Every geek dreams of being able to apply their obscure knowledge to a real world situation. It hasn’t happened for me yet, but Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) is about to get his chance. See, Barley and his brother Ian (Tom Holland) live in a fantastic world where magic is real, or at least was real before technology took its place.
As a result, Barley’s favourite fantasy role playing game is not just fiction. Instead, it’s based on historical events, and Barley‘s knowledge of those obscure facts really comes in handy as Ian and Barley embark on a quest to find a Phoenix Stone to power their father’s magic wand which will allow them to bring their dead dad back to life for 24 hours. If those stakes weren’t high enough, Ian and Barley have accidentally brought back their dad’s legs so the clock’s ticking!
What might have been a paint-by-numbers fetch quest in lesser hands is an epic adventure imbued with magic and wonder from Disney-Pixar. The extraordinary attention to detail makes Onward’s world feel authentic and exciting as we follow Barley, Ian and their half-a-dad on their epic adventure. Along the way, their efforts revitalize the world around them and bring back some of the magic that’s been forgotten. By the time we arrive at the final battle, everything has come together just as the prophecy foretold (truth be told, there is no explicit prophecy mentioned but this adventure is clearly the stuff of destiny). It’s a lot of fun to see it take shape.
Onward is more pure cinematic magic from Disney-Pixar. Even though Onward may not quite hit the heights of the studio’s very best, it’s a worthy addition to the catalogue and it will be especially enjoyable for anyone who has slayed dragons as an elf, troll or wizard in their basement (whether in modern digital form, the classic tabletop and 20-sided-die variety, or both).
Luce is an athlete and a star student, respected by faculty and friends. He’s soon to be valedictorian of his class. His success is particularly celebrated because Luce was adopted from Eritrea at the age of 10. He seems to have made a miraculous transition, overcome his tragic past.
So it’s a little jarring to his adoptive parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) when his teacher calls them in with some news. Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) shows them an essay he wrote supporting violence as a necessary means for freeing colonized people. Considering his background (child soldier?), Ms. Wilson thinks it’s prudent to search his locker, and presents them with her findings: illegal fireworks. With school security being such a high priority, Ms. Wilson knows that if anyone else were to find these, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) would be in hot water. She hopes his parents can intervene at home. However, Amy and Peter are loathe to bring it up, wanting to preserve the trusting relationship that was built with such difficulty. This seems like a relatively small blip in an otherwise unblemished record. But Luce finds the evidence and isn’t happy about the doubt or the suspicions of either his parents or his teacher.
Things escalate from there of course. Ms. Wilson’s accusations accumulate, and their repercussions amplify. Ms. Wilson is unrelenting but other authority figures are unwilling to compromise Luce’s stellar reputation. It’s her world against his, Luce’s parents trapped somewhere in between, wanting to protect their son but also wondering if he’s truly escaped his past. What is the right move? And to whom are they obligated?
The film is disorienting and Harrison’s performance is sufficiently nuanced to leave us guessing: is he being profiled or is he capable of some very exacting vengeance? The film plays with stereotypes and symbols in a way that’s deliciously tangled, addressing racism in a way that reflects its complexity and inextricability. Luce excels at sustained tension and menace, leaving the audience without its footing.
This chilling drama will have you weighing the costs of conformity, considering the limits of parental responsibility, subverting the notion of assimilation. Luce is uncomfortable but essential.
I was literally up to my elbows in cookie dough, had been for at least 6 hours, and we’d already listened to all my Christmas records. I was craving something funny, but more importantly, something easy to watch – something that wouldn’t suffer from my inattention or oven checks or frosting mishaps. Solution: 2010’s Dinner for Schmucks, a movie I’d seen and enjoyed when first released but not since.
And honestly: why the heck not? It’s actually FUNNY. I mean funny. But also wacky, an offbeat kind of film where Paul Rudd plays chronic good guy Tim who’s up for a big promotion at work but will lose it unless he plays along with a weird office tradition wherein the high ups try to impress their boss by bringing the biggest idiot the can find to a dinner party where the idiots will be secretly judged and one of them awarded the top prize (which, if you’ve been paying attention, is not compliment).
Tim is not normally the kind of guy to condone such disrespectful shit but he’s real desperate for the promotion. And the universe basically drops an idiot right into his lap. Barry (Steve Carell) is a weirdo who misinterprets almost all that life has to offer and he spends all of his free time searching for dead mice to taxidermy and pose in intricate dioramas inspired by his fantasy life. It would be hard to out-schmuck this guy. Tim’s got it in the bag.
His girlfriend, meanwhile, is losing all respect for him. But while his relationship circles the toilet, we the audience are beyond entertained by their antics – heightened by memorable turns from Zach Galifianakis and Jemaine Clement. There’s layers of insanity in every single corner of this movie, and that’s before we even get to the dinner, which is peopled by extravagantly bizarre characters by the likes of Chris O’Dowd and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.
This was a delight to revisit. A sheer, full-figured delight.
Thank you, Snowpiercer, for giving me a Bong Joon-ho movie that I can watch! Bong is such a talented director that it made a wimp like me try (and fail) to watch The Host. But not only is Snowpiercer his first English-language movie, it’s also accessible to jerks like me. Which is not to say it isn’t scary because intellectually, it’s nasty as hell. It’s not horror so much as dystopia, and the scariest thing of all is how soon it’s set: 2014. Well, technically the main action is taking place in 2031 or thereabouts, but basically in 2014 humans tried to repair some of the damage we’ve done to the climate and it went disastrously wrong. The earth froze over, so a very select few were chosen to fight for survival on a perpetually moving train. The train has elite passengers at the front, living in luxury, and the unwashed masses are crammed in at the back, living in filth and poverty and darkness.
Mason (Tilda Swinton), the train’s disciplinarian, doles out some very harsh punishments to those who step out of their lane. But there are serious rumblings coming from the back of the train – Curtis (Chris Evans) is the reluctant leader of a rebellion. Soon he and others (Jamie Bell, Song Kang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer, Asung Ko) will make a violent push toward the front, but as usual, the haves will never make it easy for the have-nots.
The film, based on a graphic novel, is a brilliant commentary on class warfare. But it’s not just a matter of class, or economics. It smacks of Marxism, but is tainted with Darwinism. The oblivious first class passengers see their station as right and just, pre-ordained even, and cluelessly talk about their own sacrifices. But ultimately, they are being controlled just as much as the proletariat in the back. The propaganda starts with the schoolchildren and never ends. Free will is an illusion carefully meted out by those in charge. So is hope, and that’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow.
The film’s momentum is as relentless as the rebellion. Once they start making their push toward the engine, the train itself is a revelation. Production made a 100m replica of the train, and each of the train’s cars is wilder than the last, each more breathtaking, each scattered with clues. And the view outside the train’s windows of the frozen wasteland of earth is strangely beautiful, almost mesmerizing – it’s both serene in its tranquility and violent as the train continues to punch through the continually forming ice and snow. Bong tends to shoot the action with the tail section toward the left of the screen and the engine toward the right, so you always get the sensation that things are moving. It’s a really cool way to orient the audience and keep things pressing forward.
Tilda Swinton gives one of the most compelling and bizarre performances of her career, and if you know Swinton’s body of work at all, you know what a tall, broad drink of water that statement is. Bong Joon-ho originally wrote the part of Mason with John C. Reilly in mind; at the time he was a much more peaceful character. When Swinton landed the part, Bong changed the role but left in the male gender markers. Swinton wears glasses that were once her own – when Bong visited her at her home, he found them in her children’s dress up box, and insisted she wear them. Mason has a gold glinting tooth that is often visible, especially the more unhinged she (he?) becomes. She’s based the character on Margaret Thatcher, which is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Thatcher died the year this came out (2013) so I doubt she ever saw/heard of this unflattering ode, which may be for the best.
Chris Evans pursued the part even though Bong Joon-ho thought he was wrong for it. Bong thought he was simply too fit for a guy who’s been living in the cramped quarters of a dirty train compartment for the past 15 years, never seeing sunlight, subsisting on protein bars made of ground up insects. Evans was clearly persuasive and he’s clearly right for the part – Bong made it work by strategically using wardrobe and camera angles to downplay his physique.
The action sequences are other-worldly. You know which scene I’m going to talk about: a door slides open to reveal a car full of men wearing black fetish masks. Only they’re not here to have safe-word sex. They’re all holding hatchets. They’re here to murder you. In a deep, cleaving way. And then the lights go out. It’s dark like a nightmare and the axe battle is on. They pass up torches from the rear and that’s the only light lighting the scene, which is expertly done. Park Chan-wook serves as a producer and you can’t help but see Oldboy flavours in this scene. It’s spooky and tense and brutal.
Though the train’s engine is meant to be one of perpetual motion, lots of stuff inside the train is actually going extinct (like cigarettes, which will be missed). Life outside the train, however, may actually be returning. In the film’s final shot, the survivors’ sense of hope is buoyed by the sight of a polar bear, a sure sign that life on earth will continue. I think the choice of a polar bear is significant: our news feeds have been inundated with the sight of starved polar bears, of polar bears literally drowning because the ice is melting and swims between ice floes have become too long to sustain. Polar bears are a vulnerable, at-risk species. Snowpiercer’s healthy, satiated polar bear indicates that what they really need to thrive is the loss of their greatest threat: humanity.
Ellie and Pete are happily married and finally starting to make a profit flipping houses. They seem content, but an offhand comment has them reevaluating their future. Are they really that couple who will never have children? Ellie (Rose Byrne) feels ready to be a mom, but Pete (Mark Wahlberg) worries he’ll be an “old dad.” That’s how they come to consider adoption – it’s not altruism or idealism, it’s a solution to a problem: older kids need homes too, and adopting them is kind of like making up for a few lost years.
Pete and Ellie take a fostering class, where the teachers (a very hilarious Octavia Spencer, and the always hilarious Tig Notaro, playing her straight(ish) woman) let their students know that they’re in for some VERY hard work. Ellie and Pete end up fostering (with the hope to adopt) not one but three siblings, the oldest of whom is a dreaded teenager. And it turns out that ‘hard work’ is putting it almost hysterically mildly. Parenting is hard. Foster parenting is the stuff movies are made of.
Writer-director Sean Anders wrote this script based on his own experience with adoption. It’s heart-warming and wholesome in a PG-13 way, the kind of way you almost instinctively want to dismiss or diminish. But the truth is, this movie exceeded my expectations by a wide margin. It’s funny, consistently funny, not uproariously, but good for lots of thigh slaps and chuckles (it netted a few tears from my corner as well).
Mark Wahlberg plays the exact same guy he does in all the rom-coms, and I suppose Rose Byrne does too, but she’s so much more magnetic and facile. Spencer and Notaro add a lot of light to the proceedings, as does Margo Martingale, although, when does she not?
This story is told rather conventionally, and Anders has no great directorial tricks up his sleeves. But when a script is doing its job as ably as this, you don’t need so much artifice. I’ve seen too many uneven comedies lately where the good jokes are buried under long stretches of monotony and under-cooked story. This, finally, is a script that’s been adequately work-shopped before bringing it to the screen. The audience rewarded it not just with easy laughter, but with applause, and how often does that happen?
What kind of kid is Jake? Like most kids, Jake is many things, and to his parents, he is everything. But when they say “a kid like Jake,” they mean how Jake is different. How Jake likes to dress up in little girls’ dresses. How Jake’s gender identity is maybe fluid. No one says those exact words, of course, because Jake is still young. Jake is so young that his parents, Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons), are in the midst of registering him for school. Not public school, hopefully, which has been deemed unacceptable. So they’re making the rounds, doing interviews and writing application essays – thousands of kids for just a few hundred slots, and Alex and Greg need Jake to get financial aid on top of it.
But how old is old enough to even know something like that? I have one nephew who, as a baby, was always attracted to my baubles. He’d pull on them and gum them as a tot but when he was old enough, he’d steal them and be a very well-accessorized toddler. Another nephew insisted on having his finger nails painted whenever his mother did hers. One little guy had a dolly that he loved to play with. Once, when we brought him to Build-A-Bear, he insisted on our purchasing him a pink stroller for his bear. We obliged of course, and presto, change-o: instant mall hazard, a 3 year old on a complete tear, careening his plastic stroller possibly right into your shins. Does any of this mean anything? Other than that kids aren’t born knowing about gender stereotypes. Most kids will do whatever’s fun, grab whatever’s sparkly, unless of course they’re shamed.
Jake seems to gravitate more toward things traditionally thought of as ‘girly.’ His parents don’t think too much about it, until it’s time to submit applications and they need a hook that will distinguish him from the thousands of other kids. A friend and early childhood educator (Octavia Spencer) suggests that Jake’s gender questioning play might be worth a mention. But when tensions are high, it turns out Jake’s parents are a little less tolerant than previously believed. Not that they’re anything but accepting of their child – it’s toward each other that they harbour resentments, and those babies are coming out!
Truth be told, the subject is treated with kid gloves. It’s sensitive, and they’re so worried about blundering into it head-on, they perhaps fail to graze it fully from the side. No matter. It’s still ripe with interesting questions that are worth considering.
What did we ever do to deserve Guillermo Del Toro? The man is willing to crack his head open and allow his most beautiful dreams to spill out, onto the big screen, for our viewing pleasure. The Shape of Water, a delicious period piece with fantasy elements, is just about as sumptuous and satisfying as it gets at the movies.
Sally Hawkins, an inspiring casting choice, plays Eliza, a mute woman working as a cleaner at a top secret government facility. She and her cleaning partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer in a role she was born to play, because between Hidden Figures and The Help, she already has) stumble upon agent Strickland’s (Michael Shannon) latest capture, a humanoid sea creature reportedly worshiped as a god by the Amazonians. Set against the Cold War era, the Americans hope this scaly curiosity will give them a leg up against the Ruskies are and prepared to torture the secrets out of their prisoner – and worse. But sweet Eliza spots the creature’s humanity and her kind heart urges her to save him. She enlists a scientist at the facility (Michael Stuhlbarg) and her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) in her daring escape plan, but Strickland isn’t going to let this career-defining prize slip through his rotting fingers.
The Shape of Water is poetic and beautifully stylized. I fell in love during the opening shot, an ethereal scene that establishes the fairy-tale quality of the story. The whole film is richly textured; it feels like a story book you’ll want to step inside. Full credit to production design and art direction for creating a living, breathing piece of art that feels grounded in reality but often has this other-wordly, heightened reality feel to it that you just don’t find in your average film. The script, a Guillermo-Vanessa Taylor hybrid, is a phenom. It so smartly sets up all that is to come with careful, quiet nods. This is a movie with many small pleasures, many delights to savour. Because our heroine is non-speaking, the score plays a major role, and composer Alexandre Desplat is more than equal to the task. Del Toro weaves magic into threads of monster movie – love story – musical – spy thriller – comedy. I’m not sure which of these is more surprising, but all are very welcome. You may hear from others that this is Del Toro’s best since Pan’s Labyrinth, but they’re lying. I believe this is his best, full stop.
The Shape of Water wouldn’t be nearly so special without Sally Hawkins’ grace and measured precision. She’s wonderful, full of light, communicating much with little. Eliza is a woman of small parameters. Her life is ordered and banal. She’s suffering in her loneliness when she meets her merman, and her outsider status allows her to view him not as a monster but as a kindred spirit. Richard Jenkins meanwhile is restrained as the starving artist next door. Michael Shannon is anything but as the man who gets the job done at any cost – unless his vanity gets in the way. He’s awfully fond of the trappings of success. You might be starting to get an idea of what makes this script so lush: all the characters are brought fully to life. This is the clown car of movies, a film filled to the gills with interesting ideas and perfect little moments and scene-stealing details.
You don’t just watch a movie like The Shape of Water, you feel it, you experience it. We saw its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival this week but it’s coming to a cinema near you this December, and you won’t want to miss it. Hawkins’s name will be on the Oscar ballot and I’m guessing Del Toro’s will be too – maybe even twice.