Swifty is an arctic fox. His cautious parents liked to dress him all in white to make sure that he always blended in with the arctic snow. Blending in is safe. Standing out is dangerous. But Swifty dreams of being seen. He’s tired of being invisible.
Unfortunately, the movie bigwigs have conspired against poor Swifty, hiring the blandest of the Avengers to voice him. That’s right: Jeremy Renner, who does not have a distinctive voice (some, meaning me, would argue he does not have a distinctive bone in his body). Not all actors can or should be reduced to just their voice: Christopher Walken for sure. Definitely Tiffany Haddish. Patton Oswalt. Sam Elliott. Maria Bamford. Not everyone can do it. If you’re hiring Jeremy Renner, you may as well hire Joe Blow, who’s a heck of a lot cheaper. Well, he’s somewhat cheaper. I can’t imagine Renner commands all that impressive of a salary. You might hire a well-known actor with a boring voice because you need a big name up on the marquis. Again, Renner isn’t exactly fitting the bill. If anyone, ANYONE, goes to the theatre especially for Renner, it’s not a kid who likes mediocre animated dog movies. But the people who made Arctic Dogs don’t cast movies based on “good reasons” or “talent” because Heidi Klum is also voicing a fox named Jade. I suppose it makes as much sense for an arctic fox to have a German accent as an American one, but nobody in the whole history of the world has accused Klum of having a face for radio. Or a voice. She has other assets, and they’re better appreciated in still photographs, or, I imagine, live in person, preferably rolling around on a white sand beach but let’s not be greedy.
Anyway, back to our pal Swifty who wants to be noticed and isn’t. He works in the arctic mail room, sorting packages but he dreams of being on the front lines where the Top Dogs, a team of husky couriers so well-known and respected they’re practically celebrities, are the ones making the deliveries. One day Swifty decides to make his big move, and he highjacks a sled to deliver a package to a secret location, perhaps persuading his curmudgeonly boss Magda (Anjelica Huston) that he’s up for the job.
Anyway, Renner turns out to be the perfect guy for the job because the movie turns out to be just as bland as the man. Had they hired, say, Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Hemsworth, we might have expected something good. Best to temper our expectations with a second (or third) tier celebrity and call it a day. The story and animation are just good enough to satisfy most little ones, but it has little else to recommend it and won’t be memorable for anyone. Is that a plus? Your kid won’t get obsessed with this movie and demand you rewatch it 14 dozen times: GUARANTEED.
Motherless Brooklyn looks a lot cooler than it is. Gosh it pains me to say that. I really wanted Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn to be great, and it isn’t bad, but it doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself.
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a private detective who works for friend and boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who’s into something deeper than he should be. Lionel doesn’t know what, but when Frank winds up dead on his watch, you can be sure he’s going to find the fuck out.
Lionel, with his tics and Tourette’s, is not your typical P.I. – it’s hard for him to really stay under the radar when he’s yelling out rude things. But he does good work, and he’s very motivated to do right by his friend. Following the clues leads him to Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and to exactly where these things always lead: dirty politicians. Is there any other kind?
Anyway, the movie is a send-up to ye olde film noir of yesteryear, when men wore trenchcoats with deep pockets stuffed with revolvers and fedoras worn specifically so they could be doffed each time a dame walked into the office, though you could barely see her through the yellowed fog of cigarette smoke. The detective was haunted by his past, of course, possibly by a dame he didn’t save in time, but he was stoic, never talked about it much. Just fingered his gun and smoked some more. Motherless Brooklyn puts a slight spin on things by introducing a detective who can’t shut up. And gives him a dame who is, and I’ll whisper this part: not white.
The film is so meticulously put together that sometimes it feels more like a history lesson than gumshoe caper; the diorama of NYC is gritty and seedy, so lovingly rendered that it doubtless earns its A+ but also serves as a distraction in an already bloated movie. And the maddening thing about Motherless Brooklyn is the performances are roundly very good, engaging and solid. But when you throw in the period setting and the metaphors and the big moods and Norton’s search for political relevance, something is bound to get lost. And clocking in at 2.5 hours, that’s a long time to devote your attention to each of the film’s moving parts, especially when things don’t quite add up to what they’ve promised. I also, if I may, think this was a missed opportunity to shoot in black and white. I mean, go all in if you’re gonna go all in. The actual result is a bit of a mixed bag. I think the good outweighs the bad, but at 144 minutes, I think there was opportunity to excise some of the bad completely, but no one has the courage to really wield the knife.
Don’t even try to tell me you’re not charmed by Notting Hill. Don’t. Even.
Directed by Roger Michell from Richard Curtis’s script, it’s really just about a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to play it cool, goddammit.
Mega superstar and talented actress Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) walks into a cute neighbourhood (travel) book store and meets bumbling store owner Will (Hugh Grant) and though their worlds are both geographically and metaphorically miles apart, they somehow allow a mutual attraction to play out.
Endearingly, their first real date is a group thing, a dinner party thrown in honour of Will’s little sister’s birthday. The friends assembled are a notable bunch of kooks. The birthday girl, Honey (Emma Chambers), has no chill at all; having always fantasized a famous bestie, she immediately gloms on to Anna. Host and cook Max (Tim McInnerny) will be mortified he’s just served meat to a vegetarian. His wife Bella (Gina McKee) is just so happy that Will’s brought a girl that she can’t help but embarrass him over and over. And hopeless Bernie (Hugh Bonneville) is sweetly clueless, not even recognizing the fame monster in their midst, and benignly quizzing her as to whether she’s able to get by on a working actor’s wages (she is). They’re a bunch of nuts, but they’re quite delightful as a group, and Anna is made to feel welcome and not too conspicuous. Will is a door to a quieter, humbler way of life. Not always enamoured with the trappings of fame – though clearly tied to them financially – it’s a wonderful respite for Anna. But is that enough?
No one recites a Richard Cutis line quite as well as Hugh, and no one twinkles half as hard as Julia. They were perhaps not the best of mates on set but it’s a testament to their talent that they are nothing but fireworks on screen.
The cool thing about this movie is that it was actually filmed on the streets of Notting Hill. There really was a house with a blue door (Curtis lived there for a time himself). And there really was a travel book shop, though it was too narrow to film in, so they confiscated an antiques store around the corner and outfitted it with books. Notting Hill has since been overrun with tourists, and not just the kind who come to snap a few pictures and leave. Many have been enticed to buy property there; prices in the area went up by 66% in the 5 years since the movie was released, double the growth rate elsewhere in London.
Anyway, this film isn’t deep, and perhaps not altogether realistic, either. But it’s so filled with good cheer you don’t mind. And of course you know exactly where it’s going practically before it even starts, but the fun is in the getting there because you get to ride along with such an oddball cast of characters, plus a couple of romantic leads at their peak, floppy haired cuteness.
Before I say anything else, understand that my mind is busily chewing over a fact that makes me very uncomfortable, namely, the near-uniform whiteness of Wes Anderson’s movies. I love Wes Anderson. I love his movies. But I do not love monochromatic casting. But in thinking on this quite a bit in the past few months, I’ve come to realize that it’s not that he doesn’t hire people of colour, it’s that he doesn’t hire African Americans, rather specifically. In fact, The Royal Tenenbaums may be the only time he’s every hired a black actor for a role of substance (Courtney B. Vance got to narrate Isle of Dogs), and it’s really only to service a racist character, ie, Danny Glover’s only there so that Gene Hackman can call him a long list of slurs. And though Wes Anderson’s worlds are so often populated by the same faces, Glover’s has never reappeared. Hiring someone just to be a target seems particularly cruel. However, Kumar Pallana, an Indian actor, had appeared in 4 of Anderson’s films (he died in 2013 – and was originally a barista in Anderson’s favourite Dallas coffee shop). Waris Ahluwalia, an Indian-born, American Sikh, has been in three. Tony Revolori, the terrific breakout bellboy from The Grand Budapest Hotel, is of Guatemalan descent, though so far he’s appeared in more Spider-man movies than he has in the Wes Anderson universe. There was a smattering of Japanese voice actors in Isle of Dogs, though surprisingly and relatively few considering the whole film takes place in Japan. This isn’t exactly an exhaustive list, but it’s as close as it is short, and between you and I, the minute you start putting together a list of non-white actors, you’ve already lost. That’s 9 terrific, talky, thinky, inventive pieces of cinema with incredible ensemble casts and insane attention to detail and just 1 solitary black man, necessary to the script to be the recipient of a grumpy old man’s careless racist remarks. It’s a terrible tally.
And it’s too bad that Anderson’s movies have this problem because otherwise they’d be 100% my jam.
The Tenenbaums are a fascinatingly dysfuntional family. Matriarch Etheline (Anjelica Huston) raised her 3 children to be exceptional after her lousy husband Royal (Gene Hackman) left. Chas Tenenbaum was a prodigy investor, successfully running businesses out of his childhood bedroom. Now he’s a recent widower and fresh trauma has him raising his own sons in a constant state of terror. Margot Tenenbaum was a prodigy playwright, earning prizes and praise as a child for her mature writing. Today she’s literally soaking in depression as her husband Raleigh (Bill Murray) knocks helplessly on the bathroom door. Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) was a tennis prodigy hopelessly in love with his sister, Margot. He had a career-ending meltdown when Margot married Raleigh, and he’s spent the time since sailing the world, keeping oceans between himself and his family. Eli (Owen Wilson) is the boy next door who grew up gazing upon the relative privilege of the Tenenbaum family, wishing to belong to them. And of course Henry Sherman (Glover) is Etheline’s new suitor and the family’s disruptor.
Broke, homeless, with hackles raised about the new man prowling about, Royal Tenenbaum decides to home after decades away. They won’t have him of course. He spent years disappointing his family before being completely estranged from them. So his only move is to fake cancer as a ploy to gain sympathy – and even that’s a tough sell. But it gets him back in the family home, and one by one the grown children all return to orbit around him. They’re all fucked up in their own ways, but they’ve also got an extremely fucked up dynamic together. They’re a bunch of fire starters just waiting for a match, and Royal is a goddamned flame thrower. Whoosh.
It’s a movie full of quirks that still manages to be cohesive and sell a cogent story about a family full of tragedies. Betrayal lurks in every closet, disaster through every doorway. And even though it contains perhaps Anderson’s bleakest scene ever (set to Elliott Smith’s Needle in the Hay), it’s not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of laughs, but also some actual heartfelt moments. The movie is an act of forgiveness, a representation of forgiveness being a gift you give yourself, to set yourself free from the past and the pain it causes you. Royal may be irredeemable but his family is not. They’re deeply flawed and chronically eccentric, but the script searches authenticity and finds it in abundance.
Though the role of Royal was written with Hackman in mind, it was offered to Gene Wilder, who turned it down.
Danny Glover’s look in the film was modeled after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, which is possibly my favourite sentence in the world.
There is no such thing as Dalmatian mice; the spots were drawn on with Sharpies.
Anjelica Huston wears Wes Anderson’s mother’s glasses in the film.
The hand that is seen with the BB lodged between its knuckles is not Ben Stiller’s, it’s Andrew Wilson’s (yes, brother to Luke and Owen). It’s no trick, he really has a BB stuck in there and has since childhood. Can you guess which one of his brothers shot him?
I turned to Sean at one point to say that there were a lot of Beatles songs in the film. In fact, Ruby Tuesday was playing at the moment, which is by the Stones, as I’m sure you’re aware, and as I myself am normally aware, though my brain was clearly existing in some alternate reality at the time. There is a Beatles song, and a John Lennon one, and four from the Stones. Brain fart.
This movie as at TIFF in 2018 and while it did make my long list, it ultimately got cut in favour of god knows what else. And then what happened is that I never heard another single thing about it, and it might have literally fallen right out of my little ole brain until this weekend, when I was in a hotel room in Toronto and saw it on the pay per view. I did not at that time pay to view it. Sean has this weird hotel kink where he always watches HGTV when in them – these shows about “hunting” for houses that are necessarily imperfect so that they may then renovate them to within an inch of their foundations, with a lot of bullshit drama along the way. If we watch more than one episode in a row, Sean will invariably be convinced that they are the same episode, and I’ll say something like “No, last time it was lesbians with 2 dogs and this time it’s lesbians with 2 dogs EACH” but still that won’t convince them because they truly are interchangeable. Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t watch The Public in a hotel room where it would have cost $18 to rent when I have just rented it in the comfort of my own home for $6. What a savings!
But anyway: libraries. Public libraries. I love em. I am in a codependent relationship with them. I’m an insomniac who sometimes reads as much as a book a day, on average, so yeah, I check out a lot of books and I read each and every one of them because I’m not yet strong enough to walk away from a book I don’t enjoy. I’ve always loved libraries, even my school library which was too broke to stock books; in library period (because we still had one), we learned typing, and chess, and read (free) newspapers. I played library as a kid; stamping books was the most satisfying joy I knew. It is my dream to own one of those card catalogue cabinets with the dozens of tiny drawers. I’m pretty sure that’s all that’s standing between me and eternal happiness (which must mean that my life is pretty great). That said, libraries feel essential to me because my life without books would be nothing. But some people don’t use libraries for borrowing books. For them, libraries may be essential in different ways: a place to warm up, or to cool down, a place to congregate, a place to use the washroom, to wash up, to greet and be greeted.
The Public is about Cincinnati’s public library, and a lawsuit against it alleging discrimination when a homeless man is asked to leave because of his body odour. This highlights a struggle that librarians face every day that you may never have thought about: the balance between the rights and needs of one person versus the comfort of the patrons in general. There aren’t too many places where a mentally ill, unwashed man with nowhere else to go might rub shoulders with a kid researching a class project on geodes. But both have an equal right to be there. I don’t know this for sure, but I’m assuming they don’t really cover this stuff when you’re majoring in library sciences. It’s actually amazing how the most important and vital parts of your job you won’t even heard mentioned in school.
Meanwhile, a couple of the Cincinnati library’s employees, Stuart (Emilio Estevez) and Ernesto (Jacob Vargas) have been named personally in the lawsuit. But they’re still going to work, still breaking up fights in the men’s room, still erasing hate crime graffiti in precious books, still navigating people’s crushing loneliness, still stepping over dead bodies, people frozen to death in the night waiting for library to open its warm doors in the morning. In the face of which, one particular homeless man, a war vet named Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams) means to ‘occupy’ the library, turn it into an emergency overflow homeless shelter since there aren’t nearly enough spaces and the city is suffering through a terrible cold snap.
Estevez wrote and directed a compelling, human story. Librarians become teachers, social workers, front line workers. Their job is not just caring for books, but for the patrons. I think sometimes the film gets a little bogged down by Big Thoughts but personally I wasn’t bothered in the least. If it wasn’t perfectly executed, at least he took a stab at saying something Important. I tend to feel very forgiving toward movies that Think and Challenge and Try. In all honesty, had I paid $18 to rent The Public, I wouldn’t have been mad about it.
Not long ago, Will Ferrell appeared with Amy Poehler in a movie called The House. They played parents with a dirty little secret: they couldn’t afford to send their only daughter to college. So instead of coming clean, or having her take out student loans, they started up an illegal casino.
Drunk Parents is a very similar premise, and could also have been called The House, although instead of a casino, Frank (Alec Baldwin) and Nancy (Salma Hayek) think smaller, and less effective. First it’s a yard sale, during which they lament their spendy ways and consume a lot of very expensive wine, but don’t actually sell anything because what would the neighbours think. And one neighbour in particular, Jason (Ben Platt) has a direct line to their daughter Rachel, who has only been at college for 24 hours or so at this point. So then they try to extort more money out of their neighbour Nigel, who has already been generous enough to pay them for watching his home while he’s away. But then their drunkenness inspires an even wackier scheme. They’re going to rent out Nigel’s house. On Craigslist. What could go wrong?
Well, aside from everything. First a sex offender (Jim Gaffigan) moves in. They “solve” that problem by trading with him: he moves into their home, and they into Nigel’s. How does that solve the problem you ask? Well, it doesn’t. But it does create some more! Next it’s an outright thief who empties the house from top to bottom, although his truck full of stolen furniture eventually becomes a nice place to crash when the couple faces homelessness. Which is where Will Ferrell comes in because yes, he’s in this one too, and he lights himself on fire. You may recall that in The House, it’s Jeremy Renner who gets set on fire. So there continue to be slight, slight differences.
Alec Baldwin was the weak link in the film – not that he was bad, but that the comedy came from everyone else. Jim Gaffigan is one of my favourite comedians ever, so it’s no surprise that even as a sexual deviant he had me laughing. I was, however, surprised by Salma Hayek. She does things in this movie I had no idea she could do. A grocery store scene with a $4 zucchini is a particular highlight. I think. Is it good or is it just surprising?
Which still doesn’t mean this movie is good. Neither the script nor the direction will impress. And obviously the story’s a little bit borrowed (well, sort of: The House came out in 2017; Drunk Parents came out this year but was filmed in 2016…which is never a good sign). It’s stale, and some of the actors are better at working with crusty material than others. And you can’t even watch it drunk and hope the beer goggles improve it: nothing can improve it. I paid to rent this thing, and even though that’s just $4, that might be a worse financial transgression than what led to this wealthy couple’s downfall in the first place (which is what, exactly – job loss? bad investments? too many espresso makers? – the script doesn’t even bother). If you’re prepared to navigate the bad in order to find a few funny landmarks, be my guest. But wait until it’s free on Netflix. At least that way you can still respect yourself in the morning.
Ron Stallworth is a young black man, proud to be Colorado Springs’ first African-American police officer, in 1972 (or 1979 in real life, but from these parentheses forward, please understand that though this is based on his autobiography of real events, I’ll be discussing the events in the film). He’ll be the Jackie Robinson of the PD, and like Jackie, he’s the impossibly perfect, flawless, magical black man who will need to constantly turn his cheek – not just to the racist public, but to racist colleagues as well. Life might be difficult for Ron walking the beat but he’ll never know because he’s buried in the basement records office being abused by his own fellow officers. He’s desperate to get some real police work but I bet he got more than he bargained for. When he’s partnered with a Jewish officer named Flip, the two of them together make a single perfect Klansman.
Wait, what? Yeah, true story, though it sounds like the setup of a joke with a cringe-worthy punch-line. A black guy and a Jew teamed up together, undercover, to infiltrate the KKK. Ron (John David Washington) says all the right things on the phone, all the way up to the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace). Flip (Adam Driver) provides the requisite white face and trucker caps. Together nothing can stop them, except possibly guys in hooded robes.
Spike Lee directs this thing, based on Stallworth’s memoir. But the spin that Lee and the other writers bring to the movie is fantastic. While this would have been a remarkable story at any time, setting it is amidst blaxploitation movies and Nixon’s reelection campaign gives it a crisp edge, and the constant allusions to Trump’s eventual win, thanks in part to his KKK ties, give it a sharp one. Damn it’s smart. And also depressing. And funny. Like, really funny. And so sad. Because as astutely-observed as this stuff is, it’s astonishing and disappointing to realize that 40 years on, we haven’t made much discernible progress. White people were horrified and baffled by 45’s election, which is funny because it was obviously white people who elected him. The two kinds obviously don’t talk. But nearly every black American I’ve spoken to was not overly surprised by the result (which is a far cry from being happy about it). They knew the country’s true temperature since they live with its consequences every day. And now those things have been outed, given permission to be voiced, and suddenly 2018 is resembling 1972 is some very uncomfortable ways.
John David Washington is really great in this role. He made his movie debut at just 6 years old, playing a school kid in a movie Spike Lee made with his father, Denzel called Malcolm X…maybe you’ve heard of it? If he’s getting acting lessons at home, they’re paying off. He’s subtle and natural and the movie’s success hinges on how well he underplays events that seem so impossible. Adam Driver does well too; he knows he’s second banana, but his character undergoes an interesting arc, from “it’s just a job” to really internalizing the hated for Jews that he constantly has to endorse as part of the klan. It has to mess you up to say things against your own people, to disavow yourself from a group that is part of your essential self – we feel that every time Flip denies his religion out loud to suspicious klansman, but it’s an interesting callback to Ron’s police department interview, where he basically had to do the same. And that should give us pause. And Topher Grace gets to play David Duke because Armie Hammer’s perfect Aryan face was presumably busy playing a slave owner in some other movie.
Ron spends the movie trying to prove to himself, to his potential girlfriend, and to his superior officers, that you can work from the inside to tear something down. His lady, the president of the black student union, is a proud agitator who doesn’t believe you should belong to the system you’re trying to destroy. “Black liberation!” she shouts at him. And we clearly see his own internal struggle because on the one hand he’s a first hand witness to the system being broken, and stacked against him, but he also believes he can be an agent for change. It takes guts to be the guy on the inside. I guess after being that guy for his whole life, joining the klan maybe didn’t seem so scary.
In fact, Lee does well subtly highlight the similarities between the two groups: kops and klan. Both seemed nearly identically racist in the 70s. But what got me is that in the film, both groups refer to themselves as “family.” Very recently I was telling Sean this theory of mine that any non-family member who refers to themselves as “family” is doing it for nefarious reasons. Work “families” tend to be abusive. It means, sure they’re internal fighting. It’s fine. It’s family. In the police department it means we don’t rat on each other. If some officers are abusing their position to harass people (spoiler alert: black people!) we turn a blind eye. There are so many clever, subversive little elements that they get under your skin incredibly effectively.
And just when you’re starting to feel cutesey about all the Nazi-salute foreplay and lynching pillow talk, Lee flips the script and reminds us of our present-day truth, where we cannot hide behind our smug sense of superiority. We are not better, and there’s no better way to remind us of that than with footage from last year’s white superemacist, neo-nazi, ‘white civil rights’ rally in Charlottesville. This weekend is actually the one-year anniversary, and tensions are high. This movie will likely never reach the hearts and minds of those who could really use it, but let it be both a balm and a rallying cry for the rest of us, perhaps even an emergency flare. We need movies like this to get us through these dark days.