Monday, December 11, 2017

Seen in… November 

Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon. Image via

I have no idea how I found time to see so much in November when every work day started at 7 or 8 AM and ended at 6 or 7 PM and I had a cargo bike full of advocacy meetings (sometimes two in one day) but I did see a lot. Some I caught on TV, binged or otherwise, and some were screening at the TIFF theatre so I sort of had to catch them in a short run or miss them entirely. Oddly, there was one film I tried and failed to see each weekend for the last month but could never get to because it was screening just out of cycling range (well, cycling range on cold wet November nights). I guess the best movies to see are the easiest ones to see.

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Of course the later line, “A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope” is usually removed but speaks to the anti-Catholic sentiments of the time. This BBC mini series is a good a history lesson as you're likely to get. Part 1 begins when Queen Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic raised in exile in France returns to Scotland to challenge Queen Elizabeth I, an English Protestant. When Mary is finally cornered her son James is taken from her and raised as the King in waiting (waiting for Elizabeth to die). Part 2 of the series begins with Elizabeth’s death and Mary’s execution making James, the regent and rightful heir to the throne, the king of a united England, Scotland and Wales. I think I got that right? The series focuses on King James struggles, played with greasy anger by Robert Carlyle to be accepted as king and the machinations of Parliament to control him. Through some dubious and curious sexual harassment, James promises a prominent Catholic that under his reign, Catholicism would be tolerated but it wasn’t to be which raises the ire of those who put their faith in the hands of James. The plotters put their plan in motion but the crown’s spies soon discover their conspiracy. Yet the King wishes to let the plot fester and catch the Catholic dissenters red handed, namely Guy Fawkes (aka Guido Fawkes) played by a young Michael Fassbender. Turns out Fawkes was an angry Catholic fighting for his faith where ever the fight took him until it found him guarding 20 barrels of gunpowder. The rest is history.

The Neon Demon

This is one of those films that people either love or hate. This film about a young woman landing in LA to start a modelling career is from Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of Drive, an equally divisive movie. Elle Fanning plays Jesse the effervescent teen who after catching the eye of casting directors then ignites the jealousy of her feminine rivals. Can the innocent beauty survive the dog eat dog world of fashion? Will she lose the spark that makes her special? From that point of view, this is an incredibly simple film and the movie itself is a very obvious metaphor. The audacity of this thing is how incredibly, enticingly, beautiful the film is and it seems to me to be appropriately superficial. I suppose it is this simplicity that makes the movie open to criticism or that any acclaim might seem hyperbolic but for me it was refreshingly forward and obvious. I think that’s what I like about this director. Simple, stylish, iconic and straightforward.


This HBO documentary profile of one of the greatest American directors is an insightful look into his life and career. What is amazing to me was the company and cohort that Spielberg was part of. Spielberg ran with a madly talented group that consisted of Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas. To hear those icons of American cinema speak of a friend with respect, awe and even a bit of envy is pretty great. More interestingly to me was how Spielberg found the only other people who spoke his language: film.

Cate Blanchett rocking it in Thor: Ragnarok. Image via

Thor: Ragnarok

This installment of the Marvel Universe’s Thor is very different than the previous outings. It’s funny and with all its Jack Kirby inspired art direction, a bit campy which feels right. The character and stories of Thor have tended to be a bit overly serious, melodramatic and even operatic. By taking a page from The Guardians of the Galaxy and no doubt the influence of the director Taika Waititi, this oddball story of Thor and his brother Loki encountering their destructive sister Hela was a lot more fun than you might expect. Trying to explain a plot where the two sons of Odin travel through some kind of portal to end up on a bizarrely junk filled planet where battle-to-the-death competitions are the norm is probably like trying to explain Twitter to a Dickensian orphan. So I won’t bother but needless to say, they meet up with Bruce Banner who has been battling as the Hulk since somehow winding up on the same planet. They also team up with the impressive Tessa Thompson to travel back to their home world of Asgard (which always makes me think of Ass-Guard), to do some more battle with the even more impressive Cate Blanchett as the Goddess of Death, Hela. But I’ve said too much. It’s confusing, it’s kitschy and it’s a whole lot of fun. In a good way it reminded me of another comics-based action adventure film that was campy, witty and a whole lot of fun: Flash Gordon.

The Square of the title. Image via

The Square

From the director of Force Majeure, Reuben Östlund, comes a film that on one hand is a satire of the contemporary art scene and on the other a biting social commentary on the awkwardness and complexity of altruism, social norms and class. This may also be another movie that incites either love or hate responses. I loved it. It’s funny, uncomfortable and thoughtful. We follow the irresistibly handsome Christian, a well regarded curator of a museum of contemporary art which can feel a little like a con game of its own at times, a facade of self-importance over folly. Christian himself is a stand-in for the kind of idle affluence of our times where the progressive minded can talk of higher values but when confronted find out just how difficult those morals can be to navigate. Christian finds this out first hand when his wallet and phone are stolen and his vigilante action to recover them lead to a series of events from which there is no talking out of. In the end, he comes around in what is really only a minor act but a major personal shift.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Image via

Stranger Things 2

The kids are back and they’re cuter than ever. The setting is the small town of Hawkins, Indiana where unfortunately for our crew of kiddos, a portal to an alternative world has opened to wreak havoc on their hometown. The show continues its homage to 80s pop culture with era appropriate book, movie, music and video game references. In this season a more terrifying presence has emerged from the portal to haunt young Will Byers and his friends who try to save him. Some new characters added to the cast brought more depth to the story, like Sean Astin as Bob, an adult nerd who helps our core crew but others such as Max, the headstrong skateboarding young girl is great but I’m not sure what she or her menacing brother bring to the story other than a meaningless “bad guy”. I guess you have to take the good with the bad and this show still has far more “good” to enjoy.

Stalker. Image via


This is a highly considered classic from the Russian auteur, Andrei Tarkovsky, who also made the other highly considered classics Solaris and Adrei Rublev. I may sometimes be called a film snob, though I’m not sure how a guy who has seen every comic book movie made in the last decade is a film snob but there you have it, yet even I have to say you don’t as much watch a Tarkovsky movie, as you endure it. After seeing this primary triptych of his canon I can honestly say, I do not get it. I see his fascination with water (a lot of rain falls indoors in his films) and certain camera moves, decidedly slow pace with long exhausting scenes of existential dialogue but I still don’t see the genius that many proclaim. This film is full of iconic scenography and set pieces but… I still don’t get it. So let’s get into it. The film is a loose adaptation of a novel called “Roadside Picnic” and is set in a time when an alien artifact has landed on Earth. The artifact has the ability to distort reality in a such a way as to actually reveal great truths. I think. It’s considered so dangerous, the area around it is sealed off by government troops, who so fear the Zone that they refuse to enter it. Some gifted individuals, called Stalkers have the ability to find a very special place within the Zone, called the Room, wherein individuals who enter it are granted their greatest desires. Here’s the catch (like a genie in a bottle type catch), you might not really know what your greatest desire is and once it comes to fruition it may drive you mad. The Stalker of the title is being paid by an inquisitive scientist and an uninspired writer to take them to the Room. The world outside of the Zone is little more than a snowy, muddy husk of broken down civilization, while within the Zone, the world is a verdant, lush grassy landscape full of abandoned buildings and curious structures. My understanding of this movie is that it was a metaphor for the strange reality that Soviet citizens found themselves in where their government and press told so many blatant and contradictory lies that people had not only lost the ability to know what was real but also had the knowledge that whatever it was, it wasn’t this (if you know I mean). Psychological studies after the collapse of the Soviet regime found that people living in such circumstances lost a sense of past and future and were trapped in an emotional state of nothingness and mistrust. The inability to know what was real armed with the strange knowledge that they were aware that they knew nothing was real led to a sense listless shuffling through life. The fact that I’ve written so much about a film I couldn’t understand (is it about perception, reality, memory, desire, the irony of not wanting to be the kind of person who desires?) tells you that, despite not liking it, and thinking maybe it was just a bunch of bunkum, it still greatly affected me. I felt the same way after Andrei Rublev, though I still think Solaris (which shares a lot of themes with Stalker) was an overwrought clunker that people hail as genius because they don’t want other people to think they are stupid. I already know how stupid I am so I can call it crap without care for reprisal. Stalker, on the other hand – well, let me get back to you.

Great Expectations

From the Dickens classic, this adaptation from 1946 from David Lean is the story of Pip, an impoverished youth who has two major life altering events before his twelfth birthday. The initial one is helping an escaped criminal and the other is being invited to a wealthy woman’s dilapidated mansion to play with her beautiful young charge, Estella. Of course, Pip falls in love with Estella (understandable when you see Estella played by a young beauty, Jean Simmons), despite her spirited mistreatment of him, and through an unknown benefactor is given an allowance and sent to London to become a “gentleman” which apparently meant learning to become a boorish fop who wore stupid hats. I never understood the story. I’ve tried reading it multiple times but abandoned it because I really didn’t care what became of Pip nor Estella and believed Ms. Havisham was an unrepentant and spiteful old hag. I never understood the motives of any of the primary characters nor the world they lived in. I’m not sure this very faithful adaptation added to my understanding of what is to me a staid and musty story of class in Victorian England. On the other hand, seeing a young Alec Guinness as Pip’s partner in their journey to being respectable hat models or some version of Eustace Tilley was fun.

Hidden Figures

The incredible true story of three black American women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who overcame the racism of their time (or even of our time) and worked as mathematicians and engineers in 1960s NASA. The story could have focused on either of these women. Johnson as a math prodigy helped create the mathematics that safely guided America’s first manned spaceflight where geometry determined life or death of the astronaut. Vaughan began at NASA as a supervisor of a group of human calculators called computers, and when the first IBM mainframe arrived she quickly mastered and taught others how to program the colossal machine becoming a highly influential leader in the development of the software industry. Even more incredibly, Mary Jackson became the first female and first African-American aeronautical engineer ever, even going to court to allow her to attend the required classes in a segregated school. Despite the immensity of the historical significance of the story I really think I would’ve enjoyed a documentary of the lives of these impressive women a lot more than this movie. Like many bio-pics that try to distill a life into two hours, this was full of melodrama, stereotypes, clichés and overly explanatory exposition. Also, despite many accolades, I don’t think Taraji P. Henson was the best fit for her role as a math prodigy. Henson has an obvious charisma and talent but I found she seemed to be reciting a lot of the technical speak rather than meaning it. Ocatvia Spencer and Janelle Monáe on the other hand easily conversed with the highly specific vernacular of engineering and science that made you believe these were women who would not be trifled with. Another minor point was the question of how was it that NASA was progressive enough to hire scores of black women in technical roles yet still had segregated washrooms? What was the story in even having so many educated black Americans working at NASA in the first place? I wanted to know more but all we got was the swelling score and little moments that carried a "big" meaning. With all the great actors in small roles, this movie felt more like it was engineered to win Oscar nominations than actually tell the story of its characters. Kevin Costner turned in a fine performance as the taciturn boss who wants results not racism but Jim Parsons was inconsequential in the role of a prudish and stubborn manager, not to mention the wasted Mahershala Ali who was more like eye candy than a genuine character.


This 1984 John Carpenter film with Jeff Bridges as an alien map maker who for some reason chooses Jenny Hayden, played by Karen Allen, to help him rendez-vous with his fellow travellers. I loved this movie despite the uneven special effects (mostly timeless, subtle and great and other times used just terrible green screen) this is a great little gem of a road movie about a space traveller trying to make it home. Bridges plays the alien, unaccustomed to the human body with an exaggerated birdlike posture and movements. His halting speech is a bit over the top but otherwise it’s a great performance. His character is essentially the vehicle for examining both the beauty and vulgarity of humanity and Karen Allen is his guide. It should be said I’ve always loved Karen Allen and this role was one of several in the 80s that found her firmly lodged in hearts of young boys everywhere.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

A distraught Mother who has grown impatient with local police who have failed to find the murderer of her daughter rents three billboards to essentially shame the sheriff. If this role of the take no crap grieving mom seems too perfect for Frances McDormand that’s because it is. The part was written for her by the director Martin McDonagh. Equally impressive is Woody Harrelson as local Sheriff Willoughby. As McDormand’s character Mildred’s anger drives her to seek retribution against what she sees as ineffectual policing, it’s really her acting out the only way she can over the loss of her daughter and maybe find some redemption from the last hurtful words her and her daughter shared. But even the most villainous characters are not as bad as they first appear. Sam Rockwell’s fired racist cop tries to make amends and Harrelson’s sheriff isn’t the cliché local cop he’s initially portrayed. As much as we may want to see the world as black and white, life’s real lessons are found in the greys.

The Santa Clarita Diet

Another modern take on the zombie genre, though a comedic one. The premise must’ve had so much potential when this show was pitched. A realtor wakes up one day as a zombie and she and her husband want to find a way to navigate their new reality which can be tricky when the only way to do that is to keep killing people for a fresh supply of meat. Drew Barrymore is a veteran of this kind of comedy but Timothy Olyphant is less even, sometimes fitting right in while at others seeming a bit at sea in the comedy world. The whole thing runs out of steam pretty quick.


The story of the investigative team at the Boston Globe whose work revealed the depth of complicity of the Catholic church in Boston who hid the decades of crimes of child abuse of over 80 parish priests. This film highlights the hard work and details of investigative journalism which may make you want to reconsider “free” news delivered in the Internet age. Great performances and the very modest and uncompromising direction let this devastating and real story take its course to its unflinching conclusion.

Fargo Season 1

The episodic adaptation of the Fargo brothers film of the same name that focuses on the crimes that took place in small town Minnesota. While each episode purports the story to be true, it’s beyond belief such a spree of murder and crime could happen in such small towns so just set that aside, buckle up and enjoy the ride.

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