Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Seen in March & April 

Hawkeye is back in town and with a new haircut. Image via the Movie DB

Some months are actually two months, which is kind of the thing that happens when you get so busy you neglect writing about the stuff you watched and you just watch it instead. While it’s the low season for high brow cinema, it’s high time for highfalutin pop culture like Captain Marvel, Hellboy and Avengers: Endgame.

This is the least offensive image from The Birth of a Nation. Image via the Movie DB

The Birth of a Nation
This is considered a cinematic classic from 1915 that informs the history of cinema from the iconic American forefather of film, D.W. Griffith. It is simultaneously a despicable fiction of the South’s motivations in the American Civil War and a viciously racist depiction of the post-Antebellum South. I found it very difficult to see the historical cinematic value of this film even as it wrote the playbook for technical and storytelling techniques of film making such as establishing shots, cross fade cuts, or fade to black transitions. It’s hard to take this film seriously partly due to the unmitigated horror show of racism on display but also because of the insanely melodramatic acting that was the norm at the time. I’m someone so use to film and television acting which aims to be as natural as possible that even seeing a live theatrical production can sometimes be off-putting (it’s something you have to get used to - the way a stage actor has to project and play to the “back of the house”). Even knowing this context it's hard to not roll your eyes at the contorted features the actors bear as they try to portray emotions such as “bemusement”, “anger” or “love”. The two stand-outs are Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall who appear to be in a parallel universe as their performances are far more nuanced than the ridiculous convulsions of their co-stars. All this being said, this is a difficult film to watch (it’s infuriatingly and unnecessarily long) but at least I can say I saw it so the next time someone mentions it as “important” I can shoot it down effectively. For context I’m also a believer that no one “genius” changes history. Not D.W. Griffith, not Edison, nor even Elon Musk, make a difference. Take for example Newton or Darwin who changed history with their work yet both were really just the first to publish (Calculus in Newton’s case and the theory of evolution in Darwin’s). Over 90% of Edison’s patents were improvements on someone else’s work. I’m not sure if Einstein hadn’t proposed relativity that someone else wouldn’t have come along later with the same idea. So that’s why I can’t really think that Griffith’s importance as an innovator was so important that we have to put up with his run of the mill racism.

Blackhawk Down
This movie depicted a failed American mission in war torn Somali when the country was in a state of anarchy due to a multi-faceted civil war. Two Blackhawk helicopters were downed by anti-aircraft guns after trying to extract individuals alleged of war crimes, which left dozens of American marines and rangers stranded and surrounded by hostile locals. The film has an incredible cast of actors who have all gone on to significant careers such that you could never assemble them again. Actors like Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard, Jason Isaacs, Jeremy Piven, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tom Hardy, Orlando Bloom, Ty Burrell… you may not recognize the names but their faces have appeared as leads in everything from Pearl Harbor, Penny Dreadful, Star Wars, Kill Bill, the Hulk, Batman, the Right Stuff, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and even sit-coms like Modern Family. The casting aside this film captures the madness and fog of war that becomes even worse when mixed with bad decisions, American bravado, and international politics. It also should illustrate that no matter how well armed or big your military is, it is meaningless in urban warfare or without a coherent strategy and strategic partnerships.

Great News Seasons 1 & 2
Where was this funny little show hiding all my life? If you like comedies like Parks and Recreation or 30 Rock then you’d like this show set in the office of a nightly cable news broadcast. If you never liked those shows, then take a pass on this one which follows the formula respectfully. On the other hand if you’re looking for a 30-minute comedy to lighten your mood, you could do worse.

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy. Image via the Movie DB

Scarlett Johansson is a young American, Lucy, travelling abroad who becomes an unwilling mule for a drug that changes her forever. The drug that infects protagonist Lucy, activates deeply under-used parts of our brain. What if we could access 100% of your brain? Well, according to this film you’d be able to control your environment like Neo in the Matrix. Science! Okay, this is all nonsense but it is a bit of fun to watch Johansson transform from an American student travelling abroad with no great focus beyond the next party to a focussed hyper super human with a brain that makes mere mortals look like children or small pets. This is a sci-fi action flick from French director Luc Besson who created films like the Fifth Element and The Professional so you can expect the same “strong female lead” fetish here. This role is more interesting in the context of film choices of Johansson who did a string of similar kind of roles from Under the Skin (more arty but still, an alien), as Black Widow in the Marvel films, to Ghost in the Shell - these roles are all sort of similar in their “otherness” plus violence and physicality (though Under the Skin is a different kind of film entirely and is an outlier both for Johansson’s performance and the strangeness of the film itself).

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, aka Vers, aka Captain Marvel. Image via the Movie DB

Captain Marvel
The Marvel cinematic universe’s saviour is small loveable actress named Brie Larson. OK. Let’s be upfront about this. Captain Marvel may prove to be a very important character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and this film should set that role up. Yet this is not the best of the Marvel films. It’s still entertaining and I for one am up for watching Brie Larson fill the world with her light but you know, this one is a bit clunky. For some reason, Larson’s Carol Danvers (Capt. Marvel) has a lot of witty lines that land a bit flat. I don’t know why. It just seems her earthy snarky jokes seem out of character with a woman who is an intergalactic warrior who can shoot photons or something (whatever?) from her fists. I almost think they should’ve set her up as a straight serious character who gets more charming and witty as she rediscovers her past and thus her humanity - but that’s just me. Also, this film starts with a very confusing battle and fight-sequence wherein Captain Marvel, known as “Vers” at the time, gets captured. The movie only gets going upon her escape which leads her to crash landing on Earth. You only realize how stupid and convoluted these movies are when you try to explain their inane plot lines so I won’t bother. Suffice it to say, there are moments when this movie felt more like an episode of some kind of 90s cop buddy movie than part of a vast movie franchise. In the end, you’ll enjoy watching Carol Danvers scare off an army that are depicted as planet smashers in other movies and see her confidence rise as she “discovers her true self” or something. Basically it’s fun but don’t expect to be as much fun as Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok.

The Umbrella Academy Season 01
I wasn’t familiar with the comics but this is a little like X-men meets Lemon Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. That’s it really. It has some slow pacing and the recognition of local Toronto film locations is a tad distracting but if you like super hero stories, you’ll get a kick out of this one.

Mr. Wednesday and his man Shadow Moon. Image via the Movie DB

American Gods Season 1
I knew of the Neil Gaiman book and I couldn’t resist the concept of old gods living in America being so tired of being sidelined by the new gods that they decide to start a war. That seems to be the crux of the series. Mr. Wednesday (Odin) played by Ian McShane enjoys causing trouble - which seems to be a trait of the gods - as he enlists the help of a recently released con, Shadow Moon who has also recently lost his wife, to become his accomplice. Why a god needs a human accomplice is yet to be known. This show is kind of like a road movie as the pair travel the States to enlist or enrage both gods old and new. Gaiman has fun re-imagining the gods and characters of old in a contemporary setting (death is a mortician and the Queen of Sheba excels on dating apps) while creating some new gods such as Technology and Media. The fun part of the series is the machinations of Wednesday seeking his revenge but it’s also a commentary on contemporary values and does so without being preachy or pedantic.

Interior: Modern architecture in Columbus. Image via the Movie DB

This is one of those quiet little independent films that passes under the radar yet offers enough thoughtfulness and intelligence that it deserves to be seen. An esteemed architect has collapsed and is in a coma while visiting Columbus, Ohio on a speaking engagement. His estranged son travels to take care of him. While there, he meets a young woman who has put her own life on hold to take care of her substance abusing mother. Both lives are in stasis, though one out of resentment and the other out of love. This movie is a meditation on those personal relationships and the city of Columbus’ impressive Modern architecture is the backdrop.

Happy as Lazarro
We meet a collection of poor Italian peasants working in a remote mountainous tobacco farm. Their lives seem difficult, unfulfilling but uncomplicated and simple. Lazarro is the most quiet, content and simple amongst them. Is he a simpleton? Is he merely content with his lot? Or is he the only “good” man left? At some point we realize these farm workers are actually indentured servants who believe they “belong” to their boss the Marquise. When an accident leads to a police investigator showing up, he quickly realizes that the remoteness of their location has enabled their exploitation. As the workers are rounded up to be released from their obligation, Lazarro falls off a hillside while listening to crying wolves. When he awakes in a ravine he finds the farm and main house are overgrown. We slowly discover 20 years has past but Lazarro hasn’t aged a day. He walks to the closest town to find his farming family all now living an itinerant life on the fringes of the city. Is their situation better or worse than before? None of this phases Lazarro who finds himself abused, disregarded and finally accepted but out of place in this new world. I’m not really doing this odd film justice because there are so many possible conclusions you could draw from it that you’d be better off making your own.

Typically arty scene from Let the Corpses Tan. Image via the Movie DB

Let the Corpses Tan
This film has the feel of a 70s style exploitation movie mixed with the visuals of experimental film. It’s sort of an art house caper action film. An artist is spending time in a remote house on a remote Mediterranean Island when it becomes the hide-out for a group of thieves who’ve just made a gold heist. When two cops show up, everything goes sideways and other ways. This film is too arty and visually playful to be a good heist flick, but too violent or action driven to have anything artful to say other than you might want to take a pass on it.

The Tick Season 01
This is the third adaptation of this comedic comic book hero. The Tick is basically a big blue guy of inestimable strength and indestructibility but also equally dim-witted. It’s his dim-wittedness while he delivers platitudes about destiny and justice that make him lovable. This show is pretty good and the 30-minute episodes are easily digestible but despite a strong main cast, the second string players and writing are not quite top shelf. And unless this kind of thing interests you it would become tiresome pretty quick. It’s as though they keep finding ways to stretch out the simple story line in order to fulfill the necessary number of episodes for a season.

David Harbour as Hellboy. Image via the Movie DB

Hellboy (2019)
David Harbour is excellent as the main character, Hellboy, who, as in the comics, is a demon from Hell raised on Earth to help fight other paranormal baddies. He’s a cigar-chomping, beer-swilling muscular red demon with a massive stone right hand who doesn’t take much guff from anyone. Unfortunately this film is a mess. It’s not often you notice bad editing but I noticed it here. Also this flick has one of the worst and most cliched soundtracks you’re likely to hear. A guitar heavy rock soundtrack makes sense for this film but you still have to put effort into it. The score was also notably cliché. The previous two films of this character were directed by Guillermo Del Toro and his unique vision blended the fantastical with the everyday in an incomparable way. He created a kind of modern day fairytale. You could recognize the world he made as not quite real. This version on the other hand feels weirdly dated and formulaic. Oddly for a movie with a two hour runtime it also felt rushed with bad jumps from one scene to another and lines that seemed funny in the trailer feeling cut short in the actual movie. Timing is a tricky business to get right but seeing when it’s wrong is very very easy.

Tony Stark awaits his fate, well at least one of his fates. Image via the Movie DB

Avengers: Endgame
Finally, 21 films and 10 years later we’ve reached the end… well, an ending, at least. From the introduction of Iron Man through all the storylines that ultimately revealed a common thread of one universal villain, Thanos, whose only goal was the pursuit of six cosmic gems (the Infinity Stones) that could enable genocide on an intergalactic scale. In stunning contrast to some terrible two hour films, this three hour epic rolls along like a finely tuned supercar on a freshly paved California highway and it is a very rare over-hyped event that lived up to the hype. The entirety of these collected movies may represent a novel form of storytelling unlike other long term story serials such as the Lord of the Rings, the nine part Star Wars saga, the ongoing Star Trek franchise or the inaccurately named five part trilogy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The film kicks off not just from the point of when the previous film ended but from the point when the additional post-credit scenes ended (a Marvel Studios calling card). We see the Avengers defeated, still in shock from their defeat that resulted in the death of half of all life in the Universe (beat that Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler). Teaming up with a powerful new ally, Carol Danvers (who is very powerful and introduced earlier this year in the film Capt. Marvel) the surviving super-heroes suit up to retrieve the mystical stones and undo the damage Thanos has done. Of course, it’s not that simple. The movie is difficult to talk about without revealing too many plot points to spoil the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen it but it can be said that all of our old and new favourites return only to be endangered a second time. The film is so chock-a-blocked full of characters that some are only seen for a few seconds. Yet, this is to the betterment and integrity of the story that some crucial characters remain the focus while those on the sideline seem rightly so. There are a few surprisingly moving and personal moments within this sprawling and expansive epic and in the end it was a tale, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” but mostly a satisfying something.

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