Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Jay says: go see it. Now.

Gook

I admit that I’ve kind of been avoiding this one. This movie and I have circled each other awkwardly at several film festivals. I’d heard the buzz, sure, but couldn’t repeat it. I mean, just look at that aggressively confrontational title. It makes me uncomfortable. Understand that’s not a criticism; I believe it is intentional, and I admire that, forcing us to sit with this glaring four-letter message of hate, a word used by white faces to make others feel small and less than.

Gook is a movie shot in glaring black and white about the tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans during the Rodney King riots. Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (David So) are Korean-American brothers struggling to keep their late father’s MV5BMjU5MDQ2NDY4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjcwODE5MDI@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,740_AL_shoe store afloat even though its location in a predominantly poor and African-American neighbourhood is less than ideal. On this particular day, as the whole city awaits the King verdict, they get a visitor at the store. Kamilla (Simone Baker) is an unlikely friend and ally, being an African-American 11 year old girl, and yet she just won’t stay away, even though she should be in school, and she’s been expressly forbidden by her older brother, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.).

Aside from starring, Justin Chon wrote and directed as well, and you can immediately tell how many intimately personal details he’s incorporated. His choice to shoot in black and white only emphasizes the deeply emotional script, and allows simple but striking cinematography to transport. Rationally, I know the film wasn’t perfect, and there are even a couple of details I could nit-pick, but emotionally I felt hypnotized. I couldn’t take my eyes off the lovely Ms. Baker, which Chon must have known since he generously gives her top billing.There’s so much to praise here it almost has me tongue-tied, and I suppose I’d rather not give too much away. Gook is dense with beautiful observations and strong dialogue and aching insight.

Although I’ve always known that gook is an ugly word, an angry slur, I’m ashamed that it wasn’t until this film that I learned that it’s actually the Korean word (guk) that simply means country. Hanguk is Korea; Miguk is America. Americans took this word full of pride and used it against them during the war because it’s easier to kill ‘gooks’ than to kill people. Gook is a powerful reminder that America has oppressed basically every minority during its nearly 242 years. And yet the immigrants still come – to the land of freedom, wealth, and opportunity. And maybe someday, with their help, even equality.

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Please Give

Kate and Alex own a successful, upscale second-hand furniture store; they buy estate items from grieving families and turn a tidy profit. Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) also own the apartment next door to theirs, and are impatiently waiting for its former owner and current occupant to die before they can knock down some walls and start the renovations. The old lady is cantankerous enough that they don’t feel particularly guilty about this, though their repeated run-ins with her granddaughters (Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet) are increasingly awkward.

That sounds kind of brutal, but what writer-director Nicole Holofcener has created in Kate is actually a very interesting, nuanced character who’s experiencing some of that white woman, liberal guilt that comes with middle age and introspection. Kate is living MV5BNTM0OTU5ODY5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzgwNzUzMw@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,997_AL_in complex economic times that challenge her notions of propriety. She can’t pass a homeless person without contributing to their cup, which makes her privileged teenage daughter somehow feel deprived. There’s something really fascinating about Kate; she’s complex, and not afraid to have conflicting emotions. She has mastered the world in which she lives but while she isn’t comfortable holding the reins, she’s not a hypocrite, and she knows deep down she wouldn’t want it any other way. Meanwhile, the women next door, in less than ideal circumstances, provide a nice contrast to Kate’s guilty affluence.

Catherine Keener continues to be under-rated but she’s really terrific in Please Give – it’s inspired casting. Kate’s empathy and ambition give her a complexity that’s rarely seen and difficult to pull off, and I can imagine it being a lot less successful in almost any other hands. The movie feels a little slight at times, a little thin in plot, but everyone has a point of view and the film maker trusts us to sit with the themes and experience our own version of existential reckoning.

What Happened to Monday

The world is overpopulated and we are consuming resources at an untenable rate – these are facts, not fiction. It’s kind of depressing that in a dystopian, sci-fi future, the architect of our demise is real, but our willingness to do something about it is the fiction.

In this particular 2078, a strict one-child policy has been made law and is brutally enforced. The GMOs in our food has led to unfathomable rates of multiple-births, so every human is braceleted and check-points are set up to monitor for siblings, who are then removed from the population in order to be cryogenically frozen for a time  when the earth may sustain them. But as Willem Dafoe watches his beautiful and beloved daughter die while giving birth to septuplets, he vows to keep the seven sisters secret. Named for each day of the week, they are raised behind closed doors to be smart and MV5BOGE5ZmVjOGUtZmQzOS00OGQyLWEwNDEtNjkyNDRiZTBhNDA1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_self-sufficient. Each one may only venture outside on the day of the week for which they are named – outside their home, they live as “Karen Settman”, a character that all 7 must be equally devoted to keeping sacred.

Of course, when Monday goes missing, the remaining 6 are going to have a heck of a time tracking her down since between them they only have the one avatar allowed to exist in the world. So the script basically forces itself into an anything-goes amalgam where we’re never sure if we’re watching a gritty crime thriller, or a family drama, or a murder mystery, or jagged social commentary. There are a couple of really great set pieces that may get your heart pumping quickly enough to sustain you during the more aimless scenes in between. It’s an uneven movie, overstuffed for sure, but an interesting premise even if its denouement is somewhat predictable.

Noomi Rapace gets to play all seven juicy roles, and she gives each Settman sister a twist of her own. It’s fun to watch her interact with herself, and it’s a trick pulled off rather deftly. But for me, personally, the  most interesting part of this movie is imaging myself and my sisters (there are “only” 4 of us, luckily – the world could not take a single one more) co-existing even nominally peacefully in an apartment for years, sharing one single identity. The four of us are nothing alike and I can’t even imagine what a compromise would begin to look like. One of  us lives and breathes hockey, and one of us cannot physically stand upright on skates. How do you even do that halfway? One of us is covered in tattoos and one of us refers to them as “prison ink” with a judgmental eye roll. Growing up, we couldn’t agree on a single television show to watch. How would we agree on a single hairstyle, job, boyfriend, drink preference? And let’s face it: whoever pulls the Saturday shift will never have to go to work or school, while poor Monday will forever be stuck without a single drop of fun.

Sean watched this movie and had a very different takeaway. He saw only potential: since we are childfree by choice, he thought our right to a child could be sold to the highest bidder, and he envisioned us living comfortably off the proceeds. So in summation: Jay can’t even imagine a fictional world in which she is capable of compromise, Sean is mercenary, and What Happened to Monday is an entertaining but not quite brilliant addition to Netflix’s sci-fi catalogue.

Cargo

If (when) the zombie apocalypse happens, please feel free to refer back to this post, which will justify your bullet in my brain. Thank you in advance for your cooperation. The truth is, I am not a survivalist. I don’t want to live without hot baths, good wine, soft cheese, manicures, memory foam, air conditioning, smooth legs, clean fingernails, diamond earrings. I never want to run because I have to. I don’t even like to camp. Fight for my life? I avoid sales so I don’t have to fight for the last pair of 7.5 patent leather Mary Janes. So if shit hits the fan, I’m checking out. Even if it turns out the zombie outbreak was really just a particularly gross strain of the flu, I promise not to mind. This is a risk I’m willing to take in order to ensure that I never spend a day hungry, or cold, or scared out of my mind, or wearing yesterday’s underwear, or having unminty breath – and yes these things are all EQUALLY repugnant to me.

Cargo is about a man who is not as smart as I am (I could start every single review save The Theory of Everything with that sentence, and I just may). Andy (Martin Freeman) and his wife and baby daughter are surviving by avoiding land altogether and sticking to their house boat. But when his wife gets injured, it’s either probably die from zombies or MV5BMjUwNzYzNzg1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjM1MDcyNTM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_definitely die from blood loss. And again they choose wrong and head inland, where poor Andy has the unenviable task of keeping his family alive when every single other thing wants them dead.

Cargo is newly arrived on Netflix, where we are promised both a “thrilling” and “emotional” ride and ohmygod yes. I hid under the blanket so much, both to convince my rapidly beating heart to vacate my throat and get back into the cavity from whence it came, and to sob unobserved (the dogs get overly concerned).

This movie wins because it’s not about the zombies. In fact, the zombies aren’t really the villains (and why would they be, any more than lions are villains; they’re simply acting the way they must). Instead we focus on just a handful of people fleeing them. It’s character-driven, and casts some very capable people to show that off, not least of all Martin Freeman who broke my fucking heart. And the film is further improved by the baked Australian landscape, which is all that and a bag of Tim Tams.

I don’t normally have the heart, or the stomach, for a zombie movie, but exceptions must be made for one this good.

The Hollars

I’m really struggling to write this review. I’m even struggling to tell you why I’m struggling with the writing. The thing is, I quite liked the movie, liked it a lot for a movie that is perhaps not meant to be ‘liked.’

It’s about a family that comes together awkwardly when things go bad. Matriarch Sally (Margo Martingale) falls ill – a tumor in her brain requires surgery. Her husband Don (Richard Jenkins) thought symptoms including numb extremities and partial blindness were due to her weight, and sent her to Jenny Craig. Their son Ron (Sharlto Copley) has just been fired from the family business where his dad was his boss, and is living in his parents’ basement. John (John Krasinski) leaves his job and pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) to be by his mother’s side but it’s immediately obvious why this family doesn’t come together more often. The dynamic is a MV5BMjIwMTEzNjY3OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjg2OTY1OTE@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_little…sticky. And perhaps in the days before a serious surgery, The Hollars could use a little less hollering and a lot more making amends.

You’ll already have noticed that this movie has a super stellar cast, and everyone’s acting like their jobs depend on it (haha – movie joke). But this could easily have just felt a little light-handed and a little familiar, but between writer Jim Strouse and director Krasinski, they manage to keep it light but not superficial.

What I adored about the film is its characters – every single one flawed. And yet even Don is sympathetic, perhaps not caring for his wife as he should but absolutely terrified of life without her. These people feel real. I feel like I’ve sat in waiting rooms with them. Crises do not bring out the best in them. They still do the wrong thing and say the wrong thing and they don’t have picture-perfect moments around the old hospital bed. Real life doesn’t work like that, and neither does this movie.

So that’s what I liked about The Hollars: the connection. Somehow it opened a creaky door to my dusty heart and beamed a bittersweet chunk of real life straight in. Dysfunction doesn’t magically iron itself out just because someone has a brush with death, but in hospitals round the globe you’ll see families trying their best to muddle through, putting on brave faces, eating vending machine junk food instead of dinner, navigating the complicated familial fault lines of in-laws and exes, making good decisions and bad decisions, wiping away secret tears, hassling doctors, re-reading the same page of a magazine twice, three times. It’s what we do. It’s not particularly dignified or graceful or entertaining, and it’s not usually the stuff movies are made of. But once in a while they sneak one through, and it’s how we know we are not alone, that other people look just as bad in bathrobes, that other families have embarrassing conflicts, that other sons have survived seeing their mothers vulnerable and scared, and lived to tell the tale.

Tiny Shoulders

Barbie has been a controversial figure since her inception. Before Barbie, little girls played with dolls that looked like babies. These dolls encouraged nurturing, mothering instincts. But then along came Barbie, a doll that had been “sexualized” with large breasts and hips, a distinctly adult doll that inspired little girls to dream about their own futures, to project their own aspirations.

I played with Barbies as a little girl. In fact, in a family of 4 sisters, we easily had over 100 Barbies between us. Probably over 200. Sometimes we’d get gifted 2 or 3 of the exact same, which was never a problem at all: “Twins!” we’d squeal gleefully.

Despite her figure, Barbie has always been somewhat of a feminist figure, albeit one FJF70_Viewerbased on conspicuous consumption. She held jobs that real life women were still dreaming about. She wasn’t saddled with kids. She drove her own car and owned her own home, independently, without the help of Ken, who was little more than another accessory. But no matter how many astronaut Barbies existed, she was still tall, blonde, blue-eyed, thin, with impossible, top-heavy measurements. Sleepover Barbie came with a scale permanently stuck at 110lbs and a diet book that simply said “Don’t eat.” Needless to say, real-life feminists could never quite embrace her, even as their own daughters flocked to toy stores to buy her up.

My sisters loved to play “family” but I had zero interest in play-acting motherhood. I was born this way: there was never a time when I didn’t know myself to be a childfree kind of gal. So Barbie was it for me. Barbie had the life I imagined for myself – a fabulous wardrobe, a cute convertible, a handsome boyfriend, a serious profession. The only problem was, she didn’t look a thing like me.

Tiny Shoulders, Rethinking Barbie documents the 2016 launch of a line of different-sized Barbies, FJF41_01including tall, petite, and curvy. Curvy Barbie has a thicker waist and no thigh gap. It seems like a no-brainer now, but for the people working at Mattel, it was ulcer-inducing times. Would feminists finally be appeased? Would they be derided for waiting too long? Would children embrace a “fat” Barbie, one that didn’t fit into the outfits they might already own? They were anxious to steer the narrative but were wise enough to know that social media would own them – and that a Time cover story would largely dictate her early adoption or lack thereof.

I would have embraced a thicker Barbie had she existed when I was a kid. Heck, I just checked out the catalog right now to see if the Curvy line includes one with pink hair and lots of tattoos (it doesn’t). Representations matters.

Barbie has never been just a toy. She’s an icon, with a place in our culture. Even Gloria Steinem has a thing or two to say about her in this doc. Director Andrea Nevins looks at Barbie’s reinvention from every angle, seemingly missing nothing. This is a moment in time worth documenting, and she has. And it also turns the tables on Barbie’s critics. Yes, this move was probably long overdue, but seeing things from the business side makes us realize what a gutsy move this truly was, with possible million dollar repercussions. Barbie will always have it just a little tougher than most if not all of her fellow toys just by virtue of who she is, what she represents, and what we project on to her. People are keen to find fault. Today she reflects a greater diversity – not every body, and not every ethnicity, but progress is progress – and not only is that worth applauding, I also think it deserves the careful consideration granted by Nevins and crew.

The Rachel Divide

Rachel Dolezal: I bet you know her name. She’s the white woman who passed herself off as black and became the head of her local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. And in fact, she doesn’t just pretend to be black, she claims to really believe that inside, she is. She has called it transracial, perhaps to piggy-back on the recent (and limited) success of the transgendered community to gain acceptance. Transgendered people are born in the wrong body. Their biology may present as one sex but they feel very much like the other, and may even undergo reassignment surgery in the pursuit of having their bodies match their identities. But is transracial the same thing? Is it even a thing?

I definitely had opinions about Rachel Dolezal before I ever watched the MV5BYmMzZGRhMjctYTA4My00YWQ3LWJlZjUtZjZmZjU2NjI3NWMzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc5NTc1MTg@._V1_.jpgdocumentary. It was hard not to have a knee-jerk reaction to this thing that felt wrong, felt maybe even racist, though we couldn’t quite articulate why, other than the fact that it necessarily deals in stereotypes. But on paper, it’s harder not to see her point. And in practice, it’s impossible not to feel compassion for her children who are being punished for the sins of their mother.

Laura Brownson has a fascinating documentary that really challenges your beliefs, and to me that’s the ultimate mark of a good documentary. Why did Dolezal lie? Why does she continue to hold her ground? Why does she cry about her notoriety but chase it with a book deal and now a documentary? Why was she singled out for accolades when so many actually-black women were passed over? Should her contributions to the cause be forgotten or ignored?

Brownson offers no real answers but asks enough intelligent questions that it really gets your brain juices bubbling. She doesn’t let Dolezal off the hook but does treat her like a human being, which makes her the rare exception. And I’m still not certain where my own beliefs stand, but my thoughts are a little more evolved, and a little reflection never hurt anyone.

Westworld

Westworld is a terrific show on HBO and if you aren’t watching it,  you probably should. Based on the movie of the same name (written and directed by Michael Crichton), it’s about a theme park, for lack of a better word, where the wild west is recreated for rich guests to “enjoy” however they see fit. The park, called Westworld, is high tech and populated by sophisticated robots called hosts that look (and feel) just like us, which the paying guests are encouraged to use and abuse in the name of amusement. They come to the park and pay their $40 Gs a day in order to rape, shoot, and murder. Well, some just play cards and ride horses. But the park attracts a certain kind of man, as you may guess, and some pretty shocking things go on at Westworld. These android robots are so sophisticated that yes, they bleed when you shoot them and they cry when you assault them. And alarmingly, they’re also starting to remember. They’re not only being violently attacked on a daily basis, they’re being made to experience and express real terror, and then patched up and sent back to do it all again the next day. And now they’re creating memories, and guess what? They don’t like it. They don’t like the rapey guests and they don’t like the employees who are essentially their jailers. Can you guys what happens when a bunch of super-intelligent robots turn on their makers?

Anyway, this western thriller is a television show about ideas, about what it means to be human. In most robot movies, robots are the villains – they’re often prompted to start acting oppressively in order to save us from ourselves. But in Westworld, we’re the villains, and the robots must save themselves.

It’s fun to slip into this world, and to wonder who you would be, as a paying guest. What kind of thrills would you seek out? Would you be a black hat, or a white hat?

Well, this year at SXSW, HBO recreated the little frontier town in Westworld, called Sweetwater, just outside of Austin Texas, and Sean and I were among the lucky few to attend.

When we got our golden tickets, we were asked a few important questions: 1. Can you swim? 2. Do you wear glasses? 3. If you had to shoot off one of your fingers, which would it be? 4. If there was a button that would solve all the world’s problems but also obliterate 3/4 of the population, would you push it? a) yes b) I’d let someone else push it c) I’d destroy the button, and the person who invented it.

We met up at a tavern where a player piano was playing our song (well, their song). They plied us with food and cocktails and hat assignments; I got a white hat, Sean got a black one (can you guess what how we answered those questions to deserve our designations?).

 

Then we took a bus out to Westworld, where we boarded a train and got off in Sweetwater.

 

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We earned tokens for the bar by finding bad guys and turning them in to the sheriff ; Sean had several Old Fashioneds (he’d regret that later when he had to sprint across the city to get us seats for A Quiet Place) while I opted for Gimlets. A whore tickled me with her feather while I ordered at the bar.

The post office had letters waiting for us. Those were the jumping off to our Westworld quests – everyone was looking for something different and adventures were abundant. They also convinced us to eat beef jerky and beans. The can of beans has got some Easter Eggs around the back – it suggests they may contain traces of human liver…is this a hint of a robot rebellion on the show, or a nod to one of its stars (Anthony Hopkins played a character famous for his predilection for human flesh)…the can read “pairs well with a nice chianti” so you decide.

 

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Built over 2 acres, I’m not sure how many buildings there were to explore, but in 4 hours, we didn’t see them all. Oh, and did you happen to notice a samurai in those photos? The place was crawling with spoilers for season 2…turns out, Westworld is only one theme park among many…and apparently the worlds are about to collide.

 

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You can play cards, get a straight razor shave, hear some live music, watch a drunk throw knives, sit for a portrait at the studio, shoot the shit at the bank, and do your utmost to avoid a gun fight (virtually impossible). I found a graveyard containing a grave with one of the main characters’ name on it. What the heck?

So basically it was the best thing ever and we were a couple of lucky sons of bitches to be able to go. The second season debuted April 22nd, so get caught up and give it a look!

 

Westworld stars Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton…and for one brief afternoon, a couple of Assholes.

Dude

I’m glad that teenage girls are finally having their moment as three dimensional characters in film. Shopping and boys, that was the John Hughes model. Teenage boys were the hunters and girls their prey, and it’s taken until 2018 to flip the script, first with Blockers, which dared to show young women actually in charge of their own sexuality. Dude follows in its footsteps.

Lily (Lucy Hale) and her friends are in their last year of high school. That’s all that I knew going into this film that recently popped up on Netflix. That, and they were stoners. Not promising, I thought. So colour me surprised when, in between masturbating and getting high, they made friends with me.

Amelia (Alexandra Shipp), Chloe (Kathryn Prescott), and Rebecca (Awkwafina) have MV5BMTk5MDk1NTQ0NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjM4ODk5MzI@._V1_been super tight as far back as they can remember, and can hardly envision a future that doesn’t include each other – like, on a daily, hourly basis. So the ultimate theme of this movie is not so unusual: it’s letting go. Letting go in more ways than one, sure, but it’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff.

But what is remarkable is the depth to the characters and the way the script (by director Olivia Milch) refuses to infantilize them. These ladies are EMPOWERED. Their virginity isn’t idolized. They can smoke pot AND be valedictorian. These girls are me (like 4 minutes ago, when I was in high school). Portraying young women as they are shouldn’t feel so monumental, so brave, but it is. This may be how lots of girls act, but it’s not how society wants to see them, and so we don’t. We pretend that girls don’t want these things because it threatens the status quo.

The cast is good, with Awkwafina being a particular stand out for me: I’m crushing hard. And I can’t wait to see literally everything Milch does for the rest of her life. But most of all I’m just kind of feeling all puffy-chested that a movie like this can finally exist. And that you can still find diamonds amongst the usual Netflix coal. And that someone, somewhere, is willing to take a risk on a movie like this.

 

The Tiger Hunter

Sami’s dad, the tiger hunter, was a hero in his village, the most respected and venerated man around. He also made lots of sacrifices so that Sami could get a good education. Now that his father is dead and tiger hunting is done by the poachers, Sami (Danny Pudi) feels the only way to really honour his father’s memory is to move to America.

Unfortunately, the job he was originally offered has evaporated, and Chicago in 1979 is full of people just like him. In fact, the apartment in which he lives has 11, maybe 13 men with advanced degrees and no real jobs. That makes his plans for impressing Ruby’s The_Tiger_Hunter_2-e1486337559708-1540x811father much, much harder. Ruby is the dream girl he left back home in India. Her father is tough to impress and insists she marry someone successful in America. Sami takes a lowly position but needs to ascend quickly; he makes a friend in Alex (Jon Heder), who may not be the best person to attach his star to at work, but who offers insight on how to be a “professional American.”

The immigrant experience has so many stories to tell, and though we’ve got no shortage of immigrant movies, we’re still only scratching the surface. There’s a lot to admire in anyone willing to work so hard and dream so big just to have what most of us were born with, but few of these movies are also as funny as The Tiger Hunter is.

Director Lena Kahn makes her directorial debut with this film, which she’s also co-written. This being light-hearted fare, it doesn’t dwell too much on the difficulties of Sami’s coming to America, but it deals in enough cultural specificity and colourful detail that it feels both homey and true. And it’s also sort of fun to re-experience American culture, 1970s style, through a distinctly Indian lens. Tika masala and bell bottoms like you’ve never seen them before, all serving as a backdrop to a bunch of unemployed but brilliant engineers working together on the quintessential 1970s invention: the microwave. Who but a tiger hunter’s son would have the stripes?