Sunday Matinee: The Paleface

Other than the action serials of the 1930s and 40s there was very very few leading roles for women as the hero. Most leading roles at the time were primarily drama, mother of a family struggling to keep the family together and such or a woman trying to become a star was another popular theme. But there the odd hero role for women.

Starting in the silent film era there was the odd western about a female gunfighter. 1918 had The Gun Woman. In the 1935 Annie Oakley a bio-pic about the sharp shooter starred Barbara Stanwyck, in 1935 The Plainsman starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill had Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane but only in a non fighting side role. 1941 had the romanticized bio-pic Belle Starr (Gene Tierney) the notorious outlaw although the movie makes her more sympathetic, less of robbing criminal and more of a patriotic freedom fighter.
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REVIEW: Tomb Raider Is Serviceable Fun

Back in the day (2001), when Angelina Jolie was announced as the incarnation of the world’s (second) most famous tomb raider, the decision was celebrated as a victory for Girl Power: Finally, a female hero carrying an action film.

Besides the fact we have progressed astonishingly little in that regard (word by word, the same was said of Wonder Woman last year), it’s worth mentioning Jolie’s Lara Croft movies were not great. Not only the plot was unwieldly, Angelina played a sassier version of herself and not really a character.

The main change the 2018 version of Tomb Raider is that Alicia Vikander actually plays Lara Croft. The film is simple but cohesive and the action set-pieces are fluid, as opposed to the choppy style of some other genre specialists (ehem, Michael Bay, ehem).

In this incarnation, Croft is an bike courier/MMA aficionado living paycheck to paycheck. She doesn’t have to. Lara has inherited millions of dollars from her missing father, but she is reluctant to take a penny as she hasn’t given up hope that her dad may resurface.

On the verge of caving in, Lara stumbles upon a clue of her father’s whereabouts: A restless man, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) may have ended in Japan, in pursuit of the resting place of a witch with devastating powers. And he wasn’t the only one in pursuit of the grave.

Tomb Raider is one of those rare cases in which the marriage of an European filmmaker’s sensibilities and a Hollywood production works out. Director Roar Uthaug, responsible for the low-budget, high-octane tsunami flick The Wave, keeps things grounded in reality. Because Indiana Jones’ parentage is undeniable, Uthaug embraces it, leading to effective sequences of Lara Croft using brains and brawn to escape from impossible situations.

A reliable performer, Alicia Vikander brings her low-key charisma to the role. She is immensely watchable and brings a modicum of verisimilitude to ludicrous scenarios. Fans of the videogame (the film is based on the 2013 reboot) are served with winks and nudges, without going overboard.

As the first movie of a would-be franchise, the film does a good job sticking to the story at hand and not overloading in mythology, so often the kiss of death of origin stories. A strong supporting cast (Walton Goggins, Kristin Scott-Thomas and a criminally underused Derek Jacobi) and rather amusing set pieces make Tomb Raider an enjoyable popcorn flick. 3/5 planets.

Tomb Raider is now playing everywhere.

Sunday Matinee: Brenda Starr, Reporter

Brenda Starr was a popular comic strip that had started in the 1940s written and drawn by one of the few female comic artists working at the time Dale Messick. The comic followed the adventures of Brenda Starr a reporter who got into all sorts of adventures (Messick came up with it after her all female pirate comic got rejected). The series was so popular it lasted until 2011 in newspapers.

Columbia Pictures loved adapting comic characters into serials, Superman, Batman, The Phantom, Congo Bill, Terry and the Pirates and many more so it was not much of a surprise that they adapted Brenda Starr.
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REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time Could Use Some Ironing

Storm Reid is Meg Murry in “A Wrinkle in Time”.

Director Ava DuVernay has had a remarkable career. Outside forays in music videos and television, her films have been consistently powerful: The fierce family drama Middle of Nowhere, the revelatory doc 13th and the heart-wrenching Selma, they all have left an indelible impression. It wasn’t a surprise Disney would pick her to head the adaptation of the emblematic sci-fi novel A Wrinkle in Time. She has the chops and the sensibility to pull it off.

Which is why it pains me to say A Wrinkle in Time is not up to par. It’s not necessarily DuVernay’s fault. The script is agonizingly obvious (kids are more sophisticated viewers than the movie gives them credit for) and commits a capital offense for an adaptation of this nature: It nearly forgoes world-building. Also, as seminal as the Madeleine L’Engle book is, it’s 56 years old, and every plot point has been recycled to death.

The one thing A Wrinkle in Time has going for is zeitgeist: All major social movements crystalize in the story of Meg (Storm Reid), a brilliant 13 year-old who -following her father’s disappearance- has turn sullen and withdrawn. Well on her way to hopelessness, Meg and her family are visited by Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a kooky figure who seems to know more than she should about Meg’s dad and his interdimensional travel theories.

Soon Meg, her would-be boyfriend and her annoying little brother head to other worlds in search for the missing father, under the tutelage of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Oprah, supernatural, benevolent beings battling the Darkness, the source of all evil.

I could go into further details, but there is no end to all the narrative details the movie both tackles and glosses over. While nobody expects a page-to-page recreation, A Wrinkle in Time does a poor job explaining the mechanics of the story. Things happen. It’s magic. Moving on. A poor casting decision (Meg’s younger sibling is hard to understand and much of the plot hinges on him) further hinders the film’s unfolding.

Ava DuVernay manages however to keep the visuals interesting, particularly when choosing practical effects over CGI. For brief moments, the film becomes tactile, relatable. Makes you wonder what could it have been… with a better script. 2/5 planets.

A Wrinkle in Time is playing everywhere.

REVIEW: Before We Vanish Is a Lo-Fi Space Invasion

How is this for a feat: A sci-fi flick about an alien invasion with barely any special effects and little background info regarding the interlopers’ motivation. Before We Vanish gets a lot of tracking merely out of dialogue and only falters when gives in to the subgenre’s classic tropes.

Directed and written for the screen by Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Cure), Before We Vanish follows the escapades of three aliens hiding inside humans, as they set up the stage for a full-scale invasion. Utterly clueless on how to properly function in society, the aliens “steal” concepts from humans, forcing the victim to function without the notion that was taken from them. Say “work” or “ownership”.

The extraterrestrials -who never hide who they are- also take on human guides: A journalist who believes has stumbled on the story of the century and the fed-up wife of one of the humans vessels. As they steal ideas from Tokyo dwellers, the aliens begin to develop personalities, for better or for worse.

The ingenuity of Before We Vanish is commendable: The film takes a page from the seminal Under the Skin and imagines extraterrestrials as entities who don’t share any common referents with the earthlings. Much like with a baby, the order they acquire information determines the person they become: A terminator-like teen with a sunny disposition or a thoughtful partner to an overworked spouse. Since the events take place in Japan, the extraterrestrials are earnest and unfailingly polite, even when snuffing someone.

The fascinating process of seeing these characters “become” a person is all but abandon midway through, when the government wises up to their presence. It’s unfortunate, as up to that point, the film is a sociological delight. Before We Vanish doesn’t take a pro-alien or human stance (both sides deserve to lose at any point in time), but stands by karma as the ultimate universal law. Three planets.

Before We Vanish will play at the Broadway Theatre March 11th, 13th, 17th, 18th and 20th.

Sunday Matinee: The Tiger Woman/Zorro’s Black Whip

In 1944 Republic Pictures came out with another jungle girl serial The Tiger Woman starring Linda Stirling as the Tiger Woman. Sterling’s costume is actually a leopard print but whatever.

Two rival oil companies are trying to get the rights to drill in a jungle which is protected by the Tiger Woman and her tribe. Allen Saunders (Allan Lane) works for the one oil company but teams up with the Tiger Woman to fight the more evil oil company.
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Sunday Matinee: Jungle Girl/The Perils of Nyoka

So all the past few weeks of jungle girl movies have been leading to this 1941 action adventure serial from Republic Pictures, Jungle Girl!

Jungle Girl was the first sound serial to have a female lead. Well not quite – there was the 1933 remake of The Perils of Pauline and there was the 1935 serial Queen of the Jungle which just reused footage from the 1922 serial Jungle Goddess. But this actually the heroine swinging on vines and saving lives and fighting bad guys instead of just being a damsel in distress. Very very loosely based on Edgar Rice Burroughs novel of the same name the movie stars Frances Gifford as Nyoka Meredith the jungle girl of the title. The plot has Nyoka moving to an remote tribe in the jungle where her father Dr. John Meredith (Trevor Bardette) has fled and becomes doctor for the tribe displacing the witch doctor Shamba ( Frank Lackteen).
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Three SK-Made Shorts Premiere Tonight in Saskatoon

Talking at Night. (Photo by Nicole Romanoff)

Three short films produced under the umbrella of Doc Lab Saskatchewan will be screened for free tonight (8 pm) at the Remai Modern. The shorts -directed by three local filmmakers chosen from over 30 hopefuls- were supported by the National Film Board (NFB), alongside Creative Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative.

The films are all superb and underscore the importance of having a cinematic voice representing of the province:

Talking at Night by Eric Thiessen (in attendance): The film captures the daily routine at Saskatoon’s Mobile Crisis Centre, where overextended workers must fend calls from the city’s most vulnerable. Thiessen’s fly-on-the-wall approach gives a good idea of the challenges the organization faces day in and day out. Extra points for not using the callers for emotional effect.

To Wake Up the Nakota Language (Nakón-wįcó’i’e oǧų́ǧa) by Louise Big Eagle: This short chronicles Armand McArthur’s efforts to save the Nakota language from oblivion. McArthur is a charismatic presence, and the loneliness of not having anyone to talk to transcends the screen. A beauty.

Ride by Kristin Catherwood: The most visually accomplished of the bunch, Ride follows Liam Marshall, a bareback bronc rider from Big Muddy Valley. It doesn’t have the social resonance of the other two, but the all-access pass to a little known activity makes it interesting.

The shorts will also be shown in Big Beaver, at the Community Hall next Monday 26th, with Kristin Catherwood and Liam Marshall in attendance.

Sunday Matinee: The Savage Girl / The Jungle Princess

Continuing with the jungle girl series today’s Sunday Matinee is 1932’s The Savage Girl.

Rochelle Hudson plays the title character, a young woman who has grown up in the jungle who is sort od a female Tarzan, trying to keep the animals of the jungle safe.
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Sunday Matinee: Trader Horn

There are lots of silent films that featured female leads, sometimes as the hero, more often than not as the damsel in distress and sadly most of the movies have been lost. The only other major film would the brilliant Les Vampires which I’ve previously done.

Despite the pre-code era with several strong female lead roles, there isn’t really any action roles for women other than supporting or again the damsel in distress.  Sadly we have to jump to the 1940s action serials before we see a female lead.
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