Review: GLOW – Season 3

I have been a big fan of this show since I started watching it because of its recurring themes of friendship and kindness and season three has delivered on the promise of the first two. I adore GLOW, I think it’s a wonderful series about empowerment and support that covers a wide range of emotions.

This season is all about Vegas, where the GLOW was headed at the end of season two. There are major character developments for just about everyone and some really moving moments. My favourite aspect of the show is how funny it can be while also being heartbreaking and touching. I find myself in tears almost as often as I’m laughing at the things going on.

Season three expands the characters by adding Geena Davis as hotel manager Sandy Devereaux St. Clair and Kevin Cahoon as drag performer Bobby Barnes. There are hair-raising moments and big developments for many of the major characters, especially Bash Howard (Chris Lowell). Betty Gilpin and Alison Brie lead the show with aplomb and Marc Maron is great as always. The great cast of fun and diverse characters is without a doubt the attraction, but the series writing really is its best aspect.

GLOW Season 3 is on Netflix now and I highly recommend it.

Film Review: US

Wonderful example of the Horror genre at its best

Jordan Peele’s follow up to 2017’sGet Out is a funny, creepy and very smart high-concept horror/thriller. It’s the kind of horror film that plays fully within the genre yet finds something broader to say, using the idea of symmetry and mimics to talk about underclasses and the secret machinery behind the world that we know and understand. I loved it for its refreshing characters and situation and the aplomb of its execution.

Lupita Nyong’o stars as the mother of a wealthy nuclear family who are on vacation to a cabin in Santa Cruz. One night they come under siege by a group of mimics, each one an identical copy of a family member. They move in creepy, inhuman ways and mean to kill our protagonists and to say anything more would be to ruin some delightful surprises.

The writing is very good, with a nice amount of time spent getting to know the family so that you are invested and care when things begin to go badly. The film plays squarely to its genre boundaries and conventions but in refreshing ways that give new life to old concepts, and I love that kind of genre-exceptionalism. Everything is carefully structured and laid out with a lot of emphasis on symmetry and doubling, and it has the wonderful quality of a good horror film in that it can be read as a parable for societal relations.

The whole cast is great, but special mention goes to Lupita Nyong’o for her acting. Her Oscar for 12 Years A Slave was no fluke. What she does here is pull off two very distinct and yet deeply connected roles and she is amazing to watch. Winston Duke is charming as her husband Gabe and the two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), are a lot of fun to watch interact. I also enjoyed Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as their neighbours.

Altogether, I loved Us and I think it is a fine example of what the horror genre is capable of. I loved seeing new faces and an intelligent script which finely balances the line between the amusing and the sinister. There are some great twists and surprises as well as creepy moments and real scares. This is great entertainment.

Film Review: The Lego Movie Part 2

Terrific family entertainment

I really enjoyed the first Lego movie and had doubts that they could pull off something as good a second time. I was wrong. This movie is fun, funny, smart and unexpectedly touching. It teeters close to schmaltz a few times, but the endless sight gags and jokes plus the earnestness of the story overcome any such weaknesses.

The story picks up some time after the end of the first film with a satisfying recap of the events and what lead to the current state of dystopia the Lego world has become. Apocalypsburg is now a Mad Max-style world of brooding tough guys and gals where anything pretty gets taken away by the Duplo invaders from the Sistar System. Everyone is committed to being tough and hard-hearted except Emmett (Chris Pratt), who still retains his sunny disposition, and people call him immature for it, urging him to grow up and get tough. When his friends are kidnapped to attend the marriage of the Duplo Queen Whatevra Wan’abe (Tiffany Hadisch) to Batman (Will Arnett) he has to find a way to save them and prevent the Armamageddon (Our-mom-ageddon) with the help of the suspiciously familiar Rex Dangervest, a grizzled tough-guy, macho-hero who flies a spaceship shaped like a fist and crewed by velociraptors.

The film has the same madcap energy and near-improv tone of the first film and I thought it was nonstop fun in that regard. The film breaks into the real world more often than the first film, and while I felt at times they were coming close to spending too much time there, the story makes it work really well because a large part of it is about the estrangement between siblings. Another theme I loved was the exploration of maturity and how superficial a lot of our ideas about maturity tend to be. Fortunately, the film does not fall into the trap of promoting endless childhood even though it looks like it might in places. I think it’s more about how a lot of the positive qualities we tell our children to invest in (such as co-operation and compassion) often become sacrificed in our rush to appear grown up and toughened to the world later on. It’s surprisingly complex and rich for what appears to be a children’s movie, but I love films whose scope goes beyond whatever genre they appear to be and The Lego Movie 2 is a brilliant example.

I really like this movie. I think it is exceptional family entertainment in that it plays to two audiences – the kids who love Lego and the adults who may recognize personal truths in the narrative, with lots of laughs for everyone along the way. The film deals with themes of maturity, disillusionment, community and optimism in ways that were unexpectedly complex and moving. I found myself quite affected at times by the storyline which is basically about how things aren’t always what you’d like, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pull together and make it better, and that’s a sentiment I respond to quite strongly.

Trailer

As usual, Mark Kermode’s review hits the bull’s eye.

Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

This movie was an absolute delight. I had heard some good things but missed its initial release, so when I made the effort to see a one-night screening at the Rio, in spite of wanting to stay home and watch the new Black Mirror, I was very surprised and elated to discover one of the most original movies of the year. Sorry to Bother You made me laugh, made me think and made me go “WTF?” with its truly unpredictable plot twists. I loved it and I think it is one of the best movies of 2018.

The movie opens with Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) interviewing for a telemarketing job at Regalview, part of a huge multifaceted corporation run almost as a personality cult by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer in hilarious form). The job sucks and there is discontent between workers and management with a move to unionize led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), but when Cassius starts using his “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross) to connect to clients he rises through the ranks leaving his friends behind when he becomes a star “powercaller”. But Reglaview has a dark side which is only revealed as Cassius climbs higher and it only gets darker and funnier and flat-out weirder as the film approaches its conclusion.

The first thing I loved about this movie was its tone. It is very relatable with a fine supporting cast of rich and diverse characters, and it definitely plays to a mature audience with grown-up sensibilities. It’s not an overt crowd-pleaser (although the large audience I saw it with did sound very amused throughout). I also really loved how it’s one of those kinds of science-fiction movies that creeps up on you. There is already a heightened sense of silliness in a lot of what we see, but the real world is also very silly when looked at in certain ways and it’s only the gradual accumulation of details that clues you into the fact that this is not the real world. That is, until a crazy plot twist late in the movie that is pure sci-fi but works because of all the subtle groundwork laid in.

There are some rough edges to the movie (the film’s lack of budget is very apparent in one sequence involving a riot) but that is part of its charm. It’s a scrappy underdog of a movie, about working class heroes and featuring a fairly socially progressive point of view (the union subplot being a perfect example). That’s the kind of real community justice you don’t see in most movies, probably because most movies tend to reinforce the status quo instead of challenging it. The film has many little touches that tip you off to its subversive nature which had me grinning when I wasn’t outright laughing, and that is the most important thing of all – the film avoids being preachy by making you laugh.

Boots Riley deserves special mention for his writing and directing, the movie is full of wildly inventive visual ideas that match the story perfectly, and the cast is terrific. Lakeith Stanfield is immensely sympathetic, keeping you on his side even when he’s selling out, and Tessa Thompson is wonderful as Cassius’ performance artist girlfriend Detroit. Terry Crews has only a couple of scenes as Cassius’ uncle Sergio but he’s always a gem. I really enjoyed the mostly non-white casting because I love seeing other faces and voices on screen. The movie is incisive in its comments about race and one sequence in particular had many in the audience at the screening I attended squirming with discomfort, myself included. I love it when a movie can make me squirm and laugh and think.

Sorry to Bother You is very high up on my list of best films of 2018. I thought it was highly creative and original with many genuine surprises, but also that it was smart and funny – very, very funny. I was smiling almost from start to finish and for a long time after it was over. I really can’t say enough good things about it, I thought it was truly unique and special. I loved it.

Film Review – 8th Grade

Bo Burnham has written and directed a gem of a movie about coming of age in modern times. I thought it was a sweet, sad and very funny look at the life of a modern teenager and how it might actually not be all that different from your own past experience. I highly recommend it.

Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla, a 13 year-old daughter of a single dad who is trying his best to be there for her but, of course, he’s nothing but a source of embarrassment. She is of the smartphone generation and the recurrence of faces lit by digital screens was a motif I could not help but notice. What’s so great about the film is the relatability. I was 13 in the late 80s, a very different time, yet I can fully identify with all of the awkwardness and angst of trying to fit in while also standing out. It is a bewildering time, and I’m not sure technology has the influence some people of my generation and older think it does. The awfulness of being thirteen is probably universal, regardless of time or place. That was certainly the impression I got watching this film.

The movie has a really wonderful tone of polarization. Throughout the film we see these kids who are either clueless about how uncool they are or massively overcompensating for it. Many times the music works marvellously as either a counterpoint to what we’re seeing or a huge amplification. One of my favourite scenes involves Kayla going to a pool party (where she is so dreadfully embarrassed about appearing in a bathing suit that she almost has a panic attack in the bathroom while getting changed) and the shot is of her standing in the window looking at everyone frolicking and the music is this hilariously overdone electronic number that feels like the worst parts of a rave and a circus combined.

The casting of Elsie Fisher is easily my favourite part of the movie. She feels like a completely genuine 13 year-old with slightly wonky teeth, bad skin and bad posture, not one of the 25 year-old models who usually get the part. She’s the most endearing character I’ve seen in ages and really just wonderful. I understand Bo Burnham made a point of auditioning real teenagers, not necessarily actors, and the result is a really believable supporting cast who aren’t just clichés.

There are some dark moments and some sad ones which help give the movie more dimension than just a series of gags and jokes, but it never gets too dark. For example, one scene shows the kids in school doing a practice drill to prepare for the event of a school shooting, but it is played for laughs by having the kids as indifferent to it as a fire drill. There was only one moment in the movie that made me feel actually uncomfortable, as opposed to amusedly uncomfortable, which is the currency the movie is dealing in all the time, but that is not a criticism. Without giving anything away, I think the scene played out just the way it should have and in a way I was grateful for it even though I felt for a moment that it threatened to pull the whole movie down.

I really liked 8th Grade a lot. It’s a really sweet coming of age comedy that shows how being a teenager today is probably not all that different from the way it was when I was a teenager. Elsie Fisher’s Kayla is the most refreshingly charming awkward movie teen I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend it if you want to laugh and maybe shed a tear or two at its sensitivity. Beautiful.

Retro-Review: City of Lost Children (1995)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to a screening of The City of Lost Children, a gem of French cinema from the 1990s which I have long adored. I love it for its baroque production design, the casting of fabulously unusual faces and an overall cartoonish sensibility that makes it a dark fairy tale adventure full of surprises and laughs.

I’ve seen the film several times but it is only now that I feel I comfortably have a grasp of the plot, because it is serpentine with endless detours into side-gags. Broadly speaking, in the fable-like setting of some dark quasi-early-20th century sea port town, children are being abducted by a mad scientist living in an off-shore laboratory where he drains them of their dreams in order to stay young. I think. Honestly, I’m still not sure if that’s entirely accurate, but our central protagonist, One (Ron Perlman), is a fairground strongman whose little brother is stolen, triggering a quest to find him, aided by 10 year-old Miette (Judith Vittet), a street-urchin and sort-of leader of a gang of child street thieves.

There are a lot of subplots running parallel to one another throughout the film’s running time, so much so that I can’t really explain any more of the plot because it would take too long and it’s more fun to discover for yourself. The show moves along at a good clip and never really lags, with loads of detail in every frame. The filmmaking team at the helm, Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, would later go on to make Amelie (2001) which is a great example of their flair for fantastical elements and buoyant humour, though City of Lost Children is much darker in tone. Along with Delicatessen (1991), the duo have made three fine films which made me fall in love with French cinema.

I also want to make special mention of the casting of this movie. It is full of the most interesting looking people you’ve ever seen in a single film. The only pretty people are the children, almost as if to suggest that we all start out pretty until life twists us into broken adults. I also love how Miette plays as the classic fatalistic French femme, cynical and world-weary, yet tagging along with the vaguely simian strongman, One, focused on his quest. They make an endearing pairing of brains and brawn.

I love The City of Lost Children. I think the way its whimsy plays off the darker undertones is delightful. Wonderful cast, a pleasantly convoluted plot, gorgeous production design and flashes of humour make it a joy to watch. Thanks to this and the other works of Jeunet & Caro, I am a confessed fan of French film. Great fun.

Film Review – The Death of Stalin

From writer-director Armando Iannucci, the man behind political comedies like VeepIn the Loop and The Thick of It, comes this wickedly satirical movie about the power vacuum created by the death of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953 and the struggle between members of his inner circle to take control. I thought it was a great mockery of power structures and the immorality of self-appointed leaders, a masterful balance of tragedy and comedy that was as dark and disturbing as it was hilarious.

The cast is marvelous. Simon Russel Beale is pure evil as the ambitious Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s chief torturer and executioner; Jeffrey Tambor is the feckless Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s supposed replacement according to party protocol; Michael Palin is wonderful as Vyacheslav Molotov, the last of the original revolutionaries, now a largely broken man; and Steve Buscemi is terrific as the craftily pragmatic Nikita Kruschev, the man who really did go on to succeed Stalin. The supporting cast is populated by great talents as well, but for my money the most fun character by far was Jason Isaacs’ rendition of Field Marshal Zhukov, a swaggering war hero and vanquisher of the German army whose uniform is cartoonishly festooned with medal upon medal.

The script is sensationally well written, adapted from a French graphic novel with a clearly strong Iannucci spin. Time and again characters are faced with idiotic choices while pretending that nothing is wrong and everyone is constantly paranoid about being arrested or shot, which is completely valid in an atmosphere which saw all the best doctors either killed or exiled to the gulag, thus making the search for a doctor to treat Stalin in his death throes all the more darkly funny. A system where fear is the primary motivator and murder a technique of enforcement fosters a culture of avoiding responsibility and co-operation, and I felt this movie hilariously demonstrated that.

What made the movie work for me the most was the way in which it shows the totally amoral and sociopathic behaviour of vulgar brutes masquerading as civilized men, which is really comical. As Stalin’s inner circle competes for power, people are murdered quite casually and, in one scene, en masse. These moments cast a stark contrast against the political comedy unfolding behind closed doors, lending a bitter sting to the ludicrous maneuverings of the party chiefs which feel only too plausibly real. It’s difficult to know the true history of Soviet Russia, especially under Stalin, but I don’t imagine the real events were too far from what is depicted in this movie. Obviously, things are heightened for comedic effect, but you only need to look at the current situation at the White House to see some funny shit.

I loved The Dearth of Stalin. I thought it was tremendously funny, razor-sharp in its writing and populated by truly talented and perfectly cast personalities. I found it to be very lively and funny but also a little disturbing given the murderousness of the regime depicted. I still think it’s one of the best comedies about politics that I’ve ever seen, though, and highly recommend it even if you’re not into history or politics because it’s ultimately just a very funny commentary on human nature and power.