Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Ralph Breaks the Internet

For the life of me I cannot get the title of this movie right.  I’m so used to Wreck-It Ralph wrecking stuff, not breaking it.  So I’m trying to adjust to this relatively small change, but it’s been tough, and that must mean I’m getting old.

In related news, my knee started hurting this week for no reason at all.  Granted, it worked out just fine because I used my knee pain as a convenient excuse to storalph-breaks-the-internet5p cleaning the kitchen and start playing Red Dead Redemption 2, but still.  Making me feel even older is that I just learned it has been six full years since Wreck-It Ralph was released and I never would have guessed it had been so long.

Just like in the real world, six years have passed for Ralph (John C. Reilly), Princess Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) and the rest of the gaming gang, who have all settled into comfortable routines inside Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade.  Sure, the routine may be a little boring, but Ralph is happy with his predictable days and nights, wrecking (sorry, breaking) Fix-It Felix’s building by day, and hanging out with Vanellope at night.  Vanellope, on the other hand, feels trapped by her routine, having mastered the three available race tracks in her game.  When Ralph tries to alleviate Vanellope’s boredom by building a new track, things get both wrecked and broken, and Ralph and Vanellope are forced to explore the arcade’s newly-installed internet in search of a new steering wheel for Vanellope’s game.

Of all the things in the world besides my knee (which is feeling much better, thanks for asking, though if Jay asks tell her I need a few more days off to fully recover), there is probably nothing that makes me feel older than not knowing any of the memes that have come out in the last decade, except for the select few that Jay has taught me about after realizing I had no idea that (insert hilarious meme) was a thing.  And, as you may have guessed, there are a lot of memes referenced in Ralph Breaks the Internet.  The nice thing is, I felt like Ralph (with some minor help from the creative team) went out of his way to ensure I didn’t feel old for not knowing that (bee puns) were a thing.  Ralph simply made me laugh at his bee pun, and at all of his aprincesses4ttempts to help Vanellope get her new steering wheel.

Ralph’s antics would have made for a decent sequel just on their own, but Ralph wasn’t alone.  Every one of the supporting players in Ralph Breaks the Internet make their own contribution to the comedy.   I was particularly impressed at how the Disney princesses were incorporated, not (just) as a shameless product placement but as a way to teach Vanellope about her hidden princess talents.

The only criticism I might make is that the movie probably included a few too many characters and references, and ends up a bit long as a result.   But don’t ask me what I would have cut out, because everything that’s here is consistently good and often great.  Ralph Breaks the Internet is a very clever and accessible comedy that will provide plenty of laughs for everyone, regardless of age and regardless of whether you’ve ever heard of a screaming goat.  What a wonderfully comforting thing that is (the accessible comedy, not the goat’s screams).  It made me feel young again, a feeling that should last until my next random ache.  Meaning I may need to see this one again very soon.

 

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When Lambs Become Lions

Northern Kenya is a very dangerous place for elephants.  Hell, maybe there’s no safe place on Earth for an animal whose front teeth are worth more on the black market than my whole body, but Northern Kenya is particularly deadly ground.  Every day, the elephants are stalked by poachers, who in turn are pursued by park rangers.  But it’s hardly a fair fight when the park rangers haven’t been paid by the government for months, while the poachers stand to make more from one elephant than the rangers have made in the past year.When+Lambs+Become+Lions

When Lambs Become Lions documents the ongoing battle between poachers and rangers from a very interesting perspective: it follows two family members on opposite sides of the fight and shoots the heart of the action, as poachers pursue elephants and as rangers pursue poachers.   Because of its dual focus, When Lambs Become Lions manages not to take sides or judge these relatives as they try to provide for their families.  That is a useful perspective because really, the poachers aren’t the true reason for elephants’ status as an endangered species.  The poachers are the tool of the ivory dealers, and both exist because many of the world’s rich people want to pay lots of money for tusks.  Those people are the villains here.  The poachers are simply trying to get ahead rather than living day-by-day doing whatever odd jobs can be found.

As a result of the film’s judgment-free, up-close approach, When Lambs Become Lions feels more like a narrative feature than you’d expect.  I was curious to see how the story would end and enjoyed the twists and turns along the way.  As it turns out, poachers and rangers are not like oil and water.   They mix, they intermingle, and they can at time seven switch from one side to the other.  Even though rangers are authorized (and expected) to shoot poachers on sight, there’s a respect for their opponents’ circumstances and humanity that feels so very foreign, quaint, and refreshing in contrast to the western ultra-partisan, hyper-adversarial approach to conflict.

What’s the cause of those differing attitudes to one’s ideological opponents? Is it that we’ve had it too good for too long to remember what it’s like to make hard choices to survive?  Are we afraid to engage with those who have different opinions than ours?  Why can’t we see past those differences that are so minor in comparison to the divide between than these two relatives, one of whom is expected to feed the other to crocodiles when both are on duty?  I’m not sure but it’s something for us to figure out because, like rangers say about poachers, that story is unlikely to have a happy ending.

 

Marks of Mana

According to Samoan legend, two goddesses intended to give tattoos, traditionally called “tatau”, to the Samoan women, but on their long swim to Samoa from Fiji the goddesses got confused and gave tattoos to men instead.  Marks of Mana offers a look at a number of women who are now reclaiming the art of tatau for themselves as well as for the memories of their ancestors, and reporting these tattooing ceremonies as being a life-changing experience.marks of mana

This documentary begins in Samoa, naturally, as we meet a female chief and her family of seven (grown) children.  One of her five daughters is about to get her malu, which is a thigh tattoo only for women that is both a coming-of-age moment and a ceremonial recognition and affirmation of a woman’s connection to her ancestry.  Meeting this family emphasizes the historical standing of women to Samoa’s indigenous people, as equals and leaders rather than as less than men.  Similar longstanding “progressive” attitudes are on display at other South Pacific locations as well, such as Papua New Guinea, as it’s a consistent theme that women’s tattoos signify their knowledge and power within their societies.

Of course, the power that women traditionally possessed in those societies was suppressed, stymied and rejected by the island’s colonizers, who saw no problem with imposing their backwards, misogynistic cultures on the Samoans.  The absurdity of that transaction and the colonizers’ arrogance in forcing their values on the Samoans and others is subtly displayed by this film in each of its segments, and nicely displaces the false narrative that colonizers were welcomed by the colonized because they improved the colonized societies with their intrusion.

The version of Marks of Mana shown to me was unfinished (the main omissions were subtitles and one segment out of five).  Having seen the work in progress, I am eager to see the finished product because what has been created so far is a valuable, enlightening and uplifting look at the ceremonial aspect of Polynesian tattoos and the healing power of reclaiming one’s cultural traditions.

Marks of Mana is screening as part of Toronto’s ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival on October 19, 2018 at 11 a.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Seder-Masochism

When director Nina Paley’s father was on his deathbed, she and he had conversation about Passover that turned into a discussion about her long-ago decision to drop out of college to pursue her art, and how he wished she would have found a way to increase her savings.  It strikes me as a typical conversation between a father and daughter, particularly a Jewish father and daughter.  But it becomes much less typical when animated into a conversation between seder masochisma bearded dollar bill and a goat.  Those pieces form the heart of Seder-Masochism, a unique look at the story of Exodus from the perspective of a couple lapsed Jews.

In between, the story of Moses is told as a musical, with the Jews dancing their way through oppression in Egypt and then chaos in the desert to a collection of toe-tapping classics, one of which, naturally, is “Go Down Moses”.  Underlying the whole thing is the reality that in escaping from under the Pharaoh’s thumb, the Jewish patriarchy remained a source of oppression for women.  Paley admits that she had no idea how to seder masochism 2resolve the conflict between the Jewish God and the goddesses, but she does an excellent job of highlighting that conflict in the sunniest way possible.

The animation, all done by Paley, is unbelievably cheerful and bright, contrasting in every way with the subject matter.   That cheery art style, combined with the upbeat soundtrack, ends up making the film feel even darker as we see these awful events depicted as if in a Saturday morning cartoon, enhanced with the largely upbeat (and unlicensed) music.  Paley was up front about not having paid for the music in order to keep costs down while using the songs that best fit her vision.  The strongest scenes from the film, though, are those featuring the conversation between Paley and her father, as they are funny and starkly honest at the same time.

Whether or not you know anything about Judaism or Exodus, Seder Masochism is a well-made, charming, and surprisingly personal film.  And once Paley has completed the festival circuit this fall, she plans on making this movie available for free, so you’ll soon be able to see Seder Masochism yourself even if you aren’t able to catch it on the festival circuit.

This Magnificent Cake!

There’s a definite trend toward using gimmicks to give depth to films, and it’s particularly prevalent in animated movies.  These days, almost everything is available in 3D, and often for new releases it’s hard to find a screening that’s NOT in 3D.  This Magnificent Cake! (Ce Magnifique Gateau!) is not in 3D but in no danger whatsoever of feeling two dimensional.  ThereCMG_concert is so much texture here, you’ll want to pet the screen.

The texture comes from the animators’ use of felt and yarn for basically everything you will see on screen.  Co-creators Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels have ensured that the characters, the animals, and even the water are fuzzy.  All the texture will captivate you throughout the film’s short 45 minute run time.  Every frame is packed with a ton of details and textures for the viewer to notice and absorb.  So even if you are lost in the narrative, which will happen due to its nature, you never mind all that much and are happy to just absorb what’s on screen.  The animation is incredible, and I would say that the visuals are the main reason that This Magnificent Cake! was the Grand Prize Winner (Best Feature) at the 2018 Ottawa Inter
national Animation Festival
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The narrative is easy to get lost in because it’s left to the viewer to determine what is real and what is a dream or a hallucination.  This Magnificent Cake! features five interconnected episodes that revolve around Belgium’s colonization of Africa in the late 19th century.  The episodes begin and end abruptly and usually the next in the sequence starts soon after the previous one ended, but tells the story from a different perspective.  Most of the episodes unfold in Africa, but there is also some Belgium backstory as well as some bonding to take place during the several months (?) it took to travel by steamer from Europe to the colony.  How many of these events were imagined is hard to say (intentionally, I’m sure) but I “felt” at least half of it only happened in the characters’ minds, which hopefully includes a particularly memorable snail adoption by a lonely colonist.

This Magnificent Cake! is a unique experience that may leave you scratching your head when it ends, but your eyes will thank you for taking the trip.

 

TIFF18: American Woman

At first glance, Deb (Sienna Miller) is all-too-easily dismissed. She’s a former teen mom turned grandmother at 31. She’s a mistress whose hot date turns out to be a trip to a sleazy motel room, where she is handed a plastic bag containing either dollar store lingerie or a slutty devil halloween costume (same difference, really). The next morning, we see that she is waking up alone in her own bed, suggesting the motel room was paid by the hour.

At that point, we’re about five minutes into American Woman, and you’re ready to write Deb off.

But don’t. Don’t you dare.

AmericanWoman_02Because Deb is worth more than she even knows, which she stars to discover after her daughter fails to come home one night after a date with her basement-dwelling baby daddy.  A loved one’s disappearance must be life-shattering. Miller lets us see the dissapearance’s drastic effects on Deb in such a restrained and measured way that Deb’s resulting character growth is organic, believable, and most impressively, almost invisible at first. Deb’s evolution is captivating, and the Deb we know by the end of the movie is at once the same core character and a woman whose outlook and attitude have evolved beyond anything I could have ever expected.

I cannot overstate the magnificence of Sienna Miller’s performance in American Woman. She is magnetic and conveys a mix of strength and vulnerability that is as authentic a performance as I can remember. And while Miller is the standout, he excellence is almost always matched by the rest of the cast, including Christina Hendricks as Deb’s sister, Amy Madigan as Deb’s mom, and Mad TV’s Will Sasso as Deb’s brother-in-law. Deb is rightly the focal point but it’s great that the strong supporting characters each get the chance to shine.

The gauntlet thrown down by the cast’s fantastic performances is picked up by those behind the camera, and they are up to the task. Brad Ingelsby’s script is smarter than it has any right to be, discarding obvious answers on a regular basis, and showing off by giving effortless depth to secondary and tertiary characters (including turning an obvious villain into an earnest guy deserving of our sympathy). Director Jake Scott uses care and moderation rather than flash and sensationalism, particularly in a crucial scene at the film’s climax, proving beyond any doubt that less is more. Scott consistently makes brilliant choices even in small details, such as by using visuals and settings to indicate the passage of time, rather than title cards.

The result of all of this individual brilliance, naturally, is a standout character study that can hold its own against anything that TIFF18 has to offer (which I can say with certainty since I saw If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma on either side of it). American Woman is as smart, rewarding and satisfying a cinematic experience as anyone could ask for, making for a film that you absolutely do not want to miss.

TIFF18: If Beale Street Could Talk

If this movie review could talk it would say: wow. And also: thank you.

How is it possible that Barry Jenkins is making GOAT movies right out of the gate? Is he for real?

If Beale Street Could Talk is about a love story, interrupted. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo (Stephan James) are young lovers and the world is theirs as they fall in love inside their bubble. He’s respectful, she’s adorable, they’re so in sync their clothes begin to match, the colours mirroring each other as they walk hand in hand in a highly-saturated stroll through the park, the perfect date that just happens to end at prison, where she drops him off. Alonzo is going away for rape – a crime he didn’t commit, not that the justice system particularly cares. Beale Street is both love story and tragedy at the same time.

The most powerful thing about this film, and indeed about James Baldwin’s original work, is how little shock we see from either family – and both families, and their community, rallies around them. And of course they’re upset, they’re devastated, and they should be angry and incredulous, but no one seems all that astonished that such a MV5BMjMxMWQ5MjctN2MwMC00ZGY1LWJkNWUtNmUwOWFmYzAyNWJjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTE4NTE0NjU@._V1_thing could happen, because of course they’ve seen it happen before. So they swing into action, because they know the drill. Though they have little money, they will fund-raise and do whatever it takes to work the case themselves because they know whatever lawyer’s appointed to them will be inadequate (though he’s actually not painted as a bad guy, interestingly), and that the system is rigged is against them. They aren’t wrong.

I said earlier that this was a love story, interrupted. Thanks to director Barry Jenkins’ genius, that’s true on more than one count. First, the literal one, where the two lovers are separated just as she’s discovering they’re pregnant and would have made a home together. Through flash backs we see their love story, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity, in its sweetness, but every scene is tainted by our knowledge of where it ends up. Jenkins obviously has a respect for the poetry of Baldwin’s prose. He uses it as a bridge between scenes, uniting flashbacks which almost seem dream-like with the harsh realities and razor-precision detail of their present day (1970s). The interruption is an opportunity for Jenkins to show how lyrically he can manipulate time as well as genre. Because for every pause he takes to explore a character and make note of some sweet detail, this story is also infused with a greater cry for social justice. This Beale Street could be any Beale Street. Alonzo could be any black man. And the system of oppression, which is not limited to crime and punishment, applies just as much today as it did then. This is a cry meant to be heard across generations.

James Laxton’s stunning cinematography helps establish not just breathtaking film, but black culture itself, the streets coming alive and vibrant under his lens. The way Jenkins plays with colour astonishes me, the virginal whites, the lust-drenched reds; somehow this movie is everything a movie can be. It’s everything. And this is only Jenkins’ third feature. The costumes are perfection. The set design is perfection. The way the camera talks to us, showing us where to linger, communicating hunger, or desperation, or separation. The emphasis is masterful but never gets in the way of itself.

Beale Street’s ensemble cast is the beating heart of this film, with James and Layne both claiming rights to future stardom. Their fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are terrific as well, but for me Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King) was the real standout. She is fierce and unwavering. The scene in which she confronts Alonzo’s accuser is deeply affecting, and it’s because of King, of the layers of emotion playing out on her face. I couldn’t look away. Notably, I also thought the mother in The Hate U Give (played by Regina Hall) was the best part of the movie, so I’m not sure if black moms are having a moment, or if it’s Reginas specifically, but watch out, they’re coming. Jenkins puts together a cast that becomes the fabric of his film. There is no detail too small to have escaped his love and attention. This is one of the better adaptations I’ve ever seen on film, and possibly the best. It works on so many levels at once you don’t even see the train coming until it hits you. It’s hard to outdo yourself when your last film won Best Picture, but Barry Jenkins is a director not to be fucked with.