Category Archives: Kick-ass!

I Am Mother

All that remains of humanity is a maternal droid and 63 000 human embryos. Following her directive, the Mother robot grows a baby and raises it, alone in some sort of bunker. Mother (Rose Byrne) seems programmed to repopulate the earth but is in no hurry to do it, so far working just one at a time, and in fact, stopping at just the one. Their bond is unique but not without warmth and nurturing (though it did make me think of those experiments of rhesus monkeys raised by wire “mothers” who would cling to and love them as long as they had literally any kind of padding).

I watch countless sci-fi movies and read many books more in the genre, but I never understand how or why humans think they deserve to save themselves – or rather, why, when failing to save themselves personally, they still feel so strongly about saving ‘humanity’ in general. It’s conceit, obviously, to think we can and should thwart the natural order of things. To defy our own extinction when the time comes. To watch countless plant and animal species become endangered and then disappear but continue to place ourselves above them. We’ve had a good long run at the top of the food chain and of course we’d like to extend that indefinitely, but everything must end, and we seem to be doing our best to hasten ours. But when actually faced with the consequences of our footprint on the earth, our best fictional accounts continue to depict our self-importance.

When daughter (Clara Rugaard) reaches early adulthood, she’s been reading a lot about our kind, and even though Mother warns her of the toxicity outside the bunker’s doors, she can’t help but be curious as to what’s out there. It must be hard to imagine living among other people when you’ve never laid eyes on another. But it also seems part of our genetic makeup to want to be part of a pack, and a robot Mother will only cut it for as long as there’s no choice.

And then one day, choice comes knocking. A woman (Hilary Swank) bangs on an outer door. She’s wounded, shot, and is begging for access. Daughter lets her in, but there’s immediate tension between the Woman and the robot Mother. They’re telling VERY different stories about what’s going on in the outside world, and the droids’ role in everything. What motivation could Mother have for lying? But then again, we could say the same of Woman.

I Am Mother develops a striking sense of the creepy. There is lots of room for doubt, which fills the holes in our imagination. Which is good, because the setting is sparse. We’ve got one cold bunker, a constant interior shot that’s not going to vary. And Daughter’s interactions are against an imposing hunk of metal named Mother. It’s hard to act against a robot, and it’s hard for a robot to act. So it’s got a couple of strikes against it cinematically but much more going for it thematically, combining heaping helpings of Passengers and Ex Machina, with liberal sprinklings of Isaac Asimov for kick.

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Apollo 13

The real Apollo 13 mission was largely ignored in 1970. People had already seen men walk on the moon twice before, so this just seemed like more of the same. Interest was so low that lots of news programs weren’t even broadcasting it. Until, that is, things went wrong.

An oxygen tank exploded, which crippled essential systems. The 3 astronauts aboard just had to hang out in an increasingly inhospitable ship as the NASA crew on the ground scrambled to get them home safely. The planned moon walk was of course aborted; they never landed on the moon, just orbited around it. Over the next few days, the spacecraft had limited power, a worrying loss of cabin heat, a shortage or drinkable water, and an urgent need to fix the carbon dioxide removal system or die trying.

America might have been bored with moon walks, but for astronaut Jim Lovell, it would be the culmination of his life’s ambition. It was not to be.

Ron Howard brought this story of NASA’s most successful failure to the big screen in 1995, and still thinks of it as his best film. In fact, he thinks the launch sequence is the highest point of his career, and he’s not wrong. Watching First Man more than 20 years later, it’s clear that Apollo 13 had a huge impact on movies that would follow it.

Jim Lovell thought that perhaps Kevin Costner had a passing likeness, but once Ron Howard signed on as director, he immediately sent the script to Tom Hanks, who is a known space buff. Bill Paxton portrayed Fred Haise, while Kevin Bacon got the role of Jack Swigert, who was never supposed to be there. He was only on the mission as a backup, but blood screening suggested that Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) might have the measles, and he was replaced last minute. Though this was an undoubtedly heartbreaking switch, it was Mattingly’s expertise on the ground that ultimately helped save his crewmates. He sat in the simulator for days, doing simulation after simulation until he could work out a way to rescue his friends.

The actors, or actornauts as Howard called them on set, floated around in $30K space suits. And yes, they really did float. Steven Spielberg suggested that Howard approached NASA for special permission to use its KC-135 airplane, and permission was granted. Dubbed the vomit comet, the plane climbs to 38 000 feet and then does a big 15 000 foot drop, creating a zero-gravity effect, but it only creates about 23 seconds of weightlessness. For the film’s production, they had the plane perform 612 dives, for a total of 54 minutes of footage. Even still, sometimes when you see the actors just bobbing around in their capsule, they’re actually just sitting on seesaws. Pretending to be in space is hard! [Note: the 3 actors were very proud to report that none of them vomited on the comet…but several cameramen could not say the same.]

It took them 6 days to get them safely home, and while America did not care about a third module landing on the moon, it became obsessed with the imperiled mission that may or may not return. Millions of people tuned in every night, and so did the friends and families of the astronauts on board. NASA didn’t have time to give them proper updates, so they, like everyone else, relied on Walter Cronkite to feed them information. Ron Howard brought Cronkite in to record a few extra reports.

Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise had of course appeared together the year before in Forrest Gump, where Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan says to Forrest: ” If you’re ever a shrimp boat captain, that’s the day I’m an astronaut.” Lo and behold. The movie is full of little Ron Howard nods: Kathleen Quinlan who plays Jim’s wife Marilyn, actually had her first ever screen credit in American Graffiti, in which she played Peggy, a girl complaining in a bathroom about her boyfriend Steve – who was of course played by Howard himself. He also found a role for Roger Corman, the producer who gave Ron his first big break in Grand Theft Auto. Ron’s mother, his father, his wife, and of course his brother all appear in the film. The real Marilyn Lovell is briefly seen in the grandstands at the launch, and the real Jim shakes hands with the fake Jim aboard the Iwo Jima.

Apollo 13 was well-received, and it holds up well almost 25 years later. There are lots of movies about astronaut heroes, but Apollo 13 sets itself apart by portraying the time when someone’s dream doesn’t come true. It takes a story whose outcome is known (and in fact infamous: “Houston, we have a problem”) and still makes it feel tense and compelling.

Chasing Happiness

I missed the Jonas Brothers Happening. I mean, I wasn’t exactly living under a rock, but I was disconnected from pop music. I was going through a rough divorce from a partner whose mental health was on the rocks. I was rebuilding my life from scratch, working hard to finance my fresh start. I was exhausted and exhilarated and my playlist was full of power anthems, a kick-ass score for my happy new life. I remember being in a movie theatre and the trivia before the movie had me guessing between a Jonas and a Bieber, and I was clueless. Although I knew of them, I hadn’t knowingly consumed either – though I knew I’d likely heard their songs in malls or cabs if not clubs – and couldn’t name a song, or a brother. And then just as I was sticking my head up above the sand, the brothers were no more. Well, bands dissolve more readily than blood, but Jonas Brothers was over, and soon enough each Jonas was hitting the radio individually, which made it marginally easier to keep track of them.

Chasing Happiness is streaming now on Amazon Prime; it’s about Jonas Brothers reforming as a band now that they’re adults. A lot of shit went down, which they are surprisingly candid about. I’m obviously not a fan, but their transparency and realness are readily apparent and it’s hard not to get sucked into their particular brand of rags to riches.

They were close growing up, and they were competitive too. Like any brothers anywhere. Or indeed sisters. My sisters and I get super competitive if we’re playing a board game or competing for Mom’s attention, but I guess we’re not talented enough to have Jonas-level game. We’re not even good at the same things. But those brothers are disgustingly talented; any one of them can sing 9 out of 10 top 40 artists right off the billboard any day of the week. And they’re for real: they play real instruments, they write their own songs. Even as kids they were writing their own songs. Fifteen year olds are pretty shitty song writers, but they were so earnest and industrious it’s hard not to admire them anyway.

Few people have experienced such meteoric fame, let alone so quickly, and at such a young age. It’s three literal dreams come true, but enormous pressure too. Their father was a pastor, and he lost his job when his sons chose rock and roll (trying hard not to snigger when I write that), and the family home too. So now these teenage boys are the bread winners for their family. Meanwhile the machine just keeps getting bigger and bigger until it feels unmanageable.

Anyway, even having no idea who these guys really are, I still really enjoy sitting in on their family therapy sessions. Their Christianity and sexuality were on constant display despite them being minors. The media scrutiny sometimes made them into a joke, and their seminal years were tainted sometimes by fear and paranoia. There are cracks in Jonas Brothers, and one of the brothers plugs the crack with a stick of dynamite and lights it up.

Kaboom. Other bands can implode and go their own ways. But these boys are actual family. It’s sad and fascinating and honest. Man. I felt their pain. There’s resentment and betrayal and heartbreak there. Still is. It’s intense. But I really admire their willingness to lay themselves bare. I’m fairly confident that no one reading this has walked in shoes like theirs. But anyone with siblings will relate to this. We’ve all felt that knife. I’ve felt that knife. And anyone whose life changed after kids will relate to this. Anyone who’s grown apart from a best friend will relate to this. Maybe just anyone with a pulse will relate to this. I’ve gone and surprised myself by giving a damn about the Jonas Bros. I think I’m actually recommending this guys. Colour me surprised.

Knives And Skin

Carolyn Harper makes out with a football player but when she pushes away his roaming hands, he leaves her alone in the woods and she’s never seen alive again. Her disappearance disrupts her high school and the entire community, as the disappearances of beautiful young white women often do.

In the aftermath of her disappearance, we watch things unravel for her friends, her fellow bandmates and classmates, her mother, and the well-intentioned but inexperienced local sheriff. More than that, though, we experience the way that grief accelerates the coming of age for a group of teenagers, which makes it rather obvious that their parents’ haven’t exactly completed the growing up process either.

Writer-director Jennifer Reeder creates a very atmospheric teen noir that pulls from a lot of sources but manages to be its very own thing. The closest thing I can compare it to is Twin Peaks for its eerie tone but believe me when I say Knives And Skin is its own gothic soup – a horror broth steeped with many surprising flavours. Reeder brings in familiar tropes and mixes them with haunting song and feminist references and the result is hard to categorize but fascinating to watch, even if it is uneven, a little long, and prone to meandering. If it occasionally feels a little piecey, it also feels dreamy, surreal. The story is less concerned about finding Carolyn than it is about exploring the various ways people feel trapped, and subtle reminders that escape is possible. Although it starts off with a dead girl in the woods, it subverts the expectations of that genre over and over with its confident female leads and the weaponization of sex. It’s like a parody, but self-aware and dead serious.

Reeder may value style over narrative, but Knives And Skin interesting, beautiful, and unforgettable.

 

 

Booksmart

It’s the last day of school, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are ready to bid high school goodbye. They’ve been serious students, buttoned down and focused, and their hard work has paid off: they’re off to Yale and Columbia respectively. But their pride is tamped down a little when they learn that that many of their classmates are also headed for the Ivies – this despite the fact that they rarely seemed studious, and made lots of time for parties and fun. “I’m incredible at hand-jobs but I also got a 1560 on the SATs,” says one.

Molly is particularly devastated; sure she’s the valedictorian, but did she sacrifice fun for nothing? She doesn’t want to show up at college in the fall a party virgin. Her whole worldview is sliding down a crap chute, and her instinct is to dive in after it. Luckily, they have one last night before graduation, and Amy’s departure for a summer of volunteering in Botswana. One night to make up for 4 years of skipping parties and feeling left out of the in-crowd. They set their sights on Nick’s party – the most effortlessly popular kid in school (played by Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding Jr).

The ladies do not get from point A to point B without boatloads (and sometimes they are literal boatloads) of shenanigans. This is Superbad, only because it’s girls, it’s much smarter. And it seems like this one night of trying to party teaches them more about themselves than the previous four years of high school. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?

The movie gets so much right even as we learn how much the girls have gotten wrong. Molly always assumed she was purposely excluded, but it turns out these kids are all too happy to greet her socially; her exile was self-imposed. How maddening, isn’t it, to discover that too late – and a good reminder for us all to check in with ourselves. How often do we impose our own limitations? Amy tackles her fears while Molly checks her ego, and her assumptions. The two women in the lead have amazing chemistry and it’s a lot of fun to witness the particular dynamic of their friendship. You and I know that college will test the bonds of their friendship, and inevitably change it if not crush it outright. They’re starting to have inklings that this might be so. So this last night out has some tangible pressure to it. Beanie Feldstein is a cinematic lantern, lighting up every screen she’s on, and lighting the way for others. Kaitlyn Dever is an excelling pairing for her, able to play off her energy in a more conservative and subdued way, while still holding her own.

Olivia Wilde tries out the director’s chair and seems to find it a pretty comfortable fit. She’s got an eye for letting actors do their thing; so much of the best bits feel spontaneous and are the best kind of weird. She’s also got an amazing feel for music – she introduces characters and themes with pop songs, and it really took me back. I bet most of us can come up with a soundtrack of our own high school experience. Music is such an important part of that time in our lives. I still surround myself by music constantly, but I will never again spend the day on my bedroom floor inhaling lyric booklets, or spend hours recording stuff off MTV like I did then. I know which songs I kissed to, slow-danced to, had sex to. Which ones we played on repeat as we drove recklessly and restlessly around parking lots doing donuts, which ones played at the diner as we split an order of fries, which ones we cried to when boys were mean to us, which ones accompanies us down the aisle at our own graduations and commencements. Wilde seems to have an intuitive sense of that, and I caught it.

There’s a theme in Booksmart that is hinted at but never spoken of: class. As in economic and social class. Molly points out the school’s 1% (Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo, whom Sean finds uproariously funny), but it’s clear that the Los Angeles high school as affluent as heck. Everyone, it seems, except for Molly. Not a single thing is ever said about it, but we see that she lives in an apartment building while everyone else has a McMansion, and her parents are absent from the film. So when Molly discovers that all her other classmates also got into good schools, she berates herself for having skipped the fun when she didn’t have to. But you and I know that she probably did: that kids like Molly have to earn their way in, but kids from rich families do not. They have legacy status, they know alumni who can pull strings. Their families donate money to schools. And, as we’ve seen in the news recently, they pay money to fake their way in on a little-used athletic scholarship or some other fraudulent means. College admissions are not the meritocracy we want to believe they are. There are very valid reasons why Molly worked so hard and others did not, even if the film never states them. So maybe Molly’s takeaway was to loosen up a bit, and experience life, which are not bad lessons. But for us, it’s a little bit more than that.

Even with these subtle layers, Booksmart never stops being fun. The cast is lively and diverse, the tropes are thankfully on the unexpected side, and the movie has a great pace. Plus it has an exception friendship at its centre. Just when you think we’ve said all there is to say about high school, Boomsmart is a charming, genuine and clever addition to the field.

Rocketman

Elton John has had a life full enough to fill many biopics, but Rocketman shines its spotlight on his most troubled years, as he shot to success and earned the world’s respect and adoration but struggled to know and love himself.

Little Reggie Dwight was a brilliant but shy piano player. His parents were by times abusive and neglectful in their own unique ways, and he retreated into the safe space created by music. As a young man, the self-styled Elton (Taron Egerton) could compose music easily but the lyrics came hard. So his meeting Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) was a special gift from the universe – together, they wrote pop songs that would change and infect the world with catchy, raucous tunes.

Elton developed an on-stage persona that was larger than life: in costume he could be brave, and better still, he could be merry. He could play for thousands despite being torn up inside by grief and self-doubt. He was tormented by the possibility that he would never truly be loved – this, even as he continued to seek the approval from parents who could never give it to him, and affection from a man who would use and abuse him.

Rocketman chronicles both the highs and lows of Elton’s life, whether plumbing the depths of his despair in group therapy or lifting an entire audience off its feet – this latter shown quite literally through the magic of cinema. These fantastical elements really elevate the material beyond the standard biopic and help establish a sense of the unreal. In other parts, the film’s a little draggy, and though his unhappiness is obviously a recurrent theme in his life, I wish it was a little less returned to in the film.

The monstrously successful, deeply conflicted, young, gay addict Elton is brought to life on the big screen by Taron Egerton, doing all his own singing, dancing, wallowing, and dazzling. He may not be his physical twin, but he embodies his spirit and he nails his tight-lipped grin. He manages both the bravura and the pathos, and nails them both.

Director Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is a bedazzled piece of inventiveness and daring. The movie truly thrills when he embraces his creative vision, translating the highest of emotions into visual delights that pair amazingly well with songs we still want to sing along to. While it’s by no means an exhaustive list of his hits, the movie folds them into itself with purpose and delight. It’s easy to get swept along by this engaging, vulnerable, triumphant story.

Snowpiercer

Thank you, Snowpiercer, for giving me a Bong Joon-ho movie that I can watch! Bong is such a talented director that it made a wimp like me try (and fail) to watch The Host. But not only is Snowpiercer his first English-language movie, it’s also accessible to jerks like me. Which is not to say it isn’t scary because intellectually, it’s nasty as hell. It’s not horror so much as dystopia, and the scariest thing of all is how soon it’s set: 2014. Well, technically the main action is taking place in 2031 or thereabouts, but basically in 2014 humans tried to repair some of the damage we’ve done to the climate and it went disastrously wrong. The earth froze over, so a very select few were chosen to fight for survival on a perpetually moving train. The train has elite passengers at the front, living in luxury, and the unwashed masses are crammed in at the back, living in filth and poverty and darkness.

Mason (Tilda Swinton), the train’s disciplinarian, doles out some very harsh punishments to those who step out of their lane. But there are serious rumblings coming from the back of the train – Curtis (Chris Evans) is the reluctant leader of a rebellion. Soon he and others (Jamie Bell, Song Kang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer, Asung Ko) will make a violent push toward the front, but as usual, the haves will never make it easy for the have-nots.

The film, based on a graphic novel, is a brilliant commentary on class warfare. But it’s not just a matter of class, or economics. It smacks of Marxism, but is tainted with Darwinism. The oblivious first class passengers see their station as right and just, pre-ordained even, and cluelessly talk about their own sacrifices. But ultimately, they are being controlled just as much as the proletariat in the back. The propaganda starts with the schoolchildren and never ends. Free will is an illusion carefully meted out by those in charge. So is hope, and that’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

The film’s momentum is as relentless as the rebellion. Once they start making their push toward the engine, the train itself is a revelation. Production made a 100m replica of the train, and each of the train’s cars is wilder than the last, each more breathtaking, each scattered with clues. And the view outside the train’s windows of the frozen wasteland of earth is strangely beautiful, almost mesmerizing – it’s both serene in its tranquility and violent as the train continues to punch through the continually forming ice and snow. Bong tends to shoot the action with the tail section toward the left of the screen and the engine toward the right, so you always get the sensation that things are moving. It’s a really cool way to orient the audience and keep things pressing forward.

Tilda Swinton gives one of the most compelling and bizarre performances of her career, and if you know Swinton’s body of work at all, you know what a tall, broad drink of water that statement is. Bong Joon-ho originally wrote the part of Mason with John C. Reilly in mind; at the time he was a much more peaceful character. When Swinton landed the part, Bong changed the role but left in the male gender markers. Swinton wears glasses that were once her own – when Bong visited her at her home, he found them in her children’s dress up box, and insisted she wear them. Mason has a gold glinting tooth that is often visible, especially the more unhinged she (he?) becomes. She’s based the character on Margaret Thatcher, which is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Thatcher died the year this came out (2013) so I doubt she ever saw/heard of this unflattering ode, which may be for the best.

Chris Evans pursued the part even though Bong Joon-ho thought he was wrong for it. Bong thought he was simply too fit for a guy who’s been living in the cramped quarters of a dirty train compartment for the past 15 years, never seeing sunlight, subsisting on protein bars made of ground up insects. Evans was clearly persuasive and he’s clearly right for the part – Bong made it work by strategically using wardrobe and camera angles to downplay his physique.

The action sequences are other-worldly. You know which scene I’m going to talk about: a door slides open to reveal a car full of men wearing black fetish masks. Only they’re not here to have safe-word sex. They’re all holding hatchets. They’re here to murder you. In a deep, cleaving way. And then the lights go out. It’s dark like a nightmare and the axe battle is on. They pass up torches from the rear and that’s the only light lighting the scene, which is expertly done. Park Chan-wook serves as a producer and you can’t help but see Oldboy flavours in this scene. It’s spooky and tense and brutal.

Though the train’s engine is meant to be one of perpetual motion, lots of stuff inside the train is actually going extinct (like cigarettes, which will be missed). Life outside the train, however, may actually be returning. In the film’s final shot, the survivors’ sense of hope is buoyed by the sight of a polar bear, a sure sign that life on earth will continue. I think the choice of a polar bear is significant: our news feeds have been inundated with the sight of starved polar bears, of polar bears literally drowning because the ice is melting and swims between ice floes have become too long to sustain. Polar bears are a vulnerable, at-risk species. Snowpiercer’s healthy, satiated polar bear indicates that what they really need to thrive is the loss of their greatest threat: humanity.