Movie Review – “Hoop Dreams” (1994)

 

 

There is a moment in 1994’s “Hoop Dreams” that turns this documentary from a tale about dreaming for the NBA into a story about finding a relatable middle ground between your dreams and reality. It comes about halfway through the film when it becomes clear to one of the two high school-aged boys that he cannot continue on this path, due to a lack of money, and thus will not get into a proper school that will be noticed by the NBA.

At that point, you think the rest of the movie is going to be a downer as we watch his dreams fall apart and everything unravels. But he loves basketball so much that he will not let a little thing like that stop him. If anything, it motivates him further to stand out even more.

“Hoop Dreams” is a documentary that follows the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, both aspire to become the best basketball players they can be and be in the NBA. Gates and Agee both live in small poor neighboorhoods just outside Chicago, but they manage to join St. Joseph’s high school, the premier basketball school that can serve as a jumping off point to any major college they want to attend. The film chronicles their four-year journey through high school, their ups and downs, steps forward and their mishaps, whether that is a insufficient income, a fractured knee or losing power at home.

 

 

Part of the reason I had little interest in seeing “Hoop Dreams” was because of my knowledge of sports, yet never hearing the names William Gates and Arthur Agee associated with the NBA. But as I watched the film, I realized it was not just about these kids but the almost impossible journey one must take to get into professional sports. It’s just being the best you can be, nor is it being the best player on your team, but being the best out of a million people trying get into a professional sport. Whether that’s the MLB, NFL, or NBA, you have to stand above literally everyone else trying to get in.

And that’s just to get in the door, let alone staying there and making an impact. Everyone trying to get into a sport thinks they are the next Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning or Babe Ruth, but the truth is a player like that only comes along once every decade.

This makes “Hoop Dreams” a cautionary tale about the consequences of setting your dreams for an impossible goal, and the inevitable fall. But what gives the film its heart is how these two get up from that fall and find new ways to pursue their passion and love of basketball. They learn to translate that joy for sports into their lives, and to watch these real boys go through that transformation is one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve seen.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Moonlight” (2016)

 

 

Cinema tends to exaggerate some aspects of reality, even in some of the better movies. We see this all the time in science fiction when asked what makes us human, or in romantic dramas related to the need for love and companionship. But then a film like “Moonlight” comes along that handles the weight and complexity of reality in just a way that doesn’t feel ham-fisted or over the top and makes for one of the closest experiences to reality I’ve seen in a long time.

“Moonlight” follows the life of Chiron, an African-American boy growing up in a poor drug-filled neighboorhood in Florida, as he deals with bullies, his addict mother (Naomie Harris), and a budding realtionship with his friend Kevin. The film is told through three different time periods, with Chiron as a little boy (Alex Hibbert), a young teenager (Ashton Sanders) and as an adult (Trevante Rhodes), while he finds out who he is and what he wants.

“Moonlight” reminds me of “Boyhood” in some ways, especially the on-going story of one persons’ life told throughout the years, but takes it in an entirely different path. Mason from “Boyhood” was a simple boy with familiar problems that most people have. Chiron, on the other hand, comes from a world that never really cared about him, outside of a drug dealer and his girlfriend who showed him kindness, and slowly learns to build his identity, as well as learning that he’s gay.

 

 

But Chiron never complains that he doesn’t know who he is or what he’s achieved in life, most of that goes unspoken. As a child and teenager, Chiron remains quiet and observant, taking in the world around him until others force him into action and his true feelings are revealed. As an adult, the only world he has known of violence and hatred has shaped him into a different man than he wanted to be, and his identity has been muddled.

When an adult Kevin asks Chiron who he is, Chiron responds with, “I’m me.” But even he doesn’t know “me” is. He just throught that would come naturally, when it most certainly does not.

 

 

This makes “Moonlight” the most personal film of the year. It is quiet on the outside, but speaks volumes about experiences and acceptance through its wise yet mellow performances. The great thing about “Moonlight” is it does exactly what films are supposed to do – open audiences to vastly different views and realities we so rarely see, and make us appreciate, understand, and empathize with them.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)

 

 

I would like to take a moment to address some glaring mistakes I’ve made in the past, in particular to my review of “Selma” and the terrible things I said. In that review, it came across like I said racism doesn’t exist and shouldn’t be an issue that is discussed when that shouldn’t be the case. It came across like I was speaking from a white priveledged perspective and as someone who has never seen racism, which made me look insensitive and, for lack of a better term, racist.

While this is long overdue, I do apologize for what I said in that review and any other time I’ve said something that you have taken as offensive. While it was not my intention to come across that way, it was clear that my perspective was skewed, unfocused, and selfish. While my opinion of “Selma” has changed very little since my initial review, I should have made it clear that I respected the film for its brutal honesty and being unrelenting in the face of the truth, much like Martin Luther King himself, which certainly does strengthen the film and its history.

For without the fight for equal rights and treatment from heroes like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the world would be much darker and prejudiced place.

This is what makes 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night” one of the most important movies of all time. While this film claims to be a murder-mystery, the true star of the film is prejudice and intolerance, set in a hot small town in Mississippi after the one man who make this town big is murdered, and the police officers begin throwing around suspects like they were tickets to the state fair, including to a visiting African-American, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). The sherriff, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), quickly learns Tibbs is a homocide detective from Philadelphia and is given this murder case by his superior.

 

 

The film is less about solving the crime and more about Tibbs and the sherriff fighting and clawing at one another, in the hope of recognition and respect – Tibbs to show that any man, no matter his color or creed, can achieve any job they want to, and the sherriff to show he is worthy of being in charge of the law in this town.

They both just want to be created as equals, whether as a man or as an officer.

This is compliemented perfectly by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger’s performances. Poitier is unflinching and unforgiving, and goes into the case expecting nothing but to prove his worth. Without scalding or hardly raising his voice above a whisper, he proves he is louder and stronger than anyone else.

Steiger, on the other hand, plays his role as a man who has laid back most of his life and let the answers come to him. This case is the first time he has been challenged, in more ways than one. He is quick to assume because it is easy, but he learns that police investigations are anything but easy. He comes across as a conflicted man, who wants to trust Tibbs but is torn by his prejudice.

Any scene between these two is racked with tense dialogue, each trying to dig in to the other. Any moment of silence is deadly as the two stare each other down, like a old western showdown.

I adore “In the Heat of the Night” for its timing, commentary on recognition and the tense atmosphere. The pacing moves just well enough to keep the mystery compelling, yet slow enough to let the quieter moments sink in. This is a quintessential picture for anyone who wants to understand and appreciate the evolution of mankind, myself included.

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “Dodes’ka-den” (1970)

 

 

“Dodes’ka-den” left a strange taste in my mouth, where I appreciate making the best out of a bad situation but truly despised the way this film turned out in the end.

This is the newest Akira Kurosawa movie I have seen in years, and it came at a time when Kurosawa was about to be let go by Toho Studios, for continually making films that were far too American for Japanese audiences to appreciate, yet “Dodes’ka-den” might be his most Japanese-rooted film.

The film is set in a makeshift garbage town on the outskirts of Tokyo, and it follows dozens of people who live in trash and burned-out houses when the biggest and brightest metropolis is just out of their reach. The connecting thread among these stories is a young mentally-challenged boy who wants nothing more than to be a tram conductor and so he goes around the town in an imaginary tram, with him making all the noises and complaining about the service team not keeping it in good shape.

There are loads of characters this film follows, including a young girl working herself to death when her aunt gets sick and her uncle begins to mistreat her when she gets tired, a silent man with the eyes of a dead person and his lost love, a business man with a strange tick and his obnoxious wife, a father and son living in a burnt out car who dream of a owning a massive house, and two couples that regularly switch husbands.

 

 

What I appreciate about “Dodes’ka-den” is that you see the humanity and kindness in all these people, but you also understand why they are in this terrible place. Some make bad life decisions, others have crappy judgment, while a few were just dealt bad hands and have always been dealing with hard times. Most of these characters are either working their best to get out of this place, or have come to enjoy their new homes. The boy in the imaginary tram never seems like he wants a different life, despite children picking on him and his mother, and is genuinely happy to be where he is.

One might think the message of “Dodes’ka-den” would be to love the life you are dealt with, not the one you want.

But then we get to the ending of some of these stories and they take a sour turn. Like dropping a lemon and a bunch of sour patch kids in a carton of milk that is about to expire – that’s how sour this movie gets.

Without spoiling how some of these tales end, especially the girl working too hard and the father and son living in the car, their resolutions come far too quickly or suddenly and seem to oppose the overall message of the film. What could have been a happier tale about finding the best in a bad situation turns to disturbing mess that ends abruptly.

Overall, I enjoyed parts of “Dodes’ka-den” but the ending makes me question the journey I just took. Not the best outing from Akira Kurosawa, but I appreciate this look at a world I would not have considered otherwise.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review (?) – “Of Mice and Men” (1939)

It’s Mick from “Rocky” and the Wolf Man paired up in the wackiest roadtrip movie you’ve ever seen! From the zany writer who brought you “Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck spins a yarn that’ll leave you in stitches, as two rough-and-tough loners try to make in sunny California. But, uh oh! Looks like they cannot help but get into trouble, those crazy guys! Can they make it big while moving some hearts? Will George make his dreams come true? Will Lenny finally get his rabbits? Find out that and more in Lewis Milestone’s most hilarious tale yet “Of Mice and Men,” coming to a theater near you. *

*Disclaimer: “Of Mice and Men” is not actually coming to any theater close to you, unless you developed a time machine and went back to 1939. In which case, why are you going back in time to see a movie when you can kill Hitler? Like, seriously? Time and space are bendable and mean nothing, and you go back to watch a Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. flick? Not stopping the assassination of Lincoln or go roam with dinosaurs? You literally have the power of “Back to the Future” and “Doctor Who” and this is what you choose to do? Not that we are judging you or anything, it’s just that there are certain things one must do when discovering time travel. In fact, why are you keeping time travel to yourself? We think that’s the worst thing you can do. Come on man, give us some of that! You’re lucky we don’t come after you and steal that “magic” time machine from you for not using it properly. **

**Disclaimer: On behalf of the staff, we would like to apologize for that outburst. We don’t condone that kind of behavior here. We got a bit anxious at the excitement of your time machine and only wished to see the creation of the firework. I mean, who doesn’t love fireworks? It’s like watching God cry explosions of fire and awesomeness. Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, “Of Mice and Men.” You should go check it out if you like classic American tales about hard work and overcoming your personal flaws, with good performances from Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. Boy, this promo got weird, didn’t it? Time machines and fireworks will do that to us. So, where you going with your time machine? Can we come? We promise not to bug you about going to see “Of Mice and Men” even though you should. ***

***Disclaimer: Give us your time machine!

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “In the Mood for Love” (2000)

 

 

Love and loneliness often walk hand-and-hand with one another, and it is impossible to fully appreciate one without the other. They are also concepts that break cultural boundaries, as seen in Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong 2000 film “In the Mood for Love.”

 

The film is set in 1962 in a Hong Kong apartment complex, when two tenants move in on the same day, both young married couples but all of them devoted to their work. The wife of one couple, Shu Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), and the husband of the other, Chow Mo-whan (Tony Leung), have jobs close to home, but their spouses’ careers lead them overseas to Japan, leaving them alone most nights in a town that doesn’t speak their language. Chow and Shu become friends and see a lot of each other, especially when their significant others are out of town an increasing amount. The two slowly begin to realize their spouses are out of town at the same time and piece together that they are having an affair with each other.

 

“In the Mood for Love” excels at creating an atmosphere of isolation and the need for companionship and understanding. Shu and Chow go about the same daily routine, avoiding contact with foreigners as much as possible, only to return to an empty tiny room to eat the same noodles, day in and day out. Their only comfort comes when they get to be with each other, as they talk about writing a script for a marital arts television program and their spouses. The two discuss having an affair of their own, but Shu becomes skittish and shuts down the moment romance is mentioned.

 

 

 

The film portrays Shu and Chow as being entirely alone in the world and are looking for some sort of acceptance in the world, but both are doing it in different ways – Chow wants to be with Shu, but Shu might hope to get back with her husband. It delves deep into the unspoken rules of marriage in China and Hong Kong and how society treats those who cheat and go through divorce, mostly through Maggie Cheung’s repressed emotions and reserved nature around Chow. She hates her husband for what he did, but she doesn’t want to be an outcast.

 

But I will remember “In the Mood for Love” for its color palette and cinematography. The colors are stylized yet tasteful, subtle yet bold, where every room, outfit and camera angle has an impact on an emotional level. From the billowing red curtains to a jade-green dress, the look of this film is breath-taking and supremely beautiful.

 

Overall, “In the Mood for Love” is a subtle, somber film about two lost souls longing for acceptance in different ways. It is deeply enriched in the customs of the Chinese culture and the diversity of Hong Kong in the 1960s, so be aware of the cultural differences. But if you ever see a Chinese film that doesn’t have to do with martial arts, be sure to check out “In the Mood for Love.”

 

Final Grade: B

Movie Review – “La La Land” (2016)

I have noticed most people have two basic reactions to musicals – They either love them and are saddened that there are not enough of them, or groan in frustration because musicals are so boring. When I went to see the latest musical, “La La Land,” one kid, probably around 14 or 15, was laying on a bench outside the theater and waited until the last minute to go inside, and did so stomping his feet in frustration. He clearly did not want to be there.

Why is this one of the general reactions to musicals? Why are there people who roll their eyes at song and dance numbers? It might explain why musicals are so scarce and why they seem to be a dying artform. As someone who previously hated the concept of musicals, this hatred towards them probably comes from a lack of action or reason to care about the music. When films like “Moulin Rouge!” did their musical numbers, the film would come a screeching hault and the plot did not seem to matter anymore.

But another reason could be that musicals are not grounded in reality. Who breaks out into song when they are happy or sad? What kind of person can come up with an impromptu musical number with nothing more than their wit and emotions?

 

 

I felt that is what made musicals so unappealing for a long time, with the only exception being “Singin’ In the Rain.” Then I realized what made that Gene Kelley movie so admirable and so much fun – because it was not grounded in reality, just history. The appeal of the musical is they are not supposed to be about how people really act, but a visual display of individuals raw and uncut emotions using song and dance. Those who say musicals lack action are missing the point, the elaborate sequences using thousands of people and moving parts is the action.

Musicals are beautiful pieces of art that speak their minds through choreography, vibrant colors and long takes.

And I would love to thank “La La Land” for making me realize all this.

“La La Land” is the most whimsical film experience of 2016 that doesn’t pull any punches. It balances a harsh reality and playful nature perfectly. It shows the lives of people who moved to Los Angeles with bigger than life dreams, attempting to conquer the world in their own way, but ultimately realize this world is unforgiving and full of too much talent.

Set in modern day L.A., Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress working at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot, and is constantly turned down from audition after audition. But when Mia has a chance encounter with struggling pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), the two form an immediate connection, and try their best to help each other, Mia with getting her acting noticed, and Sebastian to get his jazz career off the ground.

 

 

From the first few moments of “La La Land,” I was entranced by the surreal combination of reality and fantasy, as hundreds of people stuck on an L.A. freeway break out into song and dance around like they don’t care about anything else. There are┬ápeople breakdancing on top of their cars, skating down this long road and a band playing inside of a truck. But the best part is that it is all done in one continuous take, uncut by editing so we can appreciate every single person on this bridge, even the ones you can see dancing a mile down the road.

There’s another long take sequence between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as they tap dance with increasing vigor and excitement, like something right out of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film. In fact, there’s many neat touches to older musicals, with the Cinemascope introduction to a fantasy sequence later in the film reminiscent of Broadway Melody from “Singin’ In the Rain.”

 

 

Yet the film is unapologetic when it comes to the harsh reality of trying to make in Hollywood. Thousands of people flock to L.A. every year to become famous in one way or another, but it ultimately leads down a long and disappointing road, as Mia and Sebastian learn throughout the film. This leads to best song in the film, “City of Stars,” with its melancholy lyrics and pitch-perfect tone from Ryan Gosling.

Overall, everyone should go see “La La Land” because it is the reason films are made. A story that can only be told through cinema, while giving us a reason to love musicals again. Don’t wait for this to come out on DVD either, this is a grand experience that needs to be seen on the big screen. This is the most personal yet elaborate movie of the year and you don’t want to miss it.

Final Grade: A