MY FILMS OF 2015

5 stars

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

4 ½ stars

Selma

Inside Out

Spotlight

4 stars

Foxcatcher

The Theory of Everything

Big Hero 6

Wild Tales

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Mr. Holmes

The Martian

Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr

My Internship in Canada

Mississippi Grind

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

3 ½ stars

Into The Woods

Copenhagen

Mr. Turner

Far From the Madding Crowd

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Hardcore

3 stars

Tomorrowland

Live From New York!

Where to Invade Next

SPECTRE

Steve Jobs

2 ½ stars

Ant-Man

Best of Enemies

High Rise

Hitchcock/Truffaut

2 stars

Pitch Perfect 2

FOXCATCHER

4 stars

Magic Mike 2 this is not, so if you’re going just because Channing Tatum spends most of his onscreen time in a wrestling singlet you may be a little freaked out. It is based on the true story of how eccentric old-money billionaire John Dupont became obsessed with Olympic gold medal wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, and brought them to his ranch to train and lead his own stable of amateur wrestlers. Foxcatcher is a disturbing but fascinating critique of those who would advocate American philanthropy as the solution to income inequality and pokes gaping holes in the myth of a classless American dream.

Performances on all sides are remarkable.   A 180 degree turn from the affable loser he usually plays, Steve Carrell is so creepy as Dupont that he supplies most of the film’s dramatic tension all on his own. Even a scene that should have been hilarious, in which Dupont is grilling Mark Schultz (Tatum) on how to introduce him to at a gala dinner and keeps repeating “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist”, has the humour frozen right out of it. Tatum’s role as an inarticulate, conflicted avatar of American working class masculinity is less of a stretch for him but still riveting to watch.

SELMA

4 ½ stars

A fascinating biopic of an episode in the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King (an excellent performance by David Oyelowo in a breakthrough role), the movie focuses on the period just after he receives the Nobel Peace Prize when his team of civil rights advocates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference descend on Selma, Alabama to protest illegal restrictions on the registration of black voters. This is a great film driven by a great story with multiple layers of conflict. There’s the obvious bloody conflict between the protestors and the white police, bureaucrats and thugs who oppose them (including Tim Roth, wonderfully loathsome as Alabama governor George Wallace). There is interesting conflict between MLK and President Lyndon B. Johnson, who is portrayed as an obstructionist who had to be dragged via Dr. King’s savvy media tactics into implementing voting reforms.

The conflict within the movement is at least as interesting, with the bruised egos of the local activists as Dr. King’s team takes over, the tension to keep their actions non-violent in the face of the murderous response from whites, and the relationship tension between King and his wife Coretta.

The role of women in this very male-dominated story told by a female director (Ava DuVernay, the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe award) is interesting. Coretta King is the only prominently featured female character, and her main plot point is a classic stand-by-your-man dilemma. The most powerful black woman in show business, Oprah Winfrey, is cast in a near-silent cameo role. Is this a comment on women being sidelined in the civil rights movement? The film is curiously disinterested in positioning Dr. King and his methods in the larger social justice context of the twentieth century, referencing neither Mahatma Gandhi who inspired MLK’s non-violent methods, nor second-wave feminist protests which were inspired in turn by King’s strategies. Also completely absent are any LGBT characters, although one wonders about the two attractive young male local activists in snug knit tops who have passionate debates about politics but are seemingly girlfriend-less. Intersectional failings notwithstanding, a quite wonderful movie.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

4 stars

This wonderfully satisfying biopic is about Stephen Hawking, the lauded theoretical physicist who developed Lou Gehrig’s disease (or I guess we must now call it the “Ice Bucket” disease). It is based on his wife Jane Hawking’s memoir, and while the narrative is very linear considering Hawking’s contribution to the theories of time, it is a genuinely inspiring story. English hunk Eddie Redmayne (Marius from the Les Miserables movie) disappears into his role as the Cambridge professor who’s physical capabilities decline just as his intellectual and romantic life is flourishing. It is an uncanny resemblance for those who remember the Hawking-mania that accompanied the 1988 publication of his popular science book A Brief History of Time. If physics isn’t your thing, don’t worry, the movie mainly follows Hawking’s personal challenges, you needn’t have a PhD to appreciate its themes.

INTO THE WOODS

3 ½ stars

I generally love movie musicals, but I often have a problem with Stephen Sondheim so I was curious to see how this adaptation of his take on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales would work out. My issue with Sondheim is that I can find some of his work over intellectualized and stylistically irritating which can drain the emotion from the work. Thankfully some strong performances mitigate these tendencies here, with Meryl Streep singing a lovely rendition of the musical’s best song “Children Will Listen”.

James Corden and Emily Blunt ground the film as the plebian Baker and Baker’s Wife who are trying to lift the witch’s curse on their family by seeking out four items from the fairy tale characters: the cow as white as milk (Jack and the Beanstalk’s cow), the cape as red as blood (Little Red Riding Hood’s cape), the hair as yellow as corn (Rapunzel’s hair), the slipper as pure as gold (Cinderella’s slipper). In doing so they encounter all these characters as well as Prince Charming, Big Bad Wolf, and a couple of angry giants. Chris Pine (Star Trek’s Capt. Kirk) as Cinderella’s Prince Charming is hilariously pompous, as if Pine was finally getting a chance to channel William Shatner after being told not to for the Star Trek movies. About Johnny Depp’s Big Bad Wolf, the less said the better, ugh.

Overall, director Rob Marshall could have done a better job of tightening up the musical’s flaws (too long, too many plotlines that sometimes come together awkwardly, too much recitative) but it’s still fun.

BIG HERO 6

4 stars

Disney and Marvel seem determined to wring money where they can from Marvel’s minor intellectual properties (if they are listening, start working on that Alpha Flight movie!), but if the result is as much fun as the Oscar-nominated Big Hero 6 I’m all for it.

Robotics prodigy Hiro is squandering his talents in back alley robot fighting competitions until his older brother convinces him to apply to his own technical college, where he has already completed his own robotic prototype, an inflatable health-care attendant called Baymax. Hiro gets into the school based on his psionically controlled prototype Microbots, but a fire destroys them and kills his brother. When a supervillain appears who is using Hiro’s recovered invention to wreak havoc, Hiro must convince his brother’s college friends to use their technical expertise to form a superhero squad to oppose the villain and avenge his brother’s murder.

The heart of the movie is the relationship between Hiro and the marshmallow-like Baymax who also provides most of the physical comedy in this animated treat. Other themes such as retribution vs forgiveness and Assimovian ethics of robot programming also enrich the movie.

COPENHAGEN (Netflix)

3 ½ stars

(Mild spoilers) Sometimes a movie is entirely redeemed by the chemistry between its leads. Copenhagen is just such a movie. The side characters are annoying. The ostensible plot (douchey American tourist William searches for his roots) is barely developed. It’s probably too long, with not enough action. But lead actors Gethin Anthony and Frederikke Dahl Hansen as Effy somehow keep your interest through it all as they meander through Copenhagen on their bikes trying to identify the locations in William’s father’s childhood photos. In the end William’s confrontation with his own immature behavior is less comeuppance and more personality growth, after all nothing quite puts a pall on the thrill of bad-boy behavior than finding out your grandfather was a Nazi. Gethin Anthony, better known to Game of Thrones fans as Renly Baratheon, gets just the right mix of charm and sleaze while Hansen is quite marvelous as the wise beyond her years Effy.

  1. TURNER

3 ½ stars

A Mike Leigh film is not always an easy thing, and this beautifully shot biopic of 19th century landscape painter J.M.W. Turner is no exception. It took me about a third of the film to get used to the phlegmatic Cockney brogue actor Timothy Spall is spouting. You get no helpful time or place identifiers, even as the action shifts between multiple locations, which also leaves you disoriented if you haven’t done your research before going to the cinema. But beyond these challenges it is quite a beautiful film, with cinematography to rival Turner’s classic landscapes, and interesting thoughts on the nature of art, as Turner in later life starts experimenting with impressionism, only to have shade thrown in his direction by none other than that mother of all shade-throwers, Queen Victoria.

WILD TALES

4 stars

I saw this great Oscar-nominated Argentinian anthology film weeks ago, but have waited to post a review for reasons I’ll spell out later.

Anthology films are such a rare bird these days, can you even recall the last one you saw? (Pulp Fiction in the 90’s? Creepshow in the 80’s?) Wild Tales brings us 6 short-films strung together only by their theme which is revenge. Despite that they are wacky and thrilling rather than gruesome or violent, and the director Damián Szifron get’s several satiric digs in to various easy targets: psychiatrists, politicians, yuppies, bureaucrats, lawyers and bridezillas.

While I have no hesitation in recommending the film, it must be said that, by a horrible coincidence, the first of the six segments strongly evokes the recent Germanwings incident. (I saw the movie, luckily, before Germanwings happened and as such I was able to appreciate the humor, it ends with a great visual gag). So don’t say you weren’t warned.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

3 ½ stars

This big-screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s first successful novel is gorgeously shot if a tad dull plot-wise, and buoyed by excellent performances from two favorite actors. Carey Mulligan plays the preposterously named Bathsheba Everdene, who despite proclaiming early on that she does not need a husband, manages to find herself in a movie that revolves entirely around the question of which of three men she will wed. Matthias Schoenaerts smolders as Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer and all-around pillar of manly competence, who makes a clumsy, early play for her heart.   These two have chemistry to burn, but this being a Victorian novel, circumstances intervene to frustrate such an obvious match, and Bathsheba is wooed by two more suitors before making (of course) the dumbest choice. What keeps the whole thing from descending into romance cliché are the performances (Michael Sheen shines too as the smitten but boring Mr. Boldwood) and the gorgeous cinematography of 19th century English farm life.

GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF

4 stars

A dramatic documentary exposé of the cult of Scientology, the financial force behind the protests seen at the American Psychiatric Association every year. Started by science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, the organization draws people in by describing itself as a self-improvement technique, then keeps them (and their money) with escalating levels of courses leading to further “enlightenment”. The movie interviews eight former members many of them very high profile in the organization including a former director of communications. These individuals all left for different reasons. Some realized the whole thing was bullshit when they reached a level of enlightment called “Going Clear” where the founding tenets written by L. Ron Hubbard are revealed. There is no other way to describe these documents than the ravings of a very mentally disturbed individual.

Some of the individuals interviewed left after discovering just how awful the organization could be to high level individuals they wanted to target for disloyalty, one woman was essentially imprisoned on the top floor of the Los Angeles Scientology headquarters until some friends came to her aid to get her released. One of her friends who didn’t come to her aid is John Travolta, who along with Tom Cruise comes out looking terribly disturbed in the section of the film that examines how Scientology uses its celebrity members to its benefit.

TOMORROWLAND

3 stars

A pretty fun time at the movies considering the source material is a Disney theme park! The movie draws on familiar themes of heroic futurists stymied by politics and pessimism (the Globe and Mail’s review that saw Ayn Randian philosophy permeating the flick is overthinking it a bit). It drags a bit in the last third, and is at its best when wowing you with fun future tech straight out of the Jetsons.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

3 ½ stars

As a former comic book enthusiast who used to bemoan that Hollywood wasn’t making enough movies based on comics, I have mixed feelings now that every second movie that comes out in theatres is a comic book movie. But one thing I can say is that Marvel Studios consistently gets it right with the properties over which they have full creative control (the uneven X-men, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four franchises were licensed to other studios before Marvel formed its own movie-making division).

This second outing for the Avengers, made up of core members Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk, is good, almost as good as the first film. Not only is the story interesting and the dialogue, delivered by a cadre of excellent actors, funny, but they have somehow stepped up the special effects quality normally associated with these kind of movies. The intricately choreographed action scenes that would have been a jumbled mess in lesser hands are a delight, particularly for old comic enthusiasts, as several scenes seem specifically designed to resemble live action “splash pages”.

Less welcome is an interlude designed to develop Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye character that is a snooze. Like the X-men series, The Avengers will begin to run the risk of character overload, and will have to make some smart choices. A most welcome new presence is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as speedster Quicksilver, who steals his scenes with nothing but a snug track suit and an Eastern European accent.

PITCH PERFECT 2

2 stars

A disappointing follow up to the 2012 hit about a female collegiate a cappella group attempting to break the a cappella glass ceiling, this movie is the very definition of “lazy sequel”. We rejoin the now three time champion Barden Bellas just as a fateful wardrobe malfunction during their victory tour gets them banned from further competition. A loophole lets them compete at the World A Cappella Championships, so key the improbable conflict, the recycled jokes, the recycled plots, the off-colour jokes at the expense of, well, just about everybody, and most egregiously considering the reason most people will see the sequel, the completely blah musical numbers.   (The briefest of exceptions: a lovely revisit of Anna Kendrick’s audition number from first movie When I’m Gone) You would do better to rewatch the first movie than to waste your time and money on this off-key flop.

LIVE FROM NEW YORK!

3 stars

At forty years old, the improbable longevity of Saturday Night Live is surely a mystery worth investigating. Though this workmanlike documentary doesn’t really offer any answers, it is pretty funny and it you’ve been a very irregular viewer like me you do get to see some funny bits you’ve missed over the years. Though the critical lens trained on the show isn’t strong, the film does take on the inadequate racial diversity of the show and it’s evolution from a sexist bastion to a platform for excellent female comics like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

INSIDE OUT

4 ½ stars

An inventive and quite psychologically sophisticated animated film from Pixar Studios. We are introduced to Riley, a girl born to a Midwest couple who is a spunky 11 year old tomboy by the time the movie’s plot has the small professional family move to San Francisco for Dad’s work. But this plot in the larger world is merely the backdrop for what is going on in Riley’s mind. Her mind’s Control Centre is inhabited by five emotions: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (the excellent Phyllis Smith, of The Office fame), Fear, Anger and Disgust. As events in the external world happen, these five comment on and interpret them, guiding her behavior and processing the events into memories. Riley’s self is further represented by terrain: islands of personality that correspond to important features of her life: family, friendship and (clearly there was a Canadian writer) hockey, among others.

The move to San Francisco brings challenges to Riley and her quintet of feelings. Joy has clearly been the leader of the five and is the most protective of Riley, but her efforts to maintain control when Sadness starts to assert herself lead to both of them being accidentally ejected from the Control Centre, landing on the outskirts of Riley’s psychological topography. As the pair make their way back, adventuring through a variety of psychical areas such as Imagination, Abstract Thinking, and the Memory Dump, Riley is not doing so well with Anger, Fear and Disgust in charge. Frighteningly, her personality starts to crumble, with the islands tumbling into a void.

This kind of representation of the mind has been tried before (the underrated nineties TV comedy Herman’s Head comes to mind), but rarely so successfully. This will be a movie that will have legs not only as one of Pixar’s best, but as an educational tool for kids about conflictual feelings. Bravo!

  1. HOLMES

4 stars

A slow-paced but intriguing interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes story that has us join the famous detective in his declining years, retired from his profession and focusing on beekeeping on an English farm. Sir Ian McKellan is so recognizable from other roles now that it is a stretch to see him as Holmes, so much so that the movie makes it’s own wisecracks about it. The story is nevertheless quite compelling, with a pre-senile Holmes desperately searching for a dementia cure while at the same time trying to reconstruct his memories of his very last case, which was so traumatic it led him to give up his profession. All the while he grates on his housekeeper and forms a bond with her young son (Laura Linney and the precocious Milo Parker, both excellent). And for fans of McKellan’s TV comedy Vicious, Frances De La Tour (long-suffering house guest Vi) has a fun cameo appearance.

ANT-MAN

2 1/2 stars

What to say about this latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe™? Pleasantly entertaining in the watching and utterly unmemorable on exiting the theatre, it is no doubt a step down from the enthusiastically received, and better-written Iron Man, Captain America and Thor series. These series at least went to the trouble of providing worthy, thoughtful themes to go along with your popcorn wowie moments (arms manufacturing, war propaganda/security, and family ties, respectively, in case you were wondering). Even the overstuffed Avengers movies leave some room for this, but Ant-Man is pure fluff, and relies too much on cinematic formula. Despite this overall impression, honorable mention should go to Michael Douglas who’s craggy Dr. Hank Pym is really fun to watch. The size-change powers of our hero Ant-Man make for some inventive action set-pieces the best of which, an epic battle on a child’s train set, was unfortunately spoiled in the trailers.

BEST OF ENEMIES

2 ½ stars

Less interesting than I’d hoped, this documentary examines the televised debates on American television in 1968 between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. during the Democratic and Republican conventions. Both failed political candidates, but considered to be prominent public intellectuals of their time, these two were picked to spark fireworks for a network, ABC, mired in 3rd place in the ratings. What is perhaps most disappointing about this movie is the quality of the debates. There is essentially nothing to them beside sniping ad hominem attacks, culminating in a goading exchange in which Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley responds with a spray of homophobic bile. As such they perfectly presage the evolution of televised partisan debate on American television of the “Cross-Fire” variety that Jon Stewart infamously skewered.

WHERE TO INVADE NEXT

3 stars

Michael Moore’s latest film’s title is somewhat misleading, and merely the set up for the movie’s first (and limpest) gag: Don’t worry, American military, Michael Moore will do the invading of countries from now on, you can all go home. And so Moore “invades” a number of European countries (plus Tunisia) to bring back plunder to the good ol’ USA. The plunder being progressive social policies that Moore hopes could remake America.

The dumb framing device notwithstanding, this is an enlightening and very entertaining film. Though the movie is Moore’s first to shoot no footage in the USA, he uses news footage from the USA in devastating fashion to contrast how different things are back home, as he moves from country to country. A lot of the humour of the movie comes from these shocking contrasts as, Moore, for example learns about the generous vacation, break time and parental leave that Italian workers are entitled to, and then we watch the Italians shocked, disbelieving faces as he tells them how much paid vacation Americans are entitled to (zero, if you didn’t know).

We then move to France to look at school lunches (lamb skewers on couscous in France, mystery cafeteria slop in the USA), maximum security prisons in Norway, where the prison guards sing to you rather than beat the crap out of you, Germany where the Holocaust and Nazi horrors are taught and remembered throughout society, compared to how the US deals (or not) with slavery and indigenous genocide in its history, etc.

You’ll find no subtle analysis here, and of course that’s not Moore’s style, but it is overall one of his most optimistic movies. The crew even dubbed the shoot “Mike’s Happy Film” and indeed you could see that blunt-talking optimism in the TIFF post-premiere Q&A: “Look, the Germans did all this, and they were f*cking Nazis!” Let’s hope the US doesn’t need to slide that far before things begin to turn around.

EVERY THING WILL BE FINE

4 stars

I’ve been a late convert to the films of German auteur Wim Wenders, who, now in his seventies has had a remarkable career: winning the Cannes Palm D’Or in 1984 for Paris, Texas, his remarkable music and dance documentaries Buena Vista Social Club and Pina. This new drama continues Wenders’ use of 3D cameras that served him so well in documenting the dance of Pina Bausch, but instead applying it to a brooding drama about a Montreal writer (James Franco) who seeks inspiration in the ice and snow of northern Quebec only to have a tragic encounter between his car and two boys on a sled.

The tragedy has overlapping consequence’s for the writer, his Québecoise girlfriend (Rachel McAdams, doing a pretty passable accent), the surviving brother, and his illustrator mother (the excellent Charlotte Gainsbourg). Wenders’ moody but hyperreal 3D shots wash over you, and there are some quite interesting choices in how he frames things (for example, with windows), to take advantage of what the special camera offers.   The story itself contrasts this hypervisual depth with the question of just how much depth is present beneath Franco’s attractive exterior. We never get to know about his presumably lively interior life that leads him to be such a successful author, and as such are placed in a similar position to the others in his life frustrated with his passivity and detachment. Beautiful camera work, especially of the Northern Quebec landscape keeps your interest despite the movie’s slow pace.

HARDCORE

3 ½ stars

This first person perspective 90 minute action movie from young Russian director Ilya Naishuller can have no better adjective attached to it than “gonzo”. Filmed entirely with GoPro style cameras, the audience is literally embodied in our hero, who wakes up in a laboratory to be told he has been made by an evil scientist into a cyborg. Set free by his beautiful assistant, he (and we) must kick, punch, sprint, parkour, drive and shoot our way through a bevy of bad guys to get to the bottom of his creator’s evil plans.

Assisting our hero on his way is a collection of clones all played with hilarious variation by South African actor Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium). Copley provides significant comic relief from the at times overwhelming violence, including an out-of-nowhere musical number (because, you know, why not?)

Overall, the movie at TIFF most likely to give you a mild headache by the end, but hey, don’t most fun nights out end that way? (Winner of the TIFF Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award)

THE MARTIAN

4 stars

Based on the novel by Andy Weir, and directed by Ridley Scott, this movie is going to be a huge hit. Sometime in the realistic near future, a manned NASA mission to Mars goes awry when an unexpected sandstorm leads the commanding officer (the always excellent Jessica Chastain) to scrub the mission. As the six astronaut team rushes to their rocket through the storm, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets slammed by a flying communications antenna and is swept away in the storm. Presuming he was killed, the team continues on and makes it off the planet on a course to return home.

Miraculously, Watney survives and in the first half of the movie he goes into survival mode, working out how long he’ll be able to survive at what’s left of the team base. Meanwhile at home, the director of NASA (Jeff Daniels) and his advisors tell the public of his death, only to have egg on their face when Watney MacGuyver’s a new comm system and reestablishes contact.

The second half of the movie kicks into high gear as a rescue mission is plotted with setbacks, mutinous rebellion by the returning crew, and ultimately, international cooperation saving the day.

It goes without saying that Matt Damon makes the movie with a relentlessly charming performance as the witty, persevering hero. Yet the diverse cast, which also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, and Kristen Wiig is uniformly excellent.

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

5 stars

Documentary director Morgan Neville has had a pretty great year, with an Oscar win for 20 Feet From Stardom, a well-received (except by me) doc on Gore Vidal and William Buckley, and now two films at the Toronto International Film Festival. While I won’t end up seeing his Keith Richards documentary, I cannot recommend highly enough that you see this movie, a must for anyone who loves music (and I mean music, period, not just classical music).

Famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma decided in 2000 to start a music ensemble that would bring master musicians from countries around the world together in beautiful collaboration. This beautifully shot documentary, which, quite frankly, I almost can’t believe was made by the same person who filmed the static Best of Enemies, is a masterpiece in itself.

Neville profiles a cadre of masters from the dozen or so in the ensemble, starting with Ma himself. I can recall seeing Yo-Yo Ma as a young adult on the Tonight Show when I was a child, but here we see footage of the Paris-born and US-raised Ma as a youngster on the Ed Sullivan show, playing for President John F. Kennedy. Ma describes how, despite his unusual popularity for a classical musician, he never really felt he was sure about what he wanted to do with his life. Forming the Silk Road Ensemble seems to have helped him find this purpose.

After the horror of 9/11 and its xenophobic aftermath, Ma’s collaborative project took on even greater significance, and indeed two of the most poignant stories in the documentary come from Middle East musicians. Kayhan Kalhor is an internationally renowned master of Persian and Kurdish music, especially the Persian instrument the kamancheh (kind of like a tiny cello, but with a distinctive sound). Kalhor’s fame meant even the mildest of political statements led to worrisome interactions with the Iranian regime, and as such he has had several stints of exile in North America, always hoping to return someday to be with his wife.

Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian clarinetist now based in New York City, has the most poignant storyline in the film, as he grapples with what has become of his country. He and Syrian artist Kevourk Mourad have one of the best scenes in the movie when they go to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan to connect with the displaced children of this crisis. Azmeh’s sensuous clarinet is awe-inspiring (and that’s a lot to admit to, for a former oboist).

The amazing music defies description. The minute the movie ended I was online getting tickets to the Tuesday concert at Massey Hall. Go see this movie.

HIGH RISE

2 ½ stars

The late English novelist J.G. Ballard wrote High Rise in 1975, as a comment on the British class system. A brand new high rise condominium tower opens, with every amenity a seventies yuppie could want, with a pool, a spa, its own grocery store, etc. But life at this modern homestead degenerates rather quickly and in spectacular Lord of the Flies-like fashion, driven by class divisions envy and jealousy. This adaptation is directed by Brit Ben Wheatley, who though I’d never heard of him, seems to have the kind of cult following one develops from making well-received viral videos, comedy shorts, and directing a few episodes of Doctor Who. I’d say however that his skills at feature-film directing need a little more time in the cooker. This film, though visually quite interesting, suffers from poor differentiation of the secondary characters, you just can’t keep track of who everybody is, and as such, when the over-the-top violence threatens to pull you out of your engagement with the story, you’re left wondering just why you should care what happens to these characters.   Ultimately a failed effort but not a completely uninteresting one, plus there is a special treat for folks who are fans of lanky English actor Tom Hiddleston.

GUANTANAMO’S CHILD: OMAR KHADR

4 stars

This documentary on Omar Khadr by journalist Michelle Shepard and filmmaker Patrick Reed will be coming out on CBC soon, and is really a must-see. It quite efficiently fills in the gaps of what you thought you knew about this story, and the directors are wise enough to know when to just get out of the way of a very compelling narrative. The first part of the story looms large with the context set of the 9/11 attacks and the coalition counter-attacks on suspected al-Quaeda targets in Afghanistan. The documentary certainly does not shy away from describing the Toronto-born 15 year old’s activities in Afghanistan. Sent by his father to aid Afghan fighter’s who wanted an English translator, we see video of a smiling Omar, cheerily assisting with planting improvised explosive devices.

When coalitions forces pound their compound from the air and a US Special Forces team moves in. They can barely believe that anyone would still be alive inside, and indeed when Khadr is found (fair warning the pictures of his shrapnel riddled body are highly disturbing), it seems miraculous that his story did not end right there and then.

The range of on-camera interviewees that the directors collect is impressive and very helpful for getting to the bottom of what have been extremely secretive activities at the Afghan detentions centres and subsequently Guantanamo Bay. It is certainly no secret by this point that the Americans engaged in illegal torture of these detainees. One of the most compelling talking heads is a former prison interrogator, clearly traumatized himself by the experience and telling his story with a mixture of agony and relief. Former military prosecutor Colonel Morris David, who resigned rather than collude with the torturers, also has a few choice words about how poorly things went at this point, justice-wise.

At this point Denis Edney, Khadr’s Canadian lawyer gets involved. The short version of his involvement was that, once the military tribunal was set up, he realized that the only way Khadr was going to be able to leave Guantanamo was if he plead guilty. It worked: as we know Khadr was sentenced to eight additional years of incarceration (after 10 years being detained without trial) and after another year in Git’mo was transferred home to Canada.

If the first half of the documentary is the story of a youth caught up in early 21st century geopolitics, the second half is much more intimate as Khadr is released on bail (pending an appeal of his US conviction) and comes to live at the family home of Edney and his wife Patricia. Everything is a big question for him, in terms of his future, but the relief of being able to experience the simplest of daily activities like breakfast in a kitchen is palpable and heartbreaking.

Who knows how this story will turn out, but as someone with some professional expertise in this area, I can tell you: Omar Khadr is nothing if not a survivor.

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT

2 ½ stars

I got about halfway through this documentary about Alfred Hitchcock and his friendship with younger French film director François Truffaut before I realized something was bugging the hell out of me. Up to that point the movie is quite interesting as you learn a number of things about “Hitch” that you may not have known. He got his start in silent film, for example, which explains, to some extent the powerful visuals in his movies. Also, he was considered by most to be more entertainer than artist, and it was only when Truffaut, at that time being lauded as part of the French “New Wave” of auteur film directors, took a public interest that people began to see him in a different light. The movie documents Truffaut’s week-long interview with Hitchcock in Hollywood in 1962. We hear the audiotape of the interview, see the still photos of the encounter and witness living film directors flipping through their dog-eared copies of Truffaut’s book documenting the interviews and his analysis of Hitchcock’s films.

So this is where something starts to stick in my craw. The directors chosen to comment seem to make sense, initially. One can certainly see the Hitchcock influences in the precision camerawork of Wes Anderson’s films, or the moody masterpieces of David Fincher. And of course Martin Scorsese always has something helpful to say about 20th century film. But guess what? This is a 2015 documentary in which, with the lone exception of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, all the directors interviewed are white men. Seriously? A master filmmaker who influenced so many and they could not find a black man to interview? (They could have, if they tried, Spike Lee has three Hitchcock films on his list of 87 essential films aspiring directors should see; trying to google British director Steve McQueen’s views on Hitchcock is tougher due to the confusion with the white actor). Even if one could make the case that a racial analysis of Hitchcock would be boring and short, given that there is only a single black character of any substance in a Hitchcock film (bonus points: if you know which one, comment below), the same could certainly not be said of a gender analysis.

Ultimately, these gaps left me feeling like the documentary really was stuck in 1962 with its subjects, but is that really what we should expect in this day and age?

MISSISSIPPI GRIND

4 stars

If you’ve always felt that Ryan Reynolds has been *this close* to being actually good in a movie, this is, finally, the flick you’ve been waiting for. Exactly how it all clicks for the Vancouver native is hard to pin down, but surely it must have something to do with his primary co-star Ben Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a downtrodden real estate agent and gambling addict in Dubuque, Iowa, who brightens considerably when he chances to meet the amiably louche drifter Curtis (Reynolds) at the poker table one night. Exactly why Curtis takes a shine to him is never exactly clear, but Gerry’s improved fortunes convince him that the “big, handsome leprechaun” is his new good luck charm. Together the pair hatch a Mississippi River road trip with the goal of putting together enough winnings to buy into a legendary high stakes poker game in New Orleans.

Perhaps what works in Reynolds’ favour here is that the movie as a whole takes stock characters you’ve seen a million times before and humanizes them, from the charming layabout Curtis to the obsessed gambler Gerry, to the prostitute girlfriends, the bluesy lounge singer (a great cameo by singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman). In any case, a very enjoyable couple of hours spent with these characters.

STEVE JOBS

3 stars

Poor Aaron Sorkin. So talented at writing witty, rapid fire dialogue for characters caught up in momentous events. But I’ve always felt he peaked with the West Wing, where the events of the show were actually momentous. Since then it’s always been a subconscious evaluation when I view his shows and movies: Are these events world-shattering enough to justify the pomposity of the Sorkinese?

With Steve Jobs (the movie) I’m afraid the answer is no. The movie itself is structured in an interesting fashion. It unfolds in three acts, and each act takes place in the tense atmosphere immediately before a Steve Jobs product launch.

Michael Fassbender looks absolutely nothing like Steve Jobs. But after the initial cognitive dissonance of that, you can accept it and he gives a suitably manic performance as the self-aggrandizing tech guru. Kate Winslet disappears into her role as Jobs’ long-suffering publicist, who struggles to maintain an aura of calm as first the Macintosh, then the NexT cube (say what? Yeah…) and finally the iMac are launched.

So here you may be seeing my point. Really? No iPod, no iPhone? Nope. So all this exhausting dialogue in the service of launching that gumdrop shaped Mac that hardly anybody bought? Well ok, then.

MY INTERNSHIP IN CANADA

4 stars

This hilarious Canadian French language political comedy is a wonderful diversion. Patrick Huard (Bon Cop, Bad Cop) is a former hockey player, now an independent MP for a Northern Quebec riding. In the midst of negotiating a détente between loggers and activists from the riding’s First Nations reserve, his new intern shows up fresh off the boat from Haiti.

Souveraine is all earnest enthusiasm, eager to impress with his knowledge of French political philosophy. But he gets a crash course when his unaligned boss is thrust into a debate on sending troops to war.

While not without it’s faults (a logger’s stutter is played for laughs, for example) it is overall quite a charming fun film.

SPECTRE

3 stars

There is a brief moment of anxiety for James Bond fans at the start of the film. On a dark screen, these words in white appear: “The dead arise!” Please, NO ZOMBIES, I found myself prepared to snarl at the screen. Thankfully such vitriol was unnecessary. Instead we are treated to a thrilling opening set piece at the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City.

Yet that momentary apprehension informs the rest of my reaction to the movie. How to keep a now 26 movie series from falling into cliche? Casting Daniel Craig kept the series fresh 3 movies ago. Muscular, rough hewn, and (gasp!) blond, Craig managed to liven things up not only with his physicality, but also the emotional depth he could bring to the role.

I have greatly enjoyed the previous three Craig-Bond films (yes, even Quantum of Solace) but here the series can’t seem to help falling back into old Bond tropes, which I found myself mentally checking off as they appeared. The hulking, silent henchman, check. The scenery chewing villain, check. Preposterous stunts, check.

On the positive side, Craig continues to embody the role as effortlessly as before for his last outing. How they will find a new actor to fill his shoes and keep things fresh is beyond me. As swan songs go, Spectre is disappointing only in comparison to the previous films, overall an enjoyable flick.

SPOTLIGHT

4 1/2 stars

Is this the last, great movie about print journalism? Set in 2001, the journos at the Boston Globe are already feeling the pressure from Internet media startups when they get a new Editor-in-chief. But the new guy (played by the towering Liev Schreiber, cornering the market lately on strong, silent types) seems keen to stick with long form investigative, and green lights an in-depth dig into a story about a child abusing Catholic priest. When the story expands into a potentially explosive exposé of cover-ups by the Boston Diocese, things get messy.

Featuring a who’s who of your favourite white male actors (like seriously, just name one. Mark Ruffalo, check. Stanley Tucci, check. Michael Keaton, etc. etc.) plus the excellent Rachel McAdams, this is a most excellent movie well worth your time.

Star Wars the Force Awakens

4 stars

So it turns out this movie, which is set 30 years after Return of the Jedi, is a lot of fun! I went to see it with six people ranging in age from early twenties to late fifties, and aside from myself, nobody had seen all six previous movies. Despite that, we all enjoyed it. In fact I would say that you really needn’t have seen the first Star Wars (A New Hope) because the plot is almost identical. And I don’t just mean in the way that Return of the Jedi had the same plot as A New Hope. I mean almost identical. You really don’t need it spelled out for you. Although it’s a chuckle when they do just that, as when someone says: “It’s like the Death Star!” and a simile-impaired techie person says “no!” and throws up a schematic showing it’s MUCH BIGGER than the Death Star.

Anyhoo, the fun part is seeing some great new young actors take on new-ish roles, while also seeing your favourites from the first series make their cool entrances and update us on what (and who) they’ve been doing for the past 30 years. Even Admiral SquidFace is back although, disappointingly, he does not yell “It’s a trap!”

You will be pleased to know that we have maintained the Star Wars trope where a spaceship will crash land on a planet and coincidentally be walking distance from the occupant’s objective.

Finally, yes the new light sabre is very cool, and no those little side jets are not just for show. Ouch!

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