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Ad Astra

Space is a lonely place. Cold, dark, and endless, it is described as the final frontier for good reason. Still, for as long as mankind has understood that the stars are bright balls of gas billions and billions of miles away, we have dreamed of exploring the darkness, and solving the many mysteries that must be there, waiting to be found.

MV5BYmFmMDA1ZTUtMmNlOS00ODc3LTkxYWEtMTA0OWM4MDQxMjEzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjg2NjQwMDQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) has dedicated his life to space exploration. For better or worse, Roy has also spent his life living in his father’s shadow.  Roy’s dad, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was a legendary astronaut best known for disappearing somewhere near Neptune while searching for extraterrestrial life.  Roy never really knew his dad, so when he learns his father may not be as dead as was previously assumed, he’s not exactly jumping for joy.  Though to be fair, Roy has clearly never jumped for joy in his life. He’s detached, completely closed off from everyone around him, dedicated only to the missions he’s given, and his next mission is to try to make contact with his long-absent dad, who is now believed to pose a threat to all life on Earth.

The audience gets to accompany Roy on his journey, but of course we provide no company to him. Roy is alone, and while he mostly seems not to mind (indeed, he is really more comfortable in the solitude), Ad Astra weighed heavily on me. The mystery of space has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and accordingly I have dragged Jay to more sci-fi films than can be counted. Of those countless films, Ad Astra is the first to ask me to examine my curiosity and ask what, exactly am I looking for? What is it about space that draws our dreams away from our home and into the endless void?

There are no easy answers in Ad Astra, and plenty of time to think about the many big questions raised by writers James Gray (who also directed) and Ethan Gross. Space is very quiet, and Roy’s journey is a satisfingly slow one. The journey feels even all the more important because of the slow pace. It becomes more an emotional, and even spiritual, journey than a spatial one, and an exploration of what really matters to us, both individually and as a species.  And it’s a wonderful trip.

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TIFF19: Joker

As any comic book fan knows, Marvel Comics has more interesting heroes than DC, because Stan Lee’s storytelling focus was as much on the hero’s day-to-day life as on the showdown with that month’s villain.  DC’s heroes have never had the same issues, because they are either literal gods (Wonder Woman), aliens who are stronger than most gods (Superman), or humans with seemingly unlimited physical, mental and financial resources (Batman).  But because DC’s heroes are so powerful, DC’s villains have always had the edge on Marvel’s, and the Joker is at the very top of the list of DC’s best villains.

jokerDC’s latest movie, Joker, tells the origin story of the iconic villain.  Well, it tells an origin story for Joker, one that to my knowledge doesn’t line up with anything in the comics.  It is a fitting origin that has some nice touches, including a subplot that casts Gotham’s beloved Wayne family in a very interesting new light.

We’ve seen the Joker on screen before.  Jack Nicholson was suitably over-the-top and cartoonish, but still maintained a dark centre, in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).  Heath Ledger was a flat-out monster in The Dark Knight, delivering an all-time great performance that gave a new level of legitimacy to comic book films.  Jared Leto’s gangster Joker was almost an afterthought in Suicide Squad, and it probably would have been better for Joker not to have made an appearance in that film at all.

Now, in Joker, Joaquin Phoenix takes on the role, and he’s phenomenal.  Phoenix’s Joker feels different enough from Ledger’s to be original, but borrows smartly from Ledger’s mannerisms to give Joker the manic energy that makes him the clown prince of crime.  Seeing Joker emerge from the man formerly known as Arthur Fleck is a riveting process.  Director Todd Phillips rightly describes Joker as a slow burn and the pace of the movie creates significant tension.  We know Fleck is going to snap, and we can almost understand why, but we don’t know when or how.

Joker is worth watching for Phoenix’s performance, which, like Ledger before him, should get serious Oscar consideration (this time, for Best Actor, as Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for his Joker in 2009).  Joker might be up for other awards as well, and the awards buzz is well-deserved.  There is more than one way to make a comic book movie, caped crusaders are not always needed, and when the villain is this mesmerizing, it’s okay for the bad guy to win.

TIFF19: Greed

Have we made Steve Coogan an honourary asshole yet?  He’s at his best playing someone despicable, and they don’t come more despicable than retail fashion billionaires, who’ve “earned” their fortunes by exploiting third-world workers and the “rules” of corporate governance.  Coogan’s character, Richard McCreadie, is not a real person but is clearly inspired by the owners of Zara and H&M, both of which are running the same scheme in the real world as McCreadie does onscreen.

Having come under some scrutiny for his business practices (though not as much as he deserves), McCreadie hopes to gain some more favourable press by throwing an extravagant 60th birthday party for himself, shelling out for numerous celebrities to attend, and building a plywood colosseum in which a rented lion and McCreadie’s aides will put on a spectacle worthy of Caesar.  It is all too real, this game of distraction that McCreadie plays, and having gladiator games as entertainment sets up a good parallel between the ancient Roman slaves who died in service of their emperor and the factory workers who are suffering in service of McCreadie’s business empire.

greed_0HEROGreed’s comedic and satirical elements work well, with Coogan ably and expertly leading the way.   I am sure Coogan could play this role in his sleep but he’s not phoning it in at any point.  He clearly relishes the chance to play this type of character and he delivers a wonderfully over-the-top take on a selfish billionaire (though really, is there any other kind?).

But outside of the scenes featuring Coogan, Greed seems to lose its way.  It felt like Greed was too ambitious. In addition to the party scenes, Greed also shows McCreadie’s early days, both in private school and as he first sets up his business, factory scenes that are filmed documentary-style at real locations featuring real workers,  and a large number of side stories involving McCreadie’s ex-wife (Isla Fisher), their three kids (Asa Butterfield among them), McCreadie’s biographer (David Mitchell), and one of McCreadie’s top staff (Sarah Solemani).  There’s just too much going on, and it seems impossible for one movie to combine so many disparate parts  into a cohesive whole.

Undoubtedly, Greed’s failure in that regard is due to Michael Winterbottom having too much to say about the increasing divide between the rich and the poor, and it’s hard to fault him for being so ambitious.  But I have to think Greed would have been more effective, both in delivering its important message and in delivering its comedy, if it had taken a more focused approach and left a few side stories (including the story featuring McCreadie’s younger self) on the cutting room floor.

TIFF19: Black Conflux

Set in 1980s Newfoundland, Black Conflux has an air of inevitability, and a foreboding sense of dread. There can be no doubt that this story will end badly. It seems certain that Jackie (Ella Ballentine) is going to cross paths with Dennis (Ryan McDonald). It also seems certain that if she does, it will not go well. You see, Dennis is an incel, or he would have been if that term had existed in 1987. He has a beer truck full of imaginary women who worship him, but he has nothing but contempt for the real women he meets. Jackie is a high schooler who has somehow caught Dennis’ attention, even though the two don’t seem to ever have met before. The more time we spend with Dennis, the more we come to think that the women in the beer truck might not be imaginary. They might be ghosts of other women that caught Dennis’ attention, and it seems like Jackie could be next.blackconflux_0HERO

Writer-director Nicole Dorsey’s talent and confidence are on full display in her first feature-length film. She has written two great characters in Jackie and Dennis. We quickly feel like we know them and can predict them, and Dorsey uses that to generate a great deal of tension in anticipation of the convergence (/conflux) of their stories. Adding to the tension are the slow pacing and the atmospheric shots of Newfoundland’s wild beauty, which reminded me there are plenty of places on the rock to hide a body or two or ten.

Dorsey is aided by two great performances from Ballentine and McDonald, who make their characters feel real. We care what happens to Jackie because we like her and we can relate to the teenage world she is trying to navigate, having been there ourselves. And while we don’t really like Dennis, we feel a bit sorry for his struggles to navigate the world he inhabits, even though he’s clearly making things more difficult than they need to be. Jackie is the more sympathetic one (mainly because she is not acting like a serial killer) but despite Dennis’ issues (or maybe because of them) I found myself fascinated by both characters.

It’s not that Black Conflux keeps the audience guessing, because a confrontation between Jackie and Dennis seems inevitable (after all, it’s in the title!). What makes Black Conflux so enjoyable is that it keeps the audience engaged, invested and interested in the journey to the climax. It’s a great debut feature for Dorsey and a great start to my 2019 Toronto International Film Festival viewing.

TIFF19: All Cats Are Grey in the Dark

I’ll be honest. Until I watched All Cats Are Grey in the Dark, I did not know the first thing about breeding cats. Now, having seen it, I have a much better idea of what is involved. It is safe to say I will not be getting into the business anytime soon, but it’s good to know it could be my life if I’m looking for a career change.

Christian, on the other hand, has clearly decided that cat breeding is for him. And he is all in. His cats go everywhere with him, whether on a ferry to another country, to a ski resort, or to what I can only assume is a European Costco. I realize that is not an extremely long list but All Cats Are Grey in the Dark is not an extremely long film, so there were probably more destinations that didn’t make the cut.

I would have been interested to see more of the world surrounding Christian and his cats, because the few shots outside Christian’s home are my favourite parts of the movie. Those scenes really capture the separation between Christian (and his cats) and literally everyone else. Christian may or may not be aware of the distance his cats create between him and others, and he may or may not care, but it’s obvious and striking how much of a barrier is put up by a person having two cats on his shoulder as he goes about his day. He sits alone at the slope-side bar, there is no one else in sight at the pet store, and his veterinarian is the only person Christian talks to directly during the 18 minute runtime of All Cats Are Grey in the Dark.

[Editor’s note: Although Sean has just told you the film is only 18 minutes long, I feel the need to tell you that he paused it somewhere in the middle because he was “so hungry I could eat a cat.” He had cereal. – J ]

Which is not to say that there is no other dialogue. Christian is very chatty with his cats, Marmelade and Katjuscha, and the three of them seem quite happy to do their own thing, especially when that thing involves staring hungrily at mice at the aforementioned EuroCostco (it’s exactly as pictured in Tom and Jerry). More accurately, Christian seems happy, because cats always seem angry no matter what they are doing.

Still, despite the happy facade, I can’t help but feel sad for Christian as he lives in self-imposed exile. Most of all, I can’t help but wonder how much different his life would be if he had just gotten a couple of dogs and, through them, brought the rest of world closer instead of pushing it away as the guy with two cats on his shoulder.

[Editor’s note: Sean makes this sound like a pretty gloomy movie, and I suppose maybe it is, but he watched all the way through the credits “In case there’s a post-credit scene!” so I guess there was something special about it after all. – J ]

American Factory

As the trade war between the US and China escalates, American Factory arrives on Netflix and shows why this war is one that China is likely to win.  The US is at a severe disadvantage in this war that it started, because the American Dream now belongs more to China than to the endangered American middle class, and because idyllic post-war America was built in large part on cheap imports from China and now the pendulum is swinging the other way.

American Factory is the first Netflix film from the Obamas’ production studio, and its release is perfectly timed.  China and the US continue to threaten each other higher and higher tariffs, announcing another round of increases to take effect american-factory-1this fall. Of course, these threats are not really to the countries themselves; they are threats to consumers, who will inevitably bear all these increases in the form of higher priced goods.

While American Factory isn’t really about tariffs, the tariffs are still an important part of the story. That’s because the tariffs were instigated by the US in order to bring manufacturing back to the American heartland, which has been decimated by the loss of factory jobs as more and more of those jobs elsewhere to take advantage of cheaper labour and lower safety standards.

One of those shuttered factories is a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio. Its closure in 2008 put thousands out of work, but in 2015 Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese-backed company, reopened the plant and brought hope back to Dayton. However, we quickly see that the reality is not quite as rosy as the fantasy, because the workers have taken a 30% pay cut, safety standards are not enforced, and management uses every dirty trick in the book to prevent the workers from unionizing.

Chinese workers are brought in to show the Americans how to operate the plant, and managers from the US are trained in China to help them better motivate the workers. American Factory captures the remarkable contrast between the workers’ attitudes in the two nations, and the attitudes of the nations as a whole. The Chinese are willing to work harder for less, sacrificing their bodies and family lives for the benefit of the company. The Americans, on the other hand, feel entitled to earn more money than their Chinese counterparts without making any of the same sacrifices.

Something has to give there.  In both the Fuyao factory and in the larger trade war, the Americans can’t possibly get everything they want but are oblivious to that reality.  Working-class Americans seem not to have realized that their consumer-centric society only exists because of other countries’ cheap labour, and that unskilled labourers will never again be “middle class”. If these American factory workers want to achieve their desired standard of living, they need to acquire marketable skills. Labour is no longer marketable on its own, and China and the rest of the world are eager to live the American Dream. China and the rest of the world also clearly want to realize that dream so much more than the Americans do, so in any head-to-head battle the Americans are going to lose out. The only question is whether the Americans will realize that before it’s too late.

The Wizard

Proudly brought to you by Nintendo, Vision Street Wear, and young Fred Savage, the Wizard is a movie I somehow avoided for 30 years until Netflix shoved it in my face last night. Even in 1989 there was really no reason for me to see it since I had already played Super Mario 3 at my friend Justin’s house (he somehow imported it from Japan).  And revealing that new game was the Wizard’s raison d’être. 

Jimmy Woods (Luke Edwards) is a non-verbal kid who’s been stowed away in a care home by his mom and step-dad. Until Jimmy’s half-brother Corey (Savage) busts him out and stows him away on a delivery truck faster than you can say “tanooki suit”, destination California. After the two boys meet tween runaway Haley (Jenny Lewis) at a bus station, their destination becomes more specific. They’re off to Video Armageddon, a world championship of gaming featuring only 8-bit Nintendo games because Jimmy is secretly a wizard at Double Dragon. But will Jimmy be able to beat his Power-Glove-wielding rival Lucas (Jackey Vinson) at a new Super Mario game that no one has played yet? You’re damn right he will.

At the time, Super Mario 3 was the next great Nintendo game. But now, countless Super Marios later, Super Mario 3 is an ancient relic, rather than a selling point like it was in 1989 (because it had not yet been released in North America. The one point of interest for today’s audience is seeing a very young Tobey Maguire make his very first film appearance (blink and you’ll miss it).  In hindsight it’s clear that Maguire isn’t really acting here in his non-speaking role as Lucas’ tiniest sidekick, and that he was always destined to become one of the biggest assholes in Hollywood.

Otherwise, the Wizard is unforgivably forgettable. It’s not a good movie (and it never tries to be) but it’s also not an enjoyably bad one. Savage does his precocious tween thing, Christian Slater does his precocious teen thing, Beau Bridges does his earnest dad thing, and a bunch of other people presumably do their best acting which was not good enough for them to ever get any other major movie roles. Maybe if I had seen it as a kid I’d be more nostalgic, but without the benefit of nostalgia the Wizard is nothing more than a 96 minute commercial for 30 year old Nintendo games.