Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Jay says: go see it. Now.

Lucky

Lucky is an old man, a washed up cowboy who’s living out his remaining years in a small town where his routine means everything to him: a daily glass of milk, some exercise, coffee and crosswords at the local diner, devotion to his game shows. Just because he’s alone doesn’t mean he’s lonely. But then a brush with his mortality reminds him that death comes for all of us, and he starts reevaluating a thing or two.

We missed seeing Lucky at SXSW this year; our schedule was packed and we had to hds_photocredit_stefaniarosinichoose between several old-guy movies (we ended up seeing The Hero and The Ballad of Lefty Brown). We can’t regret seeing either of those movies, both are good, but there is one mitigating factor. Harry Dean Stanton, star of Lucky, died last month at the age of 91. And there is, I believe, a difference between watching an old man come to grips with his age and death’s proximity, and watching a man who we know was actually met his maker be confronted with his expiration date on screen and admit to us all that he is scared. Oof.

How does a 90 year old atheist feel about death’s encroachment? You’ll see it all on Stanton’s face. The years have visibly burdened him, he walks with a heavy but purposeful gait, his shoulders sloping under the effects of time and the weight of the unknown. And though he makes various connections, a surprisingly diverse variety of connections for a man of his generation, we’re very much aware that in the end, everyone dies alone. This film has moments of genuine warmth and delight, but it’ll also make you feel his emptiness, his isolation, his fear. And if that’s not enough to completely gut you, director John Carroll Lynch wrenches the very last drops of our humanity from us with the help of my favouritest favourite Johnny Cash song. So you just can’t help be hollowed out. But Lucky also fills you up. The script accounts for more than a few quirky characters, but it’s Lucky’s persistence and courage that fill us up with hope.

There aren’t enough words to say what a great performance we have here from Stanton. It’s superb. Lucky isn’t the talkiest of fellows but Stanton delivers a meditation on mortality that is the perfect legacy to his lengthy career. He’s magnetic. And we’re all a little luckier having seen this film.

 

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Can You Dig This?

Inspired by the OG gangster gardener, Ron Finley, film maker Delila Vallot gets to know the people taking up gardening in South Central Los Angeles and follows them for a year to see if the simple act of growing things can in fact transform someone’s life.

Can You Dig This? is Planet In Focus Film Festival’s closing night film and it’s one you’ll enjoy watching as much as you enjoy learning from it.

Compton is a food desert – the neighbourhoods are packed with fast food joints and liquor stores, but the sale of healthful food is rare. Ron Finley thought it reasonable that he should therefore get to growing some right in his very own yard, but doing soslide-1 attracted the ire of a neighbour who reported him. A cease and desist letter from the city made him think twice – not about the rightness of gardening his own land, but about the rightness of this world. Never before motivated to activism, Finley took up the cause, providing free soil so that others could plant too. Now you’ll find the neighbourhoods dotted with planters, and if you think that’s interesting, just wait until you meet the people who are cultivating them.

The film follows a high school dropout cum drug dealer, a woman who is gang-affiliated, a little girl who wants to grow greens for her diabetic dad (and wouldn’t mind making some cash on the side!), and a few elderly men living in a halfway house after extensive prison sentences. These are terrific subjects, each one revealing a little bit about their neighbourhood. You might not expect something as innocuous as gardening to stir up a lot of emotions, but when the film starts unpacking issues like the legacy of slavery contributing to the black community’s loss of contact with the soil, you start to realize how impactful this seemingly small act can be. Gardening as subversion? Yes, actually.

Not only is this documentary well done, it’s a fun and funny watch too. And inspiring, I don’t mind saying.
CAN YOU DIG THIS? plays at the Planet In Focus film festival in Toronto
Sunday 22 October, 7:45pm ­ Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Ron Finlay will be in attendance

The Florida Project

Thank you New Hampshire Film Festival for bringing this beautiful film to us. We missed seeing it at TIFF and it got huge buzz. HUGE. Director Sean Baker is following up his crazy-good Tangerine and we’ve been collectively, societally waiting with baited breath for his next effort. It feels like Sean Baker is doing important work without all the trumpets and majorettes and fanfare. But I sort of hope that maybe I can blow the horn a bit here, wave a flag or two: The Florida Project is fucking awesome.

6 year old Moonee has the run of the crummy Orlando motel where she and her mother live in “extended stays.” Halley, her mom, can’t get work at Disney and has no other MV5BYjZhMDZmZjItNjcyZC00ZWY2LTkzMzUtZWM0ZDgyYzM2Nzg2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1333,1000_AL_options, so you can imagine some of the crazy things they do for money. It’s a destitute, desperate kind of life but you’d never know it to see Mooney adventuring around free-range with her comrades.

Sean Baker is a master of society’s fringes, and the near-homelessness of the people constantly scrounging for rent between scrapes with the law or family services is about as marginal as you get. Situate that beside the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth” where the wealthy tourists stay in much nicer digs and it’s an uncomfortable reminder that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Moonee, meanwhile, is seemingly untouched by her circumstances. Intellectually, you know it’s not true: that of course she’s affected by what she sees and hears and eats and meets and experiences, and that she’ll find it hard to climb above her mother’s station. But for now she’s a happy-go-lucky kid who rarely faces consequences, although that’s largely thanks to the motel’s manager and de-facto babysitter, Bobby, who is the eyes, ears, caregiver and mediator when parents just aren’t up to snuff. And believe me, this is a building where neglect rules the day. I felt real tension watching these kids be unwatched.

Halley, barely more than a kid herself, and scarcely more responsible, is tattooed with bad decisions but not without sympathy. Bria Vinaite, who plays her, really understands Halley’s sharp corners and soft underbelly. Willem Dafoe gives Bobby a complexity and edge that make his character fascinating. He’s like the beating heart of the building he supervises. But it’s little Brooklynn Prince as Moonee who just about steals the whole gosh darn movie. She is so real and raw it often feels like you’re watching a documentary, and that the stakes are indeed life-altering. Child actors can make or break a movie but Sean Baker has found not one but a trio of incredibly spirited, natural, and talented kids that make this movie what it is.

The Florida Project is audacious, authentic, absorbing. And it’s begging to be watched.

Maudie

Maudie was born “funny” – sharp in her mind but infirm in her body. She is discounted, invisible to the world. Abused then neglected by her brother, his monthly sum to her caretaker aunt doesn’t mean the aunt is nice to her, not at all. So it shouldn’t be surprising when Maudie seeks to improve her situation by lending herself out as a housemaid. The only person who’d have her is an ornery (possibly autistic, in a time way before that would be diagnosed) fishmonger who lives out in rural Nova Scotia.

maudie_01Maudie (Sally Hawkins) and Everett (Ethan Hawke) are a couple of odd socks – the world has discarded them and they do not belong together but for lack of anything better have somehow become a pair. Their relationship doesn’t exactly blossom into romance but their mutual tolerance and sometime thoughtfulness or generosity does translate into a partnership of sorts, and marriage. And while Maudie may neglect her household chores, she blossoms in Everett’s house as a painter. Her arthritis makes it increasingly hard to even hold a brush but her joyful spirit paints their modest, one-room home in bright, colourful designs. Soon the community around her will embrace her for it. Maud Lewis (1903-1970) is one of Canada’s best known folk artists.

Sally Hawkins is phenomenal. She underplays everything because she can, because she can rely upon her talent to communicate big things in small ways. Her eyebrows alone are Oscar worthy. Her smile is reminiscent of the real Maud – wide and innocent. She gives such dignity to this character who really led a simple life, a life of poverty, but a life that was more than enough for a woman who needed only some space and a paint brush in her hand to feel happy. Maudie is not just a tribute to the artist, but to her way of life. I was moved by this film, for Maud specifically and women generally, for anyone who was marginalized and squashed and found a way to bloom anyway.

The Breadwinner

Not all men are bad, not even all Afghan men. That’s important to remember. Not all of them want to treat women like garbage, but the taliban sure does. It’s not enough to cover women head to toe in burqas, but new rules in Afghanistan prohibit them from leaving the house at all, except in rare cases when accompanied by a father, husband, or brother.

Parvana’s older sister hasn’t left the house in so long she’s forgetting what it was like. Parvana is “lucky” because her father lost his leg in the war and his livelihood more recently, so she assists him down to the market where they try to sell their possessions in order to eat. Her father respects his daughters, educated them, and wants better things for them, things he can no longer give them with the oppressive taliban regime patrolling with guns and indignation. When the taliban inevitably hauls him off to prison for no reason, suddenly the family is left without an escape clause. Parvana’s mother andMV5BMDg0ODM5NTYtMjNkMS00NDQ3LWI5MGYtMDg3ZTQ5MDE0OTRlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjQ1NjA0ODM@._V1_ sister and baby brother could literally starve to death waiting for a man to come release them from their own home so Parvana does the only thing she can think of to save them: she cuts off her hair, wears the clothes of her dead brother, and to taliban eyes, becomes a boy.

You may recognize The Breadwinner as a recent high-profile screening at TIFF; Angelina Jolie is a producer and her red carpet appearance really shined the spotlight on this important film. People were equally excited to celebrate it at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. It played to a packed house and I imagine it will again on Saturday so if you haven’t got your tickets, get on it!

The Breadwinner’s animation is stunning.  Stunning. Like, I want to get tattoos of it on my body. That’s really the highest praise you can give, or that I can give, an animated movie, a compliment I haven’t given before or even thought to. The story is kind of perfection. It’s by no means an exact replica of the book. It diverges significantly from it but still feels like an authentic and spiritual distillation of it.

If The Breadwinner isn’t talked about come Oscar time, I’ll be shocked and outraged. Not taliban guy seeing a woman “calling attention to herself” by merely being outdoors outraged, but outraged. It’s a great story coupled with the most amazing animation but it also could not be more essential viewing at this moment in time.

Lu Over the Wall

Greetings from the Ottawa International Animation Festival, which we’re always proud to cover because not only is it our hometown festival, it’s also a really great one – terrific movies, great venues, well-organized by staff and volunteers. It makes an Asshole proud!

Our first stop at the festival was to the good old Bytowne, where all the best indie films get shows year-round. Lu Over the Wall is a Japanese film by director Masaaki Yuasa, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by it.

The film is about Kai, a surly middle schooler who seems isolated from his peers until it 48a6ae418cf7ea14caa9daee89cfc4381491527985_largeis discovered that he makes really interesting beats with his computer, and he gets recruited into a band by Yuuho and Kuniko. The band practices on a deserted island away from the mainland so that Kuniko’s family won’t discover his dirty little secret (he’s destined to be a temple keeper, not a rock star). But out there they stir up the myth that has shrouded their town for decades: that of merpeople.

Turns out, merpeople are attracted to music, and that’s exactly what prompts Lu, a very cute little mermaid, to leave the water to sing and dance with them. Everyone else is terrified of merpeople, who, legend has it, eat people, among other atrocities, but Kai can relate to Lu and so they become friends. It’s a tricky relationship to navigate when half the townspeople want the merfolk dead and gone, and the other half hope to exploit them for money.

No, this isn’t an animated take on The Shape of Water, though it’s beginning to sound like it. But it is a story about looking beyond our preconceptions, a story made all the more palatable by its incredibly sweet animation. When its meant to, the joy practically leaps right off the screen. You’ll feel your heart tug upward. Lu’s happiness is infectious. I mean, what kind of a person isn’t completely bowled over by mermaids? Like, how black is your soul? And Lu is so bright and bubbly she makes Ariel seem like a puddle of puke. Lu Over the Wall is giddy, upbeat, and as you might have guessed, has a soundtrack bursting with J-pop. I love how the movie evokes emotion by changing up its animation style and if for some reason your inner darkness has been able to resist up until now, I’ll leave you with just one word, the only word this review really needs: mer-doggies.

TIFF: Lady Bird

ladybird_01In making a coming of age film about a high school student, Greta Gerwig has come into her own – as a writer, as a director, as a woman with a voice.

Lady Bird is the name that Christine (Saoirse Ronan) has given herself. It’s her senior year of high school and all she wants is out. Out of Sacramento, out of her parents’ house, out of her own skin which doesn’t quite seem to fit anymore. Like most teenagers, Lady Bird is kind of a d-bag. She thinks she knows more than any adult she’s ever met. She’s self-centered and blind to the needs of others, but in the sympathetic hands of Ronan, we don’t hate her and we certainly never tire of her. Her flaws should push us away but instead they endear us – maybe even remind us of ourselves at that age.

Her relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is relatable as heck and among the best I’ve ever seen written or performed on the big screen. Their relationship is a series of clashes between pragmatism and whimsy. Lady Bird doggedly indulges one artistic pursuit after another while her mother does the precarious high-wire act of balancing the needs of an entire family. Ronan and Metcalf are incredible together, the chemistry is electric and complicated and feels so real you’ll intermittently want to send your mother a fruit bouquet of thanks, and a nasty hate letter condemning her every decision. Or was that just me?

But the real kicker is that Lady Bird is not just a mother-daughter movie. Lady Bird’s life is full of characters and it’s amazing how fully realized they all are. We spend time with her father, her brother, her best friend, and several love interests, and Gerwig’s fabulous writing doesn’t lose sight of a single one of them. And her cast – her cast! Have I said yet that Saoirse Ronan is a vision and she brings so much to the role and this is truly the best I’ve ever seen her? Fun fact: she and Greta first met at TIFF two years ago, and Gerwig couldn’t imagine the role going to anyone else. And even though the writing is so, so good, and the character is absolute perfection on the page, Ronan just makes it even better. Even wonderfuller.

And Metcalf. This is such a great role and she really makes it her own: loving, frustrated, conflicted, supportive, scathing. Goddamn. She plays opposite Tracy Letts, who plays her husband and Lady Bird’s dad. He’s the good cop parent but not without his own challenges – believe me, the script does not neglect him. Lois Smith, Timothee Chalamet, and Lucas Hedges all help bring Lady Bird’s world into bold, bright, living colour while also contributing a little of their own. I’m telling you, this has got to be a contender for best script. The layers are many and I have never wanted to peel anything faster in my life! For my money, though, the lovely, luminous Beanie Feldstein has got to be the breakout star here. She plays Lady Bird’s BFF Julie. Don’t mistake her for a second banana. She may have shades of wallflower but she never gives you a second to discount her.

Lady Bird is absolutely one to watch, so do.

TIFF: Unicorn Store

Full disclosure: I own a unicorn named Mindy. She’s magical. She’s a goddamned magical creature. She’s also inflatable but don’t you DARE call her a pool toy. You can, however, call her the centre of attention, which is exactly what she was when I threw a goddamned magical unicorn party earlier this summer. I sent unicorn invitations. I had unicorn party hats, a unicorn pinata, and unicorn names for all the guests. I even made a unicorn cake. No, that’s not true. I actually made TWO unicorn cakes because Sean smashed the first one about 30 seconds after I finished it. And when you throw a unicorn party, people bring you unicorn presents, which is why I own unicorn slippers and a unicorn tape dispenser named Stuart and briefly had unicorn-coloured hair. This either makes me uniquely qualified to review this film, or I should recuse myself for the glaring conflict of interest.

I’m not actually obsessed with unicorns, but you know who is? Kit. Kit (Brie Larson) has literally been obsessed with unicorns her whole entire life. And after painting yet 422-logan.jpganother unicorn-as-self-portrait, she’s unceremoniously flunked out of art school and returns home to mope in her parents’ basement (Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford). In an effort to Not Be A Disappointment to them, she takes an uninspired job with a temp agency and just when it seems the world might be ready to beat the whimsy right out of her, the universe sends her a pop-up store that only sells unicorns, and only to her, run by a tinsel-afroed Samuel L. Jackson, of naturally. Turns out that owning a unicorn is something you have to earn, so Kit sets about getting her life unicorn-ready, and that’s going to take some major changes. But is unicorn ownership really the cure to what ails a directionless, fully grown woman who seems stuck in a perpetual unicorn phase? Isn’t there more to life than glitter and rainbows?

Samantha McIntyre’s script is winkingly funny. For some odd reason neither Sean nor I had gone into this expecting it to be funny, and yet the audience was in stitches. McIntyre has a very quirky style that endeared itself to me immediately. She creates sparks in the smallest little details. I also have to send a shout-out to costumer Mirren Gordon-Crozier who must have combed the known universe to find THE most fanciful pieces of clothing ever produced. Kit wears her personality on her body. Her shirt collection is all blue skies and rainbows. It reminded me of Kimmy Schmidt in that way, who is always seen in sunshine yellows and bright fuchsias. Their clothing is a reflection of who they are. That said, it might be Samuel L. Jackson’s suits that make the biggest and brightest wardrobe impression in this movie.

But the real rock star here is Brie Larson, who makes her directorial debut. She’s just finding her voice as a director so her style isn’t quite as quirky as the tone of the movie, but considering how much it shifts around, I think she handles it well, and I already can’t wait to see what other stories she’ll tell. She assembles a really great cast who are a lot of fun to watch. Cusack and Whitford are everyone’s embarrassing parents, and Mamoudou Athie as The Guy Who Will Build a Unicorn Stable Even Though He’s Not A Carpenter is a particular stand-out.

I really enjoyed Unicorn Store; it’s a sweet reminder that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on childhood dreams. Underneath the glitter there’s a message about conformity and how women are told to pull away from “girlish” things in order to fall into one of two male-approved categories: the drab, grim businesswoman, or the oversexualized dreamgirl. Anything seen as overtly feminine is assumed to be less serious, and even women themselves can internalize this notion. Not Kit. Brie Larson flexes her comedic chops by playing her as earnest but not naive. In a world where every man’s inner child is constantly catered to with movies about super heroes, robots, pirates, and zombies, this one, finally, is just for us.

 

The Leisure Seeker

This movie is about a couple of charming runaways on the lam. They haven’t committed any crimes but they’re keen to evade the responsibilities that weigh on them at home. We’ve seen lots of movies about people on the open road, but we’ve rarely seen a man beleaguered by Alzheimer’s helming a large winnebago while his cancer-stricken wife navigates and their adult children are panicking at home.

Ella (Helen Mirren) should be in the hospital receiving treatment, but instead she’s choosing this one last hurrah before Alzheimer’s has her husband John (Donald Sutherland) completely within its clutches. The Leisure Seeker is the name of their the-leisure-seekerbeloved RV, and this road trip is designed to trigger memories of happier times – their young family at play, their former selves in love. It’s obvious that the ‘in love’ part has never really faded for Ella and John, and maybe this is why it’s so hard for her to cope when he can’t remember who she is.

The pair hit the interstate armed with pecan logs, slides of old photos, and yes, a gun. This film is a moving eulogy to all the things that are slipping away – not just for John and Ella personally, but also perhaps on a more national scale (like a sense of community for one – though attempts to be any more political feel out of place). But as John’s moments of lucidity grow shorter and Ella’s anguish grows deeper. The Leisure Seeker is pointed toward Florida but we can’t deny what they’re truly headed for.

Mirren and Sutherland make the movie of course – the camera rarely strays from this couple so strongly bonded they can’t even bear to sleep in separate beds. Sutherland spins the dial on the many shades of dementia, his face quietly registering all of them. Mirren wears a cheerful mask but Ella’s pain and smouldering anger never disappear completely. This Brit and her Canadian costar make watching this American road trip movie worth while – even if their Italian director doesn’t quite get it right. The acting, however, is everything, and the casting is spot-on even if Mirren is inconsistent with her southern accent. Just as we’re meeting them, they’re getting ready to say their goodbyes. This is a bittersweet journey, and you’re welcome to tag along. You can leave your gun at home, but do pack some tissues.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Holy hell.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh has almost certainly reached the peak of his film making career with this film. It doesn’t get much better than this.

The three billboards in question have been rented by grieving mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) to accuse the town sheriff, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) of not having made any progress on the case since her daughter was brutally raped and murdered. Willoughby isn’t terribly pleased, but he’s got more important things to worry about – namely, terminal cancer. So it’s his racist, hotheaded, cruel officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who takes up his cause, torturing anyone he suspects of having helped.

MV5BZmMyMTg1NzEtNWZiZi00OTczLTg0NzUtNzFlNjI5YjJkMzkxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_McDonagh uses lyrical language peppered with inspired cursewords; his heavy-weight cast punches it up with a surprising mixture of gravitas and black comedy.

Frances McDormand, national treasure, is of course fantastico. Wearing her ubiquitous coverall, she’s a no-nonsense woman who’s been through hell even before her daughter’s gruesome death. She is not without a softer side, though rarely seen. McDonagh gave her a couple of speeches that practically earned standing ovations at our screening. She walks a thin line between vengeance and justice but discovers she is not exempt herself. She’s got a terrific scene pitted against Willoughby that suggests these two have more history than we’re privy to. It’s a small town; there’s almost no vitriol without at least a measure of respect. As Willoughby, Harrelson once again reminds us he’s capable of almost anything. But, arguably, the man to watch is Sam Rockwell. He’s hateful, detestable, and yet we don’t quite hate him or detest him as we should. That’s sort of the miracle of McDonagh’s script – all of his characters are deeply flawed. Mildred is our protagonist but she’s no one’s hero. She makes too many mistakes. Dixon is all mistakes but for a small sliver of charm, and Rockwell exploits the hell out of it. He’s almost maniacal at times, and loads of fun to watch. Any time any of these power houses square off verbally, they’re shooting spitfire, and it’s even more entertaining to watch than a good old fashioned shoot out. And that’s not even mentioning a very capable stable of secondary characters that add dimensionality to the population of this small, insular town.

McDonagh’s world is not one of easy outs. It feels like he has asked himself – what would be most surprising here – and yet, despite a plot that constantly feels like it’s developing from the left field, it feels right.

I fully expect to see McDormand’s name on the Oscar ballot this year, in a race for Best Actress that’s already crowded (she’s the third name I’ve tossed out this festival alone). But Rockwell’s belongs there too – this is what Best Supporting aspires to be. Although conventionally shot, this is an extraordinary film, one I hope you’ll see and love when it comes out this November.