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.

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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.

Lady Bird: a Review

I was so happy to learn that this coming of age indie film was playing at a theatre close by and that my husband was keen to see it with the rest of the “girls” in the family. So off we went, with a friend in tow, to see this wonderful film. Ok, I am a sucker for coming of age stories about girls, especially when their moms play an important part of the narrative. And I absolutely love Saoirse Ronan, who stars as the titular heroine. Laurie Metcalf is a revelation as her mom. Despite the love that exists between them, the friction is palpable. I absolutely adored this quiet film. My whole family did, to various degrees, in fact. Kudos to writer-director Greta Gerwig on having one of the best reviewed films on Rotten Tomatoes. It is well deserved.

 

 

In addition to the layered performances by the lead actors, in complex roles, the supporting characters were powerfully portrayed, especially Tracy Letts as Lady Bird’s Dad and Beanie Feldstein as best friend Julie. The humour was gentle yet surprising at times. The heartbreak was real too, a few tears were shed and I found myself choked up at times. The themes are universal, fitting in, first love, figuring out a place in the world beyond high school. I liked the way the film addressed issues often ignored, such as families with financial struggles and how expectations are often adjusted because of this. In many ways it reminded me of another favourite film, New Waterford Girl, which I reviewed some time ago. The plot of Lady Bird is very straight forward with a few not-so-surprising revelations. I especially enjoyed its subtle story telling style. There is a lot of showing, not telling. You learn about the characters by watching their actions. This film demanded your attention and rewarded it.

I don’t want to say too much more for risk of spoiling the film. But if you like coming of age films centred on quirky girls, you should check this one out.

Thor: Ragnarok: a review

I knew that I would be seeing this latest entry to the Marvel Universe on opening weekend when I learned that Taika Waititi was directing it. The only unknown was whether my youngest daughter would join us. Going to the theatre is always more fun with the whole family. Since she only likes super hero films that are very funny, it didn’t take much effort to convince her to come, with all the positive buzz out there. Nana joined us too and we all had a good time.

I should preface by mentioning that I saw the 1st Thor movie at the theatre back in 2011 and thought it was ho-hum. It was certainly not entertaining enough to see the first sequel, at all. My husband was of a different opinion and told me that Thor: The Dark World was just as good as the original. I did not consider this a resounding endorsement. But because I love Waititi’s previous films (especially the vampires of New Zealand mockumentary What We do in the Shadows) I knew I had to see the 3rd film in this series, Thor: Ragnarok. So I decided to dust off our copy of Thor: The Dark World, just to be up to date. I needn’t have bothered. That film truly was comparable to the first Thor film and not required to enjoy this 3rd instalment.

The plot of Thor: Ragnarok is as ridiculous as one would expect. What makes this film special (other than a brief glimpse of Chris Hemsworth’s abs) are the jokes. It is packed with physical comedy as well as humorous dialogue. I also appreciated that they did not feel compelled to shoehorn a romantic subplot into the story.

Cate Blanchett’s Hela is terrifically villainous as she tries to take over Thor’s home world, Asgard. The rest of the supporting cast is simply an abundance of talent. Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hiddleston return as Bruce Banner/Hulk and Loki respectively. Karl Urban is a delightful new addition to Asgard as Skurge. But a special shout out goes to Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a kick-ass Asgardian in exile who reluctantly joins forces with Thor and friends to help save her people.

The CGI effects are pretty good and the fight sequences are entertaining enough without dragging too long. For a 2h10min run time, this film seemed well paced. Which is good, because if you sit through to the end of the credits you will see 2 brief scenes buried within.

The Law and Jake Wade: a review

It has been some time since I reviewed a classic film. So I thought I would talk about a favourite western starring a favourite actor of mine, Richard Widmark.

The Law and Jake Wade stars Robert Taylor in the title role as a town Marshall with a dark past.  This past comes back to haunt him in the form of Richard Widmark’s character Clint Hollister.  I don’t want to spoil anything further because I really liked the way this story unfolded and I risk spoiling the climactic showdown. The titular “good guy” Jake had a dark past that he tried to escape when he relocated and built a new life as a town Marshall. When his past caught up to him, his instinct was to leave town again. That he was in love with Peggy, a local woman complicated matters.

 

The location filming is simply gorgeous. I also liked the way this film touched upon the arbitrary rules of society, which often vary, in times of war and peace.  Other themes included loyalty in love and friendship, as well as reinventing oneself.

I really enjoyed this film’s dialogue. The verbal sparring between the two adversaries was top notch, for any film, regardless of genre or era.  The character development was good too. The deft screenplay successfully integrated the back stories, avoiding clumsy expository narrative. I liked the way Patricia Owens’ character Peggy resisted Jake’s out of the blue request that they leave town to make a new life. That she refused to blindly follow, could smell something fishy and insisted on knowing the truth was a progressive way to introduce a female character. Considering the film was released in 1958, very progressive. Sadly such depiction cannot be taken for granted, even in a modern film. As for the hero and his adversary, these 2 men were obviously very close once. We saw the villain anticipate the hero’s moves as if he was pulling the strings. The climactic showdown was still fun to watch, even after many previous viewings.

Of course I am biased, but Richard Widmark was truly electric as the villain and managed to raise evoke sympathy. His distress regarding the abandonment by Robert Taylor’s character was palpable. Some would even say their relationship was beyond bromantic. Widmark stole scenes effortlessly.  Widmark remains an under appreciated classic Hollywood actor. I am not alone in trying to rectify this. That he managed to avoid typecasting and transitioned successfully to heroic roles was a testament to his talent.

 

So if you are curious about classic westerns off the beaten path, this film is worth hunting down. It is available on DVD and iTunes. It has beautiful scenery, great dialogue (Widmark gets most of the best lines), and as an added bonus to any Trekkies out there, young DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy/Bones). He plays a member of the Widmark’s gang. This is 1 of 2 times that he starred with Widmark. The other time was in Warlock, another great film that I blogged about.

Some of my favorite quotes from this film are:

Widmark to the hot head of his outlaw gang “Sonny, I can see we ain’t gonna have you round long enough to get tired of your company.”

Widmark again (to the same guy, after his foolish act of shooting at coyotes – in Indian country no less – in response to the feeble excuse “I didn’t stop to think”) “We’ll chisel that on your tombstone”

Taylor to Widmark “Well, you like me more than I like you”

Happy Death Day: a review

 

 

At the behest of my teenage daughters, my husband and I joined them at the theatre for this recent horror film. They had all seen the trailer and were intrigued; all I knew of it was what they told me and that it was endorsed on of my favourite pop culture podcasts, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. It was billed as a Groundhog Day-esque comedic horror film. This film was an enjoyable collective laugh-out-loud experience in a sparsely populated theatre.

 

The trailer summarizes the plot pretty well but I am glad I went in without having seen it. I watched a mean college girl repeatedly living through her same birthday only to have it end in her murder. So naturally, after she stopped freaking out, she tried to figure out who wanted her dead in attempt to avert the inevitable. Sure this movie borrows heavily from Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow and even one of my favourite episodes of TV’s Supernatural. Yet it manages to be fun and fresh as it throws a few red herrings along the way to a satisfying conclusion.

The cast is is largely unknown; no matter, they do a good job. This movie reinforces that with some imagination, good humorous writing, decent acting and a modest budget, an entertaining film can be made. The violence is not really gruesome or graphic, so even the squeamish may enjoy this film. I am looking forward to watching it again on home video.

Blade Runner 2049: a review

This is a movie I knew I would see at the theatre as soon as I encountered the first trailer. Was I a fan of the original 1982 film? Or was I just a Harrison Ford fan in general? Neither, really. But my beloved husband has held the original Blade Runner (1982) as an important film of his youth and was eager to see the next chapter. I really like the sequel’s director, Denis Villeneuve, not just because he is French Canadian, but because of his recent films Arrival and Sicario. So there we were in an IMAX theatre on opening weekend.

I saw the original Blade Runner at my husband’s behest for the first time on DVD when it was re-released as a final cut version in 2007. At that time, I thought it was visually stunning, ahead of its time in its special effects, but the story was just ok. Having re-watched it a few days ago, in anticipation of this sequel, my opinion of the original has remained unchanged. Rather than reviewing that film, I will direct you to Roger Ebert here. It is as if he read my mind. A brief summary of that film for those unfamiliar follows: It was set in a dystopian 2019 and Harrison Ford was the titular character. He was a cop who hunted “replicants” or human-like androids. They were developed for purposes of slave labour and sent to other planets.  But some developed aggressive self-preservation behaviours and illegally returned to earth, in an attempt to pass as humans.

I enjoyed this sequel more than the original film. To talk about specific plot points risks spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that Blade Runner 2049 takes place 30 years after the original film and builds upon the same themes (personal identity, free will, slavery, what it means to be alive, love). The result is a much more compelling and mysterious story with characters that seem more developed. I admired the cinematography immensely. It was a stunning homage to the visuals brought forth in Ridley Scott’s original film. The acting by Ryan Gosling in the titular role was appropriately subtle and Ford was more animated than I had seen him in a long time.

You don’t have to watch the original Blade Runner to enjoy this film. However, Blade Runner 2049 is a richer experience the more familiar you are with its world and characters. This is a great film for anyone who likes science fiction, existentialism, mysteries or just wants some  cool action sequences and flying cars. This is a long film (2hours 43min) but it didn’t seem so at the time. But pace you liquid consumption carefully because I agreed with the Runpee app which warned us that there very few opportunities to pop out to the loo. This film was well served by the biggest screen possible and I did not regret the extra expense of IMAX on this occasion. Pre-assigned seating was an added bonus!

Killjoys: a review

 

I don’t consider myself a space opera fan. Unlike 1/2 my family, I have no affection for Star Wars and Star Trek. I have tried but it just didn’t take. Despite this character flaw, I do find myself looking back on Firefly and the rebooted version of Battlestar Galactica (BsG) with longing. These 2 shows were set in space but heavily character driven with some philosophical depth and terrific action. Of course Firefly also had some memorably witty dialogue. Those shows have been off the air for so long and nothing has quite filled the void they left. However, Killjoys comes pretty close.

 

 

Killjoys is a space opera centred around a team of bounty hunters (aka Killjoys), Jaqobi brothers, Johnny (Aaron Ashmore) and D’avin (Luke Macfarlane) and their fearless leader Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen), . It is an original Syfy production created by Michelle Loretta. 3 seasons have aired (10 43 min episodes in each) and it has just been given a 2 season renewal.

This show is not as philosophical as BsG and doesn’t’t pretend to be. It is a fun action romp in space with a good balance of season long plot threads that are woven with episodes that stand as individual chapters. There is good character development, fun banter, kick-ass action and techy-nerd jargon that almost makes sense. As the series goes along we watch the killjoys expand their quest beyond simple warrants in order to fight political corruption that threatens their survival. Thankfully, the overall plot isn’t too complicated to follow.

This show films in Canada and the acting and writing are top notch. At times it feels like a Being Erica reunion. Many familiar faces from that beloved show have supporting roles. I especially enjoy the diversity in casting. And I simply love Dutch as an intelligent bad-ass in chic yet sensible footwear. Throw in some dysfunctional family/sibling rivalry between the Jaqobi brothers and I am all in.

So if you are looking for a fun space romp with some witty banter and good action, you may want to check this out.

 

 

 

 

 

Double Happiness: a Contemporary Classic of Canadian Cinema

I recently watch my DVD copy of this 1994 favourite because I was in a nostalgic mood. So when Double Happiness aired on CBC TV last night, prefaced by a brief interview with writer director Mina Shum and a roundtable discussion with a diverse group of women in the film industry, I was thrilled to learn that this film still resonated with others. I was also somewhat saddened by the glacial pace of progress towards diversity in contemporary mainstream TV and cinema. I was pleasantly surprised at how well this film holds up.

Sandra Oh (in her feature film debut) plays Jade Li, the eldest daughter of Chinese parents from Hong Kong, who now live in Canada. She is a struggling actress, much to the chagrin of her traditional parents who view her artistic passion as a frivolous and futile pursuit. For much of the film we watch her navigate a punishing series of auditions as she fulfils role as dutiful daughter and supportive sister and fun-loving friend. We see her humour her parents as she is set up on numerous dates with men from good Chinese families. Ultimately we watch her figure out what she wants, rather than what her parents want.

This film shares many thematic similarities to The Big Sick, which I recently blogged about. However, this film is more drama than comedy, by design. This story is an honest portrayal of the double life that is familiar to many children of immigrants to North America. This is Sandra Oh’s film and she is a delight to watch in an authentic portrayal of a young adult dealing with culture class and a generation gap. Themes that always strike a cord with me. The supporting cast, which includes Callum Keith Rennie, is also fun to watch. I bet that this DVD is available in most Canadian libraries. It is currently also available to stream on CBC TV’s mobile app and website at the link below.

http://watch.cbc.ca/canadian-feature-films/all/41bd9e84-2271-4aeb-8395-16a579a2d330

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