how good it was, so since I was in the crime-busting (or doing) vibe, I decided to give it a go.

This show is about a group of criminals who come together under the tutelage of a “heist-master”, who calls himself The Professor, in order to pull off the biggest heist in history. Their plan is to rob the Royal Mint of Spain in the order of 2.4 Billion Euros. I won’t tell you how they plan to do this, as it will spoil the fun of a show filled with surprise turns.

What was supposed to be me just checking out the show, turned into me burning through the entire first season and then searching desperately for the second-season, which Netflix hadn’t made available at the time (it’s there now).

(By the way, the original airing of the show on Spanish television was in two parts with nine 70-minute episodes to start and 6 more to end. When Netflix acquired the rights they edited each episode to span 13 40-50 minute episodes for a first season and 9 episodes of similar length for a season two.)

La Casa de Papel moves at a neck-break speed. Unlike in The Mechanism, this show doesn’t waste its time trying to humanize the characters by adding superfluous domestic disputes into the story or adding unnecessary backstory dialogue. It follows one of the golden rules of good drama, “show, don’t tell.” We learn about our heisters through their actions, decisions, mistakes and concerns. Moreover, our bandits don’t come off as completely “super-hero-like” cartoony in an “Ocean’s Eleven” type of way. Not that I don’t enjoy those types of heist movies too, but it was great to see them fail and succeed in equal measure throughout the series run.

The true stand out of the show for me was the lead inspector, Raquel, who was leading the charge to catch the bandits. She was played by Itziar Ituño with absolute grit mixed with just the right amount of lack of assurance. She reminded me a lot of Gillian Anderson from the early seasons of The X Files where she played Scully as someone stuck in a man´s world (and her vulnerability showed), but also as someone tough enough to accomplish her goals in her own way. Ituño´s Raquel is certainly not someone I would ever want to cross, but she is also someone who I would love to sit and have a coffee with, as heist-master, The Professor, immediately discovers.

La Casa de Papel is binge-watching certified. It plays out like one long movie, so if the first or second episode doesn´t grab your attention, chances are that this show might not be for you. For those who like a great caper, interesting characters, a million twists, and great cinematography (some of the action and timed sequences are on par with Hollywood offerings) then this show is for you. My only criticism involves some character motivations at the end, but it wasn´t anything that ruined the series for me. This show here is a keeper.

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What I Am Watching: A Quiet Place – a super non-spoiler review.

John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place was a fun little ride using a mixture of atmosphere, good acting, and some unnecessary but not overly done jump scares.

The story is set in a post-apocalypse where the key to survival is remaining as quiet as possible otherwise the bogeymen come out to eat you. It’s a great premise but doesn’t add much new to the horror genre, as many of the most thrilling scenes in both horror and action revolve around being dead quiet – Don’t Breathe was a masterful indie example of this and even Spielberg used this tactic to great effect in Jurassic Park in the classic Velociraptor kitchen and some kids scene.

Yet, these actors sell the premise and keep us breathless while they go about their business, tiptoeing through life in both their mundane and most heart-pounding moments. With little dialogue and only sign language and signalling as their main source of communication, we are brought into each character’s world almost immediately and don’t escape until nearly the last scene.

The driving force of this movie is survival. It tries to humanize some of the characters and even make us care about some possible discord between father and daughter, but it’s pretty throw-away stuff. What A Quiet Place excels at is setting up an environment and keeping us clinching to our seats until our protagonists manage to figure a way out of it. Again, nothing new from the horror genre, but they manage to play all the right beats. So like a good pop song that follows your classic pop song structure (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus), you forget that it is predictable and go along for the journey.

Another thing going for this movie is that these characters mostly don’t do stupid things, which doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes. However, I was never taken out of the movie for thinking “You deserve to die you stupid Fuck!” The most questionable decision is probably the one which the trailer above reveals, but I don’t want to spoil too much. But who am I to judge what two adults choose for their future even in the direst of situations? I will credit the fact that the movie does its best to show us that both the adults had prepared themselves well for this decision, though.

One sour note of A Quiet Place is that it felt like it wanted to go deeper, like The Witch or even the uneven It Comes at Night, on various occasions but depended on some pretty cliche horror narratives to sustain itself – cue jump scares. When it had everything set up for a character study on how parents deal with grief and feeling helpless to protect their young, it dropped the ball and gave us a heart attack inducing horror-action sequence. This is not necessary a bad thing, because the sequences were so well done, but it is frustrating when you see the possibilities in front of you but they are overpassed for the easy route.

I had a few other issues with this movie, but not enough to ruin it for me.

First, the creatures felt like extras from Cloverfield or the Alien franchise: they crept up slowly around corners and made clicking and hissing sounds before pouncing on their prey. Even their body structure was very much inspired by classic xenomorphs mixed with some Cloverfield wackyness.

Second, in some parts, the movie felt a bit like Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane in the way they had unexplained other-dimensional monsters looming near keeping our protagonists trapped and how our protagonists tried to keep a level of normalcy despite the world having ended around them (the latter has shades of It Comes At Night wrapped around it too, especially with the open outdoors setting and them being in a single house in the middle of nowhere ). One particular scene in a pool of water felt like a full-on homage to Alien: Resurrection.

But like I said to begin, these shades of other movies and the loss of suspense once we see the monster does not mean the film was completely lost, but even Jaws loses a bit of a thrill once we see that it is a rubber shark. Also, thinking about other films while watching something in front of you can be both fun (if you are a film buff) and irritating depending on how badly the film in front of you is being executed. You just can’t escape that. Luckily the execution in A Quiet Place was good enough to give these nitpicky points a general pass.

The only genuine let down for me was the ending. It was telegraphed from a mile away – and trust me when I say I am the worst at figuring out endings or plot twists to even the most basic movies. I don’t envy people who have this talent because I wouldn’t want to be taken out of a movie ten to twenty minutes (or more) before the end credits. But given what we had to work with A Quiet Place at least had a logical ending – although I did wonder how come some top scientists around the world hadn’t figured out in the years since the monster attacks began what our ingenious family member figured out in less than a day. Well, that’s Hollywood, I guess.

I highly recommend this movie, though. It is not on Sixth Sense level cerebral and character heavy, but it is far from being brain dead. It works the audience and the work pays off.

Tell me what you thought of A Quiet Place in the comments below.

Phil

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My 2018 Oscar-Movies reviews were pretty much in line with the Academy again this year. A review of the films can be found here.

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Ranking the Best Picture Oscar Movies – 2018 Edition

The Oscars are upon us again and as I usually do every year, I try to watch all the movies nominated for Best Picture. I must say, this year´s batch of contenders was worse than 2017´s (you can read that list here). Although, those movies mostly didn’t feel like “Oscar” material they at least gave me some entertainment value.

This year, I was only truly engaged with my top three picks. I appreciated the artistry in my number four and five picks and nearly fell asleep or wanted to throw something at the screen as a reaction to the others.

My list, as always, doesn´t comprise of what movies I think will win (or even in some cases, “should” win) but instead, of movies which I enjoyed watching.

Last year I came close to predicting the Oscars, though, with La La Land being my favourite movie which I also thought deserved the top prizes. I think my favourite movie from this year will also take home the top prize. So here is the list, from worst to best.

 

9. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

This was the last of the Oscar contenders that I saw and it was a tight race for the last place on my list. Certainly, the acting was solid, but even great actors can’t make a bad script good.

The main issue I had with this movie is that it didn’t know what it wanted to be: a hard-hitting drama or a dark comedy. Scenes that had dramatic intensity were followed by scenes that felt like they had been written for The Room (it’s a shame The Disaster Artist got no Oscar-love, BTW).

One particularly embarrassing example of this is a scene where a Francis McDormand´s character faces off with her ex-husband in a most violent fashion. The scene is gripping and digs deep into Francis’ character who still feels guilt over the loss of her daughter. However, it is broken up by the husband’s very young girlfriend who barges in through the front door asking to use the bathroom but talking like an extra from Legally Blonde. The jarring tonal shift makes no sense, as does the daftness of the character (she appears again later and seems to know how to read but not know exactly what she is reading).

This mix of dark comedy and dark drama is not executed as well as imagine it would have been in the hands of Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch or even past McDormand collaborators, The Cohen Brothers.

Besides the uncalibrated tonal shifts, this movie also works in a vacuum where actions have zero consequences. In Ebbing, you can be a total asshole, a racist, and even near murderer one minute and be absolved for it when the script calls for a change. I am not sure what the point of this movie was (other than the obvious cliché “how one event can affect so many people’s lives”), so for its lack of good editing, pacing, and believable writing, I put it in the last place.

8. Lady Bird

I am not sure how this movie made it onto a Best Film Oscar list, but here it is. I have more fun watching cattle auctions than I did sitting through this drag of a film. Yet, it manages to have a consistent tone and characters who earn their development unlike Three Billboards, which is why it eeked into second-to-last place on my list.

There is a case to be made about how Lady Bird explores the relationships between mothers and daughters, and some mother and daughter duos out there may certainly appreciate it for that. I didn’t get much out of the film aside from a headache. The main character was unlikeable, the parents too aloof, and the storyline bland and uninspired.

If you dug Lady Bird then please tell me in the comments what exactly it was that I missed.

7. Dunkirk

I will put on my absolute objective lenses and say that Nolan’s Dunkirk is an impressive piece of filmmaking from a purely technical angle. The shots are spectacular, the sound is incredible, the acting is spot on. If he wins Best Director or if the film wins Best Picture, I would not complain.

That said, this is my second time watching this movie (I saw it when it first came out) and it wasn’t much better of an experience for me than my initial viewing. To illustrate this dislike clearly, I think I may have stopped the movie to check my Facebook, use the bathroom, and see my WhatsApp messages about 6 to 8 times. There are simply no significant character or plot development to hold my attention through the running length of this film. I made it to about 30 minutes of watching ships sail, soldiers swim, and planes flying before my brain started wandering.

To end, I can completely understand why someone would love this movie (the events on that beach and the brave men and women who participated in it is truly extraordinary and should be honoured), but this is a list of my favourites from the Oscar selection and Dunkirk simply does not make the grade. This is sad because I am a fan of Nolan and what he has brought to the film medium. So, good luck to all the Christopher Nolan fans, this may be the year he finally gets the recognition that he deserves.

6. Call Me By Your Name

“When you least expect it, nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spots.”

That line from the end of director Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name sums up this coming of age story set around a romantic relationship between an older man, Oliver, and a younger boy, Elio.

The story is quite simple and doesn’t have much in the way of conflict, either internal or external. Yet, somehow, the characters were enchanting enough to maintain my interest.

The film also doesn’t really add anything fresh or interesting to the gay-themed coming of age stories. There are plenty of classic French and Italian films from the 50s and 60s that have explored the theme extensively – including intergenerational love.

More recently, the 1996 British film Beautiful Thing and the lovely 2001 film Y tu Mamá También from director Alfonso Cuarón touched on the subject of same-sex love while adding many more layers to the awkward years one spends discovering one’s self.

Despite not being anything new, Call Me By Your Name is beautiful to look at and tells a story that many can relate to about the pangs of first love – whether it be gay or straight. The main character, Elio, (played by best actor nominee for the role, Timothée Chalamet) is subdued throughout – not knowing how to express something that he feels so intensely. When he does finally get his moments to truly be how he wishes, the joy shines through the screen – as does his sadness in moments of grief.

I don’t think this movie deserves to win Best Picture, but I am happy The Academy is recognizing the small movies that don’t scream “OSCAR!!!” for being “incredible” stories or having “once in a lifetime” performances, but that are, rather, films which simply wish to express a feeling, a thought, a narrative without many frills. I have seen many variations of Call Me By Your Name (some better some worse) in the past. However, none of those films takes away from the subtle beauty of this one.   

5. Phantom Thread

Given all the rave reviews, which strangely kept any plot details hidden, I was truly looking forward to seeing what this film had to offer. Add to that the drama of Daniel Day-Lewis saying that this film made him go to places so dark that it had helped him in his decision to retire from acting that it made me even more anxious to take a look at what all the fuss was about. However, upon viewing, I didn’t see anything too intense or dark.  Instead, this film felt like loose threads which were sewed together just neatly enough to offer 2 hours worth of visual and acting prowess to disguise its lack of actual depth.

Phantom Thread is a story about the power struggle between its two main protagonists. It plays out in a very subtle passive aggressive manner until the big reveal at the end. It’s also a love story about a man who doesn’t know how to let his guard down long enough to love and a woman wily enough to figure out a way to teach him how to do so.

While there are plenty of elements there to make this film extraordinary, it comes off as a bit stilted as it doesn’t really dig into the psyche of why these two people need to have this amount of power and this proof of love in their lives. Most frustrating is that just as it seems that the film is going to turn the corner into darker places of its character’s minds, it settles for your basic “strange boy meets strong-willed girl” motifs.

After watching it, it did make me wonder (perhaps because of the similarity of style, pacing, and composition in direction and drama) what Woody Allen or the late Louis Malle would have done with the same premise. These constant aborted resolutions took me out of the film more than a few times, despite how neatly arranged everything looks on the screen.

I am not sure Phantom Thread will take much away at the Oscars, but it is certainly a well-crafted piece of cinema – sadly, it’s more bark than bite.

4. Darkest Hour 

Joe Wright directs this straight-forward historical drama depicting the weeks during which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was appointed to power and his decision to not only stand up the oncoming Nazi invasion but persuade a nation to stand with him. Although the movie is well paced and well written, it is essentially the Gary Oldman show (who is nominated and may very well win his first Oscar for the role of Churchill).

The fire, nuance, and pause that Oldman is able to bring to the role, unfortunately, create an imbalance in the film as it overshadows a directorial style that doesn’t allow for everyone else to feel the same weight of the world that Mr Churchill experiences within and without. Compared to other films with tour de force portrayals of historical characters, namely Oscar-winning Gandhi and Lincoln, the rest of Mr Wright’s movie can’t match the same epicness and scope of its lead actor in the same fashion as the aforementioned films.

Darkest Hour is a solid outing, though. It just doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Its true spark lies in Gary Oldman who deserves to be recognized for a performance so rich, that one forgets the actor completely from the first second he is introduced as Mr Churchill. Because of him, I enjoyed Darkest Hour greatly, but I very much doubt it will win Best Picture.

3. Get Out

I saw Get Out way back in February of last year. In fact, you can read my first review here. I was completely blown away by the film, thinking it very original, cynical, and smart and hoping the Academy would recognize it for that.

After watching it again nearly a year later, my thoughts have not changed much. In fact, I found it to be even stronger than on first viewing. I noticed small details that I hadn’t before and was actually more comfortable with the brutal ending, which on first viewing felt rushed and too slasher-horror after such a slow psychological build up.

I will admit that I was surprised that it got nominated for Best Picture. I had only thought that it had a good chance at getting a nod for either Best Original Screenplay or Best Director (with its best chance of winning being in the Original Screenplay category). Yet, here it is in the running.

I believe that are enough subtle touches and strokes of genius that Jordan Peele put into, this, his first major film that it has just a good a chance as any of the other films to take home the gold. Some detractors will say that The Oscars have never been too kind to the horror or comedy genres but Get Out is neither – it is a satire and social commentary, which the Oscars are much kinder to. Birdman, American Beauty, Forrest Gump, Shakespear in Love are just a few past winners with a bit of a cynical view.

And what a great satire it is! Get Out is a commentary on race relations at a level I haven’t seen, as a movie-goer, for a very long time. And Peele has demonstrated a freshness and vibrancy in his film which is reminiscent of early Spike Lee. No wonder the two are slated to work together on a project – maybe he can put some swing back in Lee’s step.

Unfortunately, given the backlash from the #OscarsSoWhite debacle of a few years back, Get Out has gotten some unfair criticism for being nominated only because a “black quote” needed to be filled. I don’t buy into that. It’s a fine film for our time and brings a lot to the table as far as discussion, debate, and conversation. I hope it takes home some prizes, but for now, I am simply glad it got the recognition that it deserves.

2. The Post

Steven Spielberg, between making blockbusters, has dedicated himself to making smaller budget films with just as much power and allure as any of his Aliens and Dinosaurs. The Post is yet another masterstroke from this American treasure.

The films centres around The Washington Times’ decision to publish “The Pentagon” papers, a series of documents which proved that Americans were lied to for years about the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Spielberg manages to keep a tight grip on the story, much in the fashion of other stand out movies about journalists like All The President’s Men (that almost feels like a sequel considering the little nod at the end of this film) and Spotlight, the Best Picture winner of 2016.

What Spielberg manages to do better than those films (as is his usual forte) is bring out the humanity of the players involved. His characters are not simply journalists following leads against insurmountable odds, but real people, who are flawed, scared, and unsure if what they are doing (or have done) is truly worth all that is at stake if they fail. And there is a lot at stake. The President Nixon White House was not a friend to the press and threats of treason for publishing top secret classified documents were being flung about effortlessly.

Meryl Streep’s character, Washington Post owner, Kay Graham, is a particularly interesting character study. She is the only woman in a world which was still very much controlled by the men in suits. Her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers was met with derision from every side, and mostly due to their lack of belief in her capacities as a publisher. She has a great moment (which is an extension of an earlier scene with Tom Hanks’, Ben Bradlee) where she realizes that the times have changed. As a woman, she feels more empowered, but with that power comes greater responsibilities. The days of newspaper publishers and editors sitting with cigars at dinner with politicians and other sources was over. Darker times had arrived and The Washington Post, along with the rest of the country, had to awaken from its slumber.

Although The Post does not have the tight wire tension of either of the two other films on journalism that I mentioned above, this film carries itself well in tone and message. Spielberg is not concerned about the ins and outs of how The Pentagon papers made it on to the front page of The Washington Post, but the emotional, psychological, and practical impact that this had on everyone involved, including the readers. The film doesn’t beat us over the head with this, deciding, rather, to allow it to seep through each frame in slow bits. Spielberg shines in this movie as do his actors and story. Unfortunately, this film is not mentioned a lot in the Oscar talks, so I hope it comes out as a dark horse winner against the lesser films in this Oscar race.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water is set in a segregated Cold War America, but it pushes the boundaries of what prejudice and suspicion looks like as its lead, Elisa, a mute, (played to perfection by Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a creature from the Amazon who is brought into the heavily guarded  government facility where she works. Guillermo manages to make this unique love story feel natural as it inhabits a world that feels so grey outside.

The set up is simple but the execution is masterful.

While there is a particular scene in this movie, which involves a dance number, that takes the viewer on a magical voyage inside Elisa’s mind, its main strength is remaining grounded. At every turn, I cared about the characters in a very real sense and never felt like I had been transported to dreamland or a modern version of Beauty and the Beast (shame that movie got zero love from the Academy this year). This was simply a movie about love transcending all, and what we as people are willing to do to protect love.

This film will likely win the top awards of the evening, and it deserves it. Even in a stronger Oscar year, it would have stood out as a gem. Guillermo del Torro is a young child inside of a grown man’s body. His imagination has proven to be one of the greatest gifts to film on numerous occasions, and The Shape of Water is no exception.

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Black Panther Review: a great feat for blacks on screen but a pretty by-the-numbers comic book film

although there are no direct spoilers, I do discuss some main plot themes at length in this review, which could be considered spoiler-ish

 

Black Panther has become more than just a film, for blacks, much in the same way that Wonder Woman was, for women, in 2017. And while both of these films were very solid and brought something different to the screen (even if it was just a different demographic than we are used to) they were also flawed in their own way.

Black Panther´s main issue is that it didn’t quite know how to handle its central theme about what role black people with power should play in uplifting their brothers and sisters in society.

While Killmonger (the film’s main antagonist played by Michael B. Jordan) had a very clear view of what that role should be, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther/T’Challa’s didn’t. And despite not agreeing with Killmonger’s method’s, T’Challa’s lack of reasonable response made me side with Killmonger for the entirety of the film.

And when there were hints that King T’Challa and Killmonger were going to have a battle of philosophical wits rooted in these questions, it was all buried under unimpressive CGI, crazy family drama, and entertaining fight scenes. This made these two characters feel flat, as Killmonger came off as an adult child (despite being a very woke brother) and T’Challa unrealistically naive. In fact, the only believable and intelligent person out of the main cast seemed to be Lupita Nyong’o´s character, Nakia, who demonstrated that she had the sensibility to work outside of Wakanda towards the betterment of her own people. Too bad she was buried in the plot – but we will get to that later.

The main reason for this lack of philosophical friction is because Wakanda came off as completely disconnected from reality for no good reason. Unlike the Amazonians from Themyscira, the Wakandas are not all gifted with superpowers or living in some pseudo-Ancient Greek fantasy. They are modern, plugged in, and have free access to knowledge of the outside world. And while I completely understand that there are plenty of black people in the real world who gain fame and fortune and do not give back to their own communities, it was still just too much suspension of belief for me to accept that a black society which was so advanced could not look outside their kingdom of privilege to help those outside – do they not get Oprah in Wakanda? While the film did try to address this on a few occasions, it came off more like plot-contrivance-explanatory-dialogue than anything heartfelt.

The social questions aside, the film took a bit long to get going. There was so much exposition that three entire sequences were repeated: a battle for kingship, a crowning of a king, and a father-son afterlife meeting! When I saw the second father-son afterlife meeting coming up I actually shouted, “No!” at the screen. I had had enough of that in Man of Steel.

If 25% of what had come before the midway point of the film was cut, I don’t think I would have felt that I had missed anything – especially since a lot of it was extremely anti-climatic. Do I really need to see a scene where someone challenges that newly crowned T’Challa for the title if I know the challenger is going to lose? Of course, I don’t … unless, of course, I am not really working this scene for the drama but for a setup that I need later …

Which leads me to my next point.

Although Black Panther is certainly a triumph for blacks on the big screen (and behind the scenes), it played out like a by-the-numbers comic book/action film: There was a bad guy who was clearly not everything he said he was. There was a big win by this bad guy. There was a hero who was down who then came back up (literally) but without any learned experience along the way (!!!) bad writing there! There was a “climatic” fight scene in the very spot where an earlier character spent considerable time explaining the spot’s function. There was a character who seemed to be against helping T’Challa (for no explicable reason) who then decided to help T’Challa (for no explicable reason) in a last-minute save. There was even a car chase just when a car chase was called for. Nothing came off as extremely surprising and there were about as many interesting twists in this plot as there were interesting white people.

The standouts in this film for me were actually the women.

My favourite character was played by Danai Gurira. She absolutely shined in every scene she was in as the ferocious Okoye, one the King’s personal security guards. Every time she showed up on the screen I perked up. She added strength and comic value to the film.

Second is Letitia Wrights, Shuri. She started off a bit annoying, but I eventually came to like her character a lot. Her love for her country was truly outstanding and as the Alfred/Q of Wakanda, she shone. She also one-upped both of those characters by being able to take the fight to the street using her tech gadgets.

Last but not least I have to mention Lupita Nyong´o’s, Nakia, who sadly had very little to do in the film aside from fight. I felt as though she was extremely smart and resourceful but was hamstrung by having to play second fiddle to T’Challa, who honestly didn’t seem to know anything he was doing – and not in the amusing “Peter Parker learning how to be spiderman sort of way” – Black Panther just seemed like a bit of a dolt. I wish we could have seen more of Nakia and what she was about in the world outside Wakanda.

I will give Angela Basset an honourable mention as she also managed to hold her own in the comic book universe as Queen Ramonda, although she didn´t add much weight to the plot. That was less her fault than the writer’s inability to give her more to do than just be happy or sad for her son, T’Challa.

The male characters, unfortunately, were pretty one-dimensional and predictable in their actions and reactions (unless you have never seen a comic book movie in your life). Killmonger had the most potential, but although his motivation was clear, the reasoning for his methods wasn´t.

It´s true that he wanted to liberate blacks around the world, but why do it with so much violence, especially against other Wakandans? Killmonger is trying for Joker-level anarchy but he is much too rational for that – there is a disconnect between his mission to liberate his people and his dictatorial-psycho methods.

While the hatred for his father’s murder was an obvious burden on his psyche, I only know that because the filmmakers told me so. Where is the bridge that turns Erik into Killmonger on an internal level? As it stood, anyone could have taken Killmonger’s role of believing Wakanda could have been doing more for the rest of the world and executed his plan to do whatever was needed to change that.

There was so much going on underneath this man that the story dared not touch, though. He had multi-dimensional potential and could have provided so many backstories about setting up his black liberation army even before he had made it to Wakanda. He could have easily been like Magneto to Professor X. Instead, he was only a “potentially great” villain who managed to turn into a “procedural” villain by the climax. His final fight with Black Panther should have been his great ideological stand, but it actually blurred his motivations and methods even more in a muddle of CGI.

To finish, for those who think I am just pouring on the haterade for the hell of it, I did actually enjoy the movie despite the length. But I also yawned in a few parts and expected a bit more from others.

I am happy that the film is successful, though. I can only hope Hollywood understands that black people on the big screen do pull in money and that this opens the doors to other black writers, directors, producers etc. to create their own stories in their own ways. Black Panther is not the first big screen superhero, but he may be the biggest right now, and hopefully not the last.

Phil

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi – The Super Non-Spoiler Review

star-wars-the-last-jedi.jpgI thought I had had my fill of these fantasy universes and superhero films – even Star Wars disappointed me with Rogue One. But then I sat down to watch the latest instalment in the Star Wars and canon, The Last Jedi, and came out smiling.

This movie is quite different than any Star Wars movie that has come before it as the story doesn’t take its usual epic route of exploring various worlds and having one plan followed by another plan which is then substituted by another plan. In fact, the movie doesn’t move very far (even geographically speaking) from where it starts to where it eventually ends. Certainly, there are very important plot beats and character changes, but in all, the story is surprisingly compact and easy to follow. Now, I can definitely see how this may upset some fans who like the world-building and exploration side of Star Wars, but I thought it was executed well enough that the lack of sprawling “epicness” didn’t feel like a missing element.

The Last Jedi does feel it needs this epic thrust because it trusts its characters and the bond we have solidified with them from the last film. There are more than a few actions by our main group of heroes that seem half-baked and don’t even pan out as planned, but the movie manages to make you care for them in their desperation and forgive them when they make a mistake.

In fact, a line from the movie about mistakes being the greatest teacher is a theme which runs throughout. Nothing seems to go as planned on either side of the war but it doesn’t mean that ground hasn’t been broken and that personal victories aren’t won.

JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens did everything in its power to make a call back to A New Hope while trying to open the gates to the future – even in visual style. The Last Jedi takes an opposite approach.

Director Rian Johnson goes for darker palettes and muted colours. And although this movie is not dark at all (in fact it is damn funny in numerous parts), these changes make it feel heavier than its predecessor. The space battles are intense and brooding instead of fun and rollicking. The deaths feel more impactful and the consequences of the actions leave a more immediate bad taste in the character’s mouths – especially General Leah.

This style provided a pseudo-realism to the franchise that I had not seen before, although one can sort of make an argument for this in Rogue One; however, I felt the execution in that movie was weak mainly due to the boring characters and convoluted plot.

The Last Jedi focuses in on the batch of characters that will take this franchise into the future and they make it work. Everyone from Kylo Ren to BB-8 is engaging and have something worth investing in as an audience member. I found myself clapping and cheering on more than one occasion because I truly felt I was there with them when met with a challenge or foe.

The Last Jedi had a hard task in front of it, surpassing the buzz and success of The Force Awakens. I believe it not only did this, it also acted as a sort of pilot episode for what Disney may want to do with the franchise in the future – tell smaller stories. I believe that hardcore fans of the series may walk out of theatre happy but then going back and saying, “Hey, not a lot happened.” And indeed, the movie’s runtime almost feels in sync with the amount of time that goes by in the story. However, in the space of those 152 minutes, there was space for various emotional highs and lows and plenty of entertainment and well-choreographed space battles. Speaking of space battles, this movie really took the Star Wars name and ran with it – it was heavy on the war taking place in the stars with a lot less hand to hand fighting and light saber action. I appreciated this as a fan of battle scenes.

Now we await the last (or will it really be the last) episode in this new trilogy. It was quite open-ended, to be honest, so I have very little to comment on what I think the series needs to do moving forward or exactly where it wants to go. So, with that I say, “Go watch Star Wars!!” It was my favourite fantasy/action movie of the year and may the force continue to remain with the franchise.

Phil Ray

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Pico do Jaraguá: One of São Paulo´s Green Wonders Hidden in Plain Sight

The Pico do Jaraguá lies within the capital city of São Paulo

São Paulo´s immensity never ceases to amaze me and the thing I like best about the city is how much greener it is than most people imagine. One of the largest green spaces in São Paulo is Pico do Jaraguá (Jaraguá Peak or “The Lord of the Valley” in Tupi). It is the largest mountain in the metropolitan São Paulo area, standing 1135 meters (3723.75 feet) above sea level. It and its towering television antennas are clearly visible from many parts of the city when looking out west.

 

When I first arrived in São Paulo I was drawn to this huge mountain in the distance and promised myself I would get there someday, so that is exactly what I did. I have climbed to the top, where one can take in a panoramic view of the sprawling Brazilian capital, at least three times, and each time I find something new to marvel at.

Jaraguá State Park

 

Access to the Pico, which is located at the Parque Estadual do Jaraguá (Jaraguá State Park) on Rua Antônio Cardoso Nogueira 539 – Vila Chica Luiza, is rather uncomplicated. There are plenty of bus lines that drop one off right in front of the entrance to the park. Some of the buses leave from Lapa and some from downtown São Paulo. There is a bus that leaves from the Vila Clarice station on the 7 Rubi line – I have actually gone on foot to the Pico from there once, although I would not recommend it to just anyone. If one chooses to go by car or other personal transport, there is access through Km 18 of Via Anhanguera.

 

 

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The Jaraguá Park is quiet and relaxed.

As I stated, the Pico is actually part of the Jaraguá State Park. Once inside the park one is met with sprawling green landscapes, bike trails, small ponds and leisure areas for barbecues and picnics. It´s pretty common to see people gathered enjoying the park without taking the trail that will lead up to the top of the mountain.

 

For those that do venture up, the most popular route is the “Trilha do Pai Zé” (The Father Zé Trail). This 3,600 meter (about 2.2 milles) trail winds its way up the mountain through thick Atlantic Forest. The walking path is very wide and only very steep at some junctures. It shouldn´t be too difficult to climb for even the least experienced hiker and depending on your pace you can finish the trip in about an hour. But moving at a fast clip will make you miss out on the surprises on the way.

Pico do Jaraguá is the habitat for many fauna and wildlife. I got lucky my last time up and ran into some extroverted monkeys and a few South American coati (from the racoon family) who were extremely curious and friendly.

 

At the end of the wooded trail, the ground gets a bit harder and there are fewer trees. We are nearing the end of the first part of the journey and already one can look to one´s right and see the city from up above. This is the view facing the suburbs of São Paulo and so there are only a few houses sprinkled across the vista with more and more rolling mountains as a backdrop.

 

This part of the trial is thankfully short and ends at a wooden staircase which lends access to the second part of the park – the top of the Pico do Jaraguá!

 

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The top of Jaraguá Peak

At the top of Pico of Jaraguá, one can stop for some refreshments or simply rest one´s legs. I have even seen events tents set up there for the kids in the summer.

 

You’ll also discover a dirty little secret at this juncture. There is a paved roadway which goes from the bottom of the mountain all the way to the top which is usually lined with the cars of those who chose to skip the trail. I don´t recommend taking this route unless you physically must. Word is that there is a lot of traffic on the way up and nearly nowhere to park your vehicle. This means you will probably be walking up hot concrete to reach the peak. Your feet will thank you out later.

The top of the Pico do Jaraguá is where you can begin seeing the metropolis side of the city. The endless sea of buildings is astonishing as it given visual testimony to the manic urban sprawl which is the city of São Paulo. The trip is not over yet, though.

 

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This last staircase is the real challenge

Atop the mountain, there are huge television transmission masts. One must brave the long staircase to reach the platform where they stand, but once there, the 360º view is even more spectacular. São Paulo from afar is a sea of green mountains on one side and white and grey buildings on the other.

 

Standing above the city of São Paulo is not like the feeling when atop the Christ Statue or Sugarloaf Mountain, where the beauty of Rio de Janeiro sits like a perfect postcard below. Standing above São Paulo is more like allowing the feeling of one’s smallness to overtake them. Down below millions of lives partake in their separate dramas, the buildings and avenues seem mammoth and overwhelming, and the noise of the city drowns out our thoughts and plans. But above, on the Pico, those same lives, buildings, and noises are all just tiny specks on an expansive canvas. We can attribute as much meaning to them as we can to a star in the sky.

Going to the Pico do Jaraguá is a worthwhile venture for the adventurous person who wants to escape the city and be in nature but doesn´t have the time or stamina to take on larger green adventures.

 

My tips for visiting the area is to pack light but bring a lunch. There is food up top but it can get pricey. Also, bring a lot of water and try to arrive around 9 or 10 am so that you are not getting the brunt of the sun on your way up to the top. The area outside the Jaraguá Park can be a bit sketchy, so I don´t recommend taking any excursions around the surrounding neighbourhoods. The park itself has plenty of security guards, is clean, and feels very safe with plenty of carefree children, couples, and families enjoying themselves.

 

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Until Next Time

 

If the concrete jungle starts to get you down, take some time off and visit the Pico do Jaraguá, one of my favourite spots in the city of São Paulo.

P. Ray

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