Friday, January 12, 2018

Seen in… December 

This is not The Last Jedi. See what I did there? Image via The Movie DB

Finally, a month where staying in and watching TV or going to the movies was not only recommended but commendable. If it had been only slightly warmer I probably would’ve seen more films in the theatre. As it was so cold, I found it easier to burrow beneath a blanket and hit the play button. Cinemas have big screens and big sound but home has pyjamas and cocktails.

Fargo Season 1
This television adaptation of the Coen Brothers crime thriller/dark comedy delivers the same unusual twists and eccentric characters as the feature film. It does not disappoint as we follow a crime spree from one small Minnesotan city to another. The menace of Billy Bob Thornton’s character gets the ball rolling but it’s the very human foibles of the story’s many characters that keep the momentum up.

Creed. Image via The Movie DB

I have to admit that this is a good movie and is expertly sliced into the canon of “Rocky” pictures. Michael B. Jordan is great as Apollo Creed’s namesake and only son with a chip on his shoulder who seeks out an aging Rocky Balboa as a trainer when everyone else has rejected him. It’s Creed’s name that gets him his big fight but it’s his relationship with his father’s greatest opponent that makes him the man he aspires to be. Jordan is clearly a big talent and could cruise through a film on presence alone but whenever his character seems predictable he gives us some real emotion. Likewise, Sly Stallone’s latest reprisal as Balboa is probably his best work since the original Rocky (or Copland perhaps). This isn’t Raging Bull by any stretch but it is much better than the over-the-top melodramas of the Rocky series of films.

Office Christmas Party
I was very desperate to get into the holiday spirit - but not this desperate. Not even a barefooted, one-liner spouting, machine gun touting John McLane could’ve saved this Christmas movie, but it would have been fun to see. I guess this film fits into an overplayed genre of out-of-control parties where the meek become mighty fuelled by alcohol or worse and some purpose comes out of it in the end. The technical solution they peddle as the company’s saviour is ridiculously and badly explained by writers who clearly couldn’t tell a LAN connection from a landline (internet connectivity delivered over electrical cables has been possible for a very long time but you couldn’t… oh why bother).

Lady Bird. Image via The Movie DB

Lady Bird
Another “coming-of-age” film just like all the other coming-of-age films but unlike any coming-of-age films you’ve ever seen before. This is the story of an ambitious young woman, Lady Bird, who wants to study at a school beyond her family’s means but it takes time for her to realize their sacrifices and that despite how it seems, she shouldn’t be embarrassed by their rung on the American class ladder but take pride in their ability to overcome it. Lady Bird represents many teens who want nothing more than to leave home but once they have, then want nothing more than to return. This film is smartly written and directed by a talented young woman, Greta Gerwig and is smartly delivered by her celluloid counterpart, Saoirse Ronan. Laurie Metcalfe, so recognizable from years of television work is a stand out as the frustrated mother who wants her daughter to strive but not get hurt while doing it. Tracy Letts is also quietly great as the father who while struggles with his own issues is the life boat for both mother and daughter.

The Great Wall
Meh – but not nearly as objectionable as some would have you think. During the initial promotion of this film it appeared like it was another story of a white saviour, played by Matt Damon, rescuing a Chinese army through daring deeds and this drew consternation from many sides but the truth of it is much different and unfortunately less complex. This is a straight up Chinese heroic epic of fantastic Chinese warriors battling some kind of mythical beasts. From this narrative it’s much easier to see Damon’s Irish character (I think? His accent was pretty bad) as a tacked on whitey token as a marketing ploy towards European and American audiences for a big budget Chinese production rather than a Hollywood take on “Caucasian saves Asians” that so many people complained about without having seen the film.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Image via The Movie DB

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
A movie about a very slow escape in space with plenty of action and adventure on the side. In this episode of the Star Wars saga, Rey (our young Jedi wannabe) seeks out Luke Skywalker (the aging Jedi who doesn’t wannabe) so that they may confront the evil First Order and it’s conflicted baddie Kylo Ren. While the crux of the picture are the hostilities and face-offs between Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren, the backdrop is the last stand and retreat of the rebel resistance who fight for a democratic-ish republic against the decidedly fascistic and autocratic Empire of the First Order. Is this the final hour of the resistance or its finest? Explaining this film without context of the other seven films seems both futile and pointless. If you like Star Wars, you will like this film. If you’ve no idea about this universe of sci-fi tales, then think of it as an Arthurian legend in space, with furry creatures and more explosions.

Dunkirk. Image via The Movie DB

A movie about a very slow escape from a beach. In May of 1940 the combined British and French forces have been forced to the sea by fast moving German Panzer divisions. The swiftness of the German advance caught the British off guard and the superior numbers of the German air command made an effective evacuation by sea almost impossible. Almost but not quite. The importance of saving the more than 330,000 British soldiers can not be overstated. It was nearly the entire British professional army. If those men had been lost, the Germans could’ve invaded British shores within weeks and the entirety of Europe would have been under Nazi occupation. The numbers are staggering. In 2007 the US Army had almost 170,000 soldiers deployed in Iraq. One week in 1940, more than twice that number of British soldiers were stranded on the shore of a French beach. In an act of desperation the British Navy commandeered hundreds (over 800 by some counts) of civilian pleasure craft to sail to Dunkirk and save the soldiers pinned against the sea. Meanwhile a small contingent of British Spitfires engaged the Luftwaffe miles offshore to give cover to the evacuation from Dunkirk. Some 38 German planes were downed while the smaller British air force loses were 14. In the end, a combination of poor weather, the resolve of British civilian sailors to go to a war zone to rescue their countrymen and an incomprehensible 16 hour delay of German forces to strike their final blow allowed most of the stranded British Expeditionary Force to return home, regroup and gird the nation for the Battle of Britain. Rather than become a national humiliation, this story of complete military defeat and retreat, became legend and marked a turning point when the British dug in their heels to turn the tide of the war. There were certainly moments of “stiff upper lip” Britishness throughout this film and going into it I worried it would be full of myth making hubris and national pride (worrisome in the context of Brexit xenophobia) but in general I thought those moments were more quiet and spoken through clenched teeth. You felt that from all angles no one really thought anyone would survive it. Christopher Nolan has made a film as tense and taut a thrill ride as any action film which is remarkable when you consider most of it is just people queueing on a beach. As good as the pacing and editing are, it is the brilliant score of Hans Zimmer that runs this engine. The power of quiet patience to build tension is also very much reminiscent of French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows.

Maria Braun of The Marriage of Maria Braun. Image via The Movie DB

The Marriage of Maria Braun
Germans?? Where to begin? Are you familiar with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, German film director of both good and ill repute? No? I like to think of him as a sort of Lars Von Trier of his time. Oh, you don’t know the Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier? Okay, this may be tough. The straight forward plot of this film is that in the last weeks of WWII, Maria and her fiancé, Hermann, a German soldier, marry in a city under siege leading to a comedic moment of restraining a bureaucrat from running away while signing papers that are practically in cinders. In the aftermath of the war, Hermann is missing and presumed dead though Maria remains in love with him and when he does return unexpectedly there is a very odd scene which results in Hermann taking the rap for Maria’s crime. She resolves and succeeds to build a better life for both of them during his incarceration but in the end it all goes to Hell. The film is some kind of metaphor for the crassness of capitalism and greed during Germany’s economic revival following WWII but I’d have to mull that over some more to be sure. Fassbinder directs his melodramas so that his actors affect a strange formality and his sometimes obtuse and unnatural dialogue is the stuff of a satirist’s dreams (think of any American parody of an artsy and unknowable German film and you’ll know what I mean). In the end, we’re left to ponder what it all means, or read countless articles telling us what it means. Germans?! Fassbinder?!

Described as Training Day meets Lord of the Rings but not nearly as good as either. Also not nearly as bad as described by some who named this the worst film of the year. I’m pretty sure there were worse films but there is something oddly familiar and predictable about this movie. I say “odd” because this is a movie where a black LA cop exhibits racist attitudes towards his Orc partner as they try to escape with an Elf witness who has brought them a very powerful magic wand. Yet, it plays out very much like any other cop drama where two partners who don’t like each other are brought together after a night fending off gangs, mobsters, crooked cops and federal agents. You know you’ve seen that movie before, but it just didn’t have magical creatures as part of it.

Free Fire
An Irishman, a South African and a Bostonian walk into an abandoned factory… stop me if you’ve heard this one. Oh, you haven’t? That’s because there are very few films like this. Basically, it’s an illegal arms deal gone bad with everyone shooting at everyone else. Only one survives (we think) and even that is a minor miracle. The film plays out in almost real time without flashbacks or without leaving the scene of the crime(s). It’s funny and violent which I guess makes it a dark comedy.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle
Ugh. Okay, this alone might be the film that proves Bright wasn’t the worst film of the year, which is too bad because the previous Kingsman film was a burst of fresh air into a tired spy movie stereotype. More violent, ribald, funny and inventive than most Bond films while delivering every kind of gadget and action set piece a spy movie should. Unfortunately this joie de vivre didn’t carry over to the this movie which has the decimated Kingsman travelling to the US to enlist the help of their American counterpart spy agency, The Statesman, to combat an international drug cartel’s plan to kill nearly all of their clientele. Despite having the same director, the action sequences were befuddling and muddled and some poor special effects stood out against what was a pretty heavy special effects driven action movie. Also the humour seemed too kitsch and camp and snarky and eye-winking this time around, not to mention setting up a movie about team work that essentially nullifies it by putting one of the stars of the picture on the sideline which seems to happen a lot in this film (a fascinating new character is introduced so that they may disappear). Some very unrealistic montages later and I found I was just waiting for some kind of deus ex macchina type plot twist to wrap the thing up in a timely manner.

We meet again - John Wick: Chapter 2. Image via The Movie DB

John Wick: Chapter 2
This film immediately follows the first John Wick timeline and manages to not only keep up the energy but add to it. These films have a very simple plot: John Wick, professional assassin wants to quit, but no one else wants him to. Wick is hired to both kill an adversary and be the goat. He knows he’s being set up and can only think of one way out and that involves a lot of weaponry. What follows are intricate fight and escape sequences that become increasingly tense until you think you need a break from the relentless pace of it all. This is another very stylish film where the choreography of the action is fascinating. They’ve taken the art of the hallway fight sequence and car chases to new heights. You quickly realize the genius of the hallway scenes as Wick can really only be attacked by one assailant at a time and yet no matter what, has to keep moving forward. Like a shark, move or die. Despite the unlikelihood of someone surviving such assaults the only curiously incredulous plot point to me is the revelation that Wick belongs to some ancient and arcane league of assassins that operates under its own set of Masonic or Knights of Templar like constitution, has its own safe houses, accounting department and apparently, its own currency.

Saoirse in her Selkie coat, in Song of the Sea. Image via The Movie DB

Song of the Sea
After this animated film you will definitely and positively know how to pronounce the name “Saoirse” (Sur-sha, like “inertia”) as a young boy realizes that his bothersome little sister is a Selkie of lore and helping her retrieve her coat will not only save her but reveal the mystery of their mother’s disappearance and perhaps heal their grieving father. This movie is a rare gem of beauty as it forgoes the plastic and hyper-realism of computer animation for a two-dimensional, lush graphic and iconic look that is rich in colour, texture and Celtic patterns. Like many contemporary retellings of fairytales, the movie operates on a two levels. One being the mundane side of the siblings’ day to day lives which parallels the other more fantastic tale full of fairies and witches they are part of. Its simplicity and beauty should completely remove you from your own day to day life.

Die Hard
I understand why this film is so beloved by fans but that doesn’t make this a good movie. I’ve never liked this film but for some reason dismissing it is akin to wearing a brightly coloured t-shirt emblazoned with the words “I am a snob”. The same is true for other much loved and popular movies I don’t like such as Driving Miss Daisy, or The Shawshank Redemption. But is Die Hard loved because of its cheesiness or in spite of it. The dialogue and famous asides are as broad as Marx Brothers slapstick and everything else from the plot, to the music to the costumes seem lifted from any other action movie ever made. The popularity and charm of the protagonists simply falls flat to me. Bruce Willis overacts even when he’s just smoking a cigarette, which he does often and Alan Rickman falls in and out of his German accent like it’s a loose sock. Can we talk about Alexander Godunov prancing his way through every fight scene? Or that Alexander Godunov is even in this movie? (Please tell me, someone somewhere made the pun “Not-Good-enough”?) This movie has been around long enough to be considered a Christmas classic, and I doubt I could change your mind anymore than you could change mine. You can enjoy this stinker while I top up my Jack and Coke and dig my “I am Snob” t-shirt out of the laundry.

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