Speechless: a review

It has been a very long time since I sat down and watched a family comedy with any regularity. Truth be told, I think that would have been Malcolm in the Middle’s inaugural season back at the turn of the century. In the current age of peak TV, with so little time, there is always something good that you are going to miss out on. My tastes generally lean towards dark comedy that is peppered throughout TV dramas such as Better Call Saul. So it may come as a surprise to see me gushing over Speechless.

Speechless is an ABC comedy that revolves around the working class DiMeo family. Maya (Minnie Driver) and Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) are parents to J.J. (Micah Fowler), Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy). Eldest son, J.J. has cerebral palsy. He is non-verbal, wheelchair dependant and requires a personal aide worker, Kevin (Cedric Yarbrough), at school. Watching the every day struggles of this family with the added complications of advocating for people with disabilities in an atmosphere of love and humour is such a joyful experience. I wish I started watching this sooner, but better late than never.

I first heard of this TV show when the pilot episode was made available as a free download via iTunes. I downloaded it for a couple of reasons, it was free and I absolutely adore Minnie Driver (ever since my first big screen encounter, Circle of Friends) but I never got around to watching it. Then my beloved Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast featured it alongside This is Us. I liked what I heard about it; alas I had too much to watch at the time. Since everyone at work was talking about This is Us, I decided to jump on that band wagon (glad I did) first. Speechless remained at the back of my mind. Then came March Break and a long flight home. What should I find but the first 4 episodes of Speechless available as inflight entertainment. I binged it and was hooked. Since then I have caught up because 2 seasons worth of episodes (23+18) are replayed most evenings on Canada’s Family Channel.

Speechless has much of the quirky charm that made Malcolm in the Middle so endearing. I love that Speechless eschews a laugh track. The writing is super clever (as opposed to a string of cultural references that often passes as comedy) and it deftly manages to flesh out each member of this scrappy family beyond the usual TV sit-com formula. Sure Maya is a mama bear and Jimmy is pretty laid back but there is more to them than that. We see Maya bulldozing through as she advocates for her eldest son’s needs. She is often oblivious to the needs of her other children. Her forceful and flawed nature is tempered with humour and charm. Jimmy stands back and watches, most of the time. Yet in doing so, he sees all. His timely yet gentle interaction with each of his children, often 1-on-1, strikes a brilliant balance. Despite being non-verbal, J.J. is in no way non-communicative. With the use of a word board and laser pointer we hear him loud and clear. His personality is mischievous, sarcastic and the endless sibling rivalry is hilarious to watch. Youngest child Dylan seems to channel her anger and energy in athletics with a furious passion to win. Middle child Ray is such a nervous rule follower. He is constantly at odds with the rest of his family. We watch his pain as he gets roped into family schemes as they navigate a complicated bureaucracy of school administrators and insurance adjusters.

A part of me can relate to many of these characters. I have a soft spot for Maya, she’s an imperfect take charge kind of mom. I can also relate to Ray, as a young person striving for the things out of his reach due to stark financial hardship. The DiMeo’s make no secret of how expensive it is to have chronic health problems in the USA these days and yet this show never gets preachy about it. This show is often zinger after zinger, with some physical comedy thrown in that really cracks me up.

This show is the brainchild of Scott Silveri (best known as a writer on Friends) who modeled the DiMeo’s after his own family that included a brother with cerebral palsy. This show is nuanced in how it treats people with special needs. It deserves kudos in all its casting, bust special mention to Micah Fowler, who also has cerebral palsy, as J.J. If you are looking for a show that has depth in its characters and themes and will also make you chuckle, then this is definitely worth a try. I am eagerly anticipating its return this fall for a 3rdseason and will have my PVR set for it.

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Game Night: a review

I watched Game Night again last night. The first time was at the theatre with my daughters and we enjoyed it so much that I was looking forward to watching it again with my husband and friends. So last night, despite knowing what was going on I was still laughing it up with friends and feeling the suspenseful tension of a superb film.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are an ultra competitive married couple who host a monthly game night party for a group of friends. When Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes back to town, sibling rivalry rears its head. Brooks can’t help trying to hijack game night and putting his spin on it. No charades or board games, he hires a murder mystery company and chaos ensues. What is staged? What is real? And what is up with the creepy neighbour (Jesse Plemons)? I usually embed a trailer in my movie reviews but I just couldn’t this time. The trailer simply spoils many of the best gags and moments of suspense. I am afraid to say more about the plot because part of the fun is watching it unfold.

Game Night is a wonderfully crafted suspenseful comedy.  Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman and Kyle Chandler are so charming and hilarious. Jason Bateman is doing what he does so well and has become his signature, the put upon every man surrounded by a bunch of wacky friends. Rachel McAdams needs to do more comedies, she is so fun to watch. This movie is packed with jokes (funny lines and visual gags) while it has you trying to figure out what the heck is going on. I am glad I watched it again, catching things I missed due to raucous laughter in the theatre the first time around.

So if you want to see a clever film that has you laughing out loud from start to finish while you try to follow all the twists then I highly recommend Game Night.

 

Love, Simon: a review

 

I still enjoy romantic films set in high school, especially when they have an air of authenticity. There are so many that I love that I cannot pick a favourite. I know that may seem pretty weird at my advanced middle age. But I admit, I will stop dead in my tracks if I stumble across any of the following films on TV: Pretty in Pink, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, Sixteen Candles, Lucas, Some Kind of Wonderful, 13 Going on 30, Juno, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist….to name a few.

I had heard lots of good things about Love, Simon,  so I suggested to my daughters that we check it out at the theatre. My husband probably would have joined us if it hadn’t been a work day for him. What a sweet – yet at times sad – but over all fun –  film that left more than one of us battling a few tears (mostly of joy).

 

This film is about a gay romance, lending a refreshing change to the usual formula. Simon is a closet gay high school student. We spend the first half of the film getting to know him and his friends. Then Simon starts an online correspondence with another closeted gay teen from his school. Because they use aliases, their identities and relationship is a secret to everyone. That is until Simon forgets to log off a school computer. The aftermath of this unfortunate oversight propels the second half of the film to a very satisfying, well-earned conclusion.

This movie has witty yet realistic dialogue. There is great acting from its young cast. Nick Robinson is charmingly awkward as the titular character. His core friend group is made up of distinct personalities with Katherine Langford and Jorge Lendeborg JrKatherine Langford and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Leah and Nick, respectively, 3 pals since kindergarten. Abby, the new girl, played by Alexandra Shipp adds a wild streak to this otherwise low-key group. These young actors are convincing in their portrayal as a tight-knit group of friends. Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel do a genuinely heartfelt turn as Simon’s parents. Their struggle as parents is very relatable.

Despite a more progressive and supportive environment than I ever witnessed first hand in high school [cough, cough, 30-some years ago, cough] coming out, as portrayed in this film, is clearly a very stressful and deeply personal journey. This movie succeeds in taking you along for that ride. I am glad that this film got a wide, mainstream theatrical release. I am thrilled that my daughters were keen to see it. I am delighted that it is deservedly well-reviewed. I guess I can add Love, Simon to the titles listed above. I would watch it again, anytime.

UnREAL: a review

 

I recently binge-watched UnReal with my youngest daughter over a couple of weeks. I decided to take a chance when I saw season 1 on sale for $4.99 on iTunes. At 50 cents an episode, I could afford to take a chance. I was vaguely aware of it as a critically lauded series created by Marti Noxon (writer and executive producer of my beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (former producer on The Bachelor). When I heard from a friend (who knows someone in the business) that this show is a very realistic depiction of reality TV “sausage-making“, I was intrigued.

I should be clear that I really can’t stand watching reality TV, so a peek behind the curtain was sheer schadenfreude. I should be ashamed. Truly, but I am not, because this show is so well-written, brilliantly acted and thematically layered. UnReal is a show about a Bachelor-like dating competetion reality TV show called Everlasting.  The heart of this show is a complex relationship between 2 women, the show runner Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and her frontline producer and protege Rachel (Shirt Appleby). These women are exceedingly good at their jobs. However, their jobs require them to be horrible. And yet, the TV audience can’t get enough! Unfortunately, normalization of their horrible behaviour takes a toll on their lives.

UnREAL is a very nuanced example of competence porn TV with more than a hint of soapiness. It is funny, sad, shocking, vulgar, abrasive and thematically rich. Shiri Appleby shines as highly conflicted and psychologically damaged Rachel, Everlasting’s top producer. Constance Zimmer’s portrayal of tough-as-nails Quinn is in a category of her own (Emmy nomination 2016 well deserved). We glimpse rare moments of frailty when Quinn pushes Rachel away. Their frequent separations are thankfully (for us) short lived. Rachel’s personal life is so dysfunctional, her only constant is her work. The themes woven into this workplace dramedy include, friendship, ageism, racism, feminism, romance, all with tons of mind boggling physcological manipulation.

My daughter and I can’t get enough of UnREAL. Thankfully, while binge-watching earlier episodes, I remembered to set the PVR for its return. So now we have added UnREAL, season 3 to our weekly TV watch. Waiting a week between episodes after watching the first 20 in such a short time is a struggle but we are managing. If you like dark TV dramedies with women at the helm, this show is worth a look.

 

Black Panther: a review

I went to see Black Panther with my husband and teenage daughters last evening in a packed theatre. The patrons were of  all ages. My husband and I were eager to see this film more than our kids were, but no matter. We all had a good time. Even my youngest enjoyed it and she is the least enthusiastic about superhero films.

My knowledge of this Marvel Universe comic book hero was pretty limited to the overall positive buzz surrounding this films release.

This film is an origin story and succeeds beyond my expectations. The film opens with an GGI animated sequence and the voice of a father narrating a bedtime story which serves as exposition. We hear a brief history of (fictional) Wakanda, an isolationist African country that hides its technological sophistication from the world. The advancement of this society is possible due to a meteorite made of (fictional) vibranium, which is a powerful and desirable metal. The king of Wakanda is also a superhero, the titular Black Panther, aided by his suit made of this precious metal. Soon after the narration is over, we meet our hero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he is preparing to be declared king in the wake of his father’s death. He is challenged by others for the right to rule over a nation of 5 tribes. To complicate matters further, he has to deal with an attack from an outsider who risks exposing the truth about Wakanda’s technological advancement. To say more would risk spoiling the plot. Most of the film takes place in Wakanda. A country not only ruled by a superhero king, but also protected by an army of fierce warrior women, the Dora Milaje, lead by Okoye (Danai Gurari).

The acting is pretty outstanding and the cast is star studded (Chadwick Boseman, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Sterling K. Brown, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker). The supporting characters are distinctly defined in their portrayals. I especially enjoyed that the women are fierce and strong, physically and mentally. There are no damsels in distress here.

There is a lot to like in this film. The plot is easy to follow, more so than the average superhero film. The narrative is well paced and  includes interesting action sequences (including vehicular chases that in lesser films bore me to tears) and well-choreographed fights that didn’t try my patience. Thankfully this film avoided scenes of endless urban infrastructure destruction that I find tedious. The CGI and cinematography are quite beautiful. There is clearly joy in the representation of different aspects of African culture that we see. The soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar is seamlessly integrated and catchy.

The many themes of this film include colonialism and systemic racism, protectionism, loyalty, revenge, complexity of family relationships and a there is even a hint of romance. The story is told in a relatively serious fashion with a bit of humour here and there. It is certainly not full of big laughs as one expects in other Marvel franchises (Guardians of the Galaxy).

I am glad this film is doing well at the box office and that my whole family was entertained by it. My only regret is that I waited this long to see it.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: a review

 

When I first learned that Martin McDonagh had made another movie and it was starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, as well as Sam Rockwell, I was pretty excited. I really love his previous film, In Bruges; however, I could take or leave his subsequent film, Seven Psychopaths. The overall buzz for Three Billboards was pretty positive. When it got nominated for multiple Oscars, including best picture; I knew I was going to see it. So I did, last weekend with a friend. We were one of the last to be seated in a packed art-house theatre filled with middle aged (or older) patrons. All I can say was this film was not for me. But the rest of the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves, as there was much communal laughter. I think I laughed out loud once. Sigh.

 

I really wanted to like this film (and not jut because Frances McDormand’s character has the same undercut hairstyle that I have been rocking for over 20 years). The fault is not in the performances. The 3 main characters were skillfully portrayed. Without getting too spoilery, I guess I had seen other movies (Manchester by the Sea and Wind River) with similar themes involving loss of a child that I thought were more engaging and moving. I guess timing is everything.

I found the use of certain themes problematic such as Peter Dinklage’s short stature as a punch line. What a waste of great talent and charisma! The casual references to racism and homophobia were also problematic when applied to officer Dixon (portrayed by Sam Rockwell) whom the writer/director thought was worthy of a degree of redemption. I don’t think Dixon earned it in the film I saw. I felt like I spent a lot of time with some pretty unpleasant characters, who were neither interesting nor entertaining.

This is a movie about rage and how irrational and destructive it can be. I just don’t see what Academy voters and most critics are seeing as so special about it. I really wasn’t surprised or wowed by the story and it was hard to care for most of the characters. (Currently hoping Get Out will win best picture)

I know some of my friends who have seen the movie have enjoyed it and that has lead to some interesting discussions. In goes to prove that not everything is for everyone.

I have included some links below to eloquent Twitter discussions that elaborate on some of the problematic elements I touched upon. Just be warned, they are full of spoilers.

 

Call Me By Your Name: a review

I have been curious about this film for a few weeks now. It was nominated for some Golden Globe awards and was being tweeted about by Glen Weldon of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast. I finally had a chance to see it with my gbf and 14 y o daughter. My friend had seen it a few weeks ago but expressed interest in seeing it again. A quick survey of my household found my youngest daughter to be the only one also interested in seeing this at the theatre, so we made a wonderfully enjoyable evening of it.

 

 

This film was a love story between a 17 year old boy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his father’s summer graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer). It was set in Northern Italy during the early 80’s. This film had a very slow pace, evoking the lazy summer days of a privileged youth. We watched, mesmerized as complex relationships unfolded. Beyond learning about the relationships on screen, there was not much more to the plot. This was not a film for anyone looking for dramatic action or suspense. It was simply a window to the past depicting lives that are rarely seen onscreen. In that regard, it reminded me of last year’s Oscar winner for best picture, Moonlight, which I enjoyed as well. Like that film though, I recognize that it is not for everyone.

There were some problematic elements with this story. Armie Hammer seemed a bit old to play Oliver, who was supposed to be in his mid 20’s. That Elio was attracted to Oliver was not impossible to conceive. That their friendship blossomed into love could be very problematic in view of the age difference. Without getting too spoilery, I think those problems were overcome with subtle grace in the writing, directing, cinematography and performances (especially Chalamet). Context is key and for director Luca Guadagnino this film is a triumph with no hint of predation.

There is beauty in a film that is more about showing rather than telling, making it a perfect selection for a night out at the cinema. If this were viewed by me at home, where it is hard to resist the ever present temptation of double screen surfing while watching, the subtle beauty would likely be missed. I really have to curb this terrible distracting habit. I also really enjoyed the way Elio and his friends and family spoke to each other in 2 or more languages during most conversations. I grew up in a polyglottic family and didn’t appreciate how special it was. Sadly I am a living example of “if you don’t use it you lose it.”

All of us really enjoyed this film. I was relieved that my daughter didn’t find it too slow. My, how times have changed. She didn’t bat an eye when she first saw the trailer and was not embarrassed to see it with her mom. Whereas 35 years ago, my mother was scandalized every time she found me watching Ginger on Gilligan’s Island.

Maudie: a review

After hearing about this film from friends for what seemed like months, I finally had a chance to catch it as a rental over the holidays. This is a quiet bio-pic about celebrated Canadian folk-artist Maud Lewis (1903-1970). Her tiny home and studio is part of the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

This film is a love story about 2 people who find each other as they exist on the fringes of society. The beauty of this film is in the performances of the 2 leads. Sally Hawkins is stunning as the titular character. She conveys Maud’s physical limitations, as a result of juvenile arthritis, with a convincing subtlety. Her complexity as a woman and an outcast is heartbreakingly real. Ethan Hawke is a favourite of mine and not just because I have a fondness for actors who embrace their crooked teeth. He is an actor whose versatility never fails to surprise me. His portrayal as Maud’s husband Everett is a revelatory departure from his more recent roles. Beneath his gruff manner, we watch his love and appreciation for Maud blossom.

 

 

There is a lot to enjoy in this film for anyone who is a fan of character driven drama. The cinematic glimpses of small town Atlantic Canada are breathtaking and I was impressed at how the actors spoke with pretty good regional accents. Despite shedding a few tears, there is a lot of  joy in this film, particularly in Maud’s art and spirit. It is a simple story about 2 people; neither with much to call their own, who learn to enrich each other as they share their lives. That Maud Lewis could overcome her limitations to create beautiful and beloved folk art is magnificent Canadian success story. Kudos to writer Sherry White and director Aisling Walsh on making this story available to a worldwide audience.

The Shape of Water: a review

My whole family was eagerly anticipating the wide release of this film after reading and hearing so many positive reviews upon its limited release earlier this month. In preparation, we recently visited the Art Gallery of Ontario‘s exhibit devoted to Guillermo del Toro. This film’s writer/director/producer  is a favourite of ours. So when we had to drive 30 min to see this film at an art house cinema in a neighbouring city after a heavy snowfall; we didn’t hesitate.

This film is a cinematic delight. Set in 1962, this is a fairy tale about outsiders navigating love and friendship.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute cleaner at a top secret U.S. government facility. She lives next door to her gbf Giles (Richard Jenkins) above a movie theatre. They share a quiet understanding of their mutual struggles in the world they share.  She and her friend and colleague, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), discover that the facility they work in has imprisoned a creature who can best be described as a man-like fish (Doug Jones hidden under elaborate prosthetics). Elisa soon realizes that this creature is sentient and we watch them develop a rapport. However, when Elisa learns that the creature is being mistreated by the facility’s director, played by Michael Shannon, she enlists her friends to help her intervene. What follows is a deeper understanding and respect as this group desperately races to save the creature from those wanting to destroy him. Those would be the U.S. government and the Soviet spies who learn of his existence.

This film combines elements of romance, thriller and horror to great effect. The fairy tale nature of the story renders many of the plot points predictable, but that is easily forgiven, as there is such beauty in the acting, set design and cinematography.  My only complaint is that other than Sally Hawkin’s Elisa, we really learn very little about the other characters in this film. The supporting characters are rather cartoonish in juxtaposition to the nuanced portrayal of Elisa.

If you are a fan of del Toro’s previous works, such as Pan’s Labyrinth, as my family is, this film won’t disappoint you. It was worth the wait and the drive.

Wind River: a review

 

I watched Wind River at home the other night with my husband. Because we really enjoyed writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s most recent works, Sicario and Hell or High Water, we were itching to see this film. We were not disappointed. This is a good thriller that pretty much guarantees that I would watch anything else that Sheridan wrote. I like his style.

 

 

Wind River stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a government employee of the Fish and Wildlife Service, who stumbles upon a dead body. Because it is a suspected homicide victim, found on the Wind River Indian Reservation, the FBI sends their closest available agent, Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen. We learn a bit about life in this remote community as we watch the investigation unfold.

This film is a murder mystery, thriller and fish out of water tale. With the exception of a few scenes of horrible violence, it is quiet and contemplative with bursts of tense action on a backdrop of beautiful snow covered mountains. It is well paced and has good dialogue. There is a satisfying conclusion and yet questions still remain for me to ponder. There is a subtle humour woven into what is essentially a sad story of brutality, loss, survival, and justice.

My biggest complaint was that this film suffered from the white saviour trope. Jeremy Renner did a fine job with what he was given; however, if he swapped roles with Gil Birmingham  (a wonderful actor, playing the victim’s father, who is woefully under-utilized ), I think I would have admired this film more. Truth be told, there was very little character development in this film, beyond Renner’s role. Elizabeth Olsen was serviceable as a foil, clearly out of her depth during the investigation. I also wished Graham Greene had more to do; every scene he had was golden.

Despite these quibbles, Wind River is a good mystery that will haunt you. If you can handle the brief violence, then I would definitely recommend it.

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