Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

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The film industry is unlike any other business on earth. The general economic rule is if you make a good product, and if there is demand for such a product, people will buy it. And then you’ll be successful and live out the rest of your days in a Spanish villa. But it seems to be the exact opposite in the film industry. It is completely unpredictable. The best product may flop, while a mediocre one will capture the public’s imagination and make truckloads of cash. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is one of those good products that inexplicably flopped, despite good reviews, a solid cast, and songs about “Ibitha” and Bin Laden. Okay, re-reading the end of that last sentence may explain why it didn’t do so well.

Created by The Lonely Island, the satirical songwriting trio who wrote most of Saturday Night Live’s best “Digital Shorts” (looking at you, “Dick in a Box”), the film sticks to their most beloved target: the absurdity of the popular music industry.

Conner (Andy Samberg), used to be part of a boy band known as the Style Boyz before breaking out as a solo artist. Of the remaining Style Boyz, one is his DJ (Jorma Taccone) and the other left the music scene entirely to become a farmer (Akiva Schaffer). The film follows the typical behind-the-scenes story: Conner is coming out with his second album, sales aren’t going as well as expected, his manager is nervous, and a new upstart is edging in on his territory. It also has atypical stuff like wolf attacks, bee attacks, giant robot heads, and a magic trick gone awry.

Like how This is Spinal Tap skewers rock music, Popstar decimates pop music and its artificiality. It’s the funniest comedy to come out in a long time. See it before everyone else does. And don’t watch the trailer.

Grade: B+

 

TIFF2016: The Belko Experiment

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It’s the steel doors that keep Mike (John Gallagher Jr.) from thinking its a practical joke. Heavy and impenetrable, they cover every window and exterior door in the Belko building, trapping the 80 employees inside. Only minutes earlier an ominous voice on the intercom told them they had to choose three employees to kill. The COO (Tony Goldwyn) doesn’t take it seriously. It’s just a practical joke, he says to calm down his staff. Someone’s just taking the piss, so take it easy, have some water and enjoy being away from your desk for awhile. But then people start dying. And the ominous voice comes back on: phase one complete; moving on to phase two.

Equal parts Battle Royale and The Office, The Belko Experiment takes office politics to an extreme, and incredibly violent, level. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a mechanic, chef, salesman, janitor, computer programmer, or executive. Once the thin veneer of job titles that they hide behind are stripped away the characters are left with a simple choice: kill or be killed. Obviously, this being a Midnight Madness movie, the characters don’t sit around waxing philosophical about the immorality of the situation or how quickly we give in to our survival instinct; they start grabbing knives, blowtorches, pistols, shovels, staplers, and anything else that resembles a weapon and begin spilling blood.

Wisely, the characters in the film are categorized into three groups: the staunch pacifists, the reluctant participants, and the scarily enthusiastic thugs. Throughout the nightmare, office employees float between these groups – often selfishly joining the one that offers them the greatest chance of survival at that moment. It’s fun to see how the different approaches play out – such as the pacifists trying to get the attention of the outside world to circumvent the whole “killing each other” thing to the thugs rationalizing their brutality by saving employees with kids but then coldly murdering the elderly (and anyone who disagrees with them, or that they just plain don’t like).

This clever distinction between the characters is all but abandoned for the inevitable gruesome showdown in Phase Three, which despite all the creative killings and unrelenting chaos, starts to feel a bit repetitive when everyone is acting like a monster.

The Belko Experiment has a great premise, diverse characters, thrilling action, close calls, and makes you wonder what you would do in such a scenario. Probably just hide in a ventilation shaft.

Grade: B+

Sidenote: There’s some stomach-churning scenes when employees are lined up against a wall to be executed. Even though I’m pretty jaded when it comes to movie violence (it’s all make-believe after all), it was pretty hard to watch weeping co-workers face the inevitable end of their lives at the hands of their friends and colleagues. I prefer violence coming from over-the-top caricatures rather than the coldly calculating perpetrators that seemed all too real in these scenes.

 

TIFF 2016: I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House

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Lots of staring, and not much else in I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House.

This past week I met someone from the Ontario Film Authority. That’s the not-for-profit company that classifies films for distribution in the province. These are the people who get paid to watch movies – and then classify it as “PG”, “14A”, “18A” etc. I asked if there were any openings, as that sounds like my dream job. How hard could it be to watch an ultra-violent Quentin Tarantino movie and report back that it’s probably not great for kids under 18 to see it? I could be making cash hand over fist. Alas, she brushed aside my job request and told me that’s not actually as great as it sounds. “There’s a lot of crap out there,” she said, referring to the thousands of less-than-stellar movies that have to be rated every year. She must have been thinking of I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House when she said that.

This time last year I saw Osgood Perkins’ debut feature February (now inexplicably titled The Blackcoat’s Daughter on IMDb) and was very positive about it – even if, judging by the IMDb rating, I’m in the minority of those who liked it. I’m not a fan of his sophomore effort. It’s presented as a haunted house story about Lily (Ruth Wilson), a nurse looking after a dying horror novelist (Paula Prentiss) whilst being occasionally tormented by a ghost. However, more accurately, it’s a one-woman film following Lily mumbling under her breath, fiddling with the dials on an old television set and trying to gather the courage to read a horror novel called The Woman in the Walls which – surprise – is literally what the haunting is about.

Most one-actor films have some sort of gimmick – there’s Buried (set entirely in a coffin), Locke (set entirely in a car), and Cast Away (set mostly, but not entirely, on a deserted island). While this film seems to fit the mold – being set entirely in a country home – it misses a key part of the one-actor film: they still talk to other people. In Buried and Locke, the leads spend the entire film talking to other people on the phone, trying to make sense of their situation and solve the problems they find themselves in. Likewise, Cast Away creates a character – the lovable Wilson volleyball – for Tom Hanks to talk to. Let’s just say the only scene of Lily talking with another person – and having that other person intelligently answer her – involves a discussion about mold removal. Other than that, it’s back to our regular mumble-to-myself programming.

It’s not scary (a constant voice-over cuts out any tension – for example, there’s the typical scene where Lily walks by an open doorway and doesn’t notice – gasp – the ghost that the audience does…only to have her voice-over immediately cut in to say: “I didn’t notice the ghost that night but saw her later on”), it’s lazy (it uses the same jump-scare twice…watch out for that television screen!), and worst of all, pretentious. There’s lots of Terrence Malick-esque rhetorical voice-overs about ghosts and repetition of the line “The pretty thing you see is me”, which upon reflection, seems a tad narcissistic.

The correct title of this film should be I Am the Pretty Bored Nurse that Lives in the House and Avoids Talking to Other People, unless it’s about Mold.

Grade: F

Sidenote: The film starts off with a good hook when Lily (in voice-over) states: “I just turned 28. I won’t live to see 29.” Creepy stuff. And then the next scene – this is after her very first day in the house, mind you – has the estate manager (Bob Balaban) checking in on her and saying that she’s been in the house over eleven months now. So the film fast forwards from day one to day 330. I guess nothing interesting happened in those eleven months. It’s too bad they didn’t fast forward any further; nothing interesting happens in the last month of Lily’s life either.

TIFF 2016: Colossal

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The first time we see Gloria (Anne Hathaway) she’s apologizing to her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) for staying out all night. It’s clear she’s a bit of a mess as she  stumbles into the apartment and tries to balance herself against the wall. Tim complains that he only ever gets to see her when she’s hungover. I can only guess that Tim isn’t much for parties, otherwise they might be able to be hungover together. Alas, this is one alcoholic binge too many and Gloria is sent packing – back to her hometown to ostensibly “find herself.”

What she finds is an old friend (Jason Sudeikis) and a limitless supply of booze – he’s the owner of the town’s bar. The stage is set for a alcohol-soaked romance between the two with some challenges and life lessons along the way, until that romantic comedy premise is derailed when a gigantic Godzilla-like monster attacks Seoul. Oops. Let’s just say the monster attacks are connected to Gloria’s homecoming and overshadows the film’s earlier “will-they or won’t they” story line.

Colossal is an unpredictable film. It’s a buffet of different genres – the aforementioned romantic comedy, an addiction drama, tones of a 90s-esque thriller, sci-fi monster movie and a shaggy dog hang-out picture. It may sound like the tone of the film is all over the place, but the central concept – as absurd as it may be – grounds the plot so that all the developments feel organic, if unexpected. It’s an entertaining ride throughout.

But it’s not perfect. The characters are drawn a little thinly, and it would have helped to flesh them out a bit more. It’s not entirely clear what Gloria’s past relationship with Sudeikis was – they were friends, but good friends? Were they only close in elementary before drifting apart in high school and losing touch after? Did they have a “thing” together? It’s all rather hazy, which may be reflective of Gloria’s perception of life (she often doesn’t remember conversations she’s had the night before, or the people she was with). However, some of the climatic moments of the film require understanding who these characters are and why they’re damaged. Lacking defined characters ends up limiting the impact of the twists that come later – and the motivation behind them.

I guarantee Colossal is something that you’ve never seen before. Where else will you hold your breath watching two drunk adults fighting in a schoolyard playground and hope that the people of Seoul will be okay?

Grade: B+

Sidenote: With gender-swapped remakes all the rage right now, I wouldn’t mind seeing Single White Female remade with Jason Sudeikis in the Jennifer Jason Leigh role.

 

Better than the Real Thing: The Revenant

I’ve noticed a pattern in contemporary cinema. Films are getting longer. It doesn’t matter what genre we’re talking about – superhero summer blockbuster, Oscar bait drama, comedy, or sci-fi epic. Long films aren’t necessarily a problem, if a lengthy run time is necessary. But the fact is, most of these movies can be told in less than two and a half hours. Where have all the editors gone? Why are we losing lean and tightly-paced movies for bloated ones? I blame the Transformers movies.

The Revenant is a unique film in that it prematurely uses up both of its cinematic set-pieces less than a quarter of the way through the film. Beginning with an incredible long-take ambush on a party of fur traders and culminating with a less-brutal-than-expected bear attack, the two set-pieces of the film are over by the twenty-five minute mark….which leaves only Leo’s labourious breathing and glacial walking/crawling speed, along with Tom Hardy’s unintelligible marble-mouthed character, to fill the remaining two hours.I can’t think of any other examples of a film that has had such an exciting beginning only to limp to the finish line for the rest of the movie. It would be like if Lord of the Rings: Return of the King began with the One Ring being thrown into Mordor and then two-and-half hours spent in the Shire with Frodo and Sam having three-legged potato sack races. If this is the best in cinema, it’s pretty underwhelming.

Meanwhile, the two-and-half minute trailer for The Revenant (almost exactly 1/60th of the final product) distills the essence of the film into a thrilling fight for survival, with Leo’s laboured breathing punctuating each close call while getting rid of the plot-halting dream sequences and incomprehensible dialogue:

Now that looks good.

Side note: For some reason, I kept coming back to Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto while watching The Revenant. I think I was just reminded of the same story beats of having a hunted man in treacherous territory trying to survive against all odds and get revenge on the people who tried to kill him. As a survival story, Apocalypto is the superior film. The Revenant is a better-made one, but it lacks a pulse.

 

99 Homes

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Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) in “99 Homes.”

I saw 99 Homes almost two years ago at TIFF 2014 and haven’t been able to shake it. It’s a powerful film about the 2008 financial crisis – told from the point of view of the hundreds of thousands of families who were evicted from their homes after the housing bubble burst. It is a perspective that has been unfairly overlooked in films about this subject – which prefer to focus on the big financial firms, their executives, and the role they played in bringing about the collapse. This is a movie about the people that were destroyed along the way, which can’t be neatly compartmentalized in graphs or pie charts.

Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker who supports his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax). They live in a small, but beloved, house in Florida. There’s a knock on the door and Dennis answers. It’s a sheriff and Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), an e-cigarette smoking real-estate broker. Dennis is told that he and his family are being evicted and that he has two minutes to pack his personal belongings. It’s not a pretty scene. Director Rahim Bahrani (who Roger Ebert proclaimed to be the next great American director) keeps the camera tight while the family goes through a gamut of emotion – shock, disbelief, anger, and then finally, scrambling to put some of their belongings in a duffel bag before they’re literally kicked to the curb. It’s powerful and heartbreaking.

The family moves to a motel, occupied by dozens of other families in similar situations. Without any other options for work (obviously, being skilled at home-building wasn’t an asset during this time) Dennis ends up being employed by Carver, evicting other innocent families from their homes. While it’s an obvious bit of plotting (normal guy makes a deal with the devil and his morality suffers), Michael Shannon is compelling as the unapologetic and amoral opportunist. He is so good in the role that it’s not only believable, but practically understandable, that Dennis becomes his protege. I just wish that the shades of grey extended to Dennis’ family, who end up viewing the world in such a black-and-white way that you can see the strings of the screenplay guiding them.

The film’s climatic moment is a quiet speech by Shannon about how there’s no nobility in being poor. It’s outrageously cynical and bitter, and a difficult pill for the 99% movement (clearly evoked by the film’s title) to swallow. Carver’s point is clear: no one cares what the “losers” think – America is a country built for the “winners.” And even though the “losers” may occupy the moral high ground, they can keep it. What’s the moral high ground worth when you don’t have shelter and can’t feed your family? It’s a brutal and depressing position, delivered so well that it’s astounding Michael Shannon is consistently overlooked by the Oscars (move over Sad Leo memes, the Sad Michael memes shall be born…if he ever gets nominated again).

99 Homes is the perfect counter-point to the slick fun of The Big Short. There are no celebrity cameos to describe obscure financial terms, a star-studded ensemble, or a sense of good triumphing over evil. Instead it’s a movie about the people on the ground, the people who just have to endure a system that doesn’t care about them, that they don’t understand, and that takes their homes away from them.

Grade: B+

The Big Short

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If you saw the Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg 2010 comedy The Other Guys, you may have noticed something a little bit “off” about the end credits. While the feature was a typical over-the-top comedy (Ferrell and Wahlberg play “odd couple” partners who inadvertently solve a major case despite plenty of hijinks along the way), the end credits took a surprisingly serious turn with facts and figures from the 2008 financial crisis. After the fun and lightheartedness of the film itself, the end credits splashed a dose of cold water on the whole thing. It was clear that the people behind the film were justifiably outraged about the crisis and the fact that no one in the financial industry suffered any consequences for their creation of the whole mess. It felt like a message to the audience – if you thought this comedy was outrageous and unbelievable, just look at how nuts the real world is. So for those who saw The Other Guys, it probably wasn’t that surprising that Adam McKay, the director of that movie and other acclaimed comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, was tackling a dramatization of Michael Lewis’ 2010 book The Big Short.

Essentially, the film is about a select group of financial outsiders who realize that the mortgage-backed securities market is destined to crash (like a Jenga game, which the film uses as a nice visual metaphor) and decide to place big bets to make a fortune off of the disaster. The outsiders are played by Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, among others. And yes, these are the heroes of the film.

In arguably the film’s most important scene, Brad chastises our “heroes” after they confirm their suspicions that the whole real estate market is being run by idiots. They giddily jump up and down on the floor, until they are reminded (by Brad, the only unambiguously good man in the movie, of course) that what they are celebrating is the collapse of the American economy. That sobers their celebration pretty quickly.

That’s the scene that stuck out for me from The Big Short. Are these characters heroes? It’s nice that they’re outraged and indignant about the reckless greed of Wall Street, but they profit off that very arrogance and recklessness. At the end of the film, only two groups emerge unscathed: the Wall Street firms that are bailed out after brokering the whole mess in the first place, and our heroes, who vastly multiply their bank accounts.

The Big Short tackles the same themes as The Wolf of Wall Street, but whereas Scorsese’s film felt like a chocolate sundae this one is a steaming helping of broccoli. Its frustration with the financial system is its greatest strength, but the heavy-handedness with which it tells the tale leaves the film feeling a bit like an after-school special.

Grade: B-

Side note: I have to commend The Big Short for characters breaking the fourth wall to address that some events that play out onscreen didn’t actually happen, but make for better drama. A refreshing acknowledgement to take the film, although based on facts, with a grain of salt.