Friday, October 15, 2021

Seen in Augustember 

The lady arrives, in First Cow. Image via The Movie Db.
I've been lax in my accounting of films and television I've watched this summer and now autumn. Who knows what temporal anomaly I've fallen into but there are parts of life that often take precedence over tracking what I've been watching from the nest of my couch. Thus this attempt to catch up.

In August
Locked Down
This is a film about the COVID lockdown, set during the lockdown, filmed during the lockdown about a relationship breakdown. It’s also a heist film. Imagine that just as you and your life partner had called it quits on your long term relationship, you and everyone else has been ordered to stay at home in quarantine. This is the situation that Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejifor) find themselves in. After weeks of trying to avoid each other in the same London townhouse events occur that find them both struggling to continue while separate  opportunities converge into one. Linda is charged with emptying the famed Harrod’s department store as part of a COVID shutdown, including a valuable gem, while Paxton is a driver assigned to do the pickup. The wheels are set in motion for an unique heist. The madness of the early months of quarantine are accurately captured; Paxton spending days in sweats with unkempt hair, Linda over-consuming white wine in between attending video call for work. Yet, somehow the thrill and juice of the heist feels missing. Perhaps the filmmakers, while working under pandemic protocols, lost the verve to create art and fell beneath the cloud of COVID itself. Who could blame them?

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, in First Cow, no, wait, that's First Man. Image via The Movie Db.
First Man
Ryan Gosling plays famed astronaut Neil Armstrong from his early days as a gifted engineer up to the point of his first steps on the moon. This depiction of his life is framed by the personal loss of his daughter, through the alienation of his family due to the demands of being an early NASA astronaut, up to the fateful moment when he uttered the words, “…one small step for man.” It took many people to put a human on the moon, and Armstrong’s story is just one but he was also an exceptional person on a team of exceptional people.

Amazon Prime
Kate Beckinsale is Lindy, someone who’s anger management treatment includes self-administered shock therapy. She also seems to be a highly skilled fighter/bouncer. This odd combination is just the grist to set in motion a series of increasingly violent set pieces. In the end, her journey to find the killer of a new boyfriend is a ruse. Dear filmmakers, we know how it feels to be deceived and manipulated, unfortunately we can’t just zap ourselves out of our anger.

The Vault
Also known as,  Way Down, this is a fun heist film with a double-cross with a triple Salchow jump and single-foot landing.  Walter is a treasure hunter who, after finding a lost 15th century Spanish ship is denied any claim of the treasure by the Spanish government. The now unclaimed gold is held in an infamously secure vault in Madrid. Walter sees the heist more as an engineering problem than a bank heist and so he enlists Thom, a brilliant young engineer played by Freddie Highmore, to help him. From there the movie is far more of a cleverly fun MacGuffin than crime thriller. While not the kind of film that will make anybody’s “best of” lists, its entertainment lies in its ingenuity.

How was your Eighth Grade experience? Image via The Movie Db.
Eighth Grade
Kayla is an awkward teen just trying to survive the last days of eighth grade where she is neither popular nor hates but mostly unnoticed. Bo Burnham, the young comedian better known for musical pop parodies, wrote and directed this most incisive of “coming of age” comedies. Kayla’s nervousness and aspirations as she hopes to make friends and define herself are palatable and heartbreaking. Even more awkward may be Kayla’s single father who is trying his best to love, protect and nourish his girl while trying to also be the cool dad. Some of the most blush-inducing, awkward but funny moments are the scenes when Kayla’s dad is trying his best to connect with Kayla and she tries her best to be invisible.

Gunpowder Milkshake
This is an oddly vibrant, candy-coloured but violent story of an assassin who is backed into corner with her only option being to fight her way out. With Karen Gillan and Lena Headey as a mother-daughter team, imagine this as an all-female version of John Wick crossed with Baby Driver. The movie seems to labour under the misguided belief that changing a character’s gander will turn a cliché upside down which  doesn’t always work but if you enjoy well choreographed “gun-fu”, you might like this.

In September

Good Lord Bird. Image via The Movie Db.
Good Lord Bird
This is probably the best I've ever seen Ethan Hawke as he portrays abolitionist John Brown and the time leading up to his failed raid at Harpers Ferry in the late 1850s. The story is based on the fictional account of the same name and told through the eyes of a young escaped slave, Henry, who is comically mistaken as a young girl. Henry sees the advantages of being assumed to be a girl so he maintains the ruse. This series is a bit of a journey through abolitionist efforts that would eventually lead to the American Civil War. The story moves between drama and farce as we meet American icons such as Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman while Brown works passionately to find backers for his cause.

Master and Commander. Image via The Movie Db.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
This 19th century period piece is a great adventure at sea. Even if the battle scenes don't appeal to you, then maybe the historical aspect will - or seeing Russell Crowe with a small ponytail? Crowe plays British sea captain Jack Aubrey as he commands a ship during the Napoleonic wars. He's hunting a French vessel that is faster and outguns his own but he's crafty and patient. Paul Bettany plays Aubrey's ship doctor and again, the historical part of the role is fascinating (to me, anyway) as he's also an avid naturalist and a chance to explore the Galapagos Islands is another fun side trip. This film is based on a series of novels and was hoped to become a franchise but I don't know why it never became that. I would've loved to see another of these high sea tales of war and male camaraderie. Yeah, it's a bit of a sausage-fest but it has that feel of a classic high-seas drama that casually reveals what life would've been like on 19th century sailing warship that it's a winner.

Ari Eldjárn Pardon My Icelandic
Iceland is a tiny place  with a small population who speak a weird language. Oddly, this is fertile ground for Icelandic stand-up comedian Ari Eldjárn. Don't worry, this Icelandic stand-up special is entirely in English though spoiler alert, you may learn a new word here and there, in between the laughter.

Promising Young Woman
Carey Mulligan plays Cassie who seems to have a slightly strange hobby. By day, this whip smart beauty works in a coffee shop but at night pretends to be drunk to ensnare unsuspecting douchebags who are attempting to sexually assault her. It's sometimes shocking and hard to watch but it's worth it. As the story progresses we slowly learn more and more about Cassie and exactly why she's doing what she does. The ending feels a little too "tied up in a bow" to be realistic but that's Hollywood and where would we be in the fight for feminist equality without Hollywood? That's rhetorical so don't slow clap me.

Jurassic Park, no dinosaur, the movie holds up. Image via The Movie Db.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Ah, the one that started it all. Spielberg arguably created the blockbuster movie and apparently had to be convinced that computer generated dinosaurs would be far more convincing than his initial stop-motion plan but in the end, this film took the blockbuster action-adventure format to another level with this 1990's hit. In an (amber) nutshell, a wealthy businessman and dino enthusiast has found a way to use DNA and cloning technology to bring large and dangerous extinct reptiles back to life and he's created a Disney-esque theme park + safari adventure. Yet to get the final approval from his board and insurance companies he needs the stamp of approval from leading scientists. That's when Sam Neill and Laura Dern are pulled form a desert palaeontology dig and flown to a Central American island to assess the park. That's when the remote controlled SUVs go literally off the rails. The rest is cinematic history.

Midnight Express. Image via The Movie Db.
Midnight Express
I've been thinking of seeing this 1970s film ever since I stumbled across the driving Giorgio Moroder soundtrack. The film basically became the template for any story of a young traveller trying to smuggle drugs from a foreign country. The film is based on the book by Billy Hayes, who as an American in Istanbul, tried to smuggle two kilos of hashish out of Turkey. He's caught, detained, charged and thrown in a Turkish prison. Any stereotypical ideas you may have about what a Turkish Prison is, comes from this film. Despite trying simply wait out his initial 4-year sentence, Billy is eventually re-tried and re-sentenced to 30 years. At that point he concludes he has to try to escape and make it across the border to Greece. Hayes later regretted the depiction of the Turkish people in the film but maintained the prison conditions shown were accurate. I don't think you'd see a film like this today. Every extra cast in the movie was a face that told a tale and there were a lot of extras. There were also several scenes that no doubt would have been burnished from a contemporary version of this story that again gave it authenticity and communicated the degradation such conditions would have on a person.

The titular First Cow and Cookie, milk thief. Image via The Movie Db.
First Cow
Another wonderful film from American director Kelly Reichardt. Set in the early days of settlement of Oregon in the 19th century, we meet two wayward men, both outcasts in their own way, who hope to find, if not fortune, then at least a fulfilling life in the expanding American frontier. As chance would have it, Cookie, one of the men is a talented baker and his friend King is a talented salesmen. At some point, Cookie reveals a recipe for what he calls "Oily Cakes" which are basically fried batter (yes, donut holes) and King figures they will sell well in the local settlement. The only catch is a pivotal one. The recipe needs milk and the only source is the territory's first cow, which is property of the local wealthy landowner. The desperate lives of most men in the camp are momentarily lifted by the oily cakes but the theft of the milk makes the whole enterprise a dangerous one.

An African American man who is fascinated and transported by his love of wine sets out on the difficult journey to become a sommelier but his father has plans that he take over the family's BBQ business. It's a classic tale, or trope, which the film, despite a unexpectedly realistic ending, never really transcends.

Nike's Big Bet
A documentary that looks into the world famous Oregon Project, funded by Nike and led by world class marathoner, Alberto Salazar. The project is threatened when Salazar is given a four-year ban by the US Anti-Doping Association. It's a strange scandal in that none of the runners from the program have ever tested positive for drugs and there is only casual evidence that any doping may have occurred. The scandal is further complicated by accusations of abuse by some young female runners, though many other runners (not surprisingly, male) never witnessed any such abuse. Salazar was undeniably a hard and intimidating task master and pushed his athletes to extremes to improve their performance, but did doping occur and were his methods abusive?

Wine Country
A bunch of gal pals, played by a talented roster of actors led by Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler, rent a nice house in Napa to spend a vacation together. Jokes are made, drinks are had, arguments happen, friendships are tested and mended. This is a light if slightly unsatisfying comedy, sort of like an alcohol free Merlot. Close but no buzz.

Free Guy
Disney +
Ryan Reynolds plays "Guy", a cheerfully bland bank teller whose routine is broken when he meets a striking and unusual woman, played by Jodie Comer.  Guy eventually comes to the realization that his world is not as it seems when he discovers he is actually an automated background player (technically, a NPC, Non-player Character) in a popular video game. The fact that Guy discovers this reality by wearing a pair of sunglasses has obvious parallels to John Carpenter's "They Live" and having a character realize they are living in a simulation echoes the Simulation Hypothesis that questions the nature of existence. Yet where Carpenter's film is a critique of the destructive and repressive power of a consumerist society, Free Guy turns into an action adventure computer generated romantic fantasy with a few good jokes thrown in the mix delivered with the ineffable charm of Ryan Reynolds.

The Other Two
Brooke and Carey are a pair of 20-something siblings living in New York City just trying to make their way and find their thing when their 13-year-old brother, Chase, becomes an over night sensation through social media. To rub salt in the wound, their mother also finds fame and fortune writing a children's book and being the mom of a teen superstar. The show is a funny and an insightful satirical look at fame and contemporary pop culture. Warning: you may need to get up to speed on recent Lady Gaga and Britney Spears foibles to keep up with the many pop culture asides that make up the dialogue.

Guiseppe Marinoni is a cantankerous old man. He is also a former pro cyclist and the master bike frame maker and founder of Marinoni Bikes. This documentary feels like it takes awhile to get to know its subject, which was probably true given how guarded Marioni seems. We follow the 75-year-old Marinoni as he crafts bike frames in his workshop in Montreal and all the way to Italy where he travels to attempt to break the very difficult one-hour record for his age group. The one-hour record means riding a bike around a velodrome track as hard as you possibly can for an hour. Yet all of that is really a way to get to know and celebrate an iconic bike maker who is a genuine Canadian success story.

Making Movie History: Kai Pindal
From the NFB short interview series, a conversation with Kai Pindal. Kai was a Danish born animator who immigrated to Canada after the NFB asked him to come work on a film. Over 40 years he contributed to an Oscar nominated short and created the children's show Peep and the Big Wide World for which he won an Emmy. As an instructor at Sheridan College he influenced generations of animators and it was always lovely to hear him talk about his love of animation. In the words of Kai Pindal's favourite t-shirt, "Life is short for long films."

A wonderful documentary short that combines live footage and animation to create a portrait of celebrated Canadian jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson. Peterson reflects on how he began playing the piano and on a career that saw him travel the world and the consequences that had on his family.

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