Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Jay says: go see it. Now.

The Polka King

Jan Lewan, Polish immigrant, is a hard-working polka enthusiast. He works 18 day time jobs just so he can afford to keep touring the Pennsylvania polka circuit. His band, however, isn’t content to work for peanuts. In a bid to fatten their paycheques, he recruits some of his elderly fans to become “investors”, and he writes promissory notes guaranteeing a 12% return on investment. His investors are quite happy: Jan always finds new investors, so he can always cover generous quarterly payments. But then the FBI finds out.

polka-kingThe FBI gets one whiff of this and feel it must be some sort of Ponzi scheme. They shut Jan down, but since he promises it was an honest mistake, and to pay back his investors, problem solved. Except, in order to pay back his investors, he ends up creating a second, bigger scheme.

The thing about our Polka King is that he’s very, very charming. Jack Black is perfect to play him: guileless, open-faced, enthusiastic. Even when he’s dirty, his heart is squeaky-clean. Jenny Slate appears as his beauty queen wife, Jacki Weaver as his scowling mother-in-law,  and Jason Schwartzman as his best friend and bandmate, Mickey Pizzazz. The film bubbles with energy thanks to its cast, and Jack Black’s eyes are never not dancing. Black’s been honing his indie acting chops these past few years, and it shows. But it never hurts that this wacky guy is exactly in his wheelhouse. It just so happens that this wacky guy is a real person, and if you were a polka fan in the 1990s, especially around Scranton, you may have caught a performance. But even if you didn’t, now all you need is a Netflix subscription. The screwball energy is infectious…although it must be said: directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky seem to love their protagonist a little too much. But heck, I love him a little too much too. The Polka King is endearing and entertaining.  He may be conning his way into our hearts, but he’s there.

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The Post

In 1971, Kay Graham was the first of her kind, a female newspaper publisher, but she was never supposed to have the job. The Washington Post was part of the family business but her father passed it down not to her, but to her husband. But when her husband committed suicide, she stepped into shoes that had always been loafers, not heels.

Then, something amazing happens: someone leaks top secret documents that detail the Vietnam cover-up that spanned 4 U.S. presidents including the current one, Richard Nixon, who’s kind of a dick. The NY Times gets ahold of them but gets shut down by Tricky Dick and his cronies. The papers then filter down to The Washington Post, and Kay Graham has to decide whether she’s going to risk her little empire AND a serious prison sentence.

Interesting facts about Mrs. Graham: she was not a powerful business person, or used to MV5BMTg5Nzg3NjUzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTY5NzA1NDM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_being in charge. She’d never had another job. She was naturally meek, and kind of nervous. She was surrounded by assertive men, some of whom weren’t crazy to have her among their midst and certainly didn’t see her as an equal never mind a boss, and none of whom were shy about voicing their opinions. She was, however, an accomplished socialite, which in the city of Washington, means she counted many prominent politicians among her friends – and the particular politician at the epicenter of this scandal was among her closest. These facts are not to diminish her but to illustrate just how courageous she truly was to take the stance she did.

Newsflash: Steven Spielberg is a good director. Yeah, we already knew this, but this film had me noticing all kinds of little details that I admired greatly. This movie has the feel of a smart and sharp little indie; it’s taut and thrilling and lots of fun. It gets a little heavy-handed at times but its best moments are when it’s showing, not telling.

Maybe Spielberg’s greatest asset is his incredible ensemble cast. Tom Hanks is the fevered editor, and he’s flawless. Bob Odenkirk is stupendous as a hard-working investigative journalist. But of course it’s Meryl Streep who steals the show as Kay Graham. It’s not a showy role. Mrs. Graham is never the biggest personality in the room. She’s not commanding, but we are nevertheless riveted by Ms. Streep. Her shaking hands, her tremulous lip – we see how hard this for her, and so we admire her all the more for doing it.

You are not contractually allowed to write a review of this film without using the word “timely”. About a year ago, Nixon was down-graded to only the second most douche-baggiest president in history. Truth matters. The press belongs to the governed, not the governors. Support journalism. Subscribe to a newspaper, even if you read it online. One day they’ll be making movies about this time. But this is not just a news story, it’s also, of course, a nod to feminism. Mrs. Graham walks through a sea of secretaries before she’s admitted to the all-male floor of the New York Stock Exchange. She faces a Supreme Court that has never had a female Justice and wouldn’t for another decade. When someone says that Mrs. Graham’s father willing the family business to Kay’s husband says a lot about the man, Tom Hanks replies that actually, it says more about the time. So yeah, this is the movie we all need right now. It’s essential viewing. But even if wasn’t so “timely”, it’s so thoroughly peppered by exceptionally talented people that The Post is an easy recommendation and a damn fine film.

Crimson Peak

Having somewhat of a crush on Guillermo del Toro’s movies, I watched Crimson Peak soon after it came out, despite my being a huge chicken. But I refused to review it because I was sure I didn’t really get it: the film had gotten tepid reviews, but my initial reaction was anything but lukewarm. On a recent del Toro kick I’ve rewatched it and came to the same conclusion: Crimson Peak is kind of great.

Okay, it’s not epic story-telling the way The Shape of Water is, but it’s a visual master piece that succeeds in both creeping us out and sucking us in.

Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a young woman both relatable but maddening hero_Crimson-Peak-2015because she spurns the favour of her childhood friend, a mild-mannered, handome doctor who cares for her (Charlie Hunnam) in favour of the mysterious badboy newcomer (Tom Hiddleston). Even the brutal murder of her beloved father doesn’t stop her from flitting off to England to a crumbling old mansion atop a mountain that oozes blood-red clay with new hubby Thomas (Hiddleston) and his wicked sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) as her only (living) roommates.

Del Toro has crafted an ode to gothic ghost stories. The story is simple but the visuals a sumptuous feast, with every inch of his Victorian sets crammed with macabre detail that are never without meaning. He couldn’t do it without some talented help. Thomas E. Sanders (Braveheart, Hook, Star Trek: Beyond; Oscar nominated for Saving Private Ryan and Dracula), who died earlier this year, was responsible for the incredibly rich production design. The mansion was built in its entirety on a sound stage, its layered look reflecting the generations of the Sharpe family who would have lived within it. Although inspired by period architecture, this being a del Toro film, everything was amplified and magnified. The details are familiar but the effect they create it startling and rather lavish. It helps to create a world in which the supernatural feels like a natural fit. Kate Hawley (Edge of Tomorrow, Suicide Squad), costumer extraordinaire, used a lot of the same principles on her end. Every single piece in the film was hand-stitched specifically for it. Though styles and silhouettes were inspired by the fashion of the time (circa 1901), every piece is elevated and la-ca-hc-guillermo-crimson-peak-20151011made more moody, more dramatic. Weeks and weeks were spent stitching an intricate detail onto one of Chastain’s dresses that gets a lot of screen time. And this being a haunting ghost story, every costume had to look just as meticulous from behind, for those eerie shots down darkened hallways.

Tom Hiddleston I can generally take or leave (well, preferably leave) but Jessica Chastain continues to impress with her versatility and restraint. And interestingly, it’s del Toro staple Doug Jones who packs a major wallop. A classically-trained mime and contortionist, most of Jones’ best work is done under heavy layers of prosthetics, but embodying several of the ghosts in this film, he reminds us just how creepy a mere movement of the arm can be.

Guillermo del Toro is a master orchestrator of aesthetic and imagination. Crimson Peak’s script doesn’t quite hold up to its incredible production design, but it chills your bones when it wants to and sets your blood pumping overtime when it needs to. There are twisted monsters hidden in the depths of the Allerdale mansion, but like his crowning achievement The Shape of Water, they aren’t always who you expect.

 

 

 

 

 

Band Aid

Once in a blue moon, Netflix offers up a rare gem. Band Aid is a Netflix diamond.

Written, directed, and starring Zoe Lister-Jones (who you may already love from Life In Pieces!), Band Aid is a little piece of indie cinema genius. It’s about a married couple, Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (king of indies Adam Pally, who you may already love from The Mindy Project), who on their last legs, relationship-wise. Even their therapist claims she’s moved to Canada just to avoid them. The fights are vicious, and cyclical. But while high as a couple of kites at a child’s birthday party, they discover the one thing that can still bring them joy: music. And so they start a band where they sing their fights back and forth in front of their sex addict neighbour (Fred Armisen), who conveniently is a drummer.

band-aid-2017-adam-pally-zoe-lister-jonesIn fact, music alone is not enough to save them. Turns out they’ve suffered a tragedy that neither has fully grieved, and singing about it is going to be very difficult since talking about it has been impossible for years. They’re still a broken couple, now they’re just putting all their dirty laundry on the stage for the consumption of others. A particularly ambitious dream of them getting a record deal never seems all that impossible because actually, their music is good, and fun (so long as you are currently in a good space with your loved one). Sean and I found ourselves communicating in that subtle hand squeezy way that some couples have when they are relating a little too well to the awkwardness on screen.

Now brace yourselves for a cool fact: for her first movie, Zoe Lister-Jones insisted on an all-female crew. Like, Adam Pally was the only man for miles and miles. Truly all female. And the thing is, the movie is so good that I buried the lead. It doesn’t need any gimmicks. Because when a normal film would just throw out the old male-female sick couple cliches, Lister-Jones keep asking why. Why do couples drive each other crazy over time? Band Aid might not have all the answers but it confronts the questions honestly, while still being an entirely entertaining movie.

 

Beatriz At Dinner

Beatriz is a “healer” which is what people call themselves when they branch out from straight up massage. If you offer any two of the following in addition, you too are a practitioner of “holistic medicine”: meditation, yoga, reiki, consulting crystals, reading tea leaves, speaking to auras, tasting colours. Beatriz is all of the above (probably) and proud of it. And so when poor Kathy (Connie Britton) has had a long, stressful mid-afternoon of instructing servants on how to throw this evening’s dinner party, she of course calls her old pal Beatriz (Salma Hayek) to come cure her of tension and aching muscles by honouring the age-old method of rubbing them down with massage oil.

MV5BMzgyYmNkZDAtOTEyYi00YjJkLTljZWMtYTgwNTYwNDczYjgwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjk1Njg5NTA@._V1_That would have made for a boring movie had Beatriz’s car started up as it should and allowed her to drive away afterward, but no. Beatriz’s piece of shit car did not start, and her friend can’t come fix it until much later, and presumably she’s too poor to  have it towed, so Kathy extends a shaky, not-really invitation to dinner party since they’re “practically friends” and Beatriz accepts.

The dinner party is to celebrate some recent success in business: Doug (John Lithgow) is a titan of business and Jeana (Amy Landecker) is his third or fourth wife; Alex (Jay Duplass) is the young lawyer seeing his first taste of real money with this deal, and Shannon (Chloe Sevigny) his wife who could get used to this; and Kathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky) is the guy who put them all together. Now, there are two reasons this dinner and therefore this movie is interesting to watch. First, Kathy and Beatriz are not really “friends” and they’re both going to discover that in highly awkward ways. Second, Kathy and her dinner guests are conservatives who maybe sometimes think of themselves as better than that but really aren’t. It’s business (by which I mean money) first. And Beatriz is no wallflower. She’s pretty much the opposite of the kind of seventh wheel you’d want crashing your party. She’s not only going to speak up, she’s going to scream and shout, and maybe even cry.

It’s a pretty timely movie for the Trump era but it IS not a guide on how to survive. Beatriz blows shit up. She’s incendiary. Salma Hayek is fantastic. John Lithgow is fantastic. The only thing that’s not fantastic is the end. You’ll see.

I, Tonya

Margot Robbie is convinced this film will change your mind about Tonya Harding. Is she a villain or a victim? Abused or abuser? The truth is, your opinion doesn’t really matter and truth doesn’t really exist. What does exist: a wholly funny film that never fails to entertain.

{In the unlikely event you’re in need of a refresher: Tonya Harding was an American figure skater in the 1990s, and competed twice in the Olympics. She was known for two things: for being the first American female to land a triple axel in competition, and for bashing in her Nancy Kerrigan’s knee.}

Margot Robbie is well-cast as Tonya Harding. She’s still just a little too pretty to play elm120117intelmovies-007-1512400299white trash, even with the poofy 90s bangs, but she comes down low and it’s pretty glorious. Sebastian Stan plays Harding’s good for nothing husband, Jeff Gillooly, and he disappears into the role of dumb fuck. Jeff’s dumb ass best friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) pretends to be an international spy even though he’s a grownup who lives with his parents. Not exactly criminal masterminds, but this is the trio that brought us the most delicious scandal of 1994 (until OJ Simpson that is – if you thought Lillehammer was competitive, try being a celebrity fuck up). But for my money, I’d have to say that the real cast stand-out was Ms. Allison Janney, who plays Tonya’s mother LaVonam who, by sheer comparison, makes bathtub scum look appealing. She’s the dirtiest of dirts with not a kind word or intention in the world. If being a crummy mother was an Olympic sport, she wouldn’t have to resort to breaking any kneecaps.

The first thing that may surprise you about this film is that it’s funny. Actually funny, though pretty dark – the kind of laughs you feel slightly guilty about succumbing to, but you’ll need to just embrace the absurdity. It is farcical, in the way only a true story can be when it’s populated with idiots.

The second thing that surprised me anyway, was that it actually does dredge up sympathy for our poor Tonya. Her guilt (or innocence) is not really the point. This is Tonya’s story, hers alone from beginning to end. No one’s trying to excuse what happened, but putting “the incident” within context is actually very interesting.

I, Tonya is funny, dramatic, pumped full of energy, and even the sports angle is well-done. Certainly Margot Robbie can be commended for all the hard work she put in getting skate-ready, but she gets a lot of help from choreographers, stunt people, and CGI – effects that are pulled off almost seemlessly. But it’s the camera work that makes the figure skating extra exciting – you really get a sense of the speed and athleticism, two hallmarks of Harding’s style in particular. No matter your experience of “the incident” at the time, I, Tonya turns tragedy into triumph.

Battle of the Sexes

In 1973, a tennis has-been named Bobby Riggs thought of a great way to become relevant again: he challenged current champion Bobbie Jean King to a game. No, not just challenged her: assured the world that he would win, because he was male, and that was enough. Bobby Riggs probably didn’t truly believe in most of the chauvinistic slogans he chanted, but he knew they’d get him attention in the era of “burning bras” and “women’s libbers”, and he was right. He was a Kardashian of his time; he knew how to work the media and how to gain attention for himself. It just so happened that the women’s movement generally, and women’s tennis particularly, needed exactly this kind of opportunity.

Battle-of-the-Sexes-posterSteve Carell does an excellent job of making the buffoon Riggs more than just a brash loud mouth; in fact, Carell was probably my favourite part of the film. And that’s maybe a little sad considering this really should have been Billie Jean King’s story to tell. And to some extent, it is. It’s just that I thought Emma Stone’s version of her was pretty beige. She’s more than just a prominent pair of glasses with a side of closeted lesbian.

But at least the film is layered and tries to establish the game within the context of its time, not just within the characters’ lives but societally as well. The film may bear the name of The Battle of the Sexes but directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris seem to know that the most interest part of the conflict happened off the court.

This film hit theatres in a very timely fashion – a reminder of how incredibly not very far we’ve come. Now that it’s available to rent, why not watch it as a drinking game, and take a shot of female empowerment every time a Grand Slam title champion is referred to as a “little lady.” On the press circuit, the real Billie Jean King reminded us that at the time, a married woman couldn’t hold a credit card in her own name. But here we are in 2018 (happy new year) and you just know this movie didn’t get made without someone getting sexually harassed. In 40 years, what will the #MeToo movie say about us?

Stronger

Stronger could easily have leaned on its ultra handsome movie star to sound off a few patriotic one-liners while heroic cliches were ticked off one at a time, and that movie would have made money – possibly more money than the actual Stronger did. Instead, the real Stronger takes a much more interesting approach: it admits that its central character, real-life survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing Jeff Bauman, is not a hero. He’s just a guy who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, but a picture of him captured at that wrong time made him an icon and helped unite his country in a time of grief and confusion.

Jeff Bauman was just an ordinary guy. He worked at Costco, he lived and was bullied by his Mom, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend. Erin broke up with him repeatedly because he was just never really there for her, and so of course the one time that he does show up, he gets blown up to bits.

1-4Stronger doesn’t care much about the crime or about the terrorism; it follows a lone survivor who struggles to put his life back together afterward. Had Jeff Bauman lost his legs in a car crash, no one would call him brave, or a hero, because no one would be watching. But as the face of Strength and Hope in the war against terror, Bauman has to handle public scrutiny even on his darkest days.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the most versatile actors of his age working today, and this is another unglamourous, conflicted character that he pulls of winningly. The anguish and painful contradictions he manages to convey make the movie sometimes hard to watch. But Gyllenhaal isn’t alone. Tatiana Maslany plays Jeff’s on again, off again love interest, Erin, and Stronger is as much her story as it is his. Unlike Patriots Day, Stronger isn’t about an act of terrorism, it’s about two people scraping their lives back together after a major, seismic event, and about how that catastrophe doesn’t really erase the problems that existed before it, even though it kind of feels like should. Most movies wouldn’t bother to make Maslany’s character so important, so human, but Stronger doesn’t take the safe route or the obvious one. Jeff Bauman became a symbol when he appeared in a photograph that day, but in every moment before the camera’s click, and every moment after it, he is just a man, and Erin is the woman too conscientious to abandon him in his time of need, but too smart to buy into the hero nonsense. When everyone else sees him as an emblem of Boston Strong, she sees him as the same old flawed guy he’s always been.

A brilliant ensemble cast fleshes out Stronger in surprising ways. This isn’t about flag waving or triumphing over terrorism, it’s a relationship drama that dares to peer down dark corners unflinchingly.

 

Call Me By Your Name

Seventeen year old Elio is facing another season at his parents’ summer home somewhere in boring, idyllic Northern Italy when the clouds part, the angels sing, and a yellow ray of sunshine pools on the golden head of a god, arriving by taxi. Actually it’s Oliver, a grad student about to spend the next 6 weeks helping out Elio’s father, a professor. Elio is immediately smitten.

It’s complicated, though, and it’ll take those full 6 weeks for the two young men to reach the peak of their affair. It’s the summer of 1983 and neither one is ‘out’; what we see is their friendship, the confidences they share, the fumbling flirtation. It’s a quiet movie, as 913a movie must be between two characters who are still learning about themselves, and in some cases, learning to repress. The pace is languid, but after 132 minutes, I’m thinking more about what’s left out than what is covered. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) share a mostly silent passion. Have they ever been attracted to men before? Are they afraid of being seen? Their affair exists within a bubble – isolated in a small village, surrounded by intellectuals, sheltered. But there’s always a sense that the affair cannot last.

We feel the blush of their first love. But director Luca Guadagnino does not want us to see much more than that, does not want the reality of gay sex to change the tone of the movie. Why doesn’t he trust us? In an otherwise beautiful film about desire, theirs is the only physical intimacy that we don’t see. When one of them hooks up with a woman, we eavesdrop on their thrusting and grunting. We even get fairly graphic with some person-on-peach sex. But when Elio and Oliver come together the camera looks away. The only real nudity is female.

And that has left me feeling off-balance. I can only praise the performances by Hammer and especially by Chalamet – his energy, his wit. Although Elio is the younger of the two, and voices more self-doubt, we actually see them negotiate a balance in their relationship that feels very healthy and mature. And though Oliver is adamant that he wants neither of them to get hurt, we see how woundable Elio really is, how vulnerable. This isn’t just love but self-discovery, mutual discovery, only some of which will be lasting.  Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) counsels him to stay this way, thin-skinned, to not close himself off to pain, even in heartbreak. And Oliver wonders if that’s the real difference between the two: not their age or experience, but their parents. And we’re left to think on that as the credits roll. Who might they have been had they both had supportive families? It is in these final minutes of the film when we finally feel emotionally connected to the material, and to the characters. This is the beating heart of the film. It’s just too bad it’s saved for last.

The Greatest Showman

Phineas Taylor Barnum was a showman first and foremost. His legacy includes a best-selling memoir, museums, philanthropy, and a circus who just closed its doors earlier this year, after something in the neighbourhood of 175 years of success. The Greatest Showman is the story of his life, only not: it’s the fictionalized, glamourized, told-in-an-entertaining-and-succinct-105-minutes version that somewhat resembles his life, or at least a rags-to-riches edition of it. It’s not historically or personally accurate but it IS beautiful and breath taking and fun. In fact, it’s the most excited I’ve felt at the movies all year.

Hugh Jackman has already established himself as a versatile actor: he makes Logan, a veritable man of steel, seem both tough and vulnerable. Here he straddles Barnum’s pursuit of fame, money, and success with his more modest but fulfilling tumblr_os9fxwinjy1qd4rf5o2_500.gifgoals of happiness and family. Ultimately we see Barnum find both fame and family in the circus. He collects ‘freaks’ and ‘sideshows’ and gives them purpose and a platform. People pay the price of admission to look on in sensational horror.

The film is glossy, a glory to look at, and a wonder to hear. It’s a musical, with lyrics by Tony-winning (Dear Evan Hansen) and Oscar-winning (La La Land) duo, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. A mashup of modern-sounding, toe-tapping, pop and hip hop, the music reflects an aesthetic that isn’t so much true to the time period, but more a tribute to Barnum’s constantly being ahead of his time. With dazzling, daring cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Life, Nocturnal Animals, Atonement) and buoyant, irrepressible, vibrant production design by Nathan Crowley (Dunkirk, Interstellar, The Dark Knight trilogy), The Greatest Showman is a work of art by veteran professionals – except for its director. Michael Gracey had in fact never directed any movie at all before – why, then, did 20th Century Fox trust him with 80 million dollars and a promising script, co-written by Bill Condon, Oscar nominee for best adapted screenplay for Chicago, and winner for Gods and Monsters?

Hugh Jackman met Michael Gracey 8 years ago when Gracey directed him in a TV commercial in Rio de Janiero. The two hit it off creatively, and within months Jackman was suggesting him as the director a passion project of his, and with Jackman on board as star and producer, it only took about a hundred pitches or so before someone finally said yes. Yes! And true to the Barnum name, the movie wouldn’t just be a musical, it would be over the top, larger than life, bursting at the seems with spectacle.

In addition to Jackman, the cast boasts the likes of Michelle Williams as his long-tumblr_os9no4BmGt1qk2b83o5_r1_540.gifsuffering wife, Charity, Zac Efron as his business partner, Zendaya as a talented trapeze artist, and Rebecca Ferguson as the songstress who legitimizes his success (though credit for her amazing voice goes to Loren Allred, who dubs her in the film).

The Greatest Showman is like the best parts of Big Fish and Moulin Rouge smooshed together. It lit my heart aglow. If you’re looking for a true account of PT Barnum’s life, read a book. What The Greatest Showman offers is a damn good time at the movies, so see it in theatres, on the big screen, the way it was meant to be seen. Hugh Jackman will thank you for it.