Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Sundance 2021 Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir

Amy Tan is the wildly successful author of The Joy Luck Club and more. Her books, and the movies inspired by them, have had a huge cultural impact. The Joy Luck Club is largely credited with being the first mainstream American film with an all-Asian cast – a feat sadly not repeated until Crazy Rich Asians. Tan’s stories reach well beyond the Chinese community, hers are universal tales of immigration, and mothers and daughters.

In Unintended Memoir, we get to understand her work in new depth thanks to a close examination of her own childhood, and her relationship with her mother, even as she begins to lose her to dementia. It’s a dynamic that many of us may find familiar.

Also illuminating is the insight into Tan’s process as a writer, and her struggle with writer’s block. But most of all, Tan is a superlative story-teller, and her true family history is stranger, richer, and more interesting than fiction. James Redford has put together a compelling, straight-forward documentary that has storytelling in its heart, which makes it hard not to love.

Flora & Ulysses

Flora (Matilda Lawler) is a little girl who wants to believe the world is filled with wonder and magic, but experience has taught her to embrace cynicism instead. She may hope for the best but she prepares for the worst, reading disaster preparedness books alongside the comic books written by her father. Incandesto and his super hero friends are so familiar to her she can practically see them but her father George (Ben Schwartz) has had no luck selling them, and has recently left the family, bereft. Mom Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) isn’t doing so hot either. A romance writer, Phyllis has been in a bit of a slump lately, and her new project isn’t very inspired either.

But don’t worry, folks, this isn’t some sad sack story, this is a super hero origin story, and the super hero is a squirrel named Ulysses. Ulysses gets sucked into a robot vacuum and once resuscitated, he’s got super powers! He’s super strong, and super fast, and super troublesome when Flora brings him into the house. He also writes poetry, but it’s unclear whether that’s actually a super power. Anyway, any squirrel in the house is likely to wreak havoc, but Ulysses is capable of so much destruction! All accidental, of course, but ask mom if she cares. She does not! But in the course of things, mean Miller (Danny Pudi) at animal control gets whiff of a potentially rabid squirrel and he’s on the case, pursuing the Buckman family, the boy next door, William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) who is temporarily hysterically blind, and their super squirrel Ulysses, stopping at nothing to euthanize super Ulysses, willing even to tranquilize humans in his quest to cage a furry little super hero.

Matilda Lawler is an insanely cute kid and a very capable actor. Much of the film’s charm emanates directly from her. Ben Schwartz harnesses a lot of his oddity and delivers straight up goofball as the affable, supportive dad. Their family adventure makes for excellent family viewing, and there’s no denying the soft, endearing fuzziness of Ulysses the poetry writing super squirrel. Director Lena Khan does an excellent job of translating the hijinks onto the big screen but keeping it grounded first and foremost in family values. The characters may be offbeat but the message is hopeful, the story is bright, and the squirrel is hard to resist. Flora & Ulysses has the makings of an excellent family movie night.

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I Care A Lot

Marla cares a lot. SO much, or anyway that’s what she tells the judge. This poor little old lady can’t care for herself and her son’s unfit, so Marla (Rosamund Pike) will step in and be her court-appointed guardian, for a fair fee of course. This is how she makes her lavish living, by “caring” for old people she’s cherry-picked for being old but not too old, in relative good health so she can bilk them for a good, long time, with a sizable nest egg and not too many prying family members around to question her judgment. She colludes with doctors to identify these victims, and with care home directors where she’ll stash them while she sells their houses and all their worldly possessions. Many of these older people are of sound mind and body before Marla gets to them, but not for long. Kept restrained, drugged, isolated, and barely fed, Marla’s aged victims will soon appear to be as far gone as she’s claimed. Marla’s about to meet her match.

Jennifer (Dianne Wiest) seems like a perfect target – a retiree with bountiful assets and no known family. But Jennifer isn’t who she seems, as you may have guessed, and Marla’s in for a whole world of trouble. But Marla isn’t just a crook, she’s a tenacious crook, an entitled crook, and she won’t go down without a fight. And oh what a fight!

This movie starts off shocking you with the ugliness and abuse in the system, the vulnerability of the aged, the potential for corruption, but then good old fashioned greed inspires this story to spin wildly off the rails. It’s an entertaining if not particularly realistic watch. Rosamund Pike gives a committed performance, though it may remind you of her turn in Gone Girl where she also played a harmless looking blonde woman whose innocent smile hid her true nature. Marla is a ruthless conwoman. Director J Blakeson does villainy well, he makes it slick, he makes it glossy, and he makes us complicit.  

I liked but didn’t love I Care A Lot; the script could have used a little more of that care, and the second half doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first. The set-up is amazing but Blakeson doesn’t quite excel at this whole dark-comedy-satire-cum-wacky-violent-thriller thing. It’s a delicate balance, something the Coens have perfected but few others can truly pull off. Blakeson doesn’t quite have the courage to maintain his carefully crafted cynicism right up to the last scene. He flinches. I Care A Lot is still worthy of your attention, but I bet you’ll be able to spot both its flaws and its fun.

Sundance 2021: Misha and the Wolves

Is the world ready for a post-modern holocaust movie?

Too late. Ready or not, here it is! Don’t blame director Sam Hobkinson, he’s just the guy delivering the bad news, but he’s delivering it because it’s interesting, it’s juicy, and you’re going to be thinking about it for a long, long time.

Misha Defonseca had been living in America for years, hazy about her past until one day she started opening up. As a little girl, her parents were murdered by Nazis and into the forest she fled, surviving thanks to the kindness of the wolves who adopted her. You read that right: wolves adopted her. Which is why she’s practically the Carole Baskin of wolves today (if you live under a rock and didn’t watch Tiger King on Netflix last year, you missed out, but long story short, Carole Baskin is the Tiger Queen). It’s a pretty amazing story, so amazing that a publisher comes calling, eager to make millions off the story, and soon Misha’s story is blowing up. Misha gladly travels all over Europe, accepting accolades, repeating her inspiring story, and seeing her book translated into many languages. Back home, she’s a little more reticent. Oprah comes calling and Misha doesn’t call back. Imagine the temerity! Misha’s publisher is pretty miffed at the missed opportunities, but then again, Misha’s pretty miffed at the publisher, who’s hiding money. So Misha sues the publisher and ruins her name and gets a huge judgement because she’s a sympathetic holocaust survivor and the publisher’s just a bitch who bilked her. But actually, the publisher’s beginning to poke holes in Misha’s story, and a researcher well versed in holocaust investigations agrees that Misha’s story isn’t quite holding up. But to accuse a survivor of lying is pretty delicate work and holocaust denial is pretty unpopular.

Hobkinson’s documentary is more twisty and turny than any detective story, and every time you think you’ve figured it out, you’re probably about due for another hairpin curve. You absolutely need to check this one out and be prepared to do your best sleuthing. It’s not often that a documentary can cultivate this much suspense and sustain it during most of its run. It’s a wild, well-told story that’s an engrossing watch and will pay dividends at dinner parties (or zoom dates) for years to come.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things

Mark (Kyle Allen) is either the most intuitive human being I’ve ever seen, or he’s done this before. In fact, he’s done this many times before. He’s trapped in a day that won’t stop repeating.

I know, I know. Enough with the Groundhog Day remakes. Almost none of them are good. I do have to give this one a chance, though, because last year Palm Springs made me put in the ‘almost’ before ‘none of them are good.’ Palm Springs was good. It was great. Now that we know it can be done, we have to at least go through the motions of pretending it can be done again.

No one’s more surprised than me that it has indeed been done again. It’s not as good as Groundhog Day of course, or even Palm Springs, but it does justify its existence, which is more than I was expecting.

You see, at some point as Mark is living and reliving his day, showing up with precision timing to making tiny, necessary improvements so that person A doesn’t get pooped on by a bird and person B doesn’t get smacked in the face by a beach ball, he meets a girl, Margaret (Kathryn Newton). And Margaret is the kind of girl who inspires him to use the pick up line ‘Are you by any chance experiencing a temporal anomaly?’ Which is to say that Margaret is also reliving this same exact day over and over, and now they’ve found each other. That’s not what makes this movie worthwhile, though Newton and Allen do have interesting chemistry together. No, what makes this movie worth your time is that they’ve put a new and interesting kink into the genre. Mark has of course been going through the day, obsessively trying to find the key that allows him to escape from this time loop. His current project involves a map of the eponymous tiny, perfect things – those small moments of utter perfection. But Margaret isn’t so keen on helping him. Margaret is actually invested in maintaining the time loop.

Cinematic history has taught me there are two kinds of people stuck in a temporal anomaly: those desperately trying to find a way out, and those who are hopelessly resigned to never escaping. Never have I encountered, nor indeed imagined, what kind of person would actually prefer to remain inside. This unique point of view brings a vitality to the genre that is most welcome. And The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is of course also operating under the ‘young adult romance’ subgenre, using a time loop to really emphasize that adolescent angst. The movie works because it uses these familiar trappings as a backdrop against some charming leads and a sweet story. It’s not essential viewing but if you’re looking for a small delight, Amazon Prime is serving this one up right now.

Greenland

It’s the end of the world as we know it and Gerard Butler isn’t going to take it lying down. A planet killing comet is head for Earth and John’s family has been selected for relocation to a safe haven in Greenland. Unfortunately, it’s a little rough going and things don’t happen the easy way. On to the hard way! In a 24 hour road trip from hell, John (Gerard), wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are going to battle literally the very worst of humanity just to hopefully get stuck living in an underground bunker with a lot of other pale, stinky losers, eating tinned peas and condemning their kids to incest and bad eyesight. Haven’t they seen any post-apocalyptic movies? The post apocalypse is awful! Stay home and die with dignity.

But they do not. Greenland is a rote, by the book disaster flick, and that’s not a bad thing. If you’re in the market for an action thriller, this one ticks all the boxes, fast-paced and bursting with adrenaline. It will not surprise you in the least but it takes no breaks and no prisoners as it literally races an extinction level event to the ends of the earth. This is Gerard Butler’s niche and he serves up Action Guy as good as he ever did but the script also remembers to make him a human being whose challenges and flaws don’t disappear just because the world is ending. In fact, director Ric Roman Waugh takes the time to show a more human side to the traditional disaster thriller.

I’ve gone on record before – I am not a survivor. I would rather die a thousand deaths than live without clean fingernails, hot soup, pillow-top mattresses, a good light to read by, air conditioning, online shopping…well, the list is nearly endless. I am what they call “high maintenance” and I am not embarrassed. My happiness is not accidental, it is the result of favourable conditions and many comfort items. It’s basic math. More is more. Plus, I think running for your life is undignified. I won’t even walk briskly for a bus. But Waugh does a decent job establishing this family’s dynamic relationship so we buy the bid to keep them together against all odds, to survive even in the face of deplorable hardship. Greenland isn’t great, but it is a great popcorn flick, a precious commodity this day in age, and she’s available to enjoy on Amazon Prime.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the duo who wrote the runaway hit Bridesmaids, are back at it again, cracking us up with a less raunchy but no less funny comedy about women in the prime of their life.

Okay, maybe not quite prime, but if they’re no longer bridesmaids, they’re not quite old maids. They’re single (divorced/widowed) and ready to mingle. Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) do everything together these days: they live together, work together, and go to Talking Club together. Rather awkwardly, Talking Club’s topic of the day is ‘jobs’ and Barb and Star have just been fired. Not even their famous hot dog soup can soothe these wounds. Listless, they take a cue from an acquaintance who’s just returned from a vacation she describes as a “douche for the soul.” Inspired, Barb and Star pack a whole range of culottes and some other essential items and head for that special section of Florida where luxury meets coconuts.

Barb and Star are about to have the vacation of their lives, and not just because it’s the first time they’ve ever left Nebraska. An evil villain named Sharon (also Wiig), an evil paperboy named Yoyo (Reyn Doi), and evil minion Edgar (Jamie Dornan) are plotting, well, evil, and its epicentre is Vista Del Mar! Luckily or unluckily, henchman Edgar just happens to be hunky, and Barb and Star have been starved for some luvin. Boy does this complicate their vacation! Barb’s lying to Star, Star’s sucking face with Edgar, they’re all dancing to a Celine Dion Titanic remix, and a soul douche is about to become a very wild ride!

The plot manages to make some sense despite being wildly absurd, but mostly you’re watching because Barb and Star are just so darn charming. Mumolo and Wiig still got it going on. I worried that these characters might seem like something better suited to an SNL sketch, but I didn’t need the trappings of the film, I would have been happy just spending time with the Talking Club. Although Barb and Star are caricatures, they’re made up of so many clever little details you won’t fail to find something familiar about them. They’re over the top but never annoying and never too much.

Production design, art direction, and costumes all come together in a wacky, tacky riot of pastel kitsch – and did I mention the random musical numbers? Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar is unapologetically and exuberantly silly, fully committed to the twin performances by hilarious comediennes Mumolo and Wiig, and pretty much the perfect comedy and it has been a long while since I said that about anything. We’re all in need of a little escapism right now and this movie is a glossy brochure for a middle aged vacationer’s delight – it smells like Red Lobster and looks like a Metamucil-yogurt commercial. What more could you possibly want?

To All The Boys: Always and Forever

Prepare your tender hearts for possible breakage: this is the third (and final) installment in the To All The Boys series and in it we’ll bid adieu to our favourite young couple, Lara Jean and Peter. They’ve come a long way from merely posing as a couple in the first film to being threatened by charming rival suitors in the second. Seniors in high school, they’re about to graduate and go to Stanford together – or are they?

Back from a spring break in Seoul, Lara Jean learns she hasn’t been accepted to Stanford and suddenly the entire future she and Peter have envisioned together is in flux. With a class trip to New York City, prom, and graduation on the horizon, these milestones might have to be borne solo. If Lara Jean and Peter aren’t going to college together, they may as well just go through with the inevitable break up now and get it over with.

After three movies worth of emotional investment, it’s hard to say goodbye to Lara Jean and Peter, but first loves aren’t necessarily forever, and it’s sort of sweet to see Lara Jean finding happiness on her own terms, with or without Peter. In the first two movies she wondered who she loved but now she’s wondering what else she values and who else she is. Now this is growing up.

Director Michael Fimognari called this movie “an unintentional love letter” and he’s got a point; filmed back to back with the second one, this movie didn’t predict that the class of 2021 would be disrupted by a global pandemic, so this movie’s graduating class is perhaps the only one that will get to slow dance at prom and don caps and gowns without social distancing. Most of their real-life contemporaries have given up so much so in a sense we’re all living vicariously through Lara Jean and Peter.

It’s heartbreaking to say goodbye to these two high school sweethearts but all good things must come to an end and all things considered, this is a pretty fitting farewell for our two star-crossed lovers.

Bliss

Greg (Owen Wilson) is having a very bad day: he’s getting divorced, estranged from his kids, living in a motel, and now he’s getting fired. And now he’s accidentally killing his boss while getting fired! And how he’s hiding the body and fleeing the building! A very bad day indeed. In the bar across the street (note: not the wisest place to hide out), he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), who tells him not to sweat it. Why? Good question. Because this whole world is fake, she tells him, a mere simulation of her own creation. She and Greg are real (in fact they’re “together”) but nearly everyone else is essentially an NPC, just a simulated person able to walk around and interact, but nothing more than a character in a very sleek video game. And there’s proof: Greg and Isabel have powers! They can make the fake characters do things with their minds. How about that?

Greg and Isabel go on a bit of a bender, Greg intoxicated by his newfound powers, happy to forget the woes of his other life and to reap the benefits of a new partner in crime. But there’s more. This world, remember, is a mere simulation. In the real world, Greg and Isabel are scientists, and this is Isabel’s research, and her creation. When they exit the simulation, Greg finds himself in a utopia, a world made perfect by science and technology. A little too perfect, actually; because you need bad in order to appreciate good, the utopia has become less and less satisfying, hence Isabel’s creation – a world in which you can live a rough life in order to better appreciate the perfection back home. Except Greg and Isabel have exited the simulation too abruptly and now both worlds are starting to bleed into each other and they’ll need to risk going back and getting stuck in order to correct it.

Or.

Or there’s another way to watch and interpret this movie. Perhaps Greg’s addiction to painkillers takes a turn for the worse when he loses his job and his home. Maybe Isabel is just a schizophrenic addict and they’re sharing a common hallucination in order to escape their life on the streets.

Bliss is purposely ambiguous and this movie is going to be very divisive because of it. Sean hated it because he made up his mind very early on and felt the whole exercise was pointless once he’d “figured it out.” I felt differently, having embraced the dichotomous possibilities. Writer-director Mike Cahill is careful to scrub the film of any telling language. No one says drugs. No one says addict. Yet there remains evidence for both sides of the coin. Greg has a grown daughter who never gives up looking for him. Isabel is adamant that Emily (Nesta Cooper) is just another fake character, but if that’s the case, why does the story sometimes get told from Emily’s point of view? That would seem to indicate that she’s real. Which goes double for Isabel, who might be just a figment of Greg’s imagination (or a side effect of his high), but she, too, is seen working independently in the movie. Sean insists that Greg is an addict, case closed, but this easy interpretation doesn’t account for the fact that we glitches in the matrix very early on. His wallet, for example, suffers a glitch, unobserved by Greg, seen only by us. Why would Cahill go out of his way to show us this if he wasn’t planting seeds of doubt? Of course there’s a third possibility here, that neither of these worlds is the “real” world and we haven’t seen the end of the simulations. Of course, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out where on the spectrum your belief lays. Some will see this in black and white and others will rejoice in the grays. But I believe there’s some hidden pink, and a very careful watch may uncover it still.

If you’re interested in taking on this puzzle, you can find it on Amazon Prime – but do promise to come back and let us know what you think, because Bliss is only 90% a movie. The other 10% depends on what you bring to the table.

Sundance 2021: Pleasure

I mentioned in my Sundance review of Violation that I’d watched several R-rated horror movies and yet none until Violation had asked me to confirm my birthdate. The difference? Not blood or guts or skinned animals or severed limbs or gouged eyeballs; the difference was a mere erection. Erect penises are apparently more horrific than mass murder or treating body parts like fire wood. Pleasure, too, has asked me to “prove” I’m legal, and in some respect, the erections here are indeed horrific.

Twenty year old Linnéa Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) leaves small town Sweden for Los Angeles with aims to become the world’s next big porn star. This road is indeed paved with many, many erections, and Bella’s over the top, completely fake reactions to them. She knows how to play the game, but the path to superstardom isn’t quite as straight forward as she’d imagined. To get noticed, she agrees to increasingly more toxic situations and ends up getting fucked.

Director Ninja Thyberg has clearly spent a long time immersed in the culture of pornography to present such a grounded and evocative picture of its reality. Deconstructing its inherent misogyny and the ubiquitous privilege of male positions in all aspects of the business, Thyberg tells her story with equal parts humour and humiliation, all of it raw and unfiltered. It’s no surprise to anyone that the porn industry is predatory, yet Thyberg strives to share a perspective that represents sex work in a positive way. The script doesn’t judge Bella for her choices or their consequences, understanding that viewers will bring enough judgment of their own, making the viewing experience dependent on each person’s own prejudices and expectations.

Ninja Thyberg casts actress Sofia Kappel as the beautiful blank slate, allowing us to use her as a human Rorschach test, but she meta-casts the rest of the film with porn insiders. Giving Pleasure a sense of realism are Chris Cock (Thrilla in Vanilla 8, Facesitting Tales 4), Dana DeArmond (Semen Sippers 7, Ass Eaters Unanimous 15), John Strong (Double Stuffed 6, Cum Fart Cocktails 6), Charlotte Cross (Cum Fiesta, Electrosluts), Xander Corvus (Foot Worship, Turbo Sluts 2), Evelyn Claire (My First Interracial 11, Lesbian Strap-on Bosses 4), Kendra Spade (Creampie My Bush!, Giant Dicks in Asian Chicks 3), Axel Braun (Busty Hotwives, Squirt Class 2) and more. So many more. Pleasure doesn’t lack for authenticity.

Arriving at LAX, a customs agent asks Bella whether she’s in the country for business or pleasure – you can guess at the answer she gives with a smirk – but the film itself refuses to see these terms in black or white. Certainly Thyberg makes clear that Pleasure isn’t here for our pleasure, it brilliantly and almost magically avoids sexualizing Kappel even while hauling her through scenes of double anal and rape-adjacent threesomes. In this film, the camera gives Bella a certain power that most porn starlets will never have: agency. It’s actually a story you’ve seen a million times before: a young ingenue climbing her way to the top. If you fail to recognize it, it’s only because you haven’t seen it wearing a strap-on before.  Oscar Wilde once apparently said “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” And in this film, those words have never been more true.