Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Black Beauty (2020)

Black Beauty has been adapted many times, but in Ashley Avis’ movie, Black Beauty is female, and so is the little girl who loves her.

When we meet Black Beauty (voiced by Kate Winslet), she is a young Mustang running wild and free, just starting to be wary of new animals encroaching upon the land. Not wary enough, as it turns out; Black Beauty is captured and sent to live in a stable so she can be broken and sold. John (Iain Glen) who runs the stables and trains the horses isn’t a bad man, and he’s soon joined by his orphaned niece Jo (Mackenzie Foy). Jo is not your classic Horse Girl; in fact, she’s never ridden. But she must see a bit of herself in Black Beauty, who is also adjusting to new surroundings having just lost her parents and her home. Their bond is immediate and undeniable. Jo insists not on breaking Beauty, but on “partnering” her, based on friendship , respect, and gentleness. But the stables are a business, and Beauty is leased out to a wealthy family whose daughter is training to be competitive in dressage. Georgina (Fern Deacon) isn’t a natural horsewoman but makes up for what she lacks with spurs and whips. She is not kind to Beauty (nor to Jo), but sadly nor is she the worst owner that Black Beauty will encounter in her life.

Told from Black Beauty’s unique perspective (don’t worry, she’s not a talking horse, we merely hear her thoughts voiced by Winslet), we follow her as she’s transferred from home to home, owner to owner, many more pitiful or abusive than the last. Anna Sewell’s wildly popular novel from many moons ago opened people’s eyes to the mistreatment of horses, but it’s clear from Avis’ adaptation that things have not changed nearly enough for horses in nearly 150 years. Set in various modern American environments, Black beauty knows pain, overwork, and perhaps worse still, loneliness. The bond she shared with Jo endures and holding her memory in her heart is the only reason Beauty has the strength to go on.

I didn’t expect to like Black Beauty as much as I did. It doesn’t feel emotionally manipulative – Black Beauty is a horse, and though we inevitably anthropomorphize her, she isn’t asking to be pitied. But her indominable spirit is enviable and some pretty cinematography, we feel a sort of empathy, a sort of kinship with animals of all kinds, and an emotional attachment to Beauty herself, whose loyalty and resilience remind us of the four-legged family members in our own homes. Not without its flaws, Black Beauty is still a worthy version for 2020 audiences and a nice little treat on Disney+.

The Christmas Chronicles 2

In the first The Christmas Chronicles, Kate and brother Teddy had recently lost their father. With their mom covering an overnight shift at the hospital, the kids are alone on Christmas Eve, and devise a trap to catch Santa on tape once and for all. But their trap works a little too well and they soon find themselves on his sleigh and on a pretty epic adventure.

Two years later, Kate (Darby Camp) and Teddy (Judah Lewis) find themselves on the beaches of Mexico for Christmas, courtesy of mom’s (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) new boyfriend Bob. Kate isn’t thrilled to about a tropical Christmas but she’s even less enthused about her mom tarnishing dead dad’s memory with a new guy. That’s why she resolves to run away, which unfortunately plays right into the plans of disgraced elf Belsnickel (Julian Dennison), who uses Kate (and Bob’s son Jack) as bait to distract Santa while he makes off with the star that powers all of Santa’s Christmas magic. Big disaster. Huge. Now Santa (Kurt Russell) and Kate will be off on a sleigh-riding, time-traveling adventure while Jack (Jahzir Bruno) and Mrs. Claus (Goldie Hawn) defend Santa’s village from an onslaught of evil elves.

This movie is basically a nerf gun aimed right into the hearts of children and when it hits, it delivers a dose of holiday cheer and joy that’s undeniable. In sequel mode, this one has a little more razzle dazzle and a little less natural charm and sparkle than the first, but it’s still a good, clean, fun time for the whole family. Kurt Russell is a hot Santa who injects more than a little Elvis into the jolly old guy, donning sunglasses and swiveling his hips to belt out another show-stopping tune once again. And rather happily we see much more of Goldie Hawn, who brings her own twinkle to the mix, sweet but pro-active, not exactly the passive knitter in a rocking chair Mrs. Claus is often made out to be.

The Christmas Chronicles 2 is wonderfully, effortlessly cheerful. It has great acting and its attention to detail surpasses even the first, for a glossy look that feels, well, merry and bright. And if it is perhaps pandering and slightly disjointed, well, at least it knows its audience. The exploding gingerbread cookies, gravity gloves, dance breaks, flying jackotes ( jackal-coyote hybrids that look more like giant, extra-inbred pugs), and crossbow battles will all be very well-received by young audiences tuning in to get a second look at this Santa guy who’s so much cooler than the one at the mall. And who can blame them? He is pretty great and I count myself rather unashamedly among his fans.

Greyhound

When the Americans were finally self-interested enough to join WW2, they needed a lot of boots on the ground, and some in the air, and a few if by sea.

Captain Krause (Tom Hanks) is in command of an escort force protecting an Atlantic convoy consisting of 37 Allied ships on their way to Liverpool. They’re passing through the Mid-Atlantic gap, so called because no antisubmarine aircraft are able to reach them. They’re on their own. Still three days out of range from protective air cover, they intercept German transmissions. It is likely U-boats are near. This is merely the start of 13 back to back covers (or 52 hours) on the Greyhound’s bridge as Krause fights to save his ship, protect those in his convoy, and rescue those who succumb.

As a war movie, director Aaron Schneider makes very effective use of his 90 minute runtime, keeping the focus on a very intense combat. It’s basically a race against time, a fight for survival until they reach precious, essential air cover once again.

But the reason Greyhound really shines, as did its source material, The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester, is in its fascinating and intricate character study of the man behind the wheel. Captain Krause has been a career Navy officer for many years. His seniority is unquestionable, but in truth, this is his first wartime mission. The other captains are younger and junior to him in rank, but they’ve been at war for two years already. Although we see him act in competent and level-headed ways, we are also privy to his self-doubt. The combat is relentless as the minutes and hours tick by, Krause unwilling to leave his post, and only the kindness of a mess attendant (Rob Morgan) ensures he doesn’t go hungry.

Hanks adapted the material himself, and though we never see the guy make an acting misstep, he is clearly suited to this character, slipping on the captain’s skin as if it were a comfortable, monogrammed slipper. You feel his fatigue, and inklings of inferiority, but with the weight and fate of an entire fleet on his shoulders, he never gives less than his best. The constant danger is exhausting, the many snap judgments that must be made while in command are overwhelming, and above all, we see Krause struggle with his conscience – muttered prayers for the souls on board, but also a refusal to celebrate enemy kills, a necessary part of war perhaps, but one with which Krause is not entirely comfortable. It’s a facet rarely explored in war movies and Hanks is up for its portrayal, but cleverly, the points are merely plotted, the lines themselves drawn by the audience.

I expect nothing less that complete satisfaction from the material Hanks is choosing, and he’s so unvaryingly good it’d be almost tedious if it wasn’t so wonderful. And this, too, is wonderful, and not even annoyingly so. Hanks truly is a master and Forester’s carefully observed novel cannot be over-rated.

Sound of Metal

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer. He and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) are in a two-person band and they just love to bang on shit and make noise. They travel the country in their Airstream; it’s not a glamorous life or a well-remunerated one (yet, there are talks of an album), but they’re happy. Which means the universe is hiding around the corner waiting to deliver a great big wallop.

One day, Ruben wakes up deaf. It has likely been a bit more progressive than this, but this movie doesn’t document it, it just dumps us into his sudden new reality, which clearly takes him by surprise. The verdict: his hearing’s not coming back. A cochlear implant may give him some approximation of hearing (and a bill for $80 grand regardless), but Ruben is deaf, and it’s permanent. As you might imagine, being a transient drummer in a largely unsuccessful band does not come with insurance. Desperate in his new deafness, Ruben is of course fixated on the miraculous-sounding implant, but the reality is that for now, he just has to learn to live with his new situation. He’s still in denial, and he’s depressed, and Lou worries that his sobriety is about to be compromised, but traditional meetings, and even his sponsor, won’t be much help if he can’t hear them. Which is how they wind up reaching out to Joe (Paul Raci), who runs a deaf community and is an addict himself. The community has everything Ruben needs right now: a safe space to learn to be deaf. The only problem is, it needs to be a fully immersive experience, cutting him off from the rest of the world, including Lou. Ruben hasn’t just lost his hearing. He’s lost his love, his home, his music. He is a wayward soul who doesn’t know how to begin to grieve, let alone cope.

Though Ruben isn’t exactly a demonstrative person, we sense how profoundly changed his life is; his reactions feel authentic if unhelpful, and we can’t honestly say we wouldn’t do the same ourselves. Ahmed’s commitment to the role is evident in every frame; he spent 6 months learning to drum, which his character can only do for about 6 minutes of film time. He also learned American Sign Language, a vital skill not only for his character, but for communicating with his deaf colleagues on set. In his directorial debut, Darius Marder, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother, Abraham, knew the value of seeking out deaf actors for deaf parts.

Ruben is reimagining his entire identity, which can obviously be a scary process. Ahmed allows himself to be vulnerable on screen as he tries to absorb his new realities. Acceptance is key, but its path has such rough terrain. Told from a hearing perspective, or at least a former one, Sound of Metal is an interesting bridge into the deaf community. But it’s also at its just one man’s struggle with self-acceptance. He needs to let go of his past to reimagine his future, but as we all know, that’s easier said than done.

Sound of Metal is in select theatres now and will be available digitally and on demand December 4th.

I Am Woman

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back and pretend
Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

I grew up just knowing the lyrics to Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman, the way I just knew my own name. I grew up in a house of 4 sisters and 1 mother and there was nothing we liked better than putting on some Whitney Houston and singing/dancing along. But there were only two songs my mother ever sang unprompted, unconsciously, without a backing track: Amazing Grace, and I Am Woman (one of the many things she has in common with Barack Obama). At the time I didn’t think much of it. I knew the lyrics but it sure as heck wasn’t playing on MTV. And anyway, weren’t we already a female-led household of strong sisters doing it for ourselves? I didn’t think about why both my mother’s brothers went to university while she, even more intelligent and competent, was a high school drop out who got engaged to a trucker at 16, married at 18, and had me at 20, by which time she’d given up her “career” (hairdressing) to raise children at home – she had 4 of us by 26 and did it all alone, even when she was diagnosed with cancer. During divorce proceedings she gave up spousal support to keep our childhood home; as a single mother with no work experience or credit history of her own, she would have struggled to keep the 5 of us in a 2 bedroom apartment, and she failed to qualify for a loan to replace our rusted out van. Now I have to wonder: was my mother, a stay at home mother and perpetual caregiver, a secret feminist? All evidence points to yes, and not so secretly either. She taught us to “carry our own canoe” (that sounds like a particularly Canadian brand of feminism), to work hard enough to be able to support ourselves, to live with someone before committing to marriage. MY MOM WAS A FEMINIST? I grew up in the 90s, when feminist was a dirty word, but that didn’t mean the struggle for equality was dead, and clearly Helen Reddy’s 1971 song was still an anthem to women raising their own daughters now.

Helen Reddy wrote a feminist anthem in response to the sexism she encountered repeatedly in her life and career. It will not surprise you to know that the (male) record executives didn’t get the song and didn’t want to include it on her album. Or that her (male) husband stole all her money and put it up his nose.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey is absolute perfection as Helen Reddy; she’s the reason to watch. Director Unjoo Moon sticks pretty close to the usual biopic formula, but a magical spark from Cobham-Hervey is all this film needs to ignite not only a strong performance but a stunning musical performance as well.

Helen Reddy was the Katy Perry of her time. She was the first to make us roar. But while Perry’s pregnancy was announced to fanfare and unveiled rather dramatically in a music video, Reddy’s motherhood was considered a liability and proof she could never truly commit to her career. Fighting sexism has turned out to be a very long struggle and sometimes we need to look back in order to appreciate just how far we’ve come.

Run

Chloe (Kiera Allen) is a super smart teenager who’s hounding the mail carrier every day for some news of her college acceptances. With many medical challenges including diabetes, a heart condition, and paraplegia, Chloe’s been home schooled all her life by devoted mother Diane (Sarah Paulson), but that’s left her incredibly sheltered, with no friends and no other family, she has very little contact with the outside world.

Which makes it extra difficult when she begins to suspect that her mother might be dosing her with medication she doesn’t need…or medication that’s deliberately making her sick. The more Chloe tries to get to the truth, the more her mother tightens the vise. It’s not until Chloe is trying to escape that she realizes her mother has carefully constructed a prison.

Run is an incredibly effective thriller. Diane is inarguably deranged and psychotic but Sarah Paulson underplays her to such perfection that we never truly know what to expect from her, and the ambiguity makes her feel even more threatening because of it. Allen, a newcomer to the big screen, is surprisingly strong playing her opposite. Director Aneesh Chaganty runs a tight ship; Run’s pacing leaves you breathless, it keeps ramping up the stakes and then exceeding your expectations. Chloe is obviously a vulnerable young woman but Allen plays her with such grit and strength she’s got more staying power than you can possibly imagine.

If the film has a flaw it’s that it suffers from the heavy presence of the Munchausen by Proxy subgenre recently. But while the plot may be a little familiar, the suspense is taut and nerve-jangling, to say nothing of the worst terror of all, the one that speaks to our most base fear: that a mother could turn on her child, and hurt her.

Run is available to stream via Hulu on November 20th.

Big ups to Aneesh Chaganty who prioritized casting a disabled actor and found a very strong one in Kiera Allen. Even bigger props for writing a character, not a disability.

TIFF20 Wolfwalkers

In a version of 1650 Ireland probably not too different from the one our history reports, Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) and her widowed father Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) are sent by colonizer extraordinaire, the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), to a remote outpost of a town that’s growing past its own humble borders into the woods beyond it. The town has suffered wolf attacks as it creeps into their territory and Bill, a wolf hunter, is tasked with their destruction. Young daughter Robyn wants nothing more than to be just like her father, and to hunt by his side, but Lord Protector has a narrower, more traditional belief about a woman’s place. To prove her worth and bravery, Robyn takes on the woods alone and almost becomes prey herself when a pack of wolves circles around her, but she is saved at the last minute by Mebh (Eva Whittaker).

The legends are true: Mebh is a wolfwalker, a girl who has an independent life as a wolf while her human self sleeps. Luckily she also has healing powers, relieving Robyn of the nasty bite on her arm, but not before it transforms Robyn into a wolfwalker too. Robyn loves to run with her new friends at night, wild and free unlike any other female in 17th century Ireland, but she has now become the very thing her father must exterminate, the very embodiment of the village’s superstitions, both the colonizer and the colonized.

The movie’s style begs you to notice it is lovingly hand-drawn; while some images are deliberately rustic, there are so many saturated colours and levels of detail the overall effect is simply gorgeous, like looking at stained glass. It has myth in its heart and magic running through its veins. The script is good but the animation itself is enough to communicate the disparate worlds of human and beast. The lush and vibrant art is alone worth the watch, but the ethereal nature of the woods’ inhabitants makes for a captivating story reminiscent of the kind of lyrical folk and fairy tales that just don’t get told much anymore. Wolfwalkers is certainly among the best animated films of the year and I’m confident that we will see its name on the Oscar ballot this year.

Wolfwalkers is in select theatres now and will be available to stream on Apple TV December 11 2020.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Jeronicus Jangle is a magical, fantastical inventor of “jangles and things” (translation: toys). A new breakthrough that brings a toy to life seems poised to make him an incredible success but while celebrating jubilantly in the streets with his wife, daughter, and nearly the entire town of Cobbleton, the newly animated toy (a matador named Don Juan voiced by Ricky Martin) convinces Jeronicus’ apprentice Gustafson that they should steal the blueprints to all the inventions and strike out on their own.

Twenty-eight Toy Maker of the Year awards later, Gustafson (Keengan-Michael Key) is eccentric and wealthy and about to run out of stolen ideas for toys. Jeronicus (Forest Whitaker), meanwhile, is completely ruined. Gustafson didn’t just steal his blueprints, he robbed him of his self-confidence and of the magic that seemed to inspire his inventions. His wife gone, his daughter estranged, and his toy store now a rapidly failing pawnshop, Jeronicus is dejected, and not even the threat of bankruptcy can jump-start his innovations. However, the arrival of his grand-daughter Journey (Madalen Mills) changes everything. Not only does she share his mind for magic, science, and creating, she’s got something even more important: belief.

Jingle Jangle is a bit of a marvel, to be honest. It’s The Greatest Showman meets Mr. Magorium’s Magic Emporium meets Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Although I loved the film from the minute Phylicia Rashad started reading a fairytale to her grandkids, I was completely sold not two minutes later when a toy store full of whirring robotics and steampunk costumed people break out into song and dance that totally swept me away.

Writer-director David E. Talbert creates a rich fantasy land that is a pure joy to visit. Although it’s not a perfect film, there’s a lot of talent on display. In addition to a truly unique twist on a family-friendly holiday film, Forest Whitaker is a total champ and Keegan-Michael Key is having a blast. Who knew either could sing and dance – or would? Mills is the true star of course; her voice is strong and confident, but so is her soul, and she shines her novice light even opposite legendary luminaries.

From the inspired music to the brilliant production design, Jingle Jangle was a whole lot of fun and I’m both pleased to have a new classic in the holiday genre, but equally pleased that it is holiday-lite, a perfect November (or anytime) watch.

TIFF20: Enemies of the State

This was one of the best and most memorable films I saw at TIFF this year, an unexpected surprise that disarmed me and disoriented me, and since I want it to do the same for you, this is going to be a sparse and succinct review.

Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary is about Matt Dehart, who in 2009 was accused and charged by the FBI for possessing child pornography and soliciting minors for sex on the internet. Matt claims these accusations are fabricated to punish and distract from the truth. That Dehart, a former U.S. Air National Guard intelligence analyst, was involved with the Anonymous hacker group and WikiLeaks, and claimed to possess classified documents alleging serious misconduct by the CIA. Matt Dehart counters that his arrest was a ruse to discredit him and an easy way to seize and search his computers for the documents.

Matt’s parents, Paul and Leann, both former U.S. military themselves, come to believe their son, and the whole family becomes embroiled in this cat and mouse chase, from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada, where they sought refuge in Canada, claiming Matt had been tortured in prison upon his arrest.

This story is a delicious, irresistible true crime rabbit hole with so many twists and turns you’ll suffer whiplash from jerking your head in opposing directions so many times. Every new interview seems to contradict the last and the documentary thrives when it pits these two narratives against each other. Is Matt a pedophile or a martyr to espionage? Is this treason or whistleblowing or just a clever and convoluted defense strategy? You can try to be analytical about connecting Kennebeck’s dots, but there are red herrings all over the place, from anthrax to the mob, and that thing called ‘truth’ seems impossible to pin down.

We have a natural and insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories and Kennebeck knows what she has in this doc: an addicting, shocking, ambiguous array of breadcrumbs, and she’s very savvy about how she plants them. Enemies of the State is an excellent, absorbing reminder that we live in a time with access to so much information, but very few paths to the truth.

TIFF20: I Am Greta

In August of 2018, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old student in Sweden starts a school strike for the environment. The more she learned about climate change, the more frustrated and fixated she became. What seemed to be the biggest challenge her generation would face, not to mention the certain extinction of further generations, went ignored by those who could and should be doing something – ignored, or worse, disputed. With global warming threatening the very planet she lived on, Greta saw no point in attending school, or in imagining any future at all. Instead she took to the street, the quiet girl on the autism spectrum, uncomfortable being the centre of attention, did the one thing she could because no one else would. Within months she was a world famous activist who’d started a global youth movement.

Director Nathan Grossman and his team have been there from almost the very start, capturing a small, shy girl answering questions, gaze averted, from passerby on the street. And then following her as she makes impassioned speeches to world leaders, her anger damning and shaming them.

I confess, I originally dismissed Greta Thunberg, assuming her cause was just a means to an end – and the end was probably Instagram fame or going viral or some such thing. I assumed she didn’t like the environment half as much as she liked the spotlight, or its money, and that her (stage) parents probably wrote the scripts. Now I am sad for my cynicism; by tolerating politicians who repeatedly break their promises, I am just as complicit. Perhaps I am, to Greta, the more unbelievable of the two.

Many news outlets, and some politicians, have zeroed in on Greta’s autism, and suggested that her “mental illness” causes her to obsess over topics. They’d like to dismiss her, and climate change, in the same breath. But if Greta’s focus is narrower than most, it doesn’t make climate change any less real, or any less of a threat. It makes her a brave whistleblower, the kind that makes people in power nervous because the truth tends to be inconvenient. Greta is the real deal.

By allowing us to observe truthfully, I Am Greta lets us get to know the girl and not just the crusader. This is not a documentary about climate change. It is a documentary about a young woman who becomes the reluctant voice of her generation. Grossman’s profile shows a young woman from an ordinary family, her parents struggling daily with doing the right thing, finding the right way to support her, balancing her needs with the rest of the family’s, and what’s good for her with what’s good for the world as a whole. Greta’s only motivation is the environment. The director’s motivation, however, is a little more complicated. Greta leads by example, and has inspired lots of young people to come forward and hold the adults in charge accountable. By showing us such ordinary domesticity, Grossman is reminding us that if Greta can do it, why not us?

I Am Greta debuts on Hulu November 13th.