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.

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”

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