REVIEW: Costner and Lane Go on a Solo Mission in ‘Let Him Go’

Diane Lane and Kevin Costner in Let Him Go. Credit : Kimberley French / Focus Features

For an actor who has repeatedly delivered iconic performances, particularly in the 90’s, Kevin Costner gets little respect. Sure, two major bombs were built around him (WaterworldThe Messenger), but his successes dwarf his failures. In days of antiheroes and sensitive leading men, one would be hard-pressed to find another performer embodying the (granted, old-fashioned) strong, silent type as well as Costner.

In Let Him Go, he and Diane Lane (his screen partner in Man of Steel) become George and Margaret Blackledge, two ranchers distressed over their grandson’s wellbeing. The Blackledges’ son died and his widow married a ne’er-do-well who squirrels them out of town. Their concern is not misplaced: Margaret witnessed the stepfather physically abuse the boy.

As the Blackledges take the road in search for the kid, they realize they’re going against a particularly vicious clan, the Weboys. The matriarch, Blanche (Lesley Manville), is a force of nature who intends to rule the life of every Weboy, whether related by blood or marriage.

While set in the 60’s in the American Midwest, Let Him Go is a western at heart (not for nothing Costner’s character is a retired sheriff). Director Thomas Bezucha delivers a contemplative, compelling film with brutal bursts of violence. Based on his filmography (Selena Gómez’ MontecarloThe Family Stone), I didn’t know he had it in him.

The plot is your standard good vs. evil clash, enhanced by terrific performances by Lane and Costner as ‘salt of the earth’ people and an appropriately camp turn by Manville, far cry from her restrained performance in Phantom Thread (few actors can say “I hope you like pork chops” in more threatening fashion). Kayli Carter as the daughter-in-law whose bad decisions started this mess doesn’t come close to match the strength of this formidable trio and it shows.

As the driver of the action, Diane Lane’s Margaret causes considerable mayhem and her husband ends up paying for all her brilliant ideas. Towards the end it becomes cartoonishly funny, not the intended outcome. Nevertheless, it’s the rare good movie daring to open in theatres and deserves some credit for that. Three prairie dogs packing heat.

Let Him Go is now playing at Scotiabank Theatre, Cineplex at The Centre and Landmark Cinemas. 

Clark Johnson, Director of ‘Percy’: “This Is an Homage to the Schmeisers”

Clark Johnson during the making of Percy.

Filmmaker Clark Johnson epitomizes the notion of the journeyman actor-director. He has sat behind the camera in countless TV shows, going from superhero fare (Luke Cage) to prestige productions (The West Wing) and everything in between. Not only that, he directed four episodes of The Wire, the cult HBO hit he also appeared on, and got an Emmy nomination for handling the The Shield pilot, the one in which a character in the opening credits gets offed and set the tone for the rest of the series.

Percy is far from Johnson’s first foray as a film director. Most notably, he was at the helm of S.W.A.T., the Samuel L. Jackson-Colin Farrell big screen adaptation of the 70’s TV staple. The story of the Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser who battled biotech giant Monsanto features a different kind of fireworks. The legal kind.

FarmAid and the United Nations have gotten behind Percy, increasing the film’s chances to get eyeballs around the globe. Sadly, just as the movie was unrolling in theatres across Canada, Schmeiser passed at age 89, presumably from Parkinson’s disease. There’s no word whether he got to see the movie before his death.

Clark Johnson phoned from Chelsea, New York. Really pleasant dude, we didn’t start talking about Percy until exchanging immigrant stories. Turns out the pairing of filmmaker and subject was meant to be.

I learned a lot about farming watching Percy. I presume this mirrors your own learning curve.

As kids, we weren’t allowed to have grapes, grape jelly or lettuce because of César Chavez and the action for micro-farm workers. My parents’ activism was my first connection to farmers. Jump forward 45 or so years and I get to tell the story of Percy Schmeiser. Being a city guy, I went to Whole Foods and learned the difference between corn oil and canola oil, and moved from there.

I know the answer to this, but I want to hear your take: Why was Percy shot in Manitoba and not Saskatchewan?

That’s a fair question. Tax deals. A good portion of our crew travelled to Manitoba to shoot because there’s no work in Saskatchewan. It was not lost on us we couldn’t shoot a SK movie in SK. 

Was it useful to have the real-life referents at hand?

Oh, yeah. This is an homage to the Schmeisers. We relied heavily on their interactions with our writers in early stages. When you are in the farming community in the Prairies, you find a similar discourse. We shot at a farm north of Winnipeg. Everybody had the same intimate connection with the land. We felt totally engaged with the story. 

How did you manage to have all four seasons on screen?

I have a lot of pull in the film industry, Jorge (laughs). We were in Toronto and our locations people called us in early June (2019) and asked us if we were planning to travel anytime soon. The canola was blooming and that would last a week or so. Our director of photography, Luc Montpellier, jumped on a plane, grabbed a camera and a drone, and shot that beautiful yellow-blooming late-spring canola. Then it snowed in September, a whole foot of snow, so we got a crew and shot, instead of coming back in January.

Don’t Ask Christopher Walken to Dance

It’s been a while since Christopher Walken has had a role as meaty as Percy Schmeiser. You would have to go back to 2015 to find the actor headlining a movie (the little seen One More Time).

Walken and Clark Johnson go way back. The filmmaker’s first film as a special effects technician was the David Cronenberg classic The Dead Zone (1983), starring Walken. Their paths crossed two more times before Percy.

How hard is to direct Christopher Walken?

He’s very conscious of how people perceive him. Like any good actor, you don’t want to be judged by what’s expected of you. He said “I’m not going to dance or anything”. I kind of wished he would. It was his suggestion that his wife would be played by Roberta Maxwell, because they started together in Stratford. The cast kind of came together in support of Chris.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many executive producers in a movie as in Percy.

I’m glad you said that. You can always tell it’s an indie by the number of EP credits. Nobody can get paid, but if this movie ever makes any money, you get EP points. I stopped counting after 18 or 19 EPs.

Mumbai Via Winnipeg

There was a lot of ingenuity at play in the making of Percy. As a good independent film, financing came down to the wire and Johnson wasn’t sure if they would be able to go to India to shoot a pivotal scene. Clark Johnson managed to make Winnipeg play the part of Mumbai, at least the interiors: “It was a wonderful surprise to find such a diverse community there.”

Eventually Johnson, Walken and crew made it to Mumbai to shoot exteriors, some time after they finished principal photography. “That was a bonus. We learned from the Indians they revere Schmeiser too. The farmers knew who he was, they all had stories about dealing with the agroindustry. That was enlightening to us and I believe added to the story.”

Monsanto is known for being litigious. Was this a concern during the creative process?

For sure. Garfield (Miller) and Hilary (Pryor, the scriptwriters) sticked fairly religiously to the trial transcripts, so we wouldn’t get any backlash from people not interested in us telling the story. 

Having done so much television, is there any aspect of that process that has made your work in features more efficient?

Absolutely. You learn expediency when you’re on a TV schedule. You become highly disciplined. I use those principles to make my days. I can be spontaneous because I’m getting my meat and potatoes done as I go. Also, from being an actor, I know what that entails. It all adds up.

Percy is now playing at Cineplex Normanview and Landmark Cinemas in Regina.

VOD REVIEW: ‘2067’ Brings Back the Australian Dystopia

For reasons worth exploring at depth, Australian cinema is uniquely adept at exploring apocalyptic scenarios: The Mad Max movies, The RoverThese Final HoursCargo, you name it. They’re all perfectly believable and unsettlingly dark.

2067, the latest production to join this weird little subgenre, doesn’t reach the heights of Max Rockatansky and company, but the bleakness and lack of faith in mankind is right there. Earth has gone to the dogs in believable fashion: Energy sources are dwindling, the greenhouse effect has killed most plants in the planet and the air is so rarified, oxygen is only available in synthetic form. This has also caused an acute class division in which only the employed have a shot at survival. And not for long.

Ethan Whyte (Kodi Smit-McPhee, now in proper adult roles) is a nuclear technician barely scrapping by. His main concern is the wellbeing of his partner, who’s coughing blood and not getting enough oxygen. The opportunity of a lifetime falls in his lap when he’s offered the chance to go into the future and bring back remedies to the many maladies affecting the world. But something else seems to be at play, as the time-travelling machine calls for him specifically to do the trip.

2067 deserves kudos for how far stretches a modest budget. The obvious Blade Runner influences are palpable and for the most part it’s quite effective at portraying a rundown society on the verge of collapse. The problem is not the production design, but a script that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks that it is. Every ground-shattering twist can be seen from a mile away and the family drama at the center of this sci-fi romp is the least interesting part of it.

While not well supported by the dialogue (portentous, yet barely functional), Smit-McPhee and True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten are likeable enough to carry the audience to the conclusion. The film flirts with hard sci-fi concepts like time paradoxes and religious ideas like predestination, but doesn’t develop them enough. There’s a good movie somewhere in 2067, but this one takes one wrong turn too many. 2.5/5 breathless prairie dogs.

2067 is now available on demand.

REVIEW: Antebellum Makes America Grey Again

The wave of horror laced with social content has been a respite after the umpteenth zombie movie or Paranormal Activity knockoff. Antebellum doesn’t quite reaches the heights of Get Out, but it’s a sturdy feature that makes great use of the ‘confederation nostalgia’ sweeping America’s redest corners.

The charismatic Janelle Monáe is Eden, a slave in a confederate garrison. We meet her as a breakout attempt has gone horribly wrong and she’s held as responsible. But even after the botched escape, others in the plantation see her as a leader, a position she’s reluctant to accept.

Those who saw the (perhaps too revealing) trailer know Monáe also plays a successful academic in modern times. The heart of the movie lies on how are these two characters linked, a plot twist I won’t reveal here.

Antebellum brings together these two pivotal eras to underline how little certain elements of American society have evolved. It does it first broadly, showing the excruciating cruelty of the slavery, and then bringing attention the casual racism, insidious enough to be noticed, but low-key so it’s often tolerated. The film also highlights how intelligence can be particularly irritating for bigots who think of themselves as superior (see Trump’s obsession with Obama).

The main reveal is certain to launch a thousand think pieces, but all you need to know is that it works. When you think about it, it’s horrifying because it’s not far-fetched.

Social undertones aside, Antebellum is a serviceable piece of entertainment. The movie is lusciously shot and allows a modicum of comedy when appropriate. Every so often, the writer/director duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz feel the need to spell out the themes of the film (“discrimination is written in the DNA of this country”, “unresolved past can wreak havoc in the present”), but overall it’s worth your time. 3/5 prairie dogs.

Antebellum is now available on demand.

TIFF ’20 – Day 6: MLK/FBI, Beans, Good Joe Bell, Concrete Cowboy

MLK/FBI (USA, 2020. Dir: Sam Pollard): We all have a generic idea of the contentious relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the FBI. It’s common knowledge that the director of the Bureau, J. Edgar Hoover, had King under constant surveillance given his considerable influence over the black community. Turns out there’s a lot more to the story. According to recently declassified documents, the trigger was King’s acquaintance with a communist lawyer. Both Kennedy and LBJ were aware of Hoover’s illegal surveillance of MLK and didn’t do anything to stop it. In turn, reports of King’s extra-marital dalliances failed to sway his followers away from him, irritating Hoover. MLK/FBI is filled with fascinating details about this period and excellent footage. The doc does a great job putting all the pieces together. The outcome is a notch cold, but it’s definitely worth your time. 3/5 prairie dogs aware of the limits between public and private life.

Beans (Canada, 2020. Dir: Tracy Deer): A look to the Oka Crisis through the eyes of a tween, Beans is a different kind of coming-of-age story, one in which the edges are not sanded off. A 12-year-old Mohawk girl nicknamed Beans gets a crash course in adulthood when, as a result of the standoff to protect her people’s land from developers, gets to face racism, violence and police inaction first hand. Not only that, a friendship with older teens push Beans towards uncharted territory too early. The film is rough around the edges—the acting is at times amateurish and the dialogue could have used more polishing— but triggers visceral reactions other movies wish they could. 3.5/5 prairie dogs that won’t forget.

Good Joe Bell (USA, 2020. Dir: Reinaldo Marcus Green): Based on real events, Good Joe Bell is a well-intentioned effort (even though it has written “Mark Wahlberg wants an Oscar” all over) that avoids getting into difficult territory. The titular character (Wahlberg) is a grieving father whose son committed suicide after being bullied for being gay. His reaction is to walk across America to raise awareness, but his own responsibility on the tragedy slowly creeps in (reluctantly accept your kid’s homosexuality doesn’t cut it). Written by the same team behind Brokeback Mountain—Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana—Good Joe Bell doesn’t come close to break new ground: Bullying is bad, inaction is bad, platitudes are useless and people suck. We know all that. Also, why isn’t this movie about the kid and not the straight guy who wants to feel better about himself? 2.5/5 prairie dogs happy at least it’s not Entourage 2.

Concrete Cowboy (USA, 2020. Dir: Ricky Staub): You know your life has taken a turn for the worse when you’re sharing accommodations with a horse. It’s what happens with Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, Stranger Things), after his fed-up mom drops him at his father’s place in Philadelphia. Two options present themselves to Cole: Double down on his bad behavior and join a criminal enterprise or accompany his presumed deadbeat dad (Idris Elba) at the city stables and learn to tame horses. While Cole’s story is perfunctory as heck (trouble kid is redeemed by his love for horses), the setup is worth your attention: For years black cowboys have been training horses on the streets of Philly, but city development has been pushing them away. That story should have anchored this movie, not been relegated to the background. 2.5/5 prairie dogs that are all for teens developing character, but on their own time.

TIFF ‘20 – Day 5: Violation, Limbo, New Order, 76 Days

Violation (Canada, 2020. Dir: Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Dusty Mancinelli): We have been subjected to a fair share of rape-and-revenge films, most as tasteless as I Spit in Your GraveViolation doesn’t bring anything new to the table plot-wise, but there’s enormous value on the female gaze, which should have dominated the conversation in the first place. Sims-Fewer (also the lead) and Mancinelli use extremely close ups to strip the movie of any possibility of titillation and to suggest they’re going deep into the psyche of the victim. Whenever not reveling in nature-inspired semiotics, the film is disturbing. Could have been more noteworthy if it wasn’t because I May Destroy You got so much more from tackling the same subject. 2.5/5 avenging prairie dogs. 

Limbo (UK, 2020. Dir: Ben Sharrock): The drama of refugees trying to get into Europe has so many angles, there’s no limit to what a filmmaker with imagination can do. In the case of Ben Sharrock, that’s mining the absurdity of the situation. Omar (Amir El-Masry, Jack Ryan), a young Syrian man escaping the civil war, lands in a Scottish island in the middle of nowhere. As he waits for a response to his refugee status claim, Omar kills time by attending tone-deaf cultural awareness classes, debating with fellow asylum-seekers the plausibility of Friends and avoiding the many traps that could render his application void. While often riotous, the tragic undertones of the situation often come to the surface. Sharrock is able to maintain the balance between tragedy and comedy, but Limbo is perhaps too low-key for its own good. 3.5/5 prairie dogs waiting for Godot.

New Order (Mexico, 2020. Dir: Michel Franco): Mexican cinema can get very dark really fast and New Orderis a good example of this approach to moviemaking. Writer/director Michel Franco takes the social unrest phenomenon sweeping the world and pushes it to the next level, while stripping it of any idealistic pretensions. A wedding at a posh neighborhood in Mexico City is interrupted by impoverished rioters with no qualms about shooting the rich folk point blank. The bride ends up in military custody, but the soldiers are also in it for the money. New Order moves fast and no social group survives unscathed. The nihilism is a notch hard to take, but it’s not like the movie is wrong. The plot doesn’t hold much water, but you won’t feel like poking holes at it while watching it. 3.5/5 prairie dogs hitting the streets.

76 Days (USA, 2020. Dir: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous): The title refers to the 76 days the Chinese province of Wuhan was under lockdown following the COVID-19 outbreak. Using footage from inside a Wuhan hospital, the documentary chronicles the early days of the pandemic, when there was little clarity about the virus modus operandi, let alone how to deal with it. The film is made mostly of vignettes of patients dealing with their hospitalization: The septuagenarian man failing to understand the concept of asymptomatic carrier, the new mother unable to see her newborn baby, the infected elderly couple kept apart within the same hospital. It’s all horrible and too relatable. For all the access and unvaluable testimonies, 76 Days is unwieldy and repetitive, and can be taxing for the casual viewer. Still, for all its shortcomings as a feature, the raw material is devastating. 3/5 prairie dogs wearing a mask and judging those who don’t.

TIFF ’20 – Day 4: The New Corporation, Falling, Summer of 85, Pieces of a Woman

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel (Canada, 2020. Dir: Joel Bakan, Jennifer Abbott): 17 years ago, The Corporation proved a once controversial thesis: If corporations were people, they would be psychopaths. Now that they pretend to be model citizens—environmentally mindful, woke even—it’s time to look under the hood again. Sure enough, making money for shareholders remains the main goal (by law), but now they must seduce the public in order to profit. Bakan and Abbott put together the corporations’ playbook to increase their earnings while manipulating governments, the financial system and the public opinion. The New Corporation does a great job making its case and does it with panache. For at least one hour, it’s scarier than a horror movie. 4/5 prairie dogs in it for the money.

Falling (Canada/UK/Denmark, 2020. Dir: Viggo Mortensen): In his directorial debut, Viggo Mortensen explores love at its most difficult. At the center of Falling is Willis Peterson (career crowning performance by Lance Henriksen), an octogenarian battling failing health and dementia. Willis wasn’t an easy man to deal with at the best of times and now is truly impossible: His racist, homophobic and misogynistic ways are a challenge for his utterly patient and gay son (Mortensen). Henriksen’s work aside, the film is too broad to leave a mark and after one-too-many obscene tirades by Willis, it starts feeling repetitive. There’s also a moment in which the movie goes too far and destroys any empathy we may still have for the elderly hellion. Having said that, Mortensen has a way with actors and likely a future behind the camera. 2.5/5 prairie dogs aging disgracefully. Distributor: Mongrel.

Summer of 85 (France, 2020. Dir: François Ozon): After tackling some heavy themes for the last five years, prolific French filmmaker François Ozon returns to the subject that made him famous: The dark side of growing up. Summer of 85 can be described as a lighter The Talented Mr. Ripley: Alex, a closeted teen, becomes infatuated with David after he rescues him from a capsized boat. As with every relationship, everything is puppies and rainbows until David shows a darker side and Alex fails to manage his expectations (think Call Me by Your Name with a body count and better music). Never mind the captivating plot, there’s something delightful about spending time at the gorgeously shot Normandy coast. 3/5 prairie dogs enduring a cruel summer.

Pieces of a Woman  (USA/Canada, 2020. Dir: Kornél Mundruczó): One of the reasons I attend TIFF is for the dramas with teeth, sorely lacking this year. Thankfully, here comes one that will haunt my dreams. After the birth of her first child goes horribly wrong, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) reacts by shutting down and sabotaging every relationship in her life. In turn, Shawn (Shia LaBeauf), the father of the baby, falls into old patterns (addiction, violence) and fails to provide a support system for Martha. Pieces of a Woman goes after those who think mourning is a collective experience and assume platitudes make a difference. The film is sharp as a tack and reminds us that at 88, Ellen Burstyn is a force to be reckoned with. The birth-at-home procedure that kickstarts the movie is an extended single shot that amplifies the tension to unbearable levels. Pieces of a Woman flies high until the end, when it morphs into a procedural and takes an unearned, inspirational turn (yeesh). But for everything that preceded it, it’s worth watching. 4/5 prairie dogs that don’t want your stinking casserole. Distributor: Netflix.

TIFF ’20 – Day 3: Inconvenient Indian, Wolfwalkers, Nomadland, Penguin Bloom

Inconvenient Indian (Canada, 2020. Dir: Michelle Latimer): Inspired by Thomas King’s widely popular essay, this documentary aims to support King’s notion that the colonization of aboriginal peoples has continued through the suppression of indigenous culture and traditions. Director Michelle Latimer also shows First Nations peoples countering this phenomenon by using every available venue so they can be seen and heard. The ideas supporting this doc are sound and the visuals, inventive. Unfortunately, given the number of topics it tries to cover, the result is scattershot and a notch slight. 2/5 respectful prairie dogs.

Wolfwalkers (Ireland, Luxembourg, France, 2020. Dir: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart): Irish animation has it going on. Following the excellent The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, here comes the superb Wolfwalkers, which may be even better. Set during the English colonization of Ireland, Robyn, a settler girl hungry for adventure, befriends Mebh, a wild child who turns into a wolf when she sleeps. The unlikely friendship is threatened by the Lord Protector, the king’s envoy who—to win over the locals— has promised to burn the surrounding forest to get rid of the wolves, perceived as a threat. The film is an achievement from every point of view: Gorgeous 2D animation, compelling and entertaining plot and doubles as a warning against populism. What’s not to love. 4.5 prairie dogs-slash-wolves. Distribution: Apple TV.

Nomadland (USA, 2020. Dir: Chloé Zhao): Expected to be one of the strongest titles this year at TIFF, Nomadland lives up to the hype and more. Widowed and jobless, Fern (Frances McDormand) takes the road, working part-time jobs and living in her van. Her lifestyle is more common than she imagines and soon she’s part of a community of rudderless loners who have rediscovered their humanity while living precariously. Chloé Zhao allows the story to breath and the dialogue to linger. There’s not much of a plot here, but doesn’t matter because McDormand is magnetic. She fully inhabits her character and it’s fascinating to see her interacts with others in the same boat (mostly non actors, except for David Strathairn). America’s open spaces rarely have been shot so lovingly. A must see. 4.5 prairie dogs who dig their own homes. Distribution: Searchlight.

Penguin Bloom (Australia, 2020. Dir: Glendyn Ivin): Bad things happen when Naomi Watts goes to Thailand (see The Impossible). This time around she falls from the hotel roof and breaks her back. Paralyzed from the waist down, Sam (Watts) has pretty much given up on living, despite her three boys and loving husband (Andrew Lincoln sans zombies) trying to lift her spirit. At her lowest point, the family adopts an orphan magpie they call Penguin. Despite having wings, Penguin can’t fly (get it?), just like Sam and her legs (METAPHOR ALERT!). Based on real events, this movie is Hallmark-worthy at best and has the subtlety of a jackhammer. The only interesting aspect of the film is that the family pays more attention to the bird than the youngest kid and is unintendedly funny. If you like your human interest stories with a lot of cheese you could do worse. 2/5 prairie dogs who are doing just fine without help.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (Hungary, 2020. Dir: Lili Horvát):Remember Felicity? The girl with curly hair who followed the boy she liked to college even though she could have done much better? This movie is like that, only older-skewed and far duller. An Hungarian neurosurgeon (Natasa Stork) moves back to her country after meeting a man at a conference. Here’s the catch: He doesn’t recall meeting her. Is she having a mental breakdown? Is the man ghosting her? Instead of going for a thriller or a comedy vibe, writer/director Lili Horvát choses to tell the story in the most dour way possible. By the time the movie provides an explanation, I had stopped caring about half hour earlier. 1.5/5 prairie dogs that can’t take a hint.

TIFF ’20 – Day 2: One Night in Miami…, The Way I See It, Enemies of the State, Gaza mon amour, The Boy From Medellín

One Night in Miami… (USA, 2020. Dir: Regina King): Regina King is having a moment. Following her winning turns in If Beale Street Could Talk and Watchman, King demonstrate strong directing chops in her first outing behind the camera. The film imagines the evening following Cassius Clay victory over Sonny Liston. The heavyweight champ, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown—all four at crossroads in their lives—celebrate by debating their contributions to the Civil Rights movement and getting in each other’s kitchen. One Night in Miami… can’t escape its stagey nature (it’s based on a play), but the exchanges between the four legends are often electric. Well-rounded performances across the board make the film an early awards season contender. I would have liked to see something more cinematic than a motel room, but it’s very much worth your time. 3/5 all-star prairie dogs.

The Way I See It (USA, 2020. Dir: Dawn Porter): I don’t want to get political here, but it only takes comparing pictures of Barack Obama and Donald Trump to notice who is truly presidential and who is a vat of orange toxic waste. The Way I See It is theoretically about Pete Souza, Obama (and Reagan)’s official photographer, but it’s mostly about his subjects. Souza captured such iconic images like the situation room during the operation that killed Bin Laden and the small child touching Obama’s hair (representation!). Lately, Souza has become a particularly effective Instagram troll by posting pictures that emphasize the differences between the Obama administration and whatever the heck Trump is doing. This enlightening and somewhat depressing doc is bound to face accusations of bias, but the Pete’s pics speak by themselves. 3/5 prairie dogs that would have voted for Obama if they weren’t Canadian. Distribution: Focus Features.

Enemies of the State (USA, 2020. Dir: Sonia Kennebeck): Quite often reality doesn’t rise to our expectations. This documentary about hacker/former National Guard official Matthew DeHart wishes the subject was a patriot railroaded by the American government like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, but evidence indicates the more likely possibility he is a predator who can spin a good lie and stick to it. For three-quarters of the movie, director Sonia Kennebeck takes us on a wild goose chase under the belief Matt was harassed by the FBI and other dark forces and reports on a conspiracy based on happenstance and missing drives, minimizing the alternative until its unavoidable. Enemies of the State could have been shaped in an entirely different way and be compelling. Instead, the filmmaker goes for drab, dull and ultimately pointless. 2/5 skeptic prairie dogs.

Gaza mon amour (Palestine/France/Germany/Portugal/Qatar, 2020. Dir: Tarzan & Arab Nasser): A quite simple love story at heart, Gaza mon amour has the added value of showing what is it like to really live in Gaza (the film is mercifully free of westerners’ gaze). Issa (Salim Daw) is a confirmed bachelor who suddenly finds the single life less than fulfilling. The fisherman has an eye on Siham (Hiam Abbass, Succession), a seamstress perennially trying to make ends meet. Issa’s courtship is repeatedly interrupted by the upshots of finding a statue of Apollo while at sea. A gentle, low impact movie, by existing alone Gaza Mon Amour is an statement of resilience. As depicted in the film, older Palestinians seem more willing to enjoy happiness whenever available, rather than look for it elsewhere as the younger generation. A small delight. 3/5 hard-knock prairie dogs.

The Boy from Medellín (USA, 2020): For a brief, frightening moment, I thought this entire film was a reggaeton concert. It was a little better than that: The doc follows Colombian singer J Balvin as he gets ready for a massive concert in his hometown. The time could have been better: Social unrest has taken over Medellín and Balvin is perceived as “lukewarm” on the streets for not opposing the right-wing government. The reggaeton star can’t understand the animosity against him, believing that positioning himself above politics should have sufficed (he sends “light” to everybody, whatever that means). Given that the film is produced by J Balvin himself and his inner circle, it’s no surprise the singer is presented in the best light possible and the resolution of his inner conflict is a total copout. Only for hardcore fans willing to suspend their critical thinking. 2/5 prairie dogs who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to reggaeton. Distribution: Amazon.

REVIEW: ‘I Am Woman’ Goes Through the Biopic Motions

Music biopics are dicey proposition. Not only they regularly fall into well-worn grooves (forever immortalized by the masterful Walk Hard), if you want access to their music, you better make the lead a hero. Flawed, maybe, but with a good heart. This is why Get on Up was so noteworthy: Chadwick Boseman portrayed James Brown as a complex individual who wasn’t in the game to be liked. 

I Am Woman makes little effort to break the traditional mould. In fact, the movie portraits Helen Reddy as almost saintly. I’m almost certain she’s more interesting than the way she’s presented here.

An Australian immigrant hoping to break into the US music market, Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Hotel Mumbai) experiences sexism in the record industry first hand. To add insult to injury, in the 60’s producers favored Beatles knockoffs over adult-contemporary songstresses.

Her path crosses with Jeff Wald’s (Evan Peters, American Horror Story), a down on his luck producer who nevertheless is abrasive enough to help her get her foot on the door. You know that old chestnut: They fall in love, then he falls in love with cocaine. You know you’ve hit rock bottom when your kid catches you snorting coke from the carpet. Subtle, this movie is not.

Helen’s rag to riches story unfolds in parallel to the Women’s Liberation movement. Helen goes from mousy to assertive and her journey becomes tied to the crusade thanks to her hit, you guessed it, “I Am Woman”.

While obviously relevant to this moment, I Am Woman coasts a too hard on the zeitgeist and the good will towards #timesup. Not only the characters are two dimensional, the dialogue is mechanical at best. As Helen Reddy, Tilda Cobham-Hervey underplays the part, while Evan Peters chews the scenery (kind of what the script calls for). The outcome is a broad, profoundly uneven flick. It’s not unpleasant, just anodyne. Two prairie dogs who appreciate the roaring.

I Am Woman is now available on VOD.

TIFF ’20 – Day 1: Fireball, American Utopia, Shiva Baby, Get the Hell Out, Night of the Kings

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (UK/Austria/USA, 2020. Dir: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer): Here are some fighting words to get started: Werner Herzog documentaries are a mixed bag. At times, his interests are not aligned with anyone else’s and his research is surface-level (Lo and BeholdInto the Abyss). Luckily, Fireball has a compelling subject (the meteorites that have shaped civilization) and features Herzog at his most dynamic and easygoing (he can be a notch portentous). The filmmaker makes his case without a hitch, but more importantly, the interviewees from around the world obsessing over rocks falling from the sky are a very compelling group. Along the way, Herzog finds tasty information nuggets that help making this doc a pleasing experience. 3/5 falling prairie dogs. Distribution: Apple TV.

David Byrne’s American Utopia (USA, 2020. Dir: Spike Lee): Concert movies are a tough sell. Not only you’re not ‘there’, there’s a very limited number of visual choices available to the director. These films can be monotonous, particularly when the artist in question doesn’t play the hits. David Byrne does stage his better known songs, but even then the movie goes too long. Byrne’s brand of world music is pleasant enough, but hardly triggers the passion other artists stir. Between tunes, the multi-hyphened musician makes some well-meaning political commentary. It hits home only once, when at the tune of “Hell You Talmbout”, Byrne and co. list some of the many black victims of racism in recent years. Only then you can feel the hand of Spike Lee steering the boat. Plus and minuses, it’s not Stop Making Sense2.5/5 prairie dogs on the road to nowhere.

Shiva Baby (USA/Canada, 2020. Dir: Emma Seligman): A strong bottle comedy out of nowhere, Shiva Babymines social awkwardness and personal turmoil to great effect. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is an aimless twentysomething who dabbles into light prostitution. Forced by his Jewish parents, the girl must attend a shiva in which all her unsavory behavior and numerous lies come crashing down, a situation made worse by the presence of an ex-girlfriend and her sugar daddy. A character piece at heart, it’s hard not to sympathize with Danielle given the relatable horrors of family gatherings. Shiva Baby doesn’t stick the landing (the lead is mortified throughout, but doesn’t really grow), but the journey is a fun one. 3.5/5 prairie dogs who needed the money.

Get the Hell Out (Taiwan, 2020. Dir: I-Fan Wang): The zombie comedy is a subgenre seldom done well. Most times it’s grating as heck. Get the Hell Out is incredibly kinetic, but doesn’t bring anything new to the table: A rabies outbreak takes place in parliament and pits honest lawmakers against bloodsucking freaks (and zombies). It’s never a good sign when a government has an Agriculture Disease Bureau. The film gives the impression that anything goes, but in reality it uses every trope in the book and hopes to trick the audience by the sheer volume of clichés. Sion Sono has used this formula before and much better. 2/5 immunocompromised prairie dogs.

Night of the Kings (Côte d’Ivoire/France/Canada/Senegal, 2020. Dir: Philippe Lacote): This is one of those movies in which the concept behind is far superior to the execution. An overcrowded prison is on the verge of a gang war. As a ploy to gain time, the local kingpin selects a new inmate to tell a story in a ritual that’s normally ends with the death of said prisoner. Taking a page from “One Thousand and One Nights”, the young man spins a story that incorporates tradition and Côte d’Ivoire’s recent history. Night of the Kings fails to live up to the gimmick and unfolds chaotically for very long 90 minutes. More inexcusably: The film wastes Denis Lavant (Holy Motors) in a nothing role. 2/5 sleepy prairie dogs.

REVIEW: ‘Tenet’ Is Not that Hard to Understand

By now you may have run into dozens of reviews describing Tenet as “mind-blowing” and “incomprehensible”, while basically relinquishing any intention to dig deeper into the film.

This is not one of those reviews.

It’s true, the framing of the film is confounding, but writer/director Christopher Nolan knows he needs to leave enough breadcrumbs to keep the audience hooked. Otherwise, you’ve an unbearable, dissatisfying flick like Primer, the flick Tenet resembles the most.

With that goal in mind, the filmmaker doesn’t use characters to tell the story. He uses avatars and narrative devices immediately recognizable for anyone who has seen a Hitchcock movie (or a previous Nolan flick, for that matter). So instead of trying to describe the mind-bending plot device (objects’ entropy running backwards), this is what you need to know to venture into the Tenet-verse. 

The Protagonist: Actually, the name of the character. The Protagonist (John David Washington) is an anti-terrorist operative recruited by a mysterious cabal known as Tenet. The purpose of the organization is to prevent a civilization-ending catastrophe, the only clues of which are objects whose physics have been reversed and now run backwards.

The villain: A weapons dealer with no redeemable features, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is increasingly close to control the technology required to control the phenomenon. Because there’s no complexity to the villain, our loyalty to The Protagonist never waivers. This is a noir film at heart.

The Hitchcock blonde: Sator’s ex-wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), is under the criminal’s thumb and while sympathetic, cannot be trusted. Kat is supposed to be the emotional center of the film, as her only motivation is to gain sole custody of her son. Here’s a classic Nolan problem: He doesn’t do emotion well and goes with a cliché to keep the audience invested. Not only it doesn’t work, the director fails to see true heart of the film, standing right in front of him.

The non-playable characters: Much like in a video game, as The Protagonist progresses in his quest, he encounters allies that provide the necessary information to continue to the next stage. In one of these roles, Michael Caine (Nolan’s good luck charm) provides the movie’s single moment of levity. It’s no news to anybody Christopher Nolan takes himself very seriously.

The MacGuffin: To go too deep here would be spoilery. Suffice to say the device drives the second half of the movie and is remarkably cumbersome.

The wild card: Up to this point, the characters are fundamentally archetypes. Enter Robert Pattinson as The Protagonist’s sidekick, Neil. There’s no reason to trust anybody in Tenet, but Neil is genial and immediately likeable. I was far more invested on him than in Kat’s predicament. Pattinson’s role is the only one that doesn’t fit neatly in classic narratives and the one capable of eliciting an emotional response.

As you can see, the storyline minus the time-bending plot device is straight-forward and you can easily follow it without having to understand thermodynamics. I would even go further and say it doesn’t really matter. It’s no different than quantum physics in the Avengers movies. Just go with it. Enjoy the über-kinetic, original action scenes that come from it (characters moving forward while the surroundings move backwards).

Now, is it worth it? Previous Nolan movies have manipulated our understanding of time to enhance a story (Dunkirk) or dig deeper in the fragmented psyche of the lead (MementoInceptionInterstellar). The narrative device in Tenet doesn’t do either: The story is basic and the characters are basically sleeves. That places the film in the lower half of Nolan’s oeuvre in terms of quality. There’s spectacle, but it’s empty.

I’ve no doubt upon multiple views Tenet will make perfect sense (Nolan is, above all, a cerebral filmmaker), but how fair is that for the public? With limited hours on the day to consume content, the idea one has to watch a movie repeatedly to “get it” is, at the very least, pretentious. There’s a selected group of films that has earned that right over time, but also stand by themselves just fine (several Nolan films fit this criteria).

I can appreciate Christopher Nolan cares about the theatrical experience and Tenet is absolutely gorgeous. One would be hard-pressed to identify any CGI shots. But there’s one thing the auteur can do audiences would appreciate: Stop having characters deliver crucial plot points while masked. At an IMAX, with the volume cranked up, I often couldn’t understand what the characters were saying. The most expensive three prairie dogs ever (out of five).

Tenet is now playing, everywhere.

REVIEW: ‘I Used to Go Here’ Tries to Shake the Arrested Development Formula

While most of the Community cast has moved to bigger and better things, one of the show’s mainstays hasn’t exploded the same way as, say, Donald Glover or Alison Brie. Gillian Jacobs, who superbly portrayed the vulnerable, perpetually befuddled Britta for six seasons, has had limited success in supporting roles in lesser movies (remember Walk of Shame? Because I’m trying to forget).

Jacobs is the brightest spot of the affable I Used to Go Here, an arrested development comedy without the sharp elbows of Young Adult, but still anchored in reality: The sorry state of the publishing industry drives a chunk of the plot

Kate (Jacobs) is a published author at a low ebb: Both her book tour and her wedding have been cancelled. Desperate for a lifeline, she agrees to go back to her alma mater to give a talk to aspiring writers. The appeal is understandable: It was a good time in Kate’s life and now she’s coming back as a success story.

Her glorious return doesn’t unfold as planned: The teacher who invited her (Jemaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows) is a creep who preys on his students and the young minds Kate is supposed to impress don’t show much interest. Even worse, it doesn’t seem like she has matured all that much since her days in college. But she does feel older.

I Used to Go Here doesn’t feel particularly fresh, but it’s most certainly amiable. The film is at its best when less focused on the main character’s perfunctory growth. Midway through, there’s a heist sequence that had me in stitches, but the film seldom reaches the same level of hilarity before or after.

I don’t take jabs at critics (depicted here as “the worst kind of humans”) personally, but trying to pass a piece of overwritten text as an example of “good literature” is gaslighting at its most obvious.  Writer/director Kris Rey shows some promise, but needs to drop her crutches in order to stand out. 2.5 prairie dogs (out of five).

I Used to Go Here is now available on VOD.

VOD REVIEW: ‘Working Man’ Is Employee of the Week

It’s an interesting time for independent cinema. With most blockbusters benched for the season (if not the year), indies are getting more looks: When else a new Kelly Reichardt movie could get as much press as your average rom-com?

The market fragmentation also means there are many low-budget films fighting for attention. Working Man is a particularly low-key one, but there’s strength in its simplicity.

Forced by a bad economy to continue working well into his seventies, Allery (character actor Peter Gerety) goes through the motions day after day. Much to his chagrin, the factory he works at is shutting down. What is a brutish man with one skill, few words and no friends to do? Continue reading “VOD REVIEW: ‘Working Man’ Is Employee of the Week”

VOD REVIEW: ‘You Should Have Left’ Is More Inviting than Expected

Airbnbs are like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get. Last year, mine got burglarized. In You Should Have Left, Kevin Bacon lands in a creepy one that may be driving him mad. But I’m sure others are great (insert side-eye emoji).

I’m getting ahead of myself. A Blumhouse production that in any normal year would have hit theatres, You Should Have Left gets a lot of mileage from a classic horror troupe (nuclear family stranded in a haunted residence), one The Shining already perfected. Credit to writer/director David Koepp (Premium Rush) to keep things interesting by fleshing out the characters and writing sturdy dialogue.

The plot: May-December couple —Theo (Kevin Bacon) and Susanna (Amanda Seyfried)— takes the proverbial “break from it all” ahead of a busy time. They find an ultramodern home in the middle of nowhere in Wales (the newest horror cliché), seemingly ideal for them and their precocious daughter. Continue reading “VOD REVIEW: ‘You Should Have Left’ Is More Inviting than Expected”

REVIEW: ‘The High Note’ Falls Somewhere in the Middle

In days as convoluted as these, harmless movies about well-intentioned people overcoming difficulties and coming out empowered are a welcome respite. The High Note is one of those films. Clearly destined for the big screen (nice production values, a combination of up-and-comers and vets), The High Note is a nice movie that doesn’t break new ground or ruffles any feathers.

Freed from the 50 Shades burden, Dakota Johnson is delightful as Maggie, the assistant of an R&B diva. Maggie has designs beyond her less than fulfilling job: She wants to become a music producer, preferably for her boss. But there’s no clear path to go from her lowly job to behind the sound desk.

In turn, her employer, Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish), is struggling with a transition of her own. A decade after her last successful record, she’s been offered a residency in Vegas, the musical equivalent of a farm upstate. Davis believes she still has fresh material to offer, but for industry standards, she’s old news. Continue reading “REVIEW: ‘The High Note’ Falls Somewhere in the Middle”

REVIEW: ‘Dreamland’ Expand the ‘Pontypool’ Universe… Sort of

Stephen McHattie and Lise Houle in Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland.

Twelve years ago, Pontypool pulled the rarest of feats. It was original for a zombie movie and intrinsically Canadian (the disease was transmitted via language). Something you may not have noticed is that there was a post-credit scene, featuring the leads as different characters: Johnny Deadeyes and Lisa the Killer, two shady types looking for adventure. I completely missed that until re-watching it for this review.

The promise of the little-seen sequence is fulfilled in Dreamland. Director Bruce McDonald reassembles the Pontypoolcrew (actors Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle, scriptwriter Tony Burgess) plus a couple of ringers (Henry Rollins and Juliette Lewis) for a surrealistic noir. Not Twin Peaks-bonkers levels, but pleasantly weird. Continue reading “REVIEW: ‘Dreamland’ Expand the ‘Pontypool’ Universe… Sort of”

REVIEW: ‘Jeune Juliette’ Comes of Edge

With a batting average higher than most of her French-Canadian counterparts (including the likes of Dolan, Arcand and Falardeau), supporters of Canadian cinema would be well served by paying more attention to Anne Emond.

The writer/director has delivered three searing dives into the female psyche (Nuit # 1, Our Loved Ones, Nelly). Her newest film, Jeune Juliette, has a much lighter tone, but the lead is just as complex as the previous ones. OK, maybe not Nelly Arcan, but she’s on a league of her own.

The Juliette of the title (Alexane Jamieson) is a teenager enduring the worst high school has to offer: Loneliness, bullying and the petty behavior from others students who perceive her as overweight. Even though their casual nastiness leaves a mark, Juliette is also aware that she’s smarter than her classmates and it’s a matter of time until she leaves them behind. She also has a sturdy support net: Her doting dad, a sympathetic brother and her best mate, Leanne. Continue reading “REVIEW: ‘Jeune Juliette’ Comes of Edge”

REVIEW: Neeson Acts Again in ‘Ordinary Love’

It’s hard to remember after three Takens and a bunch of Taken knockoffs, there was a time Liam Neeson was a thoughtful, understated performer. At 67, he’s trading grunts for acting again, at least this once.

Ordinary Love is as simple as a domestic drama can get. It relies heavily on the lead actors’ acting abilities, but doesn’t offer anything fresh in terms of story or ideas.

The film revolves around Neeson and the age-appropriate Leslie Manville (Phantom Thread’s MVP) as a mature, content couple. After spending decades together and enduring one unspeakable tragedy, Tom and Joan believe they’ve dealt with all the curveballs life had in store for them. Continue reading “REVIEW: Neeson Acts Again in ‘Ordinary Love’”

REVIEW: Blood Quantum Has a Hole in the Middle

As much regard as I have for zombie movies, the subgenre could use a moratorium. Maybe is The Walking Dead to blame, or the fact is the cheapest option for wannabe filmmakers to try to make their mark. Either way, the undead feel extra rotten these days.

Credit to Jeff Barnaby for keeping the living dead moderately interesting. The director, whose previous movie Rhymes for Young Ghouls found a fresh approach to the Residential School trauma, attempts to repeat the trick with Blood Quantum. Barnaby doesn’t fully succeed, but gets extra points for effort.

The setup is the most interesting part of the movie: The perfunctory zombie outbreak takes place, but only whites can turn. The Red Crow reservation survives relatively unscathed, relatively because while immune to the virus, they’re still edible. Continue reading “REVIEW: Blood Quantum Has a Hole in the Middle”