Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Birds Of Prey

This is the Harley Quinn that Margot Robbie deserves. That we all deserve, really, away from the male gaze and into the capable hands of director Cathy Yan, writer Christina Hodson, and with Robbie herself producing.

Harley to Black Canary: “Do you know what a harlequin is? A harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master. No one gives two shits who we are, beyond that.” Harley Quinn has broken up with her on-again-off-again longtime love, the Joker, this time for good. Without him as an anchor, she knows she’s vulnerable. Under his protection, no one could touch her, but it turns out she’s accumulated quite a few enemies, and now that she’s untethered, they’re gunning for her. Number one on her tail: a guy who calls himself the Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who seems to think of himself as a rival to the Joker, though he styles himself more like a Miami Vice drug lord. He does have a bit of a fetish for peeling people’s faces off, though, so don’t go underestimating him. The only way Harley can keep her keister safe is to find the missing diamond he and literally every bad guy in Gotham would like to get their greedy paws on.

In Harley’s sparkly shoes, Robbie proves she can make this role her own, and without her emo boyfriend in tow, Harley Quinn is actually an interesting character in her own right. Her origin is glossed over with a couple of smartly and quickly tossed lines; the rest of the film is devoted to amped up action sequences. Yan doesn’t just have some tricks up her sleeve, she’s got entire confetti cannons up there, glitter bombs and rainbow grenades. Her violence is slick and beautiful, set to a perfect array of pop tunes you’ll be stomping your feet to even as someone one screen’s getting their skull caved in.

I’ve seen far too many reviews mention ‘female empowerment’ (of course in a derogatory manner, eye roll) and I can only assume those people are a) men and b) morons. Did anyone refer to the Avengers movies as ‘male empowerment”? No? Yeah, didn’t think so. Birds of Prey is better than 99% of the other DC movies released in the last decade, and if it happens to star women, well, so be it. This is not about female empowerment, it’s about empowered females, women with their own agency, women who can save themselves and best their male antagonists. The only thing being fetishized here is a breakfast sandwich. Feel threatened by that? Maybe you could do with a little male empowerment yourself. I believe the Batman franchise was built on the theory of overcompensation.

Meanwhile, Robbie has built herself a fearsome army: Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, and even young Ella Jay Basco. And none of them are rolling around on the ground crying about mommy Martha.

Can’t get enough? We’ve got more thoughts on Birds of Prey here.

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made

Timmy Failure has a misleading name, because he’s anything but. He may be young (11), but he’s the best detective in town (Portland). He and his partner, an imaginary 1500lb polar bear named Total, run the agency, called Total Failures, together. This may have been Timmy’s first mistake. Total is not the diligent and responsible polar bear he first appeared to be.

Timmy (Winslow Fegley), easily identified by his mullet and his red scarf (if not by his polar bear partner), roams the mean streets of Portland on the failure mobile, which looks suspiciously like a segway. But his case of the missing backpack is usurped by the case of the missing segway (eep!) which is in turn usurped by just trying to survive the 5th grade, his mom’s new boyfriend, his school’s rigid anti-bear policy, and the Russian spies overtaking his city. Gulp.

Winslow Fegley is a delightfully odd kid who pulls off charming and quirky in equal measure, exactly the kind of weirdo who’s a pleasure to watch. The whole cast, largely unknown, and largely children, are surprisingly talented and likable. It’s a good fit for a script that excels at being offbeat. Even the polar bear sidekick looks terrific, a visual witticism crashing about on screen. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is almost like a Wes Anderson starter movie, tonally odd but in a way I quickly became addicted to. I imagine this is the kind of movie the whole family can actually enjoy, its clever moments more than enough to keep adults entertained and the protagonist’s wacky antics enthralling for all ages.

Timmy Failure is a great piece of original programming for Disney+ and I wouldn’t mind a bit if there was more just like it (sequel?) on the way.

For Sama

In so many ways, Waad al-Kateab is a young woman just like you and I. She went to school, left home, fell in love, got married, had a daughter. But al-Kateab’s milestones are happening amidst the backdrop of the Syrian war. For five years she has had her camera trained on the uprising in Aleppo and she crafts this documentary as a love letter to her young daughter so she may know just what her parents were fighting for.

This is an intimate, female portrait of war, a side of the story rarely reported. In many ways, Jojo Rabbit is the film that got me thinking down this path; war stories are so often told from the point of view of the soldier (1917 is a good one), but for the women and children left behind, life goes on. Life: complicated and confusing, but there is no pause button. Children grow out of shoes, and tape idols on their bedroom walls. Mothers cobble together meals, and try to create some semblance of a happy home. For Sama is a story that is ongoing, and real. Waad al-Kateab is a real wife and mother telling her story from war-torn streets. Bombs are dropping around her but she slow-danced at her wedding just like you, peed on a stick just like you, felt her belly swell not just with baby but with hope and happiness, but tinged with a filament of fear always burning from within. She plays peek-a-boo with her baby just like you, but flees from a barrel bomb dropped on her by her own government with her baby clutched to her breast. But she loves her country just like you, believes it is worth saving. Her husband, a doctor, tends every day to the wounded. There are always new wounded. Sometimes the body bags are so small. It is endless work. So is the balancing of parenthood and principle, the urge to flee the city to protect their daughter’s life, and the conviction to stay and fight for what so many have already sacrificed so much.

It feels so alien to face such choices, and yet one image stops me cold: sock feet in a pile of bodies. Sock feet that could easily belong to anyone. Must I (we?) relate to those who suffer before we feel compassion? It’s so easy to dismiss this conflict as “their” problem but the boundary between us and them is illusory at best. We are all brothers and sisters, and if this documentary helps us walk a mile in someone else’s socks, it has done its job.

Sama is a toddler with big, gorgeous eyes. She was born during war. She knows nothing else. A loud bang erupts as another bomb explodes nearby. Her mother flinches, crouches reflexively, but Sama doesn’t react at all: a baby who doesn’t cry at a loud noise? Sama doesn’t know this is wrong, this is scary. She thinks this is life. Who will be left to tell her otherwise?

Uncut Gems

Two minutes into this movie, I was over it. Ten minutes later, I was completely done. I kept watching. I pushed through the pain, and it WAS painful. It was just a bunch of angry men shouting at, and over, each other. Scene after scene just yelly chaos, and it wasn’t really an energy I was expecting or felt I could handle. But I kept watching because I realized this was exactly what directors Benny and Josh Safdie wanted me to feel.

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a New York City jeweler – not at Tiffany’s or Harry Winston’s, but in one of those shady-looking mess of stores in the diamond district where the real shit goes down. He’s got Furby pendants in his case and watches of questionable origin in his safe. It’s the kind of place you have to know about, or be lured to, and get buzzed in, which contributes to the seediness rather than a sense of security. Anyway, Howard is a wheeler and dealer always looking to get rich quick, and he needs to get rich because he’s got a girlfriend stashed in an apartment, hidden from his wife and kids, so he’s supporting at least two households that we know about. But his big score just came in: a black opal that’s going to net him a cool million. Except Howard’s not the kind of guy who does well with cash in hand, or even with just the possibility of it. He’s going to parlay that potential (but as yet unrealized) money into yet another high-stakes bet. Yup, Howard is a gambler, big time, and he owes money all over town. Because of course he does. The walls are closing in, the tough guys are getting antsier, and he’s pretty much out of moves.

So yeah. Howard’s life is pure and constant chaos, and the damn Safdie brothers are determined to make us viscerally aware of it. His frantic juggling act makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Adam Sandler is very good as a slimy man living on the brink. Rationally, we know that he’s on the brink of ruin, but addict that he is, inside the Vegas-like interior of his brain, with constant lights and sounds fooling him into believing him the next hit is sure to be the big one, he can’t stop. He just KNOWS that he’s due. And it’s actually very sad to watch someone hustle so hard, so deeply in denial, so dangerously mired in so very many bad situations. And Sean wants me to tell you that Kevin Garnett is also quite good…as Kevin Garnett. The he tried to show me some dated basketball clips so I pretended I needed to go for a very long pee. I think he got the hint.

Anyway, Uncut Gems is rough viewing and the only quiet moments are when we’re literally up his poop hole – and yes, that’s problematic in itself and definitely a weird kind of reprieve. It’s polarizing at best. Challenging for sure. Anxiety-triggering. A masterfully manipulated roller coaster that ends, I suppose, the only way it really could.

Oscar-nominated shorts 2020

Hair Love: nominated for short film (animated), directed by Matthew Cherry, Everett Downing Jr. & Bruce Smith

A father does his daughter’s hair. Normally I’d be extremely dismissive – these types of videos go viral all the time, the world falls over itself to applaud dads for attempting the things mothers are expected to do on a daily basis. HOWEVER. Hair Love is not really about a father patting himself on the back, it’s about a little black girl named Zuri who wakes up wanting to look extra nice on this special day. She follows an online tutorial from her absent mother’s hair blog, but wrangling her hair is challenging and things don’t go well for Zuri or her dad. A black woman’s hair is a special thing indeed, tied up in her identity and her culture, a symbol of her status, perhaps fraught with difficulty. But Zuri just wants to honour her mother; she already knows that hair does not make the woman. Inspirational and sweetly animated.

Kitbull: nominated for short film (animated), directed by Rosana Sullivan

A scrappy young street cat (well, kitten) and a pit bull trained to be vicious form an unlikely bond and experience friendship together for the first time. It brought a tear to my eye. Though it’s by Pixar (SparkShorts), the 8 minute film is 2D, every frame hand-drawn and hand-painted. Available now on Disney+.

Brotherhood: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Meryam Joobeur

Mohamed, a shepherd, is deeply shaken and a little suspicious when his estranged eldest son Malek returns home from Syria to rural Tunisia with a mysterious young wife in tow. The black sheep of the family returns on the same day as an actual sheep is found slaughtered. Families are tough things to navigate and Mohamed’s is no different. He is mistrustful of this new woman, covered head to toe in a niqab, and even of his son, one of 3 red-headed brothers played by real-life red-headed brothers, a jarring sight out in this hard-scrabbled land. He doesn’t approve of Malek’s decision to fight in Syria but it’s clear their relationship has always been fraught. Brotherhood has stunning cinematography and a meaty script but neither will soften the blow when Mohamed learns how costly assumptions can be.

Walk Run Cha-Cha: nominated for documentary (short subject), directed by Laura Nix

Paul and Millie recall their youth in Vietnam, where ‘foreign music’ was so romantic and sexy, and dance parties at home were illegal. They fell in love but were separated when Paul’s family fled the communists. They lost their youth and their young love to the aftermath of the Vietnam war, but 40 years later they have reunited in California and are rekindling their romance on the dance floor. Through one couple’s love story, Laura Nix teaches us about the immigration process and what it takes to relearn the language of love and make up for lost time. In their golden years, Paul and Millie finally have the time, energy, safety and security to learn what it means to enjoy life.

Nefta Football Club: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Yves Piat

In the south of Tunisia (again with Tunisia!), two young brothers and ardent football fan brothers bump into a donkey just chilling out in the middle of the desert on the border of Algeria. Oddly, the donkey is wearing red headphones (and yes, listening to music). The donkey is carrying bags of white powder (flour, they wonder? laundry detergent?) – they ditch the donkey and bring the powder back to their village, where their friends are playing football.

The Neighbors’ Window: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Marshall Curry

Exhausted, frazzled, middle-aged parents Alli and Jacob are mesmerized by their curtainless neighbours in the next building. While they breastfeed and wipe up poop and serve up meals that don’t get eaten, the two pine for their youth by spying on their young, horny neighbours across the street. This film is about envy more than voyeurism, well-acted and slick as hell, two people who are so busy that they’ve forgotten the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. This is Curry’s third nomination so it seems unwise to discount him.

Life Overtakes Me: nominated for documentary (short subject), directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson

Over the last 15 years, hundreds of traumatized refugee children in Sweden have become afflicted with Resignation Syndrome. Life is so hard they withdraw into a coma-like state, unresponsive, sometimes for years. It’s like their little bodies can only take so much. Children need security, not uncertainty, to recover after a trauma, but for refugees, security is a long time coming. Watching these kids waste away is tragic. What is happening here? And the scariest part is that their families are still facing deportation. Imagine caring for a comatose child as a refugee? Those kids are frankly not likely to survive. But with anti-immigration sentiment growing in Sweden, and asylum laws getting stricter, the outlook isn’t positive. This documentary had me asking questions I’d never even thought of before, and combing the internet for answers. Stirring and urgent, Life Overtakes Me is available on Netflix.

Some of these are available to watch on Youtube, legally and for free – check out my Oscar-nominated films playlist.

Pain and Glory

Thirty-two years after his film Sabor (Flavor) came out, writer-director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is just coming to terms with it. He hasn’t seen Sabor’s lead actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) since it premiered 3 decades ago but the cinemateque has recently restored the film, labelled it a classic, and viewing it with fresh (well, older, wiser, more experienced) eyes, Salvador decides maybe it’s time to bury the hatchet.

It is clear that Salvador is taking stock of his life. He’s not well. But his recollections suggest that his life has rarely been without pain of some kind. As a talented choir soloist, he was educated by the priests and taught his book learning to others. But geography he learned by traveling the world as a successful director. And anatomy he learned through pain and illness. When he reconnects with Alberto we assume he’s making amends but resentments still run hot and what is actually exchanged is heroin.

Antonia Banderas is the picture of a tortured man. Riddled with pain he can no longer make movies. But without shooting, his life has no purpose. To hear those truths is to understand a man who is resigned to the end. His character has come full circle in a lot of ways, a lot of ways that are painfully obvious as a play about his youth is staged and brings out forgotten friends. We learn so much about his fears and motivations and how a man who has made his living telling stories is now grappling with his own. And in many ways, this role brings Banderas full circle from the role that first garnered him attention from American audiences as Tom Hanks’ lover in Philadelphia. This time Banderas is front and centre, earning himself his first Oscar nomination for his restraint, consideration, and tenderness.

Dolor Y Gloria is like a vise on my heart for every shred of his own humanity that master film-maker Pedro Almodóvar pulls from his experience and uses to paint the screen with sorrow and redemption. Using heroin is referred to as ‘chasing the dragon’ but this film chases after so much more: compassion, reflection, grief, making peace. Almodóvar still knows how to engage us, but in this he surprises us, and perhaps even himself, with the authenticity in his unflinching self-examination.

The Edge of Democracy

Brazilian film-maker Petra Costa is in her 30s, and just a little older than democracy itself in her country. Her parents were activists and briefly jailed for their convictions when military regimes still governed the country. This film blends political documentary with personal memoir as she recounts her family’s political and social entanglements while studying the dramatic collision between two Brazilian presidencies.

Costa voted for Lula da Silva but watches in dismay as scandal and corruption engulf his presidency and he scrambles to compromise and resort to alliances with the oligarchy that he’d always railed against. And yet Brazil prospers: the economy thrives, the poor are lifted up. When he leaves office two terms later, his approval rate is at an all-time high. He anoints a predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, and she is elected thanks to an even stronger alliance with PMDB, who appoints her vice president. She starts her presidency strong but the socio-political climate of Brazil is changing, as it is in many of the world’s democracies. The people are waking up, and Rousseff scrambles to regain credibility by initiating a sweeping investigation into corruption.

As one president is impeached and another imprisoned, the country is further destabilized. It is clear as Costa narrates this film in the first-person that she is watching her country descend into turmoil and worries that democracy itself is crumbling. When you witness some of the illogical but fervent rhetoric being flung around in its media, it reminds us rather alarmingly of Trump’s disregard for the rules of democracy and the parameters of the presidency.

Brazil is on the edge of democracy, perhaps teetering back toward dictatorship. Costa narrates an angry and intimate portrait of this tumultuous time; it is one-sided to be sure, personal and impassioned. And yet the country’s split into two seemingly irreconcilable factions feels all-too familiar and if nothing else, The Edge of Democracy should be viewed by Americans as a warning shot against the increasing polarization of their own country. This documentary is a portrait of democracy’s demise, but Brazil isn’t the only country in danger of rolling down this hill.

The Edge of Democracy is nominated for an Oscar in the documentary (feature) category, alongside American Factory, The Cave, For Sama, and Honeyland. Which do you think will win?