Category Archives: Kick-ass! (Sean)

Sean says: go see it. Now.

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.

 

 

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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?

 

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming

spidey11.pngSpider-Man: Homecoming may not be the best movie in the franchise (since my favourite Spidey villain is Doc Ock, I have a soft spot for Spider-Man 2) and may not even be the best superhero movie of the summer (Wonder Woman is undeniably great).  But the fact that those were the conversations the assholes were having after we saw Spider-Man: Homecoming last night shows that Homecoming is a great movie in its own right.

Most importantly, Homecoming GETS Spider-Man.  This is a movie that is fan service from start to finish.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe features prominently in the story as the events in the Avengers and Civil War are built on (and Iron Man plays a pretty big role).  There are also a ton of familiar names for fans to find, from Ned Leeds to Flash Thompson to Mac Gargan, and one or two more that I’ll let you discover for yourself.

Even better, the story calls back to several classic comic moments, including this one from Amazing Spider-Man #33 (1966), which is a defining moment for Spidey:

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I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Spider-Man finds a way to succeed even when it seems there’s no chance, and the final battle in Homecoming is a great display of what I love about Spidey, from start to finish.  The conclusion of that battle especially reminded me of the first Spidey comic I ever read, and really, every Spidey comic since.  Spider-Man’s desire to do the right thing is what makes him my favourite and I was extremely happy to see that made a focus of the film (“with great power comes great responsibility” is never actually said, but it’s the movie’s underlying theme and that’s a far better approach than giving us another depiction of Uncle Ben’s death).

Fittingly for Spider-Man, the hero who can’t stop saying corny one-liners as he fights the bad guys, this may also be the funniest superhero movie ever made.  It captures the light-hearted, good-natured awkwardness of Peter Parker and the awkwardness of high school in general.  There are a lot of laughs from start to finish, and like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy before it, Homecoming always finds a way to entertain the audience in between the action (often at our hero’s expense, as it should be with Spidey).

(SPOILER: sometimes the humour even comes at the audience’s expense, as you will find out if you stick around to the very end.)

Spider-Man: Homecoming met my high expectations, and then some.  This is how you make a great superhero movie, by staying true to the character, and when that character is your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, you’re in for a treat.

Oh, Hello on Broadway

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Remember when they used to make movies based on Saturday Night Live sketches?  Isn’t it weird how that used to be a thing?  And that one of the best of the bunch was the movie about these two guys:

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Even though I grew up during the peak of the SNL movie craze, I was still blown away to see Oh, Hello on Broadway pop up on Netflix, in a “How is this even possible?” kind of way.  But I’m so glad it did and it’s better than I could have hoped.

For the uninitiated, Oh, Hello is one of a boatload of great skits from the Kroll Show, featuring two old men who, in a way, are not that different than the Butabi Brothers.  As the unimaginative name of the Netflix special implies, Oh, Hello then became a Broadway play, because why not?  And now, Oh, Hello on Broadway is a Netflix special that is basically a full-length movie about these two guys.  A flat-out hilarious hour and 42 minutes in the company of these wacky geezers.

tuna.jpgLike Night at the Roxbury, Oh, Hello on Broadway takes a one-note premise and uses it as a gateway to a fully-fledged story that looks behind the premise to the characters themselves.  Absurd as they are, Gil Faison (Nick Kroll) and George St. Geegland (John Mulaney) are surprisingly relatable and human, as we are shown through an insane play-within-a-play structure that works far better than it should.  The background story also is far better than it needed to be, because I would have been satisfied with a few, ‘Oh, Hello’s, and ‘Too Much Tuna’s.   Which of course I got.  Kroll and Mulaney knew why I was watching, but they also showed me how much they love these characters by giving them a proper home.

Because the special is so different from the skit, I don’t think any knowledge of the skits is needed.  Feel free to jump right in, but still, you should watch the skits at some point because they’re funny as hell.

I’m so glad to see stuff like this on Netflix and I hope we get more.  Jay and I had hoped to see this on Broadway but the scheduling didn’t work out, and while seeing it on Netflix is not the same as seeing it live, it’s better than not seeing it at all.  You should definitely add this one to your list.

 

Mindhorn

mindhorn_final.jpgCanadians are consistently the funniest people in the world as far as I’m concerned, which is hard to reconcile with the stereotype that we’re boring and forgettable.  So I don’t try, I just think of us as funny and the stereotype as another example of how Americans are just not as good as we are.  Above all else, Canadians specialize in satire.  I have to think that is inherited from our former colonizers, as the British may love satire more than we do.

But just as Canada is not Britain (because in 1867 we asked politely if we could be our own country from then on, and the Brits were like, didn’t you already leave when the Americans did?), British satire is a whole other thing from ours.  I have always been fascinated by how there really is no middle ground in North America – either you devour British satire or you think it’s unbearable.  Personally, I find Steve Coogan a good test for one’s tolerance for British satire.   If he cracks you up then you are going to enjoy Mindhorn, whereas if you’re thinking, “Who the hell is Steve Coogan?” then you should probably give Mindhorn a pass.

I think Coogan is hilarious so of course Mindhorn made me laugh.  As a bonus, Coogan is not just a random reference I decided to use.  He’s also a bit player in Mindhorn along with a ton of familiar Brits (including a great cameo by a guy nicknamed “Kenny B.”).   But Mindhorn is co-writer Julian Barratt’s vehicle, and he is terrific as Richard Thorncroft/Mindhorn, a washed-up actor/TV detective.  Mindhorn’s gimmick is his bionic eye that is a lie detector, allowing him to literally see the truth.  Mindhorn made Thorncroft a huge star in the 70s and early 80s but he hasn’t exactly been tearing it up since then.  In fact, he’s just lost his last endorsement contract (for orthopedic socks).  So when a call comes in from the police department requesting Thorncroft’s help (as Mindhorn) in solving a murder case, he jumps right in, seeing it as a great way to kickstart his career.

In the finest British tradition, we quickly learn that Thorncroft is a grade-A idiot (maybe even grade-AAA if you use the meat grading system).  Still, as tends to happen, Thorncroft manages to bumble his way to (moderate) success despite not having a clue at any time.  And while Mindhorn’s way forward isn’t particularly innovative or clever, Barratt is clearly having great fun bringing Mindhorn to life and that fun is infectious.  The satire is spot on, as Mindhorn takes every opportunity to poke fun at the real TV shows from Mindhorn’s day, like Knight Rider and the Six Million Dollar Man, and there are some good shots at the cheesiness of those shows as well as the spin off products from them (such as Mindhorn’s best-selling rock album).

You’ve seen this all before but it’s good fun and I don’t think satirizing David Hasselhoff will ever get old.  So if you have 90 minutes to spare and think Coogan is a funny guy then you should check out Mindhorn on Netflix.

Megan Leavey

megan leaveyWar is hell, but returning from war is really rough too.  As we’ve realized the devastating effects of PTSD and how severely it has affected an entire generation of American soldiers, war movies have more frequently shown us the human effects of conflict.  In my view, that is a welcome and long overdue change.  I was somewhat apprehensive going into Megan Leavey, because I feared that it would try to glorify or justify the invasion of Iraq.  That’s a non-starter for me because there was no legal basis for the invasion or occupation, and no glory to be had over there.  You will never convince me that it was a good idea for the U.S.A. (and not just them) to send hundreds of thousands of troops to a no-win situation in the Middle East.  Many of those troops didn’t come back and those that did were never the same.

Megan Leavey (the movie) is the story of one of those troops.  Megan Leavey (the person) is a former marine who was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and 2006.  Leavey’s experience in Iraq must have been the most stressful tour of duty imaginable, because Leavey toured Iraq with a partner: a bomb-sniffing dog named Rex.  Leavey and Rex went “in front of the front lines” to sweep for bombs and weapons intended to kill the troops supporting the new Iraqi government.

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The real Megan Leavey and Rex.

The Iraq we see in Megan Leavey feels authentic.  Much of Iraq was (and still is) a war zone, an awful place for a soldier to be, and a worse place for civilians to be.  Whatever their reason for joining the armed forces (and for Leavey her reason is to escape upstate New York), the American soldiers deployed there were largely good people with good intentions.  We can judge their leaders for numerous bad decisions and questionable motivations, but the fact remains that the soldiers on the ground were doing their best while in harm’s way and on edge because the threats they faced were not obvious.  It was not just buried bombs, though that was the prime threat to Leavey and Rex.  Most of Iraq’s residents did not (and do not) support terrorism, insurgency, or Saddam Hussein.  But a few of them did, and they weren’t wearing name tags, so for an American soldier, every single person not wearing the same uniform as you might be planning to kill you.

Whatever your political views on the war, it should be obvious how bad a situation it was to be an American soldier in Iraq, and in fact politics often get in the way by dehumanizing the situation.  With the knowledge we have today, you can (and should) be against the invasion and occupation of Iraq while also sympathizing with the troops who suffered through that insanity.   Megan Leavey chooses to remain neutral on the political side and focus not just on the war but also on the aftermath, in service of Leavey’s (and Rex’s) story.  The result is a compelling tale that is broader than Iraq, and Kate Mara’s performance really conveys the anguish that returning soldiers suffer through, whether they’re humans or dogs.  It’s a very focused movie and more of a tribute to the bond that forms between us and our dogs than a true war movie.  I really enjoyed it.

 

Alien: Covenant

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You always know better than the idiots in horror movies. Don’t go to an uncharted planet streaming John Denver songs to the universe. Hell, don’t go into space period! When you get to the planet, don’t trust its lone inhabitant who lives in a graveyard and conducts science experiments in a drippy cave. Especially when the results of those science experiments look suspiciously like the creepy little things that just blew up your only ride off the planet. But if not for those dumb decisions, there wouldn’t be much of a movie here, and certainly not one about Aliens with a capital A.

As the SXSW Sneak Peek hinted, the idiots in Alien: Covenant are more tolerable than most, because every bad decision leads us to a place we want to go. Ridley Scott’s playful approach here elevates Alien: Covenant above every entry in this franchise since Aliens. The bad decisions aren’t infuriating, they’re chess moves, most of which lead to another piece getting ripped apart into gooey chunks by space monsters.

Everything in this movie services the Aliens, including the speedy pace at which they burst out of people (taking only as long as needed to cause maximum carnage). Alien: Covenant felt like a Star Wars prequel in that respect, as the technology (in this case, the creatures produced by those previously mentioned science experiments) behind the Aliens seems better in the “past” than in the “future”. I suppose that’s inevitable when prequels are made 30 years later, and I was a lot more forgiving of it here that I was with Star Wars. I think that’s because in Alien: Covenant, the changes from the original rules make the movie more entertaining, while the changes in Star Wars made the movies into a CGI tutorial mixed with a boring political drama.

Above all else, Alien: Covenant is fun, and that’s because Ridley Scott and his cast (led by stellar performances by Michael Fassbender (x2) and Katherine Waterston channeling Ripley and kicking Alien ass just like Sigourney Weaver did) deliver everything this franchise’s fans could possibly have asked for. No unnecessary exposition, no extraneous plot points, just Aliens mowing down idiot after idiot.

For that, Alien: Covenant gets a score of eight chest-bursting xenomorphs out of ten.

Bon Cop, Bad Cop

Good-Cop-Bon-CopAs someone who grew up in Ontario (mostly) and now lives in Quebec, I can say with authority that Bon Cop, Bad Cop is a fantastic send up of the occasionally pained relationship between the two provinces.  There’s a lot of history and a lot of angst to be found in that relationship, and somehow we now seem more distant from each other than do the English and French, whose historic animus is the basis for our long-standing conflict.

When I go shopping in Quebec, I do not speak French and neither does Jay even though she’s totally bilingual.  I am not bilingual but I know enough to order a Happy Meal in French if I wanted.  But I DON’T want to – I want Quebec McDonald’s to speak English to me.

That stubbornness goes both ways.  Not only do many frontline retail staff refuse to speak English back to me (especially older ones), Quebecers are consistently terrible drivers who poke along well below the speed limit in the fast lane and refuse to move over for my bright orange racecar no matter how close I get to their bumper.

And yet, we consistently have each other’s back when push comes to shove.  When it rained for what seemed like a month straight in April and May and the Ottawa River started overflowing its banks to the point that it came onto our backyard, those same French bastards from McDonald’s and the highway banded together to deliver sandbags to us (and thousands of other English speakers in our border city) at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday and then helped us put those sandbags in place, with smiles on their faces as they asked in English whether they could do anything else to help.

Bon Cop, Bad Cop nails that dynamic at every step, as two cops (Ontarian Colm Feore and Quebecer Patrick Huard) are forced to work together to solve a murder in which a body was found straddling the Ontario-Quebec border.  Of course they’re going to try to one-up the other, of course they’re going to set stupid and arbitrary rules about who does what and which language gets used when, and of course their petty squabbles are going to put everything in jeopardy.  Because that’s what we do.  But in the end, we accomplish what needs doing, and we share a grudging respect that binds us closer than geography alone ever could.

Bon Cop, Bad Cop captures our relationship perfectly and pokes fun at it at every opportunity.  That made Bon Cop, Bad Cop enjoyable in spite of its cliches, nonsensical plot, and cheap shots at Gary Bettman (okay, the last bit was enjoyable on its own).   But if you’re not from either province, you probably won’t get it, and truthfully we kind of like that you don’t.   We may argue over which of Ontario and Quebec is better but we agree that both are way better than wherever the hell you live.

SXSW: A Critically Endangered Species

a-critically-endangered-species-F64922.jpgOnce in a while I wish I had a more literary mind.  When I write, it’s pretty direct and while I used to attempt subtext I’ve pretty much given up on it at this point – too much effort for too little payoff.  But that’s for my writing, where no marks are given for artistry.  All that matters is the end result.

Whereas for Maya (Lena Olin), the protagonist in A Critically Endangered Species, artistry is all that matters.  She’s a very successful writer, possibly too successful in that she has decided her best work is behind her and she will kill herself rather than crank out any more mediocre books.  Her last project is to select a young male writer to inherit everything and safeguard her work after her death.

She holds tryouts that inevitably include detailed examinations of the applicants’ work, and with one notable exception end in sex.  The field is quickly narrowed to two finalists, a showdown between intellectual and sexual appeal.  For Maya’s part, she takes pleasure in sex but she obviously does not get pleasure or happiness from anything else, and sees no value in her life aside from her work.  The beautiful but muted shots of northern California are a good match for Maya’s melancholy state of being.

Which candidate wins is incidental.  The process is what matters.  Just as incidental is the fact of Maya’s imminent suicide.  Refreshingly, this is not a moral examination of Maya’s choice.  The focus of the movie is the competition between two very different suitors and the discussions between them about some very interesting writing.  The movie is extremely well-written and writers Zachary Cotler and Magdelena Zyzak deserve particular praise for producing so many stylistically different pieces of poetry for the applicants to read and defend against Maya’s criticism.  The acting is spot-on as well, giving us main characters that are both well-written and well-executed.

A Critically Endangered Species is heavily intellectual and took less than five minutes to go over my head as far as literary analysis goes.  Even so, it was extremely interesting to take in the poetry and the discussions that followed each piece.  This is a different sort of movie than I’m used to, and while I would have found the difference refreshing on its own, the quiet excellence of this film is what really made a lasting impression.   Added to that, if you have more than a passing interest in literature (which for me basically starts and ends with comic books), then A Critically Endangered Species is not only a good movie, it’s an intricate discussion piece that should rub you in a few different ways at once.  Which may be what Maya was searching for all along.

 

SXSW: Small Town Crime

small-town-crime-F68309No matter how hard you try, you can’t see everything at a festival like SXSW. To prepare for these big festivals, we study the schedule like our lives depend on it, read the synopses repeatedly, and try to see as many of our favourite artists as possible.  All that prep work helps a lot, but sometimes a tight schedule makes a choice for us. That happened today with Small Town Crime and we were better off for it. Put simply, Small Town Crime is an indie gem that is one of the best films I’ve seen in 2017.

Featuring too many compelling, well-written characters to count, and matched by great performances from pros like John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, and Robert Forster, Small Town Crime sparkles.  We are introduced right away to Hawkes’ suitably pathetic, yet undeniably charming, alcoholic ex-cop. He’s got a few skeletons too many in his closet, so he needs some breakfast beers in order to get underway each afternoon. But he is determined not to let that disease keep him from solving a mystery that falls right into his lap.

ian-nelms-F68309Functioning both as a whodunnit and an offbeat action-comedy, Small Town Crime is consistently good, especially when Hawkes’ character shares the screen with Forster’s concerned grandfather and Clifton Collins Jr.’s refreshingly self-aware pimp.  Writer-directors Eshom and Ian Nelms clearly recognized what they had and give those three characters a hefty share of screen time. That must have been particularly difficult here since the cast is extremely deep. Even with the focus on that trio, I was left wanting to see more of them. I’d be first in line for a sequel (or a television series) showcasing more of their adventures.

In addition to its fantastic characters, Small Town Crime also delivers great action scenes and showcases a wide array of memorable vehicles (the Nelms brothers are self-professed car nuts). Small Town Crime is a fantastic film that shoots right to the top of the list of must-see indie movies. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

If you’re at SXSW, you still have two more chances to see Small Town Crime on March 12 and 17, and otherwise, you should cross your fingers for this film to get a well-deserved wide release.