Tag Archives: Amazon Prime

Official Secrets

“Just because you’re the prime minister doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts.” It’s almost delicious how naive this sounds as Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) utters the words unironically near the top of the film. This was in 2003. We, of course, that politicians were shady. That they lied routinely and weren’t even ashamed of it. But in 2003, things began to shift, in part because thanks to the internet, we had ready access facts and figures. So when a politician looked into our eyes (through television, but still) and said the words “weapons of mass destruction,” we called bullshit. With time we’ve been able to say that the war on Iraq was never about 9-11, or Sadam, or nuclear capabilities. It was about oil. It was always about oil. That was the beginning of the end; it’s been all downhill from there, rolling ever more swiftly from 2016 on when America’s T-bag president has us living in a post-truth, fake news apocalypse.

But let’s go back to 2003. After the tragic September 11 2001 terrorist attack, America mourned their 3000 lost, but then skipped through the other stages of grief and went straight to vengeance. The al-Qaeda terrorists were not from Iraq (they were from Saudi Arabia, primarily) but linking the invasion of Iraq to the tragedy provided convenient cover for America’s true intentions:  control over oil and preservation of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. UK prime minister Tony Blair decided to cast his lot with George W., though he found it difficult to justify in the House of Commons where a record-high number of MPs rebelled against the vote and 3 resigned in protest. Still, they joined what was already an unpopular war with suspicious rationales. Katharine Gun (Knightley) was but one of many people glued to their televisions, skeptical of the reasoning they were being sold.

Gun worked as a translator for a British intelligence agency. She’d seen memos concerning a request from the U.S. for any kind of compromising information on diplomats from the UN Security Council who were due to vote on the prospective invasion, and for help in bugging their offices.

Outraged at their under-handedness, Katharine leaked the document which ultimately led to her arrest and being charged with breaking of Official Secrets Act. The movie is nothing new, and if anything it lacks punch since with hindsight we know that not only was Hussein not affiliated with al-Qaeda, no WMDs were ever found in Iraq. The war was a sham. The reason to watch is for Knightley, who reminds us that ordinary people can be promoted to hero or demoted to villain when they turn whistleblower. Director Gavin Hood’s success is that he doesn’t make Gun a martyr, he doesn’t make her soap-boxy or righteous. She’s just a citizen like you or I, frustrated by her government’s dishonesty, and when she has the ability to do something, she does it. She’s not brave or courageous. It reminds me of a quote from Spider-man: Into The Spider-Verse (random much?) (bear with me): “Anyone can wear the mask.” In early 2003, Katharine wore the mask.

Why watch the movie when we’re already familiar with the events? For me it was the court scene. Gun plead “not guilty”, saying in her defense that she acted to prevent imminent loss of life in a war she considered illegal. What happens next is eyebrow-arching stuff, almost too good, too perfect to be true (but it is).

Where Hands Touch

Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) is the only person of colour in her village. She’s aware of that fact, of course, all too aware, but it’s not until her 16th birthday when her difference starts to truly matter, so her mother packs her and little brother Koen up and takes them to Berlin where they can be ‘invisible.’ But Berlin isn’t any safer for a biracial girl in 1944. Leyna and her family live in fear, and Leyna’s mother Kerstin (Abbie Cornish) is so desperate she sacrifices her relationship with her own family to obtain some false papers for her daughter, papers that promise Leyna will never commit the crime of racial mixing with a German aryan, papers that claim she has been sterilized.

Koen joins the Hitler Youth, compulsory for every aryan boy, and his mother is trying her best to temper the hate he learns there with the values and morals of home. As for daughter Leyna, Kerstin is just trying to keep her alive, a feat made more difficult after Leyna falls in love with Lutz (George MacKay), himself a member of the Hitler Youth, and the son of a prominent SS officer. This could get them both killed – it has become obvious that the Nazis aren’t just hunting Jewish people, but anyone deemed “impure.”

There’s obviously an interesting story in there somewhere, but the script by writer-director Amma Asante doesn’t quite sniff it out. Possibly the best thread to follow would be that of Kerstin’s relationship with her children, both rebellious in their ways, and her struggle to balance her beliefs with what will keep the family safe, not unlike Scarlett Johansson’s Oscar-nominated turn in Jojo Rabbit.

Instead we experience the world from Leyna’s perspective. Amandla Stenbert does good work, but Leyna is a teenager, confused and confident at the same time. She insists she wants nothing more than to be treated like any other “good German,” which, considering the context, is kind of uncomfortable. Against the backdrop of millions of Jewish people being led to slaughter, it sort of feels like Leyna has shown up to a Black Lives Matter protest with a sign that reads “All Lives Matter.” Leyna’s youth sees only injustice against herself, and her lack of awareness or irony starts to feel worryingly tone deaf.

The increasingly improbable love story does little to recommend itself and its compassion feels miserly and misplaced. Sean and I recently watched Schindler’s List (he for the first time), a perfect reminder that there are plentiful and worthier movies on the subject, ones that manage to paint a fuller and more accurate picture.

 

 

The Handmaiden

During the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) lives on a large countryside estate with her abusive uncle. A new handmaid, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) arrives in the house to assist her, only the two bond in unexpected ways.

But what Hideko doesn’t know is that Sook-Hee was raised in a den of thieves – and pickpockets, forgers, human traffickers, and so on. A fellow criminal, playing the long con and posing as Japanese gentleman Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), came to her with a proposal. Lady Hideko stands to inherit a vast fortune. If Sook-Hee agrees to help Hideko fall in love with him, they’ll rob her of her money and have her locked up in a madhouse. Sook-Hee accepts. But as she encourages Hideko’s seduction, she herself is falling for the lady, but her poverty and pride won’t let feelings get in the way of fortune.

The Handmaiden is an exceedingly beautifully-shot film with a score that sounds an awful lot like Downton Abbey. It’s loosely based on Sarah Waters’ crime novel, Fingersmith, but director Chan-wook Park (yes, the very same who gave us Oldboy) has his fingerprints all over this adaptation. His interpretation is visually luscious, of course, and the story more complex than it seems. This one too cleverly hints at the various power dynamics at play – between sexes, classes, and even colonized and colonizer.

While the erotic scenes are somewhat familiar and cliched, one bathtub scene involving a thimble will go down in the history books as a delightfully powerful lesbian maneuver. The Handmaiden is lush and decadent and often disturbing.

A Lego Brickumentary

Jason Bateman gets the mini fig treatment, and as the documentary’s narrator, he helps us discover aspects of the Lego culture we’ve perhaps not before considered.

I mean, someone has. Definitely not me. But someone. I grew up in a house of women; we were four sisters, close enough in age to swap clothes, braid each other’s hair, and influence each other’s tastes in movies and music and books. Eventually we got it into our pony-tailed heads to put Legos on our Christmas lists, not much caring who received the list as our entire basement was a communal playroom. But instead we got more Barbies. We had, literally, hundreds of Barbies. We had so many Barbies that we’d often get repeats of the same ones – we’d call them “the twins” or “the triplets” and carry on as usual. We loved Barbies. But we never got any Legos.

I didn’t really discover Legos until my oldest nephew was old enough to play with them. And by old enough, I mean old enough to last about four seconds before wandering away, leaving his dad to complete the project, who was the one who really wanted them in the first place. Sean would linger for an hour in the Lego aisle, sizing up each kit, weighing the options. I remembered Legos as a massive pile of plastic bricks to dump over your living room floor, from which to build the blueprints in your mind. But the Lego aisle of the past decade tells a different story: boxes with exactly the parts necessary to build the project illustrated on the cover, many of them heavily licensed to appeal to children. And many of them not. Lego has discovered a second crucial customer base: adults! My nephew’s dad, and Sean – they’re not outliers. Adults make up such a large portion of Lego’s customers they even have their own acronym: AFOL, adult fan of Lego. These are the people splashing out serious cash: $350 for 3898 pieces of Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium; $400 for an authentic replica on a 1:8 scale of a Bugatti Chiron; $900 for a massive 7541 piece Millennium Falcon. People love the zen aspect of following precise instructions, but lots of AFOLs are building outside the box too, exhibiting their impressive creations at Lego conventions or submitting them to Lego to win the chance to see their design reproduced and sold in stores.

Whether you played with them as a kid or as an adult, or merely browsed them endlessly as an aunt who cares, Lego has maintained their hold as a top toy for decades. But they’ve transcended toy stores, they’ve been used in art and architecture, we’ve seen them in movies and museums. And now we can celebrate them in this Amazon Prime documentary too.

Tell us about your own Lego projects: do you like Technic, Creator sets, or licensed stuff? Have you built the Death Star, the Taj Mahal, the Simpsons living room?

7500

7500 is the emergency code for a plane hijacking. Fasten your seatbelts, passengers. This is going to be one hell of a bumpy ride.

Tobias (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the American copilot on a flight from Berlin to Paris. He and Michael, the captain (Carlo Kitzlinger) are going through the usual piloty pre-flight rituals: ordering their sandwiches, deciding whether they’ll wait for tardy passengers, saying the word “check” a lot, or, to changed things up, occasionally “checked.” Extremely banal shit is what I’m getting at. The fun in being a pilot is apparently in the strut through the airport. Inside the cockpit it’s mostly just paperwork and hitting the right button for autopilot.

But unluckily for Tobias and Michael, no one titles their movie 7500 and then fails to follow through with hijackers. We know it’s coming, but the waiting is agony. Right up until the improvised glass shiv comes out, Tobias and Michael are having an uneventful day at the office which just happens to be 35000 feet above ground, zipping through the clouds at approximately 900 km/hr. I’m having a worse flight than they are, but that’s because I know the title and they think it’s something like “gawd I can’t wait for the weekend.” I feel a tightness in my chest, anxiety in my breathing. And soon enough, so do they.

Emergencies are why we even bother to have pilots at all. Sort of. The autopilot can fly and land and even handle things like engine blow-outs. And arguably it would do better in situations like this. The cockpit must never be breached. The pilot knows that. He or she knows that her #1 priority in a hijacking/hostage situation is to keep the bad guys out. But there’s a difference between knowing that, training for that, and actually doing it when the hijacker has a knife to a passenger’s throat. Or, let’s say, to the flight attendant’s throat who is secretly your girlfriend/baby mama. The autopilot would have no problem obeying this rule, but human pilots are vulnerable – to fear, to compassion, basically to emotion. Which is both a feature and a bug.

So Tobias is in a pickle. A big fat pickle.

This is not Die Hard. We’re not here to have fun. This entire movie takes place in a cockpit, and very nearly in real time. You can’t actually smell the fear pooling in Tobias’s armpits, but you might think you can, and I wouldn’t blame you one bit. This film is intense. So intense I hit pause about 45 minutes in just so I could catch my breath. We are marinating in Tobias’ stress sweat and it is brutally unpleasant. But this is how Patrick Vollrath’s 7500 distinguishes itself from virtually all others in the genre. This is not about action, or heroics. We spend 90 minutes living in a terrified copilot’s shoes. It is neither glamourous nor dignified.

Such is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s talent that he’s able to convey concern for his unseen passengers and crew – the way he blinks, the way he breathes, the way he hesitates or doesn’t. We can’t see past the cockpit door, but we think of them, and even of the people in the city down below, asleep in their beds, unaware that a terrorist plans for them to die before they wake. Beyond the opposing forces of the highjacker and the pilot, there is little else. We are meant to feel this event viscerally, painfully. It is unlikely to gain traction as a mindfulness exercise but boy oh boy does it force you to live in the moment.

I like 7500 about as much as I like flying, which is to say, not at all. This is not a movie to be “enjoyed.” But airplanes take you to a new and perhaps exotic location. They take you to places that are exciting and interesting to explore. A vacation allows you to try on a different sort of life for a while. Maybe you enjoy it, maybe you don’t, but either way, travel makes you learn things, about the world and about yourself. And sometimes you don’t have to travel any further than your couch to get there.

The Vast of Night

Picture it: small town New Mexico, sometime in the late 1950s. On this particular evening, the whole town is crowded into the high school gym to watch a basketball game. It’s literally standing room only. The players’ shorts are very short; the cheerleaders’ skirts are very long. The town’s streets are all but deserted. The only two people who seem not to be at the game are a couple of intrepid teenagers – fast-talking Fay (Sierra McCormick) is the town’s telephone switchboard operator and charismatic Everett (Jake Horowitz) is hosting a live radio show. Fay is of course very faithfully tuned into the radio program and notices the broadcast is briefly interrupted by a strange audio frequency.

Few witness it of course, most people being at the game, but one man who does calls in with quite a story. He’s heard these tones before. And boy does he have some theories. From there, Fay and Everett get caught up in a night neither will ever forget.

The Vast of Night is a pretentious title for a film eager to live up to that insinuation. Stylistically it’s reminiscent of The Twilight Zone; a retro sci-fi throwback that strains the limits of its (low) budget but proves good ideas trump production value when it comes to building a watchable, suspenseful film. Most of all I enjoyed the dynamic between the two young actors. McCormick in particular has a massive job handling a demanding long take but handles it like a true professional. The two really convey a sense of immediacy that contributes richly to the film’s ominous atmosphere.

Despite some very strong elements, I never quite liked the film as much as I wanted to. I didn’t really enjoy the film’s conceits, or director Andrew Patterson’s self-conscious attempts to use all the tricks in his bag in one go. And some of his choices are just confounding: why the black screen, for example? During a long exchange with a caller during the live radio broadcast, we mostly focus on Everett’s face as he absorbs the story, but sometimes the camera cuts away to…nothing. A totally black, blank screen. And then back to Everett, who continues to listen intently, sitting perfectly still, hardly giving anything away on his face, and then back to black. I’ve thought a long time about this choice and though I’ve come up with a few plausible scenarios, I don’t like any of them. It feels more like a mistake than a choice. Later on in the film, when two people are running across a field, the camera spends multiple lengthy takes focusing on knees down. This is likely a budgetary concern, either the shot cost them enough that they had to use it a little too liberally in order to justify it, or they simply couldn’t afford to show anything that might have happening thighs and above. Either way, I don’t want the line item to be so glaringly apparent on the screen.

What I do want is another film from Patterson, who’s clearly got some potential if he hasn’t already burned all his bridges (one of the items in the film’s IMDB trivia section is a list of all the film festivals who rejected the movie – a particularly ungracious display of privilege from a first-time white, male director, and some pretty juvenile sour grapes), and some better material for McCormick, who deserves to showcase her talent.

Selah and the Spades

At an elite private boarding school, five “factions” rule the school. I’ve gone and put factions into quotation marks because these factions are taken so seriously they feel more like the mob. And each one has an equally fearsome mob don at the top. To ensure a smooth school year, these gangs make temporary alliances, but rest assured that they each mob has its own interests at heart. The head of the most powerful faction – The Spades – is of course our girl Selah (Lovie Simone) and her trusted consigliere is Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) (if you don’t speak gangster, a consigliere is an advisor and right hand man).

It took me a minute to even pinpoint this movie’s setting as a high school because there’s nothing tongue in cheek about this; they take it VERY seriously. Most of all Selah, who knows her power comes from being feared and loved in equal measure, both of which require a certain distance to achieve. So though she is indisputably the most popular girl in school, she is lonely and basically friendless, other than Maxxie. And Maxxie’s about to become dangerously distracted by a new love. So there’s a juicy spot open for Selah’s new protégé, and in fact this role is in desperate need of filling since Selah is a senior with no one to pass the baton to. Enter: Paloma (Celeste O’Connor). Paloma is neither as charming nor as callous as Selah but she’s something much more important: likable. Paloma proves very worthy of the position, rising in prominence among the factions a little too easily for Selah’s comfort. Being number one for so long has painted Selah with insecurity, and if Paloma was once a friend, she is now a threat – Selah will not give up control one day before graduation, and is willing to go to some pretty sinister lengths to ensure it.

The young cast of Selah and the Spades is very talented and very watchable, even if their characters are all shades on the despicable spectrum. The film takes the concept of “cliques” and heightens it to make a point: high school is a dangerous game. Selah may be an unlikable protagonist but you can’t argue that she isn’t complex. All of the characters in writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s film are layered and interesting. Teenagers are treated with the respect they deserve, although not always with the respect they demand. Poe’s notion of high school is not unlike the seediest underbelly of organized crime, everyone ready to stab each other in the back the moment anyone shows vulnerability.

Tayarisha Poe’s film is like a rock veined with gold. There are flashes of brilliance but no one’s striking it rich. For me, the film ended right where it should have begun. Our protagonist is treated more like an antagonist and it leaves us mildly confused, moderately disappointed, and largely unsatisfied.

My Spy

My Spy is about as good a movie as JJ is a spy. Which is to say: not at all. In fact, when JJ (Dave Bautista) is assigned to surveil a mother and daughter with techie Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), they are almost immediately made by Sophie (Chloe Coleman), their 9 year old target. Not just made, but caught on tape contemplating her murder. And instead of admitting the mission has been compromised, JJ then proceeds to allow himself to be blackmailed by said little girl into teaching her spycraft, dating mom Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and generally posing as the daddy figure she so craves. But he’s understandably loathe to admit defeat because already this assignment was more of a punishment than a true mission. He’s a terrible spy, a lousy dresser, and an awful dancer.

Dave Bautista has no business being a leading man. I can’t help but think the director and/or producers agree since the script often sounds like it was written with Dwayne Johnson in mind, but The Rock is a legit movie star and can spot stinkers more easily that the Bautistas and the John Cenas, who are, frankly, lucky to get any work at all. Well, maybe I’m being a little hard on them. I think Bautista is actually very well cast in the Guardians movies. [Insert silence here, where I’m not saying anything at all since I truly do not have a single nice word to say about Cena]. But even Johnson started off doing things like The Tooth Fairy as he proved to Hollywood that he had what it takes. But he does. He knows his limits, he’s not trying to elbow his way into a Shakespeare adaptation. He chooses roles where his smile and his eyebrow arch are assets, where his muscles are a plot point, where he can ooze charisma and strength in equal measure and coast off the fumes.

Dave Bautista has no charisma, no discernible personality, but I think both he and Cena are trying to coast of Johnson’s fumes. The Rock has proved himself such a Hollywood hit machine that it of course would love to replicate his success, and it eyeballed the heck out of the WWE to see if anyone else would fit the bill. But Dwayne Johnson is a genetic and a talent anomaly. You can’t simply replace him with a similarly oversized man and hope for the best. Bautista is simply a large and lumbering plus-sized blow up doll, and director Peter Segal is too timid to maneuver him into position. A mannequin with its lines taped to its chest would have more character than Bautista does.

John Cena recently tried leading man status on for size in Playing with Fire, which was so bad it made me furious. My Spy isn’t good. Everyone involved recognized this; it was delayed 3 times even before anyone had ever heard of coronavirus. But with the pandemic as a convenient excuse, they’ve quietly released it directly to Amazon Prime, which means if you’re a member, you can watch it for free. And free is the only way this math works out at all. Free means you can give it a try. Free means you can shut it off after 10 minutes without feeling guilty. And, in these trying times of isolation boredom and our desperate need for content, this might do, especially since it is a rare family-friendly, non-animated film. This won’t be anyone’s favourite film, but you can only play so many rounds of go-fish.

Blow The Man Down

It’s the day every woman dreams of since she’s a little girl: what dress you’ll wear, what flowers you’ll choose, the food you’ll serve, the heirloom hanky you’ll use to dab prettily at your eyes. Your mother’s funeral only comes once in a lifetime and you’ve got to get it right.

Sad but true: I’ll say any mean thing to get the laugh.

Anyway. For Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla  (Sophie Lowe) Connolly it is indeed the day of their mother’s funeral. It feels like half the small village of Easter Cove in Maine shows up for it, paying tribute to a woman everyone seems to have loved. But it doesn’t exactly go seamlessly – clearly they don’t subscribe to Martha Stewart Funerals. The non-cheap flowers arrive late, there’s too much disgusting coleslaw, and oh yeah, they kill someone. Someone else. I mean, they never murdered their mother, she died of natural causes, more or less. I’m talking someone ELSE. A bad dude who we wouldn’t really feel too bad about killing except his death, and well, the concealment thereof, leads to the sisters uncovering some pretty shady stuff in their home town.

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Directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy delight in pulling up the respectable if threadbare rug to reveal not gleaming hard wood but black mould asbestos. Oh yes, there’s major rot to this picturesque little town, and behind every white picket fence is another secret being kept. Mary Beth and Priscilla have pulled a thread which threatens to unravel even the heaviest fisherman’s sweater.

This movie is oddly funny, in the blackest sense, establishing a real sense of atmosphere. Details are meted out like a sparse trail of breadcrumbs, each one a small but perfect moment, supported by a smart script and plenty of terrific performances.

 

 

Heartburn

Two people who refuse to ever marry again meet at a wedding, as you do. Rachel’s (Meryl Streep) a writer, Mark’s (Jack Nicholson) a writer, and they both know better when it comes to love. So of course they end up marrying, though not before Rachel keeps everyone at the wedding waiting for hours and hours as she tries to warm up her cold feet in the room next door. I mean honestly, what’s the max time you would spend at a wedding if the bride was refusing to walk down the aisle?

As if that was an inauspicious enough start to their marriage, the two embark immediately on a home renovation. Which, as we all know, is responsible for like 78% of all divorces and about 94% of matricides (when a wife kills her husband). But they get through it, even with the added pressure of a baby on the way who can’t possibly be born if the lace curtains aren’t hung. And Rachel, newly domesticated, is surprised to find how happy she is. And is totally devastated to find, during the waddliest waddle of her second pregnancy, that Mark is cheating on her.

What now? The Streep takes us up and down a whole xylophone of emotions, hitting every octave with masterful precision. Nicholson is the oboe to Streep’s xylophone, a little jauntier, but hitting complementary notes, pairing nicely. Plus his back hair catches pleasingly in the moonlight. But make no mistake: the xylophone is dominant.

Directed by Mike Nichols based on an autobiographical novel by Nora Ephron, the intimacy is authentic enough to make you feel like a voyeur but you need to decide in advance that you’re here for the performance, not the story. Because there isn’t much of one: love goes off the rails. It’s sad but it happens all the time. The minute Rachel shoves a key lime pie in Mark’s face, she’s every cliche we’ve seen before and none we haven’t.