Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Sylvie’s Love

Picture it: 1950s Harlem. A young man is walking by a record store. Through the window he spots a beautiful young woman behind the cash register, visibly enjoying an episode of I Love Lucy. Something urges him inside – he grabs the Help Wanted sign out of the window just to have something to say. The young woman, Sylvie (Tessa Thompson), attempts a quick dismissal, but her father (Lance Reddick) stops the young man, and engages him on the spot. I’m not sure Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) meant to find employment on this day, but it’s a great excuse to see Sylvie again, so he’s not about to turn it down.

SYLVIEÕS LOVE

In fact, Robert is a jazz musician, he plays the sax, and he’s very impressed by Sylvie’s deep love and knowledge of music. They spend a lot of time together in the record store, exchanging stories, and barbs, and heated looks. You might even say they were falling in love, except for one little hiccup: Sylvie was engaged to be married. Her fiancé Lacy is away for the summer, but they’ve been very much betrothed ever since her mother caught them making out. This little speedbump keeps the flames on low for a little while, but they’re young, they’re attractive, they actually like each other – soon those flames ignite because passion cannot be denied. But then summer’s over and Robert’s jazz quartet is taking him away, to Paris. He invites his love Sylvie of course, but at the last moment she demurs, she stays and he leaves. Sylvie is pregnant of course, but Robert must never know; she believes in his talent and won’t get in the way of his dreams. They part.

Five years later, Sylvie is married to fiancé Lacy (Alano Miller), who married her knowing she was pregnant with another man’s child. He provides for Sylvie and Michelle but it’s instantly clear that theirs is no love match, and we can’t help but compare it unfavourably to that of Sylvie and Robert, and suspect that she must as well. Like any good love story, Sylvie and Robert’s isn’t over yet. They will cross paths again, and try again. Great romances aren’t about the destination, they’re about the journey. It’s the story that matters, the obstacles overcome, destiny pulling them together.

Writer-director Eugene Ashe gives us a lush period romance with Black leads, which the genre has heretofore tended to ignore. But he also grants us a full picture of Sylvie’s life, which doesn’t just revolve around this one crush, but is populated with family, ambition, dreams, and obligation. Because she’s an actual person, her love story isn’t straight-forward. Real life seeps in, threatens to wipe the shine off new love. The triumph is in honouring love despite its challenges. It’s in making the compromises and acknowledging one’s surroundings and still pursuing the heart’s desire. Sylvie’s Love is one for the ages.

Promising Young Woman

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was once a promising young woman, a fact her parents take the opportunity to remind her of every morning at breakfast. Now 30, friendless, living at home despite heavy parental hinting that it may be time to move one, an unambitious med school dropout turned barista, Cassie’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) aren’t sure what it will take to jumpstart her life. To most it would seem that Cassie’s life derailed when her best friend Nina took her own life, but to Cassie, her life has simply taken a different direction. Her life now revolves more or less around avenging Nina’s death.

Nina was also a promising young woman, also a student in medical school when one night she was gang raped. She was a party, too drunk to defend herself, but ostensibly among friends and fellow students, many of whom either participated or stood around watching while it happened. While so-called friends gossiped behind her back, the school administration merely swept it under the same rug where they keep all the other similar complaints, and the court case stalled when the defense turned the table on the victim. Unable to deal with the aftermath, Nina died by suicide. But Cassie, filled with anger and outrage, is not content to let justice remain unserved. She’s become a vigilante of sorts, going out at night, posing as a woman who’s had too much to drink, and if you’re a woman yourself, you’ll be unsurprised by just how many men take the bait. She looks like easy prey, at least until they get her home and try to have sex with a woman they believe is too intoxicated to properly fight them off (despite her clear and repeated NO), then suddenly she snaps to alertness and serves them a warning they won’t soon forget. This is the double life that Cassie’s been living unbeknownst to others – unbeknownst even to new boyfriend Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate and the first man she’s actually trusted since what happened to Nina.

Promising Young Woman is a dark comedy, in fact, a Vantablack comedy, if you’ll permit me trotting out a subcategory I invented of the Ryan Reynolds dark comedy, The Voices. Longtime readers with impressive memories (read: no one, even I had to look it up) may remember that Vantablack is a colour that is blacker than black, absorbing all but 0.035% of light; a black so black our human minds can’t actually perceive it. I would like to unroll this categorization once again, because compared to Promising Young Woman, everything else is pink.

Emerald Fennell, first time director (and also this movie’s writer), has done the improbable and completely made this genre her bitch. It is uniquely difficult to master the tone of such a film, mixing a very heavy topic with moments of genuine laughter and charm. This is truly one of the most provocative, unexpected, daring movies of this year or last. It must be seen.

Carey Mulligan is absolutely breathtaking. Cassie has half a dozen secret lives going at once yet Mulligan not only keeps them straight, she makes them easily identifiable to us, hiding stories and motivations behind her eyes, astonishing us with a raw and layered performance. Bo Burnham has a tall order playing the Last Good Man, bolstering a stellar ensemble. Clearly Fennell impressed half of Hollywood with her audacious script; Alfred Molina, Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, and Chris Lowell fill small but impactful roles, many of them names on Cassie’s shit list.

Regret, retribution, guilt, forgiveness, culpability, corruption, consequences. No one’s life is going to be the same. No one’s getting left off the hook. Cassie’s been living off righteous rage for far too long, and if she can’t have justice, she will have closure, by any means necessary.

News Of The World

Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks), a Civil War veteran, travels the landscape of 1870s Texas, bringing literal news of the world to all the towns on his route. For ten cents, he will read you the news from whichever newspapers he’s got in his saddlebag. He’s been on the road a long time; it’s a lonely life, and a dangerous one, but aside from missing his wife, he seems to embrace the solitude.

You see a lot of shit on the dusty roads between Texas towns, and one day he comes across a (Black) man hanging from a tree, his wagon overturned, and his ward cowering nearby. The little girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), was adopted by the Kiowa Indian tribe long ago, after the slaughter of her parents. Lately her adoptive Indian parents have also been killed, and she was being brought “home” to an aunt and uncle. Kidd somehow gets transferred this responsibility, and together they’ll travel hundreds of miles to deliver her to a home she’s never known, after being orphaned twice over. Johanna doesn’t speak English; she seems wild and almost feral, communicating in grunts and screams when her native language won’t do. She longs to go back to a tribe that no longer wants her, longs for a people to whom she never truly belonged, yet she remembers no other way.

The open road in 1870s Texas were no place for a child. They were no place for a man, either. The danger was grave, and constant. Tom Hanks, who goes full Daddy in the role, reunites with his Captain Phillips director, Paul Greengrass. If they thought the open seas were dangerous, they hadn’t tried to cross the harsh and unforgiving plains of Texas, where it’s hard to say whether human or natural forces are the biggest threat. If the marauders, thieves, and rapists don’t knife you and leave you for dead, the wilderness itself will be all too happy to claim your body and strip the flesh from your bones.

A slow and ambling western, Greengrass’s images have a quiet effectiveness to them, though they are frequently interrupted by rough and ready action sequences. Despite the bare-knuckled violence, the film is really about amiable companionship, and a steadfast faith in the importance of truth. Hanks channels his inner Eastwood and young Zengel is a marvel, communicating whole spectrums without the benefit of words. News of the World may be simple in premise but it is complex in character and superior in performance; definitely worth a watch.

Love Sarah

Sarah and her best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn) were on the verge of opening up their very own bakery, a long time shared aspiration, when Sarah died tragically, leaving behind unfulfilled dreams and a lease that Isabella was now responsible for alone, despite having lost her baker, an essential element in most bakeries, you’ll find.

Sarah’s aimless daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) and her estranged mother Mimi (Celia Imrie) decide to join her in Sarah’s stead. And Sarah’s ex, Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones), shows up too, thank goodness, because this bakery was still very much in need of a baker, although it turns out Isabella is perfectly capable of doing the baking, she just lacked the confidence. But that’s not all Matthew’s contributing to the bakery! He’s also putting out daddy vibes, leaving Clarissa to question whether he might the mystery father she’s never known and her mother never revealed. Oh, and he makes the pretty pastries of course, which do indeed look good enough to eat, so if food porn is what you’re after, this movie’s got loads, presented rather prettily on a buffet of white platters. But for some reason, they’re just not selling. The bakery makes no money at all until they decide to rebrand and start baking up international delights to lure in London’s many and varied immigrants.

The bakery thriving or failing is almost secondary to these characters’ healing, which they’re all needing to slightly different extents. Healing takes different forms of course – romance, success, family, forgiveness – and it’s not just the bakery at work but the fact that these four people have found each other in their hour of need and created a community for themselves that fosters connection and leaves everyone just a little less isolated with their grief or their loneliness.

On a scale from “microwaving for one” to “molecular gastronomy,” Love Sarah is canned pasta sauce, not particularly complex or memorable, but easy and comforting. It’s sweet, it’s got wonderful performances, it feels good in a heartening, borderline inspirational way. It’s very watchable, and would in fact pair well with a nice slice of cake and a tall glass of milk.

The Ultimate Playlist of Noise

High school senior Marcus (Keean Johnson) isn’t trying to be rude but yes he is wearing two different sets of headphones because maybe he wants to listen to Radiohead and a gentle field breeze at the same time. He’s that guy, a total audiophile, most of his music taste inherited from his big brother who died saving him from a house fire. He’s teased about the burn marks on his back but Marcus is proud to wear such visible proof of love. He’s a little less enthusiastic about the toll these events have taken on his mother, who is the living, breathing embodiment of “overprotective.” He takes off his double head phones to hear some live music, but mom says he’s got to be home by 10, and he fully intends to comply. Except the opening act is transformative in many ways; Wendy (Madeline Brewer) is beautiful, her voice like gold to him, and when her set is finished, Marcus makes to follow her but gets elbowed in the head and falls to the floor in the throes of a seizure.

At the hospital they tell him he has brain tumors that need to be removed as soon as possible. Just one problem – well, aside from the obvious: this brain surgery is going to leave him deaf. With only a month to hear all there is to be heard, he embarks on a road trip toward New York City, completing a bucket list of all the best noises, and recording them all on his ultimate playlist of noise. Which noises would you choose? And more importantly, at least to a red-blooded teenage boy, who would you choose to accompany you on this quest? It’s a no-brainer for Marcus, particularly because she doesn’t exactly give him a choice. He and Wendy take off in his mom’s minivan without a plan or permission, determined to record everything worth hearing.

It sounds like a fairly typical young adult film, but Keean Johnson finds layers to his character, and I think most audiences who bother to will find layers to the film as well. Marcus’s trip is an attempt to find some peace with a looming loss, but he’s dealt with loss before, and perhaps he knows grieving, and coping, better than most. The script remembers to touch base with Marcus’ whole life – his friends, his family, the brother he never stops thinking about – but in his pursuit to hear all the sounds, he brings along a brand new person, the last new voice he will ever know. Of course there’s a certain melancholia to this act of goodbye, but the film is also a celebration of sound. Kudos to the guys in the sound department for their dedication to detail; even noise that doesn’t appear on Marcus’s list is paid special attention to.

The first half of The Ultimate Playlist of Noise played in a familiar way, much like that dying teen trope that movies like this just can’t stay away from – and yet this one has. Despite Marcus’s struggle to cope, losing his hearing isn’t a death sentence, it’s just the start to a new way of living, and yes, the end to the old way. But Marcus’s road trip isn’t just a recording session, it’s also a reminder that there are still plenty of beautiful things to see and think and feel, and that life will go on and be worth living and indeed be very good, hearing or no.

Herself

Sandra’s husband Gary apparently has such a history and pattern of abuse that she has an emergency protocol in place with her young daughters; the eldest (who is maybe 8), takes off for the nearest corner store with a tool box. Inside is a card instructing the shopkeeper to call the cops as her life is in danger. Meanwhile, the youngest daughter cowers in the backyard, watching her mother get stomped on.

This, apparently, is the last straw. She leaves, but working several jobs still leaves her short at the end of the month, and the three of them are living in a hotel because Dublin is apparently short on public housing. Fed up with welfare’s shortcomings, and with Gary still lurking around, asking for another chance, Sandra (Clare Dunne) takes things into her own hands. With a generous land donation, she prints off DIY instructions from the internet and prepares to build a small home for herself. It’s an unsubtle metaphor for the kind of rebuilding her life needs and deserves generally, and the more she opens up and asks for help, the easier it becomes and the fuller her life is. Abused women are often isolated, which is part of what makes it so hard to leave. Building a life is about more than just pouring concrete and laying floors; it’s about trusting people again and creating your own safe space.

Unfortunately, the abuse doesn’t always stop just because the woman leaves, especially when there are kids involved. She has two adorable little souls tying her to a man she’d rather never see again, and even the court will keep forcing them together.

Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself is perhaps trite, but sensitively told, allowing the power of the performances to take centre stage, and Clare Dunne proves herself worthy of the confidence, never over-reaching the emotional beats. Herself may be a difficult watch at times, but it’s also gratifying; Sandra has a voice, and Lloyd gives her a beautiful cinematic platform from which to use it. She aims a few choice words at an uncaring bureaucracy that deserve cheers from a jaded audience. There are no easy breaks in Sandra’s life, but Dunne allows her empathy and grace, which are more important anyway.

Bridgerton

It’s hot, it’s steamy, you know you want to (and chances are, you already have: this series has been ULTRA popular on Netflix). It’s deliciously anachronistic, unapologetically salacious, and totally bingeable. The costumes are sumptuous, the dialogue sparkles, the sets are incredible, and the romance is as soapy as it is sexy. Plus, the ensemble cast has incredible depth and talent, led by a luminous Phoebe Dyvenor and the brooding sex-beast Regé-Jean Page as The Duke.

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Mangrove

On Amazon Prime, there is a series of films by Steve McQueen under the title Small Axe; they are related in that they are based on the real-life experiences of London’s West Indian community in the recent past. Mangrove is the first film in the series. The Oscars and the Emmys are perhaps more invested in hashing out whether they are technically films or episodes or something else entirely, but at 2 hours and 7 minutes of first-rate film-making, I’m just going to go ahead and review it.

Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) is the proud (Black) owner of Notting Hill’s Caribbean restaurant, Mangrove, a lively community base for locals, intellectuals and activists, not to mention the best joint for anyone looking for spicy foods in the 1970s. But it’s also beleaguered by constant police raids in what can only be described as a reign of racist terror (the cops are pretty upfront about it actually). Frank and the local community fight back the only way they can, by taking to the streets in peaceful protest. The cops, of course, strike back in what is by now such a familiar pattern that we can only despair. When nine men and women, including Frank and the leader of the British Black Panther Movement, Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), and activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), are arrested and charged with incitement to riot, our blood boils with injustice but not particularly with surprise. A highly publicized trial ensues, and the pattern of discrimination and abuse by police emerges – but will that even be enough?

As I mentioned earlier, Mangrove along with the other films in the Small Axe series are based on true events, but director McQueen manages such vigour in his story-telling that it almost feels more like a documentary. The authenticity seems to lend itself so naturally to the film and the performances that it’s almost an embarrassment of riches, but it’s the passion and the commitment with which it is delivered that really seals the deal. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 really reinvigorated the courtroom drama for me earlier this year, so it seems improbable that this one would come along so shortly after and do so again, yet I’m amazed to be so fully invested once again in a genre that’s been tired and limp for so long. Sean and I kept up such a constant hubbub that I worried mean Judge Clarke (Alex Jennings)would find us in contempt and throw us out of his court. Mangrove, however, has its own internal engine, churning with emotional heft outside the courtroom. The movie may take a few beats to really get going, but once it finds its momentum, it is downright riveting.

My Little Sister

My Little Sister is Switzerland’s official entry for the Academy Awards’ International Feature Film category this year, and its unofficial selection for Biggest Bummer of 2020, which is saying a lot.

Not that it’s a bad film, not at all. It’s just the opposite of cheery. Gloomy. Depressing. Upsetting. It’s about grown up twins Lisa (Nina Hoss), a playwright, and Sven (Lars Eidinger), a stage actor, who are dealing with his cancer diagnosis and resulting transplant. Even on the mend, Sven is still very unwell, and since their mother is a flake, Lisa’s been doing the caring. Lisa already put her life and career on hold once, to follow her husband to Switzerland where he runs an international school and she raises their children. Desperate to get back to the Berlin arts scene, Lisa isn’t happy to learn that her husband’s been contemplating extending his contract, but she’s already got more on her plate than most people can handle. Again she puts her life on hold to care for her “big brother” (born 2 minutes earlier) as he struggles to get back on his feet.

Sven’s illness is quite severe but Lisa can’t really face that. She has appointed herself the perpetual fountain of hope, and even goes back to play writing to make sure he has a meaty role to inspire his recovery. She is so committed to his recuperation she’ll even neglect her marriage to be at his bedside. Nina Hoss is nearly equally committed to the role, playing Lisa with sensitivity, and a naturalness that really helps to bolster the relationship between the twins. Clearly they are close, the kind of bond that can always be relied upon, as illustrated by Eidinger’s performance. Sven has bravado for everyone else, but in front of Lisa, he is vulnerable, he is weak. And though Hoss shows us how scared Lisa is, for him she is strong, sure, and optimistic.

Cancer dramas are a dime a dozen, but this one manages to detour away from the genre’s deepest ruts and treads new(ish) ground with intimate and instinctive performances from the two leads. Directors Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond give us a story that’s emotional without trying to be. It simply presents truth, unadorned. The death of a loved one can force us to reevaluate our own lives; Lisa’s certainly reassessing things, even with so many balls still up in the air. It’s a resonant reminder that life never stops, not even while you’re losing the person you hold most dear.

Beastie Boys Story

Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz stopped performing as Beastie Boys when friend and bandmate Adam Yauch died in 2012 after a 3 year battle with cancer. Actually, their last performance was in 2009, though none of them knew that it would be then.

This is an untraditional documentary; Diamond and Horovitz have mounted a stage show about the band’s history, its improbable beginnings, the ups and downs of fame, success, and friendship, all filmed by director Spike Jonze in front of a live audience. With behind the scenes photos, intimate stories, and little-known details, Diamond and Horovitz paint an intimate portrait of the Beastie Boys origin story, the turning points, the slumps, the resurrections, the regrets, the compromises, the hardships, and the insane parties.

Of course, at the heart of it all is a 40 year friendship between 3 guys who never grew bored of creating together. It’s clear that Diamond and Horovitz relish the opportunity to remember and honour their fallen friend, but are still emotional doing so. I felt it too, not because of his absence but because he actually felt quite present, so well remembered, so vibrant in memory and legacy. If you’re any kind of fan, you’ll enjoy taking a trip back to their earliest days, and then riding that crazy wave all the way to their most recent success. With so many hits in their catalogue, it’s definitely an enjoyable trip.