Sunday, April 23, 2017

Seen in… February and March 

You know you're busy when you're too busy to write one sentence reviews of every movie you watched in the last 30 days or so. What happened to my priorities? Never mind all that, I've finally got around to this post by putting off my taxes.

In this BBC documentary from Adam Curtis it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t, which I guess is the point. The film relates how at some point the citizens of the Soviet Union became so disillusioned by the deception and lies of their government that they stopped believing in anything but they played along with the lies anyway. Living in the artifice of society created by the government became normal, “The fakery was so real, it was hyper-normal.” The film traces a line between 1970s Syria and the debt crisis of New York City, the rise of Donald Trump and the obfuscation of Russian media manipulation. Released three weeks before the US election results makes this reasoning even more frightening especially given the suspicion of Trump’s administration and his campaign team’s connection to the Russian government. The mind-numbingly deceptive strategy of engagement known as “Hybrid War" invented by the Russians wherein you create control of a situation by essentially causing chaos and playing both sides while simultaneously acknowledging and denying your role has recently been identified as the former Soviet republic’s strategy in both the Ukraine and Syria (and has neighbouring Estonia worried it could soon happen to them). The crazier it seems, the more real it feels but isn’t that how every conspiracy theory begins?

The lovely Cléo from the film's title. Image via the Movie DB

Cléo de 5 à 7
In this 1962 film, we spend the afternoon with a young singer, Cléo who is waiting for results from a medical test, which may be nothing or it could be cancer. What to make of Cléo? She seems initially vapid, flippant and overly melodramatic. As the afternoon continues we see her both pleading for sympathy while deriding pity. At one point she works with her composer and lyricist who mock her throughout their session. Later she equally dismisses her older, wealthy boyfriend without mentioning her dilemma, only later to open up entirely to a stranger, a soldier on leave from the conflict in Algiers, who she has just met in the park. In the end, she visits the doctor for the test results but finds he's left the office. While walking the hospital grounds with her new found friend from the park, the doctor drives past in his convertible, stops momentarily to tell her that he’s leaving early for the weekend, oh and that she has cancer but a few weeks of treatment and she’ll be fine, “au revoir”, then he drives away. Cléo is momentarily distraught but then brightens at the aspect of looking forward to her future health, I guess? This film is so French. The characters talk a lot but say very little. The dialogue oscillates from pithy to unbelievably profound as if the actors were reading from some kind of Proustian advertising billboard. If you like watching unlikeable people meander around, this is for you. I watched it because it was supposed to be a classic. I guess it is — classic French.

N.W.A. demonstrating some of the attitude of their moniker. Image via the Movie DB

Straight Outta Compton
The story of how a group of Compton, California artists became the iconic N.W.A. and their groundbreaking album “Straight Outta Compton”. I’m not really that familiar with Hip Hop history but this film is great. It is a rare achievement for a bio-pic of multiple characters to bring you back to that time and make its relevancy as immediate and meaningful as ever. Maybe more than ever, we need films about black American history to show us that not only are we not living in a “post-racial” world but we haven't even moved the needle on race relations. It is startling how contemporary this story seemed.

Get Hard
A stupid comedy that trades on the worst kind of stereotypes that were created by 30 years of popular Hip Hop. I’m a fan of Will Ferrell but most of these movies feel so small screen and so lazy. They feel like dumb TV comedies from 20 years ago. Basically if you’ve seen a couple of different trailers for this film, then you’ve seen enough. There really is 4 minutes of comedy and 86 minutes of filler and set up.

Young people today. Even the "geeks" are cooler. Image via the Movie DB

This movie trades on the worst kind of stereotypes that were created by 30 years of popular Hip Hop and turns those clichés of the tough L.A. neighbourhood inside out and upside down. Malcolm, a talented and whip smart kid from L.A.’s “the Bottoms” finds himself and two friends stuck in a jam but leverages his intelligence and others' misconceptions about him to make his dreams come true to get to Harvard. This movie has a lot going for it and is funny, insightful, smart and stylishly charming. It also has a great cast that you will no doubt see again.

David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Image via the Movie DB

The story of Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Apparently I was having a Black History Month film club in my living room and guess what? It was great. This is another surprising bio-pic that puts actual historical events at a personal and emotional level. You will understand the courage and importance of many smaller moments that led to the historic iconic ones by seeing this story. Another great cast and performances that feel authentic without mimicry.

This film is about Max Perkins (Colin Firth) who, as an editor at Scribner, acted as a kind of midwife to genius by helping authors find the essence in their work but in the case of Thomas Wolfe played by Jude Law, it also shows that some authors can be really pompous wind bags. It turns out so can some movies. Maybe this film needed a Max Perkins of its own.

Phiona bringing the heat. Image via the Movie DB

Queen of Katwe
Hey, did you know Africa is this massive place with really great stories? This film feels a little like Disney just discovered that Africa is more than baby lions and meerkats singing in the jungle but props to them for making a wonderful film that actually does not feel like a Disney movie about singing meerkats (which, admit it, you love). The story is that of a young Ugandan girl, Phiona who comes from an incredibly poor family being raised by a struggling single mother and yet somehow has such a profound intelligence that once she discovers the game of chess, her mind and her world explodes with possibility. One great thing about this movie is how its cast is an ensemble of gifted actors such as David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o and newcomers and non-actors. In fact, it’s the honesty of the performances of the non-actors that seems to ground the marquee stars. Full marks to director Mira Nair for guiding this film around what could’ve been a boring bust (I mean, I know nothing about chess but those scenes were so vital and full of tension) or a sentimental heartbreaker. There’s no sentimentality here but, yeah it is still full of “feels”. It really is one of those special movies that isn’t a “feel-good” cliché but will make you feel good with a buzzy glow.

Chappie as a police drone reborn. Image via the Movie DB

I feel like this movie got the short end of the stick for some reason and remains unappreciated. Chappie is a police robot in a violent near future South Africa where an expanded police force depends on an army of advanced androids to keep a sullen peace. while a gang of wholly unlikeable thugs plan a robbery, they wind up stealing one of the police androids in the process and unwittingly stumble on a prototype for A.I. Chappie emerges from recharging with a learning algorithm from a curious engineer that leads to a child-like self awareness. Trust me, you’ve never rooted for a mechanical war machine more than you will root for Chappie. Part of its uniqueness however, may have been the film’s downfall as it is peppered with difficult to understand South African accents and cultural references. If you ever hoped that someone would mash-up Robocop and Ex Macchina and set the whole thing in the weird otherness of South Africa, look no further. Bonus: Hugh Jackman as an oafish cop with mullet. Double bonus: Signourey Weaver as the boss with the balls of brass.

John Wick is a man of few words. Image via the Movie DB

John Wick
Just when you thought you could retire quietly after the death of your beloved wife, some ass hat steals your car and kills your dog (a present from your dying wife). Well, you’ve got nothing to live for anyway, so the very least you can do is wring some satisfaction from this crappy world. Bad news for the car thief, you’re an expert killer. Bad news for the expert killer, your car thief is the son of a well connected mob boss and former employer. Cue fire works. This is Keanu Reeves at his best as an emotionless killing machine bound to go down fighting but never really going down. I’m not sure where this kind of film got its start (Charles Bronson, classic westerns?) but you know the formula: a thimble full of plot, a very large dose of vengeful motivation and lots and lots of guns. Usually by the third act a sub-plot has materialized but who cares? A newer trend is that this kind of action film has plenty of poetic action choreography and is beautifully art directed.

Ila prepares a lunch for her husband. Image via the Movie DB

The Lunchbox
One day, the home cooked meal of one man is incorrectly delivered to another man via Mumbai’s hypnotic and mesmerizing lunchbox delivery system. Yet when the finely crafted meals of an ignored beautiful wife make it to the desk of a quiet, pensive older widower, a mysterious relationship of food and letters begins. This film is such an insight into the minds of two lost ships en route to each other that you almost forget the delight of having a peek inside one of the world’s most chaotic cities. This movie is worth it for its travel value alone. When as a tourist would we be able to see the inner lives of such a place?

Typical designer desktop. Image via the Movie DB

Abstract: The Art of Design, Season 1
This Netflix series profiles influential designers and creative professionals. I’m not sure if non-designers or artists would find this interesting at all but to me it is fascinating. It is particularly interesting in the humdrumness of the process. There are no magic lightning bolts of inspiration but plenty of hard work and the insight that only comes after hours of thinking about a particular problem. One episode reveals the fun fact that the massive company Fiat-Chrysler has Canadians as both their CEO and head of design.

Me Earl and the Dying Girl
This film seems so much like a cliché of an indie romance that I almost instinctively thought I had already seen it - despite the narrator telling you this isn’t a cliché indie romance movie (which, by the way, is a cliché of an indie romance movie) but it curiously grew on me. The longer I watched the more I could see this really wasn’t a cliché indie romance movie until at the end, it did feel kind of like a cliché indie romance movie.

Finding Dory
I watched “Finding Dory”, a do-over of Finding Nemo with Dory as the lost fish being sought by Nemo and his dad, under the influence of more illness and drugs than I have experienced in quite a long time. That’s okay, I got the gist of it. If you liked Nemo, you’d like this.

Veep Season 4 & 5
This political comedy of Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the US VP, then later as POTUS, is so cuttingly funny and incisive that you may begin to think that Armando Iannucci is in fact the mad genius behind the current US administration.

Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine. Image via the Movie DB

This is the best of the X-men movies. While all the other comic book adventures have exploded on the big screen with all the fantastical glory of a million exploding computers overheated in a special effects revelry, they only ever briefly touched on the humanity of the characters. Truth be told, one of the distinguishing features of those operatic action films was the fact that they even briefly touched on any humanity of the characters at all. Yet, we never would’ve arrived at this film without those other films, the good and the bad. In this story, the genetic mutations of previous films has subsided (must be something in the water), and once powerful mutants like Wolverine are diminished by this effect and by time and aging. We find Wolverine/Logan working as a limo driver, hoping to save enough cash to take his old friend Charles Xavier to retirement on a boat far away from anyone else. You see, old Prof. X is suffering from an aging mind and seizures that have made his once powerful mind a very dangerous thing to anyone near him. Before Logan can put this plan in action a young girl, a mutant herself has found her way to his door looking to flee American authorities with hopes of escaping to sanctuary across the border in Canada (um yeah, so it has a weird contemporary meaning overlaid on it too). Jackman’s swan song as Wolverine is terrific but the rest of the cast is overshadowed by the intensity of the young mutant played by Dafne Keen. It’s a great story and delivers emotionally and physically and is one of those rare special effects driven action films that could contend with any other dramatic narrative in the theatres.

It's a GOT reunion with Finn Jones and Jessica Henwick as Danny Rand and Colleen Wing. Image via the Movie DB

Marvel's Iron Fist Season 1
So much to say. So little time. This is another of Marvel’s entries into what will become the Defenders series for Netflix. A lot has been written about Marvel casting a white actor as martial arts warrior/billionaire Danny Rand, but that’s the least of its problems. To be honest, I was really hoping they would cast an Asian or bi-racial actor in the role because it opens a lot of possibilities but even if they had, they still would have had the same writers. There are two main problems with the series. First, they spend far too much time in the corporate world of "standing around drinking at work”. The corporate intrigue would’ve been fine if it had been more valuable to the story or well written but it wasn’t so every time we’re at Rand Corp the show slowed down. Secondly, when the character of Danny Rand first appears he seems like a blissed out, wise-beyond-his-years zen master who could Kung Fu all night long but as the series continues he becomes a whiny brat with anger issues. The progression seems wrong or backwards. Also, while the fight choreography is great, the actual fight sequences feel slow and soft but there is a reason for this. It was actors doing the stunts and hey, they are actors. Personally I didn’t feel this was a big problem and certainly not one that couldn’t be fixed with some editing but you know, haters gonna hate. Lastly, there were a couple of crucial roles where the actors seemed like they were on the set of Saturday Night Live reading their cue cards for the first time. I don’t get it. Nick Cage had this problem too. Everyone else is great but then enters… ugh this guy - this guy who sounds like he’s doing his first read through. Despite all of that, I consumed this show faster than a row of Oreos so I guess I liked something. Oh right, Colleen Wing, played by British actress and Game of Thrones alumni Jessica Henwick high kicked my heart and was a real bright spot not just for her mad stunt skills but for landing the right tone needed for the show. I’m not a writer but yikes — some of lines that Rosario Dawson had to say were terrible. C’mon, if you’re standing on the set and Rosario Dawson can’t make your crap writing work, then you’ve messed up.

King Fury
Hilarious, eccentric ode to over-the-top kung fu cop movies of the 80s that never actually existed and if they did they weren’t as much fun as this oddball concoction.

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