Monthly Archives: July 2018

Buffalo Boys

You might associate Indonesian cinema with Pencak Silat, a local martial art featured heavily in fight movies like Merantau and The Raid. Mike Wiluan knows we have a thirst for violence as he’s produced the likes of Headshot and Macabre, but his first directorial effort, he eschewed martial arts for barroom brawls, embracing the old spaghetti western but giving it some Indonesian spice: a “fried rice” western, if you will.

Buffalo Boys is the story of 2 brothers and their uncle, who were violently chased out of Java and exiled to America, but have returned to their homeland for revenge. The Dutch are occupying their village, forcing farmers to starve their families while growing poppies instead of rice. And those are the lucky ones: others are enslaved, tortured, and put to death, corpses left hanging on the outskirts of towns to promote obedience, MV5BODM2MDczYzItYTMyZi00Yjc1LTllMDktM2FjNTY0NTA5YTg1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTExMzQ3Ng@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1614,1000_AL_severed heads displayed prominently just to rub salt in the wounds. Still the Javanese endure. But when Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) reappear, they breathe a little bit of hope into air that’s been fetid with oppression for years.

Buffalo Boys is raucous and fun, with action scenes abundant, bursting with call-backs to John Ford movies of yore, but with unexpected little twists that only come with taking America out of the equation. While most cowboy movies live for the machismo true-blue American experience, this one flouts those patriotic pastiches in favour of a colonialist indictment. But while oppression breeds villains, it also cries out for heroes. In Buffalo Boys, two legends are born. And Mike Wiluan knows how to teach a history lesson while satisfying our violent urges. His camera loves finding new ways to land a punch, even as it reveals flashes of Sergio Leone, and even Tarantino.

I’m going to tell you what I loved about the movie in just a minute. First, I’m going to complain. Because the movie sets up a female character who’s a badass. She rides a bull better than any boy. And she’s deadly accurate with a bow and arrow. Sinfully refreshing from your typical damsel in distress. But then the movie fails to really use her. The role languishes, and sure the story’s a bit bloated with badassery, but this is the one I really wanted more of and was frustrated to see less. But okay, screw her. Because that last act, the glorious shoot out, it’s what we’re really all here to see. And boy gee! The fight choreography is impressive, like whoa. So Wiluan slows it down and parades it in front of us; you can practically feel the bloodspray on your face. It’s a thing of beauty, and if you’re a fan of sloppy, intense show downs, then this one is going to be straight up your alley.

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Eighth Grade

What was eighth grade like for you? Sweaty palms and horrible class photos and nerve-racking social encounters? A bad haircut, perhaps? An unrequited crush? Does anyone ever feel cool in the eighth grade? Is that even possible?

Kayla does not. She’s wading miserably through her last week of the eighth grade, friendless and sort of petrified, living a double life. At home she creates Youtube content teaching others to be confident like she is – although at school, of course, she is not. She knows classmates would describe her as quiet if they describe her at all, but that’s not how she feels inside, even if she can never quite communicate this gregarious alter ego to anyone, ever.

Kayla is portrayed by Elsie Fisher, who is so good and so talented she’ll take you right back to your eighth grade shoes. And boy are they awkward shoes. But it takes great MV5BZDYxZWY4NjQtYzM2Ni00YmE0LTlmZDItNTZlZGMwYWVkZWI0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_wells of courage in an actor to be as vulnerable as she is up on that screen, so raw and real that we are instantly transported to our own childhoods. And Fisher is indeed a very young woman herself, (otherwise best known as the voice of Agnes from Despicable Me, for which she improvised that delightful little tune about unicorns) which makes it even more impressive that straight out of the box, she’s amazing and transcendent.

Eighth Grade is about that tender age, around 13, when kids are transitioning to young adults. To when everything feels big and important and all-consuming. When a spot of unhappiness feels like it might last forever. But in reality, things are changing so fast, and life is lobbing surprise after surprise, and it’s really only in the looking back that we can pinpoint all these little episodes that helped make us who we are. The Eighth Grade itself probably felt like it went on for decades, but it’s something we all have in common, and it’s the reason like someone like Bo Burnham, who as you might have guessed is a man, can still relate so well that he’s made a pretty accurate account of that time in a young person’s life. And even if Elsie has slightly different trappings: iPhones and Instagram and FMO, her base desires and fears and neuroses are universal.

Elsie is a brilliant character. Despite her social failures, she is sweet and smart and resilient. We see ourselves in her, but we also want to befriend her, mother her. She is the sun and we orbit around her, experiencing her different angles until all are exhausted and all we want is to hug her, to tell her it gets better.

We didn’t all have the same voyeuristic roommate at University, we didn’t all have the same embezzling first boss, we don’t all have dads who are dentists/truck enthusiasts, but we were all knobs in the 8th grade. Bo Burnham has captured this gracefully in this feature; Eighth Grade is a movie for all of us. Except, of course, for eighth graders themselves, who can only watch a movie about themselves when they are old enough to take it. Yeah, let’s just sit with that one for a minute. This movie is rated R, for language, for some teen drug and alcohol use, and some sexual material. All things the typical 8th grader will encounter in their every day lives but cannot be trusted to witness in movies. Which is kind of fucked up. So if nothing else, this movie reminds us all how hard it is to be that age, to be in tricky situations that we aren’t really prepared for, to have the burden of expectation without the benefit of experience. If you know an eighth grader, this movie will have you wanting to cut them just a little extra slack. Life is hard. Kindness costs nothing. Set a good example.

Summer of 84

All year long I wear the badge of wimp proudly. It’s made out of bubble wrap and bandaids, and is attached with safety velcro in order to never risk the prick. I DO NOT WATCH HORROR MOVIES. I do not. In fact: I cannot. I even turned my cowardly back on Hereditary despite its starring one of my all-time-favourite actresses, and I stalk her from beneath her floorboards 4 days a week. I don’t watch em. I can’t do it. They don’t just make me scared, they make me mad. And not just husband sleeps with your best friend on your birthday mad. Oh no. I’m talking REALLY mad. Mad that I have ALLOWED myself to feel this bad. So I sit there seething. Self-loathing. And so scared I might pee – and that’s not an expression, it’s an alarmingly real possibility.

But.

But in July, I make an exception, an exception called The Fantasia Film Festival. It shows an incredible lineup of genre films, which takes me out of my comfort zone and challenges me as a movie lover, watcher, and reviewer. It’s got odes to action, horror, sci-fi, and loads besides – the most frontier-pushing stuff from Japan, South Korea, and more, and stuff to inspire fresh nightmares for a year. Truly something for every sicko out there, and I love it.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve let myself be pee-strength scared. As a kid I remember that a simple game of hide-and-go-seek would strain my 7 year old heart into cardiac arrest territory. Relocate that game to the woods, and set it at night, and I was a cowering, quivering mess. Did anyone else put themselves through these MV5BNWNjOTNkNTAtOTQwNi00MzM0LWE0OTktY2VmYzE2NDdiY2Q2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTU4ODA4MTg@._V1_neighbourhood games of hell? Obviously someone must derive pleasure from being on the brink of abject horror, and at the beginning of Summer of 84, we meet 4 such young fellows. Davey and his friends are 15 in the summer of 84, mere shadows of mustaches playing on their upper lips, and haven’t yet outgrown their midnight game of “manhunt.” I think it’s creepy even before the big news is revealed: the Cape May slayer is on the loose in their community. With 13 confirmed kills and a preference for teenage boys, Davey and his buddies should rationally be concerned about this serial killer but they’re kids, hornily hovering about the precipice between childhood and growing up, and instead they think it’s kind of cool.

Kind of cool until Davey (Graham Verchere), an amateur conspiracy theorist, convinces Eats (Judah Lewis), Woody (Caleb Emery), and Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew) that his next-door neighbour Mackey (Rich Sommer) fits the serial killer’s profile, and that Mackey’s job as a cop is nothing more than the perfect cover. So even though there’s a beautiful girl next door, a couple years older and rocking a side pony, Davey is single-minded in his surveillance and suspicion of Mackey. Which makes me hyperventilate on at least two fronts: 1. If Mackey IS the killer, Davey et. al are drawing an awful lot of attention to themselves, and 2. If he is not the killer, then the killer is on loose, and the boys are very distracted, which makes them easy targets. 

This is the most recent offering from directors RKSS (Roadkill Superstar), a trio of talented young Canadians otherwise known as Anouk Whissell, François Simard, and Yoann-Karl Whissell. Summer of 84 is inevitably being compared to Stranger Things, but that comparison isn’t really fair, just a lazy nod to the 1980s nostalgia they both evoke. Summer of 84 more like The Goonies, a childhood adventure movie, but with higher stakes. RKSS is not afraid to let some kids meet with some pretty real-world consequences.

As you can imagine, this movie is brimming with barely-awakened testosterone, and enough tension to blow the roofs off several treehouses. 105 minutes is a long time to be barely containing the urge to scream “Get out of there!!!!” in a theatre full of heavy-breathing moviegoers. My notebook reveals that I survived the ordeal by sketching people’s shoes. But I also survived by being pleasantly surprised by the production value in this movie. RKSS know and love their gore, but they’ve also crafted a movie that looks terrific. It certainly looks levels above what their budget must have dictated, and it’s rooted in an 80s realism you’ll identify as “grandparent’s rec room chic” rather than the too-slick, glossy, neon, facile and over-stylized way many other directors are dazzled by. Of course, it’s rather ironic since the film makers were not likely even born yet in the summer of 84, but who’s counting?

The four young actors are all quite good; Verchere has an honest and earnest face that’s hard not to root for, and Emery’s face is probably already familiar to you. There’s an easy and genuine camaraderie between the boys, which makes it easy to care for them even if their characters aren’t exactly well-developed. And getting us to care for the lambs being left to slaughter isn’t something you can take for granted in a horror movie. Blood comes cheap, but RKSS pays full price.

 

 

Skyscraper

It’s no Die Hard.

That’s my four-word review of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s latest action film, in which he plays an ex-FBI agent turned security consultant who has to rescue his family from the world’s tallest building when it’s set on fire by robbers.

The fact it’s no Die Hard is not entirely a bad thing, because at least it isn’t a blatant rip-off of one of the best action movies ever. But it’s partly a bad thing, because Die Hard is amazing and Skyscraper clearly wants to remind me of it (Skyscraper may also be trying to remind me of other movies like The Towering Inferno if I’d ever seen it, but since I haven’t, you get to hear only about Die Hard).

Skyscraper falls well short of Die Hard for a lot of reasons, but the main difference is this: while both movies are ridiculous, Die Hard fully embraces its implausibility. Bruce Willis is right there with us when we’re thinking that it should never have come to him jumping off a hundred story building with a fire hose tied around his waist. Conversely, the Rock is not with us at those moments, because he’s The Rock, a character that can do anything. When the Rock pulls a very similar stunt to Willis, as far as the Rock is concerned, it is not because things have escalated beyond the point of believability.  It is because that is one of the things the Rock can do that no one else would even try (and, incidentally, whether one is brave enough to attempt a stunt like that is not a measure of one’s love for family, because if you really want to save your family, you have to NOT DIE, and by my count any real human being died about eight different times during the Rock’s rescue effort).

As well, it is an unfortunate sign of our times that the two-minute rope sequence, like almost every other dramatic moment in this movie, somehow is captured live on news cameras, for the benefit of a cheering and live-streaming crowd, and also on monitors throughout the very building that the Rock is trying to sneak into and rescue his family from. This not only adds about 15 minutes of pointless  crowd footage to a movie that feels much, much longer than its 1 hour 49 minute run time, but it also takes away from the cat-and-mouse dynamic because at all times the bad guys can easily find the Rock in this massive 220 story building by watching 30 seconds of live news.

Even then, I was tolerating this movie and willing to give it a pass until the end, when everyone involved had run out of half-baked ideas and just hit the reset button to find a way out of the fire. I shouldn’t have expected any more than that, so don’t ask me why I got my hopes up, and now I owe an apology to Ant-Man and the Wasp.

The Feels

Andi and Lu are being celebrated at their joint bachelorette party. Andi’s friends are fun but their clique is perhaps intimidating to those on the outside – which number only Lu, and her one friend Helen, the only friend of hers to show up (the elusive Nikki is forever “on her way” and “almost there”). Of course Helen is a notable odd duck, would be odd no matter which pond she was quacking in, the type of forward, abrasive character you’d expect Melissa McCarthy or Fortune Feimster to play (though in this case played by Ever Mainard).

When Nikki does finally arrive, she brings Ecstasy, and conflict, and it’s hard to say which is ultimately worse for the group. Secrets come out, secrets GET TOLD. Like, for example, the fact that Lu (Angela Trimbur) has never had an orgasm and fiancee Andi MV5BNDkxODNhNTQtMDgyNy00YjM5LWE5NzEtMjk1YThmZTc4MzBmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTEzNDY5MjM@._V1_(Constance Wu) is the last to know because Lu’s been faking this whole time. Which, you can imagine, is not a great thing to be learning when you’re mere moments away from marrying the person. And in the company of everyone you know. So that it becomes THE topic of conversation for the rest of the weekend, which is fucking awkward, dude!

The Feels isn’t bursting with originality. It isn’t bursting with anything. It’s a pretty low-key movie. But in between Helen’s bouts of inappropriateness, the ladies talk some real talk, which is kind of refreshing; taboo subjects get a full airing here. It’s a safe place for women to dish about their sexuality, and more. But despite some great inter-cast chemistry, a safe space for feelings does not necessarily a fun or exciting movie make. It was all right, but in the end, easily forgotten, which is not something I imagined I’d be saying about a movie about the mysteries of the female orgasm ACTUALLY TOLD FROM THE FEMALE PERSPECTIVE.

Birthmarked

Catherine and Ben are a couple of brilliant scientists who decide to distinguish their research from the pack by becoming field scientists like no one ever has before. They get an enthusiastic financial backer and retreat to a cabin in the woods where they’ll put nature vs nurture to the ultimate test, asking: could we ever have been anyone other than who we are?

Catherine (Toni Collette) is pregnant, and she and Ben (Matthew Goode) plan to raise their son contrary to his genetic predisposition; the son of scientists will be nurtured toward the artistic. To flesh out their research, they adopt two more children, a girl from dimwit parents who will be nurtured to have high intellect, and a boy adopted from BirthmarkedFeat-1300x867violent people who will be ushered toward pacifism. Thus pass 12 years. But as time goes by, it seems evident that the kids aren’t tending toward any kind of genius. They’re mediocre, leaning toward their natural tendencies. Their benefactor isn’t pleased with the results. And with competing research on the brink of publishing, he’s pushing for things to be rather brought to a head, without seeming to realize that these are actual children we’re talking about. And though Catherine is properly horrified by the thought, Ben is perhaps slower to protest.

Birthmarked is an interesting premise, and well-acted; aside from Toni Collette, who is an absolute boss and can do no wrong, never has, I was particularly pleased by a pop-up role from Xavier Dolan muse and frequent collaborator, Suzanne Clement. But these extremely talented folk seem to ramble around in a script that needed a lot of tightening. Rambling to no particular avail, either – blink and you’ll miss the “climax” which is not a word that adequately describes something simply ending. Birthmarked felt a lot like Captain Fantastic‘s ugly cousin – looser, less successful. And since it falls way short of the oddball charm I hope like heck it was aiming for, the whole thing feels a lot more like…well, child abuse. None of the characters is the true star, so the whole thing feels rather pointless and lusterless, and I can’t help but wish it was directed by nearly anyone else since nearly everyone else has a point of view, and that’s what I missed the most in this movie with a good idea and zero execution.

 

Ant-Man and the Wasp

ant man and the waspThe very definition of superhero fatigue is seeing the latest Marvel instalment and having nothing to say. Not a speck of inspiration. Is that Ant-Man’s fault? Only partially. It’s very by-the-numbers, it doesn’t add anything to the ongoing MCU saga, and it’s hard to go back in time prior to Avengers: Infinity War, when we know half of these people will soon be dust (and also, soon after that, not dust anymore so the MCU can keep churning out sequels).

But also, when we’ve had a run of Marvel movies with spectacular visuals and fresh takes on flagship heroes (Thor: Ragnarok), timely and thoughtful takes on nationalism with a fully realized villain (Black Panther), and massive, galaxy spanning tales crammed with practically every hero there is (Infinity War), Ant-Man feels so small. While that’s entirely fitting for Ant-Man, it is a drastic change of pace from those three prior MCU films in particular, and the one-upping arms race that has been the MCU since the start.

Jay said some time ago (maybe on the site, maybe just to me) that the coming-of-age moment for superhero movies was when subgenres started popping up – superhero satire (Deadpool), superhero western (Logan), even superhero rom-com (this movie!). So maybe it’s time to get past this shared universe thing and evaluate Ant-Man as an actual movie. And on its own, it’s a team effort featuring a lot of memorable characters, a nice will-they, won’t-they featuring charismatic leads (and equals), and an entertaining way to spend two hours at the movies.

Overall, though, it’s a good thing we have a break in the MCU schedule until next spring, because I badly need one. Of course, you can be sure that I’ll be in line when the next superhero movie comes out, dragging Jay along like always.  What can I say? I’m addicted, always have been, but it’s to the point where I need something stronger to feel as good about these films as I did in the early days.

 

To Each, Her Own

Simone and Claire are celebrating their 3rd anniversary together. Simone promises that should she blow out all the candles at once, she’ll finally come out to her family. She gives good blow, but can she keep her word?

Simone (Sarah Stern) insists that she’s ready, in fact beyond ready, to come out: the problem is her family. And when we meet them, well, it may be true. Her mom already treats her like an odd duck because she’s a non-practicing Jew. Of course, all the idiosyncrasies that Simone nitpicks about her mother are also true of her, she just can’t see it yet. Give it some time. We all turn into our mothers, ESPECIALLY the crazy ones. And it turns out there’s already a disappointment in the family; Simone’s brother is gay, and her father is very clear on the “fact” that homosexuality is a IMG_20180624_123946disease, one that he does not want brought into his home. Simone fears that a second coming-out will prompt a heart attack, but her father’s health concerns seem, frankly, a bit brought on by himself. Perhaps worst of all, her oldest brother operates a Jewish dating site, and neither he nor his mother can think of a better way to marry her off, with or without her consent.

Does all of this create problems for poor Simone? Of course it does. But, um, so does the handsome Senegalese chef (Jean-Christophe Folly) at her favourite restaurant. The way things are going, Simone may not have a Claire (Julia Piaton) to come home to for much longer. Is this movie merely masquerading as queer cinema? It feels a tad, I don’t know, homophobic at times, like it really doesn’t respect lesbians or their relationships very much at all.

What To Each, Her Own boils down to is a lot of stereotypes and a lot of ideas that don’t quite amount to much, and certainly not to a very satisfying conclusion. If this is a comedy, it isn’t an overly comedic one, but it’s certainly not super romantic either, so it kind of waffles about in the farcical gray zone, sort of toying with stepping over the line in racial, religious, and sexual spheres, so in that way it’s a real triple threat. Or a triple non-threat. A triple mistake. A triple cringe. I guess this is me not really recommending this movie at all, unless you’re that rare, self-hating gay Jew who enjoys taunting fathers into cardiac arrest.

 

Columbus

Jin is summoned from Korea to Columbus, Ohio by Eleanor when his estranged father collapses. Jin impatiently waits out his father’s coma, and seems to prefer death over recovery, for selfish reasons. He can’t bear to to sit by his father’s hospital bed, and he’s not going to speak to him now since the two haven’t spoken in a year. So he wanders about, trying to appreciate what his father loved about Columbus’s unique architecture.

This is how Jin (John Cho) meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman stayed in Columbus to take care of her addict mother rather than pursuing her own dreams in college and beyond.

The cool thing about Columbus is its cinematography, which is surprisingly beautiful in such a small, independent film. It frames the architecture well – except scratch that, I’m embarrassed by this underwhelming sentiment. Because the truth is, the way the buildings are framed and posed and shown and hidden – it made me feel MV5BZjNjY2Q2NjAtOWI0My00ZDg3LTljNzEtNzhiYzkzNzUwMTI0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzI3NjY2ODc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_things about architecture. The photography is just as kind to its human characters, but the way it treats the artistry of the buildings turns them into characters as well, characters that reflect and mirror or juxtapose and contrast. It’s clear that writer-director Kogonada has put a lot of thought and time and research into his baby.

Columbus isn’t an ambition story, it’s just two people, fairly dissimilar, who cross paths as they kill time in different ways. They’re both waiting on parents, and probably shouldn’t be. They’re both learning what that means and who it makes them as people and what effect they’ll allow the past to have on their futures. It’s mostly quiet and introspective, but the composition and structure and the precision of the visuals come together – not to overcome the silence, but to act in synchronicity. Kogonada finds serenity in stasis but that doesn’t mean his film doesn’t pack an emotional punch. It’s just a minimalist canvas upon which you can project a lot of your own feelings, and come away feeling just a bit refreshed, and just a tiny bit hopeful.

The Ornithologist

Ornithologists: a strange bunch. Imagine being so enthralled by the mere sight of a bird that you allow your kayak to get sucked into life-endangering rapids. Obviously there are lots of branches of zoology and people get off on studying all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures. I just have a hard time imagining an entomologist (a person who studies insects) getting half as nutty and obsessive about ants as the average bird watcher is about anything.

Fernando (Paul Hamy) is an ornithologist who seems to relish the solitary aspects of quietly pursing winged friends. But one day his quest to lay eyes on a black stork MV5BNzdiOTM4MjctN2VhOS00M2FiLTg0OGUtNjgxNDMzYTRhMzNjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjAyMzAyMw@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_goes too far and it gets him into serious trouble. I have trouble feeling sorry for him, because if he was going to half the effort to watch an ex-girlfriend, we’d call it stalking and throw him in jail. Am I really to believe it’s any less creepy when the subject of his intensity is a bird? In my book, that makes it worse. Luckily for him, a) I’m not the bird police, and b) a couple of lady hikers rescue him when the bird poop hits the fan.

The Ornithologist sets a strange tone right away. I don’t trust it because the camera focuses on certain things and I don’t know why. It sets me on edge straight away. Before the story has even begun, this movie is talking to me. Its angles, and especially through his binoculars, give such a restricted view it makes me nervous.

Unfortunately, the slightly odd, “good Christian” Chinese hikers are lost, and they beg Fernando to stay with them as they are quite afraid of the forest. I concur, ladies. These woods are scary – though perhaps not half threatening as the people in them.

The Ornithologist is a deeply strange movie and it absolutely will not appeal to everyone. Director João Pedro Rodrigues mixes Catholic symbolism with Portuguese mythology to make a muddy, opaque picture that will allow you to discover new facets of yourself, even as Fernando does the same on screen. Personally, I developed a new mantra while watching The Ornithologist. I was at the 1h16m mark when I realized I was quietly chanting whatthefuckishappening over and over. I still don’t know the answer but I do know I have an impressive capacity for audacious meditation.