Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Just Mercy

As much as we may want to pretend otherwise, the justice system has two distinct tiers.  Those with money get an easier path than those without.  That disparity is never acceptable but is especially offensive in the criminal context, where poor people who find themselves in the system are likely to stay there whether or not they are guilty of the offences charged, because they lack the ability to pay for legal representation or to post bail.  Those disadvantages result in innocent poor people being locked up for extended periods of time, many of whom are on death row. justmercy

These effects are arguably a feature of the system rather than a bug, since these circumstances disproportionately affect black people in the southern United States (see Ava Duvernay’s 13th for more on that terrifying but logical conclusion).   Incidentally, the reason my criticisms are focused on the American justice system is simply because the U.S. is basically the only western civilization that still applies the death penalty.  

Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was one of those innocent poor black people waiting on death row in Alabama. Convicted of the murder of a woman he had never met, by a jury from which black people were excluded, based entirely on the false testimony of a convicted felon, Johnny D seems resigned to his fate. Which is understandable, as there is no point in hoping for merciful treatment from a justice system stacked against you. That changes when Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young Harvard law school graduate arrives in Alabama to provide legal aid to the disadvantaged, takes up Johnny D’s case, and challenges the conviction despite constant opposition from the district attorney, the sheriff, and the legal system. Brie Larson is also in this movie, as Stevenson’s operations director, but it’s a bit role. Foxx and Jordan get most of the screen time and all the best scenes. The two of them are excellent and are worth the price of admission on their own.

Their performances helped me get through the depressing fact that this is a true story, and worse, a true story we have heard many times before. Just Mercy does a great job of shining a light on injustice but is also an entertaining courtroom battle in its own right, that more than holds its own against any fictional legal drama. I was particularly impressed that the drama was allowed to play out with a minimal amount of Hollywood glitz, so that the courtroom scenes were close to how they would have played out in real life. Clearly, the filmmakers believed the real story was compelling enough to stand on its own, and they were absolutely right.

The Invisible Man

Lots of movies have been rescheduled due to COVID-19’s impact on world box offices, but a few movies were released just as things got tricky and got short shrift releases. Movie studios are fighting back but they’re basically inventing their responses as we go so right now they’re experimenting with what people at home might tolerate. Disney released Frozen 2 early on its Disney+ platform, and Onward will soon follow, on April 3rd, which is a real coup for parents who are dealing with the challenges of having kids on their hands full-time.

Universal took 3 of their big titles – Emma, The Invisible Man, and The Hunt, each of which were performing as well as they could at theatres where attendance has been understandably low – and that was before they all closed down indefinitely. So each of these titles has been released for early rental, at a premium. They’re called Home Premieres and they rent for $20 for 48 hours. It’s certainly more than you’d normally pay to rent a movie but it’s quite reasonable compared to a night at the cinema – you can provide your own snacks, your own wine, you don’t need a babysitter, and as an extra bonus, you won’t put your health at risk from exposure to germs.

You’ve already seen our review for Emma, which we very much liked and very much thought was well worth the 20 bucks.

The Invisible Man, however, is a whole other thing, isn’t it? We all know I’m a chicken and there wasn’t a slightest chance of my seeing this in theatres. Sean and I stopped going to movies well before the theatres closed since I’m high risk for the virus, with both an underlying illness and immuno-suppressing medication, but let’s face it: the true reason is that I’m just too fragile for horror. And though I’ve made exceptions for exceptional films (A Quiet Place, The Witch, and Midsommar, for example), I felt comfortable not making an exception for this, though it was relatively well reviewed.

But now that it’s available for Home Premiere, it seemed like the perfect chance to step outside my comfort zone while in the privacy of my own bedroom.

Basically, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) goes to great lengths to leave her abusive boyfriend. She’s clearly terrified of him but he’s a respected scientist and inventor, and his money has gone a long way in insulating him from repercussions. He’s been controlling but with the help of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and friend James (Aldis Hodge), she’s able to slip away – barely. He soon after takes his own life, but Cecilia isn’t convinced. She becomes haunted by a presence – she believes it to be her supposedly dead ex, Adrian, but that theory doesn’t hold a whole lot of water with anyone else. I mean, how do you prove that your ex is so vindictive he faked his own death to taunt you via some invisibility cloak? Try it, I dare you. It doesn’t go well for Cecilia. She’s mistaken for a raving lunatic, but Adrian’s invisible actions are getting increasingly violent and looking crazy is the least of her worries.

Director Leigh Whannell creates and sustains a painfully tense atmosphere from start to finish, constantly ratcheting up the stakes and guaranteeing our breathing is shallow at best.

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I had help getting through the movie: dogs, and caramel popcorn, and some eyebrow tutorials on Youtube. But I still screamed a few times and even upturned the popcorn bowl (which was mercifully lidded at the time). Like any good horror movie, the director knows that your own imagination will always be far worse than anything he can conjure, so he allows for lots of lingering, vaguely threatening shots containing worlds of possibility around every corner. And the score by  Benjamin Wallfisch informs your anxiety, feeds it, and capitalizes on it.

Mostly I got through the movie by telling myself it was basically a comic book movie and that this is exactly what they were warning us about in Civil War. At any time, some “hero”could turn villain on a dine just because his ego’s a little sore. Certainly Adrian incurs an awful lot of collateral damage in the name of revenge against the only person who’s ever left him. The suit he’s engineered is exactly the kind of tech that Iron Man might have, or Batman, and all that stands between them and villainy is a broken heart, which is alarming since the one hallmark of a so-called super hero besides their super powers is treating women like shit.

Anyway, The Invisible Man is a pretty good movie. It’s not just an exercise in jump scares, it has a wholly realized story and a character who has to reclaim her agency. Elisabeth Moss’s costar is invisible, so the whole thing rests on her very capable shoulders. She’s equally believable as both victim and conqueror. And though it wasn’t an easy watch for me, it’s survivable for even moderate wusses, which is saying something indeed.

Emma.

Emma is 21, handsome, clever, and rich. She is her father’s last unmarried daughter and she fancies herself a successful matchmaker. It is the thing upon which she prides herself the most (and there is quite a bit of pride), but though she seeks the best matches for her nearest and dearest, she has no interest in or plans to marry herself.

Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) currently has her sights set on  her good friend Harriet (Mia Goth), a young woman of questionable parentage and no wealth. Though Harriet already has a romantic interest in a farmer of little means, Emma persuades her to reject his advances in favour of a better (read: richer) match, Vicar Elton (Josh O’Connor).

Of course, Emma’s meddling could never be as straight-forward as that. George (Johnny Flynn) accuses her of vanity, her father (Bill Nighy) implores her loyalty, Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) pesters her continually, Jane (Amber Anderson) seems to best her at everything, and the sudden appearance of handsome, mysterious Frank (Callum Turner) has everyone in a twitter.

First, let me say I am fully on team Alexandra Byrne for costume design this year. The dresses, the jackets, the trousers, the hats – they all share a romantic, period feel, but they’re all elevated, better than real life, and believe me, if I thought for a second Byrne could live comfortably in my closet, I’d kidnap and hold her there in a heartbeat (note to Byrne, should she read this: please don’t take that as a threat, though it does share the same qualities as a certain felony – I am merely a great admirer with a tendency to over-dress).

Second, Bill Nighy. I mean: Bill Nighy. He lights up every scene he’s in, he snatches giggles like they’re his life force, he’s an absolute treasure and I simply could not get enough.

And of course, the script. I love how Eleanor Catton has adapted it from the Austen. Altough it is hard to improve upon a classic, Catton’s Emma. is a lot of fun (sorry if that’s confusing, the one-word title has a period at the end, apparently emphasizing that this is a “period piece”). Emma is young, obviously, and quite sheltered in her father’s home. In her naivete she reinforces a classist and of course sexist social construct and can’t see the error of her ways until it’s reversed. Austen’s comedy works because there’s quite a lot of tension, quite a few misunderstandings, and some very complicated love triangles.

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Anya Taylor-Joy is up to the task, though I couldn’t help wondering what it might have been had Florence Pugh stepped into the role. Besides Nighy, which is a given, the performances I enjoyed best were from supporting players Miranda Hart and Tanya Reynolds, who add a lot of life to film.

But even with the sumptuous gowns and the glittering brooches and the tasseled coaches, I wouldn’t want to live in this period where a woman’s only achievement is in marrying “above her station,” dead birds are offered by way of apology, and a twisted ankle is considered top-tier flirting.

In response to the closure of cinemas due to the COVID-19 corona virus, Emma. has been given a VOD release. You can rent the film for $20, which may sound hefty for a rental, but it’s less than you would pay to see it in theatres, and while this is still early days of terms of quarantine and chill, even Netflix’s deepest back-catalogue will exhaust itself at some point. And Emma. is a pretty great way to fill that void.

 

Blow The Man Down

It’s the day every woman dreams of since she’s a little girl: what dress you’ll wear, what flowers you’ll choose, the food you’ll serve, the heirloom hanky you’ll use to dab prettily at your eyes. Your mother’s funeral only comes once in a lifetime and you’ve got to get it right.

Sad but true: I’ll say any mean thing to get the laugh.

Anyway. For Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla  (Sophie Lowe) Connolly it is indeed the day of their mother’s funeral. It feels like half the small village of Easter Cove in Maine shows up for it, paying tribute to a woman everyone seems to have loved. But it doesn’t exactly go seamlessly – clearly they don’t subscribe to Martha Stewart Funerals. The non-cheap flowers arrive late, there’s too much disgusting coleslaw, and oh yeah, they kill someone. Someone else. I mean, they never murdered their mother, she died of natural causes, more or less. I’m talking someone ELSE. A bad dude who we wouldn’t really feel too bad about killing except his death, and well, the concealment thereof, leads to the sisters uncovering some pretty shady stuff in their home town.

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Directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy delight in pulling up the respectable if threadbare rug to reveal not gleaming hard wood but black mould asbestos. Oh yes, there’s major rot to this picturesque little town, and behind every white picket fence is another secret being kept. Mary Beth and Priscilla have pulled a thread which threatens to unravel even the heaviest fisherman’s sweater.

This movie is oddly funny, in the blackest sense, establishing a real sense of atmosphere. Details are meted out like a sparse trail of breadcrumbs, each one a small but perfect moment, supported by a smart script and plenty of terrific performances.

 

 

Altered Carbon: Resleeved

First let me say that although there’s a lot of Altered Carbon sprayed across various media these days, this is my first brush with it. Anthony Mackie stars in a Netflix series and though this is not that, it does involve the character he plays, Takeshi Kovacs.

What you need to know is that “people” are no longer defined by the bodies they inhabit. Flesh is just a sleeve you slip on and off, discarding it when it’s no longer useful, carrying on via your digital conscience uploaded to a “stack” and potentially immortal if treated right.

In this animated Netflix film, Takeshi is hired to do a job, so his stack is uploaded into the body of a soldier, a body so ripped and primed for combat that his head looks tiny compared to the breadth of his shoulders. Takeshi (voiced by Ray Chase) must protect a tattoo artist while investigating the death of a yakuza boss. Holly (Brittany Cox), the young tattoo artist (to clarify: the flesh sleeve she inhabits appears to be that of a tween, but her consciousness is many times that), is fighting for her life. As the yakuza tattooist, she’s in charge of an integral part of each boss’s death ritual and the succession of the next boss. Takeshi has only the help of CTAC agent Gena (Elizabeth Maxwell), whose motives may not align exactly with his own.

Right away, you’ll notice the anime style is unique, with the characters popping and almost glowing compared to the duller backgrounds. The film’s story is fairly simple, and while it does serve as a bridge between season 1 and 2 of the live-action series, it can also be taken as a stand-alone film. While this Kovacs isn’t quite as brooding or as witty as Mackie’s, the action is just as bloody. Kovacs and Gena team up seemingly every 5-10 minutes against enhanced ninjas. In fact, at one point I realized that this felt like I was watching an intense video game walkthrough. All that was missing was some sort of coin reward for K.O.s. Which means it’s a visual treat with some truly impressive (and numerous) action sequences, but the character development is a little lacking. If you’re coming into this with background you’ve gleaned from watching the series, you’ll might find it all the more rewarding. If you’re a newbie like me, you might just feel sufficiently motivated to take on the series – especially now that everyone’s got some serious quarantine and chill time on their hands.

 

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Babe: Pig in the City

Since I snuck Babe: Pig in the City onto our recent Quarantine top ten list I figured I should re-watch it, and in the process, have Jay watch it for the first time. That was a mistake. I had forgotten that the tone of Babe: Pig in the City is startlingly dark for a kids’ movie, and in particular there are several scenes of dogs in distress. As you may know, we lost our little Gertie recently so the last thing we need right now is a scene where a dog goes to heaven!

Assuming you are not grieving a little puppy right now, Babe: Pig in the City remains a really incredible movie. Following directly from the events of Babe, Farmer Hoggett is installing a water pump when tragedy strikes. Bedridden from his injuries, it’s up to Mrs. Hoggett to keep the farm afloat as the bank comes calling. Being a champion sheep-pig, Babe has plenty of offers to appear at state fairs for generous appearance fees, and off Mrs. Hoggett and Babe go to take advantage of Babe’s new celebrity. Unfortunately, the two get hung up in security and miss their connecting flight, and then get separated on their layover in the city while waiting to head home. With all that trouble, how will they possibly find a way to save the farm?

As I said, the subject matter in Babe: Pig in the City is very dire at times, but through it all Babe never loses his sunny disposition. In turn, his good nature charms everyone he comes in contact with, and helps them be better animals (because naturally, Babe only talks to animals not people, though he does understand human speech perfectly). With the ground rules having been well-established in Babe, Pig in the City is free to jump right into frenetic chase scenes, and wastes no time in doing so. In that respect, the non-stop action in Babe: Pig in the City evokes director and co-writer George Miller’s other big franchise, Mad Max.

Babe: Pig in the City is not quite the masterwork that Fury Road is, but it’s a great film in its own right, and a worthy addition to Miller’s catalogue that towers over all but the best kids fare (as well as most “grown-up” action films).

October Sky

Why is it so hard for fathers to support their sons? Why are fathers so obsessed with insisting their sons be exactly like them? On the other hand, daddy issues have been extremely fruitful for Hollywood, so…

So yeah. Homer and his dad John don’t get along. John (Chris Cooper) works in a mine like almost all of the men in their mining town do, which is kinda what makes it a mining town, and fully expects his two sons to do the same. It’s the 1950s and mining is actually starting to decline but no one wants to see the writing on the shaft, not yet anyway. It’s pick axes full steam ahead, every third word punctuated with a buckling, phlegmy cough. Except for Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal, still in his puppyhood), a lackluster student who resists his mining fate but doesn’t have a lot of other options. Until the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, is launched into orbit and Homer’s sights turn to the skies. He’s inspired to discover rocketry for himself, and his new passion takes him all the way to the national science fair, but it never wins his father’s approval.

Eep. It’s sad but there you have it: John’s not just disappointed, he’s ashamed. He’s ashamed to have a son who’s “full of himself” because he dreams of something other than a carbon copy of his parents’ life and who’s “wasting his time” teaching himself calculus and physics.

As an inspirational drama, it’s fairly predictable, but October Sky is made better by top quality performances and some real heart, learning seen as a key to a wider world, to more and better choices, for enriching life. It’s kind of a fun notion. For most of us, we’ve grown up taking space travel for granted. Moon landings are ancient history. But for Homer and his friends, it fired up their imaginations; the science followed their ideas, and let them straight to the stars.