Monthly Archives: January 2016

Sundance, Long Distance

sundance-film-festivalStupid back surgery caused us to strike Sundance from our dance card this year, but we were there in spirit.

 

Some of the best films of Sundance so far:

Agnus Dei: Set in a Polish convent attacked by Russian soldiers at the end of WWII, you know this one won’t be an easy watch. But word has it it’s beautifully acted by a strong female ensemble, including Agata Kulesza, who you may remember from last year’s feel-good drama, Ida.

The Birth of a Nation: The story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion – bound to be powerful, unflinching, and explosive, Fox Searchlight picked it up at this year’s festival for $17.5M, a new Sundance record.

dt_common_streams_StreamServerCertain Women: Based on three short stories (by Maile Meloy) that tell tender and character-driven tales around emotional quandaries. Starring Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, and a stunner of a performance from Native American actress Lily Gladstone.

 

Manchester by the Sea: Another slow-burning character study by director Kenneth Lonergan, this one stars Casey Affleck as a guy struggling to overcome his failures as a husband and father – but the other people in the movie know something about him that we, the audience, do not.

Morris From America: Craig Robinson’s going to surprise us all with thiscraigrobinson excellent performance as a father losing his grip on his son, a teen struggling to find his place while over in Germany. The script is supposedly charming without being cute and I hope it’ll be a sweet surprise.

Sing Street: John Carney (Once, Begin Again) is up to his old tricks with another intimate musical that some say is his best yet (I LOVE Once, was a bit less enthusiastic about Begin Again). This one’s an ’80s throwback that’s of course full of dizzying romance and super likeable characters that will, let’s face it, probably leave us tender-hearted viewers in tears.

This year’s most divisive title:

farting corpseSwiss Army Man: Paul Dano is stranded on an island, and instead of a volleyball named Wilson, he “befriends” a farting corpse, played by Daniel Radcliffe, who teaches him about what makes life worth living, and also which body parts might be used to get him back home – heavy subjects for such a weird and wacky movie. Lots of people walked out of this one but reviews are mixed, with some really enjoying this ode to abnormality.

 

 

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The Abyss

Rewatching the original Star Wars trilogy seems to have made me nostalgic for the 80s.  And when the latest Star Wars instalment recently sailed past Avatar and Titanic to become the highest grossing movie ever in North America, I couldn’t help but think of James Cameron’s other work, the stuff that he made before appointing himself the king of the world.

Aliens, Terminator and Terminator 2 are all wonderful and all high on my list of movies to make Jay watch (a list that has shrunk considerably in the last few weeks), but the first James Cameron movie that comes to my mind is The Abyss.  To me, that’s the true precursor to Avatar and Titanic, the movie that hinted at what James Cameron was capable of (both good and bad).

The Abyss is near and dear to me, mainly because it provided one of the first signs that I was destined to become an Asshole Watching Movies.  In the early 90s I became really obsessed with letterboxed movies even though we had a 30 inch (at best) tube television.  This was before DVDs so my options

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LaserDisc on the left, DVD on the right.  I have enough trouble finding shelf space for my DVDs, thank you very much.

were either letterboxed
VHS (few-and-far-between) or LaserDisc (too-expensive-for-an-unemployed-teenager).  But my parents, seeing my interest, indulged me by renting a LaserDisc player on a few occasions, and The Abyss was the first movie I ever watched on that strange format (on two 12″ discs!).

As for the movie itself, The Abyss is an underwater odyssey that is a bit of a mess, both on screen and behind the scenes.  Again, it seems obvious in hindsight given James Cameron’s later works, but at the time it seems to have been a surprise that The Abyss’s production went way over time and way over budget.  Filming consisted of 15-18 hour days and lasted 140 days total.  Total cost: a reported $70 million, which if accurate would make it the most expensive movie ever at the time (surpassed by Terminator 2, which was surpassed by True Lies, which was surpassed by Waterworld, which was surpassed by Titanic).  It is not a coincidence that all but one of those movies was made by James Cameron.  He clearly has a talent for spending money.abyss13

When you watch the Abyss, though, you can see where the money went.  All the diving scenes are practical effects and the movie looks amazing for it.  The underwater scenes were shot 30 feet deep for up to five hours at a time in 40 pound helmets.  There were
other costs than money that resulted from this underwater mayhem.  Complaints from cast and crew were rampant.  Ed Harris refuses to ever talk about the film to this day.  James Cameron almost died when he lost track of time and ran out of air at the bottom of the 7,000,000 gallon water tank, and then on his way to the surface was given a broken emergency regulator, so when he thought he would finally get a much needed breath of air, he got a lungful of water instead.  Knowing all that makes me wonder whether the end product, as beautiful as it is, was worth the trouble.  Watch it and tell me what you think.  In my view, the climactic visit to the “aliens” is a bit of a letdown and the ending seems rushed (which is particularly problematic for a movie that’s this long).

The original theatrical cut (which I have never seen) was released in 1989 and was 145 minutes long.  The Abyss is one of the first forays into CG but the technology was not quite there yet so a climactic scene had to be cut because Industrial Light & Magic just couldn’t get the world-The-Abyss-Water-Facedestroying waves to look right.  Technology had advanced significantly by 1993, and so a special edition was released with 25 minutes more footage, including the ending as it was originally conceived.  The CG effects hint at what is to come from Cameron and ILM (or, by the time the special edition was released, what had already come).  The tentacle water effects in particular are very close relatives of the T-1000’s liquid metal goodness in T2 and they seem to hold up a lot better than most early CG (maybe because CG is used so sparsely in The Abyss).

Interestingly, we’ve kind of come full circle, moving away from CG in favour of practical effects (Mad Max: Fury Road being a prime example).  Kwame Opum of The Verge calls practical effects, “vinyl for cinema”, and as someone with a large record collection, that comparison feels right.  It makes me wonder where James Cameron, formerly a practical effects adherent, stands on the issue today since Avatar was so CG-heavy.  Perhaps we’ll get a sense of that if Avatar 2 ever gets made, but that’s a long way off as it’s been delayed again and will not come out until 2018 at the earliest.

In the meantime, dust off your LaserDisc copy of The Abyss and enjoy!

Over the Top

Strange things are happening lately.  Sylvester Stallone won a Golden Globe and is nominated for an Oscar.  I’ve made Jay return to George Lucas’ glory days and watch the original Star Wars trilogy for the first time, which is something she swore would never happen.  And since these sorts of things come in threes, I like my chances of convincing Jay to watch Over the Top, whiover the topch I just found out is on Netflix.  Especially because Jay is still on oxycontin recovering from her back surgery.

Over the Top is a hidden gem in the same way as a lump of coal.  It was a very 80s attempt to reboot Rocky: take Stallone, put him in another salt-of-the-earth role where his muscles do the talking, give him a wholesome never-quit attitude, and add in Robert Loggia as the villain for good measure.  The ingredients are all here but this movie is absolutely awful.  So awful I can’t help but love it.

First, Robert Loggia.  This is exactly how I feel when I see him in anything.

He was the best (RIP, Mr. Loggia) and he really chews the scenery here.  Which is fortunate because in Over the Top, Stallone shows absolutely no charisma, the arm-wrestling bad guy is the most boring villain you could think of, and the kid Stallone is fighting for is so annoying, spoiled and entitled that you think all the way through that Stallone would gladly take $500,000 to never have to see him again.

over-the-top-poster

Second, trying to get us to cheer for Stallone’s down-on-his-luck arm wrestler is so misguided it hurts.  Is there even such a thing as an up-on-his-luck arm wrestler?  Are any of these guys in good financial standing?  I don’t know how legitimate the World Armwrestling League is, but the champion only gets $20,000.  So that was probably like $10,000 in 1987 dollars.  If you’re driving a semi across the country like Stallone does in Over the Top, I guess you can save money by sleeping in the cab, but how much are you left with at the end of the day even if you are good/lucky enough to win?  Just one more reason you wonder why Stallone wouldn’t take the $500,000 [SPOILER ALERT] rather than selling his truck (HIS ONLY SOURCE OF INCOME) so he can pull a Pete Rose and bet on himself to win the contest [END SPOILERS].  See how much you are going to love this movie?

Third, the music is the worst thing imaginable.  Any song that was cheesy to make the cut for Rocky IV can probably be found on Over the Top’s soundtrack.  No Easy Way Out is literally too good a song to be in this movie.  I didn’t think that was even possible but it’s true.  The featured ballad is a Kenny Loggins wuss rock gem, and the soundtrack also features songs from Sammy Hagar, Eddie Money and Asia.  It is probably the perfect music to arm wrestle to, if you have the urge.  And after watching Stallone [SPOILER ALERT] rock his way to victory [END SPOILERS], I predict that you are going to have that urge.

I give Over the Top a score of one man against the world out of the world.  But since the one man is 2016 Golden Globe winner and 2016 Academy Award nominee Sylvester Stallone, that’s actually a very good score.

 

 

The Only Star Wars Trilogy that Matters

So you may have heard that my darling husband Sean has used my recovery from back surgery as the perfect excuse to finally induce me to watch the very thing I’vimagesCANZSY7Ve spent my whole life avoiding – Star Wars. No, I hadn’t seen a single one, and no, I never wanted to. And believe me, going 30 years in North America without seeing Star Wars is like going 30 years without a pregnancy scare: nearly impossible, and not without effort (I did both, and if I had to break the seal on one, damn right I’m glad it was George Lucas’s baby and not Sean’s).

Sean successfully dragged me to see The Force Awakens back in December, and I had to admit I didn’t hate it. I thought it was fun, and I knew that with a little oxy in my system, my resolve would crumble. And it meant so much to Sean, well, fine: let’s call it one of those marital compromises I usually think are a load of bullocks (after all, compromise usually just means you’re both a bit disappointed – might as well just make me happy, right, dear?).

First we watched the prequels, Episodes I-III. I can’t say I was inspired to go on with Star Wars OG, but you all were nearly as persistent as Sean, and so with minimal doping and only a little more whining, we did.

Did I love them???????

No.

Sorry, guys. I don’t know why I’m apologizing. I just know these films are beloved. They mean something to people, Sean included. They were part of his childhood. He was once a little boy who looked at the stars differently after this movie. Han-Shot-First-meme-Star-Wars-BlogThey informed the way he’d watch movies for the rest of his life, the way he’d tell stories, even, the way he knew good and evil. Fuck.

But me? I’m an old lady with half a back who’s watching them for the first time with my 2016 eyes. Which is not a comment on the technology. I think the prequels versus the original trilogy makes a strong statement in favour of practical effects. No, what I mean is: I’ve been living in a Star Wars-soaked world my whole life. They debuted before I was born. Our popular culture is not just influenced by these movies, but built around them. Never having seen the movies, I could still tell you what sound a light saber makes, or at least the sound young boys (and let’s face it – young men) make when they pretend play them.

So I know who Darth Vader is. SPOILER ALERT! I know he’s “the greatest villain ever.” And I know he’s the father. I know the iconic music John Williams wrote for him. And I know he was a socially awkward, whiny emo kid with weird, murdery impulses and an inability to talk to women. See how I said “spoiler alert”? That’s like, something that’s evolvdarthvader_starwarsed in the last 3 years, not the last 30. This stuff has just permeated culture at large. But in real life? Darth Vader doesn’t seem all that scary to me. I mean, Vader elevated the game, sure. But I’ve only ever exited in this elevated world. You got to compete.

But also: everyone complained about how Jar Jar Binks was so damned annoying in the prequelsc3po, but hello – isn’t he just the new C3PO? I wanted to find a wrench and beat his arms straight with it. Shut up  you insipid, whining good for nothing sorry excuse for a robot (any droid built by Anakin would be whiny though, wouldn’t it?).

And Luke? What a wimp. How is it possible that the Skywalkers are constantly called upon to save the galaxy, or the Jedi way, when in fact the male lineage in that family is so damned lame (props to the ladies – Leia and Rey are tough as shit)?lukeleia They whine and bumble and it makes me feel like the Jedis aren’t  super-cool badasses like I’ve been led to believe, but a group of guys probably living in their parents’ basement, meeting up to wear costumes and braid each other’s hair and play magic card games and pretend that not getting laid is a “code of honour” when it’s really just “never gonna happen” and “beyond their imaginations” anyway.

star-wars-9gagSo yeah, if you were 9 when you first saw this, I get it. Super cool space ships, weapons just aching to be turned into toys, and practically no kissing. Heaven! Or, you know, hell if you’re me.

The Program

Lance Armstrong: hero or villain?

A liar and a cheat, that’s for sure.

And that’s what this movie is about: one man’s relentless, ruthless pursuit of the only thing that matters to him – winning. And it’s not just that he was willing to cheat to keep up with the others, no, you have to cheat the best to be the best. He didn’t just cheat, he hired a whole team of cheaters in order to boost his performance while cloakitheprogramng his dishonesty. And he flaunted his power and prestige (that he largely earned being “The Face of Cancer through his Livestrong foundation) to intimidate and coerce others into staying silent.

Ben Foster stars as Lance Armstrong, and it’s a good fit. He does the smarmy bravado well, with glimpses of vulnerability that humanize him. Jesse Plemmons (the low-rent Matt Damon) co-stars as his team-mate, and Chris O’Dowd, my Irish boyfriend, as the sports journalist who MTMzMTA1NDUyODAzMjEzMzIythinks he smells a rat.

The script is the problem. It has to race through more than a decade of doping, and it does so pretty frenetically, not really dwelling on much other than his downfall. The story doesn’t seem to know if it’s about Lance Armstrong’s power-hungry cheating or David Walsh’s (the journalist) determined reporting, or about generalized ambition and abuse of power in the sports world.

Lance Armstrong is not a nice guy. He lied, repeatedly, unapologetically. He cheated in pursuit of fame and money and all things deplorable. He also beat cancer and raised a lot of money for its research. But it’s likely the reason he got cancer in the first place was all his doping. But his doping and his subsequent winning led him to rejuvenate his sport, and imagesthe Tour de France, inspiring many. So who is this man? Don’t look to The Program for the answer. It has little in terms of insight – it’s mostly a scrapbook of Lance’s greatest hits and David’s best articles about them, and questioning them.

The only part of this movie I found interesting is when Dustin Hoffman briefly appears as an insurer. U.S. Postal sponsored Armstrong’s team and paid him out bonuses for each win, and an insurance company backed them up. Armstrong won a LOT of Tours de France, and they owed him a LOT of money…except what if he cheated, then he didn’t really win, did he? Armstrong is prepared to throw EVERYONE under the bus to keep his lie alive, but we all know how that ended up. The truth is, there is little in this movie that we don’t already know. And with scattered story-telling and shoddy characterization – well, what’s the point?

 

The Force is Forced Upon me

It was only a month ago when I took in my first Star Wars movie, ever (The Force Awakens). The original trilogy was a big deal to Sean, as a kid, but he failed incite the same domnic-west-star-warspassion in me. Lucky for him, I underwent a hefty back surgery a couple of weeks ago and ever since then have been a) trapped in bed b) under the heavy influence of drugs. So it was under these influences that Sean took advantage of his poor, sickly wife, and we tackled the first three movies in the series, Episodes I, II, and III.

The Phantom Menace: Watching these movies turns out to be like playing peekaboo with celebrities. I may be in and out of consciousness, but I’m pretty sure I’ve spied Dominic West (of The Wire) as a guard, and handmaids greatly resembling Keira Knightley and Sofia Coppola. I like Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson together, but almost everything outside of those two feels a bit silly. I’m definitely not a fan of Jar Jar Binks and while I’m not sure he was intentionally meant to be a racist caricature, he does make me cringe every time he talks. Interesting to see Darth Maul in action – I’ve long heard this DotF_TPM.pngvillain praised, and am disappointed that he turns out to be over and done with so quickly. Definitely digging his double-bladed light saber, though his fight with the two Jedis was uneven for me, sometimes thrilling, other times downright implausible. What I find most unforgivable in this movie are the cheesy screen wipes. Shouldn’t we, as a society, be above those by now?

Attack of the Clones: This one feels familiar when it opens – maybe a little The Fifth Element-ish? I also spent way too much time wondering – is that Rose Byrne? (yes, it is) and – that’s not Joel Edgerton, is it? dorme-star-wars(again, it is). Again I’m finding Ewan McGregor to be the best thing about this movie, and am missing Liam Neeson. Hayden Christensen isn’t great but mostly I’m stuck on why a photos-star-wars-attack-of-the-clones-23124364-1600-1200Queen and Senator would be attracted to such a whiny kid (last movie there was an 8 year age difference between the actors; this movie there’s none). I’m having a hard time keeping track of good guys and bad guys. I’m very WTF about Jimmy Smits appearing – um, really? Jimmy Smits? And same with The Phantom Menace, the very evident over-usage of green screens is tiring and flat. Also I’m wondering how it is that every time someone fights, they’re either on a very narrow bridge, or on the rim of a very big hole. Seems unlikely.

Revenge of the Sith: Whoa, this one’s got quite the body count. There’s a lot of beheadings\behandings\beleggings going on. And Anakin catching on fire? Brutal. And it star-wars-episode-iii-revenge-of-the-sith-hd-movie-2005-4goes on a for a LONG time. I was really feeling that Anakin’s back story was insufficient to explain why he’d gone over to the dark side but he might just be crispy enough to warrant it after all. As a fan of the original trilogy, Sean had a lot of problems with the prequels, not least of all because everything is so damned shiny and new in these movies. CGI makes everything look sleek and sparkly. All the ships and robots are rendered flawlessly, a huge contrast to the more practical effects used in the original movies, but chronologically, it makes no sense that 30 years later, the technology looks so much clunkier. I noticed that things like R2D2 and Vader’s mask are also so sleek that they end up looking like cheap plastic. But I’m having an even harder time justifying Padme’s death scene. Lost the will to live? Oh, is that an official medical diagnosis now? Look, lady, I’m sorry your first marriage didn’t work out and your husband turned out to be a bit of a dick (although let’s face it: Darth Vader is much sexier than joel-edgerton-star-warswhiny, emo Anakin, an entitled millennial from another millennium) but you can’t just check out. She was a fighter this whole time, politically savvy and a better shot than any of her male counterparts, but she can’t face raising her babies alone? Come on! So the babies get split up, to be raised by Jimmy Smits and Joel Edgerton. Is that weird? Yes it’s weird! Almost as weird as creepy little Hayden Christensen somehow morphing into James Earl Jones. That’s the kind of math that only George Lucas can account for.

 

So what did I think? I was as underwhelmed as I always suspected I’d be. These movies aren’t shitting all over my childhood since I still haven’t seen the original trilogy, but at no point was I glad that there were 3 whole movies to sit through. I never cared to see more. I never felt really attached to the characters, although Yoda grew on me. What did the prequels do for you?

Where does that leave me on the original trilogy? I suppose I’ll have to see them. And seeing how I’m still bed-bound, I’m sure Sean will have plenty of opportunity to foist them upon me. I am defenseless against The Force.

 

Dirty Grandpa

Robert De Niro clearly relishes his role in Dirty Grandpa as, you guessed it, the dirty grandpa. He cusses lots and spikes drinks with Zanex and flirts with Aubrey Plaza and takes his shirt off a lot and clearly is having a ton of fun all the way through.  Zac Efron also takes his shirt off a lot but throughout this movie he looks as uncomfortable as the middle aged, flip-phone owning couple sitting directly in front of us at last night’s screening. Maybe, as Jay observed, Efron is coming to the sobering realization that being shirtless is his thing and the best he can hope for is to be brought back as the shirtless grandpa if this movie is the start of a Rocky-like franchise.

My money’s on there being no sequel. Dirty Grandpa has a lot of laughs and an abundance of dick jokes, but it also seemed unnecessarily long and unnecessarily concerned with plot. I didn’t need to see everyone learn a lesson. I certainly did not need three generations of lessons being taught to De Niro, Efron, and Dermot Mulroney. And we see stereotypes of hippies, lacrosse jocks, and gang members learn something too. The only ones exempt from this rule seem to be the very funny Jason Mantzoukas (a.k.a. Rafi from the League!) as a Daytona Beach drug dealer, and Adam Pally as Efron’s cousin.  At least the writers had the good sense to allow those two to do their crazy guy routines the whole way through Dirty Grandpa.  I wish they had given everyone such free reign.  I was just there to laugh and didn’t need everything to be wrapped up perfectly, or at all.

I thought all the lessons really took away from Dirty Grandpa’s momentum, mainly by taking the focus off dirty De Niro.  That hurt this movie a lot because De Niro as the dirty old guy is by far the best part.  He’s really, really funny, but all too often he’s jolted out of that role when sad Efron calls him the worst grandpa ever (which happens every ten minutes or so).  Take out all the grandpa-grandson make-up sessions and Dirty Grandpa would have been far more enjoyable.

Dirty Grandpa is a decent comedy, much better than I expected, but since the story seriously impedes these characters’ escapades, it seems like an opportunity missed.  I give it a score of seven horny octogenarians out of ten.