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Welcome to the Jungle, we got no fun or games, 20 May 2017

Percival Fawcett - intrepid explorer, whose exploits into charting the Amazon jungle in search of a mystical ancient civilization captivated the world and inspired a generation of adventure writers - would probably fall asleep during his own dour, flaccid biopic. Now, this isn't to say the only way to cinematically interpret Fawcett's life would be to whip-crack into full-blown Indiana Jones (though a film this allergic to fun could do far worse than shallow, Romancing the Stone mimesis). Instead, director James Gray strives to tap into Fawcett's mythos and mystique with the lyrical, abstract profundity of a Terrence Malick or Werner Herzog (indeed, his telling is irreconcilably indebted to Herzog's own parable of jungle madness, Fitzcarraldo). Sadly, he's too clumsy a director to commit to the kooky poetry of his thematic earmarks. Instead, his lolling sequences of Fawcett's crew wandering through the jungle or circumnavigating stuffy British Geographical Society politics - amazingly, equally drab and aimless - at times pleasantly hypnotic, but threaten to turn proceedings into The Lost City of ZZZzzzzzz.

Fawcett's memoirs tell of encounters with 60 foot snakes, deadly spiders, and enough peril and adventure to galvanize Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World. These tales may have been tall (who's to say? are YOU going to forage through the jungle to fact check?), but it's a rare exercise in cinema purposefully downplaying the fun factor of its source material. The film starts promisingly: after an effectively squirmy opening with Fawcett failing to advance through the ranks of claustrophobic military culture in rural Ireland thanks to disgraced parentage, Gray bequeaths us a fun Ian McDarmid cameo as the evil Emperor of Geography, whose ominous monologue hypes the exotic perils of the jungle, stopping just shy of him purring "Goooood. Goooooood!" So far so good (gooooood!). But, after a thrilling (not) foray into the fine details of cartography, we finally follow Fawcett into the jungle. And wait. And walk. And wait. And cough. And fidget. And try not to check our phones, but my goodness, is that the time? But don't worry: you've two hours of more of the same awaiting you.

(I could tell, as a Canadian viewer, that my crowing this triumphantly at hearing the titular legend correctly[!] pronounced as 'Zed' rather than the customary big-screen 'Zee,' was a sign of how dire the cinematic experience was here )

One brief sequence, where Fawcett's raft and crew are besieged by indigenous arrows, only to meet a bloody end by looming piranhas, plays as a lively prelude to more thrilling adventures to come. Instead, it's the activity high point, an uneasily early climax paving the way to two thirds of increasingly diminishing content. There's no facts, literature, or even conjecture to establish even the skeleton of a mythology enough to share Fawcett's burning desire to unearth the titular lost civilization, apart from a few nonchalant shards of pottery, quickly whisked away from. Instead, we're reminded that the film shares a production team with 12 Years a Slave, and is thereby a Film With an Important Social Message. Behold: lengthy, awkward, anachronistic shoehorned-in diatribes shooting for feminism and anti-colonial racial equality instead playing as Hallmark pandering, patronizing asides of white saviourism. Think of Brad Pitt's uncomfortably didactic, self-congratulatory monologue in 12 Years a Slave. Now imagine sinking into a full 30 minutes of it, in a film that really isn't an organic platform for filmic slacktivism du jour. Yeah, I saw you checking your watch there - don't even pretend.

Even such a feeble ebb of a film could have coughed up some embers with an appropriately charismatic, magnetic lead. Unfortunately, Charlie Hunnam is effectively the antithesis of any such qualities. If his cross between snoozy murmuring, overcooked pontificating, and absentminded smugness were meant to play as enigmatic, he clearly dropped out of Mumblecore college too early to find a balance skewing anything close to watchable. If anything, Robert Pattinson appears to be practically bursting at the seams to chew scenery as eccentric comic relief with deranged relish - so, naturally, after an encouragingly wild-eyed introduction, he's rendered effectively mute by Gray, his performance as much of a dud as his surroundings. Sienna Miller is similarly too swamped by the script's quicksand of 'frowny, long-suffering wife with absentee husband' cliché to cough up anything resembling a spark of humanity to grab onto. So we're left with Tom Holland, funnelling every ounce of sprightly energy, charisma, and irresistible earnestness into Fawcett's son-with-prodigal-father, heralding the film's only genuine character arc. Try as he might, he's barely in it. It isn't enough.

Gray's film is not entirely without minor blips of enjoyment: it's well-shot, and makes good use of the beautiful Amazonian scenery (even if it is all dulled by a frustrating grey filter - there's really no need to live up to your namesake literally, James). Add the serene, soothingly ethereal score of Christopher Spelman, and many of Fawcett's jungle walks attain a pleasantly elegiac peacefulness, like a meditative nature walk. It's just a shame that this is the extent of the film's ambitions, as we otherwise see next to nothing of the excitement, mystery, or peril that made the jungle so obsessively captivating for Fawcett, instead making each jungle reprise, instead of bustling with possibility, at most muster a murmur of placid indifference. The Lost City of Z may be benignly, mildly engaging, but, remains overall, like Fawcett, a promising curiosity fated to be buried in the annals of cinema history. So, if that feat of metatextual anticlimax was Gray's aim, he accomplished it masterfully - the only such instance of mastery throughout. Oh - are you still awake? You're doing better than me. Yawn.


Colossal (2016)
Nacho average monster movie (groan), 19 May 2017

Think of all the rules you normally assume about monster movies. Then get ready for Colossal to subvert, tweak, tease, and stomp all over them, in favour of something altogether unprecedented, as richly spun as it is utterly bonkers. One of the industry's few recent genuine surprises, Colossal lumbered in out of nowhere, its only publicity preamble being an (absurd) lawsuit from the producers of 2014's Godzilla over similarities (namely...both have giant monsters?). But there's nothing derivative about Nacho Vigalondo's viciously entertaining satire, which weaponizes kaiju tropes as trenchant, hilarious, and surprisingly dark social barbs, the end game being a rambunctiously fun yet grimly chilling commentary on the real monsters being - you guessed it - people.

First off: there's an easy jab at Team Shyzilla in that, with roughly 10 minutes of monster mash, Colossal almost outperforms the budget-bloated mess that had the titular behemoth cameoing in his own movie. Still, Colossal is so much more than monster spectacle that, in sinking your teeth into its strange, idiosyncratic charms, you'll almost forget to get pumped for the Seoul-stomping mayhem. Vigalondo's subtly hilarious, razor-sharp script starts with a naturalistic, albeit familiar, portrait of a woman reeling from partying herself down to the cinders, with Hathaway capably riffing on her Rachel Getting Married burnout. But, just when it seems the stage is set for a schmaltzy indie rom-com about broken people healing (complete with genre darling Jason Sudekis on hand): in come news reports of a gigantic monster (which, during production, probably didn't intend to evoke Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy so strongly...thankfully Disney is no such lawsuit lemming), causing havoc rampaging through South Korea. And the rug is yanked, the whole game changed, and we're off on the most raucously oddball (anti)blockbuster of the year, complete with CGI that valiantly outshines its modest budget, and a playfully ominous score by superb 10 Cloverfield Lane composer Bear McCreary that perfectly sets the lurching monster vibe.

But, one twist is not enough for Vigalondo. And just when we start to acclimatize to Colossal's wonderfully weird, cheerfully nonsense butterfly effect internal grammar, somehow finding a cohesive midpoint between goofiness and tragedy while leaving room for a few indelible monster movie images (apologetic Korean calligraphy, for one), Vigalondo yanks the rug out from us...again. Welcome to a third act tonal switch so unexpectedly distressing you unconsciously creep to the edge of your seat more from chills than thrills. It's here that Colossal shows its dwarfing, scaly hand: it's a film all about control - having it, losing it, and the abhorrent depths humans stoop to to reclaim it, at all costs. Suddenly, a film about gigantic Michael Bay-FX escapees transmogrifies into one of the most shamefully realistic, painfully tense human stories of the past several years, while sprinkling in micro-commentaries on consent, addiction, gender dissonance, overseas media violence and spectatorship, and self-esteem for good measure. If there a momentary wobble, it's Vigalondo's reliance on fairy-light flashbacks to frame character revelations, which flirts with daft cliché...until, naturally, their seeming sappiness is revealed to be all part of the plan, and key to a final big reveal as f*cked up as it is clever. And then, before you know it, we rumble into a climax more emotionally laden and bombastically, cathartically thrilling than most Hollywood fare boasting 10 times the budget can muster. If nothing else, you'll never look at a sandbox the same way again.

If there's ever been an actor perfectly poised to navigate Colossal's bizarre blend of Hollywood and indie energies, it's Anne Hathaway. She anchors the film with a powerhouse performance, part acerbic silliness, part raw, dripping vulnerability, all grounded by a steadfast charisma too honest not to believe, in spite of the emotional and tonal roller coasters the film takes her on. Matching her, Jason Sudekis is a flooring revelation, proving himself to be a remarkable performer as capable of wells of immense, terrifying darkness as he is a quirky, affable, goofball, often within seconds of one another. Finally, Beauty and the Beast's Dan Stevens gives an impressively precise performance teetering the balance between charmingly sympathetic and didactic asshole, while veteran character actor Tim Blake Nelson is always readily on hand for a fiendishly funny non-sequitur, like Donny from The Big Lebowski, but with more encroaching puppy dog sadness.

Somehow (somehow...!) so much more than the cataclysmically collision of its disparate parts, Colossal pairs the introspective whimsy of Gareth Edwards' Monsters with the stomping, metaphoric social drama of the original (read: good) Godzilla, spun through a cheeky p*ss-take of a cutesy indie movie, while still leaving more surprises - and not always pleasant ones - in store. It's a thoroughly unexpected genre-bending gem, as resonant as it is massively fun. And although its limited release and head scratching high concept will, sadly but inevitably, strip it of the widespread adulation it deserves, if you're wondering how Vigalondo's film will fare as a retroactive cult hit... well, let's just say you won't have to fish for an adjective for very long.


You've Got (Snail) Mail, 13 May 2017

Speak of The Shop Around the Corner in contemporary times, and you're more than likely to be greeted by blank looks until you revise its moniker to 'You've Got (Snail) Mail' ("Ohhhh! THAT one!"). But, while director Ernst Lubitsch's classical rom-com may have to contend with its '90s remake for pop culture recognition, it's easily charming and delightful enough to warrant, at the very least, comparable adulation. Distinctly more demure and gentle than the masses of sparkier screwball comedies in vogue at its time, Lubitsch's film strips itself of any such pretences, striving instead for a softer, infinitely more vulnerable play for unfettered emotion, seasoned with knowing wit. His sentiment pays off, as the film remains an abiding holiday classic, almost too lovable to resist.

Adapted from Hungarian playwright Miklós László's work Parfumerie, Lubitsch's retaining the Budapest setting with transplanted American actors may take some acclimatizing to (perhaps Lubitsch was content to have a more heartwarming link to Europe than all of the wartime atrocities cluttering the newsreels - notice the conspicuous absence of any politics or world events), but it only adds to the film's nostalgic, somewhat anachronistic charm. With a dreamy, unassuming pace, Lubitsch allows his characters to breathe, carefully delineating the lives, fears, hopes and dreams of each staff member of the titular department store's staff with tender compassion before allowing the centrepiece love story to build amidst them with slow, teasing playfulness. Certainly, the film has its blips of alarming darkness that suggest Lubitsch was too attuned to the sociopolitical climate to create an entirely vacuous fairy tale, but they are painted with the same observant humanity and care as the rest of the film's naturalistic character beats. And if the corresponding friction inherent in the film's Much Ado About Nothing twist may come with occasional whiffs of contrivance or excessive convenience, the mischievous, disarming sweetness with which they weave tantalizingly closer to one another more than makes up for it. The film's 'first date' scene alone is so unforgettably clever and savagely funny that even You've Got Mail couldn't resist borrowing it almost shot-for-shot, and winning the raucous laughs of a whole new generation of viewers.

Still, it's the indelible chemistry of James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, one of the most reliable pairings of the classical era, that elevate the film to the level of classic. The two play off each other with consummate ease, segueing from caustic, prank- filled, screwball-lite barbs and fireworks to embers of affection seamlessly, and Sullavan's fast-talking, peppery vigour proves the perfectly adorable foil for Stewart's twinkling, huffy bluster. Supporting them, Felix Bressart practically embodies the film's gentle, winking spirit as their kindly coworker, Joseph Schildkraut is so oily he practically glistens as the store's resident fink, William Tracy is so loudly comedic he practically seems to have cockily strolled in from another film entirely (but remains irresistibly funny nonetheless), while Frank Morgan hits the perfect cocktail of imposingly obtuse with a secret heart of gold as the shop's perennially harried owner.

It's hugely refreshing, even for the early 1940s, to find a film so straightforwardly pleasant and enjoyable, but Lubitsch's deft hand has the film bursting with simple but robust charm. Resonantly heartwarming comedy and romance, an undercurrent of melancholy stripped of any histrionics and with only the gentlest indulgence of saccharine Hollywood convention, The Shop Around the Corner's abiding sweetness continues to make it a welcome discovery or revisitation, whether as a holiday watch, or a means of unwinding with a smile year-round. And if its success had anything to do to stem the flow of tacky, ornamental music boxes? All the better.


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Episode II: The Raccoon Hugs Back, 8 May 2017

Forget the Avengers. Forget the Fantastic Four. With a bust of colour, light, and Blue Suede, the Guardians of the Galaxy exploded onto the screen as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's REAL first family. And it's a word that writer/director James Gunn is loathe to let audiences forget in round two. Creatively untethered after his first roaring success, gone is any compulsory Infinity Stones hyping in favour of more belligerent, tearful outcries of 'family' than there are a new batch of chart-topping tunes (which is saying something). And while Guardians 2 may not hold many surprises, Gunn is wise enough to recognize audiences were hooked on a feeling, and he delivers another stupendously satisfying round of ferociously character-driven, pop-punk Star Wars-lite (less plot; more hugs) with demented gusto.

If the stereotypical sequel trend is to always plunge into DAAAARRKKKNESS, it's a trend Gunn is happy to spit his intergalactic candy-floss in the face of. Wasting no time on exposition, Guardians 2 dives right into rambunctious fun by scene one, spewing slick one-liners, banter, and a teasing fight scene so disarmingly clever our theatre floors shook with laughter. And it seldom slows down afterwards. Gunn is that rare master of the prolonged gag that, although it really shouldn't, somehow becomes even more absurdly hilarious when dragged out to a ludicrous extent (case in point: you can now buy a Funko Bobblehead of a character called 'Taserface'), and Guardians 2 easily ricochets with as much infectious, exhilarating laughter, and impossibly catchy tunes as its predecessor (including bonus points for unprecedentedly badass use of Fleetwood Mac).

If nothing else, the full resources of Weta Digital lend the scrappy subject matter the visual effects buff befitting a proper space opera (or space punk concert, in this case). Gunn's accelerated action - with jetpacks and explosions aplenty - is anarchically playful enough to even (mostly) circumvent the oft-lambasted MCU 'CGI blob blowouts,' from adversaries (including the lovably huffy Elizabeth Debicki) piloting their ships like weird, 90s arcade racing games, to a climax that will feel inventively surreal as long as you don't think of the similarities to the bloated mess culminating Ang Lee's Hulk (oops ). Still, a succession of almost alarmingly violent interludes are just as unsettling - one uncomfortably long slow-mo, laughing mass-murder(!) set to a cheery tune feels more like a Tarantino movie than anything under the Disney umbrella. Confusingly, for a film so irreverent, Guardians 2 is also strangely beautiful, rendering the jaw-dropping, explosively colourful panoramas of a plethora of alien worlds to the rusting fur on Rocket Raccoon and forehead crinkles on Baby Groot (who, yes, is as hilarious and adorable as you'd hope, without overstaying his welcome)'s forehead with consummate detail. We'll just politely overlook the juvenile Looney Tunes 'space travel face warping' effects - it's almost comforting to know that not all of Gunn's prolonged gags are as rewarding.

But, more importantly, Guardians 2 is all about parents (sorry Batman), and is characteristically unafraid to dip deep into the emotional cookie jar. If the first Guardians bared all of its characters' emotional scars, Vol. 2 pokes at them and massages in some salt for good measure, giving each character a resonant emotional arc that, gags aside, makes for a surprisingly tender and sad watch. Gunn (now on solo script duties) orchestrates their interactions with more clumsiness than before, his writing sometimes hand-holding to an almost distracting extent that slightly undersells some pivotal emotional beats (similarly, characters repeatedly verbally cuing the soundtrack, via Quill's walkman, is an unnecessarily contrived screen writing cheat), leaving the occasional aftertaste of trying somewhat too hard to make a Guardians movie rather than letting it breathe effortlessly. Still, he's concocted the ultimate cosmic sitcom: a gaggle of characters painted so distinctly and lovingly that we'd watch them do anything, superfluous plot be damned.

Thankfully, Gunn's peerless cast of characters are given plenty to do, and their respective takes on 'social performance masking inner pain,' win our hearts and laughs anew with eager abandon. Chris Pratt's unique blend of radiantly roguish, childlike charisma and propensity for puppy dog sadness is as heartwarming as ever here. If his listening to Cat Stevens, emotionally unpacking his 'Dad triangle' doesn't unplug your tears, you are of sturdier stuff than most of this Galaxy. Dave Bautista's Drax almost overdoes it on the comic relief front, but Bautista carefully weaves in just enough subtle heartbreak that his peerless comic timing remains unfettered, even as his jokes drift into the increasingly crude (he, after all, has famously humongous turds). Bradley Cooper's Rocket similarly pokes the limits of how much caustic, a-hole acting out audiences will buy in the name of raw, emotional hurt, but we understand him too well not to love him, prickliness and all. Michael Rooker's snarling space pirate Yondu starts out with unsettling softness, but once we acclimatize to his perturbing pathos, he's as brashly affable as they come. In Kurt Russell's uneasily charming Ego, Gunn has unearthed (ha!) a deceptively creepy villain, far more philosophically and visually memorable than his goofy premise would suggest, while fellow newcomer Pom Klementieff redefines adorable as bug-eyed empath Mantis. Still, it's the sister spat between Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan - the MCU's first real relationship between two women(!) - that really lingers after the credits roll. Saldana and Gillan drip with pitch-perfect, seething vinegar and heartfelt hope in the perfect encapsulation of a sibling relationship: they may usually want to murder each other, but what they really want is a hug. Aww.

Guardians 2, not to mince words, is rambunctiously fun, colourful, hilarious, and, above else, proudly sports its soppy, adorable bleeding heart on its sleeve. It's hardly revelatory and occasionally overly didactic, but plays to its strengths with cheeky obstinacy, and is downright irresistible for it. Will you blast 'Awesome Mix 2' on repeat all the way home from the cinema? Obviously. Just be sure not to hassle the Hoff.


Hey, ho, so-so, 4 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"For sale: baby shoes. Never worn."

Six words, attributed to Ernest Hemingway, comprising 'literature's greatest tragedy,' that could just as easily pierce the heart as literature's purest horror story. Exhibit A: Stephen King's Pet Sematary, which extrapolates all the devastation of the phrase into something altogether more sickeningly, shamefully empathetic. With a sardonic, throbbing fatalism, King's novel corrodes humanity's most primal fear (death of a child) into a damning Sophie's Choice (what if you could bring back an unholy shadow of them), and the most horrifically empathetic addiction allegory imaginable (you wouldn't. you can't. you are) - and all before any of the customary horror scares rear their grisly heads. No wonder King deemed it so borderline unethically terrifying he almost refused to publish it.

Unfortunately, it's a wealth of chilling, philosophical profundity that director Mary Lambert seems largely ambivalent to, when there are jump-scares to be had. She glibly springboards off King's soul-chilling conceit into a quagmire of camp, whizzing past character beats and grim foreshadowing with hyper abandon before going straight for the scare jugular. And her spooky setpieces are, for the most part (the less said about Church, the daftly overplayed horror cat, the better), darn good. Boldly accentuated by Elliot Goldenthal's eerie score, Lambert milks her gory, body horror interludes with the schlocky, squishy grossness of an early Sam Raimi. She exploits the alarmingly believable oozing prosthetics of a mutilated Victor Pascow and the traumatic spectre of a sister mawkishly contorted with spinal meningitis with carnivalesque glee, before plunging into the cackling, knife-wielding-toddler Chucky antics of the third act with cheerful aplomb. She's even cheeky enough to play the the narrative's tragic turning point as a devilish, teasing exercise in morbid, cross-cutting Hitchcockian suspense, as if cinematically bringing to life the laugh/cringe paradox of the average 'dead baby joke' - a darkly apropos comparison.

And herein lies Pet Sematary's biggest conundrum: Lambert wants to have her cake and eat it too. She tangibly wants to dive into full Sam Raimi b-movie bedlam, but bridles herself out of seeming obligation to the devastating solemnity of, y'know, the whole dead child thing. The disparity, unsurprisingly, sits palpably uncomfortably, while the script's truncation of the hardships of King's plot without his darkly knowing prose plays as more ridiculous than claustrophobically interconnected. It doesn't help that Lambert is noticeably out of her element handling melodrama, and most of the film's moments of (purportedly) sincere heartbreak play as so wooden they evoke more cringes than her aforementioned oozing, exposed cerebellum. Still: clumsy editing, flat exposition, and vacuous character development are one thing (okay, three things). But seriously: not one. Not two. But three Darth Vader calibre "NOOOOOOOO"s, all underscoring pivotal emotional moments? Better make that cake a cheesecake - and a fairly stale, rotting one, at that.

If anything, the proper cast could have helped salvage, and tonally reconciled, Lambert's confused direction. This is not that cast. Instead, Dale Midkiff gives a lead performance so atrociously flat, it'd be safe to give him the benefit of the doubt of him deeply embodying PTSD shock, were his fluctuations in modulation not so amusingly inconsistent with the mandated emotional responses of any given scene. Denise Crosby fares better, even if her anxious fretting may toe the line of a histrionic camp more appropriate for a movie starring gigantic, telepathic alien slugs more often than not. Conversely, Fred Gwynne is rustic perfection as Jud Crandall, the local voice of homespun reason, and Gwynne, working with an unsympathetically hacked up scripted character, essays Crandall's difficult shift from amiable to ominous to achingly sympathetic with consummate, barrel-chested, granite-voiced ease. Still, the show-stealing performance belongs to two-year old(!) Miko Hughes as the story's requisite murderous, resurrected infant, his tiny face emoting to such a viscerally terrifying extent you would swear his expressions were augmented by CGI were the film made in a contemporary context.

King's story is so gosh-darn good (good enough to even warrant its egregious, Inglourious Basterds style misspelling) that, even told as clumsily as it is here, it's replete with frights, gruesome fun, and promise. Still, the jarring dissonance between Lambert's schlockier, ironic impulses and the more primal, elegant simplicity of King's horror, combined with a hefty helping of cheese, strand the film in the graveyard of ultimately inferior King adaptations. "Sometimes dead is better," Jud Crandall extols ad nauseam - but Pet Sematary's cinematic unearthing leaves the epitaph of "Sometimes book is better."

{but will you watch it anyway? You shouldn't. You know it's a terrible idea. You probably won't like it. But look, there you go, pressing play. Those Micmacs have their ghostly claws in you yet}

- 6/10

So wrong, yet so right? It's a (delightful) puzzlement., 1 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It's a testament to the abiding cultural affection towards The King and I that all its contemporary criticism follows a similar template of "Well, sure, it's fairly racist, BUT ". It's also a surprisingly fitting extrapolation of the film's core 'don't judge a book by its cover' theme. Among the most beloved Rogers & Hammerstein adaptations to transition to the big screen, the film's over-reliance on uncomfortably antiquated Orientalism, dubious history, and, more than anything, prolific, squirmy yellow-face might at times feel, in the words of the film itself, "barbaric." BUT ! Behind the objectionable trappings lie a simply lovely tale brimming with nostalgia, charm, humour, infectiously hummable songs, and a surprisingly poignant and heartfelt commentary unpacking the tension between tradition and modernity. Is it acceptable to set social politics aside altogether? No, but it is appropriate - nay, necessary - to, on occasion, push them to the back burner in favour of following your heart. Etcetera, etcetera.

Rather considerately, the film assuages our contemporary PC tiptoeing by allowing us to piggyback on the apprehension of our journeying protagonist, Anna. As she whisks herself into the mysterious world of cultural mystery and overachieving bronzers, she immediately disarms our reserve and culture shock with a pristine whistling gag song, a pre-credits wink for us to relax and enjoy our stay. And enjoy we do, as the narrative - a comfortingly familiar first etching of the Mary Poppins/Sound of Music mould to follow - rolls out the players: the unbearably adorable children and their monolithic mentors, Anna and the King. Proceedings are a bit sluggish, but for the next third, our chief task is getting to know them, getting to know all about them, as they warble a roster of iconic, heartwarming tunes. And, slow-going or not, doing so is an utter delight.

The King and I is governed not so much by plot as a clearly honed rhetorical question: how to reconcile the past and future through education (there's also a 'forbidden love' subplot, but this isn't interesting so much as a MacGuffin to further fan the fires of the central conflict). Anna is obstinately bound by a pedagogical and moral tradition imported from England, whereas the King, in attempting to rule proactively (while also subtly stirred by closeted romance), weds Western science and theology to Siamese social norms and power dynamics, resulting in a schizophrenic sense of national identity. But director Walter Lang unearths more of a richness and tender yearning from the theme than simply 'Grease: Royalty Style,' making the Classical Hollywood conservatism of the film's conclusion, 'punishing' the King for his 'sins' with a bout of deus-ex-machina existential depression-sorry-"illness," a jarring, disingenuous dud. Etcetera, et hmm. But enough of that: shall we dance? As with many classical musicals, The King and I's story is second only to the lavishness amidst which it unfolds. And, as a snapshot of the era where production values alone, captured in sumptuous colour and CinemaScope, naturally, were enough to lure audiences away from their televisions to the cinema, it's still hard to stifle oohs and ahhs at the sheer gorgeousness of the mise-en-scène, with sets, props, and costumes (Deborah Kerr's hoop skirts alone are so capacious they could only be shown in CinemaScope) bursting with vivacious colour and aesthetic intricacy. Even the tangential Russian doll of wince that is a white actor in yellow-face narrating a Thai adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin(!!) of all things, plays as a rapturously beautiful dance piece, a Hamlet-like "the play's the thing!" style political subtext-laden interlude replete with jaw-dropping costumes and choreography. And if such an absurd cluster of cringe-worthy elements can still conflate to create something beautiful the film must surely achieve some level of incredulous masterpiece, for simply existing as more than the sum of its parts.

Still, the film would be nothing without its two unforgettably commanding performances pumping it full of heart and humanity. Deborah Kerr (whose singing is seamlessly dubbed by the vocally flawless Marni Nixon) is an earnest firebrand of a lead, and plays Anna's uncompromising zeal, quiet tragedy, and coy interpersonal and political machinations to an energetically irresistible hilt. Thanks to her unwavering conviction, the film, now over 60 years old, remains as feminist as it is racially unwieldy (take notes, My Fair Lady !). Nonetheless, there's no question the film belongs to Yul Brynner. Imperious and formidable as he is nimble, jubilant, and slyly playful, Brynner is so overwhelmingly charismatic that qualms about his dubiously inappropriate casting are quickly swept aside in favour of his magnetic presence and bold physicality, his ferociously furrowed brow or cheekily dropping to his belly immortalizing more power than any Oscar-baiting soliloquy. A more grotesquely Hollywood production would cave to convention and requite their subtly stirring romance, but leaving their simmering, tantalizing tension unrequited is scintillating movie magic. Shall we dance? No - we shall swoon.

The King and I remains that difficult paradox of an indisputable classic that remains hard to reconcile as a 21st century watch; moreover, it's overlong, and verges on plodding, even for its time. Nonetheless, the power, vibrancy, and voluminous charm inherent are infectious, making the film a hugely worthwhile, guilty cheat for even the most steadfast pundits of PC purity. Is it still worth watching, in spite of it all? There's no puzzlement about it.


Big Shrimp, Little Pickles, 27 April 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There's something decadently ironic about a film that so earnestly champions uncovering the truth at all costs taking such flagrant liberties in passing off its primarily fictional, cheeseball propaganda as solemn fact. Still, The FBI Story toots its paradox horn with cheery pride. It's a clumsily transparent ideological recruitment video under the guise of a police procedural/action thriller/social drama, but too ambitious to linger, let alone excel, as any of the above. But, as a slice of nostalgia from the era where 'G-Men' conjured more awe than costumed superheroes, Mervyn LeRoy's love letter to J. Edgar Hoover carries its fair share of charm, even as a canonical text in helping foster the era of media disinformation that would only continue to stew and contort in the decades to follow.

If the film's episodic composition was a canny means of capitalizing on the growing phenomenon of television, it's spot on, as the series of disconnected FBI escapades plays more as miniseries than movie. Unfortunately, with an elephantine run time of two and a half hours that distinctly do not whiz by, awkwardly segmented by ungainly editing lurches and the dry contrivance of a lecture framing device, sitting through the film becomes such a ponderous slog it'll make you yearn for commercial breaks. It's a shame, as many of the interludes are fantastic, gripping fun: the FBI taking down the Dillinger gang is classic gangster camp, an incursion into a KKK uprising is unnervingly chilling, and the opening sequence airline bombing virtually quivers with Hitchcockian suspense, all excellently accompanied by Max Steiner's jaunty march of a score.

Unfortunately, these bursts of plot slump into increasing staleness over time, particularly as the entrenched ideology cockily struts into view and spreads its eagle wings. Expanses of story become increasingly strong-armed into heavy-handed gun lobbying, militaristic enlistment, commie witch hunt jingoism, and alarmingly brazen WWII historical revisionism, too morally coercive to even enjoy the camp potential in their propagandistic excesses. Those familiar with Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies will recognize the climactic pursuit of a soviet spy smuggling microfilm in a coin, but it's a brash contender for the slowest chase scene in cinema history here. If anything, it's one of the film's few incursions into realism - surveillance work is, well, pretty dull - but it sure isn't a riveting close for audiences who have already likely been spending the last hour fidgeting in their seats.

But don't worry: if you're here for a chuckle, there's plenty to sink your teeth into. For one, there's the screenwriters' curious conceit of intercutting FBI assignments with finding a new, weird, idiosyncratic fixation for Jimmy Stewart to grump about at home (laments for dropped pickles, missing tissue paper, and purloined shaving lotion all occupy more dialogue than any real character development). And speaking of fixations: never before has a script literalized the idiom of 'starving writer' to such an extent, as more attention is devoted to fawning over the characters' meals than any actual detecting throughout (I guess if 'you are what you eat,' we have an excellent sense of Stewart's character). Any welling emotion conjured from an untimely character death is quickly dashed by one of the most hilariously cringeworthy eulogies in cinema history ("I didn't know him I just know he died"), while "shrimp and ice cream" is immortalized as a hilarious non-sequitur of a wink-wink-nod-nod to pregnancy. And finally: a tinkling cover of 'Yankee Doodle' played over panning shots of the Lincoln Memorial and a WWII monument? The film couldn't have ended with more deliriously soppy patriotism if Uncle Sam himself had loped onto the screen and open-mouth kissed J. Edgar Hoover under an American flag. And you thought the Montage propaganda of them pesky enemy Reds was shameless.

The film as a whole is unabashedly anchored on James Stewart's all-American star power. But, although his legendarily earnest, 'aww-shucks' charisma remains unquenchably colossal, he's too resigned to autopilot and cantankerous, bossy blustering to sufficiently command the hearts and minds of the country's youths. Vera Miles is similarly pleasantly bland, spouting some peppery outbursts of righteous indignation when given the chance, but too confined to her 'housewife waiting at the proverbial lighthouse' archetype to make much of an impression. Finally, Murray Hamilton neatly inverts the iconic sleaziness of his mayor from Jaws as Stewart's slick, more gung-ho fellow G-Man, but he's too underused to generate more than blips of enjoyment.

If the FBI prides itself on its efficiency, intelligence, and ingenuity, its filmic Story here could hardly be less representative. Still, clumsy, bizarrely tangential, and ideologically brutish as it can be, it's a largely harmless, pleasantly charming affair, and ultimately fairly disarming and entertaining in its hokey jingoism. Nonetheless, in the modern day epidemic of 'alternate facts' politics, The FBI Story remains a pristine testament to doing what it says rather than does, and taking appropriate measures to research, detect, and unearth the whole truth, rather than drawing conclusions simply because Jimmy Stewart's voice-over said so. Unless he's simply recommending the best local shrimp joint, that is. Better enjoyed sans ice cream, though. Unless...


A lukewarm endorsement of a Michael Bay-produced Turtles film? (*Will Arnett voice*) I've made a terrible mistake, 25 April 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Fun fact: if you google 'Out of the Shadows,' the first hit won't have anything to do with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Instead, you can peruse reviews for Dr. Patrick Carnes' "premier work on understanding sexual addiction." Yikes. In spite of this, I'll exercise incredible willpower, and resist the temptation to review the most mind-bogglingly 'how-did- this-get-greenlit' sequel to one of the most incredulously lukewarm blockbuster releases of the past decade through a Freudian psychoanalytic lens (don't think about what their pizza fixation could signify. Or Splinter. Shudder ), because the film is unexpectedly bonkers enough to warrant discussion on its own. What could possibly be unexpected about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II? Well, it's actually not all that bad. Yes. My mind is still reeling with a strange kind of shame from having written that sentence, but it holds: Out of the Shadows (yes, this one) is a trashy, willfully stupid, outlandishly big-budgeted B-movie that actually manages to channel a surprising amount of the kitschy, infectious fun of its '90s foam-ensconced predecessors. And the fact that the (still plentiful) fart jokes have transposed from CGI baby turtles to giant CGI humanoid rhinoceroses? Baby steps, my friends.

The most egregious gripe of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I: No, They're Not Aliens was its preposterous, half-baked insistence on 'gritty realism' amidst its fundamental ridiculousness, leaving 'fun' as foreign a concept as credible CGI. It's a misfire that new director Dave Green is eager to correct, pumping his film full of so much candy- coloured, neon zippiness it's almost dizzying. Proceedings are so deliriously '90s there's even a gratuitous basketball scene yanked straight out of Space Jam. Think of it as a conscious reversion from a thoroughly lazy crack at Christopher Nolan to the campy, cartoon histrionics of Joel Schumacher, but - plot twist - it actually making for a better film for a change. Yes. Really. Just thank the movie gods that Paramount stopped short of titling the sequel 'Turtles 4Eva.' Yeesh.

'Better,' of course is, only applicable insofar as the bar was set lower than the turtles' sewer lair. 'Plot' is still a farcically gossamer diversion, with a context-free extraterrestrial MacGuffin (yep - this time there ARE aliens!). The insertion of other Turtles stock characters (extraterrestrial arch-fiend Krang; Tyler Perry's amusing, chortling, bug-eyed mad scientist Baxter Stockman) into the fray adds to the cartoonish fun factor immensely, especially colourful behemoth henchmen Bebop and Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly & Gary Anthony Williams), who are so jubilantly boorish they practically lumber off with the show, belching all the way. Still, the film's at its best when it doesn't pause for breath, as dour subplots bemoaning both the turtles and wannabe badass Casey Jones (whiny, bland Stephen Amell, boasting all the charisma of a hockey puck)' angst at being alienated and unappreciated by the world are dull, narrative dead weight. It's drolly poetic that most of their lamentations take place in a sewer.

I'm sorry - did I say 'plot'? I clearly meant 'excuse to bash the giant CGI blobs into each other and sell toys.' But here, Green's commitment to the TMNT cartoon silliness is a monumental asset, as the action demonstrates a massive upgrade, not only in production values but in crucial playfulness (best bit: a plane/tank blowout more dopily enjoyable than 2010's The A-Team's similarly gratuitous fracas). Even the special effects look so obnoxiously expensive that their over-performance only adds to the camp factor. Then there's the heady, nausea-inducing, stimulus-vomit of a climax, where, in avoiding the screen, trying to prevent vertigo, I reflected I hadn't seen a frame that wasn't 100% CGI rendered in over 10 minutes. It's an oddly lonely feeling, briefly plunging me into an existential worry that the joke was on me, and I'd been suckered into caring about a morally bankrupt cash grab whose garish, capitalistic callousness I'd willingly rationalized as genial, nostalgic camp. But then: I remembered the turtle battle van that fires explosive manhole covers, and briefly staved off madness for another day. Phew!

It helps that the titular quartet, Pete Ploszek, Jeremy Howard, Alan Ritchson, and Noel Fisher, all saddle into their archetypes earnestly enough to almost normalize their grotesque character designs, complete with less uncomfortable leering than Turtles I. Their collaborative clumsy charm makes for a surprisingly amiable watch, even coming close to echoing the lovable cheese of their '90s forefathers. Equally beneficial: corralling the sleepwalking Megan Fox from wooden lead to wooden supporting character, where she largely lurks in the background, propped up against the nearest surface, occasionally remembering to let her mouth hang open in a waxy approximation of 'sexy.' Will Arnett's tangible embarrassment at agreeing to his prolonged cameo, like a piece of gum tenaciously refusing to release your shoe, is such a masterclass of schadenfreude it's almost worth the watch in itself. But the pièce de résistance: three-time Academy Award nominee Laura Linney valiantly fighting to retain dignity as a grouchy police chief (and, to her credit, mostly succeeding), avoiding derisive laughter all the while, is such a tour de force in restraint and composure it could be analyzed in a performance study class - preferably in the 'how to sell out in style' module.

So, what we've learned: the best way to follow up a blockbuster almost too big, loud, and dumb to ethically exist is to make it even bigger, louder, and dumber? Oh dear god - never show this review to a panel of studio heads, or I'll never be able to live with myself. Still, singing along to the revamped credits theme song is disturbingly fun enough to (nearly) justify the brain cells gobbled up. Maybe the 3D was just powerful enough that I got concussed by one of those flying, explosive manhole covers. Yes, that must be it.


Heathers (1988)
Lüge meets loogie, 13 April 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Roger Ebert's 1988 review for Heathers prefaced his bewilderment at its corrosive social politics as feeling like "a traveller in an unknown country" – but for most audiences who have survived high school to follow, Heathers will feel all too much like coming home. Certainly, for those who normally take their high school comedies with a healthy helping of the Beach Boys or Zac Efron, the film will be a slap in the face, but still leave them thankful it wasn't a slap of Draino or an 'Ich Lüge' bullet. Still, almost 30 years down the line, with its original high school audience now old enough to have high schoolers of their own (oh God...), in a culture sadly more entrenched in teen suicide and school shootings than ever, Heathers remains as eerily prescient as ever. The mountain of shoulder pads, synths and perms may conjure a blast from the past, but a film this razor-sharp couldn't feel more scarily topical, so scathingly audacious you have to laugh, if only in incredulity.

If you're one of the precious few who enjoyed high school congratulations. Heathers will make you pay for it. If you're one of the many who saw high school as a battleground, kill-or-be-killed Heathers will literalize that maxim to an uncomfortable extent, with a score of nervous titters to follow. Running by the seat of its pantsuit with snappy, uncompromisingly jet-black satire, the film is hazily shot with that airy synth soundtrack cultivating an air of heightened delirium, as if a gossamer dream, or someone about to keel over, blackout drunk. The disjuncture is appropriate, as Heathers' navigation of the border between sweet and sour in corrosive high school cliques is on point, a savage middle finger to the conventions of high school movies – even predecessor cautionary tales a-la Rebel Without a Cause and Carrie aren't safe from its scorn. The humour is less laugh-out-loud funny, more 'smirk and occasionally bray in incredulity because it's uncomfortably true,' with even many sheepish laughs turning into uncomfortably guilty reversals that pull the rug out from under you and leave you lying there, aching for those who have ever been jeered at by a bully, been the bully jeering, or worse: been one of the multitudes who stood by and did nothing to stop it. Protagonist Veronica's "Life Sucks!" platitude may start as a joke, but it doesn't stay one for long.

But, M.A.S.H. be damned, suicide isn't painless. And it's here where Heathers, good conversation piece with its heart in the right place as it is, raises some eyebrows, and not always in the cheerfully controversy-baiting way that it wants. Let me preface this by saying that I strongly disagree that any text navigating the mine field of teen suicide, bullying, or attempted mass killings need tiptoe, its face a somber mask. Nonetheless, Heathers, trailblazing the debate, is almost too groundbreaking to make its points effectively, or ethically. The titular bullies, cartoon characters that they are, are almost too unforgettably quotable for their acidity not to soak into generations of wannabe popular kids too self-servingly cruel to get the satire (now doubly reinforced by a generation reared on Tina Fey's Mean Girls, which owes a massive debt to Heathers' snark, but pointedly inserted a hefty 'moral of the story' third act as a get- out-of-jail-free card, the likes of which are unseen here).

Then there's Christian Slater's (aptly named) J.D. - a remix of Dean and baby-Nicholson too impossibly slick and cool not to cement his nihilistic ideology into the hearts of a disenfranchised generation... which gets problematic when his sliminess, subtle multiplicities of abuse, escalating serial killing, and cheerfully detailed attempt to bomb the school don't quite stick in our bad books the way they're meant to. Check the film's poster - a cutesy, wholesome, quirky romance for the whole family this ain't. It's a cruelly ironic and perplexingly glib outcome for a film that so intelligently unpacks the rationale of copycat suicides, particularly amidst the aforementioned epidemic of school shootings. But, as Veronica's blistering journal gradually comes to terms with, we - each individual one of us, and culture as a whole - are all ultimately more to blame than we'd ever like to be. Better come to terms with it. Life's very much worth living, but it still... sucks.

Nonetheless, the effectiveness of Veronica's slide from toxic, abusive friend group to toxic, (differently) abusive relationship to taking agency of her own social standing is less attributable to the film's screenplay, and more chalked up to Winona Ryder's doggedly charismatic performance. Articulate, ballsy, unbearably cool and pungently endearing, Ryder is a rock of reason in a revolving maelstrom of nonsense (and if anything perfectly captures the essence of high school, it's this). Pair this with the triple-threat of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, and it's no wonder her 'eccentric cynic with a heart' archetype almost singularly carved out the voice (and middle finger) of Generation-X angst. Still, we should really talk about that monocle, though...

Sauntering into the cultural unconsciousness like a snappy, hip, and truthful John Hughes movie stubbing out its cigarette on the school flag, Heathers' social politics may not always be quite as razor-sharp as its witticisms, but it's unquestionably more big-hearted than black hearted, even as the bodies hit the floor. Whether spawning spin off off-Broadway musicals, reminding viewers that pre-Mean Girls teen movies had teeth, or shocking generations anew with its funny, scary, omnipotence, Heathers' cultural power and presence continues to thwack us like a croquet ball to the collective forehead. In short, it's very... very.


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Hairy Pouter and the Reluctantly Redundant Remake, 28 March 2017

Watching Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast as an adult is like running into your best friend from grade school at a bar. They're hammered, decked out in a circa 2001 Avril Lavigne Sk8ter Boi outfit and faux-hawk, but surprise: they work as an insurance claims adjuster, and make awkward, drunken conversation about linoleum. Yep. Hear me out. Heady nostalgia, amusement (both uncomfortable and sincere), but all tampered by a vaguely alienating sense of antiquated tackiness and boredom. This is your old friend, and you'll always love them in spite of... them. But did you really need to run into them again like... this? This is the battle of Beauty and the Beast 2.0: not as beastly as your worst fears would have it, but a far cry from the beauty that once was.

'Tale as old as time' doesn't work as well when it's a tale barely older than the average viewer, begetting the invariable 'Too Soon!' griping. Sadly, in this case, the peanut gallery may be justified. It's rare to see a film tiptoeing around its fan following so fearfully, every frame oozing desperation to validate its own existence. From the first notes of the soundtrack, there's an uneasy balance between near shot-for-shot slavishness and defiant new beats. But, for every closed plot hole (so THAT'S why no one in the village noticed the gigantic, deserted castle!), there's awkward, superfluous character exposition (did Belle really need to be saddled with a 'disappeared parent' subplot, a-la Amazing Spider-Man?). The original songs are, naturally, too darn good not to make hearts soar, but they're staged with varying degrees of imagination and vibrancy. New tunes range from cutely forgettable to downright cringe-worthy (let's just say the Beast's solo romantic ballad plays better on Broadway...), while inexcusably lame tweaks to Gaston's legendarily raucous tavern ditty will have you pulling out every last inch of you covered in hair. And so on. More than almost any adaptation, Condon courts an invariable game of constant compare/contrast that he's fated to lose (would you want to go toe-to-toe with the first animated Best Picture nominee?), conjuring an audience commentary of "Meh, that was better in the original" to "Did we really need that?" Throw in some lurching pacing - how can a film 40 minutes longer than its predecessor feel so much more rushed? - and staid, wooden sensibilities, with only glimmers of the original's whimsy or the playfulness of 2016's Jungle Book, and you've got one squirmy audience.

It's a shame, because Condon's fairy tale unearths plenty of magic when it's allowed to breathe. If there's one strain that feels fully fleshed out in live action, it's the poor provincial town's bullying of Belle, seeing her unmarried, innovative intellect as beyond 'odd,' but as a downright ideological threat verging on witchcraft. It's this focal point that lends surprising sincerity and sweetness to her budding romance with her ferocious captor - she connects with him as a fellow outsider, passionate, but fearfully clueless about how to societally integrate. Condon also finds surprising poignancy in the Beast's household workers resigned to living as animated objects as penance for taking no accountability in preventing his warped, cruelly spoiled upbringing. A subtle nature/nurture conversation of a social environment's power to corrupt through passive-aggressive teasing or shameful inactivity? Now that feels like classic Disney!

If the prospect of 2017 special effects bringing the magic to life were a selling point, it's still a mixed bag. It's ironic that the film's prologue cautions against gaudy, superficial excess, as Condon's film is almost exhaustingly lavish, but too loud and busy to settle into the painstaking elegance of its predecessor. The surreal twisty, Jean Cocteau decor is pleasingly intricate, but almost perennially muted by murky, grey lighting, while the vaguely creepy anthropomorphic household utensils take considerable acclimatizing to. Even the 'Be Our Guest' showstopper manages the paradox of looking ferociously expensive but oddly unspectacular. Still - Condon does nail The Dance, and it alone is transcendently lovely enough to keep the film afloat, and then some. No, you're twirling around humming the theme. Hmmpff.

You want to love Emma Watson's Belle. You really do. But, Hermione hangover aside, she feels distressingly miscast - as sullen and sunken as her wincingly autotuned singing voice, she's too caustic to capture more than dribbles of Belle's warmth, spunkiness, and bubbly braininess. Trading Harry for Hairy, Dan Stevens makes a superb Beast, dubious CGI aside. His Beast is a grumbling hipster, his former effete condescension bleeding into his brooding making his character arc all the more charmingly self-aware. Though far from the size of a barge (no "biceps to spare" here, amusingly), Luke Evans swings solidly at Gaston's seismic chauvinism. But, although he hits the musical notes, he's too tentative a scene-chewer, and lacks the thunderous charisma to properly sell the narrative's masterful deconstruction of toxic masculinity (it's no wonder LeFou has to bribe these townspeople to - literally - sing his praises). Speaking of: 10 points to Josh Gad, singlehandedly stealing the show with a pitch-perfect deluge of adorably fawning silliness. While Kevin Kline's softly quirky Maurice is pleasantly winning, his additional screen time adds little to the film. Indeed, most of the comedic and emotional lifting is left to the charming voice cast, and Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, and others all brim with the mountainous charm and silliness you'd hope for.

There is beauty within Condon's film, but it's largely enshrouded by oodles of overstuffed visual dazzle and fumbling mimesis that fail to disguise the the film's heart isn't quite there. It's an amiable diversion, but a worthwhile remake? Let's just say time won't be kind to this tale. But let's be honest: it's Beauty and the Beast. Reviews or not, you're probably going to obstinately check it out anyway, muttering "surely it can't be as bad as all that." And you know what? Be my guest.


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