Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Seen in… November & December 

Amy Adams as a linguist to the stars in Arrival… image via The Movie DB

Fun Fact: in the last ninety days of 2016 I spent over 60 hours flying above the Earth’s crusty surface. That meant I ate terrible food, slept (or didn’t) sitting upright in my clothes, and watched a lot of movies on teeny-tiny, crappy little screens. You know you’ve traveled too much when you’ve seen everything in the movie catalogue on the flights you’ve been on.

Life in Pieces Season 1
I'm not sure why but for some reason I binged through this otherwise harmless and benign show like it was crack cocaine. It's a simple premise of following the extended family of John and Joan Short, and their adult children all in different stages of their life. The elder Shorts are the grand parents enjoying partial retirement, while their oldest son recovers from a divorce by planning on re-marrying his newfound love, their middle child has three children of various ages and the youngest son who along with his wife have just had their first child. The structure of each episode is four mini-episodes that amount to 1-2 scenes each that may or may not have overlapping storylines. It's a hoot, and sometimes touching and kind of like a less goofy version of Modern Family (ABC's successful series with a very similar set-up). The "slice of life" moments may seem slightly more universal because they are much more realistic and modest than typical sit-com situations (the grandfather that gets his grand daughter a mobile phone against her mother's wishes, the husband whose beard is driving his wife crazy or the uncles who are taken aback by the beauty of their nephew's new girlfriend).

I always wondered what the intelligent and beautiful Huma Abedin saw in Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, but this documentary about the fallen politician's run for New York City mayor sheds some light on that question. The documentary follows Weiner's second chance after he has already resigned from congress after a ridiculous scandal revealed he had been sending absurdly sexual text messages and photos to women he had never met. The quick set up shows his ascendancy as a righteous defender of the downtrodden working man by Republican whims and his rapid fall from grace. Once he's campaigning for the mayor's job we see how his passion, intensity and intelligence create the charisma of a successful politician and we see his lovely wife genuinely proud of her man. Then in the middle of this great American Second Act, the very same "sexting scandal" that had previously undone all his work, happens, inexplicably again. Seeing Huma Abedin appear crestfallen by his side trying to bear the role of the good wife is excruciating. Yet, the cameras continue to roll and we are witness to a humiliating political unravelling recorded like never before.

The Little Prince aka le Petit Prince. Image via The Movie DB

Le Petit Prince
A sweet and respectful contemporary take on the classic children’s book, The Little Prince. A little girl tasked by her anxious and obsessive (single?) mother to plan her life down to the very minute begins a surprising friendship with her imaginative elderly neighbour. The old man’s dreams and fanciful tales capture the young girl’s imagination which steers her away from becoming the over-performing power student her mother wants her to be. It’s the “story within a story” construction that allows this beloved fable to be both new and innovative yet honour the book loved by so many. The film is also beautifully animated in two different styles which helps separate the stories.

Catastrophe Season 1 & 2
Rob, an American on a business trip has a week-long affair with Sharon while he's in London. Oops. She gets pregnant. Oops. She's 40-ish and decides to have the child. But Rob is a nice and well meaning fellow, so he moves to London, where he knows only two people (three if you count the unborn), determined to be a part of the child's life. Along the way he asks Sharon to marry him. That is the crux of this series and it is equal parts hilarious, vexing, frightening and charming. Just when you think it's a funny little show, something less funny happens which becomes something more funny by the end.

Veep Season 4
This season of Veep, with Julie Louis Dreyfus as the fictional Selina Meyers President-Elect, echoed the 2016 presidential election in so many ways it would be easy to confuse the two. Unfortunately, it also made the humour seem less harmless and more creepy in an odd kind of way. Like Armano Iannucci’s British series In the Thick of It, there is no one really likeable here. Everyone is either political prey or predator which makes it seem brutally bare, honest and funny but in a really cynical way. Unfortunately we’ve reached a point where art imitates life imitating art. Now what should be funny and skeptical is just reality and it’s worrying and fearful.

Ballers Season 1
I can smell what the Rock is cooking, and it smells like money. Dwanye Johnson stars as Spencer Strasmore, a retired NFL player (with a bad hip and slight Vicodin problem) who has become a financial manager specializing in wealth management of NFL pros. The show centres around Spencer’s attempts at maintaining his current clients and attracting new ones in a very competitive business environment. The show is funny and engaging and moves from the trivial to the serious easily.

Central Intelligence
Hey, what if we take the world’s biggest action star, who’s in everything right now, and take the world’s biggest comedy star, who’s in everything right now, and put them together to make the world’s best action comedy? Right? Wrong. I’m sure all the jokes about this movie not having any “intelligence” have already been told so there’s nothing for me left to say. There really aren’t many other action actors like Dwayne Johnson and the camaraderie between Johnson and Kevin Hart is fine, but Johnson is too goofy and Hart too hyperbolic and the movie winds up a dud. I’m sure the studio was hoping that this would lead to more films (think of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour) but that’s hard to imagine.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Marvel's Dr. Strange. Image via The Movie DB

Dr. Strange
This Marvel film is so on point, that I felt kind of hypnotized by it. The visualization of dimensions folding on themselves may have borrowed a little from Inception, childhood kaleidoscopes and Buddhist mandalas but the result was entirely unique and mesmerizing. Benedict Cumberbatch is the ego-manical Dr. Steven Strange who is so broken by a car accident that he seeks increasingly experimental treatments for the nerve damage in his once skillful hands. This search brings him to Kathmandu, Nepal to study under the tutelage of “The Ancient One” where a world of wonder and magic is revealed to him, forever altering his life - thus the comic series Dr. Strange. As successful as the film is in terms of effects, action, plot etc. it does criminally underuse actors Rachel McAdams and Michael Sturhlbarg but I guess that’s just the nature of these big budget, large cast movies. I was never really a fan of the character of Strange mostly because it was in the same cosmically groovy and weirdly psychedelic period of Marvel comics that just seemed “out there” for no other reason than it was tapping into some kind of hippy movement taking over a lot of pop culture of the day. That is to say it seemed pointlessly trendy to me. Yet the film manages to do a good job to tie in Strange’s adventures with their universe that pivots around the powerful Infinity Stones that are the crucial ingredient in so many of their storylines.

The Late Shift
It’s amazing to look back at this HBO film from the 90s and see history repeat itself. This movie exposes the back room machinations of NBC as Johnny Carson retired and Dave Letterman and Jay Leno vied to fill his seat at the Late Show. NBC executives promised the position to Letterman but only to lock him into their network as they kept the popular Leno on as host. This version of events lays most of the fallout at the feet of Leno’s nearly mentally unstable and vindictive agent Helen Kushnick played with aplomb by Kathy Bates who won a Golden Globe for her performance. What is so incredible was how this plot played out to the letter over 20 years later with NBC’s mistreatment of Conan O’Brien when Jay Leno planned to retire. It’s also worth noting that Letterman’s unconventional show was probably much more at home on CBS than it ever would’ve been on NBC.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
New Zealand is full of strange and wonderful folk. A troubled boy who has been shuttled from one foster home to another winds up stranded in the New Zealand woods with his reluctant foster father essentially because they don’t want to face the reality of the world that awaits them. The boy is a hopelessly urban kid who dreams of being a star rapper and works through his emotions by writing haikus. His foster father is a woodsman hermit but of course the two learn from each other. The boy learns to take care of himself and his foster father tries his hand a haiku. I’m not sure why this isn’t a cliché other than a peculiar New Zealand sense of humour and an upside down view of the world.

This is Sarah and she would rather run than do anything else. Image via The Movie DB

Sarah Prefers to Run
This is a quiet little film about a quiet little woman who takes the opportunity to leave her small Quebec town to run competitively for a Montreal university. Sarah is held back by her protective mother, she is held back by not admitting her own sexuality and she is held back by a possible heart condition. The basic question asked by this film is do we really live life to our fullest if we are constantly being careful? To find our joy in life means throwing caution to the wind, ripping off the heart monitor and letting your heart burst just a little bit… or even a lot.

Café Society
This may be the dullest film in cinematic history. I’ve nothing against Jesse Eisenberg per se, just that he is miscast 90% of the time. This film feels less like a movie than a bunch of notes Woody Allen wrote as doodles before going to bed. It’s basically the story of a good New York Jewish boy who heads to Hollywood to find his fortune but finds love instead… ugh why am I bothering? Do not watch this really boring clunker.

Alison Sudol stealing my heart, and almost the entire film in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Image via IMDB

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
In this continuation of J.K. Rowling’s world of magic, non-magical folk known as “Muggles” are “NoMaj” in America, proving J.K. Rowling does not understand American slang. This story takes place some 70 years before Harry Potter and is set in a kind of pre-war, depression era, fairy tale New York. The title of the film comes from a text book that receives a passing mention in the Harry Potter stories and is about that book’s author Newt Scamander played by Eddie Redmayne. Scamander has arrived in New York with his collection of magical beasts in his magical (but not entirely reliable) satchel. He’s there to return a fantastical eagle to his homeland but along the way misplaces a few critters. If you’re a fan of the Potter series this is a no-brainer, but if you weren’t a fan of that series then this one won’t win you over. The overall tone and production is very magical and becomes a wonderful world to escape to but Eddie Redmayne seems to think Newt is like a young Stephen Hawking and portrays him that way. There are also some definitely muddled plot points and editing that make the first half of the movie a bit of a mess. It does eventually find its rhythm but perhaps the next seven rumoured films in this series will work all those details out. One actor who was so effervescent she threatened to take the whole thing over was Alison Sudol, but luckily for the leading players her role was pretty small.

Just some of the stunning imagery from The Jungle Book. Image via The Movie DB

The Jungle Book
This is a live action, non-musical version of the Disney original based on stories by Rudyard Kipling but it is still fiercely entertaining. The computer animation and effects in this film are undoubtedly some of the best I’ve ever seen. Essentially the effects are so good, you pretty much never think about them and the story is so good that you never really question a world that allows a human child named Mowgli to be raised by wolves and feel so loved by his animal kin that he doesn’t see why he has to return to the human world. Without songs or gimmicks this film moves artfully along as Mowgli, threatened by the king of the jungle, a tiger named Shere Khan leaves the only home he’s ever known to find his place in the world. There really is nothing wrong with this movie and is a rare thing that can be enjoyed by everyone unless you are some kind of heartless or soulless monster or robot.

Apparently, how we talk affects how we think and perceive the world. That’s part of the premise of this thoughtful sci-fi film (that means there are aliens but no laser fights or operatic action sequences). The movie, which has language and time at its core sometimes feels as dreamy as a Terrence Malick film but this is really a mechanism employed by Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve to relate some of the more complex themes and plot of the movie. Amy Adams plays Louise Brooks who is a linguist and is brought to one of the 12 sites where an alien species have landed to help decode their language and ascertain exactly why they are here. In a round about way the movie asks if you knew how your life would turn out, would you still live it out, despite what might be a bad outcome? Louise answers that with a resounding “yes”. Better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all, I guess.

The Producers
Mel Brooks' original story of Broadway producers Bialystock and Bloom’s scheme to make a big score by staging a complete stinker of a play which unfortunately turns out to be a surprise hit. The movie has been adapted as a long running musical which in turn was re-adapted as a musical film some 30 years later. The really funny thing is just how unfunny this 1968 comedy is. It’s corny, campy and completely kitschy. Those are probably all characteristics of a successful Broadway musical but make for a cheesy and dated movie. Not even Gene Wilder can save this stinker, and not even nostalgia can justify its unusually high Rotten Tomatoes rating. I will say this, the fake disaster musical Springtime for Hitler is much funnier than the rest of the film, which isn’t saying much.

Felicity Jones in Rogue One as Jyn Erso about to do some daring deed no doubt. Image via The Movie DB

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
This is the first “stand alone” Star Wars film in that it has none of the established characters from any of the other stories at its centre. In the backward Star Wars sequence of films, this film marks the end of the beginning by telling the story of the plucky band of rebels who risk everything getting the plans of the Death Star, the Empire’s planet destroying weapon, to the rebel Alliance. It also explains some of the most confounding questions from the original films such as how could you build a giant weapon that could be destroyed so easily? Some may not like this film which begins slowly but I think that slightly slower more ponderous beginning only helps build an emotional attachment to these characters and realize the sacrifice they make. In that way, the movie feels much more like a war movie rather than the more melodramatic space operas we’re accustomed to.

This documentary offers insight, both scientific and experiential, into the epic struggle between a guy with a stick and guy with a rock. Filled to the brim with interviews from some of baseball’s greatest hitters and pitchers, we’re given a glimpse into the most perplexing of questions such as how fast can a human chuck a ball and who was the fastest, hardest chucker of them all. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, this is a compelling documentary that fascinates and entertains.

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