Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Jay says: go see it. Now.

Detroit

Detroit, 1967: a veritable race riot is boiling over the streets of the inner city. Buildings are on fire, stores are looted. Cops are on edge and are arresting any black person they see. The force is 93% white; 45% of those working in black neighbourhoods were considered to be “extremely anti-Negro” and an additional 34% were “prejudiced.” Charges of police brutality are abundant. Precincts overflow with black bodies.

On the night of July 25, police converge on the Algiers motel, allegedly because a sniper might be in or around the building. The motel’s 12 occupants are rounded up, interrogated, badly beaten, and humiliated by Detroit PD, Michigan State police, and the National Guard. At the end of the night, three black teenagers are left dead, killed by police.

Why? How?

Director Kathryn Bigelow presents a harrowing, claustrophobic rendition of these events, so tense and brutal that people walked out of the screening we attended. Other than Detroit being extremely difficult to watch, there are some problems with the film: 636345219515288776-detroit-3-rgb-2-Bigelow’s treatment of the subject is at a pretty cold remove, for example. And I for one felt it was just too long. The film could have ended when the last person leaves the motel, but instead it follows the white police officers who were charged with felonious assault, conspiracy, murder, and conspiracy to commit civil rights abuse. The courtroom scenes are a long, drawn-out denouement that don’t quite jibe with the first two thirds of the film. That said, I still feel like Detroit is an extremely effective film.

First, because it’s so timely. Watching those cops get off scot-free despite confessions, and then be congratulated for beating murder charges that were well-deserved, is infuriating, and familiar. This is not “history,” not when there are unarmed black children being gunned down by the people paid to protect them to this very day. It’s an uncomfortable reminder that in the past 50 years, we’ve done nothing to address the problem. Second, and maybe more importantly, is the way the movie made me feel. I’ve already said it was maybe a little void of emotion and that’s true; what I mean is how it made me evaluate my own filters. As sympathetic to the cause as I am, I’m still a white lady, and I experienced the film and the events depicted within it as a white person with all the privilege inherent in those words. The motel scenes are grueling and I had visceral reactions to them. Occasionally I caught myself frustrated with how the characters were responding to the cops, and I’d have to check myself. This is the fundamental takeaway of the film: my experience with police officers is essentially just very, very different. I wasn’t born with a historical fear of cops. My parents and grandparents didn’t raise me to be afraid of them. The colour of my skin protects me from the worst. My entitlement trusts in my human rights. My privilege demands that people in positions of authority will respect my unalienable civil liberties. The last interaction with a police officer I had was the guy directing pedestrians leaving a Cirque du Soleil show. The last time we were pulled over for speeding, there wasn’t so much as an apology uttered for being caught red-handed. These things don’t feel like privilege because they’re things we believe we’re owed, but it is privilege because not everyone gets to feel the same way.

Maybe it’s not perfect, but Detroit asks some difficult questions, which makes it an important film. It’s excruciating because it needs to be, and you need to watch it.

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Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day has recently been resurrected as a Broadway musical, and Bill Murray went to see it on Tuesday. And Bill Murray went to see it on Wednesday. Is Bill Murray fucking with us?

By all accounts he enjoyed the show, laughing and pumping his fist during musical numbers. Not all of us are destined for NYC this summer, but the good news is, you can catch Groundhog Day pretty much any old time, and here are but a few reasons why you should revisit this classic over and over again.

  1. Director Harold Ramis originally wanted Tom Hanks for the role but realized Hanks was “too nice” and went knocking elsewhere. Michael Keaton turned it down. Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Alec Baldwin, Howie Mandel, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Kevin Kline, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and John Travolta were also considered before Bill Murray was cast.
  2. Harold Ramis has a cameo in the film as Phil’s neurologist. Also appearing, if you shannon-groundhog-day.jpgwatch dedicatedly enough: Michael Shannon in his big screen debut – he’s Fred, one of half of the young couple who’s supposed to get married that day.
  3. Although a family of groundhogs was raised specifically for this movie, when Bill Murray was severely bitten not once, but twice, he had to receive rabies treatment, which are rather painful injections.
  4. Although set in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the film was actually filmed in Woodstock, Illinois, just 50 miles from Murray’s hometown, Wilmette. Tourism in Punxsutawney spiked after the film’s release, but it’s in Wilmette where you’ll find a small plaque that reads “Bill Murray stepped here” on the curb where Phil continually steps in a puddle, and another marked “Ned’s Corner” where Phil perpetually meets Ned the insurance salesman (Stephen Tobolowsky).
  5. There are 38 days depicted partially or in full in the movie. Ramis said originally he wanted about 10 000 years worth of days and ended up with what he considers to be a decade’s worth which is still a really, really, sad, lonely long time to be reliving the same day.
  6. Bill Murray was offered a “spit bucket” for the scene in which he gorges on pastries. That was a terrifically bad idea on his part…guess who got a tummy ache?
  7. In one scene, Phil throws the alarm clock, destroying it. In real life, Murray’s throw did little to damage the thing so the crew took baseball bats to it to smash it up. And yes, it really did keep playing that stupid song, just like in the movie.
  8. Murray was going through a divorce at the time and compensated by becoming obsessed with the movie, calling up Ramis with all kinds of questions. Ramis tired of it and sent the writer (Danny Rubin) to sit down with him and iron out all the wrinkles. This caused a rift in their friendship – Murray didn’t speak to Ramis for many years.
  9. When Phil is at the piano teacher’s house, it’s actually Bill Murray playing. He can’t read music but plays by ear, and learned that passage by heart to play it in the movie. [It’s Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paginini, fyi]
  10. Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and Stephen Tobolowsky have all served as honourary Grand Marshals in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
  11. In Swedish, the movie’s title is translated as “Monday Every Day” – although in 1993, when the movie came out, Groundhog Day was on a Tuesday. The specific day of the week is not mentioned in the film.
  12. In once scene, Phil throws himself from a bell tower. The building is actually the opera house in Woodstock, Illinois, where local legend has it that the ghost of a young girl haunts the building ever since she fell off a balcony section and died.
  13. uxyA34o.gifThe famous line “Don’t drive angry!” was improvised by Murray when the groundhog in his lap was aggressively trying to escape by climbing over the steering wheel. [Yes, this was one of the times when Bill got bit]
  14. In the final shot, we see Phil carry Rita over the gate before climbing over it himself. This may seem romantic but was unscripted: in real life, the gate was simply frozen shut.

The Incredible Jessica James

Two broken hearts on the rebound: Jessica (Jessica Williams) is an aspiring playwright full of youthful energy and self-confidence; Boone (Chris O’Dowd) is recently divorced and somewhat bewildered by the dating scene.

When we first meet Jessica, I was a little repelled. She comes off brash and self-serving – not the kind of person you’d want to go on a blind date with, not the kind of person I’d really care to watch onscreen for an hour and a half. But by the opening credits, she’d MV5BMTA1NDM0ODY2MDdeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDc2NTgxOTAy._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1596,1000_AL_grown on me. She dances around her apartment so unselfconsciously I couldn’t help but see myself in her. By the film’s half way point, I quite agreed with the title: incredible indeed.

Jessica insists that the friendship between herself and Boone will be based on honesty, and this pact pulls no punches. They bond over their mutual obsession with their exes. They make brutal self-disclosures. As you can imagine, the intimacy grows between them and their relationship morphs more quickly than either of them are really ready for. But Jessica James isn’t just about boys, she’s a fully realized woman with a lot more going on. She doggedly applies to any theatre program that might accept her plays, she teaches theatre to children, she pursues her passions while supporting those of her friends.

Writer-director Jim Strouse wrote The Incredible Jessica James specifically for Jessica Williams, and I sincerely hope it’s a star-making role for her. She’s infectious and luminous and I want her to be in all the things. This movie is a rom-com for 2017: it is what it says it is. It doesn’t just pay lipservice to #feminism, it gives its leading lady a wide range of interests so that she doesn’t have to find fulfillment through love, she’s already got a lot going on. Williams and O’Dowd have a sparky kind of energy that’s gorgeous to watch and I LOVE me some Chris O’Dowd, so the fact that I was equally happy when he was offscreen says a lot about the kind of movie this is, and the star power that Williams shines upon us.

You don’t have to take my word for it: The Incredible Jessica James is streaming on Netflix right this very minute. It took me about 5-10 minutes to ease into it but I went from charmed to smitten pretty quick and here’s hoping that you do too.

 

The Town

Ben Affleck branded Charlestown the “bank robbery capital” of America in his movie about the neighbourhood, The Town. Neither cops nor statistics actually bears that statement out, but he certainly painted a picture of a rough neighbourhood where its inhabitants (“townies”) scowl at outsiders and steal everything that’s not nailed down. Sean and I have been to Boston a few times so I can’t quite recall which time we ventured out to “the town” for some dinner but I do recall deliberating whether we should. Sure the internet was calling this Moroccan restaurant one of Boston’s best, but did we feel safe?

hero_EB20100915REVIEWS100919991ARClearly things have changed since Ben Affleck last spent the night in Charlestown. When we visited, it was gentrified as hell, Beamers parked up and down the street. It’s also been a while since we last watched the film, so without the benefit of bellydancers or couscous, we gave it a re-watch.

Ben Affleck came on board as director only after someone else bowed out. His original cut of the movie was 4 hours long, and if you’re interested, it’s available to watch on the Blu-Ray. The studio convinced him to cut it down to 2 hours, 8 minutes for our sake, still a lengthy movie, but one that just flies by. Affleck’s character assembles a team of ruffians who brazenly rob banks and armoured trucks. He’s wanting to get out of this life, but neither his friends nor his enemies are willing to let him go. So that’s a complication. Another little wrinkle: the woman he’s currently in a relationship with is a former hostage of his, only she doesn’t know it. So that’s awkward.

You can tell Affleck is an actor-director; the action scenes are electric but the editing slows way down during character-driven scenes. He lingers over them. And he knows a great performance when he sees one. In The Town, the scene stealer was Jeremy Renner, who Casey Affleck recommended when Ben couldn’t get Mark Walhberg. Affleck has since said that Renner’s performance was so strong that he could literally save a scene by cutting to Renner looking down at a napkin.

Anyway, whether or not The Town is an accurate portrayal of the people and criminals who live there, it’s an excellent film, slick and well-paced, and it definitely benefits from great on-location shooting. The Boston on screen no longer exists, if it ever did, but it’s a great cinematic accomplishment for a hometown boy.

Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart, I’m sorry honey, I didn’t really know you could act. You seemed up until now to have two settings: eyebrows and lip biting. Yet here you are, quietly impressing me.

Maureen (Stewart) is indeed a personal shopper. She picks up the glamourous clothes and accessories her celebrity client can’t be bothered to. Maureen despises Kyra but the MV5BOGFiY2U2ZTYtOTRmMS00MTY2LWE1OGEtZDUyNTI4N2I4YWUwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjcwNzI4MzE@._V1_money’s good enough to pay the rent in Paris, which is important to her. She’s in the city and won’t leave until she hears from her brother. Her dearly departed brother. Which is an obstacle of course. But she and her recently deceased twin brother are\were both mediums with a genetic heart defect, and they’d promised each other that whoever died first would signal the other from beyond, if such a thing existed.

But when contact IS made, how sure can Maureen really be that it’s her brother and not some creep? Or some other ghost? She wants SO badly for it to be him, but her skeptical nature can’t help but vacillate. This makes Personal Shopper a film that’s hard to pin down. It approaches grief in a way we’re unaccustomed to, but it’s also part ghost story, part coming of age, part mystery, part spiritual discovery.

Personal Shopper compels even though it’s largely about mournful solitude. Director Olivier Assayas, who previously got an excellent performance out of Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, creates an ambiance that pulls you in as much as it creeps you out. But he doesn’t overdose on the ghost story stuff, he knows it’s scarier and more effective to dole it out in small measures.

It probably helps that Assayas wrote Maureen specifically for Kristen Stewart; she’s actually meant to be taciturn and moody. But the character ultimately lacks depth, which is pure laziness since we spend pretty much the entire movie with her. It’s still a good movie though, with an atmosphere that won’t quit and a solution that begs to be found, even if we think we already know it.

Free and Easy

To be honest, it took me a while to adapt to the pace of this movie. It is slow, deliberate, and very measured. There’s no getting ahead of yourself. But the unusual story and glimmers of humour hooked me and I was glad I stuck it out. Free and Easy is genuinely something that feels new and unique.

It’s about a “soap salesman” who never sells a single bar but does encourage people to sniff his product (“a different scent on all 4 sides!”) because doing so induces loss of consciousness. Once his would-be customers are asleep on the ground, he frisks them for money and valuables. So he’s really a thief, posing as a salesman.

1_22_free-and-easy1-676x450Director Geng Jun shows us a side of China rarely seen: crumbling, bleak, all but abandoned. This cold, deserted, post-industrial town in northeastern China is dotted with rural characters, and they’re all as shady as the salesman.

It almost watches like loosely connected vignettes, a series of petty crimes where corruption and lawlessness is the new normal. But whenever these criminals encounter each other, you can’t help but laugh. The humour is deadpan but it landed surprisingly well for a movie that runs the risk of being lost in translation. There’s some slap stick, which I suppose is universal, but really it’s just the contrast between this totally depressing setting and the buffoons that populate it that just works.

The film is minimalist but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of attention to detail poured into each shot. Out-of-focus details often sharpen into the butt of the joke. You have to stay alert to small gifts planted by the director along the way. Sure the subtext of the film is a little depressing, but it’s delivered in such an obliquely funny way, the message presented by sliding it in sideways, that you’ll laugh appreciatively at things that aren’t even overtly funny. In a film full of grifters, it’s the cops who are the dirtiest  of them all. That’s the lens through which contemporary, provincial China is explored in (ironically titled) Free and Easy, and the film stays remarkably on-brand.

Chasing Coral

The ocean only has to warm about two degrees for coral to die, and guess what? The ocean is warming and the coral is dying. Much of it is dead already. It’s not just sad because we’re losing a beautiful animal; coral is vital to our ocean’s ecosystems, and when coral dies, so do many other species in the ocean, and it’s only a matter of time before we ourselves feel dire repercussions. Coral are the trees of the ocean, and their extinction en masse cannot and will not go unnoticed. The question is: will we notice before it’s too late?

One diver, Richard Vevers, realizes the ocean has a bit of an advertising issue: it’s out of sight, and largely out of mind. But if he could find a way to show us at home what’s going on beneath the waves, might we pay attention? Inspired by the film Chasing Ice, which captured the receding glaciers through years of time-lapse, Richard thought the same MV5BODA5ODAyNjk5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzQ3NTE5MDI@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,785_AL_technique could be applied to the reefs, so he called up director Jeff Orlowski, and an idea was born.

Underwater time lapse meant nothing short of a new invention was necessary. A whole team built special cameras that could exist in salt water for months a time, in the cold, under great depth and pressure, subject to storms, and needing not only to be wiped clean regularly, but to host a router that would send the images back. This is how they meet Zackery Rago, who’s part of the camera building team but also has a secret passion for coral. They position their cameras in the reefs of Hawaii, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, but nature and technology conspire against them. In the end, it’s necessary for them to go down and record this massive bleaching event themselves.

Another lesson learned: watching a beautiful animal die is hard. Watching them practically go extinct is wrenching. 2016 was a bad year for coral. 29% of the Great Barrier Reef died in 2016 alone. In 30 years, we could lose it all. White coral is a shock, of course. The white is the coral’s exposed skeleton. Death is imminent. Dead coral is even sadder, devoid of any life or colour.  While the time lapse originally meant that they could observe this happening from a distance, the modified plan of divers capturing the footage themselves means they are confronted with this death and dying in person, and they find that quite devastating. I think you will too and I think you should watch anyway.

Kristen Bell recorded a song specifically for use in the film. She feels strongly about the film’s message, but I think the hope is that we all will, and feel galvanized into action. You can start with Vever’s The Ocean Agency and suggestions found at Chasing Coral. But I think just not turning away from this is the important thing.

 

 

 

Vegas Baby

Perhaps as many as 1 out of 6 couples faces some sort of fertility issue when trying to conceive a baby. To answer this need, science offers a smidgen of hope: the ability to harvest eggs, inseminate them, and plant the fertilized embryos in utero, giving conception a greater chance. Is it a perfect system? No it is not. The odds are likely still against you. But the numbers aren’t the only barrier to babies – so, too, is the cost. One fertility clinic therefore offers the chance to “win a baby” – really, just one course of in vitro fertilization. But this contest attracts many desperate people who make emotional appeals.

This is a really interesting documentary, and a heartbreaking one too. It addresses issues ranging from:

movieposter.jpga) Is it even ethical to “give away”  a baby as promotional material?

b) Is it exploitative to force fertility-challenged people to compete against one another?

c) What happens to all the “losers”?

d) Why are people willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to conceive, but unwilling to adopt?

e) Why do some countries consider infertility to be a legitimate medical condition deserving of coverage and treatment while the U.S. leaves infertile men and women high and dry?

e) After bankrupting themselves financially and emotionally, what happens to a couple who still doesn’t have a baby?

f) What happens when your heart tells you to pursue baby-making by any means possible, but your religion expressly forbids it?

Director Amanda Micheli has fertility problems of her own, and used the baby contest as a provocative conversation starter in this documentary, a film that takes a look behind the curtain at the subject that is so rarely talked about. It’s a well-made film that is interesting and worth of your time. Kudos to all the people who shared their journey and their private pain; fertility and infertility are little understood, so shining a light on this issue is an important step in humanizing a subject that really hits us at the core of our personhood. We take our fertility for granted and losing control over something our bodies are supposed to do naturally seems to be a demoralizing process. The film is full of heartbreak. But there are little rays of hope too, and Micheli does a good job of balancing the rain and the sunshine.

 

 

The Big Sick

It’s hard to put a movie like The Big Sick into a box. If you heard romcom, you heard wrong. Not dead wrong, and not totally untrue, but you’ll have to shift your expectations. What you SHOULD and can expect from it: a very authentic and relatable experience, with lots of family drama, a little rom, and some definitely com.

It’s about how star Kumail Nanjiani met his (spoiler alert!) wife Emily, with whom he co-wrote the movie. So yes, they end up together. But you’d hardly guess it. In this only-slightly-fictionalized-account, they meet and fall in love rather quickly, but basically agree that there’s little chance of this being a long-term thing; she’s in grad school and The-Big-Sick-moviedoesn’t want a commitment, his fate involves an arranged marriage, sooner rather than later if his mother gets her way. They go their separate ways, and that might have been that had Emily (Zoe Kazan) not fallen ill with a life-threatening illness that left her in a coma. Her friends all busy with finals, they call him in to sit at her bedside while her parents fly across the country to be with her.

Kumail was a struggling stand-up comedian\Uber driver at the time, and he kept his relationship secret from his family, who expected him to marry within the culture, to a woman of his mother’s choosing. Emily’s parents, meanwhile, are not huge fans of Kumail’s, since he’s the guy who recently dumped their daughter after admitting that he’s gone a series of blind dates at his mother’s dining room table. Her parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, actually add a very interesting dynamic to the whole thing. But though the script doesn’t gloss over any of life’s bumps (at times, it’s nakedly, shockingly honest), it also doesn’t cast anyone as the villain. It’s just people coming at things from different angles. Love is hard, and if you’re lucky, long. It takes work and compromise. It’s even harder and compromisier when a couple comes from different backgrounds, and may have different expectations of love and dating and marriage.

Bottom line: I cannot recommend this enough. While not a laugh riot, it’s cheeky and authentic and well-written, like show-offily well-written. Real people populate this film, and all the players are its equal. Nanjiani is great, of course, but unexpectedly great performances from Hunter and Romano, in roles much meatier than you might anticipate, really make this thing come together. You care about these characters, together and separately, which is 107% more than I care about the soulless, sequel-heavy pieces of utter balogna that dominate movie theatres this day. The Big Sick isn’t just a great movie, it’s a shining beacon of hope in a bleak landscape of unimaginative belly button lint. Producers, take note: more like this, please. On the double.

Okja

The new CEO of Mirando, Lucy (Tilda Swinton), announces that her company has made a discovery that will rid the world of hunger: a super piglet that looks like a cross between a rhino and an elephant that we’re assured tastes really fucking good. 26 super piglets are distributed to farmers around the world to be cared for over the next decade. In 10 years, popular TV veterinarian Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) will judge them and declare one ‘the best.’

Cut to: 10 years later, Wilcox hikes up a remote Korean hillside to visit Okja, a prized super piglet raised by Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her father. Raised on love and freedom, Okja is objectively the best of the bunch, but that means this beloved pet must go to NYC okja-creature-littlegirl-woodsto be paraded around by its parent corporation (to disguise the secret testing) – unless of course she’s kidnapped by the Animal Liberation Front headed by Jay (Paul Dano), “not a terrorist,” along the way. And the ALF is only the first group of people Mija will come across that want to control the fate of her large friend, Okja.

Co-written and directed by Snowpiercer’s Bong Joon Ho, you can bet he’s got some interesting thing to say about these events: GMOs, image-obsessed corporations, eco-terrorism. But he cleverly brings it back to one of the most basic relationships to remind us of what’s important: the one between a girl and her best friend, the family pet. Here in North America, not only can we not imagine eating dogs, we object to it morally. Here, we name our dogs, we sleep curled up beside them, we feed them table scraps from our fingers, we look into their sweet faces and tell them they’re good boys, very good boys. If we accorded all animals the respect we give our pets, it would change the food industry okjaas we know it. This is the way Bong Joon Ho choose to frame Okja’s predicament.

Tonally, Okja is very different from Snowpiercer. If the score doesn’t alert you to its farcical nature, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s voice doesn’t do it, then the unconvincing CGI will likely push you in that very direction. But Bong Joon Ho’s skill as a director means that he juggles these switchbacks in tone very carefully, and Okja’s whimsy never fails. Yes, it’s a completely weird movie, one that can feel like a cartoon and a horror at the same time, that can make you laugh amid the darkest of scenes. I realize this movie won’t be for everyone, but I found it profoundly interesting. Tilda Swinton is excellent, and Gyllenhaal does something we’ve never seen from him before. But it’s Seo-Hyun Ahn who steals the show, her bond with Okja and her purity of heart that elevate this movie from fantasy to fable.