Review: Ghostland: The View of the Ju/Hoansi

Ghostland: The View of the Ju/Hoansi is a look at the Ju/Hoansi, an ancient tribal culture indigenous to Namibia, in southern Africa. In its opening scenes, the documentary displays text informing us that the Ju/Hoansi (also known as Bushmen), is the oldest culture on the planet, tracing its roots at least 25,000 years; however, in 1990, the Namibian government enacted laws forbidding them from hunting, thus shutting them out from their traditional method of gathering food. The doc doesn’t explain why they’re forbidden from their traditional lifestyle, but it seems to not be the point of the film. Instead, it focuses on a small group of Ju/Hoansi as they sustain an economic existence by putting on a show of their traditional lifestyle for European tourists.

The documentary follows, among many people, Xoan and her baby; Chau, who became the first Ju/Hoansi to get electricity and an email account; Tci!xo, who bought a double bed that fills her entire hut; Gao, who has TB and Ui, who looks after a development project for the tribe. The documentary captures many scenes that display a culture in a dichotomous cultural transition. The first scene, for example, shows Ju/Hoansi kids and teens, all of whom are in robes that display body parts (female chests and sex organs) that Western and Western-influenced culture would never allow. The kids stand in front of a chain fence while watching planes taking off from the airport. In later scenes, the adults, dressed in their traditional clothing and armed with hunting weapons, put on a show for European tourists eager to watch them. The Ju/Hoansi openly complain in their native language about feeling like they are on display.

In later scenes, some of the Ju/Hoansi are taken to  Germany, where, dressed in Western clothes, the group are in dismay at the fast pace and loudness of Western culture. It’s their turn to do the watching and it’s a reversal of the film’s early scenes, except that one of the filmmakers, a balding white man with a bushy beard, accompanies them and follows them around. He may be the film’s director or perhaps its producer, but the scene in which they arrive at the airport and he shows the group’s passports to German customs officials negates the Ju/Hoansi members’ ability to watch and navigate on their own. Customs may be new to the tribe members, but it’s not as if they hadn’t had previous exposure to Western culture.

It’s a slow-paced documentary without a soundtrack or voice-over narration, although it has minimal text throughout the film (it needs a better translation from the original German). The result is a quiet, creeping film that a Canadian audience most likely isn’t used to. But that’s not to say it isn’t worth watching. If you’re fascinated by cultural differences, cultural genocide and the Western gaze, watch this movie.

Review: Why Him?

We’re pretty familiar with the plot of Why Him?: a college-age woman, Stephanie, (Zoey Deutch) introduces her older, free-spirited, billionaire boyfriend Laird (James Franco) to her family, which includes an overprotective but loving dad, Ned (Bryan Cranston). There’s tension, since Ned thinks Laird is extremely inappropriate for his daughter. In an attempt to win over Stephanie’s family at Christmas, Laird hosts them at his massive California mansion as he falls over himself trying to impress them with elaborate parties, gifts and gestures.

So yes, the trope of the inappropriate boyfriend is something we’ve seen many times. However, this take on the trope is one of the funniest in recent years. Despite my reservations going into this movie (I thought a Franco/Cranston pairing was too good to be true and would disappoint), this movie made me laugh. A lot.

Most of the film depends on Cranston’s ability to play the straight man against Franco’s off-kilter character, and it works pretty well. Laird is genuine and well-meaning, and it’s hard to really dislike the character even when so over the top. Laird’s over-zealousness may provide the core jokes of the film, but there are still many other amusing scenes. A special mention needs to be given to Keegan-Michael Key, who plays Laird’s loyal butler Gustav. He is hilarious and the comedic highlight of this movie. My favourite scene was heavy on the toilet humour, literally, and involved Cranston and Key in the washroom. Enjoy it for what it is.

If you’re walking into a movie like this, you’re not likely to be overly concerned with the details; you’re just going to want to laugh. This movie has lots of funny moments, and Cranston and Franco have great chemistry. For that, it’s worth a watch.

Review: Fences

For Fences, the third film from Denzel Washington as a director, the award winning actor returns to a stage role that netted him a Tony Award in 2010. Washington and Viola Davis (who also won a Tony for the same revival opposite Denzel) star as Troy and Rose, a black married couple in the 1950s at a major crossroads in their life, in this adaptation of late playwright August Wilson’s most fondly remembered entry from his Pittsburgh Cycle.

Almost empty nesters, Tom and Rose watch as their teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) grows into his own as a man. Hardworking garbage man Tom has a set way of living and a rigidly defined sense of self that often rubs against those around him, particularly Cory who could be a major football prospect if his father, a onetime baseball prospect in his own right, would let him play the game and not force him into working down at the local A&P all the time. Rose tries to be a good wife and mother, caught between Troy’s law and what she feels is best for her son.

Troy doesn’t think too much about being hard on Cory, as he has other problems weighing on his mind. He wants a promotion at work. He has a layabout jazz musician for an older son (Russell Hornsby) from a previous relationship, who only comes calling to borrow money on Troy’s payday. He feels immense guilt about having inherited his house from his traumatized and mentally disabled younger brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who hasn’t been the same since coming back from the war with a plate in his head. Troy’s also keeping a bigger secret that could threaten to tear his family apart more than his hardheaded stubbornness ever could have on its own.

That secret (which comes at roughly the halfway point) is the big reveal in the film and in Wilson’s original show, which has been adapted almost word for word here to a point where the original playwright receives the sole screenwriting credit. Washington’s reverence towards Wilson’s material is both a blessing and a curse for the film. Quite often, critics and audiences will watch a film based on a play and say that it feels “stagey,” and although Washington certainly knows what to do with the performances of his cast and how to create a true sense of time and place, there’s no shaking the feeling that seeing Washington’s Fences is literally like watching a stage play. The action takes place almost exclusively in or around Troy and Rose’s house, captured by Washington and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Girl on the Train, Far from the Madding Crowd) in locked off one-and-two shots. There’s even a moment where Washington mounts a superfluous montage to depict a brief passing of time at exactly the point where most stage shows would head into an intermission. There’s no hiding the stage roots of Fences, and Washington almost can’t be deigned to try as a filmmaker.

The world and scope of Troy’s existence widens somewhat the worse he makes life for those around him in the second half, but that’s a minor touch considering most of Fences centres at all time around people having lengthy conversations with little narrative embellishment allowed outside of the words being spoken and delivered with authority. It all comes to a head when the film remounts the slow paced final act, which is something that works on stage, but in a line-for-line film adaptation comes across as static and closed off instead of cinematic. Just as Fences should be gearing up for something climactic, it’s mostly just characters debriefing about things we already know and don’t need to see.

But while it isn’t visually interesting as a film, Fences holds a great amount of power in its material, and Washington and Davis look energized by the chance to revisit it. It’s nothing particularly new to watch Washington play a blustery, hard working, old school alpha male considering that he’s become a go-to performer for such things, but he’s always able to bring out the richness of Troy as a character. Troy’s a unique blend of rational fears, alcoholic tendencies, and toxic masculinity; a pure product of his culture and time. Washinton’s never trying to make this patriarch into a lovable, humble figure of strength, and he never shies away from making him out to be a more than a little boorish. It’s like watching an actor in his most natural element, and his performance more than his direction creates the necessary friction for Fences to remain as watchable as it ultimately is.

But the bulk of the praise here should be heaped upon Davis and Adepo. Davis’ portrayal of Rose is the definition of a slow-burn. It’s a smartly realized turn that balances emotional beats with thoughtful moments where the generous actress allows the audience to witness the thought processes of her character in subtle detail. Rose is a softer person than Troy, but not a soft person, and while we can see why Troy and Rose would be together, we also get the sense that if she were to leave him, she would be perfectly capable on her own. And if Rose represents the spark and Troy represents the fuel, Adepo’s performance as the rightfully angered and put upon son is the raging fire at the heart of the film. He holds his own against Washington, which is no small feat for any performer, and is able to throw some bluster back at him. The scenes where Troy and Cory come close to blows are the best in a film packed with moments of great acting.

With three headlining performers like these operating at the top of their game, Fences becomes much harder to criticize based on its technical peccadilloes. It’s not a mesmerizing bit of filmmaking to look at, but the performances are showstoppers.

Review: La La Land

Writer-director Damien Chazelle follows up his surprise critical and commercial success Whiplash with a quantum leap in bravado, grandeur, scope, and difficulty with the ambitious, resplendent throwback musical La La Land, a work so genuine and earnest (which I mean as a good thing here) that it’s the definition of “heart on its sleeve” filmmaking. It’s an entertaining, engaging, exceptionally made spectacle possessed by the Holy Ghost of Old Hollywood and the Freed Unit. There’s a reason why La La Land took home the Audience Award at TIFF 2016, and your hatred for musicals as a genre would have to border on downright murderous to not get any entertainment value out of this.

It’s a simple boy meets girl story set across four seasons in modern day Los Angeles, the city of entertainment industry dreams where opportunities for success are at a premium. Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling, affable actress from Boulder City, Nevada. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling, sometimes obstinate jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own club. In each other they find equal amounts strength and frustration. Over time, Sebastian more or less lucks into musical success, but the achieving of his dreams of career stability runs afoul of Mia’s constant battle to get noticed as an actress, threatening to tear the loving couple of outsiders apart.

From the opening Technicolor musical number where Hollywood hopefuls sing about their problems on a gridlocked freeway, Chazelle never tries to coyly hide his influences and passions here. He’s making, as Francis Ford Coppola might say, “one from the heart,” and the heart at the centre of La La Land is massive and warm. It’s a film for which cynics need not apply, especially if they want their cynicism to remain intact. Here’s a filmmaker so clearly tired of modern day, often pandering tropes that he makes sure to include an aside during the film’s “spring” section where Mia is forced to listen to a pathetic wannabe screenwriter drone on about how he’s praised for his “world building” abilities at a deathly dull party. Chazelle knows deep down that he’s making a feel good film, but he’s not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes with needless subtext or convolution. The story to La La Land is a straightforward point A to point B progression told via a relationship between two likeable characters trying to find their way in a complicated world.

The major degree of difficulty faced by Chazelle with La La Land comes from the decision to make it a full on musical, and a sort of antiquated one at that. For the past thirty years or so, audiences have become accustomed to musicals that are off-beat, edgy, or avant-garde, or jukebox musicals that lean heavily on pop hits and not so much on original tracks unless they were trying to backdoor their way to an Oscar. To watch a film where characters express themselves so openly through the power of a song created in the voice of whomever is singing it in an effort to forward the plot feels jarring at this point, almost alien. It didn’t used to be like this, but outside of legitimate theatre, that magic seems to have been lost. Sure, there have been a handful of mostly dire big screen adaptations of theatrical musicals over the past three decades, but no one has attempted this straightforward of an original musical in years.

Chazelle captures the musical interludes with wide eyes and open arms, boldly flaunting his film’s openly nostalgic nature that comes across as both a warm hug that invites the viewer in and a brandished middle finger towards modern convention. A great looking vista that captures the sun setting on Los Angeles is the perfect place for a lengthy song and dance number between Mia and Sebastian. When they go on their first proper date, they burst with almost dreamlike rapture through the roof of the iconic Griffith Observatory. Only when Mia feels great uncertainty about her life via a torch song does Chazelle appropriately scale things back and strip them down. He knows the genre, and he has made sure that cinematographer Linus Sandgren, the production design and art departments, the musical squad (including co-star John Legend, who appears as a former acquaintance of Sebastian’s), composer Justin Hurwitz, and editor Tom Cross were all on the same page. The musical numbers never feel out of place, and the whole film runs like clockwork around them.

It’s also an embarrassment of riches that Chazelle was able to cast a pairing as charismatic and assured as Stone and Gosling. They’ve previously shown off their effortless ability to play off one another in past films together, but here they’re allowed something fully worthy of their talents. They can put their ability for deadpan comedy to great use. They both have a knack for saying more with a simple pained look than they ever could with a phrase. They can charm and antagonize each other in equal measure. If they appear in more movies together from here on out (and it would be nice, but unnecessary if they did), they could rightfully go down as one of the greatest on screen duos – romantic or otherwise – of all time. They literally bring out the best in each other, which is necessary when trying to deliver material as potentially alienating and foreign to modern day audiences as this.

Review: Sing

Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a theatre-loving koala, who is desperate for a hit show. As a last resort, Moon decides to hold a singing competition at the theatre. When the prize money is accidentally listed as $100,000 (instead of merely $1000), it attracts a horde of wannabe singers, including pig housewife Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), who is teamed up with the flamboyant Gunter (Nick Kroll), rocker porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), criminal gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), crooning mouse Mike (Seth MacFarlane), and shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly). All the participants of the singing competition have to overcome their personal challenges, in order for the show to become a hit.

Sing is the latest animated film from Universal Studios and Illumination Entertainment, best known for Despicable Me. This film is a jukebox musical, taking its cues from singing competitions like American Idol, as well as the television series Glee. The film features dozens of well-known songs, ranging from Frank Sinatra classics to modern pop hits. In fact, one of the most entertaining scenes in the film is the audition montage, featuring hilarious renditions of songs like “Bad Romance,” “Kiss from a Rose,” and “Safety Dance.” Eventually, the competition is pared down to the core contestants, who rehearse for the big show, all while Buster Moon tries to find money to prevent the bank from closing the theatre before the show.

Sing almost doesn’t need to be an animated film with anthropomorphic animals, since this is a story that could have worked just well in a live action setting. However, the fact that it’s animals doing all this singing adds a certain cuteness to film, particularly a recurring gag involving a Japanese tanuki quintet. Sing is also loaded with celebrity voices, such as Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, and Scarlett Johansson, all of whom do their own singing in the film.

Sing is ultimately much more than just a jukebox musical, with the film also having messages about the power of song and how you shouldn’t let fear stop you from doing the thing you love.

Review: Neruda

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín weaves a pulpy, but literary detective story with Neruda, an atypical biopic that also serves as a debunking of the mythology surrounding one of his country’s most beloved and controversial cultural figures. It’s his most entertaining and stunning effort to date, which says quite a bit considering that it’s the third film of his to be released this year following The Club (released in February) and the recent Oscar buzzworthy release of his English language debut, Jackie. He’s had quite the run, but Neruda, which was selected by Chile as its official entry for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, remains the high point of a busy year.

When famed senator and poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) goes into hiding following the Chilean government’s outlawing of Communism in 1948, a tenacious, hardboiled government gumshoe (Gael García Bernal) leads the manhunt. It’s a pretty straightforward story that offsets Neruda’s words and works against the political background of the time, often asking if it’s possible to be wealthy and be a Communist in a time when most of your fellow countrymen are suffering and before things are about to get worse for everyone. It’s half about outrunning persecution and half about outrunning responsibility.

Disinterested with telling history how it is and even less interested in turning either of his protagonists into saints, Larraín instead mounts a fugitive vs. dogged marshal picture that doesn’t tip its hat towards any sort of literary pretensions. Much like he does in Jackie, which looks at a famous person during a fixed period of personal crisis,  Larraín concerns himself more with the feeling such people must be going through rather than the point for point historical accuracy of things. Some might bristle at the approach and style being employed, but Neruda is all the better for these touches.

Bernal’s skeptical, purposefully derogatory, hardboiled gumshoe narration makes it known from the outset that Neruda will quickly become critical of its subject, and at times decidedly less than laudatory. I’m sure that Larraín isn’t entirely against what Neruda stood for, but the director and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón (co-writer of The Club) are having a blast poking holes into sacred cows. The detective trying to track Neruda down isn’t made out to be a nice fellow, but the famed poet is sometimes made to look cowardly and duplicitous. He’s unfaithful to his wife (Mercedes Morán), and his treatment of her grows worse and worse as the narrative goes along. His relationship to his own wealth and fame causes him a lot of anxiety, but his own introspection of such matters seems to stop at the page. Despite a wealth of characters waxing rhapsodic about Neruda, the audience knows that the hero of some of these people is just as flawed of a man as anyone could be.

It’s written and staged like a bygone style of film, with Larraín filming people driving cars in front of obvious backdrops, employing colour schemes meant to evoke the feeling of fading photographs, and moving the camera around just enough to take in all the scenery, but never too much for it to become an exercise in style. This further deepens the crisis of heart and mind Larraín seeks to explore. He’s a savvy enough filmmaker to presuppose the intelligence of the viewer and allow them to draw their own conclusions about the subjects at hand. He stages Neruda’s political battles as carefully constructed and thought out series of manoeuvres and motions, creating an engagement and investment in the materials and themes instead of a bland hagiography.

Larraín has also cast two leads perfect for such subtly playful, but respectable material. Gnecco plays Neruda not only as an academic, but also like a mob boss; his appearance, cadence, and demeanour akin to that of Tony Soprano. Bernal matches Gnecco by imbuing his copper with an arrogant, determined, yet restrained swagger that calls to mind Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. They’re perfectly classical foils for one another.

Sure, none of this happened the way Neruda says it did. It’s all building towards a twist conclusion (that viewers who are paying attention can figure out by about the 75 minute mark) that finally tips its hat to Neruda’s literary accomplishments in an almost operatic fashion. There’s clear embellishment, and Larraín stops just shy of calling the award winning writer an outright hypocite, but by employing such style, wit, and creativity the filmmaker finds a way to the metaphorical heart of history and one of the world’s most celebrated authors at the same time.

Review: Harry Benson: Shoot First

Photographer Harry Benson has captured some of the most iconographic images of celebrities, world events, and culturally relevant signposts and figureheads since the mid-twentieth century. You’ve probably seen a Harry Benson photo or portrait without even knowing who the lightly Scottish accented lenser was. In his early days with The Daily Express, Benson, who then considered himself a rather serious journalist and not a paparazzi of any sort, captured some of the most notable images of The Beatles at the height of their meteoric rise to fame. Anybody who was anybody practically demanded that Benson take their picture, something that led the hyper-competitive photographer to become respected and sometimes feared by many colleagues.

But while he captured some of pop culture’s most noteworthy names, he never abandoned his work as an astute photojournalist. He was somewhat infamously on hand for the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, an incident that had many questioning how uncomfortably close Benson got to its bloody aftermath. He was embedded with the KKK and IRA. He operated on the outskirts of both sides of the Watergate scandal. Benson was also one of the first foreign journalists to document the violent migratory crisis in Somalia.

He’s an icon in his own right, but in the documentary about him, Justin Bare and Matthew Miele’s Harry Benson: Shoot First, there’s precious little outside the borders of the images he created. It’s not so much a documentary designed to allow audiences to get to know its subject, but one to further propel the myth of a brand. It’s the kind of film that Miele is starting to become known for following the equally flattering, but substance free documentaries Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s and Crazy About Tiffany’s, and a track I’m sure will continue with his next project (a look at the formation of the Coca-Cola bottle made with their full participation, which is about as corporate as one can get). You won’t learn very much about Benson or his process, but you sure will get a lot of interviews with a star-studded list of celebrities and former employers practically falling over each other to sing his praises.

There’s no real through-line to Harry Benson: Shoot First, preferring to string together anecdotes from various talking heads to link into one another. It’s not exactly conducive to figuring out what makes Benson tick, and it only occasionally broaches the subject of what makes the photographer so good at his job. He was able to create a vibe to fit any situation. He worked tenaciously to stay on top of his game, and even today at age 87 he retains a great deal of fire in his belly. Subjects liked him because he never made anyone look stupid or embarrassing. His combination of fortitude and a great eye make him formidable, but Bare and Miele are so enamoured with quips and stories behind Benson’s images that any hints of personality gets very quickly kicked to the curb in order to move on to the next recognizable picture.

Part of the film’s lack of true insight beyond surface level readings of his work can’t be blamed entirely on Bare and Miele, though. Harry Benson: Shoot First casts the photographer as reticent and loathe to talk about the person who created the images. He isn’t exactly forthcoming, but he’s only occasionally cantankerous and combative. He clearly doesn’t like talking about himself very much, and any attempts by Bare and Miele to get him to open up during their interviews are often handled with a certain degree of evasiveness from their titular subject.

That could be part of the reason why so few of the cavalcade of stars trotted out by the filmmakers have much of anything relevant to add outside the obvious. They knew him about as well as anyone else did, which is not very well at all. Even the few family members that pop up (and have shockingly little screen time) don’t know much about the man; so all that’s left is a softball work of pure fan service aimed squarely at admirers of Benson’s work. Across ninety minutes, repeatedly hearing variations of “I love Harry!” or “Do you remember the picture where…” becomes tedious to sit through. It doesn’t matter that people like James L. Brooks, Bryant Gumbel, and Dan Rather have great things to say about him. All one learns from Harry Benson: Shoot First is that he’s one of the best at what he does; something that could be gleaned from simply browsing a lot of work on one’s own time instead of watching a film that will simply spoon-feed the viewer that sentiment. It’s a great looking pedestal where someone forgot to build the statue.

Review: The Eyes of My Mother

In a remote farmhouse, Francisca (Olivia Bond as a child and Kika Magalhaes as an adult) lives with her mother, a former surgeon from Portugal, and her hardworking father. Her mother has shown her some of her surgical skills on the cows on their land, and Francisca has never really feared death. When their peaceful life is shattered by an intruder who kills her mother, Francisca is left to live with her withdrawn father and the strange desires this event has awakened in her. As the years pass, Francisca’s need for an outside connection leads her to some very disturbing behaviour.

I’ve always been fascinated by “nature versus nurture,” the idea that a person exhibits behaviours based on the way they’re raised, or something they have inherited. Obviously both play a role in people, but the idea that someone could be born “bad” is one that plays into a lot of horror films. It’s this idea that drew me into Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother.

When Francisca was little, her mother exposed her to things that other children would find horrific. An image of the two of them sitting at the table with a cow head would send most kids screaming from the room, but Francisca is not bothered by this. When her mother is brutally murdered, she doesn’t even scream, and when her father arrives home in the middle of the crime, she simply states that she couldn’t leave mother.

This begins a life of disturbing behaviour for Francisca, not all of it her own doing. Saying more would only spoil the twisted fun of The Eyes of My Mother, but she finds herself in a number of situations that opens up a new world for her. A world where pain and murder bring her a pleasure she’s never really known.

Visually, The Eyes of My Mother can get quite graphic. While onscreen death isn’t really something that happens, the aftermath of an attack is typically on display for all to see, and that’s graphic enough. This isn’t what makes the film so disturbing though. The performance from Kika Magalhaes as Francisca is what’s truly terrifying. She displays no empathy for anybody around here, and views other people in a clinical way, much like her mother would have viewed someone she would operate on. It’s Magalhaes who brings the terror to the film.

This brings it all back to nature or nurture. Was Francisca born with this lack of empathy towards people, or was the fact that her mother brought her up in a place where things were more cold and calculating the reason for her actions as an adult? Thinking about the glimpses of her traumatic childhood while watching an adult Francisca take part in some frightening behaviour gives The Eyes of My Mother an level of intelligence rarely seen in horror films.

Review: The Second Time Around

The Second Time Around is a simple little tale set against the grand soundtrack of the opera. The film follows Catherine (Linda Thorson), an elderly woman who loves music and dreams of seeing the opera at the Scala Opera House in Milan. When she has a bad fall and breaks her hip, Catherine is forced to move into an assisted care facility where she meets Isaac (Stuart Margolin). The two bond over their mutual love of music and begin to explore the possibilities of a romantic relationship.

At its core, The Second Time Around is about longevity and the beauty of age. The settings of the film are mundane and simple, nothing out of the ordinary, but with the music of great operatic works providing the soundtrack, music by Puccini, Verdi and Mozart swell to dominate the image, leaving the characters either awestruck or so caught up in the passion of it that they can’t help but join in and sing along. It’s a lovely juxtaposition of the ordinary and the spectacular, elevating even the simplest moment of the film into a grand gesture.

It is also about synchronicity from opposition. While this starts with the music contrasting the image, it is also apparent through the interactions and personalities of the characters. This is seen between Catherine and her daughter, Catherine and Isaac, and Catherine and her granddaughter Sarah providing the most striking visual contrast. Catherine is an elegant woman, impeccably dressed and articulate. By contrast, Sarah boasts a bleached pixie cut, a face full of piercings and a mumbling speech. The two women could not be more different and yet there is a deep affection between the two and an acceptance of what each has to offer.

Which is what makes The Second Time Around such a pleasant film. It makes no assumptions, taking for granted that a punk rock borderline goth girl could have a close relationship with her classy and elegant grandmother with no opposition. It never bows to the idea of the high versus low. The opera might be fancy, but that’s no reason that ordinary people can’t enjoy it as well.

Review: Collateral Beauty

Collateral Beauty is a strange, ungainly ensemble holiday movie. If I were to try and explain it to you, I would sound like a crazy person. I’ll try to do my best without spoiling everything (no matter how much I desperately want to in an effort to underline how strange this movie is), but I have a feeling you’ll have a lot of questions. Those questions are valid, but before I get into reciting the plot just know that the actual film will have few answers for those unlucky enough to sit through it.

For the past two years, New York marketing firm executive Howard (Will Smith) has been in a depressive funk following the death of his child. If he’s not sitting in his apartment catatonically looking off into space or trying to ride his bicycle full bore into oncoming traffic, he’s spending his work days hunkered down in his office making elaborate domino structures. He tries going to a support group for parents who have lost children (moderated by a kindly Naomi Harris), but he can’t bring himself to go into the building. He’s also so tortured that he writes and sends letters of anger and despair to three intangible constructs: death, time, and love. His partners at the firm – Whit, Claire, and Simon (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Michael Peña) – have reached a point of critical concern, as the firm has been brought to the brink of destruction because Howard refuses to interact with any of their clients and he won’t hand off the business to anyone who can properly run the company while he recovers from his loss.

So concerned are his loyal partners that they concoct a plan to oust Howard by straight up gaslighting him. They hire a private investigator (Ann Dowd) to intercept the letters, and they pay a trio of actors – Madeline, Amy, and Raffi (Helen Mirren, Kiera Knightley, and Jacob Latimore) – an ungodly sum of cash to approach Howard in the real world as the embodiments of Death, Love, and Time, respectively. The hope – and indeed the only thing driving the plot – is that Howard is broken enough to believe that all of this is really happening and that by interacting with the embodiment of these constructs he’ll find closure.

For a moment, let’s forget about the lapses in logic and leaps of faith such a plot – created by screenwriter Allan Loeb (Just Go with It, Here Comes the Boom) – requires of the viewer. Let’s also forget that despite operating under the guise of caring for Howard’s well being that the aims of his colleagues are annoyingly self-serving, and that if this is the best plan they can come up with they could have spent just as much energy and time picking up Howard’s slack at work instead of crying and whining about it (although there’s some convoluted explanation that states on a contractual level that apparently Howard is the only person authorized to actually WORK at this firm).

Forgetting those massive problems, this isn’t an entirely terrible plot. Collateral Beauty is set at Christmastime, but it’s not altogether Christmas-y. In this respect the Dickensian employment of three “ghosts” in the vein of “A Christmas Carol” could hold some weight. It’s unabashed in its desire to emotionally manipulate the audience, but there could be something good or at least cathartic in that for some viewers. But Loeb and director David Frankel (Marley & Me, The Devil Wears Prada) want to create a show-stopping, celebrity packed ensemble film instead of focusing on Howard’s road to recovery. As fine as Smith is in all of his scenes (especially a scene where he takes Mirren to task on the subway), he’s curiously misused and lost amid a cast of supporting actors that have as much screen time as he does.

You see, much like Howard, his colleagues are hurting, too, but they also don’t want to admit it. Whit has his own beef with love, coming out of an acrimonious divorce after cheating on his wife, leaving him with a young daughter who hates his guts. Claire wants to have a baby, but she fears she has waited too long. Simon has been lying to his family about his health. They each get paired up by the script with one of the actors playing the core constructs to try and work out their problems. This is where the film starts to break down irreparably because none of these tangential storylines are playing on the same field.

The interactions between Peña and Mirren are so delightful that I wished the entire film was about the two of them. They’re such strong and capable performers that they make the vaporous material into something genuinely watchable. Next to Smith’s admittedly balanced performance and Frankel’s exceptionally beautiful and creative use of Christmas lights to light key scenes, they’re the best thing in the movie. That’s not a slight against Winslet and Latimore, but both of them are pretty much forgotten about and neither has anything worthwhile to do. They might as well not even be here.

As for Norton and Knightley, these are two of the worst performances you’ll see all year. Knightley’s cloying, doe eyed optimist that talks like an airhead constantly runs afoul of whatever inexplicably unholy acting turn Norton is trying to pull off here. As written, Whit is kind of a sleazeball, but Norton works overtime to try and make someone so lecherous into a misguided charmer. When Amy tells Whit he should try harder to earn his daughter’s affections back, Whit acts in a way that suggests he’s only going to hang out with his kid because it will give him a better chance of banging Amy.

Norton sucks the life out of the film every time he appears on screen, putting on a disingenuous, often confusing tone and cadence. I was trying to figure out if he even read the script. He’s either improvising every line of dialogue Whit has and hoping that his fellow cast members can keep up (leading to a film with a lot of awkward, unintentional pauses that I am shocked are in the final cut) or he genuinely doesn’t care.

Despite all of this, I can still say that Collateral Beauty works in individual moments where the cast are able to oh so briefly rise above the material. It’s a good idea borne from a plot that’s in the poorest of taste; like two good movies and two bad ones poorly stitched together at the hip. This concept could work, but Frankel and Loeb are abjectly clueless as to how they would ever pull it off, and they never stay in one place long enough to develop or enhance any of the storylines. Despite the shaky ground, I was almost compelled to give Collateral Beauty a slight pass because the good was outweighing the bad (with the caveat that Norton and Knightley be cut from this entirely)… until the ending of the film.

The ending of this film is one of the worst in cinematic history. I hesitate to even call it an ending. It’s a pair of scenes predicated upon a twist, and it’s not even the one you’re probably thinking is going to happen. The twist that’s easy to figure out is only kind of, sorta proven true because Frankel and Loeb jettison the one the audience has in mind for something much more nonsensical and good will killing. Frankel races through wrapping up the storylines of the colleagues, all of them left unfinished, and forgets to give his film any sort of third act. Where the third act should be is a painfully manipulative twist involving Howard that not only doesn’t make any sense (and feels worse after the somewhat villainous colleagues ultimately get their selfish desires fulfilled), but amounts to the most head-scratching logical swerve I’ve seen in a film since High Tension, a film that sucks, but at least has a third act.

There had to be massive cuts made to this film either in the editing room or at the script level. This is over two hours worth of story material packed into a 100 minute frame. Even the film’s good moments come across as unsatisfying by the time the credits roll, and I refuse to believe that anyone involved with Collateral Beauty could look at the last fifteen minutes and think it was remotely okay. Instead of a low aiming inspirational flick, Collateral Beauty becomes a cruel, bafflingly half-assed movie; something that if you were to show it to someone who actually lost a child they would never speak to you again. If you take someone who is feeling down to see Collateral Beauty, you might, for a while, think your intentions are good. By the end of the film, you will turn out to be a terrible friend.

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Yes, the rumours are true.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story lacks the crawl famous to all seven previously released  Star Wars movies. But more on that in just a bit.

In 1999, when George Lucas released the first of his Star Wars prequel movies, excitement was high. Unfortunately, those films proved to be a major disappointment, in part because of a razor-thin plot spread across three films, but largely because they destroyed the mythology of A New Hope and turned its villain — perhaps cinema’s greatest — into a whinny narcissistic teenager.

Who knew that it would take Walt Disney Studios — home of Mickey Mouse and Goofy — to stumble upon the right formula to explore the Star Wars past. For Rogue One explores events that occur before A New Hope AND strikes the right balance of providing a back story that is neither thin on plot nor destructive to the original film’s lore. And thanks to the leadership of producer (and Lucasfilm president) Kathleen Kennedy, Rogue One, a single-story entry located outside the official Star Wars saga, explores the events leading directly into A New Hope with the perfect mix of action and sentimentality.

Rogue One focuses on Jyd Erso (Felicity Jones), who as a young child witnesses the murder of her mother and forcible conscription of her scientist father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), into the Empire by its weapons director, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), for whom Galen builds the Death Star. Jyd is rescued and raised by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a militant rebel fighter who trains Jyd to be a great fighter before abandoning her when she is 16. When an Imperial cargo pilot (Riz Ahmed) defects to Saw with a message from Galen, the Rebel Alliance rescues Jyd from prison, where she’s held on unspecified charges, and sends her to Saw with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel intelligence officer. Along the way, they are joined by Cassian’s droid, K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk); Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind man self-taught in some Jedi skills; and fighter Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Together they attempt to steal the plans to the Death Star.

To go into any further detail into the plot would spoil the fun for Star Wars fans looking forward to seeing the film over the holidays. But Star Wars fans will delight in seeing old characters making appearances in the film, including Rebel leaders Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) –Princess Leia’s adopted father — and Mon Mothma (Genvieve O’Reilly) a character who originally appeared in Return of the Jedi. Grand Moff Tarkin, originally played by Peter Cushing in A New Hope also appears, as does Darth Vader himself, along with James Earl Jones’s voice. Even smaller characters make an appearance, including the man from Mos Eisley with 12 death sentences who attacks Luke.

But will Star Wars purists be content with Rogue One‘s stylistic differences? The crawl is missing. Elements of John Williams’s original score are used, but Michael Giacchino brings in a new treatment. And unlike the Star Wars saga, it is clear that Rogue One‘s lead characters won’t be in any other Star Wars movies; obviously, this film is intended to be a sideline to the main saga. Fans of A New Hope will squeal in delight in how Rogue One‘s characters, cameos and plot lines neatly and directly lead into the beginning of A New Hope, and director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters John Knoll and Gary Whitta should be commended. And stick around for the very end. You’ll be amazingly surprised.

Review: Cameraperson

For over twenty-five years now Kirsten Johnson has been working as a cinematographer and camera operator, predominantly in documentary filmmaking. She has participated in such high profile docs as Fahrenheit 9/11, Citizenfour, and The Invisible War just to name a scant few. She’s shot more footage of real life human beings, incidents, and happenings around the world than most people can fathom. Relating and empathizing with an image she’s trying to convey is her life’s work, so it’s of little surprise that her cinematic memoir, the artful and unforgettable Cameraperson, would take a lot of inspiration from the work that has helped to define her life.

It’s not a standard memoir, and it comes across more as an essay film or a deeply personal bit of introspective poetry where the viewer has to fill in the blanks, glean meaning from the footage, and piece together what Johnson is trying to say. It’s a daring approach – showing the viewer a lot of seemingly dissimilar footage discarded from various projects devoid of context or any sort of narration or commentary from Johnson – but one that thankfully presupposes a great deal of intellect and emotional intelligence on the part of the viewer.

If you aren’t going to pay attention and you aren’t going to deeply engage with what’s happening, there’s nothing for you here. This isn’t a film that can be watched passively (and no film should be), but Cameraperson slowly becomes one of the most resonant films of the year, almost without the viewer even noticing that it’s happening. It’s a film where the viewer has to reflect on an image that caused the person creating the image to reflect on it in a different way, and it’s an approach where now that it has been done, it can likely never be duplicated again.

For the first thirty minutes or so of Cameraperson, I wasn’t sure precisely where – if anywhere – Johnson was headed with all of this. Johnson starts off by showing seemingly unrelated footage that clearly has some sort of meaning to her. Boxers getting ready for a Golden Gloves match at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn; an anonymous young woman in Alabama talking about how hard it is for her and her child to receive proper health care; riding on a Ferris Wheel in Kabul; doctors tending to newborns in an African hospital; evidence from a Texas murder trial getting spread across a table for the camera to document it; the pre-game festivities at a Penn State football game immediately following the sexual abuse allegations levied against the school; lots of recollections of time she spent in Bosnia; even footage from her own New York apartment playing with her twins. It still works as a film because it’s always intriguing to think about how we process images in our daily lives. It’s like looking at a photograph and immediately being transported back to the day it was taken and under what circumstances the image was captured. That’s one of the basic questions most people have about images, so Cameraperson starts off as something that’s just fun and stimulating to think about.

Chronologically, the footage jumps around, but eventually a structure that the viewer initially didn’t realize was being built up begins to emerge, and things start to take a turn towards the personal and slightly away from the professional around the time the viewer gets introduced to Kirsten’s mother. From there, Johnson will go back and forth between scenarios previously glimpsed to show greater detail or introduce newly relevant material, all of it designed to flow together almost rhythmically. Each passing sequence begins to dovetail and rhyme with the one that preceded it. Going far beyond the sometimes off-putting auteurist theory that an image is created exactly how the artists behind the camera want them to look, Cameraperson becomes possibly the first time in history that a film has effectively, gradually, and intimately placed viewers into the mindset of the person creating these images without the creator showing up on camera, speaking a word, or writing out what the viewer has witnessed. She didn’t write what she’s capturing, and therefore Johnson feels no clear ownership over it, but she remembers how each of these moments impacted her and made her feel.

What starts off as a look into the life’s work of a talented artisan slowly becomes a look at what it means to be a mother, daughter, woman, and human being in a sometimes harsh and indecipherable world where awful things fall upon people who did nothing to deserve them. Cameraperson never errs too far on the depressing side as to become cynical or cold, and Johnson balances the bleakness of the world around her with a good deal of hope and humour.

If one watches Cameraperson closely and intensely, the experience becomes almost transcendent. At a certain point, I felt so moved that I began to cry and it took me a moment to figure out why I was doing that in a film made up of such seemingly random segments that have often been excised from other films. It was because I had become fully immersed in what Johnson was trying to do, and I empathized with her as much as she did with the people she had been filming. That’s a difficult thing for any documentary to try and pull off, but Cameraperson does it perfectly.

Review: Lion

An exceptionally structured and suitably moving debut feature from Australian television veteran Garth Davis, the uplifting and at times quite subtle Lion takes bold chances with its story of one man’s search for his true identity. Lion could easily be written off by cynics as claptrap Oscar bait, but there’s no denying that Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies (Candy, Life) have crafted something fresh within the Hollywood crafted inspirational movie template. Divided almost into two films, Lion (which was the runner-up for the coveted Audience Choice Award at TIFF 2016) tells two true stories of overcoming adversity told from the perspective of the same character at different points in their life. Each story comes with its own distinct set of challenges and storytelling dynamics, but while the first half might be slightly better than the second, they still amount to a very admirable and accomplished whole.

As a child in 1986, Saroo Khan (played by Sunny Pawar as a tyke and Dev Patel as an adult) gets lost and abandoned at a train station, separating him from his mother and brother. After accidentally boarding a train about to leave the station, he travels alone for two days across the country where he’s seen as an orphan at his final destination because he speaks Hindu and not Bengali. After a year passes in an orphanage and his mother can’t be located, he’s sent to Tasmania to live with a pair of loving, adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). As an adult, Saroo appreciates his new life, but still feels like a lost boy. Through the use of Google Earth, research of train patterns, and calculating how fast and how far he would have travelled on that fateful day during his childhood, Saroo begins a lengthy, years long quest to find where he came from, while nagging questions about his family begin to eat away at him and threaten to destroy his otherwise healthy relationship with his supportive American girlfriend (Rooney Mara).

Davis and Davies spend almost the entire first hour alongside Pawar as young Saroo tries to navigate the dangerous life of a child on the streets of India. It’s harrowing, wrenching stuff that informs the rest of the film before the remarkable child actor hands things off to Patel. Shooting in murky tones and never eschewing the dark existence of being a homeless child on the streets of inner city India, Davis appropriately makes young Saroo’s existence into something nightmarish. Things aren’t just tough for the young boy, but damn near impossible, especially when one takes into account a language barrier that Saroo faces when he reaches his final destination of Calcutta, and his situation is made worse by evil adults who see a parentless child as an opportunity for potential exploitation, profit, or imprisonment.

There are no clichés for this sort of thing, and the first hour of Lion remains unassailably excellent. Newcomer Pawar finds a patient collaborator in Davis, who seems to be crafting the film’s lengthy set-up around the young man’s more natural abilities to react. It’s a child performance that seems uncoached and unforced, something that’s no small feat for any filmmaker, and an admirable decision on the part of the filmmaker. Without a child as believable as Pawar, Lion might have amounted to something a lot more manufactured in tone and depth of feeling.

When the story shifts to 2008 and adult Saroo’s quest for closure, Patel commands the screen and delivers the best performance of his career. People often talk about actors who “disappear into their roles,” but Patel’s performance is like watching a man disappear. His existential and melancholic malaise grows, and he answers the film’s ultimate questions about privilege through his performance. It’s a highly internalized turn that only allows for a few moments of genuine levity and joy from the actor, most notably a wonderful meet-cute between Saroo and Mara’s Lucy that turns into an awkward, but charming impromptu dance sequence. Patel plays Saroo as someone who desperately wants happiness and closure, but has few ideas on how to achieve either of them.

Patel also lifts up the somewhat saggy second half of the film where inspirational movie clichés start to form, but never fully take hold thanks to Davis’ directorial restraint. Patel has great chemistry alongside Kidman and Mara, but neither has much of anything to do except look concerned for their loved one. The number of times these great female performers are saddled with looking at their onscreen son or boyfriend with furrowed brows and worried eyes is somewhat distressing, and a subplot involving Saroo’s tempestuous fellow adopted brother from a different family (Divian Ladwa) distracts from the core narrative more than it informs.

It’s never in doubt that Saroo will achieve some sort of catharsis or closure by the end of the film, no matter how hard Patel tries to lay the character’s mental unravelling bare for the audience to see. And yet, any overarching criticisms one could levy towards Lion feel like minor speed bumps. Davis and his crew have adapted Saroo Khan’s life with great poignancy and respect towards an experience that few people on earth could fathom or completely understand. Lion has been made free from cynicism and yet keeps a keen eye on how unfair the world can be. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk, but Davis and Patel does it quite well.

Review: Sugar Mountain

In the drab, low budget indie thriller Sugar Mountain, two brothers in the titular Alaskan community concoct an elaborate scam with the hopes of pulling themselves out of massive debt. Irresponsible Miles (Drew Roy) has run their dead mother’s boating operation into insolvency on top of accruing massive gambling debts to a local heavy named Joe Bright (Jason Momoa). In cahoots with his girlfriend, Lauren (Haley Webb), and his smarter, but still kinda shady brother Liam (Shane Coffey), Miles concocts a scheme to fake getting lost in the Alaskan wilderness for ten days, therefore creating a fraudulent survival narrative that he can sell to the press.

It’s a stupid plan, stupidly executed and Australian director Richard Grey and writer Abe Pogos can’t overcome the idiocy at the heart of Sugar Mountain to make anything compelling out of it. In Fargo-light fashion, this harebrained scheme leads to the brothers getting in way over their heads once they set the plan into action, depicted in as pat of a three act structure as one can get: there’s the set up, the scheme, and the aftermath. Lauren’s father (Cary Elwes), who also happens to be the chief of police, thinks that Liam might have purposefully set Miles out into the woods so he could finally take action on the secret romantic feelings he harbours for his daughter. Joe Bright really wants his money. Various townspeople are either sympathetic or draw unwanted attention to what could be a hoax. Meanwhile, there’s probably a great chance that inexperienced mountaineer Miles might have died out there or gone missing for real.

It takes a massive suspension of disbelief to buy that anyone at their most desperate – especially seemingly intelligent young men like Miles and Liam – would come up with a get rich quick scheme that could be so easily unravelled and disproven, and the fact that anyone in the small town would buy into it comes off as slightly ludicrous. It’s a convoluted and (more importantly) poorly executed plan, but it’s also dull to watch it unfold as monotonously as it does here. There are no real surprises until the final third when a pair of illogical, impossible to telegraph plot twists (both surrounding the dead mother of the brothers) attempt to goose the story to no avail. These twists should change the direction and tone of the film, but they’re staged, acted, and tossed off like they’re just another thing that happened.

It doesn’t help that none of the characters – save for Momoa’s charismatic, underused turn as a psychopath – are exciting to watch or follow. The actors are fine and basically doing what they’re told is being demanded of them, but then again one could say that about everyone behind the camera, too. No one gets a chance to shine in Sugar Mountain because it’s impossible to shine this much cardboard. Miles is patently unlikeable from start to finish, so his well being never becomes a true concern. Liam is just as bad as his brother, but the film tries its best to make the viewer sympathize with him somewhat, failing terribly in the process. Lauren is just there to further drive a wedge between the brothers, and her father just seems to hate the whole lot of them, so why should he even bother stressing out over any of this?

Everything that happens in Sugar Mountain comes off not only as a waste of time to the viewer, but a waste of time to the characters, making any sort of emotional or intellectual investment impossible. When you’re actively thinking about better scams that could have been pulled off to greater effect and success, you know a film about a grift gone awry has completely lost your interest. Such shoddy plot and characterization could have been saved somewhat by a sense of energy and pacing, but Grey can’t be bothered to inject any life into this, instead settling for a “point, shoot, repeat” technique that feels not only overly serious for this kind of potboiler fodder, but also distressingly half-assed. Sugar Mountain is the kind of film where it feels like no one wants to be there, but everyone involved has made a pact to make the best of it.

Review: Sword Master

Hong Kong director Derek Yee began his career as an actor, debuting in the 1977 martial arts film Death Duel, based on Gu Long’s novel of the same name. It is only fitting that nearly 40 years later, Yee directs its 3D remake, entitled Sword Master. Unfortunately, it lacks a strong narrative to match its beautifully choreographed martial arts scenes.

Sword Master follows Yan Shishan (Peter Ho), a sword fighter employed as security at a brothel, despite the fact that he no longer wishes to kill. He becomes romantically involved with one of its prostitutes, Xiao Li (Jiang Mengje), much to the dismay of brothel owner Murong Qiudi (Jiang Yiyan), who is seemingly romantically interested in Yan herself; she will use force to win both Yan and her former prostitute back. At the same time, Yan must resist his father, an aristocrat who uses an army and much force to woo his son back. Adding complications, Yan has a love/hate relationship with Sword Master (Lin Gengxin), who both helps and fights Yan.

The fight scenes are well choreographed and the exquisitely choreographed action scenes will no doubt be enhanced in the 3D theatrical release (this review is based on a 2D media release). It’s too bad that the action is bogged down by the almost soap-opera back stabbing and conniving that overshadows the action scenes. It seems that director Yee wanted to add an emotional accent to the film — and it’s a noble thing to do in an action film — but it becomes a confusing mess and a distraction from the action sequences, which no doubt will be attracting audiences to the film. It’s too bad it wasn’t done more effectively, because it could have elevated Sword Master to a complex and interesting action movie.

Review: Jackie

The assassination of John F. Kennedy serves as the catalyst for Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, but the former president is quickly eclipsed by the presence of his wife. This film is about Jackie. From the opening moment, she makes it clear that she is the one in complete control of the story you are about to hear. She looks directly into the camera and tells the reporter from Life Magazine “I will be editing your story. Just in case I say something I didn’t mean to.” It is an unsettling beginning to a biopic that refuses to follow convention.

In many ways, the construction of Jackie mirrors the construction of the legend of the Kennedys, but also serves to shatter the illusion. It is blunt and direct. Like the Kennedy’s themselves, Jackie has been very deliberately and carefully crafted, just like the former First Family’s public persona that has made them such a fixture in the collective imagination of Americans. The film is meticulous. Everything has been painstakingly recreated, from the dress Jackie was wearing when John was shot to Natalie Portman’s perfectly pitched accent. Archival news footage blends seamlessly into fictional recreations as reality bleeds into myth.

It is rare to see a film, particularly one ‘based on a true story’, that is this forcefully authored, with a clear hand directing every moment on screen. As we follow Jacquline Kennedy through the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, funeral preparations are placed side by side with press interviews, flashbacks to the event itself, and private, personal moments of Jackie. Characters stare directly into the camera, never truly breaking the fourth wall, but addressing the audience nonetheless. This is an unusual choice, but one that serves this unconventional biopic well. It is constantly keeping the viewer off balance, forcing them to reassess the validity of what they are seeing.

Larrain has structured Jackie to deconstruct a modern legend. He celebrates the strength and resilience of the former First Lady, but coming in as an outsider has no mythical associations with the Kennedy name. Jackie asks you to think about what goes into building modern day mythology and reminds us at the end of the day, that these people were, and are, simply flesh and blood, not the stuff that legends are made of.

Review: Sadie’s Last Days on Earth

Sadie Mitchell is a 16-year-old who struggles with anxiety, which reaches crippling levels after a school project in which she learns that the end of the world is near. She spends her days alternating between stockpiling for the apocalypse and trying to salvage her friendship with former best friend Brennan. When she forms an unlikely friendship with doting schoolmate Jack, who finds her idiosyncrasies quirky as opposed to neurotic, what starts out as the road to regained happiness quickly descends into total teenage torment.

Michael Seater’s script is really smart, often too smart. While brimming with wit and sardonic humour delivered in rapid fire dialogue, the overall tone of Sadie’s Last Days on Earth is a bit too self aware. The characters come off almost a bit smug, as if to say ‘look at us, we’re so quirky and weird it’s cool’. While Seater’s target audience might proudly see reflections of themselves in Sadie and the cast, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that most teenagers are simply not that profound.

Sadie’s Last Days on Earth can be a fun viewing experience, but clearly targeting a very specific demographic. While teen angst transcends many age groups in contemporary cinema, the specific references and conversational cadences will leave some puzzling. To those on the outside looking in, the film is like Noah Baumbach meets a meme machine.

Seater directs a strong cast, Sadie’s Last Days on Earth is a who’s who of faces from Canadian television. Morgan Taylor Campbell is terrific as Sadie, giving the character a certain naturalness amidst so many emphasized eccentricities. Paula Brancati produces and has a supporting role in the film as Connie, a high school teacher/friend of Sadie’s who’s deteriorating marriage provides the basis for several important life lessons. Connie is the primary ‘adult’ in the film as Sadie’s parents are written more like a weak afterthought. While it seems to make sense for Sadie and Connie to form a friendship, there is a certain awkwardness about the presence of Connie’s character that takes some time for the audience to get used to.

Overall Sadie’s Last Days on Earth is an energetic film with a well-paced story and a well selected cast to drive the plot, but it’s not going to appeal to everyone.

Review: Office Christmas Party

There aren’t many titles in film history as bland and uninspired as Office Christmas Party. Although the latest film from the directorial duo of Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory, The Switch) is a passable enough bit of ribald, seasonal gross out gags and good cheer in equal measure, it never rises above a title that adequately explains how “meh” the whole thing is. It’s a film where there will be an Office Christmas Party, and in that respect the results can’t be that much of a letdown. It’s just that too much of the film doesn’t take place at the party, and that’s where things are a bit uneasy. It’s an ensemble comedy that can thank its almost overqualified cast for allowing the film to barely rise above its unexceptional title.

The managerial team at a Chicago tech firm is having a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. Branch manager Josh (Jason Bateman) has just settled a traumatic, costly divorce. Security manager and chief tech engineer Tracey (Olivia Munn) feels like her cool new idea to turn any available light source into an internet connection isn’t being taken seriously. Actually, everyone in the office has some sort of crisis going on in their lives, but perhaps none more serious than what Clay (T.J. Miller) is experiencing. He’s one of the heads of the company, but he’s a bit of a stoner, burnout, and screw up, and he finds himself amid a custody battle for his father’s company with his sneeringly evil CEO and older sister, Carol (Jennifer Aniston).

On what’s supposed to be the night of the big “non-denominational holiday party” (as Kate McKinnon’s requisite square H.R. rep calls it), Carol announces that not only is the shindig not happening and all holiday bonuses are cancelled, but Clay, Josh, and Tracey will have to cut 40% of their staff and potentially shut down if they don’t meet their quarterly expectations in the next two days. Their only tangible hope of pulling off such a Christmas miracle comes in the form of courting a wealthy investor (Courtney B. Vance) to invest $15 million in their company. Clay’s plan: to throw the party to end all parties as soon as Carol is safely on her plane to London that night and prove to their potential angel that his company is one that cares deeply for the people working there. Unfortunately for Clay, the party might not be enough to turn employee morale around and various circumstances will conspire to make the evening an out of control affair.

That’s a lot of plot for a film that can’t be bothered to come up with a more interesting title, and the lengthy, unnecessary, and rudimentary exposition dumps contained within a script that astoundingly took six people (three for the screenplay, three for the story) to come up with never amount to anything novel or revelatory. The relationships between the characters are fine enough to allow the actors to interact with one another on a comic level, but outside of a burgeoning relationship between Tracey and Josh and the acrimonious sibling rivalry between Clay and Carol, none of it really matters. The first 40 minutes or so of Office Christmas Party lag as a result of such overstuffing, and it’s all made worse by nothing having any sort of interesting or unexpected payoff. And the less said about the tacky, feel good ending, the better.

Everything one thinks will happen is going to happen exactly when, where, and how they think it will; only here that’s parcelled out over a lot of characters, many of whom could get axed without damaging the film. I’m looking squarely at Rob Corddry’s perpetually stand-offish and pessimistic customer service rep and Randall Park as a co-worker with an unusual sexual fetish. They’re talented performers, but they have nothing to do here. More successful supporting turns come from Karan Soni’s lonely, nerdy, programmer who hires an escort (Abbey Lee) to be his date to the party, Vanessa Bayer’s single mom accountant, and Jillian Bell’s gleefully unhinged pimp, who hatches a scheme to steal a bunch of cash from Clay. Also, it should go without saying that McKinnon can get literally more mileage out of a fart than most of these cast members can get from a speech.

As wonky as everything is, however, there’s a spirit of good cheer that shines through here. As revelations about some of the characters come to light, Office Christmas Party transitions nicely into a balanced sort of yuletide redemption tale that taps into what makes the film work even during some occasional poorly written scenes. With the exception of Aniston, Corddry, Bell, Lee and a few bit players, the primary characters are all likeable in their own way. While Aniston can play evil well, it’s a refreshing change of pace to see Bateman and Miller retain their penchant for sarcastic deadpan while playing genuine, nice people trying to do the best they can. Individual scenes where two cast members are allowed to interact with each other one on one are the high spots of the film because everyone here has remarkable chemistry with their fellow cast members. While there’s too much plot, there are just enough of these kinds of scenes to make Office Christmas Party entertaining.

Review: Antibirth

If there was one film to sum up the kind of experience you should be looking for at a genre film festival, Antibirth would be it. This is one movie you don’t want to miss out on. The film follows Lou (Natasha Lyonne), a drunken stoner who spends most of her time hanging out with her friend Sadie (Chloë Sevigny). After a drunken party that Lou can’t even remember, she realizes that she may be pregnant, but can’t figure out how. As Lou tries to figure out what happened during her blackout, she starts to become incredibly sick. Soon she’s hearing voices and seeing things, and her pregnancy becomes a part of an even bigger nightmare.

That’s about as much information as you should know about Antibirth. The twists and turns in director Danny Perez‘s film are best experienced without knowing very much. The film manages to smash a variety of genres together quite successfully, and the slow build towards an outrageous ending is captivating. It can be difficult to follow at times, but viewers won’t really mind when the result is so successful.

This is the kind of film that you’ll want to watch over and over, just to catch all the little details you may have missed on previous viewings. Lyonne and Sevigny give outstanding performances, while Meg Tilly steals the show towards the end of the movie as Lorna, a woman who shares some things in common with Lou, and someone who happens to know more about what’s going on. The finale delivers on the promises that the film has made, and while not everybody may enjoy it, it’s impossible to deny that it’s powerful and filled with some of the most amazing effects on display.

Review: The Apology

During the Second World War, more than 200,000 women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army. A small handful of these women are still alive, referred to now as “grandmas” and many of them are in their 80s and 90s. All they want is an apology from the government, but that seems to be a dream that may never come true. The disrespect these women still face is astounding, and even government officials aren’t above slinging insults towards the women. Looking at the lives of three of the “grandmas,” The Apology is a shocking look at a practice that somehow still seems to be accepted by a government fearful of admitting their past mistakes.

It’s not unusual for documentaries to infuriate viewers, but The Apology may be one of the most difficult and maddening films to screen over the years. Known as “Comfort Women,” these hundreds of thousands of women were simply taken from the street and forced to live in brothels to service men in the army. When the war was over, they were left with nothing and many couldn’t even return to their families.

They felt shame for what they had done, and this response is thrown back in their faces to this day. Watching one of the “grandmas” head to a protest while people scream derogatory terms at them and tell them to “go home” is outrageous. That anybody could hear their story and insult them for it is disgusting. Even the government has been known to make inappropriate comments without remorse. It’s difficult to hear, but important for all.