REVIEW: ‘The Last Jedi’ is Star Wars’ Best Film Since ‘Empire’

Rey (Daisy Ridley) looks into the horizon, as you do in Star Wars.

As satisfying as The Force Awakens was, as the dust settled, it became clear than J.J. Abrams had basically remixed A New Hope for a new generation without bringing new ideas to the fore (heck, Abrams went for yet another Death Star, the most cumbersome of weapons). Considering this development, concerns over The Last Jedi being another Empire Strikes Back weren’t unfounded.

Enter Rian Johnson. The writer/director behind the brainy indies Brick, Looper and The Brothers Bloom explores corners of the Star Wars universe never seen before on screen, without breaking the mold. Chief among them, a scenario beyond the battle between good and evil that has characterized the saga. Johnson also takes full advantage of the visual possibilities and deliver the most unique-looking episode of the franchise, without becoming a CGI hodgepodge like the prequels. Continue reading “REVIEW: ‘The Last Jedi’ is Star Wars’ Best Film Since ‘Empire’”

REVIEW: The Road Forward Has Too Many Branches

A blend of musical and documentary too ambitious for its own good, The Road Forward attempts to tackle First Nations’ most significant struggles of the last century (the Native Brotherhood, the Constitution Express, residential schools, missing aboriginal women) via information and music.

The magnitude of the scope is staggering: Each subject is worth entire sagas and demands our attention. Despite Marie Clements’ self-assured direction, the outcome is scattered and it’s hard to become fully immersed in the film.

As if the birth of Indian Nationalism and recent history weren’t enough, The Road Forward dedicates a fair amount of time to the performers’ own battles. Their stories are compelling in their own right, but become lost in a bombardment of minutiae, particularly in the top half. Five years ago, the stylistically similar (and likely influential) The Art of Killing succeeded by limiting its scope.

The rise of Canada’s first indigenous newspaper -The Native Voice- gives the movie a vague framing, but the outcome cries for structure. The music comes close to supersede the film’s shortcomings: The score is strong and the tune “Indian Man” is rousing enough to transcend the film. Unfortunately, The Road Forward as a whole is far from cohesive. Two and a half planets (out of five).

The Road Forward will play at the Broadway Theatre this Wednesday the 13th only. Free screening.

REVIEW: Coco Sneaks Up on You

Pixar’s less heralded but most remarkable skill is its ability to introduce ideas and concepts one would be hard-pressed to consider appropriate for a family movie: Mental health comes from managing our emotions, not denying them (Inside Out); the value of criticism lies in the discovery of new talent (Ratatouille); overprotection can stunt a child’s growth (Finding Nemo).

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Coco -it’s visually stunning and undeniably fun- but the message (“families are important and want the best for us”) is pedestrian at best and debatable under certain circumstances. Not that the value of family was ever a novel idea, but the Fast and Furious saga has driven the notion into the ground.

Coco is set during the Day of the Dead in Mexico, the one time of the year those who have passed can come for a visit. At the Rivera household, the fiesta is celebrated without music. A few generations ago, the paterfamilias left his wife and baby daughter to pursued a career in music and never returned. It was decided then the family would make a living making shoes and no tunes will ever be played at home, or surrounding areas. Continue reading “REVIEW: Coco Sneaks Up on You”

Byron Bashforth: From the Prairies to Pixar

Pixar’s Coco.

Okla native Byron Bashforth has been involved in nine Pixar movies and four shorts to date, including the Disney subsidiary’s brand-new feature, Coco. Bashforth is the film’s character shading lead, meaning he is responsible for the team in charge of the look of all the characters in the film. Considering that Coco unfolds in two separate realities and the number of roles is in the dozens, Bashforth has his work cut out for him.

Byron got his Master in Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan and has been involved with Pixar for almost two decades. “I remember watching the trailer for Toy Story and it occurred to me for the first time that you could use computers to do something else than computer science stuff. It opened the possibility of being able to combine my artistic streak and computers as a career.”

The animator has been the character shading lead for the short Lava and the features Monsters University and Ratatouille. I had the chance to catch up with Byron over the phone from California. Continue reading “Byron Bashforth: From the Prairies to Pixar”

REVIEW: God’s Own Country Is More than that Other Gay Cowboys’ Movie

Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu in God’s Own Country.

One could describe God’s Own Country as a slightly more graphic Brokeback Mountain, but that would be selling it short. The low-budget, emotionally rich drama paints a dire picture of England’s countryside, with farmers dealing poorly with social change (immigration, homosexuality) and economic depression.

God’s Own Country’s main character is strangely unlikeable. Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is a young man forced by his father’s disability to manage the family farm. Not one capable to deal with his emotions in healthy fashion, the farmer festers in resentment and only finds solace in alcohol consumption and anonymous sex. Johnny is also a closeted gay man, but the idea of a relationship, as limited as going for a pint with another fella, is laughable for him. Continue reading “REVIEW: God’s Own Country Is More than that Other Gay Cowboys’ Movie”

REVIEW: Novitiate is Full Metal Jacket with Nuns

Margaret Qualley in Novitiate.

Movies about nuns have a curiously high batting average: From The Sound of Music to The Innocents, there is something fascinating about women choosing a life of worship and deprivation.  Novitiate is a fairly realistic depiction of life inside a convent and the result is unbearably dull.

Set during the early 60’s, Novitiate tackles the effects of the Second Vatican Council over a nunnery in Tennessee. The Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) is reluctant to implement the changes (no more Latin, develop a relationship with the community, no more self-laceration as penitence), fearful it may undermine the nuns’ calling.

We witness the nunnery begin to crumble through the eyes of a novice, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley). Born to an agnostic mother and an absentee dad, Cathleen becomes fascinated by the idea of an intimate relationship with God, but her budding sexuality won’t be denied.

Cathleen is the main problem of the film, but is far from the only one. Qualley, so good in The Leftovers and so terrible in Death Note, is underserved by the script and fails to convey her inner struggle in any interesting way. At the opposite end, Melissa Leo chews the scenery uncontested. She is all fire and brimstone and takes it on the sisters.

If faith is underserved (the movie fails to explain why Vatican II is such a problem in any sensible way), sexuality is treated just as perfunctorily. Novitiate hints at the notion that lesbians joined convents as an alternative to be shun by their communities, but doesn’t have the audacity to develop the idea. Writer/director Margaret Betts is a first timer and it shows: The actors run amok, the plot is flimsy and the character development is very limited.

The film’s mediocrity is highlighted by the coda: The audience is summarily informed that Vatican II inspired nuns to abandon their calling in massive numbers. One wishes Novitiate had tackled the matter head on as opposed to through low-impact drama. Two planets (out of five).

Novitiate opens November 18th at the Roxy Theatre.

REVIEW: Justice League’s Trial Run

Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, the Flash and Aquaman.

Following a shaky start, the DC Extended Universe has reached a modicum of stability (thanks Wonder Woman!). There are still some kinks to work out, but glaring problems like cohesiveness and that whole “Martha!” business seem to be a thing of the past.

Considering the problematic installments that preceded it, Justice League is fine. The story is constrained and doesn’t take itself all that seriously: The Flash notwithstanding, it’s still grimmer than Thor: Ragnarok laugh-fest, which may not be a bad thing. Continue reading “REVIEW: Justice League’s Trial Run”

REVIEW: Not Loving Vincent

Saoirse Ronan in Loving Vincent.

There is no denying Loving Vincent is an extraordinary achievement. All 65,000 frames of the movie are oil paintings, courtesy of 115 artist who aped Van Gogh’s style for almost a decade. The outcome looks like a living, breathing canvas.

If only the same amount of care had been put on the script.

Story-wise, Loving Vincent is a pedestrian affair, practically pulled from Wikipedia: A year after Vincent van Gogh’s death, Armand, an adrift young man (Douglas Booth, Noah), is tasked with delivering the artist’s final letter to his brother Theo. Doesn’t take too much digging for Armand to discover the brother has been dead for a few months. Finding Theo’s surviving family proves a little more difficult, especially after stumbling on clues that suggest Vincent may not have killed himself.

The mystery of Van Gogh’s death is amped up for dramatic purposes, but the investigation never feels too pressing. The red herrings are painfully obvious and the information is dispensed in roundabout and clumsy ways. Clearly the wrong person for the job, Douglas Booth overdoes it as the lead, as if believing the animation technique may prevent his acting from coming across.

All we are left with is the gimmick. Thankfully, it’s a memorable one. Loving Vincent recreates the artist’s most magnificent creations: Much of the fun of the movie comes from recognizing Van Gogh’s masterpieces on screen, from his many portraits to the ubiquitous “Starry Night”. Pick any detail -cigarette smoke, a windmill in the background- and you will discover remarkable artistry and attention to detail.

One can certainly appreciate the effort put into the making of Loving Vincent, but film is a different medium and requires a more holistic approach than just pretty pictures. 2.5 planets (out of five).

Loving Vincent is now playing at the Roxy Theatre.

Frankie Drake’s Lauren Lee Smith: “In Canada, We Take Care of Each Other a Little Bit More”

Lauren Lee Smith as Frankie Drake.

Lauren Lee Smith has been a staple of Canadian film and television for over a decade. Her filmography includes niche titles like Lie with Me and Art School Confidential and TV mainstays such as The Listener and The L Word. Frankie Drake Mysteries, the CBC drama that premiered last Monday, is Smith’s first solo lead and she is almost in every scene of the series.

A Murdoch Mysteries spinoff of sorts (the two shows are set 16 years apart and linked by web series), Frankie Drake Mysteries revolves around Toronto’s only female private detective in 1921. Frankie (Smith) is a woman ahead of her time, frequently underestimated, but more resourceful than the police and criminals alike. “I’m a mother to a daughter now and the importance of playing strong female characters has become even a bigger priority”, elaborates the actress.

I had the chance to talk with Lauren about the watershed moment women in the industry are experiencing, and whether she knows in advance if a show has staying power.

– While you’ve been the co-lead on a number of shows, it seems Frankie Drake Mysteries falls squarely on your shoulders. Does it feel differently?

– I think there were maybe three scenes over the course of the entire season that I was not in. Playing the title character is a new experience, a different kind of pressure I wasn’t exactly used to. But having a leadership role gave me the energy on 15-hour days to be a cheerleader for the rest of the cast and crew.

– Considering your experience in other TV shows, do you have an inkling which series are going to last?

– I wish I did. I’m usually the worst person to know these things. Every time I think “this is amazing, this is going to work” … It’s hard to tell, especially considering how the television world changes so drastically year to year. I do think Frankie Drake has a little bit of everything to appeal to a large audience, and we have a really good shot at being successful.

– You are finishing the year very strong, between Frankie Drake Mysteries and your role in The Shape of Water. How long did you work in Water?

– I shot it last summer, I was in Montreal doing This Life when I got a call telling me Guillermo del Toro had a role for me in his next film. I had to pick my jaw up off the ground. I knew nothing about the character, I had a four-month old baby in tow, but decided it had to happen. We drove six hours to Toronto, shot two nights in a row, drove back and continued shooting This Life.

– You play Michael Shannon’s character’s wife. He seems very intense.

– It was a great pleasure getting to work with him. He is such a focused actor and it was incredible to watch his process.

– Would you say you have planned your career?

– When I was in my early twenties, I had this idea of who I wanted to be as an actor and how I wanted my career to go. The moment I let that go and stop worrying so much, the opportunities I was looking for started coming in. Now it’s just about not overthinking it and trust that work will come, which is easier said than done.

– Do you have second thoughts about developing most of your career in Canada?

– Not for a second. When I was younger, there was this constant push to get to L.A. I followed that lead, I did many, many, many pilot seasons and, while I was there, I was constantly getting booked out of Canada. It was ridiculous. Right after CSI, I got Good Dog (HBO Canada) and The Listener (CTV), and I didn’t want to go back. Here is where my family and friends are, I love my country, I didn’t see the point of fighting to do work somewhere else when you are getting great work here.

– Given the recent slew of revelations coming from Hollywood, do you feel the Canadian TV and film industry operates at a different level?

– I do. We have a growing community, but definitely smaller. We are more family oriented, there is a different level of respect, we take care of each other perhaps a little bit more. You are going to see these situations no matter where in the world you are, but based on my experience, I believe in Canada we have a sense of security and safety. That’s my hope, anyway.

Frankie Drake Mysteries. CBC, Mondays at 9 pm. Season premiere is available at watch.cbc.ca.

Todd and The Book of Pure Evil Hit Saskatchewan

Those familiar with the Space Channel cult horror-comedy Todd & The Book of Pure Evil may remember the show ended its two-year run on a cliffhanger. Five years later, the resolution has finally arrived: As a feature-length animated film.

Todd & The Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End starts shortly after the events of the series finale, in which relationships became strained and one of the main characters was killed off during the vanquishing of said book. The film doesn’t quite resets the story but reshuffles alliances and gives the student body of Crowley High new reasons to fear attending school.

Quirky as ever, animation frees Todd‘s creative team to up the ante (two words: acidic acne). You don’t necessarily have to know the show to enjoy the film (a thorough recap is provided), but it enhances the experience. The comedy in display is a bit of an acquired taste. That said, those with tolerance for gore and gross-out humour are in the clear.

Todd & The Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End will play only tonight at 9.30 pm at the Roxy Theatre, with director Craig David Wallace and actor Alex House (Todd himself) in attendance.