Imaginary Rabbit

Harvey has to be seen to be appreciated. I’ve seen many James Stewart classics, but nothing is as unique as Harvey. Based on the 1944 play, Harvey tells the peculiar tale of a man who sees an invisible over 6ft. tall white rabbit. My only knowledge of the imaginary rabbit was from references in either Who Framed Roger Rabbit or The Simpsons. I wondered how an entire movie could be centered on an unseen character, but Harvey was far more delightful than I was expecting.

Stewart is effortlessly likeable as the charming Elwood P. Dowd. Aside from frequent drinking, his only problem is how crazy he seems walking and talking with Harvey. Harvey remains unseen throughout, but we do get a quick glimpse in a portrait. Stewart was nominated for his performance, although it’s Josephine Hull who most deserved her Oscar win for playing Dowd’s sister Veta. She’s high-strung and humorous, but Veta is first to suggest committing her brother to a sanitarium. Even though she claims to have seen Harvey as well.

Much like the play it’s based on, each character plays an important role no matter how small. There’s Veta’s neutral daughter Myrtle Mae, a judge caught in the middle, a rough around the edges orderly, will they or won’t they sanitarium workers, and their boss Dr. Chumley who begins to see Harvey himself. Although Harvey is described as a somewhat sinister sounding pooka, you can’t help but root for Dowd’s friendship as he spreads kindness wherever he goes. Harvey is a classic with an invisible friend we all could use.

Harvey

Elwood P. Dowd with a portrait of Harvey

Always Protect Yourself

Million Dollar Baby packs a serious punch. I haven’t seen much of Hilary Swank, but she’s an actress who always makes her performances count. She’s far from a typical 2 time Best Actress winner. It only took 5 years after Swank won for Boys Don’t Cry. Both films feature an intense transformation that the Academy Awards couldn’t ignore. Million Dollar Baby is the first movie to win Best Picture after the Lord of the Rings trilogy ended. It’s not the greatest boxing movie ever made, but it does go deeper than most. All thanks to the personal Oscar winning direction of the legendary Clint Eastwood. He also produced, starred, and provided the subtle guitar score.

Eastwood is the gruff but good hearted boxing trainer Frankie Dunn. He has his own personal problems ranging from faith to family. Although initially refusing to train a girl, Maggie Fitzgerald is exactly the aspiring young underdog he needs in his life. Together they train and eventually bound over their shared struggles. Similar to her previous award winning role, Maggie is from a trailer park with a scumbag family and has her life cut tragically short. Million Dollar Baby also gave Morgan Freeman the opportunity to finally win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Former boxer Scrap has great interplay with Frankie, a lovable mentor role with Maggie, and Freeman narrates as well. The role is practically redemption for not winning for Shawshank Redemption. Several before they were famous actors include Jay Baruchel as a more dimwitted aspiring boxer. Plus many future Marvel actors like Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, and a very skinny Mike Colter. Swank still steals the show with her impressive muscle tone, heartfelt sincerity, and brutal boxing matches against real life female boxers. The ending is heart-wrenching, but the message of Million Dollar Baby is clear to always protect yourself and fight for your dream.

Million Dollar Baby

Frankie and Scrap help Maggie in the ring

Horizontal, Vertical (水平垂直)

The Grandmaster is the more stylized approach to the Ip Man story. Although it’s a bit confusing, two seperate Ip Man movies were in production around 2008. A 2008 franchise starting one starring Donnie Yen and a 2013 standalone one starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai. I’ll always prefer Ip Man, but The Grandmaster did make me curious. I remember when it was nominated for 2 Oscars. Best Cinematography for Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s beautiful, mostly slow motion backdrops. Best Costume Design for its decades long period setting.

Unlike Ip Man, The Grandmaster severely condenses his life. To the point that many events are explained in narration and/or text. There’s not too much focus on his wife or children, the Second Sino-Japanese War is quick, Ip Man’s Wing Chun martial arts school is in the background, and Bruce Lee is just a boy who appears close to the end. So the movie’s biggest strength is action. Most of it focused on Grandmaster Ip Man teaching the importance of martial arts. There are fights in the rain, in the snow, and by a train.

A conflict between the South and the North leads to him facing many grandmasters. Those fights are much more close quarters. Tony Leung is fine as Ip Man, but we don’t really get to know him. He’s more distinguishable by his white fedora. A lot of the focus actually switches to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actress Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er. She’s a Northern rival and possible mistress with a journey that takes up most of the film’s climax. The Grandmaster is artful, but not my preferred way to experience Ip Man.

The Grandmaster

Ip Man vs. Gong Er

The Man, the Myth, the Legend

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story explores the man behind the legend. After watching Bruce Lee’s entire filmography, I figured the next logical step was to watch a biopic. Dragon has Linda Lee Cadwell’s seal of approval and even some input from Brandon Lee before his untimely death. Although Brandon was considered for the role of his father, up-and-coming actor Jason Scott Lee was chosen instead. Since Bruce Lee is so iconic, it’s impossible to see anyone else in the part, but Jason Scott does an admirable job. Dragon follows Bruce Lee as he grows up in Hong Kong and receives martial arts training from Ip Man himself.

Most of it is rushed since the primary focus is Lee’s life in America. How Lee worked as a humble dishwasher and faced prejudice as a Chinese American. The most effective depiction being how Bruce reacted to yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. At its heart, Dragon is a love story between Bruce and his future wife Linda. Lauren Holly is just as effective in depicting their forbidden love, hardships, and eventual triumphs. The Randy Edelman theme enhances every moment. We see them writing his book Tao of Jeet Kune Do and the birth of their children Brandon and Shannon. Although Rob Cohen could’ve made a straightforward biopic, he filled it with mysticism and exaggerated fights.

Lee’s inner demons are literally depicted with samurai and the fights are meant to represent actual Bruce Lee movies. Bruce trains people of all races, defends his honor on multiple occasions, and is eventually discovered by producers. We see him as Kato on The Green Hornet, how he lost the role in Kung Fu, and how he won success back in Hong Kong. Only The Big Boss and Enter the Dragon are depicted since they represent his strained home life the best. Dragon ends on a triumphant note without having to show Bruce Lee’s tragic death. Although some see it as hero worship, Dragon: The Bruce Lee is an honest portrayal through a Hollywood lens.

Dragon A Bruce Lee Story

Bruce Lee on the set of Enter the Dragon

The In-Between

The Lovely Bones is the odd movie out from Peter Jackson’s post-Lord of the Rings work. It’s not a 3 hour epic, but special effects are a highlight. I was intrigued to see The Lovely Bones mostly for Jackson’s directing. Even though I knew the subject matter would leave me depressed. The ending was depressing, but everything else made me angry. Since a young person taken from this world too soon is a terrible tragedy that no one should ever endure. The 14 year old Susie Salmon is much too innocent for this evil world. All she wants is to become a photographer and kiss the boy of her dreams.

Her heartbreaking death in 1973 is at the hands of the despicable Harvey when he lures Susie into a den under a corn field. The 2002 novel sounds so much more horrific, but it’s the supernatural element that was probably hardest to translate. Susie doesn’t become a ghost. Instead she ends up in the In-Between. A brightly colorful and even psychedelic personal Heaven with an upbeat tone. The cast is full of major celebrities like Mark Wahlberg as the father, Rachel Weisz as the mother, and Susan Sarandon as the grandmother. A young Saoirse Ronan delivers a breakout performance as Susie and Stanley Tucci was so convincingly evil as Harvey that he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

My praise kind of stops there, because the disjointed tonal shifts didn’t work for me. The comedic grandmother feels especially out of place. I’d say it would’ve worked better without the In-Between, but that would’ve made it more depressing. The grief the Salmon family feels trying to search for Susie’s killer is particularly realistic on its own. The only direct supernatural aspect is an outsider from Susie’s school sensing her presence. The closure and brutal justice I was hoping Harvey would receive, ended up feeling disappointing. The Lovely Bones saves itself with a positive message wishing us all to have a long and happy life.

The Lovely Bones

Susie Salmon

Four Score and Seven Years Ago…

Lincoln brought the greatest President who ever lived back to life. Director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis managed to turn such an iconic figure into a fully believable human being. Even in a year with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Lincoln managed to maintain the integrity of such an important President. Although you might expect the film to cover the President’s entire life from his youth in a log cabin to his Gettysburg Address to his assassination at Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln only covers about 4 months. With the sole focus being his determined fight to abolish slavery. The Civil War is only briefly seen at the beginning and the famous address is only recited by Union soldiers.

The Best Picture nominated Lincoln is actually a talk heavy picture that keeps you a lot more invested than you might expect. A true talent that Spielberg has always possessed. Of course a large scale production and presidential score from John Williams helps too. Although Liam Neeson was originally cast in the titular role, only Daniel Day-Lewis could be so dedicated to portraying the tall hat wearing 16th President of the United States. An impressive feat that earned Day-Lewis an unprecedented third Academy Award for Best Actor. Turns out “Honest Abe” can have a sense of humor and a southern accent that isn’t overly deep. The battle for the Thirteenth Amendment is a war of words between his cabinet that shows just how passionate Lincoln was to free the slaves of Confederate states.

As engrossing as Lincoln himself is, the entire cast is packed with equally dedicated A-list actors. We also follow Lincoln’s relationship with his sons and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Sally Field explores her mental illness and challenging marriage to her powerful husband. Tommy Lee Jones is just as enthralling as fierce Republican congressional abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. The fight for Republicans to gain more Democratic votes has an obvious historical outcome, but it’s no less satisfying to witness African Americans receive their freedom. Lincoln only implies the President’s assassination. Instead the end is a hopeful speech by Abraham Lincoln during his re-election. Lincoln is for all the people who shall not perish from this Earth.

Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln argues with his cabinet

I Drink Your Milkshake!

There Will Be Blood struck oil in a big way. Hailed as one of the best films of the 21st Century, There Will Be Blood follows events from the 19th-20th Century oil boom. The story was a very loose adaptation of Oil! by Upton Sinclair. I have no interest in oil production, but I knew I needed to see the movie for Daniel Day-Lewis’ critically acclaimed performance. It was enough to earn Day-Lewis his second Academy Award for Best Actor. There Will Be Blood follows a prospector turned oil tycoon named Daniel Plainview.

Day-Lewis disappears in the role of a greedy oil rich man in search of more land. It’s his slow descent into madness that really lives up to the title. Plainview seems to care for his only son H. W., but it’s not long before he abandons his child and admits it was all a ploy to boost his image. Plainview is almost the embodiment of Mark 8:36. Since his struggle with faith repeatedly clashes with business partner Eli Sunday. Paul Dano deserved just as much appreciation for his dual performance as an exaggerated young preacher who has almost schoolyard confrontations with Plainview.

The most memorable part is the ending where a Plainview who’s officially descended into madness, taunts Eli with the out of nowhere line “I drink your milkshake!” The easiest way to understand how oil drilling works. I haven’t seen many Paul Thomas Anderson movies, but I wouldn’t argue that this is his finest work. Even with an extended runtime, the Best Picture nominated There Will Be Blood keeps you engaged with powerful scenery and an old fashioned score with sinister undertones. “I’m finished.”

There Will Be Blood

Daniel taunts Eli

Painter’s Feet

My Left Foot put its best foot forward. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the greatest actors of all time, but I really hadn’t seen much from his limited filmography. My mother suggested My Left Foot as it was the first film where Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for Best Actor. My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown is the true story of an Irishman with cerebral palsy who beat the odds to become a painter and author of his own autobiography.

Christy is seen as a burden by his proud working class father, but his strong and patient mother has always believed in him. It’s not until Christy writes “Mother” with his left foot that his father starts to come around. We see all of Christy’s life from being wheeled around in a cart to learning to improve his speech with a cerebral palsy coach. It’s a powerful journey with many highs and lows, but Christy is able to find love and appreciation by the end. Daniel Day-Lewis is a pure wonder to behold as he contorts his body throughout the film. As a method actor, his dedication shows in every scene.

Day-Lewis was more than deserving of the Best Actor Oscar, but child actor Hugh O’Conor should’ve won as well. O’Conor is scary good at matching his older co-stars facial features and body movements. Brenda Fricker won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as well. Since a loved one experiencing someone else’s struggle can be just as effective. Some would argue My Left Foot should’ve won Best Picture over Driving Miss Daisy, but I think they’re equally strong contenders. My Left Foot is an inspiring lesson in never giving up on the physically disabled.

My Left Foot

Christy’s mother pushes her son

Do Right By Me

The Color Purple did right by its source material. The 1982 novel was frequently banned, but that wasn’t enough to keep African American author Alice Walker from winning a Pulitzer Prize. The movie was made only 3 years after the book was published with none other than Steven Spielberg as director. It was his first serious drama, even though people thought it should’ve had a black director. Despite being Jewish and understanding the material well enough to do the film justice. I’m always impressed by Spielberg’s ability to turn even the most tragic stories into fully engaging epics. Apart from its reputation, I actually never knew much about The Color Purple growing up.

It’s the tale of two African American sisters growing up in the South at the turn of the 20th Century. A saga that spans approximately 40 years. Like most black women at the time, Celie is constantly mistreated by the men in her life. The PG-13 rating makes the darker themes easier to get through, but no less uncomfortable. Racism is present, but that’s not the primary focus. The only person who cares about Celie is her close sister Nettie. Unfortunately, Celie’s life takes a turn for the worst when her abusive father gives her to the equally abusive Mister and he separates the sisters for what seems like an eternity. The ensemble cast of respected black performers delivers some of their best work.

Whoopi Goldberg makes her breakout feature film debut as Celie. Effectively showing her progression from timid maid to strong independent black woman. Oprah Winfrey makes her film debut too, by practically disappearing in the role of the strong-willed Sophia. Even the much more irredeemably cruel Mister and Old Mister are fleshed out with Danny Glover and Adolph Caesar in the roles. The final ingredient was Margaret Avery holding the family together as singer/showgirl Shug Avery. SPOILER ALERT! It was satisfying to finally see Celie stand up for herself and just as emotional to witness her tearful reunion with her sister. The Color Purple had 11 Academy Award nominations, but not a single win. Ironically, it lost Best Picture to another female focused film with Africa as a setting. The Color Purple may have been overlooked, but that doesn’t make it any less deserving of appreciation.

The Color Purple

Celie and Nettie in a field of purple flowers

Battle of Your Dreams

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 finally put a steak through this endless vampire romance. Satisfying Twihards and giving general audiences a collective sigh of relief. Bill Condon is the only director to do more than one Twilight movie and Stephanie Meyer even received a producer credit for the finale. A finale that I knew I needed to see in theaters. I just knew it would be the main topic of conversation in high school. The Twilight Saga may have been loved by teenage girls everywhere, but Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Taylor Lautner had to live with the consequences. Although Twilight was always a favorite at the MTV Movie Awards, it was also a Razzie darling. It wasn’t until Breaking Dawn – Part 2 that they finally won Worst Picture. Kind of like how Return of the King won the top spot for its franchise. At this point it was just fun to laugh at how ridiculous everything became. Part 2 picks up immediately after Bella becomes a vampire. The obvious point to divide the films. Her transformation is just as over-the-top as I expected with Stewart continuing to give her worst performance. Bella’s vampire power is shielding herself from other vampire powers. The reason Edward was never able to read her mind.

Since baby Renesmee is a fully aware half-vampire they had to use CGI. The most horrifically awkward CGI imaginable. Although they try really hard to justify him as a loving protector, Jacob imprinting on Renesmee is the thing that ends the forced love triangle. Still somehow creepier than a hundred year old vampire falling in love with a teenage girl. Although Bella being a vampire does mean they can be as intimate as they want. Jacob just makes it more difficult when he reveals his werewolf form to Charlie. Even more difficult when they have to hide Renesmee’s unusually rapid aging. But Charlie still has his daughter, granddaughter, and a happy ending with Harry Clearwater’s widow Sue. Mackenzie Foy plays the child version of Renesmee. She’s young, but just as poorly acted as her parents. It all seems perfect, but bitter vampire Irina brings Renesmee to the Volturi’s attention. Mistaking the half-vampire for an immortal child. In order to fight the accusation, the Cullens have to assemble an army of vampire witnesses from across the world. Narration really speeds through characters that are likely more complex in the book. There are so many mostly forgettable vampires from the already established Denali coven to places as far as Egypt, Ireland, England, and the Amazon. With powers ranging from electricity to mental projection. Future Oscar winner Rami Malek actually has the power to control the elements.

Jacob trains his own wolf pack, but still receives help from Sam’s pack. Rosalie cares for Renesmee and Emmett protects the family, but Alice and Jasper mysteriously leave in the middle of recruitment. Leaving clues that block out the mental intrusion of the Volturi. Bella secretly receives passports from J. Jenks in order to ensure Renesmee’s future. Aro, Jane, and the rest of the Volturi are met with a large assortment of vampires and werewolves as they arrive at a snowy field. Michael Sheen really hams it up with big bad Aro having a hilariously out of nowhere laugh. Renesmee uses her power to show Aro her memories of growing as a half-vampire. Irina is burned as punishment, but Alice and Jasper return before further bloodshed. Alice’s visions aren’t enough to prevent a full scale battle that had the entire theater erupting with shock. Since a physical battle was never in the book. SPOILER ALERT! Aro actually decapitates Carlisle, Alice is forced to watch Jasper die, Seth is killed as a wolf, and Leah dies saving Esme. It’s traumatizing, but at least Jane, Alec, and the rest of the Volturi are killed in the most satisfying way possible. Ending with Bella and Edward killing Aro before the unexpected twist that it was just Alice’s vision. I should be mad that none of it mattered, but I have to applaud the clever deception. A Native American half-vampire convinces the Volturi that there’s no threat. Ending with an optimistic future for Jacob, Renesmee, Edward, and Bella. “A Thousand Years” caps off the saga with a unique credits sequence that includes every actor in the series. Breaking Dawn – Part 2 will forever remain a guilty pleasure.

5. Breaking Dawn Part 2

Bella, Edward, and Jacob protect Renesmee

Preceded by: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1