Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Late Night

Mindy Kaling is an actress, a director, a producer, an Emmy-nominated writer. She’s written best-sellers and acted alongside Oprah and created television series. You may not know that her foot in the door was portraying Ben Affleck in an off-Broadway play she co-wrote with her best friend called Matt & Ben, about how the pair came to write Good Will Hunting. I wish to god I had seen it.

She was hired to write for The Office when she was just 24 years old – the only woman in a room full of men. She was technically a diversity hire, part of NBC’s diversity writing programme, but don’t mistake that for a lack of qualification. “For a long time I was really embarrassed about that. No one [on The Office] said anything to me about it, but they all knew and I was acutely aware of that. It took me a while to realize that I was just getting the access other people had because of who they knew.” Mindy’s parents, an architect and an OB-GYN, immigrated to the U.S. from India (via Nigeria) only months before she was born, and gave her the most American of names, ripped from their favourite sitcom, Mork & Mindy.

In Late Night, Kaling plays Molly Patel, also a diversity hire, straight from a chemical plant (don’t call it a factory!). She’s hired to be the first and badly needed female writer on Katherine Newbury’s show as its steady ratings decline threatens its existence. Kaling wrote the role of Newbury specifically for Emma Thompson and it is indeed a perfect fit. Newbury is exacting and imperious, but has grown out of touch with her core audience. Molly is exactly the injection of colour and culture that this writer’s room needs even though it longs to stay beige. Of course, Kaling had to invent a fictional world in which a woman is actually allowed to host a late night show, but once she does (and we get over that depressing fact), she invents a very good one, one in which her very successful host is over 50 and undeniably at the top of her game, but hasn’t had to sacrifice her life to gain such a position. Newbury has both a love life (John Lithgow) and a sex life, and she still gets to be the boss. Kaling is so devoted to this character, she took a page from her parents’ baby naming book and called her own daughter Katherine.

Late Night is a lot of laughs, and it benefits from the excellent chemistry between Kaling and Thompson. I suppose it takes a woman to write two such meaty yet tender roles for women. Roles that don’t apologize for emotions and characters who don’t get disempowered for expressing them. And a female director to give these ladies their space to create complexity. Late Night tackles a lot of themes as you might imagine, but it never loses its sharp and incisive comedy. Thompson proves more than able, with impeccable timing and buckets of condescension. She’s formidable. Meanwhile, Kaling orbits around her, not just absorbing her light but casting her own glow as well. They don’t diminish each other, they brighten the whole damn screen. It’s a party where ambitious women, perhaps for the first time this century, are truly celebrated. Yes there were applause-worthy moments, though the theatre I was in was unfortunately a packed but non-clapping one (well, okay, save for me, who couldn’t resist). And there’s a lesson plan for how to apologize correctly and take responsibility like a big kid. But mostly there’s just a lot of zing, and a surprising amount of relatability [My work recently turned one of two women’s washrooms in the building into a “gender neutral” washroom which is nice in theory but in practice has become the washroom where men go to poop. Because men, who still had 2 bathrooms to themselves, think it’s more important to stink up a third than to create safe spaces. They’re literally shitting their privilege all over the place.]

Kaling wrote this movie while she was pregnant, and on the set of A Wrinkle In Time. She shot it while literally breastfeeding her daughter. Motherhood is not slowing her down, it’s just another bullshit hurdle she’s going to plough straight through while we lay down our dollars like a red carpet made out of green because she is the Queen and we her loyal subjects.

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The Secret Life of Pets 2

Let me ask you a question: are you a sack of shit? Yeah, I didn’t think so. In that case, it’s pretty safe to say you’ll find this movie enjoyable. Like the first one, it’s not going to rock your world. It’s not going to usher in a new era of animation. It’s not a story that will be passed down generation to generation. It’s a just-funny-enough, tug-on-the-old-heartstrings, relate to humans through their better counterparts kind of thing.

The best kinds of people are dogs. That is a FACT.

Max (this time voiced by Patton Oswalt rather than the sex offender Louis C,K.), the very good boy from the first film, is back again. He and his very good boy brudder Duke (Eric Stonestreet) are welcoming yet another new addition to their family: a human baby named Liam. Yes, owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) has met and married a human man and produced an heir. We still don’t know what it is that Katie does to afford her very nice Manhattan apartment, but her life is very full. And Max, initially quite ambivalent about human children, grows to love Liam very very much. The feeling is mutual. But just loving Liam is not enough; Max feels he must protect him from the world. Max, normally a happy-go-lucky dog, is now a bit of a nervous nelly. The behaviourist outfits him with a cone of shame, and then his owners pack him off to the farm. Oh gosh, not the proverbial farm, an actual farm, where he meets rough and tough farm dog Rooster (Harrison Ford), who is determined to cure him with tough love and hard work.

Meanwhile, back in the city, old friends are up to new tricks. Fuzzy bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart) is helping new pal Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) to, believe it or not, rescue a tiger from a circus. And sweet little fluffball Gidget (Jenny Slate) has her own little rescue mission going, and enlists Chloe the cat (Lake Bell) for her particular brand of expertise.

This movie caught me right in the feels on at least to parts: a) My sister had a lovely good boy, also named Max, who got a little “overprotective” during her pregnancy, and through the birth of her first child, and he had to go to the proverbial farm. We all miss him to this day. b) My own little Fudgie is himself a bit of a nervous nelly and is newly on anti-anxiety meds actually called Clomicalm. He is not yet calm, but he is definitely not unhappy. He mostly worries about stupid stuff like: am I posing with my toy in exactly the right way to impress Sean when he comes in? How about now? How bout now? Now? NOWWW????

And of course, as pet owners generally and dog lovers specifically, and people who are just plain old not monsters, you can’t help but melt a little when you recognize a bit of your own four legged friend up on the screen. When Daisy made her mad face, I saw my Herbie. And when Max learned how to howl, I heard my Bronx (though Bronx does more of an “Awuuuuu.”)

So no, it’s not a terrific film. But it’s a sweet film, a cute film, it’s the film I wanted to see tonight and I’m glad I did. Awuuuuuu.

I Am Mother

All that remains of humanity is a maternal droid and 63 000 human embryos. Following her directive, the Mother robot grows a baby and raises it, alone in some sort of bunker. Mother (Rose Byrne) seems programmed to repopulate the earth but is in no hurry to do it, so far working just one at a time, and in fact, stopping at just the one. Their bond is unique but not without warmth and nurturing (though it did make me think of those experiments of rhesus monkeys raised by wire “mothers” who would cling to and love them as long as they had literally any kind of padding).

I watch countless sci-fi movies and read many books more in the genre, but I never understand how or why humans think they deserve to save themselves – or rather, why, when failing to save themselves personally, they still feel so strongly about saving ‘humanity’ in general. It’s conceit, obviously, to think we can and should thwart the natural order of things. To defy our own extinction when the time comes. To watch countless plant and animal species become endangered and then disappear but continue to place ourselves above them. We’ve had a good long run at the top of the food chain and of course we’d like to extend that indefinitely, but everything must end, and we seem to be doing our best to hasten ours. But when actually faced with the consequences of our footprint on the earth, our best fictional accounts continue to depict our self-importance.

When daughter (Clara Rugaard) reaches early adulthood, she’s been reading a lot about our kind, and even though Mother warns her of the toxicity outside the bunker’s doors, she can’t help but be curious as to what’s out there. It must be hard to imagine living among other people when you’ve never laid eyes on another. But it also seems part of our genetic makeup to want to be part of a pack, and a robot Mother will only cut it for as long as there’s no choice.

And then one day, choice comes knocking. A woman (Hilary Swank) bangs on an outer door. She’s wounded, shot, and is begging for access. Daughter lets her in, but there’s immediate tension between the Woman and the robot Mother. They’re telling VERY different stories about what’s going on in the outside world, and the droids’ role in everything. What motivation could Mother have for lying? But then again, we could say the same of Woman.

I Am Mother develops a striking sense of the creepy. There is lots of room for doubt, which fills the holes in our imagination. Which is good, because the setting is sparse. We’ve got one cold bunker, a constant interior shot that’s not going to vary. And Daughter’s interactions are against an imposing hunk of metal named Mother. It’s hard to act against a robot, and it’s hard for a robot to act. So it’s got a couple of strikes against it cinematically but much more going for it thematically, combining heaping helpings of Passengers and Ex Machina, with liberal sprinklings of Isaac Asimov for kick.

Apollo 13

The real Apollo 13 mission was largely ignored in 1970. People had already seen men walk on the moon twice before, so this just seemed like more of the same. Interest was so low that lots of news programs weren’t even broadcasting it. Until, that is, things went wrong.

An oxygen tank exploded, which crippled essential systems. The 3 astronauts aboard just had to hang out in an increasingly inhospitable ship as the NASA crew on the ground scrambled to get them home safely. The planned moon walk was of course aborted; they never landed on the moon, just orbited around it. Over the next few days, the spacecraft had limited power, a worrying loss of cabin heat, a shortage or drinkable water, and an urgent need to fix the carbon dioxide removal system or die trying.

America might have been bored with moon walks, but for astronaut Jim Lovell, it would be the culmination of his life’s ambition. It was not to be.

Ron Howard brought this story of NASA’s most successful failure to the big screen in 1995, and still thinks of it as his best film. In fact, he thinks the launch sequence is the highest point of his career, and he’s not wrong. Watching First Man more than 20 years later, it’s clear that Apollo 13 had a huge impact on movies that would follow it.

Jim Lovell thought that perhaps Kevin Costner had a passing likeness, but once Ron Howard signed on as director, he immediately sent the script to Tom Hanks, who is a known space buff. Bill Paxton portrayed Fred Haise, while Kevin Bacon got the role of Jack Swigert, who was never supposed to be there. He was only on the mission as a backup, but blood screening suggested that Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) might have the measles, and he was replaced last minute. Though this was an undoubtedly heartbreaking switch, it was Mattingly’s expertise on the ground that ultimately helped save his crewmates. He sat in the simulator for days, doing simulation after simulation until he could work out a way to rescue his friends.

The actors, or actornauts as Howard called them on set, floated around in $30K space suits. And yes, they really did float. Steven Spielberg suggested that Howard approached NASA for special permission to use its KC-135 airplane, and permission was granted. Dubbed the vomit comet, the plane climbs to 38 000 feet and then does a big 15 000 foot drop, creating a zero-gravity effect, but it only creates about 23 seconds of weightlessness. For the film’s production, they had the plane perform 612 dives, for a total of 54 minutes of footage. Even still, sometimes when you see the actors just bobbing around in their capsule, they’re actually just sitting on seesaws. Pretending to be in space is hard! [Note: the 3 actors were very proud to report that none of them vomited on the comet…but several cameramen could not say the same.]

It took them 6 days to get them safely home, and while America did not care about a third module landing on the moon, it became obsessed with the imperiled mission that may or may not return. Millions of people tuned in every night, and so did the friends and families of the astronauts on board. NASA didn’t have time to give them proper updates, so they, like everyone else, relied on Walter Cronkite to feed them information. Ron Howard brought Cronkite in to record a few extra reports.

Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise had of course appeared together the year before in Forrest Gump, where Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan says to Forrest: ” If you’re ever a shrimp boat captain, that’s the day I’m an astronaut.” Lo and behold. The movie is full of little Ron Howard nods: Kathleen Quinlan who plays Jim’s wife Marilyn, actually had her first ever screen credit in American Graffiti, in which she played Peggy, a girl complaining in a bathroom about her boyfriend Steve – who was of course played by Howard himself. He also found a role for Roger Corman, the producer who gave Ron his first big break in Grand Theft Auto. Ron’s mother, his father, his wife, and of course his brother all appear in the film. The real Marilyn Lovell is briefly seen in the grandstands at the launch, and the real Jim shakes hands with the fake Jim aboard the Iwo Jima.

Apollo 13 was well-received, and it holds up well almost 25 years later. There are lots of movies about astronaut heroes, but Apollo 13 sets itself apart by portraying the time when someone’s dream doesn’t come true. It takes a story whose outcome is known (and in fact infamous: “Houston, we have a problem”) and still makes it feel tense and compelling.

Chasing Happiness

I missed the Jonas Brothers Happening. I mean, I wasn’t exactly living under a rock, but I was disconnected from pop music. I was going through a rough divorce from a partner whose mental health was on the rocks. I was rebuilding my life from scratch, working hard to finance my fresh start. I was exhausted and exhilarated and my playlist was full of power anthems, a kick-ass score for my happy new life. I remember being in a movie theatre and the trivia before the movie had me guessing between a Jonas and a Bieber, and I was clueless. Although I knew of them, I hadn’t knowingly consumed either – though I knew I’d likely heard their songs in malls or cabs if not clubs – and couldn’t name a song, or a brother. And then just as I was sticking my head up above the sand, the brothers were no more. Well, bands dissolve more readily than blood, but Jonas Brothers was over, and soon enough each Jonas was hitting the radio individually, which made it marginally easier to keep track of them.

Chasing Happiness is streaming now on Amazon Prime; it’s about Jonas Brothers reforming as a band now that they’re adults. A lot of shit went down, which they are surprisingly candid about. I’m obviously not a fan, but their transparency and realness are readily apparent and it’s hard not to get sucked into their particular brand of rags to riches.

They were close growing up, and they were competitive too. Like any brothers anywhere. Or indeed sisters. My sisters and I get super competitive if we’re playing a board game or competing for Mom’s attention, but I guess we’re not talented enough to have Jonas-level game. We’re not even good at the same things. But those brothers are disgustingly talented; any one of them can sing 9 out of 10 top 40 artists right off the billboard any day of the week. And they’re for real: they play real instruments, they write their own songs. Even as kids they were writing their own songs. Fifteen year olds are pretty shitty song writers, but they were so earnest and industrious it’s hard not to admire them anyway.

Few people have experienced such meteoric fame, let alone so quickly, and at such a young age. It’s three literal dreams come true, but enormous pressure too. Their father was a pastor, and he lost his job when his sons chose rock and roll (trying hard not to snigger when I write that), and the family home too. So now these teenage boys are the bread winners for their family. Meanwhile the machine just keeps getting bigger and bigger until it feels unmanageable.

Anyway, even having no idea who these guys really are, I still really enjoy sitting in on their family therapy sessions. Their Christianity and sexuality were on constant display despite them being minors. The media scrutiny sometimes made them into a joke, and their seminal years were tainted sometimes by fear and paranoia. There are cracks in Jonas Brothers, and one of the brothers plugs the crack with a stick of dynamite and lights it up.

Kaboom. Other bands can implode and go their own ways. But these boys are actual family. It’s sad and fascinating and honest. Man. I felt their pain. There’s resentment and betrayal and heartbreak there. Still is. It’s intense. But I really admire their willingness to lay themselves bare. I’m fairly confident that no one reading this has walked in shoes like theirs. But anyone with siblings will relate to this. We’ve all felt that knife. I’ve felt that knife. And anyone whose life changed after kids will relate to this. Anyone who’s grown apart from a best friend will relate to this. Maybe just anyone with a pulse will relate to this. I’ve gone and surprised myself by giving a damn about the Jonas Bros. I think I’m actually recommending this guys. Colour me surprised.

Knives And Skin

Carolyn Harper makes out with a football player but when she pushes away his roaming hands, he leaves her alone in the woods and she’s never seen alive again. Her disappearance disrupts her high school and the entire community, as the disappearances of beautiful young white women often do.

In the aftermath of her disappearance, we watch things unravel for her friends, her fellow bandmates and classmates, her mother, and the well-intentioned but inexperienced local sheriff. More than that, though, we experience the way that grief accelerates the coming of age for a group of teenagers, which makes it rather obvious that their parents’ haven’t exactly completed the growing up process either.

Writer-director Jennifer Reeder creates a very atmospheric teen noir that pulls from a lot of sources but manages to be its very own thing. The closest thing I can compare it to is Twin Peaks for its eerie tone but believe me when I say Knives And Skin is its own gothic soup – a horror broth steeped with many surprising flavours. Reeder brings in familiar tropes and mixes them with haunting song and feminist references and the result is hard to categorize but fascinating to watch, even if it is uneven, a little long, and prone to meandering. If it occasionally feels a little piecey, it also feels dreamy, surreal. The story is less concerned about finding Carolyn than it is about exploring the various ways people feel trapped, and subtle reminders that escape is possible. Although it starts off with a dead girl in the woods, it subverts the expectations of that genre over and over with its confident female leads and the weaponization of sex. It’s like a parody, but self-aware and dead serious.

Reeder may value style over narrative, but Knives And Skin interesting, beautiful, and unforgettable.

 

 

Booksmart

It’s the last day of school, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are ready to bid high school goodbye. They’ve been serious students, buttoned down and focused, and their hard work has paid off: they’re off to Yale and Columbia respectively. But their pride is tamped down a little when they learn that that many of their classmates are also headed for the Ivies – this despite the fact that they rarely seemed studious, and made lots of time for parties and fun. “I’m incredible at hand-jobs but I also got a 1560 on the SATs,” says one.

Molly is particularly devastated; sure she’s the valedictorian, but did she sacrifice fun for nothing? She doesn’t want to show up at college in the fall a party virgin. Her whole worldview is sliding down a crap chute, and her instinct is to dive in after it. Luckily, they have one last night before graduation, and Amy’s departure for a summer of volunteering in Botswana. One night to make up for 4 years of skipping parties and feeling left out of the in-crowd. They set their sights on Nick’s party – the most effortlessly popular kid in school (played by Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding Jr).

The ladies do not get from point A to point B without boatloads (and sometimes they are literal boatloads) of shenanigans. This is Superbad, only because it’s girls, it’s much smarter. And it seems like this one night of trying to party teaches them more about themselves than the previous four years of high school. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?

The movie gets so much right even as we learn how much the girls have gotten wrong. Molly always assumed she was purposely excluded, but it turns out these kids are all too happy to greet her socially; her exile was self-imposed. How maddening, isn’t it, to discover that too late – and a good reminder for us all to check in with ourselves. How often do we impose our own limitations? Amy tackles her fears while Molly checks her ego, and her assumptions. The two women in the lead have amazing chemistry and it’s a lot of fun to witness the particular dynamic of their friendship. You and I know that college will test the bonds of their friendship, and inevitably change it if not crush it outright. They’re starting to have inklings that this might be so. So this last night out has some tangible pressure to it. Beanie Feldstein is a cinematic lantern, lighting up every screen she’s on, and lighting the way for others. Kaitlyn Dever is an excelling pairing for her, able to play off her energy in a more conservative and subdued way, while still holding her own.

Olivia Wilde tries out the director’s chair and seems to find it a pretty comfortable fit. She’s got an eye for letting actors do their thing; so much of the best bits feel spontaneous and are the best kind of weird. She’s also got an amazing feel for music – she introduces characters and themes with pop songs, and it really took me back. I bet most of us can come up with a soundtrack of our own high school experience. Music is such an important part of that time in our lives. I still surround myself by music constantly, but I will never again spend the day on my bedroom floor inhaling lyric booklets, or spend hours recording stuff off MTV like I did then. I know which songs I kissed to, slow-danced to, had sex to. Which ones we played on repeat as we drove recklessly and restlessly around parking lots doing donuts, which ones played at the diner as we split an order of fries, which ones we cried to when boys were mean to us, which ones accompanies us down the aisle at our own graduations and commencements. Wilde seems to have an intuitive sense of that, and I caught it.

There’s a theme in Booksmart that is hinted at but never spoken of: class. As in economic and social class. Molly points out the school’s 1% (Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo, whom Sean finds uproariously funny), but it’s clear that the Los Angeles high school as affluent as heck. Everyone, it seems, except for Molly. Not a single thing is ever said about it, but we see that she lives in an apartment building while everyone else has a McMansion, and her parents are absent from the film. So when Molly discovers that all her other classmates also got into good schools, she berates herself for having skipped the fun when she didn’t have to. But you and I know that she probably did: that kids like Molly have to earn their way in, but kids from rich families do not. They have legacy status, they know alumni who can pull strings. Their families donate money to schools. And, as we’ve seen in the news recently, they pay money to fake their way in on a little-used athletic scholarship or some other fraudulent means. College admissions are not the meritocracy we want to believe they are. There are very valid reasons why Molly worked so hard and others did not, even if the film never states them. So maybe Molly’s takeaway was to loosen up a bit, and experience life, which are not bad lessons. But for us, it’s a little bit more than that.

Even with these subtle layers, Booksmart never stops being fun. The cast is lively and diverse, the tropes are thankfully on the unexpected side, and the movie has a great pace. Plus it has an exception friendship at its centre. Just when you think we’ve said all there is to say about high school, Boomsmart is a charming, genuine and clever addition to the field.