Monthly Archives: September 2017

Torrey Pines

So here’s a movie for all you people who like to take some risks with your cartoon watching!

Torrey Pines is stop-motion animated, but there’s no clay in sight, it’s all paper cut outs, which I kind of loved. I mean, I’m a sucker for stop-motion any day of the week, but this one looks like something your or I could do, if only we had tonnes of time and talent and patience and a kick-ass story to tell. Clyde Petersen has all of those things, and this is (sort of) his story.

It’s about Clyde when Clyde was still a 12 year old girl dealing with gender identity and the struggle of finding his way. The film is filled with wild hallucinations and MV5BMjEzNjMwMTc0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjk4NDg4MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1763,1000_AL_psychological projections, so even though the movie is without dialogue, we still feel what Clyde is feeling. When in the car with his mother, we don’t hear them argue, but when a speech bubble features a bear biting off the head of a rabbit, we get the gist. Clyde’s mother is schizophrenic, and what she sees as a fun-filled family road trip from San Diego up to New York, the rest of the world views more as kidnapping. It’s a trip that will change Clyde and his family forever.

My love for stop-motion exists because there’s just no better way to visually represent the love and attention that goes into making a film. Stop-motion will often show us how something works close up, and we see beauty in this new perspective. Torrey Pines doesn’t disappoint; I particularly loved seeing the jointed fingers at work. But it’s also not traditionally beautiful animation. It reminded me of being in high school – my friend Kelly one day said to me that my shoes were so ugly they were cool. Up until that exact moment I’d only seen the cool in them, and forever afterward couldn’t stop seeing the ugly (she was right). The look of Torrey Pines is also ugly-cool (although legitimately both), and perhaps there is no better aesthetic to explore a coming of age story in the 1990s.

I mentioned earlier that there’s no dialogue to this movie, and that definitely proved challenging for Sean. Maybe it’s not for everyone but I liked that this film was a rule-breaker. Music and score play a much larger role in the film because of the lack of speaking roles, and it really moves us along through the stages of the film. There’s a lot to see and think about in this movie, heavy stuff, but really relatable and authentic  with a flavour all its own.

Advertisements

TIFF: First They Killed My Father

Angelina Jolie first visited Cambodia in her mid 20s to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. She fell in love with the country but having to dodge landmines made her realize how much about world history she hadn’t been taught in school. While there, she bout Loung Ung’s memoir for $2 on the street, and it changed her life.

She went back to Cambodia two years later in 2002 for her work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She spent time with local schoolchildren and realized that her son was in this very country. She adopted Maddox there that same year. The book she’d read always stuck with her, and she knew it was the story she wanted to tell in order for her son to know what his countrymen were like.

Loung Ung is a survivor of what we now call the Cambodian genocide. She was just a child during the deadly rule of the Khmer Rouge led by the dictator Pol Pot. 25% of the MV5BYmI4YzY3MTAtZjk1My00NmYwLTg4MTgtMDdlZjFhZjQzM2NlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_Cambodian population died from malnutrition, forced labour, and mass murder in the time period between 1975-1979. Almost all Cambodian artists, actors, and film makers were killed during this regime, so getting the story out has been a difficulty. Cambodia’s film community had all but expired and is only now starting to recover. With Netflix fronting $24 million for this film, First They Killed My Father is the biggest movie shot entirely in Cambodia, and director Jolie was careful to use as many Cambodian cast and crew as she could (she herself in a Cambodian citizen since 2005). Some of them are genocide survivors themselves (such as producer Rithy Panh), so therapists were on standby on the set to avoid re-traumatizing the people who’d already lived through events depicted in the film. Jolie’s son Maddox worked on the film as well.

Though the film avoids showing us the worst of the gore, the threat and undercurrent of violence is still there. It sits quite heavily as we watch a young family try to survive the unimaginable, with constant reminders that death isn’t even the worst of it. But the camera lingers on the beauty of Cambodia too – particularly the lush greenery. The cinematography is pretty stunning.

Little Ung was only five when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and all of sevel whens he made it out, and the film reflects her child’s eye view. Although there are plenty of emotionally powerful moments, there are also times when we struggle to MV5BZDcyYmUyZjItYmUyNS00OWIyLWIwZTQtOTllYWE2MDEyY2FmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,937_AL_adsorb all that is happening around her, like she herself must have been at that young age. The film also engages our inner protectors: watching this little girl plant land mines and fire guns is just too much to process.

For the most part, the film’s most tragic scenes are deliberately underplayed, almost but not quite detached, because we come to understand that this story is being told in retrospect. There is a greater context but mostly the film is not so much interested in the historical facts as it is in giving the genuine experience of what it felt like to live (or die) through it. There’s no triumphant spin, no big, redeeming moment. It was a bleak time and it is painstakingly recreated through the camera’s lens. Jolie avoids any typical Hollywood ending and keeps our focus right where it belongs: on a little girl who surived.

 

Growing Up Smith

Smith Bhatnagar is a little Indian boy who moves to America with his family and falls in love with it immediately. It doesn’t necessarily fall in love with him back. It’s small town America circa 1979 and the neighbours aren’t super welcoming. The ones right across the street though are a real source of curiosity for him: Amy, the literal girl-next-door, is crush-worthy…too bad his family already has a wife lined up for him back home. Amy’s father (Jason Lee), quintessentially American, is also endlessly fascinating to him.

MV5BMjA2NzYzMDc1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTA0MzgyNzE@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,754_AL_Smith is so named because it was the most American name his father could bestow. But as much as he and his teenage sister embrace their new lifestyle, their parents are more tepid. They’re chasing the American Dream but wish to protect their Indian culture as well. Furthermore, even as hard as they may try, they’re never getting things quite right. This is a real moment in time from an immigrant’s perspective, written by someone who knows the process, Anjul Nigam, Indian-born, who also plays Smith’s father.

Growing Up Smith is crowd-pleasing and wholesome. Roni Akurati is full of energy and zeal as the titular character. He’s immediately full of charm, with an irresistible smile and oodles of pluck. Good thing too: though the film doesn’t exactly get dark, Smith does face hardships as he pursues an authentic American childhood. There’s plenty of zany, fish out of water adventures, but some heart-felt moments of truth as well. It plays it safe though, sticking to rather obvious culture clash stuff. This is not a piercing, gritty look at the immigrant experience, rather something that’s been spit-shined with 70s nostalgia.

 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I read this book not long ago and was really taken by it, inspired by it, moved by it. It’s non-fiction by Rebecca Skloot about a woman named Henrietta Lacks who had cells taken from her without consent while she was in the hospital being treated for cancer. She died shortly after but her cells lived on and live on still. They’re known as HeLa cells and they’ve been sold to labs the world over because hers were durable and prolific. Nearly every medical breakthrough since 1951 has used her cells in research and trials. Hela cells are the oldest immortal cell line in medical history. But Henrietta never knew, MV5BZjkxMTVmMDQtYTE3OS00NjBhLWJlNjQtYjI1M2VkNzE3ODA2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjAyNzI2OTY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1444,1000_AL_was never asked. Her family didn’t know either. And when they found out, decades later, they were mortified. Without the education to understand what those cells really meant, they wondered if part of their mother was indeed still alive, being kept alive cruelly in labs, being shot into space, or injected with disease. And why had so many profited from the sale of HeLa cells while Henrietta’s family languished in poverty?

The book tackled issues of informed consent, and ethics of race and class in medical research. The film, starring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta’s haunted daughter, Deborah, and Rose Byrne as writer Skloot, loses some of what makes the book such a great read. But it’s still a great if upsetting introduction to Henrietta and the family that still grieves her. Deborah grew up without a mother, while thousands of scientists handled her cells on a daily basis. She knew almost nothing about her mother but now learns that her legacy includes the vaccine for polio, gene mapping, and cloning. Scientists have grown some 20 tonnes of HeLa cells, which have featured in over 60 000 research papers and 11 000 patents. Not a dime ever went to the Lacks family.

Winfrey gives a stirring performance as a heartbroken woman. Byrne is commanding as well. But for my money, the book is where it’s at – pick it up.

TIFF: Downrange

A group of 20-something kids are driving through some deserted part of California when they experience a tire blowout. They’re carpool strangers but the sniper\serial killer hiding in a tree doesn’t care about that. He’s going to ruthlessly pick them off one by one whether they’re going to die in the arms of strangers or not.

Welcome to Midnight Madness at TIFF, folks! Director Ryuhei Kitamura is back with another offering and he promises that this one is buckets and buckets of a bloody good time.

Anyway, what more can I even say? 6 actors, an untold number of bullets, and a sadistic MV5BYzgwM2Q2YzAtM2M0ZS00MGNiLTkzNWYtNDg3ZmI5MTJhODBlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNTM2Mzc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,801_AL_director who loves to really probe each and every gaping wound. It’s not enough to kill them, we must make them suffer, and the audience along with them. Every hole blown into every body must be explored. Former body parts hang like meat curtains. Quick deaths are verboten. Noisy, sucking, death rattles are preferred. And even dead bodies are not safe: there are still plenty of ways to disrespect them, hard.

That said, I felt like the director oversold the insanity of this piece. It takes a while for the killing to start but once it does, there’s absolutely no tension in this film. The onslaught is relentless but it’s so consistent you’ve really got nothing to worry about. It’s hard to be properly scared of something so unequivocal. There is, however, plenty of syrupy prop blood to soothe your black soul, and all the bugs to go along with it. Plus, a score actually derived from the rhythmic firing of a rifle. If you don’t like gore, you won’t like this film. If you don’t like bad acting, you won’t like this film. But if you’re the kind of person who just wants to pass the day watching strangers get brutally slaughtered, Downrange is an obvious choice.

 

The Outcasts

Jodi and Mindy are a couple of … nerds? geeks? kids who just don’t fit in? But they do have each other, which is not quite enough when their high school’s resident Mean Girl pulls a nasty prank. They vow to get even, and their brilliant plan involves uniting all the school’s Great Unwashed – every band geek, gamer, stoner, and whoever else resides on the outskirts of the Popular Clique. The popular gang only exists because the rest of the outsiders are fractured. Put them all on the same team and suddenly they’re the dominant group. Whoa, reversal! Will high school ever be the same again?

5x3tw-Y6XMQG2KXH5-Full-Image_GalleryBackground-en-US-1490285390734._RI_SX940_Jodi (Victoria Justice) and Mindy (Eden Sher) are our bike-helmet wearing heroes, but that doesn’t mean we know much about them. Even in a movie that champions the outcasts, we still relegate them to the thing that labels them: Mindy is the supersmart, MIT-bound nerd, Jodi is the aimless dreamer, there’s the guy who wears a cape to school, the guy who exists just to dance, the girl who’s obsessed with Paris, the girl scout…lots and lots of one dimensions.

The Outcasts can best be described as “harmless” – it adds nothing to the high school movie genre and is light on its message of inclusivity. The only mild amusement I derived from the movie was in reading the slogans on everyone’s tshirts. I was forgetting it before it was even done, and that’s probably for the best.

TIFF 2017: Chappaquiddick

I contemplated walking out on Chappaquiddick before it even started.

Those who’ve been following TIFF this year may know that the festival chose this year to experiment with assigned seating for their Roy Thomson Hall and Princess of Wales screenings. I really hope they don’t try it again.

The Roy Thomson Hall screen looks surprisingly tiny from the second to last row of the furthest balcony. I know because that’s where I got stuck sitting despite arriving nearly two hours early and waiting near the front of the line. From that distance, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy or even follow a complex political drama. I was afraid it would be like trying to watch my neighbour’s TV from a living room across the street.

It turns out I was able to follow the film just fine but I’m not nearly as confident in my review of Chappaquiddick as I am in my scathing review of the assigned seating policy. Following a complex political drama from that distance takes concentration and every time someone takes a bite of popcorn or unwraps a candy counts as a distraction that threatens to take me out of the movie.

I’m still pretty sure that director John Curran (Tracks, The Painted Veil) intended his docudrama about Ted Kennedy and his team’s handling of the drowning of aide Mary Jo Kopechne to be far more gripping than it turned out to be. Jason Clarke does a pretty good Kennedy and Kate Mara is heartbreaking in Kopechne’s terrible final hours. Ed Helms is especially good as Kennedy’s cousin, lawyer, and conscience. But there’s something missing.

Or maybe I missed it. Maybe that missing element that would have made Chappaquiddick truly powerful was a line that was uttered while my neighbour distracted me with a coughing fit or by checking their phone. Probably though, the missing element is truth. There’s just so much that we don’t know about the Chappaquiddick incident and so much of what happens onscreen is conjecture. The story feels incomplete and maybe that’s the point. It just makes for an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying and forgettable movie.

 

TIFF: Outside In

Chris has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for a crime he didn’t really commit. That sounds like a cop out but the shades of guilt were complicated and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. But he was sentenced at the age of 17 as an adult and it was only thanks to the hard work of his high school teacher Carol that he’s now out.

A couple of things: Chris (Jay Duplass) had developed quite an intense relationship with said teacher (Edie Falco) but now that it’s not a strictly phone friendship, things are different. She’s married. She has a teenage daughter, in fact. But Chris doesn’t really have MV5BMTc3MTE2MzU2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg4ODMzMzI@._V1_very many other people in his life, so he’s leaning very heavily on her. His brother isn’t a lot of help – yeah, he’s staying in his garage, but things are pretty tense since Ted (Ben Schwartz) never visited him in prison, and seems to have had something to do with the crime that sent Chris away. Things are very, very tense.

Also: freedom isn’t quite as free as Chris has imagined. I mean, being outside the walls of his cell is intimidating. But he’s also dealing with the confines of probation – not drinking, not traveling, finding a job suitable for an ex-con, etc, etc. And I couldn’t help but feeling like Carol’s less than ideal marriage is a little more prison like than she’d like to admit. So shit’s complicated.

Duplass and director Lynn Shelton wrote the script together and though it’s not very action-oriented, it’s packed with emotional awkwardness and personal growth. Duplass doesn’t make for a typical criminal, whatever that means. Even 20 years of prison doesn’t seem to have hardened him, he’s sensitive and introverted and a little lost and needy. The movie really follows his struggles to readjust to this life, and it’s quickly obvious that the superficial stuff like texting and bike helmets are the least of his concerns. The world has changed, but more importantly, so has he. He’s struggling to catch up; the film shines in small moments, like when Carol’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) teaches him it’s no longer okay to use the word ‘retarded.’

Edie Falco is a wonder. I especially loved the complicated relationship between her and her daughter. But the movie flounders a bit, with Chris’s plight a little too internalized. The story’s predictability makes this film good, but not great.

The Breadwinner

Not all men are bad, not even all Afghan men. That’s important to remember. Not all of them want to treat women like garbage, but the taliban sure does. It’s not enough to cover women head to toe in burqas, but new rules in Afghanistan prohibit them from leaving the house at all, except in rare cases when accompanied by a father, husband, or brother.

Parvana’s older sister hasn’t left the house in so long she’s forgetting what it was like. Parvana is “lucky” because her father lost his leg in the war and his livelihood more recently, so she assists him down to the market where they try to sell their possessions in order to eat. Her father respects his daughters, educated them, and wants better things for them, things he can no longer give them with the oppressive taliban regime patrolling with guns and indignation. When the taliban inevitably hauls him off to prison for no reason, suddenly the family is left without an escape clause. Parvana’s mother andMV5BMDg0ODM5NTYtMjNkMS00NDQ3LWI5MGYtMDg3ZTQ5MDE0OTRlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjQ1NjA0ODM@._V1_ sister and baby brother could literally starve to death waiting for a man to come release them from their own home so Parvana does the only thing she can think of to save them: she cuts off her hair, wears the clothes of her dead brother, and to taliban eyes, becomes a boy.

You may recognize The Breadwinner as a recent high-profile screening at TIFF; Angelina Jolie is a producer and her red carpet appearance really shined the spotlight on this important film. People were equally excited to celebrate it at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. It played to a packed house and I imagine it will again on Saturday so if you haven’t got your tickets, get on it!

The Breadwinner’s animation is stunning.  Stunning. Like, I want to get tattoos of it on my body. That’s really the highest praise you can give, or that I can give, an animated movie, a compliment I haven’t given before or even thought to. The story is kind of perfection. It’s by no means an exact replica of the book. It diverges significantly from it but still feels like an authentic and spiritual distillation of it.

If The Breadwinner isn’t talked about come Oscar time, I’ll be shocked and outraged. Not taliban guy seeing a woman “calling attention to herself” by merely being outdoors outraged, but outraged. It’s a great story coupled with the most amazing animation but it also could not be more essential viewing at this moment in time.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

kingsman2You know when a movie has a really cool part that blows your mind and then you know the sequel will try to recreate that part a hundred times over? Then, when you see the sequel do exactly that, it’s still pretty good even if it’s not quite as good as the first time? Remember when I said almost exactly the same thing about the latest addition to the Fast and the Furious franchise, earlier this year? Well, call this the sequel to that review. For a moment I thought about reusing that same review but I didn’t, because clearly I have more respect for my audience than do those Hollywood big shots who keep greenlighting all these sequels.

Getting back to the subject that I’m supposed to be writing something original about, it is somewhat alarming that the level of ridiculousness that took the Furious series eight movies to reach only took the Kingsman franchise two films to equal.  Kingsman gained so much ground so quickly because it is over the top every chance it gets, right from the start, with one slow motion action sequence after another, all set to some purposely eclectic song choice.

But in all its efforts the Kingsman sequel never comes close to the fever dream that was the church sequence in Kingsman the first, which was the part that totally blew my mind. I realize it would have been cleverer if I had found a way to tie the head explosions at the end to the mind blowing language, but honestly nothing beats the church scene for me.

Even though it doesn’t achieve the same peak level as the first film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is an enjoyable movie that comes out a little ahead of Furious 8 in the stupid yet enjoyable unnecessary sequel category (which I am quite sure will be an Oscar category starting this February).  Kingsman gains the edge over Furious in this important head-to-head showdown by being consistenly funny between action scenes, a result of both its gleeful over-the-topness and the wacky tone it carries over from its predecessor.

Be warned that the film occasionally veers into sheer creepiness (um, a mucus membrane tracking device???). Also, be warned that you will be creeped out much more often than once if you are in any way adverse to people being ground into hamburger (literally) or chopped in half by electric lassos (which is also a thing that actually happens in this film for what I am guessing is the first time ever).

The occasional incident(s) of creepiness are easily forgiven, by me at least, because Kingsman: The Golden Circle is frenetic, confident, and surprisingly touching at times.  The highlights for me were Mark Strong covering John Denver and Elton John finally letting loose on stage after years of self-inflicted repression. Those scenes were more than well worth the price of admission by themselves.

I give Kingsman: The Golden Circle seven country roads (taking you home) out of ten.