Stranger Than Fiction

 

 

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Picture Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

 

There are certain things in life that people either love or they hate.  Cilantro is one of those things that come to mind, and Will Ferrell is another.  Comedies are an escape from reality and there is nothing that compares to a good laugh, but there seems to be something in our chemical makeup, like that of cilantro, that we can either laugh and stand Ferrell, or else you have a completely adverse reaction to him.  Try as I might, you will not find me enjoying a movie starring Will Ferrell and his cilantro performances.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an IRS agent whose life consists of a select few actions timed precisely to that of his wristwatch.  On this particular day, his wristwatch fails him and the course of his life is altered greatly.  The most notable change being a voice (Emma Thompson) who narrates the actions of Harold’s life and gives the foreboding message that his days are numbered.  While trying to understand where this voice is coming from, why no one else can hear it, and what the voice meant by his days being numbered, Harold meets Ana Pascal.  Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a beautiful baker, and Harold’s next assignment to audit her business.  Harold enlists the services of Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) to help Harold discover who this narrator may be, and what she has planned for him.  What would you do if you knew that your time on earth was nearly up, and what would you say to someone if you knew they were in control of your destiny?

I had some very obvious reservations about this movie based on the lead actor alone.  My only knowledge of the film was a split second memory of the scene of Harold brushing his teeth in front of the mirror all those years ago when the trailer was on TV.  Interestingly enough, I noticed that Stranger Than Fiction was not a title that you would hear falling from the mouths of those cilantro lovers.  I’m curious to know their thoughts on this movie.  Did they not like it as much because he wasn’t in his normal over the top comedic role? And did I only like it because he was not in that role and had evolved into something other than cilantro?  The real hero of the film and the person who truly made it for me was, of course, Emma Thompson.  Her voice as a narrator and her role in the film was fascinating at all times.  Stranger Than Fiction is one of those highly underrated films and hidden gems, hiding in plain sight, on Netflix.  For those with reservations about the film because of Will Ferrell, I am a true testament that his presence in the film does not sour things.  In the reverse, I am curious to hear the thoughts and opinions of the Will Ferrell lovers and how they felt about him in such a reserved role.

 

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Game Night

 

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Picture Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

 

 

Game Night, the days of old when families would gather around on a designated night of the week and play board games.  Wholesome family past times, or commercialism at its best?  You are not a normal, good family if you do not play games together once a week, buy our stuff.  Board games have seen a surge in popularity for people in their 20’s and 30’s and even older.  Long are the days of going to loud sticky clubs in order to socialize.  Now you can do it in the comfort of your own home (or that of others) reliving your youth through that of games and crushing your opponent’s souls and ruining friendships with healthy competition.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are competitive gamers who seem to have finally met their match.  Two peas in a pod, the couple that games together stays together are now the designated friends who host game night.  The two have the unfortunate luck to still live next to their neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) who is a cop and the ex-husband of their old friend.  Not wanting to invite Gary to their party the friends are advised to park far away and sneak into the house to avoid inviting him to game night.  When Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) shows up in Max’s dream car making a grand entrance, he tries to make it up to them by inviting everyone to his flashy rental home for the next game night.  Brooks has hired a company that stages a kidnapping of one of the gaming participants and provides detectives and clues to lead you to your friend.  When real kidnappers show up to the party everyone is impressed by how real things appear to be before the reality of the situation sets in.

Game Night has a cute way of panning in and out on certain scenes of the movie on model scenes and game pieces that transform into the scene as it narrows in on the characters.  It even has fun gaming sounds, though these are more reminiscent of video games than board games.  Despite the fact that the movie revolves around someone being kidnapped during what they thought was a game, Game Night is a comedy.  I actually like Jason Bateman and it is hard not to love Rachel McAdams so it was this duo that really caught my attention for the movie.  I was really looking forward to a great comedy starring the pair and ready for a good time and many laughs.  It may be this hype and high hopes that  I had that set me up for failure…

There were many times throughout the movie that the comedy felt forced.  I could actually feel my body being pulled to the screen, a force begging me and urging me to laugh.  I wanted to laugh so badly, but it rarely came.  It would seem the guy in the row behind me was prepared for this by showing up to the movie high and laughing at anything and everything during the beginning of the film before his high dissipated and he was focused on his munchies.  The movie was set up for greatness and it really did have good intentions and some great ideas.  I felt at times that the cast must have had so much fun making this film and you could see that, but the fun was all left on the other side of the camera and not shared with the audience.  Despite my grumblings, I didn’t hate the movie.  Will I ever watch it again? Unlikely.  Would I recommend you see it? I wouldn’t go that far.  Is it the worst movie ever made? No.  So that’s a pretty positive thing to say about it, right?  There were a few laughs but not as many as I would have expected.  I’d skip the theatre and leave this one for a lazy Netflix night.

 

Fifty Shades Freed

 

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Picture Courtesy of Universal Pictures

 

 

I would just like to take a moment and thank Hollywood for ending the “Part One/Part Two” fad that we endured for all those years.  While I am grateful for being able to enjoy those extra hours of time with my beloved family and heroes of the films, what I could not bear was the time apart between parts one and two.

The tone of the film was set within the first few minutes.  The cast has matured, the budgets are up, and Anastasia finally has proper bangs and a wardrobe worthy of the Grey title.  The wedding dress may not have been the most awe-inspiring dress we have ever seen, but it was at least a beautiful dress.  Most Hollywood films feature women wearing some of the most ghastly wedding dresses.  I believe the reason for this falls with the actress herself, and I can’t say I entirely blame them.  Would you want to get married and forever have the “It was a beautiful dress, but do you remember the dress you wore in…” comments?  Solution?  Wear a ghastly dress and no one will ever utter those words around your wedding day.

The cold, unattainable, and steely Mr. Grey is actually getting married.  Though I must say, as much as I love stubble I found it odd that even Christian would not have shaved for his own wedding day?  The two get married and have a wonderful reception with friends and family, but this is not the focus of the film.  We are interested in life after the wedding, and the Grey’s do not disappoint.  Jet-setting around the world on their private jet, their yacht, luxurious clothes and beautiful cars, these are the jewels we were eager to get our hands on.  Well… and Mr. Greys jewels as well.  While the Audi was elegantly sleek,  there was a simple but very prominent change in cell phones for the couple.  If you recall in the previous films, the Christian Grey slave kit came complete with Macbook and iPhone, the awkward couple exchanging texts over the iconic Apple pings.  Fifty Shades Freed was Apple free by opting out of the iPhones and in with a phone made by Vertu.  Vertu is a Finnish company who specializes in luxury phones.  While we all scramble for the latest iPhone and Samsung, most people with money are opting for luxury smartphones with things like real leather linings, 24k gold accents, and even diamond insets.  These finishes and touches were greatly appreciated.

It would not simply do for our happy couple to live happily ever after so soon into the film, but we do get to enjoy playful moments and moments of play while the couple continues what was once shocking torture to what has now become a staple in the bedroom.  The action does not stop in the bedroom when shocking revelations come to head and our hearts are racing for the characters we have come to know so well.

There is a very telling moment towards the end of the film where Anna has flashbacks of their relationship spanning over the prior two films accompanied by the Fifty Shades song “Love Me Like You Do by Ellie Goulding”.  It is actually shocking, and partially cringeworthy, watching these scenes to see how much the cast has grown both in appearance over the films as well as in their acting.

For those who did not like the books or the movies, there is not much I can say to you.  You went into a fanfiction novel with a fun kinky twist expecting poetry and prose.  You went into the films expecting hardcore sadist torture, blood, and pain, to each their own but your intentions and expectations, were seriously misguided.  We did not expect award-winning writing and received a fun kinky adventure.  We did not expect mind scarring porn and received more nudity and sex than most films allow.  There are deep dark places on the internet for people like you and there are dark alleyways with secret entrances that involve obscene amounts of money and a pound of flesh for a lifestyle that one cannot turn back from.  I kindly request you revisit your relationship to the above (and perhaps question the events of your childhood) before bellyaching to me why Anastasia and Christian were more Rom-Com than two girls one cup.

I absolutely loved the progression of the films over the trilogy which follows the opposite trend for most series.  Most series begin with a high and gradually decline ending on a bearable, but admittedly low note.  We can all agree that Fifty Shades of Grey was a very entry level film that can be somewhat painful to rewatch, but still fun to relive the story.  Things progress with a darkness in Fifty Shades Darker giving the series that much-needed edge that we were looking for and that sexy dusting of stubble on Christian’s face.   Fifty Shades Freed leaves us on a high note of luxury and happily ever afters (and finally fixing Anastasia’s hair and clothes).  Anastasia takes control and ends on equal footing, with Christian perfectly echoing our thoughts and ending the film with “You’re topping from the bottom, Mrs. Grey.  But I can live with that.”

Winchester

 

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Picture Courtesy of Lionsgate and CBS Films

 

 

Winchester is a supernatural horror movie based on Sarah Winchester and her infamous mansion.  Sarah was married to William Winchester, son of Oliver Winchester, owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.  Sarah and William only had one child together a daughter named Annie who died about a month after being born.  Oliver Winchester died in 1880 followed by William in 1881 leaving the immense fortune to Sarah equivalent to over $500 million dollars.  In addition to this, Sarah owned 51% of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. which gave her a daily income equivalent to over $25k a day!  This left her as the richest woman in the world at the time.  Technology has the benefit of being able to document and record so many details of our lives that it can be scary at times.  When it comes to history, much of the details of peoples lives and events are unknown giving way to fanciful tales which we will never know the truth of.  It is unlikely that the same can be said of our futures.

Sarah Winchester moved to what is now San Jose, California and purchased an 8 room farm house which stood on 161 acres where she lived with her sister and her neice.  While information surrounding the house is relatively sparse, it is said that construction on the house would go on 24 hours a day, seven days a week for years on end.  Upon Sarah’s death, the house had transformed from an 8 room farm house to a sprawling mansion with 160 rooms.  It is actually quite a beautiful house and is open to the public for tours to this day.  Endless amounts of servants were required to keep up the estate and is said they required maps to manouver throughout the house. There are staircases leading to nowhere, windows looking out into walls and doors that lead to walls.  The mysterious Winchester Mansion has no master plan of the house and no relative rhyme or reason for many things.  Many of the theories surrounding Sarah Winchester and the house form the basis of the film including those that Sarah believed her family to be cursed and that they were haunted by the spirits of those who died from those famous riffles that contributed to her fortune.  After an earthquake in 1906 destroyed portions of the house, much of the work on those areas ceased and were boarded up concealing the damage that occured.

Winchester stars Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester portrayed as a lady in mourning at all times in her sprawling mansion.  Concerned by her mental state, the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. hires Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to perform an evaluation on Mrs. Winchester to determine if she is fit to continue to be in charge of the company.  What seems to be a simple evaluation is complicated by the eccentricities of Mrs. Winchester twinned with that of the house.  When unexplainable things begin to happen to Dr. Price during the evaluation, he begins to question his own sanity and beliefs.

Horror movies these days are generally created surrounding some sort of “true event”.  The amount of facts involved in the movie is irrelvant, as long as someone with that name lived in such a house, voila, you are golden.  When a film states that it is based on real events at the beginning of a film it sets the tone for the movie and it makes the audience stop and think, “Oh my goodness, this could happen to me.” no matter how absurd.  While I believe it is nearly impossible to find a good horror movie these days, and generally believe it to be a waste to spend the money on seeing them in a theatre, there is something to be said of the theatre atmosphere.  Theatre rooms make heroes of us all when watching such films.  Bring on the darkness and loud noises, I am surrounded by rows of people in all directions that you must get to first before getting to me.  This is a stark constrast to watching films at home, running through rooms and turning on all lights before bed to get to sanctuary.

Winchester is based on such fascinating details that it is hard not to enjoy this movie for that alone.  I happen to like Helen Mirren as an actress and it was a pleasant surprise when she was revealed as Sarah Winchester once she lifted her veil.  This would have been apparant to me previously of course had I looked into the movie at all before seeing it.  I did have some previous knowledge of Winchester Mansion due to my love of old buildings which guided me to the movie, but whether you have knowledge of the house or not, Winchester is a fun movie for horror fans and history buffs alike.

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle

 

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Picture Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

 

For many of us, Jumanji was part of our childhood. We wanted nothing more than to have our very own game board to release dangerous wild animals, man-eating plants, and unimaginable chaos. We were a strange generation. I remember wanting one of my own with the carved wooden case, tiled board, ivory game pieces, and that magical glass in the middle. I was under no illusions that the game would release anything from those toxic green fumes swirling within its orb but the young collector in me still dreams of one to this day. Surely by now they could have added a couple magnets to move the pieces for fun?

Families used to gather around on a designated night of the week and play games together, or at least that’s what the television told us normal families did. None of us having had a “normal” family, I can’t say I’ve met a family that has done this. Board games seem more like something from the past, its popularity only continuing by the older generations trying to engage their children by showing them there are things outside their cellphone and iPads. In an attempt to connect with the younger generation the creators of the remake chose to introduce that magical nostalgic game board into the year 1996 before it was quickly morphed into a video game cartridge and trapping its first victim. Flashing forward an unknown amount of time without warning we are introduced to a group of our young current youth. Those strange creatures that we can’t believe we use to be while adamantly stating that we were nowhere near as bad. Balancing the sexes and the field our main cast consists of Spencer (Alex Wolff), our designated male nerd; Anthony “Fridge” (Ser’Darius Blain), the popular jock; Bethany (Madison Iseman), the pretty popular girl; and Martha (Morgan Turner), our standoffish nerdy girl.  All lost youths in their own way receive detention for various reasons bringing them together to clean up a junk room in the school.  When Fridge discovers the old game console, Spencer uses his skills to set up the old console with none other than an old tube tv on a rolling cart. After powering up the game, players must select from 5 character options.  Spencer selecting archeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge as Zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), Bethany as the cartographer, cryptographer and archeologist Professor “Shelly” Oberson (Jack Black).       And grudgingly Martha selecting commando, martial artist and dance fighter, Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) as our final player. When those magical beating drums sound from all around them the four are sucked into the game and into the world of Jumanji.  Our four teens are transformed into their selected avatars (characters) complete with new skills and weaknesses. Even more troubling is the fact that they are also given three lifelines with the lingering question of what happens in Jumanji when all three are gone. The group must work together using their new skills and avoiding their weaknesses to restore order in Jumanji to return home, but what would a video game be without some helpful NPCs (Non-player characters) and villains?

When I heard that the revamp of Jumanji would feature a video game rather than a board game I have to admit I was annoyed and skeptical. One more way the newer generations ruin what was once great by making it more relatable to the new heathens. It was because of this that I was pleasantly surprised by the turn of events and how the film stuck to the video gaming realm.

There are surprises throughout the film to keep the viewers engaged but aside from the few seconds of the board game at the beginning and a brief nod to the original in the middle of the film there isn’t really much else to relate the film with Jumanji.

Timing is everything when it comes to movies and setting the scene. There is hitting the mark and there is also missing the mark. There were moments during the film where they extended longer than needed and shaving off even just a few seconds from each would have made them less noticeable.

I normally find Jack Black to be a bit of a one-trick pony. Even when given different roles he tends to portray the same person. The gaming element completely flipped this around making his character a stand out and one of the favorites of the film.

Despite myself, I found I actually enjoyed this odd little remake.  The fact that so much time has passed and there really isn’t a huge similarity to the original it is easy to consider the films as two separate movies rather than an original and a remake.  As it turns out, there was a backlash to the concept of a remake of the original, especially with the death of Robin Williams who starred in the original classic film.  Instead, writers created Welcome To The Jungle as more of a reboot which helped to separate the two films.   Whether you are a fan of the original like most people with souls, or someone who did not care for the original and had no soul, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is fun watch well worth the time for some laughs.

Coco

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Picture Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Coco is Disney and Pixar’s latest film to join its score of noteworthy films, a daunting task for the creators to maintain their high and create equally successful films.  Coco revolves around the Mexican holiday known as Dia de los Muertos, or in English The Day of the Dead.  For many of us, The Day of the Dead conjures up images of sugar skull painted faces with flowers and colors.  Beyond this tradition, is there really anything else we knew about it?  From the title of the holiday we can gather that is has something to do with Mexican traditions and honoring the dead, but before watching Coco, I think many of us were in the dark to these traditions.

Miguel Rivera comes from a long line of shoemakers.  Deep within the family tree, there was a musical past,  but when Miguel’s ancestor chose to leave his wife Imelda and daughter Coco to pursue his musical career, Imelda Rivera banned all forms of music.  Miguel now aids the family business by being a shoeshine, but his real passion lies within the forbidden art of music.  Within his hidden hideout, Miguel has a shrine to a beloved Mexican performer known as Ernesto de la Cruz.  In an attempt to prove to his family that music is not all bad Miguel accidentally transports himself to the land of the dead during the Day of the Dead celebration.  To return to the land of the living, Miguel must receive a blessing from a deceased family member using an Aztec Marigold petal, but in return, he may have to give up the only thing that has any meaning to him.

Employees of Pixar had traveled to Mexico for inspiration and to ensure accuracy in the details of the story and the imagery in the film.  While I was one of the many left in the dark towards the details of this Mexican holiday, the scenes and the details show such authenticity that at times you could imagine yourself in the streets of Mexico, celebrating life and the lives of those no longer with us.  I have seen the technique done in other Pixar films, but Coco has the most live-action scenery within a cartoon film that I have ever seen before.  What I mean by this is when Miguel is running down a street, you can see real live cobblestones.  When he is surrounded by water, there are real waves lapping against his legs and the shore.  This is the reverse of such techniques seen in classics like Mary Poppins with live-action stars being placed in cartoon realms and even differs from the cartoon characters joining a live-action cast, such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  The technique has a way of creating raw realness while still maintaining the cartoon realm that it belongs in.  This is a true mastery of animation on Pixar’s part.

Pixar’s creation of Coco takes us on a journey to a world unknown to many of us deeply seeded with traditions.  The two things that stood out the most were the vast amounts of Aztec Marigolds used throughout the film, and something called an Ofrenda, which I would have called a shrine.  The Ofrenda is more of an alter created to honor those no longer with us.  We place their photo on the Ofrenda along with foods and objects that they loved.  The photo is said to allow the dead passage into the land of the living on the night of the Day of the Dead and upon their return, they take the items left behind with them.  The history and traditions are still foreign to me, but the story created by Pixar is pure genius.  Perhaps not such an old tradition, but was the most foreign and strange to me were the creatures known as Alebrijes.  The creatures were fantastical creatures covered head to toe in bright colors said to be spirit guides.  The creation of Alebrijes may seem like something from ancient times, but was in fact created in the 1930’s by an artist.  Spirit guides are a tradition in many native histories, but I believe it is the fantastical beasts and bright colors that was the creation in the 30’s.  While I can appreciate the artistry, the craft, and imagination that went into creating these beasts outside and inside the film, they made the film feel less real for me.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The guy who loves anything magical and unreal found the fantastical bright beasts too unreal for the story about going to the land of the dead over a flower bridge with your photo as your passport.  One of the beasts was one of my favorite characters in the film, but it was the neon colors of the beasts that stood out so shockingly amongst everything else that made them seem so out of place.

The detail within the story and imagery were extremely well done.  While we don’t have any princes, princesses or any real iconic characters that could be transformed into Disneyland splendor, I hope to at least see a few sugar skulls and maybe even a couple Alebrijes to join the parks in honor of the film.

Tulip Fever

 

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Picture Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

 

I wouldn’t say I had high expectations for this film but I did go into the film expecting something because of the numerous setbacks in the film’s release. I lost count of the times I added Tulip Fever to my TO See list only to find it not released and showing up in later months.  Having been filmed in 2014 I’m not sure the answer for the delays, but the film’s profits may have benefited` from an earlier release by The Weinstein Company rather than waiting to release it during the companies current affairs.

Believe it or not, during the Dutch Golden Age there was something known as Tulip Mania.  Fashionable Tulips saw extremely high prices before the market crashed in 1637. The Cabbage Patch dolls, Tickle-Me-Elmo’s and Hatchimals of the past for adults came in the form of a flower. Rare and desirable bulbs could be sold for amounts equal to ten times the annual earning of a craftsman or large amounts of land for a single bulb. Tulip Fever even introduces us to an underground betting market where people would buy, sell, trade bulbs, and bet on the color of a flower while it is still a bulb.

Sophia (Alicia Vikander) was raised in a convent after the death of her parents. Like many of the girls there they work within the convent in the hopes of one day being married to a wealthy gentleman, or any man. If unmarried, the girls will often remain at the convent. Sophia was one of the lucky ones having married in order to provide passage for her sisters to the Americas to live with an aunt. Married to a successful merchant, Cornelis (Christoph Waltz), Sophia’s only duty is to produce a male heir. Though not for lack of trying the couple remains unsuccessful.  Cornelis hires Jan (Dane DeHaan), a young artist, to commission a painting of the couple.  Jan falls in love with the delicate Sophia and the couple hatch a plan to be together. When a love-struck fish monger finds extremely good luck in the tulip trade a series of events unfold casting its net around our star-crossed lovers.

Tulips may not be my Favourite flower but you can’t deny how beautiful the vast Tulip fields are. Though I had known Tulips were very desirable in Holland I was unaware of the extent and mania that had struck the country and its history.  The flower, the time period, and the dashing Christoph Waltz were the driving forces behind wanting to see this movie.  Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, I can’t help but enjoy Judi Dench as well who plays a sneaky Abbess at the orphanage where Sophia’s story began. The delays did out a wrench in my feelings for the film, but not more than the story itself.  Sophia’s character can be seen as innocent, pure, and even virginal while being on her back.  These qualities may be true, but they may also be mistaken for naivety for that is what she is.  I’m willing to forgive her seemingly random leap into the artist’s arms and blinded path to try and save others, but her attempt to rectify things after the harm had already been done diminished her character and turned her into nothing but a silly girl.  Cornelius, who initially is seen as an old pig seems to have a Cinderella story when he transforms before our eyes and becomes the good, and perhaps the only good, in the film.  Even this cannot be left alone when they soil this by making him a silly old man and a fairy godmother.

There is little left to be said about the film and just as few things to praise.  Tulip Fever was just as disappointing as buying a beautiful tulip bulb only for it to flower into an onion.