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Stealth

The other day, Sean rolled his eyes at a bumper sticker on the car in front of us. “9-11 was an inside job” it loudly proclaimed. And I get why Sean’s annoyed, but I love this particular bumper sticker, and many like it. I like when stupid people label themselves. I wish more would think to do it.

Stealth puts Jessica Biel in the middle of its marquee, and like the above bumper sticker, it’s as good as a warning not to take anything about it seriously. Biel is joined by Josh Lucas and Jamie Foxx, and the trio make up a team of fighter pilots running some top-secret missions for the military. The newest project is a fourth wingman, MV5BMTY3ODg0NTQxOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjE4MjMyMDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1534,1000_AL_named Eddie, who the stealth pilots would roundly reject just for being the fourth wheel on a tight little tricycle, even if he wasn’t purely artificial intelligence. Eddie represents a future in which war won’t cost human lives, but also where human jobs  (not to mention human judgement) will be replaced.

Now, we all know that we have invented robots so that they may kill us. I mean, I don’t believe that’s the outcome we’re hoping for, but it is inevitable. And we all know that super-smart computers quickly outsmart us, and things go horribly wrong. ‘Predicable’ doesn’t begin to describe the direction in which Eddie takes us. He’s the poster boy for everything the U.S. Navy should not do, and yet he’s also kind of the poster boy for delegating script-writing to robots, who surely could not intentionally produce something half as robotic as this.

First of all, I’m mad at any movie that makes me feel bad for Jessica Biel. Come on man, don’t do that to me. I want to be able to luxuriate in classic lines like “Pardon my C-cup” with all the bluster I can muster, then rage-eat Cheetos until my heart gives out and I die with a poof of orange dust.

Speaking of which…when Jessica Biel ends up in North Korea, it’s kind of a big deal. “Enemy lines” and all. Except I suppose now North Korea is less problematic, because for some reason the American President gets along better with dictators and despots than with respected, democratic world leaders who believe in gender equality and wear snazzy socks. But back in 2005, before the world was turned upside down, Jessica Biel was in big, ginormous trouble, and Stealth had no problem turning a badass fighter pilot into a damsel in distress – how else can her love interest go to her so that she can say to him “You came for me” in a needlessly breathless way?

And while I’m halfway on the topic, I suspect that Hollywood has commissioned some secret experiment to learn the exact right way to apply wounds for maximum sex appeal. I mean, the woman fell like 50 000 feet but only suffered a couple of scrapes – one ever so tantalizingly placed across her cheekbone, where the makeup artist might otherwise apply highlighter to better contour the beautiful angles of her face. With men, I believe sexy cut placement is above the eye. I bet there’s a lab in a Hollywood basement, where some poor gal in a white coat is remembering how when she grew up, she wanted to cure cancer.

 

I digress. In fact, this review has been nothing but digressions. But I don’t think you deserve much better when you attempt to cross Top Gun with 2001 and wind up with a hideous monster. Stealth is nothing but nosedive.

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Star Wars’ Awkward Droid Problem

Solo introduces us to a brand new droid named L3-37. She’s Lando’s copilot, and very likely his better. L3 is a rare female droid in the Star Wars universe, and it’s implied that she and Lando have perhaps a certain kind of chemistry, and maybe even a romantic past (when Qi’ra wonders how that would work, L3 saucily replies “Oh it works,” like she already knows).

But L3 is a new kind of droid in more ways than one; she’s an uncomfortable reminder of what place droids occupy in the Star Wars universe. They are slaves. Despite the fact that they have advanced intelligence, autonomous thought, complex emotional reactions, and notions of self-preservation, they are still bought, sold, and owned by humans.

L3 is passionate about droid rights. When Lando brings her to a bar that “doesn’t serve her kind”, she seeks out a pair of droids being made to fight to the death for https-blueprint-api-production.s3.amazonaws.comuploadscardimage784659ad75d8e1-0f84-4f36-8dd3-455fd47c811cthe entertainment of humans, and counsels them to make a run for it. But despite L3’s and Lando’s status as co-pilots if nothing else, she is subservient in the relationship. He directs and she follows, with or without her consent, and when she gives back as good as she gets, he threatens to wipe her memory, which makes their relationship uncomfortably unequal.

So it’s no wonder that L3 is concerned about equal rights. But if L3 is bucking against oppression, who are her oppressors? Yeah, that’s where things get dicey. Her oppressors are our heroes. The Skywalkers are slave owners. How well does that sit with you? Droid subjugations has mostly been background noise until now – sure these charming sentient beings are treated like property, but they never seemed to mind much. Right?

But L3 is shiny, sassy proof that droids are self-aware enough to yearn for freedom, and smart enough to demand it. Repeatedly. L3 leads a rebellion of sorts in a mining colony – she emancipates the droids who are literally kept in shackles, which leaves very little doubt about a droid’s ‘personhood’ in the galaxy.

Solo doesn’t address the slavery of its droids, and it treats L3’s protest as a funny subplot. The very fact that L3 is female gives her advocacy parallels to feminism, and in the middle of the #metoo movement, that can’t be an accident. But by treating it so lightly, what exactly are the film makers trying to tell us? Nothing we don’t already know – even in the time of Rey, the likes of poor BB-8 are still following their masters around.

L3 was a big part of what I enjoyed about Solo: A Star Wars Story, and I think she deserves to have her advocacy live on in Star Wars canon. I don’t necessarily think there was need or room to address all of these issues in a fun, spunky movie like Solo, but this is an interesting can of worms to have opened, and I do hope someone follows up.

 

Cornered in Molenbeek

cornered_in_molenbeek_1Few things are more ubiquitous than a group of old men chatting about life in a local barbershop.  Cornered in Molenbeek starts innocently enough as it drops us, seemingly randomly, into one of those barbershops.  Sure, the customers are speaking Arabic, but they are also speaking about things that I might talk about with my barber (sorry, stylist).

The shop closes for the day and then, in an instant, everything changes.  News breaks of a terrorist attack on Paris.  It’s November 13, 2015 and when the dust settles, 130 people are dead and 413 more are injured in a series of coordinated attacks at a number of locations throughout the city.  The investigation quickly determines that the attackers are from Molenbeek, Brussels, the very neighbourhood where this barbershop is located.  Of course, the attack becomes the main topic of conversation here, just like it was everywhere else.

Not surprisingly, this barbershop collective has no real answers as to what made the attackers do what they did.  Because guess what?  I have no real answers either.  The lack of answers here is revealing, though, particularly as the collective’s attempt to find an explanation weaves through a wide variety of possible causes, often looking for someone or something to blame, such as government, poverty, and the attackers themselves, with one notable exception: these people do not try to place blame Muslims as a group for these attacks, because they are Muslims themselves.  Contrary to the torrent of right-wing nationalist propaganda that is so often shouted at me online by a host of faceless idiots (oh, and also by the President of the United States), this group of Muslim acquaintances in this barbershop are just as innocent, just as angry and just as confused about the attacks as the rest of the world, and maybe more so because their religious and geographical association with the attackers draws them personally into the aftermath, exposing them to significant consequences that most people don’t have to worry about.

The phenomenon of terrorism is worthy of examination, and it was a refreshing approach to do so through the familiar lens of this barbershop, which otherwise would be functionally closed to me as a uni-lingual white Canadian (Arabic and French are the only two languages being used in these conversations).  The film’s structure serves to enhance the fly-on-the-wall feeling by letting us experience the barbershop’s normal environment before the attack happens.  The stark contrast in what is being discussed before the attack as opposed to afterward clearly shows that these types of attacks affect everyone regardless of their religion or native language, and really, we all need to be involved in this discussion on terrorism in order to stop it.  Cornered in Molenbeek does its part to start the conversation, and it’s up to us to keep it going.

 

 

 

SXSW: Blindspotting

So by now you know we’re in Austin, Texas for the almighty SXSW (South By Southwest, or “South By” for short) film festival (and comedy, music, gaming, plus TONNES of crazy cool conferences and networking for professionals from around the world), and we’ve seen some really cool, high profile movies like A Quiet Place, Blockers, and Ready Player One (which was a secret screening we got into by the skin of our teeth). Did we flip out to watch Ready Player One WITH Steven Spielberg? Of course we did. Did we visit the taco place recommended by Emily Blunt? You bet. But all of those movies will eventually get big theatre releases. They’re not the reason we come to film festivals. We come to festivals to see the little guys, movies that might otherwise get overlooked. In the age of Netflix, our chances of those movies being available to us are actually better than ever, but you need to hear about them in order to look them up, and we take pride in being a part of that process.

That said, Blindspotting isn’t exactly low profile; it played at Sundance earlier this year and audiences and critics came away buzzing. While Sean sat in an incredibly long line for Ready Player One (and that theatre reaching capacity two and a half hours before the screening start time!), I had a much cushier seat inside a theatre, watching a movie that just blew me away.

Written by and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, it’s about some very current issues in Oakland California. Collin (Diggs) served a short term in prison and is serving MV5BMjk4YmVjMDUtZjJiZC00ODI2LTk4NDctMzRkNmYzNjA0YmM0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1642,1000_AL_his year of probation, with just 3 days left. Can he survive the next three days without any thing going wrong? The chances of that are increasingly unlikely when, while driving home before curfew one night, a young black man nearly slams into his truck at a deserted intersection. Relieved to have avoided a serious accident, Collin is unprepared for what happens next: a white cop, giving chase, pulls out his gun and shoots the man 4 times in the back, killing him.

So for the next 3 days, Collin suffers the PTSD resulting from witnessing that kind of violence, but in his neighbourhood, you’re not exactly allowed to show fear. In fact, projecting this tough guy image is maybe what got him in trouble in the first place. His best friend in the whole world, Miles (Casal), is always there for him, but he’s also always causing trouble. And though they’re both Oakland natives, born and bred, when the cops show up to break up the trouble, Collin knows that they’re more likely to blame and\or shoot him, the black guy, than Miles, who is white.

This film, directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, takes an unflinching look at race. They understand that you can’t talk about race without mentioning the environment, which is rapidly gentrifying, or the culture, which is splitting. Everything intersects with class and opportunity and it makes for some complicated themes that the writers have unraveled a bit with hip hop, or spoken word poetry if you will, which is actually how Diggs and Casal met, at a program for at risk youth in Oakland. The script born out of their friendship and shared experience is truly genius, and makes for a movie experience that literally had  me pushed back in my seat, gulping in admiration. This movie is a cultural powder keg that the world needs right now; it’s a touch-stone that will be remembered for decades in the future as a film that really spoke not just to its time, but to the people living in it.

But please don’t think for a single minute that this film is some boring piece of art that is merely ‘important’ – it’s also wildly fun to watch, funny and thrilling and bursting with energy. Visually, it’s a love letter of sorts to Oakland. But it’s not the kind of film that pretends to have all the answers. With so many issues raised, all Blindspotting can do is point them out, and trust us to do the rest, which is a kind of self-assurance I don’t expect from a first-time film maker, but there’s a deep well of talent here, one that deserves to be tapped, so I hope I’ve inspired you to seek this one out.

PTU

PTU follows a group of police officers charged with patrolling the city of Hong Kong, who are asked for help by another officer who lost his gun in the area during a fight with a street gang, but is hesitant to report the loss to HQ, worried it will affect his upcoming promotion.

I really don’t know what to make of PTU. It’s not at all the movie I was expecting (having seen Heroic Trio last month, I thought someone would have superpowers here) but at the same time it didn’t defy my expectations, plowing along without any real direction. PTU is almost farcical at times yet it’s so straight-laced as to make me wonder whether the silliness is by design or whether this is intended to be a straight procedural drama whose seriousness has been lost in translation.

Because when a cop slips on a banana peel, it’s hard to take him seriously.  When he does it more than once, I have to take the second fall as a “shame on me” moment. And yet, to view that cop as incompetent brings everyone else’s competence into question too, since they take him seriously to the point of taking his advice.

PTU’s slow, deliberate pace might have fit well with a different police drama, but it quickly became a problem here by giving me time to raise these questions of competence for every character involved. And they all failed the test. A more action-oriented film may have kept me too busy to get bogged down in the details, but with PTU having such a slow pace, none of the characters looked good in the end. I couldn’t invest in any of them and couldn’t connect with PTU as a result.

Maudie

Maudie was born “funny” – sharp in her mind but infirm in her body. She is discounted, invisible to the world. Abused then neglected by her brother, his monthly sum to her caretaker aunt doesn’t mean the aunt is nice to her, not at all. So it shouldn’t be surprising when Maudie seeks to improve her situation by lending herself out as a housemaid. The only person who’d have her is an ornery (possibly autistic, in a time way before that would be diagnosed) fishmonger who lives out in rural Nova Scotia.

maudie_01Maudie (Sally Hawkins) and Everett (Ethan Hawke) are a couple of odd socks – the world has discarded them and they do not belong together but for lack of anything better have somehow become a pair. Their relationship doesn’t exactly blossom into romance but their mutual tolerance and sometime thoughtfulness or generosity does translate into a partnership of sorts, and marriage. And while Maudie may neglect her household chores, she blossoms in Everett’s house as a painter. Her arthritis makes it increasingly hard to even hold a brush but her joyful spirit paints their modest, one-room home in bright, colourful designs. Soon the community around her will embrace her for it. Maud Lewis (1903-1970) is one of Canada’s best known folk artists.

Sally Hawkins is phenomenal. She underplays everything because she can, because she can rely upon her talent to communicate big things in small ways. Her eyebrows alone are Oscar worthy. Her smile is reminiscent of the real Maud – wide and innocent. She gives such dignity to this character who really led a simple life, a life of poverty, but a life that was more than enough for a woman who needed only some space and a paint brush in her hand to feel happy. Maudie is not just a tribute to the artist, but to her way of life. I was moved by this film, for Maud specifically and women generally, for anyone who was marginalized and squashed and found a way to bloom anyway.

By Any Other Name

David Sedaris is one of my all-time favourite anythings, and reading his newest, Theft By Finding, leaves me needing to text Matt “omg, THIS part!” literally every 40 seconds. Sedaris has 514 pages of excellent observations, but one of them, in which he mentions that the title for Groundhog Day is not so much lost in (German) translation, but found, really caught my fancy, and so I wondered what other gems awaited me in second-language cinema.

Groundhog Day was released in Germany as ‘Eternally Weeps the Groundhog.’

What else can I unearth? I’ve published the correct titles in white; you can uncover the answers simply by high-lighting the blank space. Play along, let me know how many you guessed right, and tell me which of these you would have seen!

China calls Pretty Woman – I Will Marry A Prostitute to Save Money

Never Been Kissed is translated in the Philippines as – Because She’s Ugly

Girl, Interrupted is known in Japan as – 17-Year Old Girl’s Medical Chart

China knows The Professional as – This Hit Man Is Not as Cold as He Thought

chocolate-copyGermany knows Annie Hall as – Urban Neurotic

Which movie is known as American Bluff in France, The Great American Swindle in Spain, and United States Cheat Bureau in China? Answer: American Hustle

Japan knows You Only Live Twice by – 007 Dies Twice

Boogie Nights, China – His Great Device Makes Him Famous

France translates The Hangover as – Very Bad Trip

Ocean’s Eleven – Eleven Men and a Secret (Brazil)

Top Gun is known as – Love is in the Sky (Israel)

What movie is known as Strange Coincidences in Spain, Multinationals Go Home! in Hungary, and The Psycho Detectives in Portugal? Answer: I ♥ Huckabees

The Shawshank Redemption is known as The Prison for Angels in Romania

 

 Denmark calls Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – The Boy Who Drowned in Chocolate Sauce

The Sixth Sense – He’s a Ghost! (China)

Animal House is known as I Think The Horse is Kicking Me in Germany.

Poland calls The Terminator – The Electronic Murderer

Due Date – Odd Couple, Wacky Trip, Go Together in Time for Birth. (Thailand)

What movie is called Western Department of Memories in China, Harmonica: The Avenger in Sweden, and Play Me The Song of Death in Germany? Once Upon A Time In the West

Lost in Translation, or as it’s known in Portugal, Meetings and Failures in Meetings

Risky Business – Just Send Him to University Unqualified (China)

The Honor Farm

Honor farm

I hadn’t seen my friend Josh in months and was eager to tell him all about the exciting new movie I saw at the Fantasia Film Festival. “I just saw The Honor Farm and I’m still trying to figure it out,” I told him while seated at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

I hadn’t seen the baby boomer somehow standing right over me until he chose this moment to cut me off. “I just saw that,” he complained. “It was terrible“.

I didn’t really want to get into it with this guy nor was I even confident that I had understood the film well enough to defend it so I just smiled politely as he told me that it wasn’t even scary. I bashfully admitted that I was the guy who jumped and cried out during the final act.

honor farm 2

The Honor Farm is exactly that kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie that you need to let sink in while you ignore those who will immediately and loudly dismiss it. Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate) seems to feels like she’s just going through the motions as she prepares for her prom. After her drunk date embarasses her and tries to force himself on her, she reluctantly agrees to accompany her best friend Anne (Katie Folger) and a classmate she barely knows into the woods to take shrooms in an abandoned prison farm.

Other than that, the less you know about The Honor Farm the better. Although you should probably be warned that horror fans like the one described above may be disappointed. Because the set up seems bloody perfect. Eight teenagers, most of them seeming to fit a typical scary movie stereotype, entering a creepy prison on prom night might make you start placing bets on who will be first to die but this isn’t your typical scary movie. What follows is truly surreal and genre-bending and few of these character arcs play out like you’d expect.

I may have been a little lost during the closing credits but The Honor Farm keeps getting better the more i think about it. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

To The Bone

The first image from the film is a trigger warning and believe me, take heed. To The Bone is a serious, unflinching look at eating disorders that will absolutely be upsetting to each and every one of us, but particularly to those suffering from or recovering from eating disorders themselves.

Lily Collins, herself a survivor of eating disorders, plays Ellen, a young woman still very much in the throes of anorexia. The film shows her getting treatment in a centre run by Keanu Reeves, which should tell you all you need to know about how inauthentically the healing is portrayed. In reality, treatment is heavily regimented, usually in a medical setting. Eating disorders are the most deadly of mental to-the-bone-sundance-e1495026297494illnesses, no one’s going to let an emaciated Lily Collins push a fish stick around her plate for dinner. And they’re also very difficult to treat because unlike drinking, you can’t simply give up food. You have to learn to eat in moderation. Eating disorders are often (but not always) about control. Often there is some type of childhood abuse that accounts for someone wanting very much to exert control over their bodies now.

This both is and isn’t the case with To The Bone, but the family dynamics are a strong point of the film. Ellen’s family situation is sad and disjointed. Family therapy does not go well. Her father is absent, her mother can’t deal anymore, so support is provided by a step-mother who maybe doesn’t have the closest of relationships with her husband’s tiring and trying daughter. Some of you may find this movie enlightening. Certainly I believe that Ellen and her disorder have been portrayed empathetically. But it’s a tough watch that could definitely be a hardship for some, and may glamourize a terrible disease for others. This is a film to be watched only with care, and preferably in the company of others.

Based on writer-director Marti Noxon’s own experiences with anorexia as a teen, the film forced Collins, in recovery for eating disorders, to lose 20lbs. She did so with the “help” of a nutritionist, but there’s nothing healthy about a young woman already on the brink of being too thin being asked to lose up to a fifth of her body weight. I hate that movies do that and I can’t imagine that graphic shots of protruding bones and skeletal characters is putting anything but negativity into the world. And it doesn’t help that none of the other characters are put into any kind of context. They help show that eating disorders are not just the stuff or rich white girls, but by keeping those characters one-dimensional, we do them a disservice. The thing is, even with good intentions, sharing stuff like this can be dangerous. Details about how to purge or count calories can come across as tips; Collins’ skin-and-bones frame can be seen as aspirational. And I suppose this is where we ask ourselves: is this film doing more harm than good? What is responsible film making? Without knowing the answers, I do know that I am not comfortable recommending this film without some heavy caveats.

Gifted

Apart from dramatic courtroom confessions, dick jokes, and Shia LaBeouf, there’s nothing more obnoxious onscreen than smart kids.

The smart kid in Gifted- Marc Webb’s first non-Spiderman film since 2009’s 500 Days of Mckenna Grace as “Mary Adler” and Chris Evans as “Frank AdSummer- is a 7 year-old math prodigy named Mary. Mary (Mckenna Grace) has been doing just fine being home schooled by her uncle Frank (a bearded Chris Evans) and hanging out with their neighbour (Octavia Spencer) until Frank decides she needs friends her own age and sends her to public school. It doesn’t take long for her first-grade teacher (Jenny Slate) to discover that she’s a genius and word travels fast to Mary’s estranged but suddenly very interested British grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan).

For a child prodigy in a movie called Gifted, Mary isn’t that bright. And, believe it or not, that’s a good thing. Compared to the smartass, impossibly wise and witty kids in most Hollywood movies, she’s surprisingly and refreshingly childish. She acts like a kid, talks like a kid, and plays like a kid. She’s just crazy good at math. Like Rain Man good at math. But apart from the advanced calculations that she can do in her head, she’s just an ordinary 7 year-old. And, as played by the also very gifted Mckenna Grace, she’s the best thing about this movie and is much more convincing than an uncharacteristically charismaless Evans.

Chris-Evan-GiftedScreenwriter Tom Flynn doesn’t handle complex problems quite as well as Mary does. Because the question of how best to raise any child, never mind such an unusual one, can’t be as easy as his script seems to think. The drama unfolds at a tense custody battle between Frank (who just wants Mary to have a normal childhood) and Evelyn (who wants her to go to some fancy school and dedicate herself to reaching her full potential). There are interesting questions to be had here but Flynn comes up with enough sneaky screenwriting tricks and twists to get out of having to have any of them.

If you can forgive Evans’ bland performance and Flynn’s sentimental approach, there’s a lot to like about Gifted. Actually, I’m quite confident that most people will love it and even be annoyed with me for nitpicking at it. The local audience at Wednesday’s preview screening applauded wildly at at least a half-dozen zingers and speeches. Which is my only real problem with it. It’s an entertaining movie about characters that we care about but it’s more interested in soliciting applause than it is provoking discussion.

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