REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok Is Pure Kiwi Fun

Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in Thor: Ragnarok

As high as Marvel’s batting average is, there is a ceiling the MCU movies struggle to break through. Outside the first Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Marvel has had a hard time generating stakes. Sure, the MCU movies are a guaranteed good time (especially when compared to the DCEU), but I can’t say I’ve been all that invested in the wellbeing of the people of Sokovia, Xandar or New York.

The lack of emotional weight rears its head again in Thor: Ragnarok, but the movie makes up for it with charm and laughs. Far and away the best movie about the God of Thunder and the funniest comedy of the year not involving Stalin, the third Thor movie benefits greatly from having Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) at the helm. Waititi understands the character better than his predecessors, brings his dry, sharp comic sensibility to the table and makes the most of Chris Hemsworth’s considerable comedy chops. Continue reading “REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok Is Pure Kiwi Fun”

REVIEW: Thank You for Your Service Works for Blue and Red States

Miles Teller and Beulah Koale in Thank You for Your Service.

At the advance screening of Thank You for Your Service, I was informed it was from the same writer of American Sniper. My heart sunk. Alongside Lone Survivor, American Sniper is the most questionable portrait of American military in modern day. Not only Sniper presented a warped version of the Iraq War courtesy of Clint Eastwood, a number of the events depicted by the film turned out to be false.

I’m happy to inform Thank You for Your Service is nothing like Sniper or Survivor. A subdued approach to the less than welcoming environment that awaits soldiers deployed abroad, Thank You for Your Service is devoid of any jingoism. For the characters of this movie, becoming a soldier is a final career opportunity after running out of options.

Adam (Miles Teller), Solo (Beulah Koale) and Will (Joe Cole) are three close friends from Topeka, back in their hometown after serving a tour of duty in Iraq. None of them are in good shape. Adam is wrecked by guilt for his responsibility on the death of a fellow soldier, Solo’s brain is “scrambled” after being blown up seven times (!), and Will is putting all his hopes and dreams on his fiancée, who may not be in the picture by the time of his return.

This is not one of those movies in which the lead doesn’t want help to deal with their PTSD. Adam and Solo are eager to receive assistance, but the backlog is such, they could be waiting for months on end. The delay proves to be unbearable for the young veterans, whose family lives hang by a thread.

Through the entirety of Thank You for Your Service, first time director Jason Hall sustains enormous tension, even though towards the end the film leans on dramatic tropes not at the same level than the rest of the movie. Miles Teller is becoming a very effective and unassuming performer, especially now he is not involved with comic franchises or YA adaptations.

A mishap worth mentioning is the casting of Amy Schumer as a soldier’s widow. She is not bad per se (although her climatic scene could have used a more seasoned dramatic actress), but is definitely distracting. It’s one of those cases in which name recognition comes with a price tag.

Overall, Thank You for Your Service is a healthier take on the costs of war, which reverberate long after the conflict has ended. Something to keep in mind when casually suggesting bombing some country, or stating soldiers know what they signed up for. Three planets. 

Thank You for Your Service is now playing at Galaxy Cinemas.

REVIEW: The Snowman Is Melting

Michael Fassbender tries hard to save The Snowman.

It would be easy to dismiss The Snowman as the standard troubled production that couldn’t be saved in post (three-time Oscar winner editor Thelma Schoonmaker notwithstanding). Alas, the outcome is so uniquely weird -disjointed, beautiful, nonsensical- it’s kind of fascinating how this movie came to be.

Based on Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series, The Snowman pits the titular detective (Michael Fassbender) against a serial killer who targets adulterous women. The maniac enjoys taunting his pursuers with childlike notes commenting on their investigation (he doesn’t think highly of it). As the bodies begin to pile up, Hole finds a link between the killings and a decade-old unsolved murder involving Norwegian captains of industry.

While mostly a plot-driven thriller, The Snowman is also a character study. Harry Hole is an alcoholic whose level of self-loathing is so high, he would rather alienate those who love him than give domesticity a try. The film fails to integrate both threads and, for most of the movie, the family drama feels not only disconnected, but unnecessary.

The Snowman unfolds in stilted fashion. Some of Hole’s decisions are baffling and a number of plotlines go nowhere. Director Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) confessed production was rushed and not all the script was shot. This would explain why so often the story is pushed forward via ADR.

The saddest part about this misfire is all the casualties: The possibility of a Harry Hole franchise, Dion Beebe’s gorgeous cinematography, a cast as deep as underutilized (Chloe Sevigny plays twins and still seems barely there), and -above all- Val Kilmer. On the mend from throat cancer, all of Kilmer’s lines have been noticeably dubbed. The actor’s performance is so over the top, it seems to belong to an entirely different film. His weirdness, however, is strangely compelling and one wishes to see more of him.

There are hints of the Tomas Alfredson that brought us the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Let the Right One In. Deeply idiosyncratic characters and potent images can be found here and there, but The Snowman never seems under his control. Two planets.

The Snowman opens this Friday everywhere.

Lucky Is a Celebration, Not an Elegy of Harry Dean Stanton, Says Director

Harry Dean Stanton, the star of Paris, Texas and Repo Man, and supporting performer in neo-classics like Alien and Pretty in Pink, died last September. He was having a banner year: A part in the Twin Peaks revival and a rare lead role in Lucky.

Stanton’s swan song is rolling across art-houses in Canada. Low-key, loaded with meaning but not devoid of humour, Lucky is so timely, it’s eerie.

The titular character (Stanton) is a fixture in his small community in New Mexico. Lucky describes himself as “alone, not lonely”, but a health scare forces him to reevaluate his place in society and his stance on religion.

The great thing about Lucky is that there is no big drama, no reconciliations, no long-buried secrets. Just a nonagenarian coming to terms with his life decisions. Stanton is not quite his character, but is close enough you can recognize the pathos. Pay no attention to the remarkable supporting cast (David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr. as town denizens). This is Harry Dean’s movie and his command of the screen is remarkable.

In charge of this compelling but obviously complicated endeavor is another character actor, in his debut behind the camera. John Carroll Lynch is the classic “that guy”, one that has found his way into movies by Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island), Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino) and the Coen Brothers (Fargo). You may recognize him as the most likely suspect in David Fincher’s Zodiac or as the deranged clown who frequents American Horror Story.

I had the chance to sit down with John Carroll Lynch in Toronto. A film scholar and self-aware like few of his peers, there is more to Lynch than his hundred supporting roles.

John Carroll Lynch, director of Lucky.

– What were the main logistical challenges of having a 90-year-old as your lead?

– Technically, he was 89. We finished a week before he turned 90. We staggered the schedule because we wanted to make sure he was as fresh as possible. Keep in mind Harry Dean was 89 and there was nothing wrong with him. We had three day weekends, took time between locations. That being said, the shooting was physically and emotionally taxing for him.

– How do you direct Harry Dean?

– He was never going to act, he was always going to be Harry Dean Stanton. That has been his foundational keystone for fifty years. He wouldn’t respond to character or structural notes. It was a way for him to gage if the story was truthful, and whether or not he could live in it. In my experience of watching film actors, nobody had a stronger sense of ‘being in film’ than Harry Dean Stanton. The Straight Story wouldn’t work without his performance, no matter how good Richard Farnsworth is in it. The emotional impact of the film is in the last five minutes and, without Harry Dean’s ability to go from vendetta to regret to forgiveness to love in five minutes without saying anything, it wouldn’t work.

– What was about this story that made you want to direct it?

– I’ve been trying to leverage myself into the director’s chair for a while and this one came together. What attracted me about the script was the idea of a man realizing he may not have many years left. To get to a place of resolution, he didn’t have to reconnect with a child, jump from a plane or tame a bronco. He just changed his perception of his own life and discovered he was not alone: The town he kept himself separate from had actually been holding him up this whole time. Lucky felt more real to me because it’s an interior journey people actually experience.

– Given your experience working with Scorsese, Fincher and the Coens, what best practices did you learn that you applied in Lucky?

– The thing I appreciate about all the masters I worked with is that they no longer worry about how to do this. They just want to tell a story, and the ‘how’ is based on the ‘why’ and the ‘what’. That is an actionable approach. I’m not quite there, but it’s something to aspire to.

– Both you and Harry Dean have been described as “character actors”. How do you feel about the term?

– I embrace it. It hasn’t hurt me at all. For many people, being a “character actor” means you are not going to get laid in the movie, there won’t be a romantic interest of any kind, and if there is one, it’s abhorrent in some way. You wear overalls and play a lot of cops. I don’t think the term means much of anything nowadays, except in the relationship with the audience. If they recognize you -your face and not your name- they know they are in good hands.

– Do you think Harry Dean knew this was his final performance?

– Absolutely not. He saw Lucky for what it was, not an elegy but a celebration. I don’t think he knew if he was going to work again, but by choice not because of death: He was a guy who wanted to do nothing and rest after.

Lucky opens Saturday 14th at the Broadway Theatre.

REVIEW: The Meyerowitz Stories Acknowledges Lives of Unfulfilled Potential

Dustin Hoffman and Ben Stiller in The Meyerowitz Stories.

The easiest way to approach Noah Baumbach’s latest movie The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) would be to talk about Adam Sandler’s performance. Sure, Sandler’s work is way above average, but it’s hardly news that the low-brow comedian can act. He just chooses not to.

The real headline here should be that the film features Dustin Hoffman’s finest work in nearly two decades. The two-time Oscar winner is Harold Meyerowitz, the patriarch of a balkanized family with an artistic streak. Harold has three kids: Danny (Sandler), Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and Matthew (Ben Stiller). Despite the fact Harold wasn’t a constant presence in their lives, Danny and Jean fuss over him. Alas, their father takes them for granted and seem to care only for Matthew, who lives in the West Coast.

The film is episodic by design, focusing alternatively on a different family member. Outside a considerable level of unhappiness, the Meyerowitzes share the feeling none of them lived up to their potential. Harold, a sculpting teacher, has problems accepting the fact a contemporary of his (Judd Hirsch) racked fame and fortune and he didn’t. Danny finds himself divorced, jobless and nearly fifty. Matthew is successful just on paper, while Jean goes through life unappreciated and lonely.

Location is fundamental for The Meyerowitz Stories. The film attempts to capture the artistic New York, the one slowly fading away due to gentrification. As it’s traditional with Baumbach, the script is impeccably written, and the filmmaker’s ability to capture difficult family dynamics (see The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) is in full display. Their pathos and manias lead to several explosive combinations, without forgetting the underlying affection the characters feel for each other.

Long-standing feuds and petty squabbles often ring true and when they don’t, they are entertaining enough to keep the audience invested. Think of The Meyerowitz Stories as Woody Allen on steroids. Three and a half planets.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) premieres on Netflix this Friday, October 13th.

Guillermo del Toro’s Monster Celebration

Photos by Suzy Lyster.

Synergy can be a wonderful thing: Guillermo del Toro has made Toronto his base of operations and has a new movie coming (The Shape of Water) awash in critical and commercial buzz. The Art Gallery of Ontario is consistently looking for ways to bring first-timers in and is open to non-traditional exhibitions. Put Del Toro and AGO together and you have “At Home with Monsters”.

The stunning exhibit, organized alongside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, aims to break into the Mexican director’s creative process. Mission accomplished: It actually feels like stepping inside Del Toro’s head.

“At Home with Monsters” features over 500 objects, many from Guillermo del Toro’s personal collection and others selected by the filmmaker from AGO’s storage. The exhibit gives us a glimpse of Del Toro’s Bleak House, his home-studio in L.A. The place is filled with strange art pieces that captured Guillermo’s imagination and inspired him at one time or another.

Most of the rooms in the exhibition are linked to Del Toro’s movies, and grouped according to the director’s favourite authors and subjects. Among them, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, outsiders, insects, Victoriana, death and the afterlife, and a striking corner dedicated to Frankenstein’s monster.

Comfort Creates Fear

Guillermo del Toro was at hand to introduce “At Home with Monsters” to the press alongside co-curator Jim Shedden. In perfect Del Toro form, the director came on defense of genre filmmaking and pre-establishment Disney (“Like Frank Capra, Disney is often misrepresented. Fantasia, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty contain moments of great darkness.”) In spite of the remarkable collecting items he has lend to the exhibit, he doesn’t think of himself as a hoarder (“I can live without all of this”).

Not one to shy away from sharing his opinion about today’s political climate, Del Toro stated that “comfort creates fear” and brought up Tod Browning’s Freaks: “In the movie, normal people are horrible while the freaks have a cohesive, functional society based on accepting one another. Judging yourself by the standards of perfection is torture.”

“At Home with Monsters” will open to the general public this Saturday, September 30th, and is set to close January 7th, 2018. Del Toro himself will be signing the companion book and related items tomorrow Wednesday 27th from 4pm to 9pm at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Some restrictions apply.

Bee Nation Hits the Airwaves this Sunday

The definition of a crowd-pleaser, Bee Nation (Sunday, CBC, 9pm) revolves around an event with tension, drama and personal achievement ingrained in its DNA: The First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee competition, the first ever for Saskatchewan’s aboriginal communities.

It’s Documentary 101: Director Lana Slezic pics a handful of kids from the Kahkewistahaw reserve in SK and shows their lives and their preparation for the event. The spelling bee pool consists of 4,000 words and there is no standard training, and the level of parental support fluctuates wildly.

The approach allows some distressing information to seep through, like the fact schools in reserves receive considerable less money per student, forcing administrators to make some hard decisions regarding their institutions’ curriculum.

The children Slezic picks as main subjects are all overachievers, but each has a personality of their own: Mikayla is your traditional good student; For William, the sole idea of failure is devastating; The bullied Savannah is a model of personal drive. In each case, their parental figures see education as a way out, a chance to see a world beyond the reserve.

Heartbreak is unavoidable for the scrappy underdogs (the winners of the provincial chapter get to travel to Toronto to compete against private school kids with tutors), but makes for great cinema. It’s hard not to root for these kids or share the excitement of their first flight.

Bee Nation feels a bit stately (it’s presented under the CBC Docs POV banner and it shows), but the power of the story overtakes the format.

TIFF ’17 Day 9: The Lightning Round

Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz in Disobedience.

When a movie falls through the cracks, Planet S catches it in a yearly section called The Lightning Round.

Disobedience (UK, 2017): Understated drama about two women coming to terms with their sexuality within a Jewish Orthodox community. It doesn’t obey any of the clichés this subgenre has us used to.

Downsizing (USA, 2017): By far director Alexander Payne’s worst film to date, it has plots for about five movies, all undercooked.

Oh, Lucy! (Japan/USA, 2017: Slight and tonally awkward. I wasn’t expecting Josh Harnett (of all people) to pop up in a Japanese movie.

The Crescent (Canada, 2017): Imagine The Others, but boring and badly acted. It looks otherworldly, but desperately needed a better plot to go with the visuals.

The Summit (Argentina, 2017): There are two plots in this film: Political intrigue among Latin American countries, and the daughter of a president acting crazy. The former is far better than the later, but the movie focuses on the wrong one.

Cocaine Prison (Bolivia, 2017): Underdeveloped country chooses to punish drug traffic small offenders over the infinitely more powerful kingpins. It personalizes the problem without forgetting the context. Not bad.

Princesita (Chile, 2017): Twelve year-old girl lives in a cult, gets a taste of the outer world, wants out. Noteworthy allegory of the oppression of the patriarchy, with a truly horrifying, artfully shot sexual violence sequence.

Let the Corpses Tan (France, 2017): The story of a robbery gone wrong embodies everything wrong with the Midnight Madness program this year. Weird for weird sake, barely competent filmmaking and ultimately, a pointless enterprise.

mother! (USA, 2017): Masterpiece. We’ll be talking about it for years.

Happy End (France, 2017): Michael Haneke’s weakest effort in years. Family alienation was better dealt with in Caché.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (USA, 2017): A glorified behind-the-scenes doc from the time Jim Carrey interpreted Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, this doc has great footage but loses its way trying to pretend is deeper that it actually is.

The Shape of Water (USA, 2017): A beautiful, dark fairy tale from Guillermo del Toro featuring a man-fish and Sally Hawkins. It certainly has its virtues, but I was less blown away than most people here.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (USA, 2017): Martin McDonagh relies less on his sharp dialogue and more on his character building skills in this black comedy with a heart. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell use their well-honed personas to great effect.

The China Hustle (USA, 2017): Apparently, investing in China is a terrible idea. Dense but important doc.

Borg/McEnroe (Sweden, 2017): In theory opposites, the cool-as-ice Swede and the hothead American came from the same place. Well-made and ntertaining, although I ended up wanting to watch a Vitas Gerulaitis biopic.

Revenge (France, 2017): We live in 2017, do we really need to take ideas from I Spit in Your Grave? This is not feminism, it’s exploitation disguised as feminism.

TIFF 2017 overall: Three planets. The movies were average, but the parties were fantastic.

TIFF ’17 Day 8: The Death of Stalin, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Pyewacket

The Death of Stalin.

The Death of Stalin (UK/USA, 2017. Dir: Armando Ianucci): Wondering what would be of Armando Ianucci after leaving Veep? Look no further. The brain behind The Thick of It and On the Loop, is back to mercilessly mock a new institution, in this case, the Communist Party leadership and their power squabble following the passing of Comrade Joseph Stalin.

The best positioned to replace the mustached genocidal maniac is Lavrently Beria (Simon Russell Beale), chief of the secret police apparatus. Beria’s callous behavior rubs the rest of the Stalin administration the wrong way and soon a team of rivals targets him, although inner struggles make the task more difficult than it should.

While the plot sounds serious and the body count is considerable, Ianucci’s scalpel-sharp dialogue and some brilliant slapstick makes The Death of Stalin the funniest film of the festival by a mile. Actors not known for generating laughs like Steve Buscemi and Jason Isaacs demonstrate killer comic timing, supported by experts in the field Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin. Everything about this movie works, particularly depicting the dictator’s inner circle as a frat house. Hilarious and unsettling. Four planets. Distribution: Presumably theatrical.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (USA, 2017. Dir: Angela Robinson): This is the year of Wonder Woman: Never mind the two DC Comics film with the Amazonian at the forefront, here comes a biopic about her creator and the two women who inspired him.

William and Elizabeth Marston (Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall) are a couple of academics focused on the female mind. Rational to the extreme, their relationship is tested when William becomes infatuated with Olive (Bella Heathcote, The Neon Demon), his teaching assistant. Olive is not your average college student. Her open mind and sweet disposition soon turns her into a component of the Marston family. As they explore the limits of their polyamorous bond, the idea of a powerful woman with superpowers and a taste for bondage begins to take shape.

Professor Marston is an effective feminist film that benefits from strong turns by Evans, Hall and Heathcote. That said, it tends to state the obvious, as everybody feels the need to verbalize their feelings at all times. Regardless, it’s worth your time. Three planets. Distribution: Opens October 13th.

Pyewacket (Canada, 2017. Dir: Adam MacDonald): Pyewacket is the kind of movie that makes you wonder why would Telefilm support this (shades of the unwatchable Teen Lust). Reportedly a horror flick, Pyewacket is at heart a film student short stretched into 90 minutes. And that’s the least of its problems.

A goth teen who dabbles in witchcraft (Nicole Muñoz, in a less than stellar turn) gets mad at her grieving mother (Laurie Holden, The Walking Dead) and conjures a demon to get her killed. Eventually (and much later than you would think), the daughter-of-the-year comes back to her senses, but undoing the spell may be more difficult than expected.

I don’t know what I found more annoying: The cliché dialogue (teen angst has never been this flat), the across-the-board terrible acting (Laurie Holden excepted, despite her character’s inconsistency), the belief inexplicable, sudden noises are scary per se, or the hilariously silly conclusion. Pyewacket is a step back for Backwoods director Adam MacDonald. One planet. Distribution: Presumably theatrical.

TIFF ’17 Day 7: Suburbicon, Eye on Juliet

Matt Damon and Noah Jupe in Suburbicon.

Suburbicon (USA, 2017. Dir: George Clooney): There is no way Suburbicon could be considered an average film. It’s topical (fear of the “other” prevents us from noticing the true monsters in our society) and is directed by proven commodity George Clooney, from a script from the Coen Brothers. In spite of it all, it doesn’t add to more than the sum of its parts.

Matt Damon taps into his dark self as Gardner, a presumably average suburban dad in the 50’s. His home is invaded by a couple of thugs and his wheelchair-bound wife (Julianne Moore) is an unintended casualty of the break-in (or is she?). Meanwhile, their entire neighborhood is up in arms because a black family has moved in, oblivious to the horrors taking place a few doors down.

The film could be described as a mix of Fargo and Blood Simple by the way of Tim Burton. It’s undeniably entertaining but is hard to shake the feeling we have seen all this before. Furthermore, Clooney’s films are often staged to a fault and this one feels particularly airless. Oscar Isaac as a wily claims investigator provides the one breath of fresh air in this otherwise hermetic cautionary tale. Three planets. Distribution in Canada: Theatrical.

Eye on Juliet (Canada, 2017. Dir: Kim Nguyen): After the hard-hitting Rebelle and the fierce Two Lovers and a Bear, it’s no surprise writer/director Kim Nguyen has chosen a gentler piece as a follow-up. Eye on Juliet is a romantic drama in which technology acts as an accessory to amorous pursuits in unexpected ways.

Recently dumped by his girlfriend, Gordon (Joe Cole, Green Room) is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. His behavior has started to affect his job operating security robots remotely. In the midst of his pity party, Gordon becomes smitten with a young Arabic woman who hangs out near the pipeline his bots are protecting. The girl’s parents have arranged her wedding, unaware that she has a boyfriend and hopes to escape to Europe with him. Particularly susceptible to love stories, Gordon attempts to help them, but his involvement causes more trouble than good.

Even though the premise has potential and the visuals rise to the occasion, Eye on Juliet leans heavily on narrative clichés and corniness. The “growing tension” hardly registers and the final five minutes are blatantly borrowed from a 90’s travelogue classic. The film is not without merits, but it could have used a better story. Two and a half planets. Distribution in Canada: Theatrical.