Category Archives: Half-assed

Jay says: you could do worse.

My Cousin Rachel

Philip (Sam Claflin), receives distressing news from his cousin and guardian, who adopted him as an orphaned baby. While recovering from an illness in Italy, he met and married a woman and now has regrets. If his strange and hasty missives are to believed, this woman, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), is trying to kill him. Philip rushes off to intervene but his guardian is dead before he arrives. He swears vengeance on the widow but she has conveniently disappeared.

Philip returns home, to the estate he will now inherit once he comes of age – and luckily, MV5BMDYxOTU1ZDItYjJkMC00ZTVmLWFhZDktNDFiODRlODI1MzQ4L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDcxNzU3MTE@._V1_his required 25th birthday is right around the corner. But before it can be celebrated, the ballsy widow shows up for a social call. Draped in black, she looks like a grieving widow, but passionate kiss shared between the two perhaps belie other motives. Of course, this particular widow does not look like the wicked witch of Philip’s dreams, but seeing how she’s played by the enchanting Rachel Weisz, probably looks more like the woman in a different kind of dream altogether.

So the film’s central mystery unfolds: is Rachel trying to seduce young Philip into sharing his inheritance (the will was never changed to reflect her at all), or are there genuine feelings here? Whichever way you lean, this is a dark romance at best. A bad romance (roma, ro-a-a?). Which of course is intoxicating to stupid virginal Philip who will follow his cock just about anywhere it seems.

Gothic and moody, Rachel Weisz is a commanding and alluring black widow. Unfortunately, director Roger Michell has less of a firm grip on this Du Maurier mystery. Did she or didn’t she?  Either he doesn’t know, or doesn’t care. So it’s less satisfying than it should be. But ambiguity would have been just fine by me; it’s what allows us to contemplate Rachel’s precarious position and explore the feminist slant – is a woman left penniless and powerless acting in her own self-interest really all that shocking or evil? In any case, Weisz is the reason to watch. Her every moment on screen is magnetic.

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TIFF: Gaga: Five Foot Two

Whether or not you love her music, you know Lady Gaga. You know the stunts, the hair, the makeup, the crazy costumes, the meat dress, the Madonna feud, the constant nudity. But when Lady Gaga wanted to rebrand herself with a new album,  Joanne, in which both she and her music would be stripped-down and very different from their former selves, she decided this documentary would be just the thing to introduce Lady Gaga-lite to her fans.

Like way too many documentaries of this sort, Lady Gaga only offers up what she wants us to see, nothing more, and definitely nothing very personal. It’s all about the music, so your enjoyment of this film will depend a lot on your appreciation of her music. Director Chris Moukarbel grants us backstage access to her shows, her recording studio, her music video shoots, and the preparations for her Superbowl halftime show.

I’m not a huge fan of hers, but I can appreciate her voice and her musicianship. I am a little less forgiving of the rich and famous who star in documentaries whose sole purpose is to tell you how hard their cushy lives are. As a fellow sufferer of chronic pain, I want to have sympathy for her plight, but watching doctors who treat the rest of us as drug seekers literally throw them at her is a little disheartening. And that’s not mentioning the personal masseuse and physio therapist she staffs round the clock, or the makeup artist who accompanies her to doctor’s appointments to make sure she never looks less than her best.

Lady Gaga arrives on the red carpet for her film "Gaga: Five Foot Two" during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto

I suppose if you’re a big enough fan you can likely look beyond the privileged whining and appreciate the work she pours into her music, and the family story behind the album in question, which is actually quite interesting.

 

I did, at times, feel a little sad for her. In the documentary she seems ready to shed the more outrageous parts of her “performance”, wants to be taken seriously out of the crazy high fashion and in just a pair of jean shorts. Will her fans accept this transition? If you saw her at the TIFF premiere of the film, you’d be inclined to assume the answer is no. She seems to have already reverted to her old ways before the movie even hit Netflix. I guess my biggest takeaway is that yes, compromises have been made. Money and success don’t insulate from that.

TIFF: Brad’s Status

Save yourself $12 and some heart burn. Brad’s Status is midlife crisis. Anyone who calls a Millennial whiny, entitled, or self-indulgent has cleary never met Brad (Ben Stiller) or his ilk. He seemingly has everything a Millennial may never get: a great house, a job he’s passionate about, a family who adores him. And yet.

And yet his son’s success has led him to do some deep introspection. His son Troy  (Austin Abrams) is applying to college and his good grades and musicianship mean he’s a shoo-in wherever he might apply – including Harvard, which is the school they’re going to check maxresdefaultout over the weekend. Brad is surprised his son is so high-achieving, proud of course – but maybe also a little jealous. And he’s reminded of his own youth, when life was still before him and anything was possible. His best mates in college have all gone on to stunning success – Craig (Michael Sheen) is a best-selling politico, Billy (Jemaine Clement) is enjoying early retirement in paradise after selling his company, Jason (Luke Wilson) is a hedge fund guy with his own private jet, and Nick (Mike White) is a Hollywood director with a palatial home. Brad gets unforgivably mopey about the fact that his sweet wife (Jenna Fisher) didn’t encourage him to sell out, and his job helping people connect with charitable giving is peanuts compared to just being a rich guy with money to give.

We get treated to so much of Brad’s whiny inner monologue that you’ll want to punch him, repeatedly. Various Millennials have to literally hold his hand and explain to him that he’s being gross: that everything he’s complaining about is white privilege, male privilege garbage. And he still doesn’t get it.

Brad’s life only seems pale when he compares it to the 1%. He burns with first world problems. He seems like a not fantastic guy who doesn’t get an ounce of my sympathy. Of course, Ben Stiller is well-suited to this kind of neurotic self-pity. With anxiety written all over his face, we know 5 minutes into this movie that we hate him and regret having to spend the next 100 minutes listening to him be ungrateful for his charmed life. Thank goodness for his son who sees things a little more clearly. Mike White may have some interesting things to say on the subject, and I pray that he’s just as contemptuous of Brad as we are, but for me, he was just too unlikeable a character to really inspire much empathy from me, and I mostly just wanted to turn him off.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I read this book not long ago and was really taken by it, inspired by it, moved by it. It’s non-fiction by Rebecca Skloot about a woman named Henrietta Lacks who had cells taken from her without consent while she was in the hospital being treated for cancer. She died shortly after but her cells lived on and live on still. They’re known as HeLa cells and they’ve been sold to labs the world over because hers were durable and prolific. Nearly every medical breakthrough since 1951 has used her cells in research and trials. Hela cells are the oldest immortal cell line in medical history. But Henrietta never knew, MV5BZjkxMTVmMDQtYTE3OS00NjBhLWJlNjQtYjI1M2VkNzE3ODA2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjAyNzI2OTY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1444,1000_AL_was never asked. Her family didn’t know either. And when they found out, decades later, they were mortified. Without the education to understand what those cells really meant, they wondered if part of their mother was indeed still alive, being kept alive cruelly in labs, being shot into space, or injected with disease. And why had so many profited from the sale of HeLa cells while Henrietta’s family languished in poverty?

The book tackled issues of informed consent, and ethics of race and class in medical research. The film, starring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta’s haunted daughter, Deborah, and Rose Byrne as writer Skloot, loses some of what makes the book such a great read. But it’s still a great if upsetting introduction to Henrietta and the family that still grieves her. Deborah grew up without a mother, while thousands of scientists handled her cells on a daily basis. She knew almost nothing about her mother but now learns that her legacy includes the vaccine for polio, gene mapping, and cloning. Scientists have grown some 20 tonnes of HeLa cells, which have featured in over 60 000 research papers and 11 000 patents. Not a dime ever went to the Lacks family.

Winfrey gives a stirring performance as a heartbroken woman. Byrne is commanding as well. But for my money, the book is where it’s at – pick it up.

TIFF: Outside In

Chris has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for a crime he didn’t really commit. That sounds like a cop out but the shades of guilt were complicated and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. But he was sentenced at the age of 17 as an adult and it was only thanks to the hard work of his high school teacher Carol that he’s now out.

A couple of things: Chris (Jay Duplass) had developed quite an intense relationship with said teacher (Edie Falco) but now that it’s not a strictly phone friendship, things are different. She’s married. She has a teenage daughter, in fact. But Chris doesn’t really have MV5BMTc3MTE2MzU2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg4ODMzMzI@._V1_very many other people in his life, so he’s leaning very heavily on her. His brother isn’t a lot of help – yeah, he’s staying in his garage, but things are pretty tense since Ted (Ben Schwartz) never visited him in prison, and seems to have had something to do with the crime that sent Chris away. Things are very, very tense.

Also: freedom isn’t quite as free as Chris has imagined. I mean, being outside the walls of his cell is intimidating. But he’s also dealing with the confines of probation – not drinking, not traveling, finding a job suitable for an ex-con, etc, etc. And I couldn’t help but feeling like Carol’s less than ideal marriage is a little more prison like than she’d like to admit. So shit’s complicated.

Duplass and director Lynn Shelton wrote the script together and though it’s not very action-oriented, it’s packed with emotional awkwardness and personal growth. Duplass doesn’t make for a typical criminal, whatever that means. Even 20 years of prison doesn’t seem to have hardened him, he’s sensitive and introverted and a little lost and needy. The movie really follows his struggles to readjust to this life, and it’s quickly obvious that the superficial stuff like texting and bike helmets are the least of his concerns. The world has changed, but more importantly, so has he. He’s struggling to catch up; the film shines in small moments, like when Carol’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) teaches him it’s no longer okay to use the word ‘retarded.’

Edie Falco is a wonder. I especially loved the complicated relationship between her and her daughter. But the movie flounders a bit, with Chris’s plight a little too internalized. The story’s predictability makes this film good, but not great.

TIFF: The Wife

I chose this movie because it’s based on a novel of the same name by a fantastic writer, Meg Wolitzer. I read it several years ago but I can confidently tell you it was an interesting and provocative read. Why then, did I feel the movie was kind of a bore?

It’s about a woman, Joan (Glenn Close), who is thinking maybe she’s had enough of her husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) just as he’s about to win a Nobel prize for literature. She’s supported him and his career for years but being the supportive wife is just not a role she’s comfortable with anymore. It’s kind of bad timing, especially since they’re being trailed by a hungry writer (Christian Slater) gunning for juicy details for his unauthorized biography.

They say that behind every great man is a great woman. Being a woman, I absolutely MV5BY2E1ZDU1ZDEtNzRkMi00M2U1LWIzZTItZWU0YmFiYWQ5MDMzL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTA0OTQ3NDY@._V1_loathe that sick expression, but you know who hates it even more? Joan. And you’re about to find out why. I won’t give anything away, but I think the “reveal’ (which is a bad word for what it actually is, but let’s just say there’s information being withheld) comes too late – it would be a way more interesting story if this little tidbit was part of the journey. What we do know is that she literally runs his life: she checks his beard for crumbs and sets his watch for pill time and does nose hair checks because she’s a goddamn boss and he doesn’t deserve her.

The truth is, this whole thing is a very weak. The story is so diluted that it lost all interest to me. Sean felt a smidge more positively about it, perhaps because he wasn’t comparing it to the book. The acting is good, very good actually, Glenn Close is a queen, which really just made me all the sorrier that this film couldn’t step up and be the thing she deserves.

I imagined that The Wife is perhaps a bit of a TIFF bookend, with Battle of Sexes being the other end. Bille Jean King is reminding people just how different it was for women when she was playing tennis. At the time (1973ish), women still couldn’t have their own credit cards – the applications needed a male signatory. In The Wife, too, women are being held back. Joan should have had her own career as a writer, if only editors, publishers, and critics weren’t all male. She was stifled, and that’s how she became merely The Wife.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie

Sean has a video game called LEGO Dimensions. You buy character packs, build them out of LEGO, and then you can play them in the game. The character packs come in all sorts of cool recognizable shapes and sizes: Sean has the Simpsons, and Back to the Future, and Ghostbusters, for example. He builds a Marty McFly, and a Delorean, and then he can go through the plot of the movie using those characters. It’s pretty cool. But as a completionist, he’s also bought character packs that we have no experience with at all, like Harry Potter, Adventure Time, Portal 2, and Ninjago. And while we knew that Harry Potter were popular books, and a franchise of films, we didn’t know Ninjago at all. In fact, we didn’t even know how to pronounce it correctly until Sean called it Ninja-go in front of his 4 year old nephew, who looked at him like he was a complete sack of shit. It’s pronounced Nin-jaw-go, for your information. And apparently it’s a TV show used to sell LEGO sets. But whereas Bill Murray was a real flesh and blood person rendered into a cartoon version of a LEGO mini figure, the Ninjagos were always LEGO. LEGO has sold over 100 different sets of LEGOs based on that show, so you can see how it’s a big money maker for them. The movie is a cog in their money making machine.

AmazeThe gist of the movie: Garmadon (Justin Theroux) is the bad guy threatening the world of Ninjago. But every time he tries to invade it for good, he’s thwarted by a band of teenage ninjas trained by his brother, Master Wu (Jackie Chan) and led by the son he abandoned 16 years ago, Lloyd (Dave Franco) though none bear any familial resemblance. Being the son of a noted bad guy is hard, and so is being the vaguely named “green ninja” in a crew of ninjas otherwise named for the elements – Cole\Earth (Fred Armisen), Jay\Lightning (Kumail Nanjiani), Kai\Fire (Michael Pena), Zane\Ice (Zach Woods), and Nya\Water (Abbi Jacobson). They get to ride around in really cool LEGO robots that can shoot things and fly, and I can totally see the toy appeal. Lloyd’s robot vehicle is a dragon that shoots missiles from every body part imaginable – what kid could resist? But the genius is that that they all have something different, so the potential for you to spend money is almost limitless.

Anyway, when Garmadon makes his most successful bid to capture the city (and a monster threatens to destroy it), Lloyd will have to learn now to harness his vague ninja powers, pull his team together, and also bond a little with his bad guy dad.

Yes, it’s all a big ploy to get into your wallet. But like the other LEGO movies that came before it, it’s also shamelessly fun. But this one is the weakest of the three, in part because it only appeals to the kids who know and watch the show. The other two movies preyed on adult nostalgia and reminded them of the toys they played with as kids. The only thing this movie might remind you of is the sharp little buggers that get lost in your carpet and hurt like hell when you step on them at night on your way to the bathroom. LEGO knows what it’s doing: the butt joke ratio is extremely high, and the kids laugh every damn time. So go ahead and take them to it, as long as you understand that it’s likely to cost you more than just the movie tickets.

Little Evil

Little Evil is not an exceptional entry into the genre, but it’s a quirky little horror-comedy hybrid that’s just clever enough. This film is of the ‘possessed child’ variety but the focus is on Gary (Adam Scott), the demon child’s stepdad. Step-parenting is hard, y’all! And it’s slightly harder when your new wife’s kid is the spawn of satan. You really get put through the ringer. And of course his Mom (Evangeline Lilly) is always going to take her darling son’s side – how dare you suggest that he might be, you know – a little evil? He’s an angel! Besides, how much trouble can a 6 year old really get into, even if he is the Antichrist?

99e58ff3fb9373b5bb8760617c7674f23bddd0d1Director Eli Craig clearly has some fondness for the genre, and little odes to other possessed-kid movies pop up from time to time. Another thing that pops up is Craig’s own mother, Sally Field, as a social worker who thinks Gary just isn’t trying hard enough. It’s a small but terrific role for her – possibly the kind of role only her son could ask her to play.

The film’s weakness is that it never fully embraces its own identity. It doesn’t go full goofy, but it can never be full horror. The result is perfectly watchable but a little frustrating knowing what it might otherwise have been. It also sort of neglects little Lucas (Owen Atlas, the titular Evil himself). We don’t know him well enough to judge whether he truly wants to bury people alive, or whether he’s just not fond of Mom’s string of boyfriends. Our early impression is that he likes to dress like he’s in ACDC and he’s mostly silent, only talking through a creepy goat hand puppet. He’s only just turned 6, still small enough for us to feel naturally protective over, so if you want me to contemplate stabbing him through his unholy heart, you’d better give me good reason and some to spare.

All in, this is a fairly throwaway movie. The beats are familiar, it’s just that Gary’s merry band of misfits consists of a step-dad support group. There are some laughs to be had here, and if you’re a fan of horror, it’s fun to play Where’s Waldo with the references. This is Netflix original content, and it’s streaming there right now.

The Hippopotamus

Based on Stephen Fry’s raucous novel, The Hippopotamus is about a drunken poet who hasn’t actually written a poem in decades. Spectacularly fired from his more recent newspaper job, Ted Wallace (Roger Allam) is hired by his ex-girlfriend’s daughter Jane to investigate a mystery.

Wrangling an invitation from his godson David (Tommy Knight) to Swafford Hall, Ted’s off to the English countryside to look into a strong of recent…miracles? Jane was on her 1227022_The-Hippopotamus-600x337.jpgdeathbed with cancer when she first went out to Swafford to convalesce in a peaceful setting. Instead, she experienced a miraculous recovery, her health and strength returning until she seemed to be in complete remission. She’s not the only one talking about these spiritual healings, so in addition to Ted, Swafford is welcoming all kinds of guests who are sneakily looking for their own miracles.

Turns out that it’s David who’s responsible for the “laying on of hands”, only he’s not just using his hands. The, erm, colourful assemblage of guests are pretty desperate and ready to swallow just about anything, so the whole household’s a twitter with whatever’s going on. Ted, ever the skeptic, is determined to get to the bottom of it. He’s sure it’s a hoax, but we’re sure he’s a drunk, bumbling fool, so who’s right?

Dubbed a “comedy of manners” it does have a distinctly English feel to it. I usually adore British comedies but I didn’t have the patience for this one. Sure there are some great zingers but it’s really kind of a mess and all the characters besides Ted are cardboard cutouts, which means tonnes of voice-over explanation is required, and that gets quite tedious. This film lacks energy and this viewer was left bored.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

On Saturday we brought our sweet little nephews to the Capital Fair, where we watched a stunt dog show, rode rides, played games on the Midway, and visited a petting zoo where the kids and I hand-fed llamas. On Monday I watched a llama get shot, point blank.

Do not confuse The Zookeeper’s Wife with We Bought A Zoo. This is no light-hearted tale. It’s about real-life couple Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who used their posts at the Warsaw Zoo to save hundreds of Jews during the German invasion. Of course I’ve read both The a6oYy417yHHP01DGIDZUeEzH7JFZookeeper’s Wife, and We Bought A Zoo, and more recently I was reading another book about a woman who led an underground railroad of sorts to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto, wherein the zookeeper’s wife was specifically mentioned. It was an especially brutal place to be during the war. Terrible, unspeakable things happened every day, and it’s kind of a miracle to see\hear these stories about ordinary people who couldn’t live with what was happening, so they didn’t [it’s sort of awful that these words sound very applicable even today].

Glimmers of light do not eliminate all the darkness. The Zookeeper’s Wife is not an easy watch. The film makes the stakes clear, yes for the zookeepers taking enormous risks themselves (they would surely die if discovered), but especially for the people they are helping, who would otherwise be dead – or worse.

Jessica Chastain as the zookeeper’s wife is of course fantastic. There’s no CGI used int he film; those are real lion cubs she’s cuddling, with not a shred of hesitancy. Fitting, I suppose, when she’s sitting in the middle of a war where much scarier things are happening on the streets. WW2-era films always inspire a bout of siderodromophobia in me (the fear of trains).

This movie gets some things right, and some things wrong. In the end, I think it’s just not terrible enough, which I realize is a weird thing to say. What I mean is: it doesn’t have the power to haunt you the way Schindler’s List did (does). It feels a little cold, without the emotional gravitas you’d expect. I expected to cry. What does it mean that I didn’t? Perhaps what this movie needed was a meaningful connection to just one victim. Heroics are all well and good, but they’re only important because they’re necessary. Heroes are only half the equation: both must be compelling.