Saturday, March 17, 2018

Seen in… February 

Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa aka Black Panther

I had hoped to watch more movies in the theme of Black History month but in the end I only saw two films in my list, but two great movies, so I guess it counts. Though after Black Panther and maybe more importantly Get Out and Jordan Peele's Oscar win or Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time, the time has come when you won't have to go out of your way to watch a film of primarily African-American characters but they'll just be some of the movies you're seeing anyway.

Bill Murray and friend in Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day
It wouldn’t be February without Groundhog Day and for some reason, perhaps because clips of the film are so often played during Groundhog Day I thought I’d revisit this beloved Bill Murray “classic”. In truth, the film holds up - although released in 1993 it really looks more like 1983 - but the music, definitely, definitely does not hold up. I don’t know why I really notice the score and soundtracks of older films immediately. Basically, if the music doesn’t stand out, it’s probably great but if you notice it, well, it’s usually for all the wrong reasons. It’s as though mediocre scores from the same year all sound exactly the same or there was a fad to use “Chicago Blues” or some flavour of pop that does not age well. My assumption is that if one film has a successful score then many others copy it, as do television shows of the day. Back when those films were current you never noticed the score then because, that was how they all sounded, but fast forward 10 or 20 years and it hits you like a brick. To recap, Murray plays an egotistical weatherman who, tired of doing small time schtick like a local Groundhog Day coverage, finds himself living the same day, over and over again. He eventually makes the best of the situation and finds time to learn a new language or to play an instrument. Eventually he finds himself falling in love with the woman he initially disregarded played by Andi MacDowell (I know right? Didn’t everybody fall in love with Andi MacDowell in the 90s?) He only escapes his unusual circumstance when he finally becomes the man he needs to be to have MacDowell fall in love with him. Lesson learned etc. I don’t know if this film was based on another story but there have been many since that have used the premise of a character being forced to relive the same day over and over again until they’ve fundamentally changed in some way. One thing I really like about Groundhog Day is that they never ever bother try explaining how this has happened to him. It just does. There’s no lightening strike or magic old man or evil witch. The fact that they never try explaining it only adds to the feeling of the premise being a metaphor for our own lives. Maybe you are stuck in a rut because you haven’t learned from your failings. Maybe actually becoming the person you aspire to be, or by merely being open to change and looking for goodness can you break out of your own existential rut.

Robin Williams and friends in Jumanji

Another mid-90s movie that I was sure was late 80s. I thought I’d watch this because I read the current release of another Jumanji movie makes reference to the 1995 version. Either way, both films are based on the same gimmick - some kids get magically pulled into a game (or the game comes to life, mysteriously) and they have to play to escape and survive such things as wild animal stampedes, giant mosquitos, quick sand and lions. The film holds up to a certain degree. It was one of many that was an early adopter of computer generated special effects after the success of Jurassic Park. Let’s just say, I remembered the effects better than they were and in all honesty I don’t know how you could’ve made such a movie without computer effects. The performances by Bonnie Hunt and Robin Williams were great though. I could see why someone in Hollywood would see the film and think “This would be great with today’s effects."

Fred Armisen: Standup for Drummers
Here’s my impression of a Fred Armisen impression, “Um, hey um, yeah, like this is me doing an impression of me” (slumps shoulders and looks confused). Okay, If you are a fan of the series Portlandia then you’ll enjoy Armisen’s decidedly awkward and unusually ironic sense of humour. Otherwise - skip it. There is one really great bit he does where he plays and talks his way through six or eight drum kits giving a quick and quirky lesson in the history of rock ’n roll and drumming and drum kits that accompanied those sounds which is undeniably great.

Oscar Shorts (live action)
This was a program of the five 2018 Oscar nominees for short films. The Toronto International Film Festival is the only place I know to see this and it’s really pretty great. All but one of these films were really shockingly moving. The subjects range from a school shooting, to racism, confronting Islamist extremism and stereotypes to exclusion due to disability. The one comedy did feel a little like a Saturday Night Live skit - though clever it never really had a chance against the film The Silent Child which won the Oscar. It shows of a neglected deaf girl who is essentially isolated from her world and family until a tutor begins teaching her sign language. If it doesn’t move you then you are clearly dead on the inside and should probably reconsider all of your life choices up to this point. The little girl at the centre of the film is such a joy that when she is crushed by a system of ignorance, you too are crushed. Like seriously CRUSHED. In the theatre I tried to casually and cooly remove my glasses as if, you know they needed cleaning but really it was so I could wipe my face and when I looked around me it seemed everyone had suddenly had to remove their glasses to wipe away some schmutz.

Oscar Shorts (Animated)
Exactly like the live action program this compiled the Oscar nominees along with some honourable mentions into one screening. What stood out to me was both the sameness of the computer animated work and the almost predictable slickness of the Disney entries which are really training grounds for in-house talent. Despite the ubiquity of most of the shorts, which while entertaining certainly didn’t push the art of animation in any way, it seemed clear the film, “Dear Basketball” would win. The sentimentality of Kobe Bryant’s ode to his own career, mixed with a lush John Williams original score (like what!?!!) and the overall artistry of the highly revered animator Glen Keane was the kind of soupçon of every ingredient that the Academy votes for - a high level of craft, nostalgia, sentiment and a kind of unchallenging artistry.

Broad City season 4
Ally and Ilana are back but this time, they have a heaping of celebrity cameos. This series has been unkindly referred to as a female version of a all male doofus comedy but it is actually much more than that. These young ladies confront issues of sex, drugs, ambition and yeah, even misogyny and mistreatment completely head on and with an uncommonly brash and harsh humour. They take on both the mundane and ugly and embarrassing stories. They don’t always make the “right” or “smart” choices (if they did, where’s the fun in that) but they prevail and we’re always cheering them on as they make their way in the big city.

Ghost in the Shell is a totally original story that doesn't borrow heavily from Akira or Blade Runner or Alien or H.G. Wells' Island of Dr. Moreau so it's outrageous that Hollywood ruined it by changing some of the casting (that's my sarcastic hot take on the controversy surrounding this movie).

Ghost in the Shell
Hey, it’s cool guys, they didn’t whitewash this story for racist reasons, they did it for business reasons. I can understand why people who saw Scarlett Johansen cast in the role of a Japanese super-assassin as an insulting form of white washing. I can also understand how fans of the many animé films featuring this character would also be upset. The thing is, it’s actually not a bad movie. In fact Scarlett Johansen is good in the role. I would go so far as to say the writers made this character and the world she inhabits much simpler and far more coherent than the source material (at least more coherent than the dozen or so animated films) but… and it’s a big but, the fact Johansen was cast in the lead ruined everything. Here’s why: this is the story of a state that has created a monster by transferring a human mind into a cybernetic/android being to create some crazy military grade messed up new life form. The story has so many aspects of ethics and questions how deeply we integrate technology into our society and physical selves and all the implications of that. Yet this story is so intrinsically Japanese in every aspect that you couldn’t really just transport it to LA or NYC of the future and make every character white or multi-racial. I mean, that may have actually been the smarter thing to do. Simply taking the story and move it to a western locale would have been less controversial. Instead the studio didn’t have enough trust in the story to make an accurate or faithful interpretation so they hung all of their hopes on Scarlett Johansen’s star power which is unfair to Johansen and the story. If they had basically stayed true to the story and cast a little known Asian star in the lead, they would’ve made all of their money back in the Asian market and, if maybe they had lowered their production budget a smidge, accepting a little more risk in the US market, they may have had a Matrix-like sleeper hit that they could’ve continued making sequels for years after. But they didn’t have the guts or insight or even respect of North American audiences to think we would accept any number of perfectly suited Asian actresses for this role and the film, and a potential franchise, suffered for it. Again, it's still a good movie, but they could've created a franchise hit if they had kept this film closer to the original - which again, is its own kind of mess.

Sidney Poitier brings the heat, In the Heat of the Night.

In the Heat of the Night
"Virgil"? That's a funny name for a n***er boy to come from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?
"They call me, Mr. Tibbs!”

I had planned a much deeper cut of African American film roles for Black History Month but it came down to 2 movies unfortunately. More fortunately, one of the films was this Sidney Poitier classic. Poitier plays Philadelphia homicide Detective Virgil Tibbs who gets stuck in a rural Southern town rife with racial tensions and is asked to investigate the murder of a wealthy and influential developer. Tibbs brings his “big city” detection and investigative techniques to bear and while initially only annoying the town’s sort of basically racist sheriff, played by Rod Steiger, he eventually wins the sheriff over by being right more than wrong. This movie from 1967 is shocking in its ease with some difficult topics like the casual racism Tibbs faces or that at the core of the crime is a woman seeking an illegal abortion. It's hard to imagine a film today negotiating all the potential mine fields of this story with same kind of matter-of-factness.

Black Panther is all the shades of blackness.

Black Panther
Someone on Twitter described this film as “Black Black Blackity Black” - tis true but they forgot to mention all the “LADIES!” I don’t think this movie quite lives up to the hyperbole or expectations but that’s only because no film could. The movie is more a symbol of a cultural moment that basically screams proudly its blackness at a time when the current US administration is just fine with its racism. This may speak as much to a massive divide between your everyday American and the political outcome they are now living with but important zeitgeist weathervane or not, this is a great movie and is hugely entertaining. The Kendrick Lamar driven soundtrack makes it the best musically hands down over any other Marvel film which notably lack any memorable theme (can you hum any music from a Marvel movie? Nope.) The film sets up the Black Panther character introduced in Civil War and gives us his origin story. T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, is the sovereign of the tiny but incredibly advanced African country of Wakanda. Wakanda’s wealth and advanced culture come from its primary resource, a precious (and suspiciously fantastical) metal Vibranium. Black Panther derives his special super-hero abilities from a plant that only grows in Wakanda and a plethora of special gadgets including his suit are the result of Vibranium’s special properties. I was worried this film would deal in a kind of African exoticism that could only come from America or that the invented generic African accents would get in the way of the characters but in honesty none of that happened. The use of an invented language made the accents seem genuine and the production design is a stellar blending and hybridization of African art and architecture with wholly creative sci-fi aesthetics. I mean, this could be a master class in how to use influences from various cultural traditions as source material for creating something new. My only real disappointment is the dependence of all of these films on computer puppetry in stunts and fight scenes because the climatic fight scene had entirely unbelievable physics and animation coupled with confusing choreography. Still, that’s a pretty minor quibble. Overall, the sort of crazed hype and excitement about this movie speaks more to the pent up demand of people of colour to see themselves in these kinds of roles onscreen. Of particular note was just how dominant the female roles were. There definitely hasn’t been that kind of ladies-kicking-butt-quotient in any other super hero film including Wonder Woman - which is saying something. By the way, if you’re the kind of guy intimidated by Black male sexuality, you might want to steer clear of this one because Michael B. Jordan, who was so good in Creed, brings the beef in this movie and Boseman is no pushover either. Oh and the ladies too. It’s funny to think that it is hard to name another movie that is so populated with black actors and the inclusion of female warriors in the story in no way feels tacked on or forced in anyway whatsoever but intrinsic to the storytelling. And did I mention Angela Bassett? I mean, really - how is it possible she looks better at 50 than when she did at 40 when she was getting her groove back?

Man Down Seasons 1-4
Oh my God. Shameful. Funny. Pee your pants funny. Stupid, frustrating and insipid. Did I say it was very funny. Also raunchy and well, ribald. Best described by someone else as The Inbetweeners grown up.

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