Togo (2019)

Togo (2019)

Directed by: Ericson Core. Starring: Willem Dafoe, Julianne Nicholson, Christopher Heyerdahl. Runtime: 1h 53 min. Released: December 20, 2019.

Some spoilers follow.

The story of the sled dog, Togo, who led the 1925 serum run in Nome, Alaska, but was considered by most to be too small and weak to ever lead a dog race. Togo is a true underdog story as even his owner, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe), never thought he would amount to much. We see through flashbacks Togo being a hyperactive pup and smartly getting out of his pen to go race beside Seppala’s sled dogs.

These scenes are charming as we see how Togo becomes Seppala’s most trusted dog. Dafoe is stellar as Seppala as he leads a noble expedition to get the serum from Nenana, about 675 miles away, as the weather is too harsh for the serum to be flown to Nome. The stakes are high because of the diphtheria outbreak in Nome, and this expedition is to save the lives of the town’s children. Seppala leads the dogs but Togo is the lead interest in the film as an aging dog that looks to be on his final legs.

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Willem Dafoe in Togo. (IMDb)

Seppala knows the risks of using Togo as his lead dog because of his age, but he knows that if he doesn’t bring Togo, they’d never make it. The story about a man and his dog is excellent here and the chemistry is great. The drama here is excellent, too, especially with a charming Julianne Nicholson as Constance Seppala who is the only one who really fights for Togo when he’s a pup.

The action here is also breathtaking and so is the cinematography by Ericson Core, who also directs. The action’s at its most incredible when they race across the Norton Sound, ice breaking and all, and the way back is even more intense. The film has all the inspiration of a sports movie, and brief sports scenes of an actual dog race, the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, shines. I’d just love to see a live-action dog racing film that has a similar look and tone, because a feature-length story of a dog race would be great. I’ve only ever really seen a dog race in Snow Dogs in film, but that’s just a goofy comedy.

I think this is an excellent untold story of Togo as he and Seppala traveled the longest out of any of the relay teams of 260 miles through beyond freezing conditions. Togo’s the star of the 1925 serum run, and the film’s not trying to take away any of the fame of the most-known dog of this race, Balto, it’s just sharing the lesser known tale of Togo.

Score: 80/100

The Irishman (2019)

The Irishman (2019)

The IrishmanDirected by: Martin Scorsese. Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci. Runtime: 3h 29 min. Released: November 27, 2019.

Martin Scorsese brings an all-star cast of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci to the little screen in Netflix’s The Irishman, a mafia movie that follows Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a mafia hitman who recalls his career and his involvement in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).

The good in The Irishman are in its performances. De Niro is threatening and such a presence as Sheeran. Pacino plays a great union leader in Hoffa, and he gets most of the angry explosions that Joe Pesci has become known for. Pacino’s also perfect at convincing certain people that he’s nice, as well. Pesci plays Russell Bufalino, the head of the Buffalino crime family. He’s threatening and powerful but stays calm and collected throughout the film, and he’s more threatening for it.

The most interesting part about this for me is Frank’s relationship with his daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin when she’s older). Paquin does a great job as the character because while she only has seven words of dialogue, her stares at her father speak a thousand words, and just her general disapproval and suspicion of his involvement in Hoffa’s disappearance. In the scenes when Peggy is a child, we can tell she’s scared of him because of his reputation and just the fact that he curb stomps a dude right in front of her because the man pushed her (De Niro stomping near the guy’s head is the least convincing thing in this film). Frank’s relationship with his daughter was the only time I felt emotionally connected to the film.

That’s not to say that the dialogue is bad or anything, Scorsese writes and directs the film like the master that he is, there just aren’t a lot of moments in this film where I could get emotionally attached to the characters. They’re all criminals, but they’re well-sculpted characters. The mafia action scenes – when Frank would just casually walk up to someone and shoot them in the face – are great. The more complex ones like Frank shooting someone in a restaurant off-screen and then getting into his getaway car is also exciting. The scenes in this film that I loved, I truly loved, as everyone from the starring trio to Ray Romano and Jesse Plemons are well-cast and enjoyable to watch.

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Al Pacino in The Irishman. (IMDb)

The film just literally feels like I took all day watching this. I thought there were more than a few boring stretches in this 209-minute film. I don’t have anything against long movies, but this just feels like it drags. I’d be bored, it would hold my attention for 45 minutes, then I’d be bored again. The crime saga admittedly feels aimless at first as Sheeran recaps his career and it only gets fascinating when Jimmy Hoffa comes in but that’s not until 80 minutes into the story. De Niro’s point of view is a good way to get into this story, but I really feel like the first 80 minutes could have been done in half the time and this would me a much better film at 170 minutes.

It spans different decades and when the stars are younger, the film uses de-aging technology. It’s distracting at first as De Niro’s blue eyes are distracting and Pesci’s head looks too big for his body, and they still walk like old men. As it jumps around through its timeline, it becomes more fluid and less noticeable. That also could be just because it’s three and a half hours and you might forget they’re using de-aging technology. I think The Irishman is a good movie, just not one I’d ever be interested in watching again.

Score: 60/100

Just Mercy (2019)

Just Mercy (2019)

Just Mercy posterDirected by: Destin Daniel Cretton. Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson. Runtime: 2h 17 min. Released: December 25, 2019 (limited).

(This review contains spoilers.)

A well-acted true story, Just Mercy is about world renowned civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) as he starts a company, Equal Justice Initiative, defending the wrongfully convicted. His first case is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a death row inmate falsely accused of killing a young woman in Monroeville, Alabama.

These wrongfully accused stories are one of my favourite sub-genres in film, so I have been excited for this one for awhile and it doesn’t disappoint. Michael B. Jordan is strong as Stevens and it’s fascinating learning why the character’s fighting for these characters. Jordan brings a strong presence to the character, though he gets outshined by Jamie Foxx as McMillian who has to trust that another lawyer won’t screw him over like the Alabama justice system has. When Stevens is different than most lawyers and legitimately cares about the case, it creates a charming chemistry because of Stevens’ compassion.

Much of the injustice here is the racism and how everyone in the community accepted McMillian did it because of some rumours in the town of Monroeville. The smartest observation in the screenplay (by director Destin Daniel Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham, based on the book by Bryan Stevenson) is that since the crime took place in Monroeville, multiple characters including new district attorney Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall), reference their pride that their town is Harper Lee’s hometown, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The irony is brilliant that they’re so proud that an author from their town wrote such a classic piece of literature – about a black man falsely accused of rape as a white lawyer defends him – that they’re unaware they’re just being as racist and prejudiced as the characters in the novel.

The depiction of some of the prejudice feels stereotypical, as some just feel like cartoonish racists, mainly on two occasions where Stevens is pulled over by police for no apparent reason (this scene is tense), as well as a group of men angry that one of their “own” is working with Stevens.

That is Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), the Operations Director of the company. This aspect of the film is interesting as she is judged the most harshly for aligning herself with an outsider who is trying to get a man off death row. Larson has some strong moments in the film and adds to the well-rounded cast. A charming part about this film is the sense of community it creates between its characters.

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Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy. (IMDb)

One of the reasons I like these kinds of films so much is because the lawyer research feels like detective work as Stevens goes through the case and sees the many things that the original lawyers missed or didn’t even bother to look at. I just like it when the case breaks and everything just clicks, and it feels like the highs of a sports movie in that way. The lawyer work is great as Stevens learns surprising things on that journey, and Tim Blake Nelson is strong as an integral character, too. I like the layers to his character, and he helps show that the true antagonist in Just Mercy is Monroeville’s justice system.

The main storyline is compelling and well-paced at 137 minutes. A main sub-plot with a character called Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) is great, too. Morgan is fascinating as a death row inmate and ex-veteran dealing with severe PTSD who has to cope with his actions.

Also making an appearance in the film is O’Shea Jackson as Anthony Ray Hinton. This character feels out-of-place because there’s no interaction between him and Stevenson, but he’s accurate to the real-life story as one of Walter and Herbert’s cellmates. I imagine some of his scenes could have been left on the cutting room floor for pacing, as his story is relevant enough to have added another 30 minutes to the film. It’s smart for pacing to sideline him, but it feels like a waste for the character and the actor’s talents.

Despite that fault, it’s still an emotionally compelling film with some engaging courtroom drama, as well as a handful of heartbreaking scenes. Both these characters truly give perspective into how many inmates need the help of Bryan Stevenson and the film is generally an important story showing the importance of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Score: 80/100

Brian Banks (2019)

Brian Banks (2019)

Brian Banks featuredDirected by: Tom Shadyac. Starring: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepard. Runtime: 1h 39 min. Released: August 9, 2019.

(This review contains spoilers)

A football player’s dreams in the NFL are halted when he is falsely accused of rape and spends six years in prison. He gets released and fights to clear his name within an unjust system as he tries to get back into football shape.

Aldis Hodge’s performance as real-life football player Brian Banks is the highlight here. The film portrays the crime sensitively, and Hodge captures the embarrassment and anger of wanting to clear his name well because he is a registered sex offender. By the end of the film he’s so inspiring and Hodge fills Banks’ shoes expertly.

It’s fascinating when Banks is released and contacts Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) of the California Innocence Project. It’s a unique film in terms of false imprisonment movies as the character usually tries to clear their name from behind bars. Banks does this out of prison and contacts Brooks because he’d be a registered sex offender for the rest of his life if he doesn’t clear his name.

I also think it’s fascinating watching the film not be contained to Brian’s character behind bars as he tries to clear his name himself. Though, he still might as well be in prison because of the sex offender tag – which doesn’t let him play organized football since he can’t go near a school or parks.

Greg Kinnear is also good as Brooks who fights for Banks because he legitimately believes him. I like Sherri Shepard as Brian’s mother Leomia, fighting for her son because she also knows he’s innocent. I don’t think I’ve seen any films with Shepard, but she’s strong in this supporting role.

Brian Banks article
Aldis Hodge in Brian Banks. (IMDb)

Some of the most effective scenes in the film are when people see him differently for his conviction. Brian also spends time with a woman named Karina (Melanie Liburd), who walks away when Brian tells her about his conviction. She comes back into play later, but these scenes are effective. Knowing that Brian did not commit this crime, it’s heartbreaking throughout when everyone looks at him like he’s guilty.

That’s the reflection of the unjust, tragic system that has failed Banks and so many others. It’s also very unfortunate to watch when he gets terrible advice from his lawyer.  The reasoning behind the false accusation is also sickening, as her words give him a prison sentence and have an impact on his career as he was an up-and-coming star. It’s tragic in this aspect.

I won’t spoil further how his story plays out, but don’t Google his name before watching this since it’s a true story. I love this film and think it will be under-seen (it currently has 1,788 votes on IMDb), but it’s good drama directed by Tom Shadyac (whose filmography includes Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Liar Liar).

This film also just hits two specific films I love: False accusation films and sports films. It brings the strength of both those sub-genres – like the courtroom drama and detective work, uncovering stuff that people missed of false accusation movies, as well as the inspiring and triumphant part of a sports film. I think it’s a special film. It’s not perfect film as some of the dialogue and direction is standard, but it’s special because of Brian Banks’ story. His story is great and so is the story of the California Innocence Project.

Score: 75/100

Richard Jewell (2019)

Richard Jewell (2019)

Richard Jewell posterDirected by: Clint Eastwood. Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde. Runtime: 2h 11 min. Released: December 13, 2019.

American security guard Richard Jewell saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics but is vilified by journalists and the press who falsely reported that he was a terrorist. One of my favourite sub-genres of films are false accusation movies where the main character must clear their name with the help of others, and Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell falls into that category. It’s also a story of heroism that turns tragic when Jewell’s five minutes of fame turns into a nightmare.

This nightmare starts when Olivia Wilde’s character, journalist Kathy Scruggs gets a report from one of the leading federal agents, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), that they’re investigating Jewell as the bomber. The Feds think he fits the profile because he’s always wanted to be in authority but not able, and this on his resume would catapult him into an authority role. From here, the feds they tunnel-vision onto Jewell because they think it just fits so well.

Wilde and Hamm are both convincingly despicable. Their unlikability feels unrealistic at times, especially Shaw because he’s so cruel to Jewell – and that’s not to mention the unethical things he and partner Brandon Walker (Mike Pniewski) do – but it all feels reflective of how nightmarish this situation must have been for the real Richard Jewell.

Paul Walter Hauser turns in easily one of my favourite performances of last year as Richard Jewell. He’s been on my radar since 2017’s I, Tonya as an absolute scene-stealer as Shawn there, but he steals the entire show here as Jewell. He plays mean security guard at the beginning well but that’s just because he wants respect, and you can tell Jewell just wants to do his job well.

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Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell. (IMDb)

His compassion is endless and his patience throughout this whole ordeal is heartbreaking because of the way he’s treated, they don’t deserve that patience. In key scenes he shows he’s just as angry as everyone else even if he doesn’t express it, but you can see it in his eyes. His scenes of vulnerability are great and the only thing that Jewell’s character is guilty of is respecting authority too much. It doesn’t spoil anything, but a scene of Jewell with eating a doughnut is great acting. That sounds silly without context, but it is one of the film’s best scenes.

Sam Rockwell is also great as Richard’s lawyer, Watson Bryant. His fight for Richard is nice and their chemistry is great. The chemistry shines from the opening scene as Richard briefly works at his firm and Watson is the only one who treats him as a person. Kathy Bates is heartbreaking as Richard’s mother Bobi Jewell, and Bates plays her with great vulnerability. If anyone has a harder time in this situation than Richard, it’s his mother and she shows this in a few key scenes. Her recreation of Bobi Jewell’s real-life speech is flawless as she pleas the press to lay off Richard.

The story itself has good pacing and feels like an accurate depiction of what happened. Screenwriter Billy Ray does a strong job with the screenplay, adapting a magazine article by Marie Brenner. The scene where the bomb goes off and its lead-up is so suspenseful and is well-directed by Clint Eastwood. This is truly just a great story of a regular guy caught in an undeserved media circus.

Score: 80/100

Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
The Zookeeper's Wife poster
Source

Released: March 31, 2017. Directed by: Niki Caro. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh. Runtime: 2h 4 min.

The WWII era makes for some fascinating films. I sometimes like them more when they have different perspectives or depict main conflicts other than with the German Reich.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is the former, offering a woman’s perspective on the war from a heroic woman, which makes this unique. It tells a behind-the-action tale set during Germany’s Invasion of Poland, also offering a point-of-view of the war from those affected in Warsaw, Poland.

Antonia (Jessica Chastain), a sympathetic animal lover, and Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), the zoo director, are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, one of Europe’s most thriving zoos in the 1930’s.

Their world changes in September 1939 during the German invasion of Poland, as bombs damage the zoo and kill many of its animals. As Polish resistance collapses, German forces began to use the zoo as a base and it effectively closed the zoo.

Despite the Nazis being in their backyard, they essentially created a temporary haven for Jewish people to evade German forces.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is beautiful because of the Zabinski’s sheer bravery – and director Niki Caro earnestly captures their humanity. Their humanity is not only the focus but the film’s beating heart, and it doesn’t flatline.

The film’s a celebration of Antonia’s bravery. Caro directs a stellar cast, and Chastain is the strongest link. She gives a performance that’s sympathetic, earnest and moving. She’s fantastic and elevates the forgettable screenplay to new heights.

Johan Heldenbergh is good as Jan, though you don’t get to know his character well enough – and he feels like an extension of Antonia’s bravery and humanity. The female characters are stronger, and Antonia’s the star of the show. I liked scenes that express her sympathy for animals and general compassion. It’s a shame that the film about her life feels so unremarkable.

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Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Source)

Daniel Brühl plays Dr. Lutz Heck, the film’s antagonist and Hitler’s zoologist, who is the keeper of the Berlin Zoo. He’s forgettable and I just call him the Nazi zoologist. Brühl is good, but Heck isn’t a good villain.

He has compassion one minute, like bringing the prized animals of the Warsaw Zoo to his zoo in Berlin since it has more resources. Then out of the blue he’s cruel and comes back to the zoo and shoots a beautiful eagle and casually tells a soldier to have it stuffed and mounted.

Creative choices done for his character are bad fictional aspects. The addition of the Hollywood fiction weighs it down, since Zabinski’s story seems fantastical enough on its own.

Though, one of the strongest aspects is the depiction of getting the Jews out of the Ghetto – and it’s a good creative choice because the real way is plain. These scenes are tense and exciting, with a heist-like vibe.

One of the main problems are random scenes that feel like they come right out of left field. Developments come with little introduction and granted, it might be because it’s fitting six years of story into two hours of film, but the editing disjoints the storytelling.

In one scene the Zabinski’s have hanky panky and when you’ve forgotten that, she’s nine months pregnant when we see her again and going into labour. There’s not even a discussion of the pregnancy or anything. I was questioning if I’d missed something or if it was some sort-of immaculate conception.

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Johan Heldenbergh in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Source)

There’s a lot that happens in the film but it’s unraveled slowly and pacing becomes an issue. It would have been great if everything moved faster, and the dropping of boring sub-plots would have brought it well under two hours. At least it has really cute lion cubs.

The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t have the impact a film like this should possess, and feels light because of it. The story’s beautiful but it’s a shame that the writing doesn’t match the passion and beauty of Antonia’s story, as it ends up feeling unremarkable. There are a few moving scenes – namely when they get a glimpse into the scope of how many people they’re helping.

It also doesn’t feel mature enough. There are moments that could depict human horrors which would have packed a heartbreaking punch. Chastain delivers a monologue about how people are evil and animals are great, and it would have made the scene have even more impact if we could have seen some of the human evil that she’s talking about. Instead, the film shies away from moments, and it feels like it’s missing out on great opportunities.

Score: 60/100

What’s your favourite WWII film?

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

Eddie the Eagle US posterReleased: February 26, 2016. Directed by: Dexter Fletcher. Starring: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Jo Hartley. Runtime: 1hr 46 min.

Inspired by the life story of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, the only slightly fact-based Eddie the Eagle is a touching story about chasing a dream.

What makes this so inspiring is that Eddie was never the most natural athlete. He’s shown with a brace on his knee from a young age, but he would have these passions for different sports where he just wanted to go to the Olympics.

This seemed to be after he read a book, Moments of Glory, about notable moments at the Olympic Games – and he wanted one of those moments for his own.

After Eddie, portrayed by Taron Egerton, isn’t able to go along with the alpine skiing team because he just isn’t “Olympic material,” he has to forge his own way to the 1988 Winter Olympic Games by becoming his own ski jumping team.

We see Eddie’s journey there alongside his very hesitant coach, Bronson Peary, portrayed by Hugh Jackman.

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Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman in Eddie the Eagle. (Source

The characters at hand are definitely the beating heart of the feature – where in a sports movie like this, if the main character isn’t great – nothing about it works. It’s not the case with Eddie Edwards, as he’s really just an inspiration.

He’s just the poster boy for trying the best someone can do and just never underestimating themselves. He’s also truly a role model for any kid on the playground who was always picked last. He’s just inspiring for those who aren’t natural athletes – and basically, everyone.

The reel counterpart of Edwards is Taron Egerton who was great in Kingsman: The Secret Service. He’s excellent here, too, even if he’s much less cooler than a spy. The way he looks adversity in the face and bounces back as Eddie is marvelous.

He truly sells the optimism and tenacity of the character. Also notable is Hugh Jackman as the drunken coach. He, as well as Egerton, brought a ton of humour to the film and their banter was delightful.

The characters surrounding Eddie very much get the Hollywood treatment. There’s an unprecedented amount of cruelty from even those close to Eddie – where his sweet mother (Jo Hartley) seems to be the only person to believe in him throughout the film.

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Taron Egerton as Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards in Eddie the Eagle. (Source)

The British Olympic Association were depicted as especially cruel – where they tried their hardest to not allow him to compete in the Games. They seemed afraid because he’s not exactly the face that sponsors might want to invest in. The Committee think he doesn’t have any of the qualities of an Olympian – even though he sure as Hell has more heart.

The cruelty from basically everyone just feels a bit over-the-top in its lack of realism, but it just seems tailored to make us angry that they’re undermining him and make the audience root harder for Eddie.

It’s manipulative in a way – but it works. The cruelty probably did get so Hollywood because only about 10 to 15 per cent of this is factual, suggested Edwards himself in an interview with BBC.

The film still tells a rousing tale all the same, and it appears to keep the absolute heart of the man and his spirit and love for the sport intact. It only adheres to sports movie formulas on the road to the Olympics – and going against it since Eddie wants to participate and isn’t a natural athlete.

He’s like the Rudy Ruettiger of ski jumping – he just wants to show how much heart he has and have his moment to shine. It’s a feel-good, lighthearted underdog story and I found myself smiling throughout.

Score: 75/100