Author Archives: Matt

Genocidal Organ

In the near future, a devastating terrorist attack in Sarajevo shocks the world. The governments of most industrialized countries use the widespread panic to justify an increase in surveillance of their own citizens. While the developed world is safer than ever before, the third world- without the means to conduct such widespread surveillance- descends into chaos and mass murder.

Captain Clavis Shepherd  is one of the few Americans unfortunate enough to have to navigate this chaos. As a covert intelligence agent, Shepherd conducts bloody and dangerous missions around the world while his superiors monitor his vitals from Washington to make sure he’s not feeling too much compassion. His latest mission is to track down the mysterious John Paul, the architect of so many genocides around the world.

Genocidal Organ is not always easy to follow but will reward those who try to try to keep up. It took me about twenty minutes, given that this is a Japanese film with Japanese animation and Japanese voice actors speaking Japanese, to realize that most of these characters are supposed to be American. It feels weird at first. This must be how Russian people feel watching Eastern Promises. Once you’ve figured out who everyone is though, it’s easy enough to settle in and just enjoy the movie.

Visually, Genocidal Organ is an impressive film. The animators create a believable setting and the shootouts have better choreography than most live-action films do. As I’ve said before, I’m no good at describing animations so here are some stills to give you an idea.

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As a story, it’s an engaging spy thriller that tricks you into having fun because it looks so good. At its heart though, Genocidal Organ is hopelessly bleak. It’s a movie that, like John Paul (who is quite fond of monologuing), has a lot to say. While the script probably has a couple of speeches too many, its musings on linguistics, psychology, American foreign policy, and freedom are always interesting and often troubling. Be prepared to sit and think about this one for a few days after you see it.

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Teiichi: Battle of the Supreme High

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Don’t ask me how this happened but in 2006 I found myself reading an interview with Chris Klein. You all remember Chris Klein, right? He was Oz in the American Pie movies and, according to IMDB, Brad on a 2015 episode of Motive. Well, he was also in one of my favourite films of the 90s and this is the one I found him reminiscing about in this 2006 interview. Klein good-naturedly admitted that he was too young while filming 1999’s Election to really understand what was funny about it.

If you haven’t seen Election, it’s a subtle but hard-hitting satire about an ambitious overachiever’s quest to win her high school election. And the best way that I can describe Teiichi is it’s the Japanese version of Election that the 19 year-old Chris Klein would have loved.

teiichiTeiichi has only one ambition: to become Prime Minister and to build his own empire. Luckily, he’s come to the right place. The prestigious Kaitei College is the place to be for future world leaders and all Tiichi needs to do is be voted in as chairman of the student council and he’ll be well on his way to power and glory. Trouble is, his longtime rival Kikuma wants it just as bad as he does. So the battle for Kaitei College gets pretty intense where everything, including wiretapping, sabotage, nipple pinching, and merciless tickling is fair game.

Teiichi, based on the manga “Teiichi no Kuni”, goes for bigger laughs than Election did and isn’t afraid to go pretty lowbrow to get them. Almost every situation is taken to the wackiest possible extreme and the performers overact in the best way possible. What impressed me most was the impeccable comic timing of the physical comedy, which went a long way in helping me forgive all the exaggeration. teiichi drum

Somehow I still couldn’t help feeling sad for Teiichi, his inner circle, and his rivals. There seems to be way too much on the line for such young boys. For Teiichi, losing the student council election would almost literally mean that his life is over. Everything in his young life has been leading up to this one moment and he seems to have no idea what he would do if he were to lose.

 

In general, I will always prefer the subtlety and bite of Election to the slapstick comedy and mostly heavy-handed satire of Teiichi: Battle of the Supreme High. But somebody needs to be making movies for 19 year-old Chris Klein and Teiichi is extremely entertaining and even a little thought-provoking once you get used to its zany sense of humour.

 

The Honor Farm

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I hadn’t seen my friend Josh in months and was eager to tell him all about the exciting new movie I saw at the Fantasia Film Festival. “I just saw The Honor Farm and I’m still trying to figure it out,” I told him while seated at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

I hadn’t seen the baby boomer somehow standing right over me until he chose this moment to cut me off. “I just saw that,” he complained. “It was terrible“.

I didn’t really want to get into it with this guy nor was I even confident that I had understood the film well enough to defend it so I just smiled politely as he told me that it wasn’t even scary. I bashfully admitted that I was the guy who jumped and cried out during the final act.

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The Honor Farm is exactly that kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie that you need to let sink in while you ignore those who will immediately and loudly dismiss it. Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate) seems to feels like she’s just going through the motions as she prepares for her prom. After her drunk date embarasses her and tries to force himself on her, she reluctantly agrees to accompany her best friend Anne (Katie Folger) and a classmate she barely knows into the woods to take shrooms in an abandoned prison farm.

Other than that, the less you know about The Honor Farm the better. Although you should probably be warned that horror fans like the one described above may be disappointed. Because the set up seems bloody perfect. Eight teenagers, most of them seeming to fit a typical scary movie stereotype, entering a creepy prison on prom night might make you start placing bets on who will be first to die but this isn’t your typical scary movie. What follows is truly surreal and genre-bending and few of these character arcs play out like you’d expect.

I may have been a little lost during the closing credits but The Honor Farm keeps getting better the more i think about it. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Gifted

Apart from dramatic courtroom confessions, dick jokes, and Shia LaBeouf, there’s nothing more obnoxious onscreen than smart kids.

The smart kid in Gifted- Marc Webb’s first non-Spiderman film since 2009’s 500 Days of Mckenna Grace as “Mary Adler” and Chris Evans as “Frank AdSummer- is a 7 year-old math prodigy named Mary. Mary (Mckenna Grace) has been doing just fine being home schooled by her uncle Frank (a bearded Chris Evans) and hanging out with their neighbour (Octavia Spencer) until Frank decides she needs friends her own age and sends her to public school. It doesn’t take long for her first-grade teacher (Jenny Slate) to discover that she’s a genius and word travels fast to Mary’s estranged but suddenly very interested British grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan).

For a child prodigy in a movie called Gifted, Mary isn’t that bright. And, believe it or not, that’s a good thing. Compared to the smartass, impossibly wise and witty kids in most Hollywood movies, she’s surprisingly and refreshingly childish. She acts like a kid, talks like a kid, and plays like a kid. She’s just crazy good at math. Like Rain Man good at math. But apart from the advanced calculations that she can do in her head, she’s just an ordinary 7 year-old. And, as played by the also very gifted Mckenna Grace, she’s the best thing about this movie and is much more convincing than an uncharacteristically charismaless Evans.

Chris-Evan-GiftedScreenwriter Tom Flynn doesn’t handle complex problems quite as well as Mary does. Because the question of how best to raise any child, never mind such an unusual one, can’t be as easy as his script seems to think. The drama unfolds at a tense custody battle between Frank (who just wants Mary to have a normal childhood) and Evelyn (who wants her to go to some fancy school and dedicate herself to reaching her full potential). There are interesting questions to be had here but Flynn comes up with enough sneaky screenwriting tricks and twists to get out of having to have any of them.

If you can forgive Evans’ bland performance and Flynn’s sentimental approach, there’s a lot to like about Gifted. Actually, I’m quite confident that most people will love it and even be annoyed with me for nitpicking at it. The local audience at Wednesday’s preview screening applauded wildly at at least a half-dozen zingers and speeches. Which is my only real problem with it. It’s an entertaining movie about characters that we care about but it’s more interested in soliciting applause than it is provoking discussion.

The Last Word

the last word 2So, Harriet (Shirley MacLaine) likes things done a certain way. She gets so impatient with those who can’t follow her instructions that she often winds up having to do everything herself as she frequently pushes her gardener, cook, and hairdresser aside. So it should come as not surprise that she would want final say on her own obituary.

Enter Anne (Amanda Seyfried), the aspiring writer who Harriet hires to write her obituary. It’s not an easy job. Not just because Harriet is a demanding micro-manager. Despite all her considerable success, everyone Anne interviews about her-even her priest- hates her. So an 81 year-old who’s spent her life being nasty to people sets out to use the time she has left to rewrite her own history, dragging the almost-always exasperated Anne along for the ride.

If you’ve heard of this movie at all, by now you’ve probably heard that it’s pretty bad. And it really kind of is. But I honestly think there is a really good idea for a movie hidden somewhere within this unapologetically trite screenplay. One of the movie’s better scenes features a hilariously confident Harriet barging in on an independent radio station making a shockingly effective case for why she should be hired as a DJ. They give her a chance and it’s kind of awesome.

the last wordIn the right hands, a dramedy featuring the 82 year-old MacLaine playing an unlikely host of a radio show for hipsters could be a lot of fun, which The Last Word generally isn’t. More importantly though, making this subplot the actual plot might have given the movie some much-needed focus. Because for a movie about making every moment count, The Last Word has an astonishing number of throwaway scenes and uninspired subplots.

So in a comedy with no real focus except that Life is Precious So Don’t Waste It, it falls on its stars to keep it watchable. And although “watchable” may be a strong word for a movie like this, MacLaine’s still got it. Actually, to carry any movie in your 80s is pretty impressive and I give her full credit for finding a way to breathe some life into a character that would otherwise have been too vaguely written to be interesting. Seyfried isn’t exactly bad so much as she just doesn’t do anything to really help make Anne stand out from any of the other Millennials who have learnt valuable and unexpected life lessons from seniors in the movies lately.

MacLaine does impressive wok but neither the script or her co-stars are there to back her up.

 

 

Oscar Spotlight: Live-Action Shorts

My favourite thing about sitting down to watch a short film is having no idea what to expect. I rarely watch a feature film without having seen a trailer or at least having read something about it. When I watch a collection of shorts, I am pretty much ready for anything.

 

mindenki_behindthecurtainMindenki (Sing). Everyone who wants to is welcome to sing in choir, promises the principal at Zsófi’s new school. The truth, she will soon discover, is more complicated. Zsófi is an enthusiastic student until her spirit is crushed when Miss Erika, who thinks they may have a real shot at the championship this year, takes her aside and asks her to stop singing out loud.

Mindenki has a lot going on in just 25 minutes. Watching a 10 or 11 year-old being told by her favourite teacher that she simply isn’t good enough and that she should just “mouth the words” while the others sing is pretty much as heartbreaking as it sounds. It says a lot about the ways some students can get left behind and the ways that a careless teacher can demoralize a child and stifle creativity.

silent-nightsLikeable actors, terrific editing, and a timely story go a long way in elevating the imperfect but nonetheless effective Silent Nights. Mostly a love story set against the backdrop of the immigration and refugee controversy in Western Europe, Silent Nights follows a brief affair between a Danish girl volunteering in a shelter and a homeless man from Ghana.

Silent Nights packs a lot of story into 30 minutes and it features a much clearer beginning, middle, and end than I’m used to seeing in short films. It’s actually structured like a min feature film complete with subplots that lead nowhere. The script is ocassionally a little too sentimental but it earns big points for introducing us to two complex characters that we can care about.

 

With just 15 minutes, Timecode is the shortest of the five nominated shorts. It’s also potentially the most confusing. Luna is a parking lot attendant who discovers that her colleague Diego has left a surpritimecodese for her. He has danced his heart out in front of the security cameras for her amusement. I have to admit though that it took me awhile to recognize it as dancing. I thought at first that he was fighting off an invisible assailant. So begins their unusual shift exchange ritual.

Timecode has already picked up several awards including the Palmes d’Or at Cannes and more importantly Best International Shortfilm at the Whistler Film Festival so its got a serious shot at the Oscar. It’s cute, well-made (even if not always well-danced but hey we forgave La La Land), and is probably the least pretentious of the five nominees. I just simply didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the others.

 


Ennemis Interieurs (Enemies Within)
is the more disciplined of the two Europeans Can Be Racist shorts (see Silent Nights above). Enemies Within is mostly just two people in a room talking but holy shit is itennemis-interieurs3 tense. A citizenship interview slowly morphs into a full-on national security interrogation.

Ennemis Interieurs can sort of feel like just a really good scene from the glory days of Homeland but the acting and directing are superb and it says a lot in a short time about institutional racism and self-fulfilling prophecies.

 


La Femme et le TGV
is my favourite of the five. And not just because it has trains. An aging woman discovers that her daily ritual of waving at passing trains hasn’t gotten unnoticed or unappreciated. The train’s conductor decides to write her a thank you note and their pen palling reignites her passion for litgvfe.

I’ve read one reviewer accuse La Femme et le TGV of stealing its tone from Amelie. While I agree that Amelie would give you a pretty good idea of what you can expect, I would argue that my favourite live-action short of 2016 takes some of what worked best from Amelie to deliver something funny, touching, and lovely.

Julieta

“I don’t make motion pictures. I make EMOTION pictures”.

I can’t promise that the great Pedro Almodóvar actually said this but this quote was how my film teacher introduced me to the filmmaker’s work before showing us All About My Mother. As a 19 year-old college student, the only EMOTION I felt with any sincerity while watching Almodóvar’s 1999 classic was boredom.

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I’m glad I gave him another chance. I’ve seen many (though certainly not all) of his films and have re-watched Mother at least twice and have come to appreciate the focus on genuine human emotion that make up his films as well as the beautiful colours that are signatures of his cinematography.

It’s a beautiful thing when a work of art can transport you back to your youth and Julieta is that rare film. It’s the kind of film that reminds you what it’s like to be 19 and bored beyond belief by a Pedro Almodóvar film. So bored that I was willing to risk the glares of my fellow theatergoers by momentarily turning on my cell phone just to see how much more of this I had to sit through.

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Which isn’t so say that Julieta is a bad movie because it’s far from it. It’s script is inspired by three interconnected short stories from renowned Canadian writer Alice Munro, a fact that I am somehow irrationally a bit proud of as a Canadian. As a teenager, Julieta has a flirtation and affair with a mysterious man on a train. As a young mother, she visits her parents only to discover her mother doesn’t seem to be getting the care that she needs. And as an aging widow, she tries to reunite with her estranged daughter who left in search of spiritual enlightenment and never returned.

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The mother-daughter segment is the strongest of the three stories and Almodóvar is smart to use his somewhat non-linear structure to tease it throughout the film. As usual, he favours emotion over motion and the feelings always ring true and the film is always lovely to look at. Despite his fascination with the feelings and inner lives of his characters though, he’s usually much more generous with plot. While my favourite Almodóvar films tell riveting and unpredictable stories, there isn’t enough to connect the three parts of Julieta to feel like one story. Ironically for a film with three stories, there doesn’t seem to be enough story in Julieta to fill a full movie. It’s not bad but I’ve come to expect better.

Passengers

passengersImagine being stranded on a deserted island. Would you wish for company, even though you knew that that person would then be stranded too? What if you discovered that you had the power to make that dream come true?

Jim (Chris Pratt) faces a futuristic version of this very dilemma in Passengers, director Morten Tyldum’s follow-up to The Imitation Game. Jim, along with 5,000 others, has chosen to leave his life on Earth to start fresh by colonizing a distant planet. When his hibernation pod malfunctions, Jim finds that he has somehow woken up 90 years before the ship is scheduled to reach its destination. Meaning that he will almost certainly die of old age long before he’ll get the chance to even speak to another person.

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The loneliness is palpable but becomes downright excruciating once he discovers that he’s figured out how to wake another passenger. One sleeping beauty in particular has caught his eye. Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), as Jim discovers through extensive research of the ship’s files, is smart, pretty, and funny and seems like the perfect companion for this 90 year voyage.

It’s quite an interesting predicament. What if Tom Hanks had gotten so lonely in Cast Away that he was able to magically sentence Helen Hunt to life on the island with him? Or if James Franco had been able to trap his buddy Seth Rogen under that rock so that he would have some company? Obviously, it’s a pretty shitty thing to do to someone and Jim knows it. He doesn’t take the decision lightly and it’s a tribute to Pratt’s talent that we can feel his struggle enough to forgive him.

Passengers begins to unravel though once Aurora wakes up. A brief meditation on what isolation can do to a person quickly becomes a typical romantic comedy with an atypical setting. Boy meets girl based on a lie. Everything seems to be going great until girl discovers lie. Girl makes up with boy. If you think the fact that Jim’s deception is somewhat more serious than a How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days article (“He murdered me,” as Aurora puts it) would alter this formula in any way, unfortunately you’d be disappointed.

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It’s also worth commenting that Jim chooses Aurora for her looks and charm. Yes, she’s actually quite bright but she’s a journalist. Out of 5,000 passengers, you’d think he could have found someone more qualified to help maintain a spaceship for 90 years and maybe even help him figure out how to get back to sleep. She’s clever and tough but still pretty useless once the ships starts to fall apart and Jim the mechanic needs to figure out how to save her and everyone else on board, thus winning back her heart. The cop-out is downright insulting.  Besides, as cinema, watching someone fix a broken spaceship is neither as suspenseful or exciting as you might think.

What many critics panning Passengers won’t tell you is that the first 20-30 minutes are actually quite gripping. From there on it’s pretty much as bad as they say.

Miss Sloane

miss-sloane-32016 Golden Globe nominee Jessica Chastain plays Elizabeth Sloane, a notorious Washington anti-regulation lobbyist taking on the biggest challenge of her career when she’s asked to help take on the powerful gun lobby.

It’s timely and potentially divisive subject matter that will surely be attacked in many online comment sections as Liberal Hollywood Elites trying to take your guns away. But, honestly, can’t we use a rational discussion on gun control right now?

Well, you won’t find any of that here. Neither Sloane nor her opponents are particularly interested in facts or rhetoric. They are masters of spin, manipulation, and trickery. Never mind guns or politics, this is really a movie about sleight of hand. It has more in common with movies about magicians, con artists, or thieves  than movies about politics.

Film Review Miss SloanAnd maybe this is supposed to be the point. The only problem is that and Miss Sloane (the movie) seems to love the thrill of the chase as much as it claims to be outraged by her methods. For awhile, this behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to pass a bill in Washington (or keep one from passing) is almost fascinating and thought-provoking but the endless double crosses and Sloane’s nearly superhuman foresight make it harder and harder to take any of this seriously.

Needless to say, Chastain is pretty much the best thing about the movie. Any insight miss-sloane-2we get into her character comes more from her performance than Jonathan Perera’s script. But even she occasionally fails to convince during some scenes where she seems to be acting more for the trailer than the actual film. I can only assume director John Madden is to blame for this given that Miss Sloane also showcases inexplicable overacting from the likes of Michael Stuhlbarg, Sam Waterston, and Mark Strong that I can’t believe made the final cut. You’d think  a director of a Best Picture winner (Shakespeare in Love but still) would have done a better job of reining them in.

Madden may have had trouble keeping control of his hammy cast but he still manages to make a watchable film. It is slickly edited and never boring. And I have to admit, its most outrageous twists are the best ones. It just feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain. I knew almost nothing about this movie going in and expected something serious and dry. I was anticipating a chore and got a preposterous guilty pleasure that I’m still trying to forgive myself for kind of liking.

 

 

Manchester by the Sea

I knew going into Manchester by the Sea that it was one of the most critically acclaimed American movies of the century so far but I was still somehow surprised by how blown away I was.

Kenneth Lonergan has made a fantastic film about family, grief, and how easy it is to push people away when we’re hurting. It’s one of 2016’s best films not because it has any particularly new ideas or innovative style but simply because it’s refreshingly honest.

Casey Affleck (believe the hype, he kills it in this) plays Lee Chandler, a reclusive janitor who returns to his hometown after the sudden death of his brother (played by Kyle Chandler). Lee is surprised to learn that he will need to be staying home a lot longer than he had planned when he discovers that his brother’s will has named him as the guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). Losing a brother and raising a grieving teenager is further complicated by the memories of unspeakable pain and tragedy that his hometown holds.

Manchester by the Sea isn’t always pleasant but, with its sense of dark humour, never feels like a chore. Lonergan is an expert at finding humour in the unlikeliest of situations without it ever feeling forced. Actually, nothing really feels forced. It’ll make you feel powerful emotions without resorting to sentimentality. Even its non-linear structure doesn’t feel like a gimmick.

And there’s not a bad performance to speak of. Affleck has never been better and his scenes with Hedges are priceless. 2016 Golden Globe nominee Michelle Williams makes great use of her limited screen time as Lee’s ex-wife in her emotionally rawest performances in years.

Go see it!