Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.
Coming out of a screening of Jojo Rabbit last week (my second), I asked my wife her thoughts on the film. She said she liked it, but didn’t think the message was all that ground-breaking. Fair enough, the notion of “hate” as learned behavior children acquire early on and has long-lasting effects has been dealt with on screen before.
Then I saw a clip on Facebook.
In this video essay, a very angry girl in her early teens argues against the separation of church and state. She believes that if Christianity is kept out of school and government, so it should “liberal ideas” like abortion or transgender rights. Her argument holds no water, but that’s not the point. The rigidness of her reasoning reveals she has never been exposed to a different set of beliefs. The teen is so convinced, she is happy to put it on tape for the world to see. Forever and ever.
Colombian cinema is having a moment. Not only the local industry has an auteur in its hands –Ciro Guerra, director of Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage— a second one has emerged fully formed from Sundance Labs: Alejandro Landes.
In Monos, Landes zeroes in on a group of teenagers recruited by the local revolutionary army to protect an American woman (Julianne Nicholson, August: Osage County) they keep hostage. The rebels expect a handsome paycheck in exchange for the prisoner, so her wellbeing is a priority.
Things start going south almost immediately when the expected source of protein –a cow– succumbs under a hail of bullets. With little supervision or boundaries, the squad crumbles under the weight of responsibilities, power plays and a warped understanding of discipline. The fact they’re armed to the teeth makes their volatility lethal.
Monos doesn’t take the traditional route of the child-soldier subgenre. Each character is more than their circumstances; the atmosphere is oppressive, but there are laughs to be had and beauty to be taken in (the jungle setting amplifies the drama tenfold). Nicholson is superb as the sullen, scared hostage, same as Moises Arias (The Kings of Summer) as Bigfoot, an ambitious foot soldier who craves power but doesn’t understand the concept of leadership.
The film unfolds swiftly as the Monos squad has no notion of teamwork and breaks down at every corner. That said, I would have liked to spend more time with the teens: Each one seems to carry a story worth telling. Still, the one we actually get is worth the price of admission. Three and a half dogs.
As much as I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians, the treatment of the film as a triumph of representation gave me pause. Sure, an all-Asian cast in a Hollywood production is something to celebrate, but the characters are obscenely wealthy and the audience-surrogate is well on her way to become a one-percenter. In short, they are hard to relate.
The infinitely more modest The Farewell is more successful at bring the Asian-American experience to the big screen. Not only that, it transcends culture clash shenanigans to depict the very real melancholy that accompanies immigrants through their entire lives. Trust me, I know.
About three years ago, a mediocre action flick made it to Canadian cinemas for no discernible reason. It was called Precious Cargo and featured noted muscle-head Mark-Paul Gosselaar. The former Saved by the Bell star had to go head-to-head against a villainous Bruce Willis, noticeably bored out of his mind. The movie was perfunctory and ended with a collection of bloopers (none of them funny), weird for a thriller. At least Willis got his paycheck.
What has Precious Cargo got to do with The Tomorrow Man? Both are labors of love by people too attached to material that’s not nearly as good as they believe it to be. If nothing else, there is a modicum of humanism in The Tomorrow Man thoroughly absent from the Gosselaar-Willis “romp”.
Written, directed and shot by Noble Jones —who has done videos for Taylor Swift and OneRepublic— The Tomorrow Man is the kind of movie you would take your parents to. At the center of the film is Ed (John Lithgow), a lonely retiree that spends his time in chatrooms and his money on a bomb shelter. Ed is not deranged but he is rigid and prone to rants (so, close). Continue reading “REVIEW: The Tomorrow Man Is a Bit Stale”
It’s an all too common pipedream: Trading the rat race for the simpler life, one in which you cultivate your own food, grow your own eggs and work your patch of land from sunrise to sundown. Nobody follows through because, as delightful as it sounds, we know farming is a lot harder than this hipster visualization of heaven. Heck, I can’t even grow basil on my balcony.
The Biggest Little Farm chronicles seven years in the life of a couple who actually did it. Inspired by their rescue dog —too loud for apartment living— John and Molly Chester traded their L.A. apartment for 200 all-but-abandoned acres not far from the city. It wasn’t a blind bet: John turned this move into a project open to investors and people who want to learn how to farm.
With the support of a “farming guru”, John and Molly go through every stage of the process. From generating soil to animal husbandry. Sooner than later they discover the number of factors involved in having a successful farm is too high to have them under control, but also that the solution to most challenges lies in the interaction between existing components. The most difficult task is not a practical one, but to overcome the disillusionment of their earnest intent. There is only so many pests one can eradicate.
For someone with zero farming knowledge, The Biggest Little Farm is fascinating. John Chester, who doubles as director and cinematographer, manages to cram seven years of ebbs and flows into one coherent package, without depriving the audience of the small joys and heartbreaks of country life. It even dispenses some pearls of wisdom, like the advantages of taking a step back and solving a problem with existing resources, as opposed to introducing a new variable.
One issue that’s never tackled is the sustainability of the farm. We see the Chesters pivot constantly to maintain a prosperous biodiversity, but whether the project is profitable or not, we’re never told. Similarly, the presence of investors is mentioned in the beginning and never again. It doesn’t detract from the experience, but it would be useful to know if this is just a hipster camp or an example worth replicating. Three prairie dogs that probably wouldn’t be welcome at the farm (out of five).
The Biggest Little Farm opens tomorrow Friday 31st at the Rainbow (Studio 7).
Given all the revenue Disney is generating by turning animated classics as live-action features, it’s very unlikely the House of Mouse will stop doing it any time soon. Even the so-so Dumbo made over 340 million dollars worldwide.
While I would prefer Disney to take risks as opposed to mine the back catalogue, there is some joy to be found in these remakes: The breeziness of Cinderella, the underlying melancholy of Pete’s Dragon, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera in The Jungle Book. The one thing you won’t find: Freshness. These movies have been fussed over within an inch of their lives. They are expected to hit all four demographic quadrants and please everybody. Not hair is out of place and most scenes seem airless.
I first saw High Life last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. It made no impact on me. How much so? Am I so jaded a thoughtful study about human nature doesn’t even register? I had to see it again because I couldn’t remember a thing about it. I wasn’t sure if it was the movie to blame or the fact I was sleep-deprived after a week of watching three to four features a day (plus a couple of parties).
There was a period during the 70’s in which nihilistic, misogynistic violence was a box office draw. One could argue not much has changed, but if you have seen movies by Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs), Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) or Michael Winner (Death Wish), you know there is something uniquely nasty about these flicks: A disregard for every perceived minority, naked belief in white privilege and a sense that violence is necessary to preserve the status quo are the predominant characteristics.
It would be easy to discard these movies if they weren’t as captivating as they are. Narratively sound, these 70’s action thrillers were misguided, but had a clarity of purpose that’s lacking in today’s cinema. Watching them today, there’s something sickly refreshing about a feature that hasn’t endured three rounds of sanitization by the way of focus groups and executive notes.
Enter S. Craig Zahler.
Early on a horror specialist (I was a champion of the terrifying Asylum Blackout), Zahler has evolved into the single representative of this trend at work today. Not a single one of his movies (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99) has had a significative theatrical release, yet if you’ve seen them, they’re probably engraved in your brain.
While the devastation in Syria is the most covered aspect of the ISIS offensive in the Middle East, the Kurdistan has suffered enormously at hands of the terrorist organization. Following the systematic killing of the male population, an increasing number of Kurdish women has joined the resistance, despite the fact the top rank treats them as cannon fodder.
Girls of the Sun follows the story of Bahar (a terrific Golshifteh Farahani, Patterson), a lawyer-turned-freedom fighter for whom personal trauma is the fuel that makes her a fearsome warrior. Her travails are covered by Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot), a journalist modeled after Marie Colvin for whom objectivity has long stopped being feasible.
While an undoubtedly compelling story, the film is broad and relies heavily in sentimentality, coming short often . Director Eva Husson does succeed at conjuring some stunning visuals, but the final outcome feels disjointed.
To no fault of its own, Girls of the Sun could have benefited from not having the (official) Marie Colvin movie A Private War in such close proximity . Still, the Kurdistan deserves more attention and the film sheds an unforgiving light on this underreported humanitarian tragedy. Three prairie dogs.
Girls of the Sun opens Friday, May 3rd, at the Rainbow Theatre.
It’s no news to anybody Tim Burton’s films are hit or miss. I happen to appreciate some of his less celebrated work (Mars Attacks, Dark Shadows) and have no patience for some of his big hits (Alice in Wonderland, Big Fish). Dumbo sits somewhere in the middle, two thirds a sentimental triumph, one third an undercooked heist that would be more at home in a Michael Bay movie.
A more “realistic” take on the 1941 Disney classic, this Dumbo doesn’t have anthropomorphized animals (although all of them cameo or are referenced to, even those controversial crows). The story is driven by humans, specifically the Farrier family. The father, Holt (Colin Farrell), has returned from the war maimed and his spirit shattered. His kids have been forced to mature earlier than they should, while sheltered by the circus community. The three of them reconnect over a baby elephant with freakishly large ears.
Dumbo goes from pariah to main attraction the moment he starts using his ears to take flight. The act attracts the attention of a circus mogul (Michael Keaton), who claims to be an artist at heart, but turns out to be another greedy capitalist who Zuckerbergs everybody. Continue reading “REVIEW: Dumbo Doesn’t Fly, But Hovers”
Writer’s note: Much like with the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, Captain Marvel has found pushback from the darkest, redest corners of the Internet. I wouldn’t normally be troubled by trolls or James Woods (I know, same thing), but some may bunch together less-than-glowing reviews with the rambles of individuals that feel threatened by Brie Larson’s activism or the idea of a feminist superhero. My critique is focused on the film exclusively and external considerations have no weight in my analysis.
Captain Marvel has a tall order to fill: It must bridge the cataclysmic events of Avengers: Infinity War with Avengers: Endgame and has to establish a hero not only capable of going head-to-head with Thanos, but also lead the super-team into a post Iron-Man era.
I’m here to tell you the film does complete the task, but doesn’t excel at it. Captain Marvel is a functional popcorn flick without much of an identity outside being proudly feminist. It’s surprisingly drab-looking for a Marvel Studios movie and the action sequences are perfunctory at best. The performances –not the plot– carry the film, a rarity for this universe. Continue reading “REVIEW: Captain Marvel Answers the Call”
Odds are you will come across a number of articles comparing Polar to John Wick. Pay no attention to them. Sure, they both revolve around (relatively) honorable hired guns whose employers turn against them, but the similarities end there. One loves dogs, the other one… you’ll find out.
Based on the graphic novel by Victor Santos, Polarrevolves around Duncan Vizla a.k.a. the Black Kaiser (Mads Mikkelsen). An accomplished hitman, Vizla is looking forward to his retirement, just days away. His plans come undone when the corporation that employs him would rather take him than pay him severance. The assassin doesn’t take the attempts on his life kindly and plans to take his grievances to the top.
If John Wick mopes the entire movie, the Black Kaiser is not above enjoying hard liquor or a roll in the hay, even if his companion has murder in her mind. He does however have a couple of regrets that reverberate throughout the film. Continue reading “Mads Mikkelsen Brings the Cool in Polar”
Granted, there is no shortage of Vincent van Gogh’s biopics. Just last year audiences were treated to the gorgeous, underwhelmingly written Loving Vincent. At Eternity’s Gate takes a different approach, one focused on Vincent’s drive, as opposed to his mental health. Of course the signposts are there, but the movie makes a noticeable effort to keep the assorted tragedies that befell Vincent at bay.
As per At Eternity’s Gate, Vincent (Willem Dafoe) was a man ahead of his time. This is not necessarily a good thing when you are a starving artist and impressionism is all the rage. Following advice by Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), Van Gogh trades the increasingly toxic Parisian scene for the tranquility of Arles in the South of France.
While the painter clashes constantly with the town dwellers, the period is particularly prolific. During his time there, Van Gogh produces “Bedroom in Arles”, “The Night Café”, and a number of self-portraits. Unfortunately, his ongoing quarrels with friends and neighbours and his “break-up” with Gauguin send him on a downward spiral. Utter loneliness plays a bigger part on Van Gogh’s fate than any other factor, including mental unrest.
Director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) depicts Van Gogh as a delicate soul that’s easily rattled. Likely because of his background as a plastic artist, Schnabel succeeds at capturing the drive that kept Van Gogh going, despite the scorn of the general public and indifference of his peers. The filmmaker’s obvious regard for his subject is manifest throughout, to the point of keeping the self-mutilation bit off-screen (in fairness, the ear thing has become an obnoxious trope).
While 25 years older than the painter when he died, Willem Dafoe is perfect for the part, the right mix of helpless and mercurial. Less fortunate is the casting of baby-faced Rupert Friend as Van Gogh’s barely younger brother. Schnabel brings back actors from his previous films for supporting roles, but the one who fares the best is a new hire: Mads Mikkelsen as the priest who runs the asylum where Van Gogh is committed. Compassionate and all, he doesn’t think much of the artist’s work and lets him know it. A rare moment of levity in a film carrying a heavy heart. 3.5/5 prairie dogs.
Among the many qualities of the Wreck It Ralph sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, the attention to detail is at the top, alongside an age-appropriate message against co-dependence. The film places the leads –the titular Ralph and Sugar Rush’s champion Vanellope von Schweetz– in the world wide web. The hectic vastness of the internet is impressively represented, both the seemingly infinite number of offerings and corresponding visitors.
For a year and a half, animator Benson Shum worked mostly on the Ralph character (allowing him to ‘act’ and ‘emote’), but also participated on the rest: “Even if it’s a background character, you want to animate it as well as the front ones.” Vanellope presents additional challenges, as she glitches and pops up at a different side of the screen within a second: “We have to anticipate her movements. There is a lot of thought into how we get her from this side of the screen to that side. We have a tool that makes glitch lines, pixilation in between.” Continue reading “Ralph Breaks the Internet, from the Inside”
A very dark chapter in Canadian history took place between 1914-1920. Supposedly driven by security concerns arising from World War I, the Crown made over 88,000 East European immigrants (most from Ukraine) register with provincial governments. Even worse, 8,500 men ended up imprisoned in camps across Canada, many of whom lost all their possessions.
The shadiness of it all doesn’t end there. These families were initially lured to Canada with the promise of farmland, a pledge that seldom materialized. A few decades later, in 1954, records of these internment operations were destroyed. Only in the ’80s did a concerted effort to reconstruct that history begin to take shape. Calls for recognition from the government and reparations would follow.
That Never Happened does a remarkable job researching the subject. The talking heads assembled by director Ryan Boyko — historians, archeologists, descendants — all have valuable information to share. Limited archival footage is complemented by location visits, where remains of these camps can still be found.
The documentary’s shortcomings are mostly technical. Clocking in at 78 minutes, there is plenty of room for the film to breathe. Nonetheless, That Never Happened bombards the audience with information without allowing enough time to absorb it. The uneven cinematography (not even the interviews are uniformly shot) becomes distracting after a while.
From a scholarly perspective, there is undeniable value in collecting and organizing the material. And the chronological approach gives the film a structure to lean on. But the human connection is lacking. In the rare instances where That Never Happened personalizes the consequences of the internment camps — unintended, yet severe — the film soars. Unfortunately, those moments are few and far in between. Two prairie dogs (out of five).
That Never Happened plays this Saturday and Sunday at 7pm at the Rainbow Cinema (Studio 7).
International casts present a unique challenge to both viewers and filmmakers. The absence of a unifying language can be distracting, as well as the actors’ different rhythms. An archetypical example is a terrible horror movie from 15 years ago called Darkness, for which Spanish director Jaume Balagueró cast Anna Paquin (Canada), Lena Olin (Sweden), Iain Glen (Scotland) and Giancarlo Giannini (Italy) as your average American family to hilarious effect.
Bel Canto knows better. The film uses the language barrier between the protagonists for its benefit, a challenge they have to overcome in order to survive. While the movie works well as a romantic drama, it doesn’t as a thriller, a bit of a problem when you are dealing with a hostage situation. Continue reading “REVIEW: Bel Canto Sings, but Doesn’t Hit the High Notes”
It’s hard to find a more reliable performer than Glenn Close. The six-time Oscar nominee (should have won for Fatal Attraction) can be equally believable as a take-no-prisoners lawyer, the head of intergalactic police corps, and Homer Simpson’s mom.
The Wife gives Close a different showcase, one that asks from her to repress her emotions until it’s not physically possible. It’s a stunning piece of acting, one than someone with less experience wouldn’t be able to pull off.
The beginning of The Wife is dream-like. Literary lion Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), one of those American writers who think of themselves as gods, is awaken by a call from the Swedish Academy. He has been awarded the Nobel Prize, the perfect capper for a prolific career. Continue reading “REVIEW: The Wife Is Not that Into You”
There was a time most kid movies had the same message: “Be yourself”. It was vague and debatable, but suited any story. Thanks to Pixar, young audiences have become more sophisticated, and good nature platitudes don’t cut it anymore.
Other studios have followed suit. For a moment, WB’s Smallfoot really pushes the envelope by peddling scientific experimentation over blindly following tradition (religion?). Of course it backtracks at the end (there is reason behind every stupid ritual), but how amazing is that a kid-friendly flick is teaching healthy skepticism.
The rest of Smallfoot is amiable slapstick that owes a lot to Looney Tunes, at least in aesthetics and disposition. Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum) is a good-natured yeti hoping to take over his dad on the task of awakening the sun (as you do). His first try goes awry and unexpectedly puts him in touch with the “smallfoot”, a tiny, hairless creature considered a myth by the community’s leader, the Stonekeeper (Common).
Banished for questioning the sacred stones, Migo becomes determined to prove the existence of the smallfoot. To his surprise, his belief is shared by other yetis, including his love interest, the Stonekeeper’s daughter (Zendaya).
Smallfoot’s main problem is inconsistency. It has interesting ideas, which are shelved for a good chunk of the movie to give way to mildly amusing pratfalls and banter. There are a number of cutesy songs that halt the movie’s momentum. Only one registers, a rather cutting solo by Common about the joys of living in denial.
The unassuming flick smuggles other interesting messages: It criticizes the “fear of the other” (peddled by right-wingers across the globe) and how it deprives us of access to different cultures. Smallfoot also believes in a community’s ability to choose its destiny, as opposed to be kept in the dark for its own good. Good on you, movie. Three prairie dogs.