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THIS WEEK IN MOVIES: Army of the Dead, The Retreat

Army of the Dead (USA, 2021): I’m not the biggest Zack Snyder fan (three words: Batman v Superman), but the man knows spectacle, not unlike Christopher Nolan (spare me the hate mail). Going back to the subgenre that gave him his first triumph? Savvy move by Snyder.

Army of the Dead is blood-soaked fun: It doesn’t ask much of the viewers, just two and a half hours of their time and a firm stomach. After being destroyed by a zombie outbreak, Las Vegas is not a place you want to be, unless you’re after all the money left behind. A ragtag group of mercenaries headed by Dave Bautista breaks into the city to ‘rescue’ 200 million dollars. As you would expect, the heist goes awry and the undead gain the upper hand.

While not as tense as Snyder’s Dawn of the DeadArmy works in similar ways: The characters are better drawn than in the average zombie romp, the action is fluid and the production design is rich (bordering on excessive). The filmmaker goes with fast, mildly intelligent zombies, an upgrade that doesn’t pay off as much as it should.

Like Ridley Scott and James Gunn before him, Zack Snyder makes good use of Dave Bautista’s vulnerability behind those bulging biceps. Another bit of genius casting is the one of comedian Tig Notaro as a hard-ass helicopter pilot. Turns out she was born for the role.

There are plot points that make no sense (what better place to reconnect with your daughter than during a zombie apocalypse), but overall Army of the Dead is enjoyable to watch. Extra points for using The Cranberries’ “Zombie” appropriately. Three planets (out of five).

Army of the Dead is now playing on Netflix.

The Retreat (Canada, 2021): While one can only applaud the arrival of a Canadian LGBTQ-friendly horror movie, the fact that is a run-of-the-mill cabin-in-the-woods flick is a bit of a letdown.

Valerie and Renee (Sarah Allen and Tommie-Amber Pirie), a couple on the cusp of moving forward or moving on, put their relationship drama on pause for a vacation in the woods of Ontario. As it happens every single time, they cross paths with a couple of psychos. These ones target gays for their snuff channel.

Directed by Pat Mills (GuidanceDon’t Talk to Irene), The Retreat flirts with a couple of interesting ideas—the evangelical right as a bloodthirsty bunch, reverse torture porn—but chooses not to pursue them. In fact, the film pulls its punches every time the possibility of breaking with the norm presents itself. It’s never uncomfortable, morally or otherwise.

The acting is above average: Rossif Sutherland and Aaron Ashmore are known quantities and Tommie-Amber Pirie continues her streak of being the best part of so-so movies, but In the end, the feeling of being-there, done-that prevails. Two planets (out of five).

The Retreat is now available in VOD.

REVIEW: Angelina Goes Earthy in ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’

Angelina Jolie in hero mode in Those Who Wish Me Dead.

There’s no question Angelina Jolie is striking and her looks have been part of her acting toolbox for a while now. Films like MaleficentMr. and Mrs. Smith and By the Sea have coasted on her otherworldly beauty and larger than life persona. In fact, we’re about to see her play an immortal being in Eternals.

This is why whenever we see Angelina playing a normal person it feels so jarring. It’s the challenge Those Who Wish Me Dead has to overcome early on. Jolie plays a smoke-jumper—‘one of the guys’—who has been sidelined following a traumatic event that left casualties and an indelible mark on her psyche.

Stuck in an fire lookout tower in the middle of a forest, she is in a collision course with two assassins (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) hunting a kid who saw them murdering his father. The boy is in possession of information that could send very important people straight to jail, including a very sinister Tyler Perry in the most random bit of casting of the year.

While this cat-and-mouse setup is hardly new, it’s well executed. As you would imagine, fire becomes a factor midway through the film. Also, the killers are cold-blooded and competent, which ups the ante.

Better known for his gritty scripts (SicarioHell or High WaterWind River), director Taylor Sheridan keeps moral compromise at bay for once. The villains are irredeemable and the heroes are squeaky clean (trauma notwithstanding). Powered by a strong cast (add Jon Bernthal to the bunch) and gripping action set pieces, Those Who Wish Me Dead is an entertaining, fast paced romp in the vein of Cliffhanger. And there are not enough of those.

A few words about Aidan Gillen. The Irish actor is incredibly good at providing his ruthless characters with some shades of grey (see Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish in Game of Thrones). In Those Who Wish Me Dead, whenever not effectively dispatching witnesses, he spends his time complaining about the bureaucratic decisions that made his task more difficult than needed to be. This is the most relatable aspect of this whole movie. Three prairie dogs (out of five).

Those Who Wish Me Dead is now playing in SK theatres and available in VOD.

REVIEW: ‘Wrath of Man’ Is Good Caveman Fun

Jason Statham stars as H in Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man.

You have to hand it to Guy Ritchie. Not only the Brit is extremely productive (five studio-backed movies in six years), some of his films are actually good. Not The Gentlemen. Or Aladdin. Or King Arthur: Legend of the Sword… OK, only The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was half decent, but you get the idea.

Ritchie goes back to basics with Wrath of Man: Slick violence, tough men, un-PC behavior. The formula still works. Never mind there’s little substance to the proceedings, the ride is rollicking fun.

Wrath of Men reunites Guy Ritchie with his muse of yore Jason Statham (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsSnatch) for a down-and-dirty action thriller. Statham is “H”, a mildly competent security guard hired to join an armored trucks company. A sharp elbows kind of guy, “H” makes friends with the team’s foreman (Holt McCallany, Mindhunter) and clashes with the compulsory hothead (former heartthrob Josh Harnett).

The humorless goon shows more skills than expected when single-handedly frustrates a robbery (granted, one of the thieves is Post Malone, but still). There’s obviously something else afoot, but what?

Wrath of Man features a fair share of twists and turns, which I won’t reveal here. Suffice to say Jason Statham gets plenty of opportunities to growl and puff. An old hand at creating action sequences, Ritchie staging of gunplay is reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Heat, and the comparison is not unflattering. In a supporting role, Scott Eastwood goes full Clint and it’s a joy to watch.

The film is unapologetically testosterone-heavy. The very few women in the cast are either plot devices or exist solely to give texture to the male characters. Another unsavory aspect is the casual bigotry one has come to expect from a Guy Ritchie movie. But because it’s hard to take Wrath of Man seriously  (the hardboiled dialogue, the absurdity of the plot), one can easily put those issues aside and enjoy the movie for what it is: A throwback to the 70’s action thrillers minus the social component. Three planets (out of five).

Wrath of Man is now playing in Saskatchewan theatres. Available on demand May 25th.

REVIEW: ‘Crisis’ Drops the Hammer on Opioids

Gary Oldman in Crisis.

Very slowly the opioid crisis has made its way into film. First, as usual, through addict stories (Beautiful BoyBen Is Back). But now we’re reaching the institutions, in this particular case, the police, academia and Big Pharma.

Crisis is a competent film: It moves fast in spite of having three intersecting stories, the acting is mostly competent (a terrible turn by Veronica Ferres being the exception) and gets the point across: Corporate negligence is as much as fault as the kingpins pushing the stuff. But the film is as broad as it gets and you can see every major beat coming from a mile away.

The three plotlines in order of interest:

  • A university teacher (Gary Oldman) hired to rubberstamp a new drug grows a conscience and sounds the alarm. The corporation behind it (NOT Purdue Pharma, where did you get that idea?) puts all its might to pressure the academic to sign up on the opioid, never mind it may create dependency.
  • An undercover cop (Armie Hammer) tries to bust a traffic ring of oxy in Quebec (the use of “tabernac” is weirdly thrilling). While trying to keep his cover, he must also stop his out-of-rehab sister (Lily-Rose Depp) from relapsing.
  • A former user who has managed to get her life back (Evangeline Lilly) investigates the death of her teenage son. At first sight it seems like an accidental OD, but she suspects foul play.

While we’ve seen Hammer and Lilly’s character arcs before, writer/director Nicolas Jarecki (Arbitrage) peppers their storylines with enough factoids to keep things interesting, if not quite gripping. The corporate storyline—featuring Oldman, Luke Evans and Greg Kinnear—could have anchored a whole movie. Granted, white men in boardrooms is seldom cinematic, but in this particular case (a social crisis propelled by Big Pharma) seems appropriate.

About the elephant in the room, it wasn’t an issue for me at least. It would be unfair to review a movie involving dozens of people on the actions of a single individual outside work. 2.5/5 planets.

Crisis is now available in VOD.

REVIEW: ‘Amundsen’ Has Identity Issues

It’s curious Roald Amundsen was a supporting character in the main event of his life (he was the first man to reach the South Pole, but was overshadowed by Robert Scott’s doomed journey) and his biggest achievement was an afterthought (his original goal was to get to the North Pole).

The Norwegian production Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition attempts to mend this anomaly, but is torn between focusing on the explorer’s prickly personality and his life of adventure. Predictably, it doesn’t satisfy as character piece or plot-driven vehicle.

This is not to say it’s not entertaining: Roald Amundsen was single-minded about exploring places mankind had never set foot on. But while initially his main focus was science, soon enough the Norwegian’s focus turned to be the first on everything. No bigger proof of this than upon finding out Frederick Cook had reached the North Pole, he redirected his whole expedition to Antarctica.

The film is framed by a very hokey device: Amundsen’s estranged brother (Christian Rubeck) and the explorer’s American girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) tell each other secrets about Roald Amundsen they knew. The script by Ravn Lanesskog is often disjointed and fails to provide more insight than Amundsen’s Wikipedia page.

Thankfully, director Espen Sandberg (Kon TikiPirates of the Caribbean 5) has a sense of spectacle that at times makes up for the unwieldly script. The scenes in the Arctic and Antarctic Circles are gorgeous, same as the aerial takes. There are a couple of crash-landings “shot” from inside Amundsen’s aeroplane that are a technical marvel.

While the film’s narrative shortcomings become evident early on, there are some savory nuggets of information to be found. As you may have learned from nearly every movie to feature them, the Explorers Club was a group of jerks who resented Amundsen for beating Scott to the South Pole and questioned his strategy (Amundsen was actually a better planner and applied lessons learned from the Inuits).

The movie briefly questions the adventurer’s squeaky clean image (Roald had a type: married women; collaborators died in his many quests; he adopted two Inuit girls, but sent them back after a while) and hints that the explorer may have been neurodivergent, but the outcome feels stately nonetheless. Two and a half planets (out of five).

Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition is now available in VOD. 

REVIEW: ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’: Titans Rule, Humans Not so Much

There’s no two ways about it: The Monarch saga has been underwhelming so far. Both Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters had the same problem: A despondent creature and profoundly uninteresting characters. Kong: Skull Island was a notch more interesting: it’s amazing what a little character development can do for a blockbuster.

Godzilla vs. Kong is not fantastic, but gets one key element right: Kong is intrinsically sympathetic and a movie can coast on the big ape’s charisma (see Peter Jackson’s King Kong). Like Sam Raimi in Spider-Man 2, director Adam Wingard (You’re NextThe Guest) goes back to the his days as mumblecore filmmaker and infuses Godzilla vs. Kong with some of that B-movie spirit.

In Godzilla vs. Kong, the action is driven by Apex Cybernetics (get it?), a corporation intent on keeping the titans under control following a presumably unprovoked attack by the kaiju. Considering Godzilla has kept his distance after defeating King Ghidora in the previous movie, the lack of motivation seems curious, to say the least.

But Apex’ agenda goes beyond antagonizing the giant lizard. They want to get their hands on a power source located in the Hollow Earth, the center of the planet where all these monsters presumably come from. To get there, they need a guide. Someone more personable and less prone to senseless destruction than Godzilla. Someone like Kong.

Because the titans are telepathically connected and have a long standing grudge, it’s a matter of time before Godzilla and Kong start exchanging blows. Every bout is thrilling: Godzilla has size and an atomic heat beam coming out of his mouth, but Kong is cunning and more emotionally invested.

The problem is everything in between. Apex’ machinations resist no analysis. Whenever not spewing “scientific” jargon, the dialogue is boilerplate at best. The cast is all wrong (Alexander Skarsgård as a nerd, Demián Bichir as a rich villain). Rebecca Hall can barely disguise her lack of interest. Heck, even the irrepressible Julian Dennison (Ricky Baker from Hunt for the Wilderpeople) is turned into a boring sidekick. And the least said of the over-the-top intensity of Kyle Chandler, the better (at least he’s only in three scenes, as opposed to the whole of Godzilla: King of the Monsters).

Thankfully, there’s plenty of titan action and Kong has more personality than the entire cast combined (not a high bar). It’s particularly amusing to recognize the horror staples Adam Wingard gets away with because the monsters don’t bleed red. Maybe next time Wingard should bring along his pal Simon Barrett to write the script. Two and a half planets.

Godzilla vs. Kong is now playing in theatres and premium VOD.

‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Tries to Ground the MCU

Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

Following the narratively audacious, emotionally satisfying WandaVision, comes the more prosaic Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Considering Wanda Maximoff, Vision, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes fought side-by-side against that purple bruiser Thanos not that long ago, it’s hard to believe they ever inhabited the same universe after watching these two shows

As is often the norm with pilot episodes, the first chapter of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a wobbly one. There are interesting ideas (the world in chaos following the five-year blip, race is still a factor even after saving the world), but buried under mandatory action sequences and the oldest cliché in the book: The hero’s refusal of the call.

Like every other Marvel superhero after Endgame, Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) are not handling the new very normal well. In need of structure, the Falcon is back working with men in uniform. Rather than taking the mantle of Captain America like Steve Rogers wanted, Sam donates the vibranium shield to the Smithsonian and rather focus on saving the family business, a fishing venture only he seems to care about.

Bucky Barnes is not doing much better. Not particularly social to start with, without Steve around, the Winter Soldier has limited contact with the world beyond his court-appointed therapist. While in control of his faculties, he’s haunted by his past as Hydra’s muscle. He wants to make amends, but they barely make a dent on the nightmares that plague them.

Most of the episode is setup, punctuated by a nifty aerial sequence featuring the Falcon battling terrorists (led by George St. Pierre again) and a less exciting flashback depicting the Winter Soldier’s dastardly deeds. The outcome is unwieldly. Canadian filmmaker Kari Skogland  (The Handmaid’s TaleThe Stone Angel) gets as much juice as she can from the script, but the writing is perfunctory. Boilerplate even.

I’m not ready to dismiss The Falcon and the Winter Soldier just yet (I’m a completist), but it’s at some distance of becoming appointment television. 2/5 planets.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, episode one is now available in Disney Plus.

Disney Animator Benson Shum on Chasing the (Animated) Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon. © 2020 Disney.

Flying slightly under the radar, Disney’s latest animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon lands this weekend in Disney Plus Premier Access and selected theatres.

Loosely inspired by traditional Southeast Asian stories, Raya and the Last Dragon tells the story of a broken nation: A place where once humans and dragons lived in harmony has become a bitterly divided country (any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental). 

Warring tribes battle for the last vestiges of the once thriving dragon community, gone presumably for good. Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), the last descendant of a skilled warrior clan, is out in no-man’s-land tracking down the mythical last dragon, the last hope in her effort to vanquish evil entities that turn their victims into stone (think Medusa meets the Tasmanian devil).

It’s no spoiler to say Raya finds the dragon (it’s in the poster), but Sisu (Awkwafina) turns out to be more Clueless than Game of Thrones, with confidence issues galore. The film is classic Disney: Plenty of adventure, cute and cuddly sidekicks, a princess-y lead and a message unabashedly pro-family and community (the latter, very effective). There is some risk-taking to be found: The villain du jour is more abstract than what we’re used to and two sections of the film are inspired by paper cut-out and manga animation.

As is common in Disney productions, the contingent of Canadians involved in the making of the film is considerable. Among them is Benson Shum. A Vancouver animator who has been involved in the likes of Wreck-It RalphBig Hero 6Moana and the ubiquitous Frozen franchise, Shum was tasked with animating Sisu, albeit in human form (long story, watch the movie).

Benson Shum. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016 Disney.

Because the pandemic hit early in production, the animators (Shum included) worked on the film from home. I got in touch with Benson to talk all things Raya and the life of a Disney animator:

Before talking about the movie, I’m curious about how do you get assigned a section of a film.

There’s a team of between 90 to 100 animators. Whenever a sequence comes up, we can put a request, like “I’m interested in doing some acting with the characters.” The supervisors then assign the shots for us to work on. In this particular movie, I animated mostly Raya and Sisu.

Some of the visual cues in the film seemed familiar, but couldn’t quite pinpoint the source. What were the referents?

Sometimes we watched the Asian films that inspired the filmmakers (Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada). They also drew inspiration from martial arts fighting. In the case of Namaari (Raya’s frenemy), her style is very Muay Thai. The kicking is very specific, so we had specialists to come and demonstrate it for the animators. They filmed it and used it as reference.

What was the main challenge of animating Sisu as a human?

Trying to make her specific. Sisu has certain gestures that are intrinsic to her. For example, there’s no pointing—pointing is considered very rude in this culture—so Sisu gestures towards stuff. I see my grandmother doing that. It’s a very Asian thing to do. Little things like that.

How much access did you have to the directors of Raya?

We saw them quite frequently, at least twice a week, if not more. We showed our work very often to get feedback, so there was a lot of back and forth. Very collaborative.

Before you joined Disney, you worked at Sony Imageworks in Vancouver and were involved in the making of The Smurfs and Hotel Transylvania. How’s it different to work for one and the other?

At Disney they create a lot of their own content, as they always have. At Sony, they also do live-action, so they have a variety of projects that allows you to jump from visual effects to CG animated films.

Raya and the Last Dragon opens tonight at Landmark Cinemas in Saskatoon and Regina and tomorrow in Disney Plus Premier Access.

REVIEW: ‘The Sinners’ Come Short at Sinning

A growing phenomenon among Canadian films is attempting to hide the country of origin in an effort to appear more appealing to international markets (before you say “Scott Pilgrim!”, remember the cult flick bombed when first released).

While this is hardly The Sinners’ biggest problem, it doesn’t help the outcome. The imagined setting—a Bible-thumping American town—is one-note and personality-free. The lack of texture also applies to the characters, each one defined by a single trait, by design and execution. 

Inspired by the overheated teen thrillers of the 90’s (think The Craft meets Cruel Intentions with a dash of I Know What You Did Last Summer), the title refers to a group of teenage girls who rebel against their oppressive, overly religious surroundings by giving each other nicknames inspired by the seven deadly sins and engage in light satanism. That’ll show them.

Because the teens are also the community’s mean girls, they gang up against one of them who told the local preacher about their extracurricular activities. The girl in question (who’s also the narrator) disappears, and The Sins (that’s how the call themselves) scramble to cover their tracks even though it’s not clear they’re responsible.

Why the movie is called The Sinners and not The Sins (far better name)? It’s just one more of the bad decisions made in the making of this feature.

Directed by Courtney Paige and written by Paige, Erin Hazlehurst and Madison Smith, The Sinners is competently shot and adequately acted, but that’s about it. The script has countless problems: The dialogue is flat (more often than not, I was able to predict the following line) and story escalation from thriller to slasher is abrupt and unjustified. The big twist comes out of nowhere because it’s not built as much as dumped onto the viewer.

Even more noticeably is the blank at the center of the movie. Grace (Kaitlyn Bernard), the leader of The Sins and theoretical protagonist is underwritten and unappealing. A notch more interesting is her best friend/love interest, Tori (Breanna Coates). It’s not like it’s a better developed, but Coates has the same insouciant quality as her dad (Kim Coates), which translates into a little more depth.

A thriller with no thrills, a slasher with little gore, an indictment of religious indoctrination that misses the darkest aspects of zealotry. The Sinners swings and misses every time. Kind of remarkable in a way. One planet (out of five).

The Sinners is now available on VOD.

REVIEW: ‘The Little Things’ Is a Step Ahead of You

Denzel tries to ignore Jared Leto in The Little Things.

Denzel Washington gets plenty of credit for his acting skills, directing abilities and being a force for good in the community but he’s curiously underrated as film noir lead. Washington has some bangers in his filmography: The Bone CollectorFallenDevil in a Blue Dress. His steady demeanor lets the audience know they’re in good hands, even when the script falters. Like Bogie did, many decades ago.

The Little Things deserves to be in this group. Washington is Deke, a small town policeman in pursuit a serial killer. As he travels to Los Angeles to collect evidence, we discover Deke used to be a big-shot investigator in L.A. until he had to abandon the fast line because reasons. As most obsessively good detectives, Deke is haunted by the cases he failed to solve, particularly one that bears striking similarities to the investigation he’s conducting.

Things hit a new gear when Deke strikes a begrudging partnership with the new rising star in the department, Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). Their collaboration produces a likely suspect, a socially awkward loner (Jared Leto) with a taste for true crime, but no evidence to link him to the crimes.

You may think you know where the movie is going. The similarities with Se7en can’t possibly be accidental. But then The Little Things does something more interesting than pin the blame on Kevin Spacey: it rips the ‘social contract’ thrillers have with the audience.

The movie dares to ask, why do you trust these men? Because they’re sharp and play by their own rules? Because they’re portrayed by likable actors? If the last few months have taught us something is that the thin blue line is more warped than imagined and Hollywood is taking notice.

It’s not just the plot that works. Writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) stages several scenes loaded with tension and plays with your expectations like a fiddle. In addition to Washington’s reliability, Jared Leto is unnerving as the person of interest. Leto is at his best when restrained (see Dallas Buyers Club) and here he keeps the crazy just at bay.

There’s a chance The Little Things may be a notch frustrating for moviegoers accustomed to more traditional fare, but if you keep an open mind, you may be pleasantly surprised. Three and a half planets (out of five).

The Little Things opens Friday in available theatres and VOD.