REVIEW: Planet of the Monos

Colombian cinema is having a moment. Not only the local industry has an auteur in its hands –Ciro Guerra, director of Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage— a second one has emerged fully formed from Sundance Labs: Alejandro Landes.

In Monos, Landes zeroes in on a group of teenagers recruited by the local revolutionary army to protect an American woman (Julianne Nicholson, August, Osage County) they keep hostage. The rebels expect a handsome paycheck in exchange for the prisoner, so her wellbeing is a priority.

Things start going south almost immediately when the expected source of protein –a cow– succumbs under a hail of bullets. With little supervision or boundaries, the squad crumbles under the weight of responsibilities, power plays and a warped understanding of discipline. The fact they’re armed to the teeth makes their volatility lethal.

Monos doesn’t take the traditional route of the child-soldier subgenre. Each character is more than their circumstances; the atmosphere is oppressive, but there are laughs to be had and beauty to be taken in (the jungle setting amplifies the drama tenfold). Nicholson is superb as the sullen, scared hostage, same as Moises Arias (The Kings of Summer) as Bigfoot, an ambitious foot soldier who craves power but doesn’t understand the concept of leadership.

The film unfolds swiftly as the Monos squad has no notion of teamwork and breaks down at every corner. That said, I would have liked to spend more time with the teens: Each one seems to carry a story worth telling. Still, the one we actually get is worth the price of admission. Three and a half planets.

Monos is now playing at the Roxy in Saskatoon.

REVIEW: The Farewell Gets to the Heart of Being Asian-American

As much as I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians, the treatment of the film as a triumph of representation gave me pause. Sure, an all-Asian cast in a Hollywood production is something to celebrate, but the characters are obscenely wealthy and the audience-surrogate is well on her way to become a one-percenter. In short, they are hard to relate.

The infinitely more modest The Farewell is more successful at bring the Asian-American experience to the big screen. Not only that, it transcends culture clash shenanigans to depict the very real melancholy that accompanies immigrants through their entire lives. Trust me, I know.

There is a connecting vessel between Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell: Awkwafina. The rapper-turned-actor who played Constance Wu’s best friend in CRA delivers a compelling dramatic performance as Billi, a burnt-out millennial with more debts than prospects. Continue reading “REVIEW: The Farewell Gets to the Heart of Being Asian-American”

REVIEW: The Third Wife

There is a small but critical difference between well-thought-through films and movies too precious for their own good. The Third Wife, Ash Mayfair’s feature debut, is among the latter.

Inspired by country life in Vietnam during the 19thcentury, The Third Wife of the title is May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a 14-year old child who’s essentially sold to a landowner she doesn’t know. At the bottom of the household totem pole, May’s only option is to get pregnant and have a son. Hung, the husband —and most of Vietnamese society at the time— values boys over girls and polygamy is seen as a way to improve the odds.

Unbeknownst to Hung, serious drama is unfolding under his nose. His first wife is bent on presenting him with a son, never mind her health. Hung’s second wife, Xuan, is carrying an affair with her husband’s first-born son, a teenager whose coddled existence has kept him from coping with adversity. May herself provides the cherry on top by developing a crush on the coveted Xuan. The characters’ gender gives you a clue who pays for the indiscretions and who gets away scot-free. Continue reading “REVIEW: The Third Wife”

REVIEW: Halston Remains Inscrutable

The thing that separates good documentaries from great ones is that the latter discover something about their subjects that wasn’t of public domain (Three Identical Strangers comes to mind). Halston is standard stuff, framed by one of the most ill-conceived gimmicks in the history of the genre, so much so it nearly derails a compelling story about the pitfalls of greed.

The rare couturier who kept an eye on the general public when crafting his designs, Roy Halston put America on the fashion map in the early 70’s. His skill was in the cut: Halston could make a dress out of a single, continuous piece of fabric, and favored simple, straight lines. But for all his skill with the scissors, he was quick to sell his name to bigger businesses, a practice that would end up costing him dearly. Continue reading “REVIEW: Halston Remains Inscrutable”

REVIEW: The Tomorrow Man Is a Bit Stale

About three years ago, a mediocre action flick made it to Canadian cinemas for no discernible reason. It was called Precious Cargo and featured noted muscle-head Mark-Paul Gosselaar. The former Saved by the Bell star had to go head-to-head against a villainous Bruce Willis, noticeably bored out of his mind. The movie was perfunctory and ended with a collection of bloopers (none of them funny), weird for a thriller. At least Willis got his paycheck.

What has Precious Cargo got to do with The Tomorrow Man? Both are labors of love by people too attached to material that’s not nearly as good as they believe it to be. If nothing else, there is a modicum of humanism in The Tomorrow Man thoroughly absent from the Gosselaar-Willis “romp”.

Written, directed and shot by Noble Jones —who has done videos for Taylor Swift and OneRepublic— The Tomorrow Man is the kind of movie you would take your parents to. At the center of the film is Ed (John Lithgow), a lonely retiree that spends his time in chatrooms and his money on a bomb shelter. Ed is not deranged but he is rigid and prone to rants (so, close). Continue reading “REVIEW: The Tomorrow Man Is a Bit Stale”

REVIEW: The Biggest Little Farm Is Hipster Heaven

It’s an all too common pipedream: Trading the rat race for the simpler life, one in which you cultivate your own food, grow your own eggs and work your patch of land from sunrise to sundown. Nobody follows through because, as delightful as it sounds, we know farming is a lot harder than this hipster visualization of heaven. Heck, I can’t even grow basil on my balcony.

The Biggest Little Farm chronicles seven years in the life of a couple who actually did it. Inspired by their rescue dog —too loud for apartment living— John and Molly Chester traded their L.A. apartment for 200 all-but-abandoned acres not far from the city. It wasn’t a blind bet: John turned this move into a project open to investors and people who want to learn how to farm. Continue reading “REVIEW: The Biggest Little Farm Is Hipster Heaven”

REVIEW: Aladdin Gets a PC Makeover

 

Given all the revenue Disney is generating by turning animated classics as live-action features, it’s very unlikely the House of Mouse will stop doing it any time soon. Even the so-so Dumbo made over 340 million dollars worldwide.

While I would prefer Disney to take risks as opposed to mine the back catalogue, there is some joy to be found in these remakes: The breeziness of Cinderella, the underlying melancholy of Pete’s Dragon, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera in The Jungle Book. The one thing you won’t find: Freshness. These movies have been fussed over within an inch of their lives. They are expected to hit all four demographic quadrants and please everybody. Not hair is out of place and most scenes seem airless.

Aladdin has problems but at least is light on its feet, thanks to director Guy Ritchie’s anything-goes approach and Will Smith leaning hard on his charm. Continue reading “REVIEW: Aladdin Gets a PC Makeover”

REVIEW: Hail Satan? Makes a Strong Case for Paganism

It’s not a good sign for the Christian right when admitted Satanists come across as more likeable and reasonable than they do. I’m not even talking about those Westboro Baptist Church freaks, but zealots advocating for the reunification of church and state.

Hail Satan? is not your standard doc denouncing satanic practices as it was so fashionable a couple of decades ago. The film instead focuses on recent challenges to freedom of religion in the United States.

The institution at the center of the movie is the Satanic Temple, a fast growing movement close to reaching all continents, but struggling with their success. Imagine trying to shape an organization founded on anarchic principles. Interestingly, the members interviewed for the documentary don’t believe in Satan. They are anti-religion: Black mass is not an invocation, but a repudiation of traditional rituals. Continue reading “REVIEW: Hail Satan? Makes a Strong Case for Paganism”

DVD REVIEW: The Discomfort of Dragged Across Concrete

There was a period during the 70’s in which nihilistic, misogynistic violence was a box office draw. One could argue not much has changed, but if you have seen movies by Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs), Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) or Michael Winner (Death Wish), you know there is something uniquely nasty about these flicks: A disregard for every perceived minority, naked belief in white privilege and a sense that violence is necessary to preserve the status quo are the predominant characteristics.

It would be easy to discard these movies if they weren’t as captivating as they are. Narratively sound, these 70’s action thrillers were misguided, but had a clarity of purpose that’s lacking in today’s cinema. Watching them today, there’s something sickly refreshing about a feature that hasn’t endured three rounds of sanitization by the way of focus groups and executive notes.

Enter S. Craig Zahler.

Early on a horror specialist (I was a champion of the terrifying Asylum Blackout), Zahler has evolved into the single representative of this trend at work today. Not a single one of his movies (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99) has had a significative theatrical release, yet if you’ve seen them, they’re probably engraved in your brain. Continue reading “DVD REVIEW: The Discomfort of Dragged Across Concrete”

REVIEW: Dumbo Doesn’t Fly, But Hovers

It’s no news to anybody Tim Burton’s films are hit or miss. I happen to appreciate some of his less celebrated work (Mars Attacks, Dark Shadows) and have no patience for some of his big hits (Alice in Wonderland, Big Fish). Dumbo sits somewhere in the middle, two thirds a sentimental triumph, one third an undercooked heist that would be more at home in a Michael Bay movie.

A more “realistic” take on the 1941 Disney classic, this Dumbo doesn’t have anthropomorphized animals (although all of them cameo or are referenced to, even those controversial crows). The story is driven by humans, specifically the Farrier family. The father, Holt (Colin Farrell), has returned from the war maimed and his spirit shattered. His kids have been forced to mature earlier than they should, while sheltered by the circus community. The three of them reconnect over a baby elephant with freakishly large ears.

Dumbo goes from pariah to main attraction the moment he starts using his ears to take flight. The act attracts the attention of a circus mogul (Michael Keaton), who claims to be an artist at heart, but turns out to be another greedy capitalist who Zuckerbergs everybody. Continue reading “REVIEW: Dumbo Doesn’t Fly, But Hovers”