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The Square

The-Square-movie-posterSometimes, I walk out of a movie and wonder why a director decided to insert a scene that didn’t seem to add anything to the film.  With The Square, I walked out wondering why the majority of the scenes had been included.  Even the film’s poster gets in on the act, blatantly photoshopping Elisabeth Moss into a scene in which she doesn’t appear.  That is a fitting allegory for her role in the film as well as for a lot of the movie’s scenes.  Moss didn’t need to be there in the poster picture but someone went to the effort of adding her anyway, for no obvious reason.  The same thing seems to have happened with many scenes in this film, the latest from Ruben Ostlund, who previously directed Force Majeure.

The Square centres around an obnoxious, entitled museum curator (Christian, played by Claes Bang) who makes more than a few mistakes in promoting his museum’s new exhibition and, on the side, searching for his stolen phone, wallet, and cufflinks.  The fact he sees himself as a pretty good guy only makes things worse for him and everyone he comes into contact with.  In between his missteps, we are treated to some truly bizarre scenes involving a human pretending to be an ape at a dinner party, a real ape acting as a third wheel at Moss’ character’s apartment, and a cheerleading performance by one of Christian’s kids, none of which advance the plot in any way, despite a lot of effort being put into staging and filming these scenes.  But to what end?  The Square repeatedly left me feeling like I had missed the point, but it happened so many times I had to conclude there was no point.

That is The Square: an overlong mess of ideas patched together into a two and a half hour long feature.  The movie starts well enough but doesn’t know where to go once it gets started, and certainly doesn’t know how to wrap up what it’s laid out.

The frustrating part is that many of the ideas in the film have the potential to make for good satire, but the movie can’t figure out how to unlock their potential or say anything meaningful, aside from pointing out how much idiocy and chaos can be created by a self-entitled boor, which we are all way too familiar with in our real lives right now.

All in all, The Square never amounts to much.  Just like its protagonist, it is aimless, clueless, and we’d be better off if it went away quietly.

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Transformers: The Last Knight

why-critics-say-transformers-the-last-knight-is-2017s-most-toxic-movie (1)I wrote a whole other review of this horrible, awful, infuriating movie and then accidentally deleted it.  Honestly, my review was unremarkable for the most part so it’s not a huge loss.  This movie makes no sense, it’s the fifth movie in a tired franchise that was only ever enjoyable if you, like me, liked seeing robots decapitate other robots in slow motion (and which stopped being awesome four movies ago), and it’s got Mark Wahlberg doing his usual “acting” by which I mean that he talks really fast in a whiny voice when he is under pressure and otherwise just stands around flexing his biceps and looking confused.  In short, it is the worst Transformers movie yet, and the next one will probably be even worse.

But there was one part of my review worth saving, and it’s this: Mark Wahlberg was clearly born to be in Michael Bay movies.  It is the perfect match of all perfect matches.  These two eventually found each other, but there are so many Wahlberg-less Michael Bay movies, and isn’t that a shame?

So…what if Michael Bay made special editions of his back catalogue, George Lucas style, and digitally inserted Wahlberg into all his “classics” as a way to link all his movies together?

Think about it!  It would be the greatest shared universe of all time.  We could have Bad Boys fighting bad robots under the supervision of Wahlberg and his good friend Joe Pantoliano, the space shuttle in Armageddon could be a robot who owes a favour to Wahlberg and who figures out a way to save Bruce Willis as payback, and Wahlberg could help bring Sean Connery and his estranged daughter Claire Forlani together while at the same time helping Nicholas Cage foil Ed Harris’ plot to steal that face-meltingly-deadly VX gas, this time without losing Michael Biehn’s whole SEAL team.  And then Wahlberg could assemble a team of one million Ewan MacGregor clones along with the time travelling pilot duo of Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett to destroy the Transformers once and for all, saving us all from ever having to see Transformers 6: Shia’s Revenge.

This needs to happen.

 

Blade Runner 2049

blade4Has there ever been a more beautiful vision of a dystopian society than what Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins serve up in Blade Runner 2049?  Even a photo of a dead tree will be captivating to those around you.  Nuclear wastelands, city-sized garbage dumps, and coastal dams will all amaze.  Visually, this is exactly the sequel that Blade Runner deserved.

Story-wise, Blade Runner 2049 is probably the sequel that Blade Runner deserved as well, though that’s not necessarily a compliment.  The story is muddled right from the hard-to-read title cards that try to bring us up to date on what’s happened in that world’s last 30 years.

The facts in the title cards turn out to be quite important to keep up in Blade Runner 2049’s world as we follow an LAPD officer (Ryan Gosling) trying to solve a 30-year-old mystery involving our old friend Deckard (Harrison Ford).  Though it is unfortunate that the title cards are as dense as they are, I would not have wanted the movie to try to retell its background story, as the 163 minute run time is plenty long enough already!

Refreshingly, Blade Runner’s world is not our world.  It is an alternative future, so there is no attempt to revise the original’s timeline (as you may recall, Blade Runner is set in 2019 in a world where robot slaves are fighting space battles and colonizing other planets for humans, so things did not exactly turn out in our world as the first film predicted).  Interestingly, those differences make it easier for the view to focus on the similarities between their world and ours.  Villeneuve has delivered another very thoughtful, deliberate and satisfying sci-fi film, and it’s easy to analogize to our world every time a replicant is treated as disposable property (which happens a lot).  The film also offers a lot to chew on regarding memory and the nature of reality.  Honestly, I’m still digesting it all as a I write, while also trying to sort out a few of the story’s finer points, and this film is one that I’m going to have to watch again to get everything sorted.

It’s remarkable how closely this sequel resembles the first movie,  in style and substance, despite being released 35 years later.  More remarkably, at the same time it is paying tribute to the original, Blade Runner 2049 is telling a fresh story set in this familiar world, and manages to leave the original movie’s largest question unanswered in a surprisingly satisfying way.  So while Blade Runner 2049 is not the best movie of 2017, it is a good movie made great by its technical excellence, which naturally makes it the perfect sequel to Blade Runner.

The Drop In

I enjoy short films because they are their own genre with their own rules.  Unlike feature-length film, there’s no standard runtime, only an upper limit of 40 minutes (including credits) in order to qualify for Oscar consideration.   The fact that shorts usually jump right into the action makes the genre feel freer and less predictable than feature films.  I also like that shorts tend not to use a standard three-act narrative structure (exposition-rising action-climax), forsaking it for the sake of moving right to the heart of the story.

The Drop In is only 12 minutes long, but in that time the film manages to delivers two big twists that took me by surprise (which I won’t reveal here).  The film starts with a seemingly innocuous encounter that soon turns into a tense, high-stakes confrontation.  Even before anything significant is revealed, that tension is apparent between the film’s only two characters. We may not understand why these two are in conflict but we know, whatever the reason, that this face-off means big trouble for Joelle, a Toronto hairstylist who agreed to stay late to help out a new client.

This short feels like the start of a TV series and the abrupt and inconclusive ending left me curious to see more. That’s often the best place to be, with interest piqued, trying to guess both what came before and what comes next.  But sometimes both past and future are better left unknown, and I think The Drop In makes the right choice by telling this story in short film form, rather than to try to make it feature length.  After all, the first rule of show business is to always leave them wanting more, and The Drop In does exactly that.

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.

 

TIFF: Black Kite

blackkite_tiff2017.pngAfghanistan is the last place I’d expect to find a kid flying a kite. After watching Black Kite and seeing kites be such a prominent part of life, bringing a tiny bit of joy to those who are trapped in this war-torn land, it seems strange that I ever had a presumption on kites one way or the other.  The smallest of assumptions, something taken for granted without basis, led me to think I knew more about another’s circumstances than I do.  Being wrong about kites reminded me that actually, I know absolutely nothing about what it’s like to live in Afghanistan!  I have Black Kite’s writer/director Tarique Qayumi, a Canadian who came from Afghanistan as an eight-year old refugee, for brilliantly and effortlessly challenging my preconceptions.

Black Kite follows Arian, an Afghan man who has been captured by the Taliban and convicted of the highest crime.  Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how Arian came to be imprisoned and sentenced to death.  Kites feature prominently in his story, from childhood, through adolescence, to adulthood.  There’s a remarkable contrast between the bright coloured kites and Arian’s drab, washed out existence, not only in the prison but throughout most of his life as Afghanistan is oppressed by one ruling body after another.

There are some absolutely beautiful shots of the desert and sky, and some very poignant animation that conveys a lot about what these kites represent: freedom, a means of expression and communication, and a marker of milestones in a man’s life, both good and bad.

Another assumption that Black Kite dispels is that freedom is free.  Freedom is a foreign concept for Arian, not the inherent right that I treat it as.  Arian and his family constantly live in fear, under the boot of one regime or another, with seemingly arbitrary rules that have the sole purpose of keeping them down. The rulers may change but the rules remain more or less the same, so Arian and his compatriots are denied even the simplest pleasures.  It hurts to experience these denials second hand, making the first hand experience all the more difficult for my privileged mind to imagine.

Black Kite is a wonderful film and a timely one.  It showed me how much can be stripped away from individuals, and reminded me that the little freedoms are as important as the big ones.  If those little freedoms were preserved for all, this small world would be a much better place.  There is no easy solution but we should spend our energy searching for ways to help people less fortunate than us.  Instead, we spend our time arguing over how many refugees we should accept from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, places where every day could be your last and little freedoms, like flying a kite, cannot ever be taken for granted.

By the way, the answer to how many refugees we should accept is: as many as we can fit.  And we’ve got plenty of room.

Lean On Pete

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“It was just so unrelentingly bleak,” Jay sighed as we divvied up our review assignments after a busy day of films in Venice. That’s exactly right. Lean On Pete is misery from start to finish. Parents are thrown through glass doors and wind up in hospital. Teenagers have to take shitty jobs instead of fuflilling their athletic potential. As part of those jobs, teens see slow horses being sent to Mexico for slaughter. Nice aunts who may be able to help those teens have disappeared from phone books after fighting with teens’ parents. Will teens have to live on the street while they search for those nice aunts?

Having just mentioned horses being slaughtered in Mexico, is it in bad taste to say that Charlie Plummer is the glue that holds this film together? Well, either way, that’s the word I’m going to use, because Plummer is amazing as the teenager, Charley, who would have no luck if not for bad luck. Plummer more than holds his own against screen veterans like Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny and Steve Zahn (none of whom stick around for too long). His strong performance and natural charisma will make you root for him.

I am not exaggerating when I say that every conceivable thing goes wrong for Charley in this movie. It’s horrible. Even as I warn you, I know you cannot be prepared for what is about to happen. Charley seems smart, and he’s clearly a hard worker, but he keeps getting dealt the worst possible hands, against all conceivable odds.

Plummer’s strong performance makes it so devastating to see what happens to this poor kid, especially because you know there are real kids out there with similar luck to Charley’s, stuck in a bad situation without any path out. Life isn’t fair, and Charley’s journey is evidence of that, because Charley doesn’t do anything to deserve the lifetime’s worth of misery he experiences during Lean On Pete’s two hour runtime.

There is something uplifting to be found in Charley’s resilience. In the face of all the misery he’s subjected to, he does not stop. He gets to where he wants to go, and maybe even gets a happy ending. Hopefully. After suffering with Charley, I need to tell myself he did, and the film is kind enough to let me believe it happened. I’m not sure the lift at the end was enough of a boost to put me back to level, but a cinematic reminder of how charmed a life I lead is never a bad thing when it’s this well put together, even if it’s this unrelentingly bleak.

Mother!

tmp_oLHXPW_d785c743c5338b61_MomSome stories do not need to be told. Mother! falls squarely within that category. I walked out of the theatre at the end of the movie asking, what was the point? Why did I suffer through two hours of claustrophobic misery to get back where I started?  And actually,  further behind than where I started because at least then I was curious about Darren Aronofsky’s latest project. Afterward, I was just tired and dreading this review.

Mother! is not an awful film, I don’t think. It has a stellar cast and is visually captivating (though it’s too harsh and dour to ever be beautiful). Maybe some will even appreciate the crazy downward spiral that is this film, as it goes to soul-devouring depths that most wouldn’t dare to approach. Me? Not one bit. Not even a little. It made me uncomfortable right from the start, and not in a challenging way, and not in a way that offered me anything.

This film is the same as Javier Bardem’s nameless poet: selfish, desiring my affection, and oblivious to anything else. It is art that takes from the audience rather than giving, which also echoes the plot of the movie itself. Is that intentional? If so, that would make Aronofsky our version of the poet, and I would suggest that you not give him your energy in service of his creation. I already gave enough for both of us.

 

 

 

Victoria & Abdul

31victoriaandabdulIs there anything more awkward than finding out the guy you recruited as a token Hindu is actually Muslim? There is, actually – it’s far more awkward when the guy you literally shipped from India as a parlour trick starts getting special attention from the Queen, more attention than you and all your fellow white sycophants combined. The worst part? He doesn’t even seem to be trying to play your game, yet he’s still beating all of you at it.

Victoria & Abdul tells the (mostly) true tale of the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, the former being the head of the Empire that oppressed India for nearly 100 years, and the latter being the guy who was sent on a two month boat ride to present a ceremonial coin to the Queen.

Director Stephen Frears and writer Lee Hall do their best to find humour both in Victoria’s self-involvement and in the shockingly blatant racism that Abdul is subjected to at every turn. That approach works very well, mainly because of the strong performances by Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the titular roles. Dench’s Victoria is smart and self-aware even in her self-indulgence and stubbornness, and Fazal’s Abdul is such a capable, charismatic individual that at every turn he exposes the ridiculousness of the hate directed toward him. Perhaps in another hundred years our great-grandchildren will find today’s racial turmoil similarly humourous, ideally without seeing similarities to their time’s headlines. One can only hope.

One shortcoming, though, is that we are left to guess at Abdul’s motivations. Presumably, he would rather put up with cold, prejudiced England than live in impoverished, subjugated India, but we don’t ever see his home life so never really know why he puts up with being treated like dirt by every white character other than the Queen. Even so, Abdul is still a character I invested in despite knowing so little about him.

Beyond the stellar core performances, Victoria & Abdul is fairly by-the-numbers, playing out exactly as it must. There are no narrative surprises here but despite its predictability, this film kept me invested from start to finish, and that’s not an easy task for a 9 a.m. screening five days into a film festival!

Victoria & Abdul likely won’t end up in my top tier of films from Venice but I’m glad I saw it, especially for Oscar pool purposes – Dench should be a strong contender for Best Actress. And while the rest of the film doesn’t match the high standard that Dench sets, it’s an entertaining film that you won’t regret watching.

Nico, 1988

nico-1988-trine-dyrholmYou may not know Nico by name, but I bet you have heard of some of her friends, people like Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. Nico, born Christa Päffgen, was part of the Velvet Underground for their first album (getting co-billing in fact) and, as a musician, that would seem to overshadow anything else one might do from then on. Nico, 1988 joins Christa in 1986 as she tours in support of her latest solo album. Understandably, Christa would prefer to keep the focus on her new music, but the press keeps asking about her past.

Nico, 1988 makes the viewer feel the weight of that past. This film gives a revealing and honest look at Christa’s life, stitched together from memories of those who knew her, including her son. It feels like a documentary, in large part due to a great performance by Trine Durholm in the lead role. Durholm shines both offstage as well as onstage, handling vocal duties herself.

The music is the beating heart of Nico, 1988, which is entirely appropriate for a biopic about an avant garde innovator whose music Rolling Stone called “a really worthwhile venture into musical infinity”, music that others have described as desolate, terrifying and unlistenable.

Judging from the soundtrack in Nico, 1988, all those descriptions are accurate. Sometimes, Christa sounds horrible, but once in a while, it’s magic. One ill-fated concert in Prague shows the heights that Christa can hit. Her energy and the crowd’s mesh perfectly and draw the viewer into the front row. Not coincidentally, that’s the only performance in the film that Christa delivers drug-free. Christa’s struggles with addiction are part of her story, and they feature in this film just as they did in her life.

For music lovers in particular, Nico, 1988 is essential viewing. It provides a behind the scenes look at the life of a true artist, a musician’s musician who cast a shadow too large for herself to escape from. Catch it if you can!