REVIEW: Pope Francis Gets Real

Pope says hi.

Regardless of your feelings towards the Catholic Church, it’s fair to say Jorge Bergoglio encountered a challenging situation when he became Pope Francis in 2013: The institution was noticeably out of step with the world, congregations were dwindling, and the matter of widespread sexual abuse perpetrated by priests wasn’t being dealt with as much as swept under the carpet.

Francis revealed himself to be more of a revolutionary than anybody expected (sure, the transformation of the Church hasn’t been sweeping, but the man is inarguably an improvement). Director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) focuses precisely on the Pontiff’s main drives in Pope Francis: A Man of his Word, a documentary built around a couple of wide ranging interviews with the Argentinian Jesuit.

Wenders cares little about Francis’ upbringing or how he became the man he is today. His main concern is the Pope’s view of the world and what is he doing about it. The Pontiff’s modest lifestyle (for Vatican standards anyway) gives away his game: Poverty is the chip on his shoulders and hasn’t hesitated in calling out capitalism. He is also the first environmentalist Leader of the Church to date, a stance that has alienated many Conservative Catholics, particularly in the US. You don’t have to agree with the man, but one has to admire the consistency.

From a cinematic perspective, Wim Wenders gets his hands on some eye-popping footage. Unfortunately, his decision of creating cheesy interstitials with the life of St. Francis of Assisi (as if shot by Carl Dreyer in the 1920’s) fails to achieve the desired effect of linking both Francises through history.

Bergoglio comes across as affable, but doesn’t take much to discover gravitas under his welcoming demeanor. One could argue Wenders is too soft on Francis, particularly when dealing with the matter of children’s abuse at hands of clerics. As biased as it is, it provides enough insight on a man who sees monumental tasks ahead –refugees, climate change, ever expanding poverty– and his reaction is simply to roll up his sleeves and get to work, which is more than the other guy did (the German one, who quit). Three pious prairie dogs.

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is now playing at Studio 7.

REVIEW: Incredibles 2 Leaves You Wanting More

Elastigirl leaves the baby with her house-husband in Incredibles 2.

Alongside Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc., The Incrediblesis a foundational Pixar film, a veritable neoclassic that explores the changing dynamics of family life disguised as a superhero film from the 60’s. The film invigorated the career of Brad Bird, who crashed and burned with the Iron Giant, a critical darling that didn’t connect with audiences.

The Incredibles was a smash hit, and Bird moved on to bigger things (the narratively ambitious Ratatouille, his first live-action film Mission: Impossible 4), but following another box office miss (the unfairly maligned Tomorrowland), the Pixar creative returned to Pixar to helm a sequel of his first hit… 14 years after the original.

Incredibles 2 picks up seconds after the original’s ending, mid-battle with the Underminer. The considerable destruction that ensued from that encounter forced the Parr family to go back into hiding. Broke and a little bored, when a millionaire offers them to spearhead a PR campaign to bring superheroes back, they are happy to accept. There is a catch, Helen a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is the one chosen to be the face of the movement.

Suddenly a stay-at-home dad, Bob a.k.a Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles mightily: Homework is ridiculously hard, daughter Violet is sullen as ever, and baby Jack-Jack has dozens of powers and can’t control a single one of them. Meanwhile, Elastigirl thrives in her new job, although the new villain in town –the Screenslaver– is getting on her nerves.

The home front chaos is far more compelling than the adventure that ties all together, mainly by how compelling Bob, Violet and Jack-Jack are, together and separately. Bob is not exactly ‘woke’ and even though he doesn’t get in the way of Helen, he is clearly begrudging his spouse. Violet’s priorities are not in line with the rest of the family, especially when facing the possibility of a boyfriend.

The relationship of Bob and Helen is another highlight. Never mind the disagreements, their partnership is one you can believe. Take recent superhero hits Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War: A good chunk of the plot hangs on coupledom, and yet the undoing of these pairs left me cold. Bob and Helen have a shorthand and know when to push a point and pull their punches. It’s a successful marriage in a nutshell.

I don’t plan to spoil the identity of the villain here. Suffice to say, like all good antagonists, it has a valid motive and a cool and unusual modus operandi. It’s not nearly as flashy as fanboy-gone-wrong Syndrome, but it has more depth.

The only aspect of the film that doesn’t quite work is the conclusion. Probably because the scenario is not particularly dramatic, or the threat is too mild to taste, the stakes feel low. That said, Incredibles 2 gets an easy pass on character strength alone. 3 ½ super dogs

Incredibles 2 is playing everywhere.

Sunday Matinee: Jack The Giant Killer

In 1958 Ray Harryhausen helped make The 7th Voyage of Sinbad which became a big hit with audiences. A rival film producer named Edward Small decided that he wanted to cash in on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad‘s success. He made Jack the Giant Killer which got released in 1962.

Small hired director Nathan Juran who directed The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and along with Sinbad actors Kerwin Mathews who played Sinbad and now plays the hero Jack and Torin Thatcher who played an evil wizard in Sinbad and in Jack plays an evil wizard called Pendragon.
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Sunday Matinee: A Study In Terror

In 1965 Sherlock Holmes found himself facing off against a mysterious and notorious killer for the first time. Jack the Ripper.

Three prostitutes have murdered in gruesome fashion with no clues to the killer other than the press call him Jack the Ripper. Soon after a mysterious package arrives for Sherlock Holmes (John Neville). It’s a case of surgical tools with scalpel missing. With the help of Dr. Watson (Donald Houston) Holmes starts looking into the case.
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Sunday Matinee: It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive

Shout Factory has just released Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive trilogy on blu-ray and it looks fantastic.

I’ve written before about the first It’s Alive about a horribly deformed monster baby being born and then going on a rampage to get home to Mom and Dad. Cohen was a master of low budget horror movies. God Told me To and Q were both fantastic and the original It’s Alive is highly entertaining.
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Sunday Matinee: Kill Bill

Quentin Tarantino’s homage to grindhouse action, samurai, martial art movies was also a showcase for actress Uma Thurman.

Thurman stars as The Bride, a woman who was once a part of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. On her wedding day, while pregnant, her former squad members stormed the wedding killing everyone. The leader of the group Bill (David Carradine), The Bride’s former lover and father of her child shots her in the head. The Bride survives but is in a coma for four years.
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Sunday Matinee: Yes, Madam!

After the 1970s there were several big movies that featured bad ass woman action lead roles. 1979’s Alien with Sigourney Weaver which needs no introduction and 1980’s Gloria with Gena Rowlands as a woman trying to save a kid from the mob. There was also a lot of bad action movies. She, Sheena and Red Sonja just to name a couple.

Today’s Sunday Matinee is 1985’s Yes, Madam a Hong Kong action film starring Michelle Yeoh – in what was her first starring role.
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Sunday Matinee: Lady Snowblood

A woman gives birth to a baby girl while in prison in the late 1800 Japan. The woman dies after the birth but before she dies she wants her daughter Yuki to continue her plan of vengeance.

Yuki (Meiko Kaji) grows up learning how to fight and kill. She needs to kill three more people. Before she was born her mother and her mother’s husband were attacked by a group of four people. The husband was killed and the mother was raped. The mother tracked down one of the four and murdered him which is why she was in prison. While in prison she purposely got pregnant by one of the guards so she could have a child to finish seeking vengeance.
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Sunday Matinee: Coffy

Pam Grier had co-starred in several women in prison movies and a few blaxploitation films before getting the lead role of 1973’s Coffy.

Blaxploitation films had exploded in popularity and American International Pictures had lost the rights to make Cleopatra Jones – which Warner Bros. made and released in the same year. American International Pictures being American International Pictures quickly raced and made Coffy to beat Cleopatra Jones in theatres.
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Sunday Matinee: The Big Doll House

Women in prison movies started becoming be in the late 1960s with films like 99 Women. Naturally Roger Corman’s low budget exploitation film company New World Pictures started making them in the early 1970s starting with The Big Doll House in 1971.

Directed by Jack Hill the movie was shot in the Philippines. Judy Brown stars as Collier a woman sent to prison for the murder of her husband. Once in prison she meets Alcott and Bodine (Roberta Collins and Pat Woodell). She also meets Grear (Pam Grier – in her first big screen role). Gear is a prison bully and lesbian who has her eyes set on Collier after her current girlfriend bores her. Meanwhile the sadistic female guards and warden Miss Dietrich (Christiane Schmidtmer) like to torture the prisoners.
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Sunday Matinee: Come Drink With Me

Marital arts in movies have been around on the screen since the early days of film. But the massive international popularity of them wouldn’t really begin until the 1960s. In 1966 The Shaw Brothers Studio produced a movie called Come Drink with Me which would kick start a massive onslaught of martial art movies.

Come Drink with Me starred actress Cheng Pei-pei in the lead role as Golden Swallow a bad ass martial artist who is out to try and save her brother who has been kidnapped by a bandits have allied themselves with an evil monastery lead Abbot Liao Kung (Yeung Chi-hing). On her journeys she is helped by Drunken Cat aka Fan Da-pei (Yueh Hua), a former member of the same martial art master that trained Abbot Liao Kung.
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REVIEW: (Groan), Lucy

Oh, Lucy! was the first movie I saw in last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. I remember thinking “what a pointless oddity. I’m positive I will never hear of this movie again.” And here we are.

Produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Oh Lucy! is not the film you would expect from the Anchorman duo. Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), a lonely middle-age woman living in Tokyo, rediscovers her joie de vivre when by chance lands in an English class with John (Josh Harnett, don’t ask). The expat’s teaching technique consists in giving the student a blond wig and an American identity, “Lucy”. (Seriously, people have problems with Isle of Dogs and not with this?)

Unbeknownst to John, the class triggers a tectonic shift inside Setsuko. She loosens up, quits her job and decides to actively pursue the English professor. John has gone back to America, you say? No problem! She has a passport.

There are a couple of additional complications (John is dating Setsuko’s niece; Setsuko and her sister can’t stand each other) that give the film a whiff of screwball comedy, but Oh Lucy! never takes off: Harnett is no one’s idea of comedic performer and Shinobu Terajima embodies too much pathos to come across as funny.

The film is more effective while in Japan. The moment the action moves to Los Angeles and the “fish out of water” cliché kicks in, Oh Lucy! loses its charm. The tonal inconsistency is jarring: This is a comedy that opens with someone launching himself in front of a train, and clearly there is something wrong with Setsuko that is never addressed.

If nothing else, Terajima’s performance keeps the film watchable, but the low stakes and even lower production values hurt the overall experience. The message -the connections you make in the world may save you in the end- is a sweet one, if about as pat as they come. One and a half ESL prairie dog (out of five).

Oh Lucy! opens this Friday 13th at the Rainbow Cinema Golden Mile – Studio 7.

REVIEW: Rossy De Palma does English in Madame

Every actor in the strange ensemble comedy Madame is someone who deserves to hit the screen more often: The consistently reliable Toni Collette, the (as of late) little seen Harvey Keitel, Almodóvar mainstay Rossy De Palma, and Brit character actor Michael Smiley (Kill List). They all are a treat to watch, but are poorly served by a movie with considerable identity issues: Is it a comedy of manners? Slapstick? Drama?

Madame is set in Paris for no discernible reason beyond the sights. Bob and Anne (Keitel and Collette) are an American couple enduring unspoken crises: Bob is short in cash and forced to sell his beloved Caravaggio. Anne, his aging trophy wife, is sexually frustrated and considering an affair. They are preparing a lavish dinner that may solve their problems when they realize there are 13 sits at the table, a harbinger of bad luck.

To solve the impasse, Anne dresses the maid, María (De Palma), in haute couture to pass her for a Spanish socialite. As the classic romantic comedy trope goes, María’s earthy charms captivate the guests, particularly a British art broker (Smiley) unaware of the ruse.

Even though the setting is ancient, De Palma makes it work. She is a delight as the reluctant accomplice, whose religion-based misgivings fall by the wayside one by one. Unfortunately, Madame is not her movie: Keitel and Collette have storylines that never take off. The Anne character could have been a delightful villain. Instead we have to put up with her run-of-the-mill midlife crisis. Also, one shouldn’t cast the star of Bad Lieutenant to play the straight man in anything. Kind of a waste.

The film is intermittently amusing and sticks the landing with a beauty of a gut punch. The moral of the story: When in doubt, go with Rossy. Two earthy prairie dogs.

Madame opens today Friday the 13th in Regina, at the Rainbow Cinema Golden Mile – Studio 7.

Sunday Matinee: Tiger of the Seven Seas

Gianna Maria Canale stars as Consuelo who is the daughter of the notorious pirate called Tiger. Tiger has decided to retire and decides to hold a contest to see who will take over his command. The contest comes down to William (Anthony Steel) and Consuelo. Consuelo wins but then her father is murdered in the night.
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Sunday Matinee: Anne Of The Indies

This 1951 action adventure swashbuckler stars Jean Peters as Captain Anne Providence, a notorious pirate who sails the sevens seas. Intended to be loosely based on Anne Bonny the movie took several liberties and eventual became its on thing.

Anne and her crew have just seized a British ship and she meets Captain Pierre François LaRochelle (Louis Jourdan) whom she spares and lets him join her crew. Anne starts to fall in love with Pierre and takes him to meet her mentor Blackbeard (Thomas Gomez).
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Sunday Matinee: Johnny Guitar

There are a few westerns in the 1940s and 50s which had strong female roles. 1945’s Along Came Jones featured Gary Cooper as easy going Jones who is mistaken for a bad guy except unlike the bad guy Cooper can’t shoot very well. Fortunately Loretta Young can.

There was also Ann Savage in Renegade Girl (1946), several adaptations on the life of Annie Oakley, first in 1935 with Barbara Stanwyck in Annie Oakley and then a musical with the same name in 1950 with Betty Hutton. There were also several Belle Starr films, the first was a silent in 19287 called Court Martial. Gene Tierney played her in Belle Starr (1941) and Isabel Jewell played Starr in Badman’s Territory and Daughter of Belle Starr (both 1946), and Jane Russell was Starr in Montana Belle (1952).
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Almost Ready, Player One

The #604Stacks.

It’s Juno weekend in Vancouver. For those who think music died with Bowie and Prince, the event doesn’t carry much weight (three weeks ago, I didn’t know what a “Hedley” was. Now I’m trying to forget), but at least the side attractions are quite fun.

Chief among them are the #604Stacks, the low-income housing featured in Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s latest movie based on the Ernest Cline best-seller. The stacks are shipping containers -not unlike Brazil favelas- that symbolize the widespread poverty and overpopulation that may characterize the planet in 2045. From this environment emerges Wade, a teen gamer who goes on an epic journey -both virtual and in real life- to become a hero for a disheartened population.

The #604Stacks are a full scale recreation of the aforementioned housing in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Three of the containers are accessible to the public. The first one is filled with classic arcade games: “Centipede”, “Ms. Pac Man”, “Donkey Kong” and the sort. Worth mentioning, the Oasis, the virtual reality universe where Wade spends most of his time, is peppered with 80’s references, and knowledge of the decade’s pop culture and electronic games is indispensable to thrive.

The second container is a duplicate of Wade’s residence (it doubles as rewards area). The third one houses a VR game inspired by the film. “Rise of the Gunters” pits Wade and friends against the corporate agents who want to control the Oasis. I did poorly at “Gunters”, but crushed “Centipede”. Hours and hours of Atari 2600 practice pay off.

#604Stacks its open to the public Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th, 12 to 9pm.

Ready Player One opens next March 29th everywhere.

Sunday Matinee: The Paleface

Other than the action serials of the 1930s and 40s there was very very few leading roles for women as the hero. Most leading roles at the time were primarily drama, mother of a family struggling to keep the family together and such or a woman trying to become a star was another popular theme. But there the odd hero role for women.

Starting in the silent film era there was the odd western about a female gunfighter. 1918 had The Gun Woman. In the 1935 Annie Oakley a bio-pic about the sharp shooter starred Barbara Stanwyck, in 1935 The Plainsman starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill had Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane but only in a non fighting side role. 1941 had the romanticized bio-pic Belle Starr (Gene Tierney) the notorious outlaw although the movie makes her more sympathetic, less of robbing criminal and more of a patriotic freedom fighter.
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REVIEW: Tomb Raider Is Serviceable Fun

Back in the day (2001), when Angelina Jolie was announced as the incarnation of the world’s (second) most famous tomb raider, the decision was celebrated as a victory for Girl Power: Finally, a female hero carrying an action film.

Besides the fact we have progressed astonishingly little in that regard (word by word, the same was said of Wonder Woman last year), it’s worth mentioning Jolie’s Lara Croft movies were not great. Not only the plot was unwieldly, Angelina played a sassier version of herself and not really a character.

The main change the 2018 version of Tomb Raider is that Alicia Vikander actually plays Lara Croft. The film is simple but cohesive and the action set-pieces are fluid, as opposed to the choppy style of some other genre specialists (ehem, Michael Bay, ehem).

In this incarnation, Croft is an bike courier/MMA aficionado living paycheck to paycheck. She doesn’t have to. Lara has inherited millions of dollars from her missing father, but she is reluctant to take a penny as she hasn’t given up hope that her dad may resurface.

On the verge of caving in, Lara stumbles upon a clue of her father’s whereabouts: A restless man, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) may have ended in Japan, in pursuit of the resting place of a witch with devastating powers. And he wasn’t the only one in pursuit of the grave.

Tomb Raider is one of those rare cases in which the marriage of an European filmmaker’s sensibilities and a Hollywood production works out. Director Roar Uthaug, responsible for the low-budget, high-octane tsunami flick The Wave, keeps things grounded in reality. Because Indiana Jones’ parentage is undeniable, Uthaug embraces it, leading to effective sequences of Lara Croft using brains and brawn to escape from impossible situations.

A reliable performer, Alicia Vikander brings her low-key charisma to the role. She is immensely watchable and brings a modicum of verisimilitude to ludicrous scenarios. Fans of the videogame (the film is based on the 2013 reboot) are served with winks and nudges, without going overboard.

As the first movie of a would-be franchise, the film does a good job sticking to the story at hand and not overloading in mythology, so often the kiss of death of origin stories. A strong supporting cast (Walton Goggins, Kristin Scott-Thomas and a criminally underused Derek Jacobi) and rather amusing set pieces make Tomb Raider an enjoyable popcorn flick. 3/5 prairie dogs.

Tomb Raider is now playing everywhere.

Sunday Matinee: Brenda Starr, Reporter

Brenda Starr was a popular comic strip that had started in the 1940s written and drawn by one of the few female comic artists working at the time Dale Messick. The comic followed the adventures of Brenda Starr a reporter who got into all sorts of adventures (Messick came up with it after her all female pirate comic got rejected). The series was so popular it lasted until 2011 in newspapers.

Columbia Pictures loved adapting comic characters into serials, Superman, Batman, The Phantom, Congo Bill, Terry and the Pirates and many more so it was not much of a surprise that they adapted Brenda Starr.
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