Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Ne Zha

Bear with me: I am about to attempt to describe the plot of a cartoon, which is deceptively hard work.

A chaos pearl, birthed from primordial essences, manifests as a giant crystal monster, is sucking up energy to feed its seemingly infinite potential for destruction. The Primeval Lord of Heaven, Tianzun, sends two of his disciples, Taiyi and Shen, to subdue it, but it just keeps siphoning energy, growing bigger and stronger, so the Primeval Lord Tianzun has to separate the pearl into two opposite components: a spirit pearl and a demon orb. The spirit pearl is meant to be reincarnated as a son to Li Jing, while Tianzun curses the demon orb; it will be destroyed in 3 years’ time by a powerful lightning strike. Tianzun gives them to the care of Taiyi and promises him a seat at his heavenly table if he performs well. This makes Shen insanely jealous of course, so he steals the spirit pearl, which means that Li Jing’s pregnant wife Lady Yin is possessed by the demon orb instead. Poor Lady Yin has been pregnant for 3 years and now gives birth to a demon child, Ne Zha.

If you’re following even 25% of what I’m saying, you deserve a silver medal (sorry, I’m reserving the gold for Lady Yin’s marathon pregnancy).

Ne Zha is born with unique powers, as you might expect, and he’s known (and feared) in the village as being incredibly destructive, which makes him a lonely outcast. Taiyi brings him to a universe inside a painting to train him and his progress is astounding, even if his discipline is lacking (note: this is an extremely advanced toddler). Meanwhile, Shen takes the stolen spirit pearl down to the Dragon King. The dragons are angry because they’ve been banished underwater as hell’s gatekeepers. The Dragon King believes that a son of his born of the spirit pearl would mean dragons would finally be worthy and could ascend to heaven, so he gives birth to an egg OUT OF HIS MOUTH and names the kid Ao Bing.

Against the odds, Ne Zha and Ao Bing meet and make friends, but as we know, they’re actually enemies, and they’re going to have to meet in battle on their third birthdays.

Written and directed by Yu Yang, the movie starts out with some shaky story-telling, and as you can tell by my synopsis, there’s quite a bit of vital information to parse rather quickly (we had to pause the movie, compare notes, and restart). Once it gets going, the problems get largely ironed out by some pretty compelling animation. The action scenes are of course commendable but I was also rather dazzled by the universe contained within the painting. Yu Yang takes full advantage of the perks of animation, allowing bold action sequences to communicate character, engaging the audience and fueling the film’s momentum. Kids will delight in the low-brow humour (and by low-brow I of course mean disgusting) and everyone can appreciate the visual spectacle of it all.

In China it was released exclusively in IMAX 3-D and I can imagine this would have been an excellent use of the medium. We watched the English dub on Netflix (we also had the subtitles on, which made for a mind-bending exercise as the two NEVER matched); if you do the same, make sure to check out mid- and post-credit scenes which introduce a new character and set up a sequel. The sequel was actually due to be released January 2020 in China but was postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19.

The Photograph

Reporter Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) flies to New Orleans to interview Isaac (Rob Morgan) about his first love, celebrated photographer Christina Eames (Chanté Adams), recently deceased. Back home in Manhattan, Michael follows up with an interview with her daughter, Mae (Issa Rae). Mae is a successful art curator, and doing a retrospective on her mother’s work is a way to get in touch with her grief; the only love that Christina could express was that for her work. Mae and Michael pool their resources to better understand the enigmatic artist, but after a while it’s pretty clear that this is just an excuse to spend more time together. Mae and Michael are falling for each other.

They don’t intend to, of course – she’s focused on her career, he’s about to move to London – but when has intention ever stopped cupid’s arrow? So we’re really getting two love stories for the price of one – young Christina and Isaac before she moved away to pursue her passion, and Mae and Michael, who are in the middle of pursuing theirs.

Writer-director Stella Meghie doesn’t quite figure out how to co-mingle the two stories satisfactorily, but the chemistry between Rae and Stanfield is so electric it almost doesn’t matter. Issa Rae was of course recently seen dazzling in The Lovebirds, and in The Photograph she proves that wasn’t a one-off; 2020 is the year of Issa Rae, and we can only hope that 2021 will be too.

Meghie’s love story is modern and grown-up: sensitive, vulnerable, unapologetically sexual. Rae and Stanfield have an easy and smart flirtation that draws us in too, rather intimately, as if we’re rooting for our own friends to finally find the love they deserve. Of course, adult love stories make one thing obvious: finding love is the easy part. Keeping love, maintaining love, nurturing love, sacrificing for love – those are the difficult, unglamourous things often left out, simply brushed under the rug with the mother of all euphemisms, “happily ever after.”

The Trip To Greece

This is their fourth trip actually; it was Spain before this, and Italy before that, and just a plain old Trip way back in 2010, during which Steve Coogan toured Britain’s best restaurants with best friend (and prime needler) Rob Brydon in tow. These two squabble like an old married couple but they also egg each other on to the greatest heights of comedy, throwing rockets of caustic remarks back and forth, stinging each other with brilliant insults, one-upping each other with first rate impressions.

Since 2010’s The Trip, the subsequent trips have largely followed the restaurant template, but for no good reason. The first one’s aim may have been to savour and review, but what followed was really just an excuse to throw together the same basic ingredients hoping to recapture their recipe for success. And the thing is, with very little effort, they do manage to replicate success. The films may defy traditional categorization but the Brydon-Coogan team is a winning bet, with the added bonus that Coogan continues to churn out content you’re likely familiar with, and Brydon continues to churn out new and exciting to lambaste it. Brydon gleefully pokes at Coogan’s apparent inability to recall an extra from his movie Greed. And he mocks Coogan’s BAFTA nomination for his work in Stan & Ollie – no, not his work, not his acting, his “copying,” his “impersonation,” two meaty jobs right to Coogan’s rib cage all while cajoling him into an impromptu Stan Laurel so that Brydon may offer his Hardy. Tom Hardy.

There’s something eminently watchable about these two. They hardly need the pretense of travel or fine dining; it is a pleasure to watch them under any circumstance. The Trip to Greece is available to rent via VOD, and each of the previous films is just as worthy.

Underwater

It feels like if you live and work at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, literally 10km straight down the belly of the ocean, you’re kind of asking for trouble. Not to blame the victims, but you’ve got to know drilling holes into and beyond the darkest depths of one of the last unexplored corners of the earth is a risky endeavour.

Norah (Kristen Stewart) is brushing her teeth…at some unspecified time. It’s hard to distinguish night from day when the sun and the moon are irrelevant. A small tremor at first, but enough of a shake to make her cautious. And soon: chaos. We don’t know exactly what’s happening but neither does she. Barely ahead of death and destruction, she races the flood and the collapsing quarters to a hub where she meets Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), a colleague whom she’s just now meeting for the first time, and together they slam the hold shut, sealing it from rushing water but also panicking survivors. Tough. When you’re that far beneath the ocean, there’s no room for error or second thoughts. Crawling over squashed bodies and around drowned bodies, they eventually meet up with barely a handful of other survivors: Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), Paul (T.J. Miller, ugh), Liam (John Gallagher Jr.). and Emily (Jessica Henwick). Which is when they realize that until now, they’ve had it easy. Their station is in ruins, so their only chance is to traverse the ocean floor toward the next one, where hopefully escape pods will still be intact. It’s practically impossible and completely dangerous, but what choice do they have?

Underwater will certainly call to mind other wet movies: The Abyss, perhaps, if not The Meg. It’s nonstop action and nonstop stress. There is tension in every breath. It is awful not to know the cause, and then it’s awful knowing it. Director William Eubank is relentless and it’s hard not to take that personally. My breathing is fast and shallow and I’m not even the one stripping to my underwear, shoving my broken arm into a very uncomfortable diving suit, rationing my oxygen, and taking on the ocean’s meanest predators in the Earth’s most hostile environment because the other threat is so much worse.

It’s a man vs. nature film that doesn’t quite tread any new water (forgive me), but it does stay afloat, buoyed by those that came before it. It’s formulaic and familiar, but it’s also a competent thriller and modestly entertaining.

Cracked Up

Darrell Hammond will go down in history as one of the greatest SNL cast members of all time – and he was the longest-tenured until Keenan Thompson unseated him recently. Both are alike in that they were never the show’s breakout stars, but their supportive performances aren’t just crucial, they are in fact the glue that makes it possible for the cast to coagulate at all. Darrell Hammond is a master impressionist and holds the record for doing the most on SNL – 105 – among them, rather famously,  Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Chris Matthews, Sean Connery, and Regis Philbin.

But while Hammond was making America giggle, in private he was battling debilitating flashbacks of childhood trauma; addiction and self-injury served as coping mechanisms until it all inevitably came crumbling down. It took 50 years for a doctor to diagnose his pain correctly, unleashing the painful memories his mind couldn’t bear to address.

He wrote about this in his autobiography and he shares further in director Michelle Esrick’s documentary, which can be found on Netflix. I hope he has some appreciation for how profoundly talking so openly about these things can impact not just an audience but indeed a culture. There is power in owning your story and understanding that any associated shame is not yours: is not the victim’s, but the perpetrator’s.

Childhood trauma is a far-reaching poison. Hammond, of course, has had the privilege and the resources to pay it the kind of attention necessary for taming it. Healing may be a lifelong journey, but it’s clear Hammond has found a healthier head space and a new appreciation for and ability to celebrate the good things in his life.

Sorry To Miss You

Director Ken Loach has dedicated his career to shining a spotlight on social injustice and lifting up working family. I was very much moved by his last effort, 2016’s I, Daniel Blake, which was one of my favourite movies that year. I knew going in that Sorry To Miss You was unlikely to be the cheeriest of views and you know what? I was right.

Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) have been struggling to make ends meet since the economy crashed in 2008. They have two kids, Seb (Rhys Stone), who struggled just to stay in school and is increasingly rebellious, and sweet Liza (Katie Proctor), who senses that her family is in crisis.

Hoping that “self-employment” can solve their financial woes, Ricky gambles the family’s last asset, the family car, to buy a van to make deliveries. But the truth is, Ricky still works for a boss, one who can severely impact his earning potential on any whim, one who takes no risks himself, provides no protection whatsoever. This has become an increasingly common form of employment – no benefits, no sick days, and no access to employment insurance. Welcome to the gig economy, which is slang for labour exploitation.

Loach argues that working people’s struggles are inherently dramatic. “They live life very vividly, and the stakes are very high if you don’t have a lot of money to cushion your life. Also, because they’re the front line of what we came to call the class war. Either through being workers without work, or through being exploited where they were working. And I guess for a political reason, because we felt, and I still think, that if there is to be change, it will come from below. It won’t come from people who have a lot to lose, it will come from people who will have everything to gain.”

Sorry To Miss You is, in fact, quite dramatic. When you’re living paycheque to paycheque, you are teetering dramatically on the edge of disaster and ruin. And guess what? Ricky and Abbie are about to get pushed definitively over it. It doesn’t take much.

So yes. This movie will make you feel awfully guilty about all the one-click ordering and same day delivery you’ve been enjoying (just me?). It’s extremely well-made, with anxiety-inducing performances and a strong message. It is dramatic, filled with angry, shouty parents, hair-tearing over bills, precarious health, stressful shifts, uneasy family dynamics, creepy bosses, literal poop, and always, always a sense of impending doom. The one thing it’s not is a fun watch.

Becoming

Michelle Obama’s post-White House memoir Becoming explored her roots and the path she followed to become the formidable woman we know and respect today. Her new documentary on Netflix, also titled Becoming, shadows her on her massively successful book tour, and focuses more on the role and the identity she’s forging for herself as a former First Lady who still has a lot to give.

Director Nadia Hallgren crafts the sort of documentary that will have you asking why this incredible woman won’t just run for President herself – but if you’re paying attention, Michelle Obama answers that question in every word and sigh. It’s clear that her eight year sentence in the White House has taken its toll. For America’s first black First Family, the presidential spotlight meant constant scrutiny and a constant need for carefully modulated perfection. The First Families that preceded and succeeded them have been allowed far less criticism for far greater blemishes. The Obamas knew that theirs would be treated differently and they played the part. But while Michelle Obama’s poise seemed effortless, Becoming shows the emotional impact, even the trauma, incurred for an accomplished and intelligent woman to mute her voice. And while she was a beloved First Lady for her husband’s entire term in office, it’s clear that she has now stepped confidently out of his shadow, and that the country, and even the world, has a thirst and a fervor for this new, less filtered, more authentic Michelle Obama.

While the documentary isn’t revealing any deep dark secrets, it does allow Michelle Obama to let down her hair – sometimes literally, into luscious curls, and to step out of the First Lady’s shoes – carefully curated by a stylist who understood her White House role as a costumer projecting class and elegance and respectability – and into gold, glittery, thigh-high boots, if that’s what she wants. The White House has changed her but it hasn’t silenced her. It hasn’t convinced her mother to stop favouring her brother, or her staff to stop teasing her, or her daughters to stop needing her. Seeing her nestled amongst any and all of these people gives us a clearer sense of who she is. And while those of us on the outside can’t help but respect and admire her, we see how much that holds true, and in fact truer, for those who know her more intimately.