Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Project Power

911 is being flooded with calls of very, very strange occurrences. People are having some very unusual reactions to a new drug they call Power. Everyone reacts differently to it, and some very badly. Police aren’t just powerless to stop it – some people can out-run cop cars on foot while taking it, others become bullet-resistant. Basically, you get some kind of super power, but it’s temporary, you don’t get to choose it, and sometimes it just kills you dead. As they say: results may vary.

Today this drug is toppling police precincts, tomorrow: governments. So one local cop, Frank, operates a little outside the bounds of his badge with a young drug dealer named Robin to get it off the street before it’s too late. Which may or may not line up with the intentions of a man named Art, an ex-military man who is rather single-mindedly looking for his daughter who is somehow mixed up in all of this.

Discerning individuals may already think this premise sounds interesting, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Perhaps you don’t need any further convincing, so this is just icing on the cake: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It seems like not very long ago we were lamenting his rather lengthy sabbatical from Hollywood, but he’s following up his return to film in 7500 with a far different turn as a dedicated but unorthodox New Orleans police officer. Once he teams up with super stubborn soldier dad Art (Jamie Foxx), you’ve got a combo you can’t take your eyes off of. But you will, because the third member rounding out their trio, Robin (Dominique Fishback), may have rap dreams, a sick mom, and unfinished math homework, but she holds her own between these fiercely driven men. This is a star-making role for Fishback, whose talents help set this film apart.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman serve up an adrenalized sci-fi action film that’s got some pretty slick and nearly non-stop violence binges. It hardly leaves room to catch your breath, let alone contemplate these characters and who they might be when they’re not chasing down Dr.Evil. Project Power is thrilling and engaging but it’s no Marvel: not everyone can afford the many phases and chapters of a cinematic universe. Most films, this one included, have just under 2 hours to tell a complete story. Project Power can only hint at themes like what is power, and who should wield it. Most of the time, Joost and Schulman choose action over narrative, and you can hardly blame them for it, given the tempting material. I do, however, blame them just a bit (and screenwriter Mattson Tomlin) for an embarrassing lack of imagination. Not one of their super powers is original; you will find each one has already been dreamed up by comic book writers 50 years ago. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun to watch someone ignite like a real-life human torch. I just wish we knew enough about the guy (Machine Gun Kelly, ugh) to appreciate what in his DNA or his personality is self-selecting this particular power and how finely it straddles the line between weaponized flame thrower and self-immolation.

An American Pickle

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that one day the hospital calls and tells you to come pick up your great-grandfather. The one that’s been dead for a hundred years. Yeah, that one. Herschel. It’s a Rip Van Winkle/Encino Man kind of thing. Just trust that the science is sound and poor Herschel’s been perfectly preserved in pickle juice this whole time, and has just now awoken. Enter his only living relative, Ben, who gamely picks him up and introduces him to 2020. The movie never pauses over the fact that Ben asks no questions, makes no deliberations, just makes room in his life and his home for a complete stranger who looks nearly identical to him, is his same exact age, but is from another time and place.

Herschel has a deep-rooted fear of Cossacks and his highest aspiration is to one day try seltzer water. Ben is an insecure app developer who just happens to own a soda stream. Both men are played by Seth Rogen. This is very much the Seth Rogen show. All of Herschel’s friends are dead, and Ben appears to be a loner. It’s double Seth and little else. Not that that’s a bad thing. In fact, it gives Rogen a chance to flex. When both characters are on screen, you can appreciate how fully he has created two separate and distinct portraits. It’s kind of impressive, actually.

The story uses the dual perspectives to weigh values like religion, duty, family, and legacy. Herschel has the can-do work ethic that, as an immigrant in search of a better life for his family, helps him pursue the American dream. Ben, Brooklyn born and bred, has lost touch with his roots and is apathetic toward his religion and ethnicity. Sometimes we marvel that our ancestors were bold enough to relocate to foreign lands, leaving behind family, familiarity, culture, language, memories and possessions, with no guarantee that anything would ever be better. And sometimes we wonder if those ancestors who risked life traveling over rough seas and blazed actual paths through unyielding lands did it so that we could stay in bed all day binge-watching Bravo. This is probably not the future they envisioned when they risked it all. But while you and I may have a vague feeling that the past would be disappointed by the present, Ben is confronted with that feeling very, very viscerally. His name is Herschel, and he gives zero fucks.

The Last Full Measure

Retired Master Sergeant Thomas Tully (William Hurt) picks a bad day to visit Scott (Sebastian Stan) at his office. Scott’s boss has just quit unexpectedly, and with an election looming, it’s likely that Scott will soon be out of a job. So yes, Scott’s been shuffling Tully’s paperwork around on his desk for months now, but today wasn’t super ideal in terms of bringing it to his attention. Tully gets the brush off, has been getting it in some form or another for more than 30 years.

Tully fought in the Vietnam war, and he’s asking for a decorations review, an upgrade from the Cross to a Medal of Honor, not for himself, but for a comrade who didn’t come back, a young man named Pitsenbarger, known as Pits. On a particularly bloody day of the war, Operation Abilene, one company was used pretty much as bait, and before the sun set they’d taken 80% casualties all on that single day. And the only reason the other 20% survived was because of Pits, a man who didn’t need to be there, and wasn’t part of the operation. He was Air Force, part of pararescue. He and his unit were hovering in their helicopter trying to evacuate soldiers when he assessed the situation and acted. He went down. We went down because the company had already lost their medic and were taking an awful lot of fire. There were wounded everywhere. It was a miracle that he survived the descent, but what he did on land was even more remarkable.

Except his actions had only posthumously been awarded a Cross when the grateful survivors had put him up for an MOH. They were still pursuing it this many years later, hoping to commemorate all he had done for men he didn’t even know.

Scott’s in a tricky position career-wise and gets sent to check out this story. He interviews the survivors, many of them reluctant, all of them haunted (including Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, and Ed Harris). And he visits the Pitsenbarger family, finding parents (Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd) still grieving their son. This assignment may have started as a way to run out the clock on his former position, but as he begins to comprehend the black hole of bureaucracy that this simple request has suffered, he becomes more committed to seeing in through. It’s about more than acknowledging the sacrifice made by The Pitsenbarger family, it’s a balm on the psychic wounds of the people he saved. The Vietnam war in particular offered so little to its returning vets that this was really their last avenue for healing their emotional scars.

Writer-director Todd Robinson’s film is earnest, safe, and sensitive. It’s also true. It very carefully toes the tricky path of celebrating the contributions of those who served without condoning the war itself. But more than that, it serves as a reminder of a war that may have fallen away from public consciousness but is still serving aftershocks to those who narrowly survived and to the families of those who did not.

Work It

Netflix has been delivering a steady stream of movies for young adults, and for the most part they can be sorted into two broad categories: dance, and the insanely high standards of college admissions. Every generation has a teenage dance movie. My mom had Footloose and Dirty Dancing; I grew up with Save The Last Dance and Bring It On, and Netflix has recently served the likes of Feel The Beat, which failed to get my toes tapping. Am I simply getting too old? I’m definitely feeling sorry for young people who have spawned the second teenage trope: the pressure to be perfect. And as Quinn discovers in Work It, sometimes being perfect isn’t enough. In fact, her dream school seems on the verge of rejecting her for being too good. First we exchange childhood for resume-building, time-sucking extra-curriculars, and now we fault them for it?

Quinn (Sabrina Carpenter) really wants to go to Duke. Or her mom really wants her to go to Duke. Or her dead dad really wants her to go to Duke. She’s assembled the perfect college admissions application, and now it’s both not enough but also too much and in any case, she doesn’t get early acceptance. The admissions officer isn’t impressed with all the perfectly checked boxes. She wants to see fire and passion and a willingness to disrupt. Rule following, Quinn is clearly not inclined to any of those things but she is surprisingly good at thinking on her feet and comes up with this juicy little lie: she claims to be on her high school’s nationally ranked dance squad, the Thunderbirds (as seen on Ellen!) (clearly this script was written before Ellen’s big fall from grace). Now all she has to do is make her lie the truth. Fool proof, right?

In fact, Quinn’s best friend Jasmine (Liza Koshy) is on that very dance team, aiming to be a professional dancer. She quite selflessly devotes hours to turning rhythmless Quinn into someone worthy of a Thunderbirds audition. There’s only one open spot on the dance team, and no matter how much dance-cramming Quinn does in the next 2 weeks, she’s never going to earn it even if captain Julliard (Keiynan Lonsdale) didn’t harbour a huge grudge against her, which he totally does. So wannabe disrupter Quinn forms her own dance team, claiming Jasmine as its captain and a bunch of other single-skilled classmates as filler on an already extremely lean team. Jasmine is obviously the world’s bestest friend ever and also incredibly stupid. She has single-mindedly pursued dance, has no fall-back whatsoever, and has now left the team that will guarantee the right scouts see her. Luckily Quinn is resourceful. She tracks down an old champ with something left to prove – Jake (Jordan Fisher) will make an excellent choreographer if only she can coax him out of hiding.

I feel like this movie should have annoyed the shit out of me like so many of its recent predecessors, but the truth is, it’s got some very likable leads in roles that feel grounded and more fully-realized than many similar movies have bothered with. I am not its target demographic but I suspect Work It is about to enjoy a wider audience because it gets the basics right and has personality even though it’s fairly predictable. Dance isn’t going to magically save anyone’s patootie but Work It does make a case for making a little time in all that parent-driven future-planning to just enjoy something for enjoyment’s sake. This generation are perhaps the least rebellious teenagers the world has ever seen. Their youth is micro-managed and filled to the point of bursting with activities and carefully curated recreation but no real leisure. If we’ve learned one thing from this pandemic, it’s that maybe slowing down a bit is not such a bad thing. It’s not going to be dance for everyone – maybe it’s even watching a dance movie on Netflix – but taking time out and time off are so important for well-being, and the pursuit of true passions is what replenishes us when the grind has been too much.

Almost Love

IMDB describes this film as ‘An ensemble comedy about romance in the smartphone era’ which, if you read my review of Jexi, you’ll know made me want to find the nearest toilet and throw my phone right in, but since that thing knows my contacts AND my passwords, I just punched myself in the face instead. But I still watched the movie, through two swollen black eyes.

And I’m glad I did. Had you not read this description, you never would have paid much attention to the phones. They are, as in most people’s experience, simply an accessory to our daily lives. This is how we live now; they are as omnipresent as Ubers and pumpkin spice lattes and Donald Trump’s nonsensical tweets.

A group of grown-up friends in NYC is figuring shit out in life and love. It’s like Friends, if Rachel fell in love with a minor, Monica fucked a homeless dude, and Chandler made counterfeit paintings. Roughly speaking.

Haley (Zoe Chao) is trying to disentangle herself from a dependency situation of her own making; Cammy (Michelle Buteau) is realizing that the dating pool is so dire her deal breakers are surprisingly few; Marklin (Augustus Prew) is too busy carefully curating his Instagram posts to notice his actual life is a whole lot messier; Adam (Scott Evans) has so much suppressed rage it’s manifesting in physical blows; and Elizabeth (Kate Walsh) has for so long been the mascot for love in her circle of friends she’s having a hard time telling them she’s getting a divorce. When life isn’t perfect, do you lower your standards? Your expectations?

Mike Doyle writes and directs this low-key comedy, which works about as often as it doesn’t. Well, “doesn’t” is unfair. It’s more like: moments of thoughtful introspection, moments of surprisingly zany comedy, and moments that are achingly predictable. All elevated by a talented cast, the stand-out being Buteau, who I’ve seen stealing scenes in several Netflix movies now, and was glad to finally hold on to for more than just a few minutes at a time.

This movie kind of snuck up on me. I was enjoying it in a modest sort of way but then the end was somehow more than the sum of its parts. Love is hard. Life is hard. Everyone just wants to be seen, and when a film can reflect back your neuroses, your insecurities, your pettiest resentments without making you feel small or unfit, when it knows that finding true love, be they friends or be they lovers, means finding someone who sees the good and the bad and loves the whole package, then I think that movie has done its job.

Black Is King

The Lion King live action remake got one thing right: it remembered that it is primarily an African story. To be fair, it was likely the Broadway show that did this for them, but Jon Favreau had the presence of mind to follow their lead and cast actual black actors in the important speaking parts. The Disney cartoon from 1994 wasn’t motivated by authenticity and we as a culture failed to keep them honest. So when Favreau chose only one returning voice actor to serve as a link between the two films, James Earl Jones was both the obvious and the best choice. His is the voice of wisdom that runs throughout both films, but the 2019 version backs that shit up with a stellar cast that is as talented as they are representative: Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Kani, Alfre Woodard, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Chance the Rapper, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Florence Kasumba, Eric André. But none were chosen more carefully or more brilliantly than our Simba and Nala, Donald Glover and Beyoncé; they aren’t just black actors but recent symbols of owning one’s blackness. If the The Lion King remake justifies itself at all, it’s by putting those two front and centre, sending a powerful message of just who should be King and Queen.

Black Is King is a visual album from genius multi-hyphenate Beyoncé. It reimagines the lessons of The Lion King for today’s young kings and queens in search of their own crowns. It is a love letter to her African roots while celebrating Black families.

Beyoncé is the undisputed Queen of Pop. Her ascension must have come with a lot of racism, overt and covert, attached – she would have been accused of exploiting her culture while also being asked to suppress it – problems the likes of Pink and Madonna and Lady Gaga never considered let alone experienced. This system seems to have caused or at least contributed to the internalized hatred of his race in her counterpart, King of Pop, Michael Jackson. And yet Beyoncé has not just transcended the challenges to her skin tone and hair texture, she has come out on the other side a powerful and vocal advocate for anti-racism. For many of us, the change in her was undeniable at the 2016 Super Bowl, a performance dubbed “unapologetically black,” incorporating dancers in Black Panther berets performing black power salutes, arranging themselves into the letter “X” for Malcolm, a homemade sign demanding “Justice for Mario Woods”, and Beyoncé’s own costume, said to be a tribute to Michael Jackson. The performance reflected the modern civil rights movement Black Lives Matter and handed us her rallying cry in the song Formation, which references slogans such as “Stop shooting us”, riot police, the shamefully neglectful official response to Hurricane Katrina which demonstrated that poor, predominantly black lives were clearly deemed not to matter. “I like my baby hair and afros. I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils, ” she sang, offering an education in the Black American experience.

Beyoncé has always been a proud African-American woman and artist. She pursued movie roles in Dream Girls and Cadillac Records. Her wondrously thick thighs became politicized in her Crazy In Love video. There were criticisms with racial undertones when she headlined Glastonbury in 2011. She sang At Last to the Obamas for their inauguration dance. She and fellow Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland started a charity to help Katrina survivors. Husband Jay-Z has been critical of the injustice of the profitable bail bond industry, with over 400,000 people who have not been convicted of a crime incarcerated simply because they can’t afford bail, often set at less than 5K. Beyoncé didn’t suddenly discover her blackness in 2016. Whether the political climate pushed her over the edge, or becoming a mother to her own Black daughter did it, or she realized that her success and popularity gave her immunity, Beyoncé started using her voice and her platform quite blatantly, and quite brilliantly. There are few people in the world with her kind of power, and she’s been able to snatch back the Black narrative from the fringes and help spotlight it centre stage. But it was also a risk to have her name synonymously linked with black rights, but as she states rather directly in this film, “Let black be synonymous with glory.” If 2016’s Super Bowl half time show was her coming out party, her 2018 Coachella performance cemented her mythic, iconic status. As the first black woman to headline the festival, her show was explicitly black, triumphantly black. Look no further than her documentary Homecoming to see how deliberately, lovingly, boldly she created every element in her show to be marinated in cultural meaning. She didn’t just pay homage to those who came before her, she used her two hour set to unpack a lesson in black music history. She literally used her platform to honour and recognize black art; the performance was a revelation to the predominantly privileged white audience of Coachella, but it created a real moment in time that reached into the hearts and souls of those could fully appreciated it. Having already achieved pop royalty status, Beyonce is free to make the strong personal and political statements that have defined her career ever since. Her success is no longer measured by mere radio plays; freed from having to abide by what makes her white audience comfortable, she and Jay-Z are reigning from a throne of their own making. She no longer has to shrink or contain her blackness and it’s clearly been a boon to her creativity and craft. Black Is King follows in the footsteps of Lemonade, defiantly blazing her own path, and returning to the African desert that clearly still calls her name.

This visual album is of course an occular and audible delight. It jumps off from The Lion King, swapping lions for Black men and women. It highlights the extremely varied beauty of the African landscape, and of its people. There are set pieces in here where you can readily imagine the ka-ching of literally millions of dollars spent per second of film.

The Gift, Beyoncé’s Lion King-inspired album, takes us beyond Disney’s version of Hollywood’s Africa. Her original contribution to the film’s soundtrack, Spirit, is a gospel-charged anthem, but she didn’t stop there. She found up-and-coming African artists, songwriters, and producers to join her on the album, creating an international vibe with a strong and undeniable heartbeat.

The accompanying film is stuffed with imagery, implication, poetry and practice that feels like such an intimate declaration of love and admiration that I watched on the verge of a constant blush. Even Kelly Rowland felt it, being the recipient of Beyoncé’s sincere serenade, breaking the beaming eye contact with an overwhelmed giggle.

The visual album exists to toast beauty, observe beauty, create beauty, memorialize it. But a visual album from Beyoncé is to define and redefine it, to find beauty in new or forgotten spaces it, to celebrate a spectrum of beauty, to infuse it with ideas of culture and identity, to own it, to actually physically own it. And for that reason, I almost wish I could watch it at half speed. There are so many lavish tableaus set with precision and abundance but only glimpsed for a second or two; I want so badly to just live in that moment, to possess and savour it a minute longer.

And like a true Queen, she steps aside and allows herself to be upstaged by African collaborators, like Busiswa from South Africa, Salatiel from Cameroon and Yemi Alade and Mr Eazi from Nigeria. This album is a show of solidarity, an act of unity. She places herself among them, among the ancient beats and contemporary sound.

A thousand words in, dare I only broach the subject of fashion now? The sheer quantity of couture from Queen B is nearly numbing, except each look is so bold and unique you do your best to keep up to the dazzling, nonstop parade: Valentino, Burberry, Thierry Mugler, Erdem. But also a barage of Black designers from around the world, curated diligently and I’d guess rather exhaustively by Beyonce’s longtime stylist, Zerina Akers: D.Bleu.Dazzled, Loza Maléombho, Lace by Tanaya, Déviant La Vie, Jerome Lamaar, Duckie Confetti, Melissa Simon-Hartman, Adama Amanda Ndiaye…you get the picture. It’s MAJOR, every one of them re-imagining a wardrobe fit for an African Queen, their number so plentiful that no one garment or gown overpowers the beauty of their canvas: brown skin.

Beyoncé surrounds herself with Black beauties, including Naomi Campbell, Adut Akech, and Lupita Nyong’o, but also her own mother, Tina Knowles Lawson, and daughter Blue Ivy. Her family is often presented as a symbol of her strength, young twins Rumi and Sir making appearances as well, equating “kingship” with engaged fatherhood.

There is so much to unpack in this film, from the frenzied and joyous dancing of black bodies, to their posing as sculpture on pedestals, to the recreation of moments from her own storied career, there is more here than I can enumerate let alone appreciate. Like the star herself, Beyoncé’s concept of blackness is a hyphenate of her ancestral lands and the country of her birth. It’s an amalgamation of black art and black history and a vision of black power, of ethnic and cultural splendor. And what a time to have dropped it, in a world where white people are just now opening their eyes to the racial injustice and inequality that has yoked people of colour for centuries, where black bodies are being discriminated against at best, black minds suppressed, black art appropriated, black experienced denied. And here is a woman who could easily coast on her laurels but instead is serving her people by framing the Black experience not only in a positive light, but a powerful and empowering one. Black Is King is not a cure for racism, not even a vaccine, but it may just be the booster shot of pride we all need right now.

Double World

This movie is a little hard to describe. It’s definitely fantasy – hard to distinguish if it’s an ancient civilization (with sporadic impressive technology), some post-apocalyptic but rebuilt future, or just an alternate universe, but in any case, picture ancient China but let’s call it two basic nations: north and south. The north and the south are predisposed to war against each other of course, but there’s been 10 years of peace up until this recent kerfuffle. The kerfuffle has necessitated the 10 neighbouring clans to each send a team of 3 to establish the very best warriors, who will be declared the grand marshals for the coming war. The clan where we’re embedded has few people volunteering for the likely deadly positions, so when Dong Yilong (Henry Lau) throws his hat in the ring, he’s immediately approved, even though he’s literally strung up by the ankles during this meeting, having only moments before been caught for stealing and about to be executed. No one in the village would miss him. Known as The Bastard, he’s always been an outsider, and his clan sees him as expendable if not worthy. The next volunteer is known as The Deserter (Peter Ho) because he was the sole survivor in the last war. These two (yes, there’s a third, but let’s not get too attached to him) set out toward what promises to be an extra bloody competition, but the road there is also filled with peril. The Bastard has nothing but a broken comb, the only thing left to him by his mother who died in childbirth, and The Deserter carrying a broken spear that returned from him from the last battle.

If the plot sounds confusing, don’t worry. This movie is all about the action. If you’re here for anything else, you’ve got the wrong film. But as an action adventure fantasy, it’s pretty much everything you could want. First off: nonstop action. They don’t wait until they get to the war games, they encounter lots of danger from lots of sources before they even get to the part that’s supposed to be the challenge. And in fact, we meet Dong Yilong as he’s being pursued for theft. So: An Aladdin-style pursuit, a near-execution, a giant Scorpion thingie that’s definitely learned some tricks from Tremors, and a sandstorm that could stop a horse, but not the intrepid young woman (Chenhan Lin) who’s destined to be their third (the generic, unnamed member of the original trio has no backstory and no special possession, so you know he’s not going to make it to the end, but he barely even makes it through the beginning!).

And that’s just the cost of travelling! The actual warrior competition is going to involve shackles, impalings, a ferocious puppy, and a beast who makes dragons look like mosquitoes. Plus some supernatural shit for good measure.

The fight choreography is gorgeous, the CG is flawless, and the action’s non-stop. We went in with low expectations and were pleasantly surprised by a fun watch that helped curb those summer blockbuster cravings.

Banana Split

When something is billed simply as a “Dylan Sprouse comedy,” you adjust your expectations accordingly. Many people will know Dylan and his twin brother Cole as the stars of Disney channel’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. I am not those people. Since I’m old as fuck, I know them as the kids who played opposite Adam Sandler in Big Daddy. They’re grown up now, arguably too grown up (28) to be playing a high school student, but in the great tradition of Hollywood, it is what it is.

A happy surprise though: this is not a Dylan Sprouse comedy. He’s in it, but he’s not exactly the focus.

An even happier surprise: though this is the second movie about high school sweethearts headed for college on opposite coasts released by Netflix this weekend, Banana Split is a lot more palatable than The Kissing Booth 2.

April (Hannah Marks) and Nick (Sprouse) have spent their last two high school years as a couple, half of it desperately in love and in sync, and the latter half bickering and growing apart. Still, it’s a blow when they’re accepted to schools so far apart. They break up, and it seems their last summer at home will be spent in separate corners, licking wounds, mending hearts, and sharing custody of mutual friend Ben (Luke Spencer Roberts).

But Ben throws an unexpected wild card into the mix: Clara (Liana Liberato). Clara and April hit it off immediately. They’re kindred spirits, destined for instant best friendship. Clara is the sunny antidote to April’s funk. There’s just one little wrinkle: April’s not the only one to fall for Clara. So does Nick. Nick and Clara are dating, so to preserve the friendship between the two women, they agree on some rules, mostly consisting of not talking about Nick, and not telling Nick about their relationship.

It works for a while. But more importantly, the story works. It works because the script is good. While The Kissing Booth 2’s characters are the exact same age, their antics are fairly juvenile, the film aimed a much younger target audience. Banana Split, however, is much saucier, and comes with an R rating. I always have a soft spot for teenage girls who talk like salty sailors because I was one, and I get them. I get bonding over rap lyrics and driving tests and the mysteries of corned beef (I have LITERALLY ranted about corned beef my whole life. Corned beef? Exactly how is something corned and why on earth would you want it to be? Diiiiiiisgusting).

Anyhow, this movie caught me off guard. Marks wrote it along with Joey Power and gives it an authentic flavour. This may be a Gen Z comedy, but April and Clara’s friendship is timeless and I love a script bold enough to write toward it and not treat it like it’s the side piece. Bravo.

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado

Why watch a documentary about a man you’ve never heard of? Do you really need to learn “more” when you know nothing?

To be fair: millions of people DO know his name. He was the world’s #1 astrologer for decades, but because he broadcasted mostly in Spanish, he never made it into my home or into my cultural lexicon (and to be super fair, I can’t name a single English or French speaking one either; astrology just isn’t my thing).

Whether you know his name or not, you should probably check out this documentary. He is indeed a curious character. Lin-Manuel Miranda describes him as dramatic and fabulous, and in Mercado’s case, those are vast understatements.

Androgynous? Asexual? Those are not words people used in Puerto Rico in 1969, when he got his start, nor are they words Walter Mercado uses even today. Labels? He’s not above them – he’s beyond them. Today Mercado resembles a cross between Julie Andrews, Joan Rivers, and Sean’s recently deceased Granny. His wardrobe isn’t so much a cross between Liberace and Elvis as a one-upmanship of both, with a touch of Siegfried & Roy, and a cape collection that would make Lando Calrissian cry. He admits to “a little arrangement” when it comes to plastic surgery, and some botox “like Nicole Kidman.”

Mercado has an origin story to rival a super hero’s, a primo sidekick in faithful assistant Willy (who warns us not to get too bitchy with him), a legendary catch phrase, and a super power. Unfortunately, he’s also got a nemesis because every story worth telling has a villain. And if Walter has a kryptonite, it would be trust.

Trusting his business manager Bill Bakula was his downfall. They battled in court rather than in Gotham, but there were hits, there were injuries, there was damage. Neither had a mother named Martha.

At times known as a miracle-worker, a magician, a psychic, and a sorcerer, most remember him simply as a source of inspiration. Mercado knew there was power in positivity and his horoscopes gave people a reason to believe in themselves. His fandom has keenly felt his absence and many in the community would champion a reboot of the Mercado franchise but not all super heroes are meant to rise again (especially not when their jewel-encrusted capes weigh more than 30lbs).

This is a fascinating documentary, well told, and well worth the time. Mercado is quite a character, and if he is a Hispanic hero, this movie is his legacy.

Father Soldier Son

Let’s be real: this documentary is a super duper emotional watch.

We’re going to get to know the Eisch family over the next decade of their lives, but when we meet them, dad Brian is deployed to Afghanistan while sons Isaac, 12, and Joey, 7, live with uncle Shawn since their mother is out of the picture. The kids are proud of their dad, they think of him as a super hero, but they not only miss him, they worry about him. They’re young but they understand the consequences of his job.

In fact, Brian does return injured. He nearly lost his leg, so the dad they get back is not the same one that left them. He can’t do the camping and fishing and outdoorsy stuff that they used to enjoy together, but he’s also struggling just to be a loving and attentive father. War sucks.

Brian is lucky; besides having some very helpful relatives, he finds love again, a saintly and patient woman who’s willing to abide his mood swings and care for his children as she cares for her own. Brian’s pain is such that he finally agrees to an amputation, but healing post-surgery isn’t as swift as he’d hoped and his prosthetic the answer to all his problems. As depression sets in, a war video game becomes his sole focus. Brian is grappling with his new limitations and his sons are adapting to a family constantly reacting to the aftershocks of war.

Directors Catrin Einhorn and Lesley Davis capture some truly stunning and intimate family moments. Brian of course goes through some major transformations mentally and physically, but I found the young sons to be much more compelling. And remember: we’re with them for an entire decade. We literally watch them grow up, something they perhaps do a little too quickly. Juvenile ideals of patriotism and valour melt into questioning the real cost of war and whether it’s really worth it. As hard as it is to hear a 7 year old say “You shot my dad, I kill you,” it’s even harder to watch him learn the true meaning of sacrifice.

The Eisch home matches their wardrobe completely: plaid and American flags adorn both. Brian coaches his sons to “be tough” and to hold back their tears. Meanwhile, he’s wrestling with his own sense of masculinity, purpose, and self-determination. He’s a third generation soldier who’s no longer mission ready. Is the fourth generation destined to walk in his boots, or has this family paid enough?

This family portrait is painted with generational tragedy but it’s not asking for sympathy. It’s serving real, raw moments of joy and sorrow and we are their solemn witness.