Author Archives: Jay

The Secret Garden

1947: India and Pakiston are separating. It is a time of violence and unrest. When little Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is left alone in a big house, she remains undiscovered for quite some time. When no parents reappear to claim her, she is sent to England, to live with an uncle she’s never met. Housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) warns that when,or indeed if, her uncle should greet her, she’d better not stare. That’s as warm a welcome as she’s likely to get.

The staff, even sweet Martha (Isis Davis), think her a spoiled brat, and even if it’s true, she can’t help how she’s been raised, and she’s certainly not being corrected here. And she is, after all, a young orphaned girl living in a cold stranger’s house with no one and nothing that’s familiar or kind. Perhaps in 1911 (when the book was first published) it was acceptable to be both judgmental AND neglectful of small children who’ve done nothing wrong except exist, and to ignore the childhood trauma they’ve so recently survived. Our understanding and common sense today is a lot more sympathetic, but the movie is careful not to show it, staying true to its source material. Mary is therefore so lonely in this new place that she makes friends with a mangy dog named Jemima even though she’s clearly afraid of her. But in the complete absence of other children (or so she thinks), a dog will do.

Likely you know the rest. It’s a goddamn classic. Mary finds a beautiful secret garden, makes some friends, they change each other’s lives, and she wins the heart of her reclusive, anxious uncle Archibald (Colin Firth).

My sisters and I loved the 1993 version of the film and I wondered if that would be a hindrance to my enjoying this one. I can’t say for sure of course, whether I’ve managed to be unbiased or not, but I never quite felt this film justified its existence. Hopefully it allows a new generation of kids to discover the book, and perhaps the universe simply needs to reboot stories like this periodically. It’s a criminal under-use of both Colin Firth and Julie Walters, but that’s just being true to the story. Are the kids cute? Sure they are, and not bad actors either, and it’s not a bad move introducing even just a bit of colour to the cast. Hello, 21st Century.

It’s not a bad adaptation, really, I can’ t say anything negative about it. I was, however, surprised to find this particular garden to be more magic than secret – the film uses CGI pretty liberally to make that garden come alive. I didn’t remember “my” movie being like that, but when I took a quick look at the trailer, it in fact did have the early 90s version of CG, I’d just misremembered. It makes sense – if you had a magic garden, you’d be best to keep it secret. Well done, Frances Hodgson Burnett. Cheers, girl. But that’s the trouble with nostalgia, isn’t it? We confuse our memories with emotion, and it ends up infused with a warm glow it may not technically deserve. The real thing never quite matches up with the way we remember it, so new iterations don’t stand a chance.

I also felt this story deserved/needed updating if we were going to be bothered with it once again. It took me a minute but eventually realized it WAS updated – though rather trivially. Burnett published the novel in 1911; Mary was said to be living at the turn of the century. This movie moves the story forward – to 1947, for no real reason, except maybe they couldn’t procure a wheel chair that was old-timey enough? But what a waste: kids today can’t relate to estranged, wealthy, hunchbacked uncles, or hiding “crippled” children away in the attic and denying their existence, or de-colonizing “British India,” or the proper way for a child to address a servant. This movie fails to add anything new to the conversation; with at least 11 previous adaptions across all platforms, we hardly needed another.Harping on a little less about a beloved skipping rope hardly qualifies as a fresh interpretation. Heck, this isn’t even the first time Colin Firth’s been in a Secret Garden film! Maybe these incessant, unoriginal reboots need to make like Mary’s parents and die in an epidemic already. Oddly, that’s the only part of the material that still has relevance today, and I think if one thing has united we 7 billion people, it’s that we’re not terribly fond of them. Let’s find a vaccine for COVID-19 and then transition directly to finding one to inoculate against horrible retreads and a perverse lack of imagination.

Project Power

911 is being flooded with calls of very, very strange occurrences. People are having some very unusual reactions to a new drug they call Power. Everyone reacts differently to it, and some very badly. Police aren’t just powerless to stop it – some people can out-run cop cars on foot while taking it, others become bullet-resistant. Basically, you get some kind of super power, but it’s temporary, you don’t get to choose it, and sometimes it just kills you dead. As they say: results may vary.

Today this drug is toppling police precincts, tomorrow: governments. So one local cop, Frank, operates a little outside the bounds of his badge with a young drug dealer named Robin to get it off the street before it’s too late. Which may or may not line up with the intentions of a man named Art, an ex-military man who is rather single-mindedly looking for his daughter who is somehow mixed up in all of this.

Discerning individuals may already think this premise sounds interesting, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Perhaps you don’t need any further convincing, so this is just icing on the cake: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It seems like not very long ago we were lamenting his rather lengthy sabbatical from Hollywood, but he’s following up his return to film in 7500 with a far different turn as a dedicated but unorthodox New Orleans police officer. Once he teams up with super stubborn soldier dad Art (Jamie Foxx), you’ve got a combo you can’t take your eyes off of. But you will, because the third member rounding out their trio, Robin (Dominique Fishback), may have rap dreams, a sick mom, and unfinished math homework, but she holds her own between these fiercely driven men. This is a star-making role for Fishback, whose talents help set this film apart.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman serve up an adrenalized sci-fi action film that’s got some pretty slick and nearly non-stop violence binges. It hardly leaves room to catch your breath, let alone contemplate these characters and who they might be when they’re not chasing down Dr.Evil. Project Power is thrilling and engaging but it’s no Marvel: not everyone can afford the many phases and chapters of a cinematic universe. Most films, this one included, have just under 2 hours to tell a complete story. Project Power can only hint at themes like what is power, and who should wield it. Most of the time, Joost and Schulman choose action over narrative, and you can hardly blame them for it, given the tempting material. I do, however, blame them just a bit (and screenwriter Mattson Tomlin) for an embarrassing lack of imagination. Not one of their super powers is original; you will find each one has already been dreamed up by comic book writers 50 years ago. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun to watch someone ignite like a real-life human torch. I just wish we knew enough about the guy (Machine Gun Kelly, ugh) to appreciate what in his DNA or his personality is self-selecting this particular power and how finely it straddles the line between weaponized flame thrower and self-immolation.

An American Pickle

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that one day the hospital calls and tells you to come pick up your great-grandfather. The one that’s been dead for a hundred years. Yeah, that one. Herschel. It’s a Rip Van Winkle/Encino Man kind of thing. Just trust that the science is sound and poor Herschel’s been perfectly preserved in pickle juice this whole time, and has just now awoken. Enter his only living relative, Ben, who gamely picks him up and introduces him to 2020. The movie never pauses over the fact that Ben asks no questions, makes no deliberations, just makes room in his life and his home for a complete stranger who looks nearly identical to him, is his same exact age, but is from another time and place.

Herschel has a deep-rooted fear of Cossacks and his highest aspiration is to one day try seltzer water. Ben is an insecure app developer who just happens to own a soda stream. Both men are played by Seth Rogen. This is very much the Seth Rogen show. All of Herschel’s friends are dead, and Ben appears to be a loner. It’s double Seth and little else. Not that that’s a bad thing. In fact, it gives Rogen a chance to flex. When both characters are on screen, you can appreciate how fully he has created two separate and distinct portraits. It’s kind of impressive, actually.

The story uses the dual perspectives to weigh values like religion, duty, family, and legacy. Herschel has the can-do work ethic that, as an immigrant in search of a better life for his family, helps him pursue the American dream. Ben, Brooklyn born and bred, has lost touch with his roots and is apathetic toward his religion and ethnicity. Sometimes we marvel that our ancestors were bold enough to relocate to foreign lands, leaving behind family, familiarity, culture, language, memories and possessions, with no guarantee that anything would ever be better. And sometimes we wonder if those ancestors who risked life traveling over rough seas and blazed actual paths through unyielding lands did it so that we could stay in bed all day binge-watching Bravo. This is probably not the future they envisioned when they risked it all. But while you and I may have a vague feeling that the past would be disappointed by the present, Ben is confronted with that feeling very, very viscerally. His name is Herschel, and he gives zero fucks.

We Summon The Darkness

Picture it: a road trip circa 1998. The car is fully stocked with ding dongs, and there’s some snack cakes in there too (ba dum tss). Friends Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Val (Maddie Hasson), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth) are a trio of metalheads on their way to a concert. The newspaper and radio warn that satanic ritual killings now number 18 in the area but so far the biggest threat on the road seems to be from a van full of rowdy boys splashing chocolate milkshake across their windshield. It’s super awkward when they all meet up in the parking lot of the show later, but nothing a little light-hearted mutual pranking won’t fix.

The boys can’t believe their luck, really. Bandmates as well as vanmates, Ivan (Austin Swift) and Kovacs (Logan Miller) are just a touch resentful of Mark (Keean Johnson) who will soon be leaving them to pursue fame and fortune in California. But with the drugs and the rock and roll already taken care of and the promise of sex in the air, they’re feeling generally pretty stoked. Gathered around a fire, playing the classic drinking game Never Have I Ever, none of them can yet take a shot for ‘been stalked by a murderer,’ nor would they even think to name it, but by the night’s end, things will have changed.

The film’s score features televangelist Pastor Butler (Johnny Knoxville) telling American that rock music is to blame, corrupting the youth and all. It’s clear director Marc Meyers is a fan of horror movies and his production is pretty slick. I was, however, a little disappointed by the 80s backdrop. If anyone has an excuse to really camp it up, it’s a horror movie, but this one takes such a subtle approach it comes off as inauthentic. If it hadn’t blatantly stated that it was set in 1988, I likely wouldn’t have noticed until people failed to pull out cell phones in an emergency (and even that’s not a dead giveaway since these dildos had access to a landline they also chose not to use). We Summon The Darkness is a bit of subversive send up to slasher flicks but while there’s plenty of blood, there’s absolutely no tension. I get scared by horror movies about as easily as cats get surprised by zucchinis (translation: very, very easily, if you somehow missed this trend, look it up), but this one was so easy peasy it felt more like an unfunny parody. Are you into those, perchance?

The Lost Husband

If you were hoping for a mystery based on the title, allow me to deflate your expectations: the husband is not lost. In fact, he’s the most definitively located husband you can get, ie, buried 6 feet under. His widow, Libby (Leslie Bibb), is the one who is lost. And their home too, lost to the bank thanks to him leaving them destitute. So Libby’s been rootless ever since, and has just bopped from her mother’s house to her estranged aunt’s, with her two kids in tow.

But aunt Jean (Nora Dunn!) isn’t so much welcoming house guests as exploiting free labour for her little farm. Farmhand James (Josh Duhamel) sure could use the help since he does sing to each goat individually. But don’t thinking he looks like a rugged, gruff romantic interest for our newly single Libby. He’s got his own wife to contend with, only she doesn’t have the decency to die. Oooh, yeah, okay, I heard that. It sounds a little crass. But she had a stroke and is either comatose or incapacitated, in any case hospitalized for life, and he’s her devoted caretaker even though we’ve already been given moral permission to hate and dismiss her.

This is a romantic movie with a subtle western flavour. It’s got B-list stars, a Hallmark script, and a truly Texan pace (picture a bow-legged cowboy sauntering unhurriedly in the heat, with a piece of straw hanging from his mouth, a squint in his eye, his thumb hooked behind that oversized belt buckle). Sean calls it slow and boring. A more generous soul might call it unrushed and indulgently lengthy. No matter how you separate the wheat from the chaff, writer-director Vicky Wight delivers an old-fashioned romance, the kind with little heat, chemistry, or passion, but plenty of milk glass, burlap chivalry, and rustic charm.

Nothing in this movie is going to wow you, nothing elevates the material or pushes the genre forward. It’s a very standard, safe entry into the romance genre and should please people already predisposed and win over absolutely no one.

[Confidential to Popular fans: keep your eyes peeled for a Carly Pope cameo.]

Upside Down

The only thing I can be sure about is that I WILL get this movie review wrong.

I’m of two very distinct minds:

  1. What the hell???????
  2. What THE hell!!!!!!!!!

So you see how I’m conflicted. For the first 10 minutes, you’re holding on for dear life, frankly surprised they didn’t supply a pencil and paper just to jot down notes, though the movie’s prologue moves a little too fast for accuracy and I repeatedly asked Sean to pause the movie just to see if we were understanding the same basic things.

Which are: Where Adam lives, there are twin planets with opposite gravity. If you climbed to the highest peak of your planet, you could nearly touch the outstretched hand of a person on the highest peak of theirs. But you can’t hop over because your gravity is keeping you on your planet and their gravity is keeping them on theirs.

They are twin planets but not equally prosperous; Adam’s planet is known as the “down below” and the other as the “up top,” which describes their relative wealth more than their actual cosmic positions since the other planet is always technically looming over whichever one your feet are planted on. Contact between worlds is dangerous, and forbidden. The only authorized contact is through Transworld, a big business that the Up Top uses to take cheap resources from Down Below and then sell it back to them at prices they can’t afford. A Transworld oil refinery explosion killed Adam’s parents and destroyed most of their city when he was young. He grew up in foster care and visited his Great Aunt Becky on weekends, who makes her famous flying pancakes for him using pollen sourced from pink bees which feed off flowers from both worlds. It’s a closely guarded family secret, and Aunt Becky vanishes before she can fully pass it on to Adam. He’ll spend the rest of his life trying to perfect the recipe.

When Adam (Jim Sturgess) is a kid, he meets Eden (Kirsten Dunst), a girl from the Up Top as they’re both perched on respective peaks. They’re crafty and they find ways to see each other even though it’s very much not allowed. But you know teenagers, especially star-crossed teenagers: forbidden love makes them extra horny. They have to get extra creative when it comes to makeout sessions, and you may find that it reminds you a bit of Dunst’s former life as Mary Jane Watson.

Anyway, the two are inevitably pulled apart but Adam never gives up hope that some day they will be reunited. So what we end up with is a drama / action / adventure / fantasy / sci-fi romance. Did I leave anything out? Actually, the problem is writer director Juan Solanas didn’t leave anything out. He has this rich, fecund concept, some pretty dazzling CGI, and a wonderfully bizarre and original premise, but…he fails to correctly identify the film’s core. Solanas believes it to be gravity but it’s actually weight. I know the two are related, but gravity is basically directly unobservable. It’s the magic that makes things work, but it’s weight that lends the story heft. This movie had incredible bubbles of creativity but there’s no character development and little emotional investment. Solanas went to some great trouble with his world-building, but it’s like if you took the instantly forgettable 1999 rom-com Drive Me Crazy but made it look like The Matrix. Not only is it a missed opportunity, it kind of makes you resent it for luring you in with a false promise in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Full Measure

Retired Master Sergeant Thomas Tully (William Hurt) picks a bad day to visit Scott (Sebastian Stan) at his office. Scott’s boss has just quit unexpectedly, and with an election looming, it’s likely that Scott will soon be out of a job. So yes, Scott’s been shuffling Tully’s paperwork around on his desk for months now, but today wasn’t super ideal in terms of bringing it to his attention. Tully gets the brush off, has been getting it in some form or another for more than 30 years.

Tully fought in the Vietnam war, and he’s asking for a decorations review, an upgrade from the Cross to a Medal of Honor, not for himself, but for a comrade who didn’t come back, a young man named Pitsenbarger, known as Pits. On a particularly bloody day of the war, Operation Abilene, one company was used pretty much as bait, and before the sun set they’d taken 80% casualties all on that single day. And the only reason the other 20% survived was because of Pits, a man who didn’t need to be there, and wasn’t part of the operation. He was Air Force, part of pararescue. He and his unit were hovering in their helicopter trying to evacuate soldiers when he assessed the situation and acted. He went down. We went down because the company had already lost their medic and were taking an awful lot of fire. There were wounded everywhere. It was a miracle that he survived the descent, but what he did on land was even more remarkable.

Except his actions had only posthumously been awarded a Cross when the grateful survivors had put him up for an MOH. They were still pursuing it this many years later, hoping to commemorate all he had done for men he didn’t even know.

Scott’s in a tricky position career-wise and gets sent to check out this story. He interviews the survivors, many of them reluctant, all of them haunted (including Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, and Ed Harris). And he visits the Pitsenbarger family, finding parents (Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd) still grieving their son. This assignment may have started as a way to run out the clock on his former position, but as he begins to comprehend the black hole of bureaucracy that this simple request has suffered, he becomes more committed to seeing in through. It’s about more than acknowledging the sacrifice made by The Pitsenbarger family, it’s a balm on the psychic wounds of the people he saved. The Vietnam war in particular offered so little to its returning vets that this was really their last avenue for healing their emotional scars.

Writer-director Todd Robinson’s film is earnest, safe, and sensitive. It’s also true. It very carefully toes the tricky path of celebrating the contributions of those who served without condoning the war itself. But more than that, it serves as a reminder of a war that may have fallen away from public consciousness but is still serving aftershocks to those who narrowly survived and to the families of those who did not.

Work It

Netflix has been delivering a steady stream of movies for young adults, and for the most part they can be sorted into two broad categories: dance, and the insanely high standards of college admissions. Every generation has a teenage dance movie. My mom had Footloose and Dirty Dancing; I grew up with Save The Last Dance and Bring It On, and Netflix has recently served the likes of Feel The Beat, which failed to get my toes tapping. Am I simply getting too old? I’m definitely feeling sorry for young people who have spawned the second teenage trope: the pressure to be perfect. And as Quinn discovers in Work It, sometimes being perfect isn’t enough. In fact, her dream school seems on the verge of rejecting her for being too good. First we exchange childhood for resume-building, time-sucking extra-curriculars, and now we fault them for it?

Quinn (Sabrina Carpenter) really wants to go to Duke. Or her mom really wants her to go to Duke. Or her dead dad really wants her to go to Duke. She’s assembled the perfect college admissions application, and now it’s both not enough but also too much and in any case, she doesn’t get early acceptance. The admissions officer isn’t impressed with all the perfectly checked boxes. She wants to see fire and passion and a willingness to disrupt. Rule following, Quinn is clearly not inclined to any of those things but she is surprisingly good at thinking on her feet and comes up with this juicy little lie: she claims to be on her high school’s nationally ranked dance squad, the Thunderbirds (as seen on Ellen!) (clearly this script was written before Ellen’s big fall from grace). Now all she has to do is make her lie the truth. Fool proof, right?

In fact, Quinn’s best friend Jasmine (Liza Koshy) is on that very dance team, aiming to be a professional dancer. She quite selflessly devotes hours to turning rhythmless Quinn into someone worthy of a Thunderbirds audition. There’s only one open spot on the dance team, and no matter how much dance-cramming Quinn does in the next 2 weeks, she’s never going to earn it even if captain Julliard (Keiynan Lonsdale) didn’t harbour a huge grudge against her, which he totally does. So wannabe disrupter Quinn forms her own dance team, claiming Jasmine as its captain and a bunch of other single-skilled classmates as filler on an already extremely lean team. Jasmine is obviously the world’s bestest friend ever and also incredibly stupid. She has single-mindedly pursued dance, has no fall-back whatsoever, and has now left the team that will guarantee the right scouts see her. Luckily Quinn is resourceful. She tracks down an old champ with something left to prove – Jake (Jordan Fisher) will make an excellent choreographer if only she can coax him out of hiding.

I feel like this movie should have annoyed the shit out of me like so many of its recent predecessors, but the truth is, it’s got some very likable leads in roles that feel grounded and more fully-realized than many similar movies have bothered with. I am not its target demographic but I suspect Work It is about to enjoy a wider audience because it gets the basics right and has personality even though it’s fairly predictable. Dance isn’t going to magically save anyone’s patootie but Work It does make a case for making a little time in all that parent-driven future-planning to just enjoy something for enjoyment’s sake. This generation are perhaps the least rebellious teenagers the world has ever seen. Their youth is micro-managed and filled to the point of bursting with activities and carefully curated recreation but no real leisure. If we’ve learned one thing from this pandemic, it’s that maybe slowing down a bit is not such a bad thing. It’s not going to be dance for everyone – maybe it’s even watching a dance movie on Netflix – but taking time out and time off are so important for well-being, and the pursuit of true passions is what replenishes us when the grind has been too much.

Malibu Rescue: The Next Wave

So apparently Malibu Rescue is a show that people watch and is popular (cheap) enough to have already spawned a “movie.” This is its second, but we’re just jumping in here totally blind, literally never having heard of it before and yet somehow trusting that we’ll “get it.”

We didn’t get it. I mean, we followed the plot, such as it was. It’s basically Cool Runnings meets Baywatch where not only do you wish you were watching Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson instead, you’d even take Doug E. Doug and be grateful for it.

First, we’re going to need to swallow our pride for a minute and realize we’re not getting the Malibu Rescue team but the Junior Malibu Rescue team. The real team is busy competing in an apparently very serious international beach obstacle course that they treat with the reverence of the lifeguard Olympics.

But oh no! Tyler (Ricardo Hurtado) accidentally/on purpose poisons the A team so the Junior squad has to sub in. Luckily Gina (Breanna Yde) has a natural drill sergeant inclination but she’s got just 3 days to whip her team into shape. Dylan (Jackie R. Jacobson) and Lizzie (Abby Donnelly) break poor Eric (Alkoya Brunson) out of summer school (resorting to animal abuse and an uninspired not to mention insultingly bad mannequin ruse to get the job done). Cue up the obligatory training montage featuring a lot of sand eating and nobody’s washboard abs glistening in the sunshine (Zac!).

This is the kind of kid show that has such over-the-top acting that you start to feel bad for the adult actors. It can’t have been anyone’s dream to play a bus driver named Vooch who routinely gets overshadowed by diarrhea pranks. It really makes Pamela Anderson’s slow-mo running look dignified by comparison.

Is this a good movie? Not remotely. But I suspect if you like the show, you’ll like the movie. I mean, not only does the movie play like an extended episode of the show, it’s a barely extended episode at just 68 minutes, which sounds like a light commitment but I assure you it does feel like a hard 5 hours. However, if you’re in the market for some Malibu rescue with very little actual rescue and a side of obnoxious American patriotism and just a smidge of G-rated flirtation, wow, that’s an oddly specific fetish, but you’re in luck! And I’ll be relieved not to be alone on the watch list this movie is obviously bait for. Trust me: nothing can be unintentionally this bad.

Almost Love

IMDB describes this film as ‘An ensemble comedy about romance in the smartphone era’ which, if you read my review of Jexi, you’ll know made me want to find the nearest toilet and throw my phone right in, but since that thing knows my contacts AND my passwords, I just punched myself in the face instead. But I still watched the movie, through two swollen black eyes.

And I’m glad I did. Had you not read this description, you never would have paid much attention to the phones. They are, as in most people’s experience, simply an accessory to our daily lives. This is how we live now; they are as omnipresent as Ubers and pumpkin spice lattes and Donald Trump’s nonsensical tweets.

A group of grown-up friends in NYC is figuring shit out in life and love. It’s like Friends, if Rachel fell in love with a minor, Monica fucked a homeless dude, and Chandler made counterfeit paintings. Roughly speaking.

Haley (Zoe Chao) is trying to disentangle herself from a dependency situation of her own making; Cammy (Michelle Buteau) is realizing that the dating pool is so dire her deal breakers are surprisingly few; Marklin (Augustus Prew) is too busy carefully curating his Instagram posts to notice his actual life is a whole lot messier; Adam (Scott Evans) has so much suppressed rage it’s manifesting in physical blows; and Elizabeth (Kate Walsh) has for so long been the mascot for love in her circle of friends she’s having a hard time telling them she’s getting a divorce. When life isn’t perfect, do you lower your standards? Your expectations?

Mike Doyle writes and directs this low-key comedy, which works about as often as it doesn’t. Well, “doesn’t” is unfair. It’s more like: moments of thoughtful introspection, moments of surprisingly zany comedy, and moments that are achingly predictable. All elevated by a talented cast, the stand-out being Buteau, who I’ve seen stealing scenes in several Netflix movies now, and was glad to finally hold on to for more than just a few minutes at a time.

This movie kind of snuck up on me. I was enjoying it in a modest sort of way but then the end was somehow more than the sum of its parts. Love is hard. Life is hard. Everyone just wants to be seen, and when a film can reflect back your neuroses, your insecurities, your pettiest resentments without making you feel small or unfit, when it knows that finding true love, be they friends or be they lovers, means finding someone who sees the good and the bad and loves the whole package, then I think that movie has done its job.