Mads Mikkelsen Brings the Cool in Polar

Mads Mikkelsen is Duncan Vizla a.k.a. the Black Kaiser in Polar.

Odds are you will come across a number of articles comparing Polar to John Wick. Pay no attention to them. Sure, they both revolve around (relatively) honorable hired guns whose employers turn against them, but the similarities end there. One loves dogs, the other one… you’ll find out.

Based on the graphic novel by Victor Santos, Polar revolves around Duncan Vizla a.k.a. the Black Kaiser (Mads Mikkelsen). An accomplished hitman, Vizla is looking forward to his retirement, just days away. His plans come undone when the corporation that employs him would rather take him than pay him severance. The assassin doesn’t take the attempts on his life kindly and plans to take his grievances to the top.

If John Wick mopes the entire movie, the Black Kaiser is not above enjoying hard liquor or a roll in the hay, even if his companion has murder in her mind. He does however have a couple of regrets that reverberate throughout the film. Continue reading “Mads Mikkelsen Brings the Cool in Polar”

REVIEW: At Eternity’s Gate Dives Into Van Gogh’s Psyche

Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate.

Granted, there is no shortage of Vincent van Gogh’s biopics. Just last year audiences were treated to the gorgeous, underwhelmingly written Loving VincentAt Eternity’s Gate takes a different approach, one focused on Vincent’s drive, as opposed to his mental health. Of course the signposts are there, but the movie makes a noticeable effort to keep the assorted tragedies that befell Vincent at bay.

As per At Eternity’s Gate, Vincent (Willem Dafoe) was a man ahead of his time. This is not necessarily a good thing when you are a starving artist and impressionism is all the rage. Following advice by Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), Van Gogh trades the increasingly toxic Parisian scene for the tranquility of Arles in the South of France.

While the painter clashes constantly with the town dwellers, the period is particularly prolific. During his time there, Van Gogh produces “Bedroom in Arles”, “The Night Café”, and a number of self-portraits. Unfortunately, his ongoing quarrels with friends and neighbours and his “break-up” with Gauguin send him on a downward spiral. Utter loneliness plays a bigger part on Van Gogh’s fate than any other factor, including mental unrest.

Director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) depicts Van Gogh as a delicate soul that’s easily rattled. Likely because of his background as a plastic artist, Schnabel succeeds at capturing the drive that kept Van Gogh going, despite the scorn of the general public and indifference of his peers. The filmmaker’s obvious regard for his subject is manifest throughout, to the point of keeping the self-mutilation bit off-screen (in fairness, the ear thing has become an obnoxious trope).

While 25 years older than the painter when he died, Willem Dafoe is perfect for the part, the right mix of helpless and mercurial. Less fortunate is the casting of baby-faced Rupert Friend as Van Gogh’s barely younger brother. Schnabel brings back actors from his previous films for supporting roles, but the one who fares the best is a new hire: Mads Mikkelsen as the priest who runs the asylum where Van Gogh is committed. Compassionate and all, he doesn’t think much of the artist’s work and lets him know it. A rare moment of levity in a film carrying a heavy heart. 3.5/5 planets.

At Eternity’s Gate is now playing at the Roxy Theatre.

Ralph Breaks the Internet, from the Inside

Vanellope von Schweetz and the Disney princesses.

Among the many qualities of the Wreck It Ralph sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, the attention to detail is at the top, alongside an age-appropriate message against co-dependence. The film places the leads –the titular Ralph and Sugar Rush’s champion Vanellope von Schweetz– in the world wide web. The hectic vastness of the internet is impressively represented, both the seemingly infinite number of offerings and corresponding visitors.

For a year and a half, animator Benson Shum worked mostly on the Ralph character (allowing him to ‘act’ and ‘emote’), but also participated on the rest: “Even if it’s a background character, you want to animate it as well as the front ones.” Vanellope presents additional challenges, as she glitches and pops up at a different side of the screen within a second: “We have to anticipate her movements. There is a lot of thought into how we get her from this side of the screen to that side. We have a tool that makes glitch lines, pixilation in between.” Continue reading “Ralph Breaks the Internet, from the Inside”

REVIEW: Bel Canto Sings, but Doesn’t Hit the High Notes

Ken Watanabe and Julianne Moore share the piano in Bel Canto.

International casts present a unique challenge to both viewers and filmmakers. The absence of a unifying language can be distracting, as well as the actors’ different rhythms. An archetypical example is a terrible horror movie from 15 years ago called Darkness, for which Spanish director Jaume Balagueró cast Anna Paquin (Canada), Lena Olin (Sweden), Iain Glen (Scotland) and Giancarlo Giannini (Italy) as your average American family to hilarious effect.

Bel Canto knows better. The film uses the language barrier between the protagonists for its benefit, a challenge they have to overcome in order to survive. While the movie works well as a romantic drama, it doesn’t as a thriller, a bit of a problem when you are dealing with a hostage situation. Continue reading “REVIEW: Bel Canto Sings, but Doesn’t Hit the High Notes”

REVIEW: The Wife Is Not that Into You

It’s hard to find a more reliable performer than Glenn Close. The six-time Oscar nominee (should have won for Fatal Attraction) can be equally believable as a take-no-prisoners lawyer, the head of intergalactic police corps, and Homer Simpson’s mom.

The Wife gives Close a different showcase, one that asks from her to repress her emotions until it’s not physically possible. It’s a stunning piece of acting, one than someone with less experience wouldn’t be able to pull off.

The beginning of The Wife is dream-like. Literary lion Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), one of those American writers who think of themselves as gods, is awaken by a call from the Swedish Academy. He has been awarded the Nobel Prize, the perfect capper for a prolific career. Continue reading “REVIEW: The Wife Is Not that Into You”

REVIEW: Smallfoot, Big Ideas

There was a time most kid movies had the same message: “Be yourself”. It was vague and debatable, but suited any story. Thanks to Pixar, young audiences have become more sophisticated, and good nature platitudes don’t cut it anymore.

Other studios have followed suit. For a moment, WB’s Smallfoot really pushes the envelope by peddling scientific experimentation over blindly following tradition (religion?). Of course it backtracks at the end (there is reason behind every stupid ritual), but how amazing is that a kid-friendly flick is teaching healthy skepticism.

The rest of Smallfoot is amiable slapstick that owes a lot to Looney Tunes, at least in aesthetics and disposition. Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum) is a good-natured yeti hoping to take over his dad on the task of awakening the sun (as you do). His first try goes awry and unexpectedly puts him in touch with the “smallfoot”, a tiny, hairless creature considered a myth by the community’s leader, the Stonekeeper (Common).

Banished for questioning the sacred stones, Migo becomes determined to prove the existence of the smallfoot. To his surprise, his belief is shared by other yetis, including his love interest, the Stonekeeper’s daughter (Zendaya).

Smallfoot’s main problem is inconsistency. It has interesting ideas, which are shelved for a good chunk of the movie to give way to mildly amusing pratfalls and banter. There are a number of cutesy songs that halt the movie’s momentum. Only one registers, a rather cutting solo by Common about the joys of living in denial.

The unassuming flick smuggles other interesting messages: It criticizes the “fear of the other” (peddled by right-wingers across the globe) and how it deprives us of access to different cultures. Smallfoot also believes in a community’s ability to choose its destiny, as opposed to be kept in the dark for its own good. Good on you, movie. Three planets.

Smallfoot is playing everywhere.

REVIEW: Michael Caine Dissects the Sixties in My Generation

For better or for worse, historic depiction of the 60’s is often limited to the social movements in America. The slick documentary My Generation breaks with tradition by focusing on the same period in England: Unburdened by the Vietnam war and decades of civil rights trampling, social revolution in the UK was more about breaking with the social order and the ways of the old guard.

Narrated and anchored by Michael Caine, My Generation mixes beautiful footage of London from over half a century ago, stunning photographies, and testimonies of emblematic game-changers, like Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Marianne Faithful, and Twiggy.

The doc’s thesis is a well-thought one: The rigid class system was asking for a revolution and got one, courtesy of a younger generation less hung up on status than their parents. England’s working class found itself represented in movies, fashion, and music. Success by merit was suddenly a thing, same as living on your own and sexual liberation.

While the approach is somewhat slight and purely from a pop culture perspective, My Generation gets the point across. Michael Caine does more than just read from a piece of paper: An actor who found his way into era-defining films (Alfie comes up often), Caine experienced the revolution from the inside (a cockney actor turned leading man) and delivers a compelling running commentary. He also conducts the interviews with his peers, although we are only treated to sound bites. An odd decision, considering the power footage of Caine and McCartney reminiscing would have had.

The tone of My Generation is relentlessly positive until the final quarter, when the establishment strikes back by pinpointing the use of drugs as the movement’s fatal character flaw. While I appreciate the tidy 85-minute length, the documentary tends to oversimplify and whitewash the decade. Some texture would have been appreciated.

It comes as no surprise the soundtrack of My Generationis a delight: From The Kinks to The Beatles, from rather obvious choices (The Who’s “My Generation”) to deeper cuts (Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men”), this is a movie you can listen, as well as watch. Three planets.

 My Generation is now playing at the Roxy Theatre.

TIFF 2018 – Day 5: The Most Beautiful Couple, Kingsway

The Most Beautiful Couple.

The Most Beautiful Couple (Germany/France, 2018): One would be hard-pressed to find a more harrowing opening act than the one that gets The Most Beautiful Couple started. While vacationing in Mallorca, Malte and Liv’s cottage is invaded three wrongdoers, one of which sexually assaults Liv, while the other two force Malte to watch.

Cut to two years later. Liv seems to have put the incident behind her, while Malte harbours a deep resentment over not have been able to defend his wife when it counted. An opportunity materializes when Malte spots the rapist one night: Revenge seems at his reach, but it would also mean bringing back the trauma Liv worked so hard to overcome.

The Most Beautiful Couple is not Death Wish. Liv and Malte are solid characters whose actions are within the realm of possibility… for the most part. The way they deal with trauma is explored in depth, and the movie benefits greatly of strong turns by Maximilian Brückner and Luise Heyer as the couple in question. Writer/director Sven Taddicken even dares to make the perpetrator a well-rounded character. The denouement feels chaotic and bit far-fetched for such an expertly calibrated drama, but the pluses outweigh the minuses. Three and a half stars. Distribution: One wishes.

Kingsway (Canada, 2018): An almost dire effort by writer/director Bruce Sweeney, Kingsway has a serious tonality problem that’s not even the biggest issue. An emotionally stunted family tackles relationship problems in the most inept way imaginable. The son (Jeff Gladstone) is clinically depressed and the fact his wife is cheating on him doesn’t help. The daughter (Camille Sullivan) is irascible and not particularly good at relating to other humans. The mother (Gabrielle Rose) is slightly more centered. Then again, she raised the children.

Midway through, Kingsway changes directions from aimless comedy to psychological drama, and I’m still enduring the whiplash. The dialogue is basic at best and only Gabrielle Rose is able to make it work. The cinematography is particularly poor, at times reaching film school nadir. There are a few laughs to be had, but overall, this is the kind of movie in which an obviously attractive women goes to bars hoping to meet Mr. Right Now and fails at it. Somebody, please introduce Bruce Sweeney to Tinder. One and a half star. Distribution: TBD.

TIFF 2018 – Day 4: The Lightning Round

Nicole Kidman in Destroyer.

You know the drill. When a movie falls through the cracks, we catch it in the Lightning Round.

Destroyer: Nicole Kidman goes through the procedural motions in a bad wig. Gritty, well executed, but nothing else there.

Nekrotronic: Monica Bellucci turns the internet a portal for demons. Goofy and inventive. Unfortunately gets lost in the minutia.

Dogman: Italians do social realism like no one else. The story of a put-upon dog groomer standing up to his bully gets more tracking than anybody could imagine. A must.

Hotel Mumbai: Much attention with this one: A fierce, almost unbearably intense recreation of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2018. The characters don’t get much development, but the story is as compelling as it gets.

Giant Little OnesCanadian teenagers coming to terms with their sexuality. Would have been more effective if the protagonists weren’t all rich, white, and good looking.

Fahrenheit 11/9: Following the superior Where to Invade Next?Michael Moore returns to the self-mythologizing and fact fudging. This doesn’t mean he is wrong: America is in deep doodoo.

The Predator: Unapologetic fun. Too bad about Shane Black and the male cast (Jacob Tremblay excepted) not supporting Olivia Munn on her denouncement of an actual predator on set.

A Star Is Born: More like A Star Is Bored. Am I right? No? I’m the only one who isn’t gaga for Gaga? Fine, then.

TIFF 2018 – Day 3: Belmonte, Girls of the Sun

Belmonte.

Belmonte (Uruguay/Spain/Mexico, 2018): An unapologetic character study, Belmonte is a mildly captivating portrait of an artist at crossroads. The titular character is a painter depressed over his broken family who finds himself unable to move forward. His hostility towards his surroundings and his lack of empathy for those who love him isolate him further.

The film does a good job digging into the main character’s inner life without having to spell it out for the audience. The insights, however, are not quite ground-breaking, but at least the execution is impeccable, thanks to a strong turn by Veiroj’s regular Gonzalo Delgado. The resolution is thoroughly unearned (the cinematic equivalent of “sleeping on it”), which at 75 minutes-length feels straight-up lazy. Two stars/planets/prairie dogs. Distribution: Unlikely.

Girls of the Sun (France, 2018): While the devastation in Syria is the most covered aspect of the ISIS offensive in the Middle East, the Kurdistan has suffered enormously at hands of the terrorist organization. Following the systematic killing of the male population, an increasing number of Kurdish women has joined the resistance, despite the fact the top rank treats them as cannon fodder.

Girls of the Sun follows the story of Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani, Patterson), a lawyer-turned-freedom fighter for whom personal trauma is the fuel that makes her a fearsome warrior. Her travails are covered by Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot), a journalist modeled after Marie Colvin for whom objectivity has long stopped being feasible.

While an undoubtedly compelling story, the film is broad and relies heavily in sentimentality, coming short more often than not. Director Eva Husson does succeed at conjuring some stunning visuals, but the final outcome feels disjointed. Two and a half planets. Distribution: It touches all the bases for an art-house run.