Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Guernsey is a tiny island in the English Channel. It was occupied by Germans during WW2, and the people of Guernsey suffered deprivations of course. So it was the Nazis’ fault they had to form a Literary AND Potato Peel Pie Society one night, spur of the moment. For the rest of the war, five friends read books and then met to discuss them, whilst eating awful potato peel pie. With only a limited amount of books, Dawsey (Michiel Huisman) writes to a stranger in London, a name he finds randomly in one of the second-hand books he reads, to ask for the name of a bookstore from which he may order more. Juliet (Lily James), a writer and book lover herself, is quite taken by the request, and she writes back, including several titles for he and the society to enjoy. They MV5BNDE5MjM3MTg4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjQ5MzE5NDM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_keep up a correspondence for quite some time, and when the war ends, she heads to Guernsey to meet the characters from the letters in the hopes that she may write to them.

Juliet is welcomed warmly but meets with resistance when she broaches the topic of writing. The society wish to remain anonymous. They’ve suffered more than just deprivation during the war. One of the society is missing, and the rest are secretive, protective.

I loved this book. The movie feels a little less special, not even living up to its quirky title. It’s predictable and conventionally told, but gosh darn is it pretty to look at. It’s a satisfying period romance with a great ensemble cast. It’s too bad the script plays it safe, but it’s still a sweet little movie. It’s not breaking any new ground, and you’ll have to make due with London standing in for Guernsey. But Lily James is her sparkling, charming self, so if the movie is hard to love, it’s easy to like.

 

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Skyscraper

It’s no Die Hard.

That’s my four-word review of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s latest action film, in which he plays an ex-FBI agent turned security consultant who has to rescue his family from the world’s tallest building when it’s set on fire by robbers.

The fact it’s no Die Hard is not entirely a bad thing, because at least it isn’t a blatant rip-off of one of the best action movies ever. But it’s partly a bad thing, because Die Hard is amazing and Skyscraper clearly wants to remind me of it (Skyscraper may also be trying to remind me of other movies like The Towering Inferno if I’d ever seen it, but since I haven’t, you get to hear only about Die Hard).

Skyscraper falls well short of Die Hard for a lot of reasons, but the main difference is this: while both movies are ridiculous, Die Hard fully embraces its implausibility. Bruce Willis is right there with us when we’re thinking that it should never have come to him jumping off a hundred story building with a fire hose tied around his waist. Conversely, the Rock is not with us at those moments, because he’s The Rock, a character that can do anything. When the Rock pulls a very similar stunt to Willis, as far as the Rock is concerned, it is not because things have escalated beyond the point of believability.  It is because that is one of the things the Rock can do that no one else would even try (and, incidentally, whether one is brave enough to attempt a stunt like that is not a measure of one’s love for family, because if you really want to save your family, you have to NOT DIE, and by my count any real human being died about eight different times during the Rock’s rescue effort).

As well, it is an unfortunate sign of our times that the two-minute rope sequence, like almost every other dramatic moment in this movie, somehow is captured live on news cameras, for the benefit of a cheering and live-streaming crowd, and also on monitors throughout the very building that the Rock is trying to sneak into and rescue his family from. This not only adds about 15 minutes of pointless  crowd footage to a movie that feels much, much longer than its 1 hour 49 minute run time, but it also takes away from the cat-and-mouse dynamic because at all times the bad guys can easily find the Rock in this massive 220 story building by watching 30 seconds of live news.

Even then, I was tolerating this movie and willing to give it a pass until the end, when everyone involved had run out of half-baked ideas and just hit the reset button to find a way out of the fire. I shouldn’t have expected any more than that, so don’t ask me why I got my hopes up, and now I owe an apology to Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Disobedience

Ronit and Esti were childhood friends and young lovers but their Orthodox community forced them apart and Ronit left in disgrace and scandal, shunned by her Rabbi father. Years later, she returns upon his death and finds that her mere presence sets tongues wagging and old rumours flying. Esti is still there and has forged herself a new life within the boundaries of her religion. She is married to a mutual (male) friend and it isn’t terrible.

Old passions are reignited between Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who lives as a photographer in NYC, and Esti (Rachel McAdams), who wears a wig to cover her hair and has careful, kosher sex with her husband every Shabbat. But as good and devout MV5BN2U1ZjllMWQtYzBlOC00ZGQyLTg0YTUtNWQ3YmI3ZjYwNmIzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_as Esti’s present life is, even the memories of her past with Ronit are scorching enough to make everyone nervous. In their community, straight marriage is the only option, and it’s not so much an option as an obligation. Esti stayed, and conformed; Ronit left, and flourished, though she has all but abandoned her faith.

Disobedience isn’t graphic or specific of pointed. It goes about things in a rounder, softer way, nuzzling up to the subject and laying at its feet. This movie gives you two Rachels for the price of one, and they keep things on simmer for a really long time. On screen like they’re magnets; there’s an electric current between them that’s full of little zaps but no big surges. I really liked Weisz’s choices in particular, how she subtly plays with her hair, reminding us that hers is on display while Esti must cover hers up. And how the uncovering of hair then becomes an act of intimacy, a form of foreplay, a zap in the movie’s current. It’s not just sexual repression that bubbles over in Disobedience; religion and culture are enmeshed in this story. And while the cast does an admirable job of making this feel true, I’m not sure this is director Sebastián Lelio’s story to tell.

Weisz and McAdams communicate a lot through glances and silence. Lelio’s interpretation is a little literal for my taste, but the women here elevate the material and make it something special.

 

Madame

Bob describes his new French manor home as a “humble pied a terre” while his wife Anne greets their VIP guests with barely contained self-satisfaction. Anne doesn’t know that Bob (Harvey Keitel) is concealing their looming bankruptcy – he has to sell a family heirloom just to keep things running but he still presents his wife new jewels ahead of the dinner party. Anne (Toni Colette) doesn’t bother to conceal that she isn’t pleased when Bob’s son Steven shows up at the last minute, upsetting the symmetry of her place settings. In a crunch, she invites her loyal maid Maria (Rossy de Palma) to dine with them, posing as a Spanish noblewoman, though Maria believes it’s a sin to tell a lie.

MV5BNDg3MGMxM2YtMzY0Yi00OTdkLThiMjItZmMyMjVmMWRhMjlkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjQzMzk3MTY@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_Oh boy. But you know what? Even with terrific advice like “be impossible” and “don’t talk like a maid,” it turns out the biggest risk is not that they’ll be found out, but that the lie will be too well accepted – a Brit described as a “dandy” falls for Maria, and pretty soon it’s Anne is in hot pursuit of her own maid, who’s being courted all over town.

The film itself looks sumptuous but feels rather light, rather flimsy. I don’t need much of an excuse to watch a Toni Collette movie, and even a not great Toni Collette movie is good enough for me. She’s such a joy to watch onscreen, even when she’s plotting and jealous and really kind of heinous. I could watch her nostrils flare with impatience all day long. Rossy De Palma proves a worthy adversary. Since Collette is the bad witch, De Palma is the good, the very good. All eyes on her. The truth is, this movie endeared itself to me the minute I saw Harvey Keitel bicycling in a jaunty scarf.

There’s more to this movie than it even knows itself. Anne and Bob are clearly struggling but don’t have the words for it, and maybe don’t care enough to try. So the thing with Maria is just a convenient escape, and the true reasons for Anne’s obsessive sabotage are many if not always obvious. The cast is talented enough to hint at things that perhaps the script was not strong enough to bring forth. For me this movie was still worth it – I could watch Toni Collette mow  a lawn and be satisfied – and it was perhaps a bit of a stopgap between be knowing I should really be watching Hereditary but not yet having the courage to do it.

 

 

 

Dear Dictator

Tatiana is your typical punk high school student. Her boots are high, her tights are ripped, her hair unbrushed, gnarled like the barbs she constantly throws at her mother, who is doing her best to lure a man at any cost.

Tatiana (Odeya Rush), as you might imagine, has trouble fitting in at school, and has even more trouble convincing her Christian crush to commit some mortal sins with her. Her only solace is the dictator with whom she exchanges pen pal letters from his beleaguered British-Caribean island nation. His country is undergoing an uprising and they’re pushing the old guy out. So General Anton Vincent (Michael Caine) flees to the one place no one would ever think to look for him: Tatiana’s house.

Is she a little surprised to see him? Yes. Is her mother (Katie Holmes) a little perturbed to find she’s been harboring a fugitive? Sure, though maybe not as much MV5BNjhiOTc1YTctODllNC00ZTEyLWFiN2MtMjM1MGMwYzI4Yjc0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTgyNDk1OTY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1498,1000_AL_as you’d think. It turns out, having a disgraced General around the house is almost as good as having a man. And when the lawn is cut and the garage door no longer sticks, the complaints are scarce. But teachers at school begin to suspect something is up with Tatiana – and it’s not just the rebellion she foments against the ‘mean girls.’ Although that is probably a bit of a red flag.

Anyway. This movie is innocuous enough if you find the switch in your brain that has taste and standards, and turn it off. It’s too tame to be a satire and not actually funny enough to be considered a comedy, unless you consider the fact that someone convinced Academy Award winner Michael Caine to be in this heap of crap, and to grow a Castro beard and everything. But at this stage in his career, he’s more convincing as Santa Claus than a blood thirsty dictator. He’s not exactly intimidating. The twinkle in his eye keeps giving him away.

Now, there is a fourth character in the film, and I don’t mean Seth Green or Jason Biggs, though both get their name in the credits. I’m talking about Subway. This movie is not subtle about who owns their asses. The chips and candy eaten are generic as hell but the delicious sandwiches they consume CONTINUALLY are branded AF. As in, every time they sit at the table to eat, every logo on every cup and wrapping is pointing prettily, and centrally, at the camera. Not even Katie Holmes having her toes sucked is featured as prominently. So if you’re looking for some teen angst and an ousted fugitive dictator and a pathetic single mother and a dentist with a foot fetish and sandwiches so tasty they could unite them all, dear lord, this movie is made just for you. Colour me floored.

 

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.

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.