Category Archives: Kick-ass! (Sean)

Sean says: go see it. Now.

Black Panther

MLD-01496_R.JPGThe Marvel Cinematic Universe is so bloated at this point that Marvel usually crams as many superheroes as possible into the “solo” movies in between Avengers instalments.  For example, Iron Man pops up in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Falcon briefly gets in Ant-Man‘s way, and everyone other than Cap and Bucky in Captain America: Civil War are clearly uninvited guests.  The result is that every movie is more or lScrooge-McDuck-Money-Biness the same movie.  Clearly, that’s Marvel’s goal with a shared universe as that way, we movie-loving rubes have to see them all, and throw even more cash into Disney’s money bin (which by now must be bigger than Scrooge McDuck’s).

Black Panther is different than those other movies.  It feels fresh.  This is a side of the Marvel Universe we have not seen, with new characters, new challenges, and new disputes.  There are no distractions in the form of random heroes from other movies (full disclosure: there are two supporting characters we’ve seen before but I am willing to overlook that, because both felt like they belonged).  Instead, we are introduced to a whole host of new characters who we quickly feel like we’ve always known, thanks to director/co-writer Ryan Coogler’s stellar work (he’s now three for three in his young career, having already giving us Fruitvale Station and Creed).  Refreshingly, none of these new characters are white, and the female characters are just as important as the men (and maybe even more so).

Best of all, this part of the MCU is not based on good versus evil.  Most of the “bad guys” aren’t bad at all, and the biggest bad, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, is one of the most complex villains we’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.  I’d put him second only to Sir Ian McKellen’s Magneto (and that’s a largely unfair comparison because Magneto has been both hero and villain throughout his 55 year career) and well ahead of Heath Ledger’s Joker (who for all his awesomeness is essentially one-dimensional in that his goal was simply to destroy everything). Rather than having a standard comic-book focus, the conflict in Black Panther stems from a substantial philosophical and political question, the answer to which shapes your view of the world.  This is nationalism versus globalism, superhero style, which means that rather than choosing and lobbying elected officials who then debate and vote on these important issues, these weighblack-panther-comic-con-25jul16-02ty disputes in Black Panther are resolved through lots of punching and kicking (which, for all its flaws, is clearly a more efficient political system than the one the USA is currently using).

Black Panther does absolutely everything right.  This is essential viewing and, along with Wonder Woman, shows why diversity in Hollywood is so valuable.  It’s not about political correctness at all.  It’s because a fresh perspective and cultural diversity makes the movie-going experience that much more real and, moreover, provides vitality and energy to a genre that otherwise has been beating the same horse for the last ten years.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

ridley-hamill-last-jedi-trailer-ht-jef-171121_12x5_992It is a good thing that Disney did not try to stick a Frozen short in front of Episode XIII, which weighs in at a hefty 2 hour and 33 minutes not including ads and previews. It doesn’t help that much of that time is spent watching Poe Dameron try really, really hard to learn a fairly simple lesson. Poe got it on what by my count was the fourth try, during a battle that took me by surprise because I expected the movie to have ended before that fight even started!

So this was not the ideal movie to have dragged Jay to, with it being an unusually long entry in a nerdy franchise she has less than no interest in. At least trying to spot the rumoured William & Harry cameo kept her busy for a while. I hope.

For those of us invested in this behemoth franchise, this is a solid Star Wars film that changes things up a bit more than did The Force Awakens, though this one sometimes feels like it’s spinning in place. Still, being the Star Wars fanboy I am, I was more than willing to forgive a few extra scenes and a few too many contrivances because what this movie gets right, it REALLY gets right.

At the top of the “gets right” list are the Last Jedi. And  since Jedi is plural, that makes for multiple entries on the list.

First, Luke is actually in this movie for more than one scene and it’s the Luke we know from all three original films, for worse and then for better, and then for so much better. Bear with Luke as in the course of this movie he manages to transition (again) from whiny back-planet farmboy to ass-kicking robed avenger. It’s truly fantastic.

Second, Daisy Ridley’s Rey is really, really great for the second movie in a row. She is the heart of this third trilogy and for my money she’s the best Jedi we’ve ever had (because unlike Luke, Anakin and Ben Kenobi, Rey never had a whiny phase).

Third, we get a Jedi ghost appearance that was an unexpected bit of closure I didn’t even know I needed, as it’s one last advice-giving opportunity from master to student.  It will make you wish that Han Solo was a Jedi so he had a chance to pop up in ghost form during Episode IX to rehash the good old days.

Speaking of the good old days, it is bittersweet to see Carrie Fisher get a prominent role here. Great as it is to have Leia be the true leader of the resistance, her importance means Fisher’s death will leave a massive hole in Episode IX that can’t (/shouldn’t) be filled (CG stand-ins creep me out and should creep you out too). RIP Carrie.

It occurs to me that a two hour version of this movie might have been my favourite Star Wars of all, if they had cut out much of the Poe and Finn stuff (which are the scenes that inspired my earlier reference to spinning in place).  As it stands, this is still a good film that did not disappoint, and it might edge out Return of the Jedi for third place on my list, which is pretty damn respectable.

 

Thor: Ragnarok

post_master-thor-960x540The Marvel Cinematic Universe is so bloated by this point that it’s a full-time job to keep up with what’s going on.  Thankfully, Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t get bogged down in what’s come before.  Instead, the third installment in the Thor franchise tells a self-contained story and shifts Thor’s segment of the universe from dreary fantasy mode to action-comedy mode.  From a cameo by Matt Damon that I totally missed, to a Taika-Waititi-voiced blue rock monster, to Hulk and Thor arguing over everything and anything, Ragnarok is the funniest apocalypse movie you will likely ever see (sorry, Zombieland!).

My only complaint, really, is that the plot got in the way of the fun.  Every time the scene shifted to the problems Cate Blanchett’s Hela was creating in Asgard, all I wanted was to get back to the wacky trash world where Thor and Hulk had crash-landed.  I guess this movie had to justify its existence by advancing the plot and having big stakes but I would have gladly spent the whole run time hanging out with my new favourite Avengers (who I am happy to report have now started their own spin-off team).

Anyone who has enjoyed Taika Waititi’s past work will not be disappointed by Thor: Ragnarok.  If you haven’t enjoyed Waititi’s work, you’re probably on the wrong site, and if you haven’t seen his other stuff, then do!!!  Start with Thor: Ragnarok and go from there.

As he always does, Waititi will introduce you to madcap supporting characters whose main purpose is to make you laugh, and even better, he will show us that Thor and Hulk have actual personalities.  Purists may take issue as those two characters are notoriously dull, but I thought it was a fantastic improvement that should be carried forward into the next 40 or 50 Marvel movies that apparently are still to come.  Comic book movies should be bright, colourful and fun, and Thor: Ragnarok is all of those things from start to finish.  Go see it!

 

Blade Runner 2049

blade4Has there ever been a more beautiful vision of a dystopian society than what Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins serve up in Blade Runner 2049?  Even a photo of a dead tree will be captivating to those around you.  Nuclear wastelands, city-sized garbage dumps, and coastal dams will all amaze.  Visually, this is exactly the sequel that Blade Runner deserved.

Story-wise, Blade Runner 2049 is probably the sequel that Blade Runner deserved as well, though that’s not necessarily a compliment.  The story is muddled right from the hard-to-read title cards that try to bring us up to date on what’s happened in that world’s last 30 years.

The facts in the title cards turn out to be quite important to keep up in Blade Runner 2049’s world as we follow an LAPD officer (Ryan Gosling) trying to solve a 30-year-old mystery involving our old friend Deckard (Harrison Ford).  Though it is unfortunate that the title cards are as dense as they are, I would not have wanted the movie to try to retell its background story, as the 163 minute run time is plenty long enough already!

Refreshingly, Blade Runner’s world is not our world.  It is an alternative future, so there is no attempt to revise the original’s timeline (as you may recall, Blade Runner is set in 2019 in a world where robot slaves are fighting space battles and colonizing other planets for humans, so things did not exactly turn out in our world as the first film predicted).  Interestingly, those differences make it easier for the view to focus on the similarities between their world and ours.  Villeneuve has delivered another very thoughtful, deliberate and satisfying sci-fi film, and it’s easy to analogize to our world every time a replicant is treated as disposable property (which happens a lot).  The film also offers a lot to chew on regarding memory and the nature of reality.  Honestly, I’m still digesting it all as a I write, while also trying to sort out a few of the story’s finer points, and this film is one that I’m going to have to watch again to get everything sorted.

It’s remarkable how closely this sequel resembles the first movie,  in style and substance, despite being released 35 years later.  More remarkably, at the same time it is paying tribute to the original, Blade Runner 2049 is telling a fresh story set in this familiar world, and manages to leave the original movie’s largest question unanswered in a surprisingly satisfying way.  So while Blade Runner 2049 is not the best movie of 2017, it is a good movie made great by its technical excellence, which naturally makes it the perfect sequel to Blade Runner.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

kingsman2You know when a movie has a really cool part that blows your mind and then you know the sequel will try to recreate that part a hundred times over? Then, when you see the sequel do exactly that, it’s still pretty good even if it’s not quite as good as the first time? Remember when I said almost exactly the same thing about the latest addition to the Fast and the Furious franchise, earlier this year? Well, call this the sequel to that review. For a moment I thought about reusing that same review but I didn’t, because clearly I have more respect for my audience than do those Hollywood big shots who keep greenlighting all these sequels.

Getting back to the subject that I’m supposed to be writing something original about, it is somewhat alarming that the level of ridiculousness that took the Furious series eight movies to reach only took the Kingsman franchise two films to equal.  Kingsman gained so much ground so quickly because it is over the top every chance it gets, right from the start, with one slow motion action sequence after another, all set to some purposely eclectic song choice.

But in all its efforts the Kingsman sequel never comes close to the fever dream that was the church sequence in Kingsman the first, which was the part that totally blew my mind. I realize it would have been cleverer if I had found a way to tie the head explosions at the end to the mind blowing language, but honestly nothing beats the church scene for me.

Even though it doesn’t achieve the same peak level as the first film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is an enjoyable movie that comes out a little ahead of Furious 8 in the stupid yet enjoyable unnecessary sequel category (which I am quite sure will be an Oscar category starting this February).  Kingsman gains the edge over Furious in this important head-to-head showdown by being consistenly funny between action scenes, a result of both its gleeful over-the-topness and the wacky tone it carries over from its predecessor.

Be warned that the film occasionally veers into sheer creepiness (um, a mucus membrane tracking device???). Also, be warned that you will be creeped out much more often than once if you are in any way adverse to people being ground into hamburger (literally) or chopped in half by electric lassos (which is also a thing that actually happens in this film for what I am guessing is the first time ever).

The occasional incident(s) of creepiness are easily forgiven, by me at least, because Kingsman: The Golden Circle is frenetic, confident, and surprisingly touching at times.  The highlights for me were Mark Strong covering John Denver and Elton John finally letting loose on stage after years of self-inflicted repression. Those scenes were more than well worth the price of admission by themselves.

I give Kingsman: The Golden Circle seven country roads (taking you home) out of ten.

 

TIFF: Black Kite

blackkite_tiff2017.pngAfghanistan is the last place I’d expect to find a kid flying a kite. After watching Black Kite and seeing kites be such a prominent part of life, bringing a tiny bit of joy to those who are trapped in this war-torn land, it seems strange that I ever had a presumption on kites one way or the other.  The smallest of assumptions, something taken for granted without basis, led me to think I knew more about another’s circumstances than I do.  Being wrong about kites reminded me that actually, I know absolutely nothing about what it’s like to live in Afghanistan!  I have Black Kite’s writer/director Tarique Qayumi, a Canadian who came from Afghanistan as an eight-year old refugee, for brilliantly and effortlessly challenging my preconceptions.

Black Kite follows Arian, an Afghan man who has been captured by the Taliban and convicted of the highest crime.  Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how Arian came to be imprisoned and sentenced to death.  Kites feature prominently in his story, from childhood, through adolescence, to adulthood.  There’s a remarkable contrast between the bright coloured kites and Arian’s drab, washed out existence, not only in the prison but throughout most of his life as Afghanistan is oppressed by one ruling body after another.

There are some absolutely beautiful shots of the desert and sky, and some very poignant animation that conveys a lot about what these kites represent: freedom, a means of expression and communication, and a marker of milestones in a man’s life, both good and bad.

Another assumption that Black Kite dispels is that freedom is free.  Freedom is a foreign concept for Arian, not the inherent right that I treat it as.  Arian and his family constantly live in fear, under the boot of one regime or another, with seemingly arbitrary rules that have the sole purpose of keeping them down. The rulers may change but the rules remain more or less the same, so Arian and his compatriots are denied even the simplest pleasures.  It hurts to experience these denials second hand, making the first hand experience all the more difficult for my privileged mind to imagine.

Black Kite is a wonderful film and a timely one.  It showed me how much can be stripped away from individuals, and reminded me that the little freedoms are as important as the big ones.  If those little freedoms were preserved for all, this small world would be a much better place.  There is no easy solution but we should spend our energy searching for ways to help people less fortunate than us.  Instead, we spend our time arguing over how many refugees we should accept from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, places where every day could be your last and little freedoms, like flying a kite, cannot ever be taken for granted.

By the way, the answer to how many refugees we should accept is: as many as we can fit.  And we’ve got plenty of room.

Lean On Pete

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“It was just so unrelentingly bleak,” Jay sighed as we divvied up our review assignments after a busy day of films in Venice. That’s exactly right. Lean On Pete is misery from start to finish. Parents are thrown through glass doors and wind up in hospital. Teenagers have to take shitty jobs instead of fuflilling their athletic potential. As part of those jobs, teens see slow horses being sent to Mexico for slaughter. Nice aunts who may be able to help those teens have disappeared from phone books after fighting with teens’ parents. Will teens have to live on the street while they search for those nice aunts?

Having just mentioned horses being slaughtered in Mexico, is it in bad taste to say that Charlie Plummer is the glue that holds this film together? Well, either way, that’s the word I’m going to use, because Plummer is amazing as the teenager, Charley, who would have no luck if not for bad luck. Plummer more than holds his own against screen veterans like Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny and Steve Zahn (none of whom stick around for too long). His strong performance and natural charisma will make you root for him.

I am not exaggerating when I say that every conceivable thing goes wrong for Charley in this movie. It’s horrible. Even as I warn you, I know you cannot be prepared for what is about to happen. Charley seems smart, and he’s clearly a hard worker, but he keeps getting dealt the worst possible hands, against all conceivable odds.

Plummer’s strong performance makes it so devastating to see what happens to this poor kid, especially because you know there are real kids out there with similar luck to Charley’s, stuck in a bad situation without any path out. Life isn’t fair, and Charley’s journey is evidence of that, because Charley doesn’t do anything to deserve the lifetime’s worth of misery he experiences during Lean On Pete’s two hour runtime.

There is something uplifting to be found in Charley’s resilience. In the face of all the misery he’s subjected to, he does not stop. He gets to where he wants to go, and maybe even gets a happy ending. Hopefully. After suffering with Charley, I need to tell myself he did, and the film is kind enough to let me believe it happened. I’m not sure the lift at the end was enough of a boost to put me back to level, but a cinematic reminder of how charmed a life I lead is never a bad thing when it’s this well put together, even if it’s this unrelentingly bleak.

Nico, 1988

nico-1988-trine-dyrholmYou may not know Nico by name, but I bet you have heard of some of her friends, people like Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. Nico, born Christa Päffgen, was part of the Velvet Underground for their first album (getting co-billing in fact) and, as a musician, that would seem to overshadow anything else one might do from then on. Nico, 1988 joins Christa in 1986 as she tours in support of her latest solo album. Understandably, Christa would prefer to keep the focus on her new music, but the press keeps asking about her past.

Nico, 1988 makes the viewer feel the weight of that past. This film gives a revealing and honest look at Christa’s life, stitched together from memories of those who knew her, including her son. It feels like a documentary, in large part due to a great performance by Trine Durholm in the lead role. Durholm shines both offstage as well as onstage, handling vocal duties herself.

The music is the beating heart of Nico, 1988, which is entirely appropriate for a biopic about an avant garde innovator whose music Rolling Stone called “a really worthwhile venture into musical infinity”, music that others have described as desolate, terrifying and unlistenable.

Judging from the soundtrack in Nico, 1988, all those descriptions are accurate. Sometimes, Christa sounds horrible, but once in a while, it’s magic. One ill-fated concert in Prague shows the heights that Christa can hit. Her energy and the crowd’s mesh perfectly and draw the viewer into the front row. Not coincidentally, that’s the only performance in the film that Christa delivers drug-free. Christa’s struggles with addiction are part of her story, and they feature in this film just as they did in her life.

For music lovers in particular, Nico, 1988 is essential viewing. It provides a behind the scenes look at the life of a true artist, a musician’s musician who cast a shadow too large for herself to escape from. Catch it if you can!

Dunkirk

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We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

-Winston Churchill, June 1940

Has anyone ever been better than Winston Churchill at giving motivational speeches?  He had a way of rising to the occasion and here, the stakes had never been higher.   This speech was given immediately after the British and their Allies had been run out of France by the invading Germans.  Victory over the Nazis was not on the horizon and must have seemed impossible at the time.  That’s more or less what Churchill said, after all: he is not describing a plan to win.  He is describing a last-ditch effort to survive when the Nazis try to conquer Britain after they finish in France, and a cry for help to the New World to save the day in that bleak scenario (Canada was, of course, already part of the Allied forces at the time, but the U.S. would not be until Pearl Harbor).

The devastating outcome of the Battle of Dunkirk gave good reason for Churchill’s pessimism.  It is a fascinating historical event because it was a loss that could well have broken the Allies, but instead, it galvanized them, particularly in the way that the British survived: hundreds of civilian vessels sailed from Britain to France to help rescue over 300,000 Allied soldiers from the Nazis.

Time and time again, Christopher Nolan has proven himself to be as adept a director as Churchill was a speaker.  Tonally, Nolan’s Dunkirk captures what must have been the prevailing mood on the ground, at sea, and in the air as the Battle of Dunkirk was fought.  Nolan makes an inspired structural choice by intertwining three different stories over three different time periods, and as only Nolan can do, effectively explains a complex structure using only three small titlecards at the very beginning.  Dunkirk is reminiscent of The Prestige in that way – in both, Nolan always provides enough cues so the viewer knows exactly where a particular scene fits into the overall timeline and story, even as he tells the story in a complex, non-linear fashion.

With Dunkirk, Nolan has outdone himself.   Given how consistently great he has been throughout his career, it is incredible to think that he has gotten better, but that is clearly the case.  Dunkirk is absolutely masterful filmmaking from start to finish.  Above all else, Nolan’s film captures the essence of Dunkirk and gives us a true sense of the anguish of war, the desire to survive, and the fear of the unknown that soldiers must deal with constantly.  In particular, I am reminded of the scenes featuring Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot, all of which inserted me into the battle and truly made me feel how claustrophobic a Spitfire’s cramped cockpit would be, and how difficult it would be to spot, identify, and track an enemy fighter, let alone shoot it down.

For the viewer, this is a vital, visceral, and draining experience.  Dunkirk is a 106 minute movie that feels like it’s four hours long (which Nolan would take as a high praise, I think, if he ever read this review).  From start to finish, it is tense, it is devastating, it is awful and it is brilliant.  Dunkirk is filmmaking at its finest and a fitting tribute to one of the defining events of the 20th century.

 

 

A Ghost Story

ghost-storyFilm as a medium is almost infinitely flexible, universal and personal at the same time. Film is capable of so much emotion and yet it’s also capable of conveying the complete absence of it. Beauty or lack of it.  Terror or peace. And, as A Ghost Story proves beyond any doubt, film can make you feel so fucking uncomfortable and voyeuristic that you would give anything for the director to just yell “cut” already!

Put another way: how long do you think you could bear watching someone eat pie? Think carefully before you answer. For the full A Ghost Story experience, write your response down on a little scrap of paper and hide it in your house (or underneath a rock if your house is just a couple of pegs in the ground).

Whatever you think you can bear now, the inescapable truth is that no amount of tolerance for pie voyeurism will be enough to survive A Ghost Story unscathed. In one strange, haunting scene, A Ghost Story makes its mark, and there are lifetimes of other achingly lonely scenes for you to digest (but only if you can stomach it).

A Ghost Story plods, skips, stops, philosophizes, winks, and does whatever it wants, conventions be damned. It is a wonderfully strange, unique and brilliant experience that I cannot recommend enough.

By the way, see A Ghost Story in a theatre if you can, because there is a magical dichotomy in the mixture of loneliness and comradery that should result from experiencing this film with others. That contrast is yet another example of film’s versatility, and doubles as a valuable touchstone if you ever happen to become a ghost. It will all make sense in the end, and that is a comforting thought, isn’t it?