Tag Archives: female directors

The Polka King

Jan Lewan, Polish immigrant, is a hard-working polka enthusiast. He works 18 day time jobs just so he can afford to keep touring the Pennsylvania polka circuit. His band, however, isn’t content to work for peanuts. In a bid to fatten their paycheques, he recruits some of his elderly fans to become “investors”, and he writes promissory notes guaranteeing a 12% return on investment. His investors are quite happy: Jan always finds new investors, so he can always cover generous quarterly payments. But then the FBI finds out.

polka-kingThe FBI gets one whiff of this and feel it must be some sort of Ponzi scheme. They shut Jan down, but since he promises it was an honest mistake, and to pay back his investors, problem solved. Except, in order to pay back his investors, he ends up creating a second, bigger scheme.

The thing about our Polka King is that he’s very, very charming. Jack Black is perfect to play him: guileless, open-faced, enthusiastic. Even when he’s dirty, his heart is squeaky-clean. Jenny Slate appears as his beauty queen wife, Jacki Weaver as his scowling mother-in-law,  and Jason Schwartzman as his best friend and bandmate, Mickey Pizzazz. The film bubbles with energy thanks to its cast, and Jack Black’s eyes are never not dancing. Black’s been honing his indie acting chops these past few years, and it shows. But it never hurts that this wacky guy is exactly in his wheelhouse. It just so happens that this wacky guy is a real person, and if you were a polka fan in the 1990s, especially around Scranton, you may have caught a performance. But even if you didn’t, now all you need is a Netflix subscription. The screwball energy is infectious…although it must be said: directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky seem to love their protagonist a little too much. But heck, I love him a little too much too. The Polka King is endearing and entertaining.  He may be conning his way into our hearts, but he’s there.

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Band Aid

Once in a blue moon, Netflix offers up a rare gem. Band Aid is a Netflix diamond.

Written, directed, and starring Zoe Lister-Jones (who you may already love from Life In Pieces!), Band Aid is a little piece of indie cinema genius. It’s about a married couple, Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (king of indies Adam Pally, who you may already love from The Mindy Project), who on their last legs, relationship-wise. Even their therapist claims she’s moved to Canada just to avoid them. The fights are vicious, and cyclical. But while high as a couple of kites at a child’s birthday party, they discover the one thing that can still bring them joy: music. And so they start a band where they sing their fights back and forth in front of their sex addict neighbour (Fred Armisen), who conveniently is a drummer.

band-aid-2017-adam-pally-zoe-lister-jonesIn fact, music alone is not enough to save them. Turns out they’ve suffered a tragedy that neither has fully grieved, and singing about it is going to be very difficult since talking about it has been impossible for years. They’re still a broken couple, now they’re just putting all their dirty laundry on the stage for the consumption of others. A particularly ambitious dream of them getting a record deal never seems all that impossible because actually, their music is good, and fun (so long as you are currently in a good space with your loved one). Sean and I found ourselves communicating in that subtle hand squeezy way that some couples have when they are relating a little too well to the awkwardness on screen.

Now brace yourselves for a cool fact: for her first movie, Zoe Lister-Jones insisted on an all-female crew. Like, Adam Pally was the only man for miles and miles. Truly all female. And the thing is, the movie is so good that I buried the lead. It doesn’t need any gimmicks. Because when a normal film would just throw out the old male-female sick couple cliches, Lister-Jones keep asking why. Why do couples drive each other crazy over time? Band Aid might not have all the answers but it confronts the questions honestly, while still being an entirely entertaining movie.

 

Fun Mom Dinner

Usually the mere fact of a “mom movie” makes me cringe. Bad Moms make Bad Movies. I’m not a mother and I think more highly of the ones I know than to buy this whole “constant need to complain about the hardships of motherhood” bullshit. Which is not to say I think it’s easy. I just think it’s a choice. And that most of the mothers I know do a little bit of complaining and a little bit of boasting and a whole lot of being a regular person. If you hate your life so much, the LAST thing you should do is make a whiny movie about it so the rest of us are subjected to it too.

MV5BMTYwNzk5MzQ5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDQ1ODE5MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1347,1000_AL_When Sean reluctantly fingered this title on Netflix, we did the math: I love Toni Colette + I like Katie Aselton + I hate Bridget Everett + I really hate Molly Shannon = an uncomfortable tipping toward the negative side. Not a great start. But the movie’s not a total write-off.

The Fun Moms go out for Fun Mom Dinners not to complain about being mothers but to complain about being wives, which is a fun twist. And it turns out that I don’t hate Bridget Everett in movies, I just hate her stand-up persona (she was in Patti Cakes too). Anyway, the fun  part is a in kind of short supply, and inconsistent. The movie kind of wavers between a bit of a good laugh and utter predictability. If I never see another girls-night karaoke montage, I’ll have lived a good life.

Bottom line: mothers deserve better from us, better than this “behaving badly” reputation we’ve lately given them in the movies. They’re women, and I guarantee you they have more going on than shitty diapers and dirty dishes. This movie, under the direction of Alethea Jones and the pen of Julie Rudd, actualy gets closer to normalcy, and to comedy, than most in its crummy little genre. This is one of the best Moms movies I’ve seen in a while, but that’s an unforgivably low bar.

 

Utter Christmas Crap

Christmas Inheritance

Ellen is set to inherit her father’s ambiguous “gift” business but first she must prove she’s worthy by travelling to a small town and hand-delivering a letter to a man who isn’t there. She leaves her grinchy fiance behind, all the better to fall inappopriately in love with the good-hearted jack of all trades who drives the town’s cab and serves as the hotel’s bell boy, played by a face you’ll recognize if not the name – Jake Lacy was on The Office and in Girls, and has starred in real, legit movies like Carole, Miss Sloane, and Obvious Child. I’m guessing this movie was a last-ditch effort to save his knee caps. But what then is Andie MacDowell’s excuse?

Anyway, this movie hits all the Christmas movie check marks: baking montage, helping the homeless, fake snow that looks suspiciously like shaving cream. Plus the plot never makes a lick of sense. Not a lick.

 

Christmas in the City

Wendy moves to the “big city” in order to save her dead father’s candy store by working a minimum wage temporary job in a failing department store where she’s terrorized by the new “marketing” expert who hates Christmas as much as she hates Wendy, who she deems a romantic rival. I think.

Ashanti stars as the “witch” and believe it or not, she’s the only one in the movie who doesn’t sing. She also throws a mean wreath – and every time she does, the extras react like she threw a baby right on its soft little fontanel. The mere suggestion that Christmas is somewhat about presents brings literal tears to their eyes despite the fact that they all work in a DEPARTMENT STORE.

Oh, and if the ending where everyone joins hands and sings their hearts out in the direction of the one person who lacks Christmas spirit feels familiar – I’m pretty sure it’s lifted directly from The Grinch.

Christmas Crush aka Holiday High School Reunion

Georgia is “on the verge of her first milestone” (which I take to mean she’s pushing thirty) and barely feels like she has time to find Mr. Right with the pressure to settle down and marry breathing down her neck (or is that her mother?). When she goes home for Christmas, she finds that her old high school is also hosting a reunion and lo and behold, the torch she’s been carrying for her high school boyfriend Craig is reignited. And this time she won’t let anything come between her and the one that got away – not even true love, played by the guy who was also in the unfathomably necessary Christmas Kiss 2, and the glorious A Dog Walker’s Christmas Tale and also featuring a dude from the above Christmas in the City, plus Harry Hamlin and Merilu Henner, all of whom embarrass themselves as you know they must. But if your idea of a holiday classic involves slutty dancing to Christmas hymns (which are, not coincidentally, royalty-free!), you’re in luck.

 

 

Home Again

If I have anything akin to weakness, and I’m not saying I do, but if I did it would be Reese Witherspoon. Is it because her name reminds me of my favourite candy? Or just because she’s nearly too cute and blonde and perfect to be a real human woman? Or because she’s a goddamn clothes horse who always looks stylish and flawlessly put together but isn’t trying too hard? Or because she’s a self-confessed perfectionist who run her own business like a boss? At any rate, I am not accustomed to missing her movies because I lurv  her, but this time, I did. Now, in my defense, Home Again was released in September, somewhere between the Venice Film Festival and TIFF, which means I saw about 50 movies in 12 days and none of them were Home Again. Sorry, Reese.

Legendary producer Nancy Meyers is responsible for putting this script in Witherspoon’s hands, but it’s her daughter, Hallie Meyers-Shyer, who writes and directs. The movie follows Alice (Reese), newly separated from Austen (Michael home-again-20170006Sheen) and newly single mother to two girls who are having a hard time with their transition to L.A. Their adjustment period gets both better and worse when Alice brings home not one but three very young men on the occasion of her 40th birthday (it’s not nearly as slutty as it sounds). Aspiring film makers, they’re thrilled to crash on her couch while they take “meetings” about their “project” but even more psyched when they find out the house belonged to her father, a famous movie director, and that her mother (Candice Bergen), muse and movie star, often hangs around to make them breakfast.

And of course you don’t put the rom in rom-com until the estranged husband shows up to find three beef cakes vying for his wife’s attentions. To be honest, this isn’t really a great movie. The story won’t surprise you and isn’t really trying to; it’s got some moments of wit and charm, plus that little fireball Reese, and that’s good enough, right? That is, if you can overlook the privilege, which, let’s face it, takes some doing. White privilege, it goes without saying, considering the monochromicity of the cast. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an old pair of slippers, but if you’re a fan of Witherspoon’s, you might just find it passable – or better yet, enjoyable.

Mudbound

Two soldiers, equally scarred by the war, return to their homes in the South, and to their families who await them. Their shared experience bonds them but the colour of their skin keeps them wholly separate. Rural Mississippi sucks the big one.

Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) goes home to stay with his brother Henry (Jason Clarke) and his new wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), who he basically saved from spinsterhood, because that’s what we call 30 year old unmarried women in the 1940s. The marriage is not exactly a romantic one, but she bears his children and lives in a hovel raising them while putting up with disgustingly judgy side looks from her creepy father in law (Jonathan Banks).

Meanwhile, just down the road, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) goes back to the shack where his family is eking out a living helping out the McAllans. It’s hard to really 170123-stern-mudbound-embed1_wdoplhdistinguish between different levels of abject poverty, but there’s no question that the white McAllan family will always be in a better position than the black Jacksons (yeah, I feel weird writing that, so go ahead and feel weird reading it). Ronsel is having trouble adjusting to this country that demands that he risk his life defending it but then will spit in his eye the moment he’s back on American soil. Tough blow.

And Jamie’s only doing nominally better because his budding friendship with Ronsel is particularly irksome to his daddy, who’s a clansman. So yeah, shit gets real. This is not a pretty movie. I didn’t have much of an opinion of Hedlund before this but I found Mudbound to be well-acted: Mulligan, Mitchell, and Mary J. Blige as Mitchell’s mother are stand-outs of course, and Jonathan Banks made me want to spit nails. Into his eyeballs. Or nutsack. Or both. Rusty ones.

This movie says a lot about race and inequality but is largely unsentimental. The setting is sparse but the characters are rich, with great performances fleshing out mudbound existence. Director Dee Rees paints a stark portrait, accurate but not antiquated.

One Of Us

Oh, Facebook. You’re so full of junk. Tonight my colleague hustled Matt out of the rtrthroom because she wanted to share something for “just the ladies.” Turns out, it was a GIF she’d seen on Facebook: Name your vagina by using the last movie you watched. Of course, instead of being boring and truthful (and smart and scrolling by without comment), women (and men) are falling over themselves to come up with the best titles they haven’t recently, or ever, seen: No Country For Old Men, Lethal Weapon, Sausage Party. Feel free to take you best shot in the comments section. As for me, well, I couldn’t quite remember the name of the last movie I’d seen – only that it was a documentary on Netflix about Hasidic Jews. I was a little worried.

Turns out the title is quite ordinary: One Of Us. But the watching of it is quite extraordinary. I mean, I really love documentaries that open the door to a world I know little about, and this one definitely does that. The Hasidic Jewish community is insular, secretive, closed. And that’s exactly the way they want it. They believe it’s what keeps them safe. They believe it was the only way they could rebuild after the Holocaust, and maybe they have a point. But what it means today is that the community is strictly guided by “laws” written by old, male rabbis that everyone must adhere to, or be excommunicated by all the friends and family they’ve ever known. The Hasidim live as their ancient peoples lived, and you can imagine that’s not easily accomplished in 2017. Though most sects have their own particular rules, no internet and no TV is usually a no-brainer; they don’t want to be “contaminated” by secular (ie, the rest of us) society.

And don’t even get me started on the oppressive rules for women (instead, let the documentary get started, it’s quite a bit more knowledgeable than I am). One of Us gleans its knowledge from 3 ex-Hasidim who have left the community with varying degrees of success. A young woman left her abusive husband but the community won’t let her children escape with her. One man dreamed of being an actor and left for L.A., and hasn’t seen his kids since either. Another, much younger, is struggling to find acceptance in a world he knows virtually nothing about. The very existence of Wikipedia was a watershed moment for him.

The film will make you shake with rage and empathy. The courage to leave, and then to come forward, must be abundant. The consequence is ostracism of course, but there are darker threats too. Made by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, directors of another favourite, must-see documentary, Jesus Camp, there’s a lot of truth uncovered here. There are still some questions left unanswered though: why are these crazy unfair Orthodox courts even legal? I get religious freedom and cultural sensitivity, but what about keeping kids safe?

One of Us is well made, with well-chosen subjects. It tries to be fair and open, but mostly it just tries to engage us, the viewers, and it definitely, definitely succeeds.

Woodshock

In the wake of her mother’s death, Theresa’s grief manifests itself in complicated ways. Her fragile emotional state is pushed off a cliff thanks to some powerful drugs she can’t help but mess with. The result? A film that is haunting, surreal, and hypnotic.

Brought to you by first time directors Kate and Laura Mulleavy, whose names  you may be more familiar with as the sisters behind the clothing and fashion accessories _DSC8956R3label, Rodarte. They’re not the only designers to make the leap to film: Tom Ford made the jump rather successfully not to mention stylishly with A Single Man, and Nocturnal Animals. As for the Mulleavy effort, I’m less convinced. In parts it is absolutely stunning to look at, and they certainly have an eye for what lingerie will best highlight the nipples of the film’s star, Kirsten Dunst. But it’s not quite enough, and perhaps not enough by a long shot.

I will give them this: they create a dreamy, half-conscious state where we’re not entirely sure what’s ‘real’ and what isn’t. The mood is heavy and stays that way. Woodshock is visually assured but that’s the only assurance you’ll get. Everything else is a negotiation game you’ll have to play with yourself, because neither the film nor the filmmakers (some of whom were in attendance at its New Hampshire Film Festival screening) are providing answers or even clues.

The story is as gauzy and ethereal as Rodarte’s 2018 spring collection. Woodshock is high on visual impact but the plot, which probably is a misnomer here, is more like aKIM_0049 series of impressions – you get whiffs of what might be going on, and if you’re nose is good and you’re super motivated, you might even convince yourself the story has bones. But if you’re the kind of movie-goer who likes things like Neon Demon where themes are explored and drama runs high if not in any specific direction, you might count yourself a fan of Woodshock. Crazier things have happened.

The Archer

Lauren is a nice kid, a good student, a champion archer whose post-medal celebrations turn sour and result in her arrest. The judge has all the reasons in the world to go easy on this first-time offender, not to mention the extenuating circumstances that all but exonerate her, but instead he throws the book at her. Off she goes to an open-ended sentence at a “reform school” that looks and feels a lot more like a sadistic prison.

There she finds dozens of girls just like herself, imprisoned for very minor offenses. But it’s their jailers that cause the most concern: there are no checks on their behaviour. They can get anyway with anything, and do. But the cruelty, humiliation, MV5BNDU1ZWYyN2UtNGY5MS00NjE2LTk1N2ItNGE5MDcxZmEzMTY3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDM4NTU5Njc@._V1_SX1776_CR0,0,1776,778_AL_and sexual perversion isn’t just for kicks, it’s also serving a purpose. Because every time a girl fights back, her sentence is extended. And that’s very good news when you’re running a corrupt, for-profit scheme.

So one day Lauren (Bailey Noble) and her new friend Rebecca (Jeanine Mason) decide to make a break for it. No one has ever escaped successfully, but desperation drives their attempt. But to protect the prison’s ugly secrets, its warden will literally hunt them like animals to make sure he doesn’t get exposed.

This film has an incredibly strong female in its lead, and Noble was the perfect choice to play her. She’s got grit and determination but we still believe her as a somewhat naive high school student. Their flight into hills is tense and taut film making, and though the prisoner on the run thing’s been done before, this one is a fresh enough take to grab and hold your attention.

The Archer is inspired by the 2011 conviction of two judges in Pennsylvania when a federal investigation uncovered millions of dollars in kickbacks for their sentencing teenagers to a for-profit youth detention centre.

Can You Dig This?

Inspired by the OG gangster gardener, Ron Finley, film maker Delila Vallot gets to know the people taking up gardening in South Central Los Angeles and follows them for a year to see if the simple act of growing things can in fact transform someone’s life.

Can You Dig This? is Planet In Focus Film Festival’s closing night film and it’s one you’ll enjoy watching as much as you enjoy learning from it.

Compton is a food desert – the neighbourhoods are packed with fast food joints and liquor stores, but the sale of healthful food is rare. Ron Finley thought it reasonable that he should therefore get to growing some right in his very own yard, but doing soslide-1 attracted the ire of a neighbour who reported him. A cease and desist letter from the city made him think twice – not about the rightness of gardening his own land, but about the rightness of this world. Never before motivated to activism, Finley took up the cause, providing free soil so that others could plant too. Now you’ll find the neighbourhoods dotted with planters, and if you think that’s interesting, just wait until you meet the people who are cultivating them.

The film follows a high school dropout cum drug dealer, a woman who is gang-affiliated, a little girl who wants to grow greens for her diabetic dad (and wouldn’t mind making some cash on the side!), and a few elderly men living in a halfway house after extensive prison sentences. These are terrific subjects, each one revealing a little bit about their neighbourhood. You might not expect something as innocuous as gardening to stir up a lot of emotions, but when the film starts unpacking issues like the legacy of slavery contributing to the black community’s loss of contact with the soil, you start to realize how impactful this seemingly small act can be. Gardening as subversion? Yes, actually.

Not only is this documentary well done, it’s a fun and funny watch too. And inspiring, I don’t mind saying.
CAN YOU DIG THIS? plays at the Planet In Focus film festival in Toronto
Sunday 22 October, 7:45pm ­ Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Ron Finlay will be in attendance