*** Contains SPOILERS for the two part premier of Twin Peaks Season 3 ***

The new Twin Peaks, or at least the double-episode premier, is not what I expected, and that’s one of the main reasons I think it really works. In true Twin Peaks (moreover in true David Lynch style), it’s a mindfuck. That much was expected, but just how it messes with the audience, well, that’s another story.

I knew going in that there was a slew of new actors joining the original cast, meaning a bunch of new characters. What I wasn’t expecting, though, were new locations and certainly not New York City. When I saw those words appear over a shot of high rise office buildings so early in the show, I thought that Twin Peaks had jumped the proverbial shark.

What is Lynch doing? Why are we here? We haven’t even seen Audrey yet and we’re getting Manhattan? Who’s Tracy? Isn’t this show supposed to be about the town?

Sure, Fire Walk with Me spent the first part of the film in some other town, but it was tied to the Laura Palmer murder. In the show’s first two seasons, they never left the town except for a few boat rides to One Eyed Jack’s and, of course, multiple trips to the Black Lodge. Going to another dimension is one thing, but going to a major city?

But soon enough we were back to the familiar with the Horne brothers (of course Jerry’s in the legal weed biz) and then the creepy shots and…evil Cooper! I don’t know if it’s the makeup or Kyle MacLachlan aging very well, but even with in his doppelganger persona, it felt like we were back to the Twin Peaks I knew and loved.

That feeling stayed, even when we returned to New York and then took an extended stay in Buckhorn, South Dakota. The feeling was a mix of offbeat everyday life oddball characters and some really creepy shit. This was Twin Peaks, regardless of the changing setting.

I didn’t get the nostalgia fest I was expecting, though the nostalgia that was included in the premier was palpable to say the least. This was an entirely new story continuing the old story (which you need to watch before delving into this one) with new characters that weren’t just the kids of the characters we already knew, though I’m sure some of the new characters will be in upcoming episodes.

Also, we were promised coffee and donuts very soon. Deputy Hawk, please don’t disappoint. And if the final sequence at the Bang Bang Bar is any indication, we’re going to be spending more time with the characters and the town we know in upcoming episodes.

But that really isn’t the point. I now realize that I had been hoping for nostalgia and for it to somehow not to suck too much. Instead Lynch and company delivered something new and just as original and potentially just as groundbreaking as the original series.

He’s not resting on his laurels, he’s doing something entirely original. I honestly don’t know where any of these new and old stories are going and that’s truly refreshing. As the Giant said during the original run, “It is happening again.”

And that’s the biggest Lynch mindfuck of them all.

Angélique, the story of the black slave tortured and put to death in New France (later Montreal, Quebec) for allegedly setting the fire of 1734 that burned down the only hospital and left hundreds of people homeless, is most remarkable for the fact that so few Canadians know about this incendiary incident in Montreal’s history.

It’s a story with everything: chaos, love triangles, danger, a woman’s determined quest for freedom.

Yet, despite these features that make Angélique a perfect candidate for telling and re-telling, like many stories of slavery in Canada’s history, and many narratives sympathetic to disadvantaged people of colour, the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique has been largely ignored until very recently.

In fact, the play currently being billed as the first collaboration between Black Theatre Workshop and Tableau d’Hote Théâtre, is the first time this story has been presented on stage in Montreal, the city where the true story took place. It is running from March 15th to April 2nd at the Segal Center.

Angélique is the story of the strong-willed black slave tortured and put to death for allegedly starting the fire of 1734, which burned down the majority of what is now Old Montreal. Though it was generally accepted that Angelique did commit the crime for which she was accused, it has recently been argued that she was innocent, convicted on the basis of her reputation as a rebellious runaway and hard-to-control slave. The evidence used to convict Angelique would not stand up in a modern court of law.

“I am a very proud Canadian, and a very proud Montréaler, but I don’t think we are doing ourselves any favours by not acknowledging the bad along with the good in history,” says Black Theatre workshop artistic director Quincy Armorer. “I’ve noticed this play is educating a lot of people about some of the forgotten or ignored times in Canadian and Montreal history, and I am very, very happy to be a part of letting people know this happened here.”

Mathieu Murphy-Perron, artistic director for Tableau d’Hote Theater, agrees: “As someone who generally tries to be aware of where we live and the land we are on, and the fact that it’s stolen land, and Canada is not the land of milk and honey…to have zero-ZERO-knowledge of this show, it spoke to our educational shortcomings of telling the stories that make up this city, Quebec and Canada”

“I didn’t even know about this before,” adds Jenny Brizard, the lead and title actress of Angélique “They didn’t talk about slavery in Canada at all when I was in school.”

Having left her native Montreal to pursue a career as a dancer in Toronto, Ms. Brizard has returned in a blaze of glory with a breakout performance as the title character in Angélique. This is her first professional acting role, and though the performance seemed a little manic at times, this is certainly fitting as an artistic choice for a character under an incredible amount of mental, emotional and physical stress.

Speaking of artistic direction, the costuming decisions in this production were extremely powerful, working as an additional layer of social commentary. ‘Upper class’ members of society began the production dressed in contemporary business wear, and ended the production dressed in 1730s period clothing. Conversely, slaves began the production in period clothing and ended the production in contemporary street wear, or in Angelique’s case, an orange prison outfit.

The closing images of a modern black woman being put to death for a crime, with no evidence that she had committed it, while being looked upon by people stuck in the past, were extremely powerful and speaks to the ongoing issues with class and race that still exist today. The play ended with Angelique hearing the drums of her homeland (drums were banned in New France in an effort to sever slaves from their culture) and dancing her heart out in the traditional style of her childhood, which she had been previously embarrassed and nervous to display in New France.

The musical backdrop of Angélique was completely percussion based, set to an original composition by SIXTRUM Percussion Ensemble. The use of drums served as a clever musical allegory for Angelique’s struggle and personal erasure, due to the nature of the importance of drum music in Angelique’s internal life and history versus their ban in New France.

When Angélique is first introduced at a slave purchasing block, thick chains were used as an instrument by SIXTRUM, who were playing above the stage. It was fresh, creative, and enhanced the narrative.

Though the script, written by the late Lorena Gale, doesn’t claim to be completely factual (and how could it be, when the source material is from the 18th century), one creative inclusion bothered me:

In the play, Angélique is repeatedly raped by her master François, and it is implied that she gives birth to a child fathered by him. Though I couldn’t find any historical rumours that this had taken place in real life, and the father on record for Angélique’s children is listed as fellow slave César (played with subtlety, depth and range by Tristan D. Lalla), I can understand its inclusion in this play. This is the story of a black slave woman, a group that is underrepresented in the telling of their stories and for whom rape, and the subsequent fathering of children, by white masters was most certainly a frequent occurrence.

Where I take issue that it is then used as THE major point of contention between Angelique and Francois’ wife Thérèse. I think, in a story that already has so much drama and intrigue, it’s a bit lazy to then add as a major plot point, a shift away from Angelique’s real struggle, towards a jealousy fight between women arguing over the affections of a shitty guy. It reinforces the stereotype of women as petty and jealous, and having nothing more of substance to do or think about than the affections of a man.

In fact, this same theme is echoed again between Angelique and Manon, a Panis-Native slave, who in this play rejects Angélique’s friendship and sells her out at trial over Manon’s love of César, who in turn loves Angélique. According to the historical record, Manon more likely tried to divert suspicion to Angélique for self-preservation as she herself could have been severely punished if suspicion had fallen on her own shoulders.

However, I suppose pitting women against each other over a guy once again adds easy intrigue and a familiar stereotype. Despite the historical setting of the play, it’s 2017, and I think we can do better.

Overall, Angelique is a skillful and extremely important retelling of a chapter in Montreal history that is conspicuously absent from most history books. It is powerful, visceral and necessary, and with tickets starting at $22, much more accessible than the majority of professional theatrical productions.

Bring a date, bring your mom, bring a history or theatre buff, a lover of Montreal, or even your favorite arsonist, but don’t miss Angélique’s first (and certainly not last) tour in Montreal. It is a tribute to a powerful and strong woman who was persecuted until the end by a society that did not value her.

Only one question remains in the fiery tale: Did she do it?

“At this point, I don’t really care…if she did it or not,” says Ms. Brizard. “The fact is, she didn’t have a fair chance. Period. And that’s how I approach the work. She didn’t get a fair trial, a fair chance, as a woman, as a black woman. Period.”

Angélique presented by Black Theatre Workshop and Tableau d’Hote Théâtre runs through April 2nd, 2017 at the Segal Centre, 5170 ch. de la Côte-Ste-Catherine,  tickets available through the Segal Centre box office

The Chilean refugees who arrived in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in Montreal, have been a community that has captivated me throughout the past two years. I was therefore ecstatic to have the opportunity to see The Refugee Hotel staged at The Segal Centre. Despite some awkward translation into English and a difficult script to work with, the play is an excellent one that I recommend – particularly after yesterday’s events in the USA.

These brave Chileans who came across the oceans were faced with two choices; the first being to trust that everything would be okay for them in Chile if they kept their heads down, stayed in line, and trusted that the military would “make Chile great again”. The second: to restart their entire lives in a country with a new language, new food, new music, and of course, the omnipresent “Canadian values” (still searching for a definition of those, other than the ability to properly cross-check someone).

Teesri Duniya Theatre’s production of The Refugee Hotel does its sincere best to answer these questions. The script draws from author-and-playwright Carmen Aguirre’s lived experience as the child of Chilean refugees growing up in 1970s Canada. It’s an impressive story made even more poignant by its autobiographical basis.

The Refugee Hotel Trailer from Chris Wardell on Vimeo.

This is one of the reasons that it is so frustrating to review this play. Though the premise is admirable, Aguirre’s play shortchanges itself by trying to fit too many facets of the Chilean refugee story, and indeed, the story of human migration, into two short acts.

At the centre of the play are Jorge (Pablo Diconca) and Flaca (Gilda Monreal), a married couple who represent two sides of the resistance movement in Chile. Jorge is something of a milquetoast pacifist anarchist accountant, while his wife is a firebrand Marxist active in the MIR (the Revolutionary Leftist Movement).

Their two children escape with them to a hotel in Canada, where they meet other Chilean refugees subjected to inhuman torture in the Carabineros’ concentration camps. The rest of the play progresses at a slow pace as each rediscovers their humanity and intimacy, one-by-one in a frustratingly perfect way.

By “frustratingly perfect,” I mean that of course the mute girl is coaxed into to talking at the end of the second act, and she falls for the man who talks with her first, and of course they end the play with a freeze-frame photo motif. The play’s unfortunate dives into clichés keep it from developing serious critiques.

Jorge and Flaca’s struggle to be intimate once again despite the horrific sexual torture that the Carabineros inflicted upon her is a topic that is criminally underrepresented in works of art; and even less so is it approached sensitively. An exploration of that theme alone would have made for a powerful and moving production, but Aguirre’s insistence on shoehorning so many important themes into the play means that extraordinarily difficult trauma from torture is treated as nothing more than a plot point. For example, two suicide attempts that happen within two minutes of another are treated as comedic moments.

Moreover, I felt that the repeated flashbacks to scenes of torture in the Estadio Nacional de Chile are not used to explore the characters’ motivations and histories, but rather as punctuation marks for the drama as a whole.

The play is being performed at the Segal Centre, which bills itself as the heart of Montreal’s Anglophone theatre culture. This presents an interesting double-edged sword for the actors in that they are reading from a script originally written in Spanish, for an English-speaking audience in French Canada.

Certain recurring parts of the script (such as the nickname for Jorge, “Little-Big-Bear”) sound awkward in English where they would have made perfect sense in Spanish (“Osito Grande,” better understood as “Teddy Bear”). On a larger scale, the familiar words, particularly “desaparecido,” used to articulate the brutality of the Pinochet regime are lost in translation.

Furthermore, the play misses opportunity to develop a more nuanced comedic character in Bill O’Neill, the enthusiastic Québécois hippie who helps the guests at the Refugee Hotel find work. In the Spanish script, he speaks with comically poor but confident command over Spanish, but in this English adaptation, his dialogue sounds like a 19th-century caricature – “Army me take to stadium. Bad men take Bill!”

Other than awkward phrasing, this makes the characterization of Bill difficult for the audience, as he is repeatedly referred to (kindly) as “the only gringo who speaks Spanish.” In poor translation, Bill’s character shifts from that of a Canadian activist with a sincere wish to improve his Spanish and act in solidarity with Chilean refugees into a buffoon.

This is the part of reviewing that I do not enjoy. The story itself is captivating, and the curation behind the set design and music choices was phenomenal. I just wish that the story was more focused on one or two of these families, instead of a script that leaves several important facets of post-traumatic stress equally unexamined.

All of this is not to say that I did not find the play enjoyable and tastefully performed – in fact, the actors did a stellar job working with an awkward script, and the set direction was simple and elegant. I give a special commendation to the Set Designer, Diana Uribe, who placed the beds of the hotel at an upright 90º angle, which allowed the actors to remain part of the action, while staying true to the stage direction to lie supine.

The music choices, namely the major-key Victor Jara folk ballads that accompanied scenes of horrific torture in the Estadio Nacional may have been shocking to people unfamiliar with Chile’s musical history – but it seems a deliberate nod to the famous Cueca Sola spot produced by the Anti-Pinochet Campaign during the 1989 plebiscite made famous by Pablo Larraín’s 2012 film. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that Victor Jara was tortured to death in the Estadio Nacional, specifically targeted and brutally murdered for his popularity and beliefs.

Speaking with the actor who played Jorge, Pablo Diconca, I learned that many of the cast came into this production with the explicit goal of putting faces to the communities so left behind by history. Diconca is a Uruguayan-born Montrealer who has been an integral part of the local theatre scene since his arrival in Canada at 19:

“I can not ever forget the fact that I have an accent, and I will always have one. This has restricted me as an actor – I have played drug dealers, murderers, and taxi drivers more than I can count,” Pablo told me. “When I came to Canada, I refused these roles out of principle…but with time, I came to realize that acting is my passion, and that by being on stage, this is how one becomes involved in the local culture and community. One must put their heart into acting. It becomes easier when the script is [about] something you already have in your heart. I was invited to be a part of this cast, and I didn’t see how I could turn it down. This is a play that can help to open minds.”

Teesri Duniya’s Artistic Director and co-founder, Rahul Varma, explained to me that he chose to stage this play as a way of “challenging the notion that 9/11 of 2001 divided the world into pre-9/11 and post 9/11…there have been so many other 9/11s, such as the 9/11 of 1973.” Rahul is of course referring to the military coup in Chile that took place on September 11, 1973, where the Chilean Air Force bombed downtown Santiago and assassinated the democratically-elected head of state, Salvador Allende.

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Rahul continued, referencing the current Syrian refugee crisis, “I thought that this play brings certain realities of the past and connects them to what is currently happening.  The idea is to look into what has happened – why is it that refugees are coming to Canada? Why do people leave their homes elsewhere?”

According to their website, Teesri Duniya Theatre “is dedicated to producing, developing and presenting socially and politically relevant theatre, based on the cultural experiences of diverse communities.” They are an incredibly important part of Montreal’s Arts community and I am thrilled to see that they took it upon themselves to tell the story of an underrepresented and important part of Canada.

As we draw to the closing of this play’s run at the Segal Centre, as well as the dawning of an unprecedented dark cloud over North American immigration politics, it is important to remember the lessons left by Chilean-Canadians’ struggles in and out of their homeland. I salute Teesri Duniya Theatre, The Segal Centre, and the cast and crew of this production for shining a light on the challenges faced by refugees in a sensitive and responsible manner despite an unaccommodating script.

El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.

The Refugee Hotel is playing until Sunday at The Segal Centre (5170 ch. de la Côte-Ste-Catherine). Tickets available here.

Poster by Rashad Nilamdeen.

I have it on good authority that Genghis Khan would have been a huge Slayer fan. Galloping double-bass drums and furious riff-based thrash seems like a natural fit for the Golden Horde charging through the steppes of Central Asia. Just add booming Mongolian throat singing and horsehead fiddles that sound like a blade being drawn, and you have the perfect recipe for an incredible live performance.

The crowd at Foufounes Electriques got a taste of that Friday evening, when the Nomadic Folk Metal Horde known as Tengger Cavalry charged into town at the end of their North American tour with Incite.

Tengger Cavalry with FTB before the show
Tengger Cavalry with FTB before the show

These guys aren’t just fronting about the whole horse thing, either. In addition to using folk instruments like the Igil, Shanz, Morin Khuur and Throat Singing, Tengger can ride too.

“Yeah, I’m okay on horseback,” muses Nature Ganganbaigal (Guitar, Vocals) at the beginning of our pre-show chat. “One time, I went to the Mongolian grassland and I had to stay on a horse’s back for one hour because he ran off from his owner. I got the bridle on, and I can gallop no problem…I’m more comfortable playing guitar, but I can make a horse go, too.”

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Alex Abayev

While experimental genre-defying music is always exciting, it’s unfortunate that a lot of this blending of traditional music with contemporary styles can be seen as a gimmick, or attempting to cash in on the novelty of “look at us, we combine The Monolythic ‘Old’ with The Monolythic ‘New!’”

The obvious workaround is authenticity and commitment to what the artist is creating as a performance that creates something new, unique, and hybridized instead of just two distinct styles – see Canada’s A Tribe Called Red, and Chile’s Matanza for examples of groups who do this well. Tengger Cavalry does this spectacularly in the studio, but live it’s even more impressive.

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Nature Ganganbaigal

Tengger Cavalry presents a fascinating live show because these musicians focus their stage presence into capturing the sonic rush of stampeding cavalry as opposed to attempting to shoehorn sacred Mongolian traditions into popular contemporary music.

“When you travel a lot, and play from place to place, you’re already living a Nomadic lifestyle,” says Alex Abayev (Bass). “And since we’re all together, it’s like a Unity we can all feel,” chimes in Josh Schifris (Drums). Alex continues that with their music, “we can make people feel connected to the Steppes, even if they’ve never been there.”

To paraphrase from the acclaimed Coeur d’Alene author Sherman Alexie, writers from Indigenous cultures are often better off treading lightly on hallowed ground. Writing about sacred traditions and exhibiting them for public consumption outside that cultural group is an invitation for people searching to give themselves cultural capital via conspicuous consumption of “the other” (“look at how cool and open-minded I am, I saw a ~~Mongolian Metal band~~ last night”).

“When I was in high school, I listened to a lot of metal, which meant I listened to a lot of Scandinavian bands bringing traditional music into their sound,” explains Nature when I asked about the genesis of the band. “I thought, ‘well, why can’t I do this with my own culture? Why not create something brand-fucking-new?’”

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Josh Schifris

The band tells me that “talks are happening” about a future tour in Turkey and Central Asia. “We get a lot of messages from Istanbul, with fans telling us that we are their nomadic brothers.” This current tour has been a blast for the band, and despite weeks on the road, they show no signs of fatigue; if anything, they’re coping with post-tour depression now that the constant gigging has finished.

Canada has treated them well, with some of their favorite shows taking place in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Josh has asked me to include a note to Neil Peart shouting out Rush (and the Great White North in general) as major inspirations to this band.

“The most important thing is about what’s in your music,” says Nature. “We see ourselves as combining cultures, not combining genres. We’re all from different backgrounds, but we’re all in this band.”

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Nature Ganganbaigal

The band would like to express their sincere appreciation to the tour’s sponsors, Kay’s clothing (UK) Killer B Guitars, Rock N Roller, Reunion Blues, Sinister Guitar Picks, and Strukture.

 

Photos by Cem Ertekin

 

COOTIES 

U.S.A./Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion/2014

Cooties is a laugh-out-loud, good time – perfect for Fantasia audiences. Comedy-horror is a tricky business which can often fall totally flat or be so over the top that it completely misses the mark. A  promising premise does not always a good movie make and there are so many ways in which the zombie apocalypse can happen. I had expected Cooties to elicit a few chuckles but not much more. Boy was I wrong. Children are scary as hell, straight out of the worst arsenal of nightmares, and horror fans are not uninitiated to tales of possessed, haunted, or sociopathic murderous children. Rabid zombie kids, however, is fairly unexplored terrain. Unlike The Children, a scarier tension filled horror, Cooties opts for the humour in the horror with rewarding gory bits.

Clint takes on a summer school teaching position so that he can pay the bills while working on what he hopes will be his breakthrough novel. He isn’t prepared for what a total nightmare his first day teaching would be starting with a hostile welcome from a coworker and then one of his students attacking and biting another child within minutes of his awkward introduction to his classroom. Clint’s attention is momentarily pulled away from his novel to one of his former classmates, who also teaches at the school, whom he seems to still have a schoolboy crush on. As a virulent form of cooties ravages the playground,  Clint and his colleagues must survive each other long enough to protect themselves at any cost – even if it means impaling their former students.

From its opening sequence, Cooties doesn’t shy from plunging its audiences into an uncomfortable oozing meaty mess. Mass production is already scary enough, including the real world fear that we never know what’s in the things we eat. The audience is privy to the fact that something horrible is incoming as the teaching staff quips about whose mug is whose and gets ready for ‘just another day at work’ where they most tolerate each other. Elijah Wood as Clint plays to his strengths as an unimposing, somewhat obsessive, scrawny protagonist while Rain Wilson, who blew minds in Super, stands out in his role as the egotist P.E. teacher with whom Woods must compete for the affections of the film’s love interest, Lucy.

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The cast is comedy gold. I especially enjoyed the role of Leigh Whannel (who also co-wrote the film) as the socially awkward science teacher Doug. Some will find the characterization thin and that certain roles are given the short end of the stick: especially that of Tracy (Jack McBrayer). A few of my fellow critics have found the film to be somewhat lazy, but I would disagree. I would argue that Cooties does not purport to be an intellectual comedy nor a drama of any sort but rather takes audiences along for a ridiculous ride where some of the jibs are surprising while others are so overdone that it seems like the film is making fun of itself.

If you can imagine what sort of recipe this cooks up, Cooties is from the minds of writers who have penned Saw, Insidious, Glee, and the upcoming Scream Queens. A Spectrevision production, Elijah Woods’ new horror production company, Cooties is satisfying, gross in the best of ways, and oft hilarious.

As an added bonus, the short screened before Cooties turned out to be one of the most enjoyably frightening shorts I have seen at Fantasia since The Pact in 2011. Point of View by Justin Harding was shot in only five hours, this short is heavily inspired by The Weeping Angels episodes of Doctor Who. The premise is simple but the delivery is perfect and the few effects, such as the make-up artistry, are exactly on point – and scary as f***.

 

EXTINCTION

Spain/Miquel Angel Vivas/2015

Speaking of the zombie apocalypse, whether by a hoard of flesh eating kids or legendary creatures of old, what happens when you manage to survive the massive wave of the destruction of everything as you know it? What then? Based on the graphic novel by Juan de Dios Garduno, Extinction takes audiences to the cold and icy realm of uncertainty and torture of survivors. The film opens after the breakout, when mass exodus from cities is underway. The film follows two friends, who, nine years after escaping the massacre of their exodus attempts, live in fortified home-compounds separated by deep hatred. The heart of the film is Lu, who was born into the world post-zombie apocalypse and has never known anything outside of her home and routine with the man who has raised her. Now that the threat of the undead has died down due to the perpetual winter, Lu tries to convince her father to stop surviving and to let her live. But is the threat really gone or simply pupating awaiting its own gory spring?

EXTINCTION-still6-Quinn-McColgan-Jeffrey-Donovan-Matthew-Fox-courtesy-Vertical-Entertainment

Extinction features strong performances by the title cast especially Matthew Fox, whose character Patrick represents the double edged sword of hardening oneself to survive. The relationships between the characters is the meat of the film. As a testament to its strength, audiences will find themselves angry at characters, like Jack (Jeffrey Donovan) who is overprotective and frankly seems like a dick while rooting for others including Patrick’s buddy, the dog. Quinn Caulking who plays Lu does a great job of conveying the paradoxical naiveté and wisdom of youth, with her unbridled curiosity and yearning for connection, which threatens to bridge the divide between the two men. Aside from this, the film offers some instances of remarkable cinematography, creating a world that is real enough to draw audiences in yet, remains fantastic – recalling the aesthetics of video games and graphic novels.

Extinction has some thrilling scares to offer including fearsome zombies, along with detailed aesthetics and strong camera work all the while posing interesting questions about survival and humanity. However,  the plausibility of their initial survival is difficult to buy into and the stupidity of some of the character’s choices may be too frustrating for some.

 

The most unique thing about the action film Momentum is the fact that the star of the film isn’t Tom Cruise or Jason Statham. This time, it’s former bond girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace). It’s a breath of fresh air to know that a woman besides Angelina Jolie is allowed to do these kinds of movies.

Kurylenko plays Alex, a mysterious woman involved in a bank heist gone wrong. When her face is revealed during the robbery, she has to go on the run. Meanwhile another mysterious group of people want what she helped steal, and will do anything to get it back.

Kurylenko struggles to make a lot of the dialogue feel authentic, but thankfully she’s more than capable of holding her own in the fighting and car chase scenes. Its unfortunate that the director felt compelled to include a few completely unnecessary shots of Kurylenko lounging around in sexy underwear. But at least Kurylenko spends the rest of the movie using her strength instead of her sexuality.

Kurylenko’s adversary in the film is Rome alum James Purefoy. It’s not much of a stretch to say he’s the strongest actor of the bunch. Similar to his portrayal of Mark Anthony, Purefoy’s in charge of bringing the charm and playful banter to the story. Except Purefoy is so charming that at times you forget that he’s supposed to want to hunt and kill Alex, not flirt with her. Perhaps a romantic comedy next time James?

In many ways, Momentum is nothing more than a formulaic action thriller. The plot is razor thin, the dialogue ridiculous, and the chemistry between the leads extremely questionable. So why then would anyone want to invest time and money in this movie? The same reason you watch all action films; to watch good looking people kick the shit out of each other and see big explosions. And on those two counts Momentum happily delivers the goods.

 

Is it truly possible start your life over? This is the main question asked by the Japanese romantic comedy La La La at Rock Bottom. What makes this film shine is the fact that it doesn’t try to answer that question with a bunch of sappy film clichés. In fact, while the film is gentle in spirit, it also doesn’t shy away from brutal violence. Those contrasts make the film offbeat at times, but also more realistic.

When the film starts, we are introduced to a mysterious man (Subaru Shibutani) being released from prison. Hours after his release, he’s beaten brutally in the street and left for dead. When he awakes, he has no memory of who he is.

After wandering around town in an amnesia-induced daze, our mystery man breaks up a music gig and impresses its teenage leader Makiko (Sarina Suzuki). Allowed to make her own decisions since her parents are dead and her grandfather has dementia, Makiko decides to let mystery man stay with her. She even nicknames him Poochie after her dead dog.

Shibutani and Suzuki share an easy chemistry. Its easy to believe that, in their own weird way, these two strangers are perfect for each other. Suzuki especially shines in her role as a young woman who has taken on way too much responsibility for her age and is trying to make the best of it.

The screenwriter Kanno Tomoe also deserves praise. He has crafted a story that leaves the audience ultimately feeling uplifted, without resolving everything in a neat little bow. And that’s something that’s hard to find in North American film. It’s easy to imagine an LA screenwriter squeezing out every bit of heart in a Hollywood remake. Let’s just hope that day never comes, and this film can stay in its own little weird universe forever.

When Just For Laughs announced this year’s festival line-up would include a free outdoor “Weird Al” Yankovic concert, you could practically hear the collective cry of delight across town. Who better to entertain the masses than he who bridges the gap between pop music, social commentary, and comedy? Excitement was in the air, though the full extent of that excitement wasn’t evident until last night, when several thousand fans huddled together under a sea of umbrellas in an unrelenting downpour, refusing to leave Quartier Des Spectacles until they’d seen a good show. And boy, did they ever.

Weird Al took the stage shortly after 9 p.m., accordion at the ready and wearing one of his signature Hawaiian shirts, determined to get the crowd revved up. He launched into “Now That’s What I Call Polka!” – a toe-tapping number featuring snippets of everything from Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” to PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” Though the waterlogged audience applauded, it was clear they’d need more to chase the clouds away. So, following a brief video break, Al reemerged as a purple octopus with an ice cream cone hat to sing his Lady Gaga parody, “Perform This Way.” Mercifully, the rain let up as he continued with his 1985 ode to the absurd, “Dare To Be Stupid,” and then proceeded to slip into a fat suit and double chin to crotch-grab his way through another Yankovic classic, 1988’s “Fat”.

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Weird Al rocking the accordion in Montreal, July 21. Photo by Matthieu Deshayes

It was exactly what everyone had shown up for and yet strangely, the crowd – themselves noticeably White & Nerdy – did little more than sway or bob their heads as Al and his tight four-man band cranked out tune after tune. The atmosphere improved slightly when he mixed things up with an acoustic set, blending “Eat It” and “Lost on Jeopardy” with “I Love Rocky Road” and “Like a Surgeon,” but throughout the evening the most enthusiastic response seemed to come mostly from those closest to the stage.

Which begs the question – why the hesitancy to dance? Weird Al’s parodies cover four decades of the biggest hits in pop and rock music, many of which are regular crowd-pleasers in clubs and at weddings. With lyrics that often outshine those of the original songs they’re spoofing, how could several thousand Montrealers not find themselves whipped up into a gyrating frenzy? Why the palpable sense of hesitancy to let loose and dare to be stupid with someone who’s all but begging you to?

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Weird Al performing “Fat.” Photo by Matthieu Deshayes.

Was a language gap preventing the crowd from fully appreciating the playful lyrics? Had the rain simply tired everyone out? Or are people so used to enjoying his work in a more intimate setting – say, during a road trip with friends, or while hanging out in someone’s basement – that being grouped together felt odd? Audiences are accustomed to publicly rocking out to good music or laughing at a clever comedian. Perhaps it’s when the two experiences are merged that they clam up, uncertain of how best to respond.

Even if they never completely embraced the party atmosphere Al was trying hard to create, he certainly didn’t let it faze him. Donning a maple leaf-patterned blazer, he strutted around the stage for “Canadian Idiot” before moving on to “Word Crimes,” a delightfully scathing riff on Robin Thicke’s infamous “Blurred Lines” that takes aim at our constant misuse of English grammar and spelling. A song that reminds you of the best way to use an apostrophe while also making you laugh is a rare delight indeed.

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Weird Al under the rain. Photo by Matthieu Deshayes.

His zany personality and sharp wit, highlighted in those aforementioned video clips of his various appearances in film and animation over the years, earns Weird Al a place alongside the stars he’s spent his career lampooning. One particularly hilarious moment screened between costume changes showed him “interviewing” rapper Eminem through careful editing. The resulting repetition of Mathers’ uttering, “You know what I mean?” left the audience roaring in delight.

It’s worth pointing out that the audience was very much intergenerational. Adults who’d grown up in the ‘80s watching Al TV on MTV stood alongside those who only become aware of his existence when he parodied Lorde’s “Royals.” Retirees, Hipsters and tiny tots alike were all able to enjoy the content of the show – a testament to the artist’s lasting appeal and proof that JFL organizers were wise to book an act that could appeal to families as much as the comedy club regulars.

Perhaps the most impressive element of the tightly choreographed show was his unfaltering voice. Whether growling like Nirvana or hooting like Michael Jackson, the man has some serious pipes that held up extremely well over the course of the 90-minute extravaganza. By the time he stepped out in a black coat and beard to sing 1996’s “Amish Paradise,” the crowd had no choice but to believe his claims that he had nothing left in the tank as he exited like James Brown with a cape draped around his shoulders. After all that singing, how could he? Thankfully, he returned in fine form for an encore of “Yoda” that featured an unexpected a cappella/scat interlude. Though the crowd wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it, their deafening cheers made it clear that, come rain or come shine, Yankovic’s particular brand of weirdness was definitely worth waiting for.

Weird Al continues his Mandatory Fun tour this week with Sold Out shows in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. For tickets to his Maine and New Jersey shows, visit www.weirdal.com.

Photos courtesy of Mathieu Deshayes and Just for Laughs.

Produced by the Duplass Brothers and directed by Sean Baker (Starlet), Tangerine is a bold and energetic look at a side of Los Angeles rarely seen on screen. The film follows two transgendered prostitutes over the course of one day, Christmas Eve. Shot completely on iPhones, the rough around the edges look of the film compliments the tough and unglamorous lives of the characters.

Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from a stint in jail. While reconnecting with her bestie Alexandra (Mya Taylor), she hears some upsetting news that sets her off on a tear to find her pimp boyfriend. Quickly deciding to abandon her friend, Alexandra, meanwhile, tries to convince people to come to her show happening that night. The best friends’ storylines are also intercut with a married cabdriver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who has a penchant for transgender prostitutes.

The plot in the film is pretty thin. And the climax of the film involves all of these characters screaming at each other at a donut shop. More than once Tangerine verges on crossing the camp line into just plain ridiculous. But as an audience member, you stay along for the ride because thankfully that line is never quite crossed. The non-stop pace of the film also helps one from ever getting bored; as Sin-Dee goes on her tear of some of the poorest blocks in the city of angels you never know what drug dealer, hooker or client she’s going to meet next.

The chemistry between Rodriguez and Taylor is the real reason Tangerine is worth the cost of admission. These two real-life friends display some of the sweetest moments of friendship ever caught on camera. The last scene in the laundromat for instance is filled with such tenderness you’d have a heart of stone not to be affected by it.

Tangerine opens in Montreal on July 31.

It was with a sense of melancholy that I lowered my ever-widening behind into the seat at Cinema du Parc before the screening of When Marnie Was There. The future, in case you didn’t know, is uncertain for Studio Ghibli, the renowned animation studio that produced such classics as Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro. With the retiring of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, what comes next for the studio is hazy and uncertain, with no new films announced at the time of this writing, and implications looming that When Marnie Was There might just be the final Ghibli film.

Like many North Americans, I discovered Studio Ghibli late in the game. I want to say my first Ghibli film was Mononoke, and not Spirited Away, which served as an introduction to both Miyazaki and Ghibli for many of us here in the West. But it was long ago, and memory is unreliable. No matter where and when Ghibli came into my life, what matters is that it was important. Like so many others, Ghibli showed me what animated films were capable of, perhaps even more so than the great and mighty Pixar, who, by the time Ghibli really caught on in North America, had already been sitting on their throne so long they’d worn a comfortable ass-groove in the upholstery.

Marnie posterGhibli films, and more specifically Miyazaki films, taught me things. They challenged me to understand characters I may not initially like or agree with. They showed me beauty and humor and sorrow. They were an important part of my coming into my own as a film buff – and now it may very well be over. Miyazaki and Takahata have seemingly retired and Miyazaki’s son has proven himself unable to properly follow in his father’s footsteps. Ghibli has employed other directors in the past (and is doing so in the case of Marnie) but thus far, none of them have been able to capture that Ghibli magic.

The spectre of Ghibli’s potential closing hangs over When Marnie Was There. Like an 18th century sailor press-ganged into service, this film has been pushed into the role of Ghibli’s swan song, their coda, their final bow. As such, reviewing it is… Tricky. I’m torn between viewing the film as just another Ghibli movie and viewing it as the FINAL Ghibli movie. My brain keeps ricocheting back and forth between seeing the film on its own merit, free from context, and seeing it in the role its been forced into, and the context that looms over it. In either case, though, the results aren’t good.

When Marnie Was There is the story of Anna, a depressed, socially withdrawn girl sent to live with her aunt and uncle in the country, in the hopes that clean country air will cure her asthma. After having trouble fitting in with the local kids, Anna meets Marnie, a young girl who lives in a mysterious house isolated by marshlands. Anna and Marnie become friends, despite growing evidence that Marnie is not all that she seems, and that strange things are afoot.

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For the first half hour or so, When Marnie Was There completely had me. Having dealt with these problems myself, tales of depression and social withdrawal always strike a chord with me. The quiet, lonely, self-loathing Anna resonated with me as a character, and I was eager to see how the film would treat these issues. But then in prances Marnie, blonde haired and bedecked in lolita fashion (in the Japanese sense, not the Nabokov sense), giggling with every alternate sentence and pulling Anna by the hand into whimsy and vaguely homoerotic bonding that incited giggles from sections of the audience.

When Marnie enters the film, it ceases to be about Anna and her depression and becomes a game of how long it can possibly take Anna to guess that Marnie is obviously not what she appears. How many strange occurrences can she take in stride, how often she can fail to ask the burning questions any sensible person would ask in the situations she’s thrust into.

Rather than driving the story herself, Anna is pulled along through the rest of the narrative by this golden haired doll-girl. They don’t form a friendship: Marnie declares Anna “her precious discovery” and Anna immediately goes along with it. There’s no sense of her coming out of her shell or grappling with the crippling social anxieties she showed a scene before. Marnie just appears and takes over her life, sweeping us from an interesting and nuanced character piece into a sweeping, schmaltzy melodrama capped off by a contrived revelation better suited for a daytime soap.

Marnie insert 2I began to grow frustrated with Anna’s sudden lack of agency or reasoning power, started hating the film for its reliance on sentiment rather than character and intrigue. How is it that meeting Marnie is the catalyst that sparks change in Anna? Was a whimsical blonde who stands on the prows of boats really what was missing? Why does Anna immediately become infatuated with Marnie, and open up to her in a way she hasn’t before?

In Princess Mononoke, you can understand how the introduction of Ashitaka brings change and reform to the world. In Castle in the Sky, you can see how Sheeta and Pazu draw strength from each other. But there’s never any sense of an actual relationship between Anna and Marnie. Marnie seems, quite intentionally at that, to be on an entirely different wavelength from Anna. Her half of the conversation feels pre-recorded, like she could be speaking to anyone. Marnie doesn’t form a bond with Anna, Anna gets caught in Marnie’s wake, sucked along like a piece of arm candy. I got a sense more of the bond and connection between Totoro and Satsuki and Mei, and Totoro didn’t even speak.

And since the relationship between Anna and Marnie is what drives the plot, this and Anna’s stout refusal to get the picture makes the film alternately dull and frustrating. The music soars and tears flow and I feel empty inside, completely uninterested in the characters and their relationship. If anything, I yearn for the days before Marnie flounced into the film and Anna’s emotional turmoil felt like the core of the film.

When I try and view When Marnie Was There as a film in its own right, it comes up as merely harmless. Melodramatic fluff straight out of a dime novel tear-jerker, something Nicholas Sparks would cook up, perhaps. But as the potentially last Ghibli film, all I want to do is stamp When Marnie Was Here into the dust and bury it so that I can go play the previous year’s one-two-punch of emotional and thematic depth (The Wind Rises) and artistic vision (The Tale of Princess Kaguya).

When Marnie Was There‘s worst enemy is its context. If the rumors prove to be untrue and Ghibli rises again to produce more films, this one can join the ranks as a pretty but ultimately toothless B-entry in the studio library. But if history does make this the last Ghibli film, and this was really the last time I’ll ever get to see that blue logo precede a new film, When Marnie Was There is frustrating for how much of a shallow note it ends the Ghibli legacy on.

Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, is a movie I’ve had my eye on for a while. Actors turning to directing has led to some great movies before, and this is an actor who’s been hanging around with Nicolas Winding-Refn, so my hope was that maybe some of Refn’s talent rubbed off on Gosling. Or if not talent, his propensity for wearing bath towels as pants when filming and ability to look like some kind of hipster slug, because the world needs more weirdness in it.

Watching the slow news drip about Lost River was truly fascinating. First that weird teaser came out, with then-Dr Who star Matt Smith screaming at us to look at his muscles, then the much more coherent main trailer that made the film look less like a bad art-school project. Then the news broke that the film had become the whipping boy of Cannes 2014, getting booed and mocked by pretty much everyone there. What the hell WAS this thing, I thought to myself. I had to find out. I had to see for myself.

And now I know. It’s a first-time film by a freshman director with a lot of connections. It’s a pool of talent, improperly marshaled. It’s an orchestra full of talented people with a conductor who isn’t quite ready yet. But let’s start at the beginning.

Lost River posterIain De Caestecker is Bones, a despondent resident of Lost River, a middle-America town on the brink of collapse. His single mother, Christina Hendricks’ Billy, is struggling with the fallout from a predatory loan and the town is seemingly caught in the grip of Bully, a local tough played by Matt Smith. Billy takes a job at a seedy club run by her banker, while Bones draws the ire of Bully, putting himself and his girlfriend Rat, played by Saoirse Ronan, in danger.

Almost from the first scene, Lost River feels like a weird sorta melange of styles. Some scenes will have this very documentary-ish sorta feel, all natural lighting and hand-held camera work. But then we’ll switch gears and be looking at beautifully framed slow-motion shots.

Some times the set design will have this almost Tim Burton gothic feel (right down to featuring a giant skull mask pulled directly from Batman Returns) and then in the blink of an eye characters will be walking down this sterile, mono-chromatic hallways that looks pulled from THX-1138.

And don’t get me wrong, some of it’s beautiful. There are some breathtakingly gorgeous shots in here, and the editing is top-notch as well. But the problem is it all feels somehow hollow. The film as a whole feels pretty, but at the same time fumbling, awkward.

I think a lot of this comes from the cast, who come across as aimless, but not in an intentional way. De Caestecker just seems to be doing a bad Ryan Gosling impersonation, staring poutily into the middle distance but without any of the slow-burn intensity that drove Drive….pardon the pun. Saoirse Ronan is playing the “artsy indie movie girlfriend,” kind of vacant and cold and never presenting any credible reason for why she’s with the main guy at all. Matt Smith just sorta prowls around trying to come off as threatening, but never really making it work as a legit figure of menace. If any villain in the film really works, it’s Ben Mendelsohn as Dave, the banker/club owner who serves as the threat to Billy.

On that subject, there is one part of the film that did actually resonate with me. Growing up raised by a single mother puts you in a very odd headspace if you’re a guy, especially if you’re the oldest/only child. You’re ostensibly the only man in your mother’s life, so other male figures sorta become threatening and foreign, and you can see Ryan Gosling’s experience with this a bit in Lost River. There are scenes where I can identify with Bones’ protectiveness of Billy, with his sense of dread at Dave’s advances. So that, at least, struck a chord with me.

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But for most of the film, Lost River‘s American Fairy Tale vibe didn’t quite work the way Gosling seems to have wanted it to. In Drive or Only God Forgives, the imagery felt suffused with a kind of meaning, a potency. Here the dreamy tone and imagery feels like an affectation most of the time, like an imitation at the surface level.

There’s some of that magic there, and Gosling’s ability to capture the kind of apocalyptic disintegration that’s sweeping small towns across America is definitely noteworthy. If he’d focused on that rather than weave in quasi-surrealist images and moodiness, this could have been great.

But instead we’ve got a lot of very pretty images that feel trite and hollow. Gosling has a lot of talent at his disposal in the film, a cinematographer who can produce a great shot, a composer who can turn out a haunting, beautiful score, actors who can theoretically turn out a great performance, but they all feel like they’re wandering.

I never got a sense of what Bones was about, never felt a motif emerge in the varying styles of camera work or visual design. It never felt like it really meant anything, like it became something besides a mood piece. And as a pure mood piece, it’s pretty good, but we need more than that.

Drive felt like a deconstruction of the action movie hero, and the action/crime movie in general. Only God Forgives felt like a movie about someone with a crippling fear of forward momentum. What is Lost River about?

I’m not sure, and I don’t really know that the film does either.

A good friend of mine sold me on The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears as a modern throwback to Giallo horror films: Italian-made flicks usually from the 70s and 80s known for their lurid sexuality, rampant stylization and plots usually so batshit insane, you could use them as high-quality fertilizer and produce roses red enough to inflame the passions of the most prudent of stuffy librarians.

These kinds of throwbacks and homages are something I usually struggle with, because, even when a movie manages to perfectly emulate an older style or genre, my question is then “Ok, now what?” It’s great if you can produce a film that looks exactly like a 70s grindhouse ‘sploitation movie, but if I wanted that, I would just watch the genuine article. If you’re going to emulate something it should be for a reason – throw a clever deconstruction in there, or at the very least some kind of commentary or message.

Strange Color posterI still can’t decide if The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears breaks this rule or not, to be honest. If anything, I think the film succeeds almost as a satire of Giallo’s stylistic excesses by taking them to such an extreme that the film becomes a surrealistic barrage on the senses. It constantly bombards you with formal devices and stylistic quirks until it becomes akin to the last fight scene in The Raid: an exhausting, mind-numbing exercise in lack of restraint. In this, the film is extremely divisive, and reviews either sing it as a stirring tribute to Giallo or an un-watchable, pretentious mess.

For my part, I’m on the fence. On the one hand, it is at times superbly atmospheric, and has some really beautiful camera work, sets, and imagery. On the other hand, the film has absolutely zero stylistic restraint, hitting you with every device and quirk it can think of, funky angles, colored lighting, split screen, zooms, rotating images, kaleidoscope effects, and practically the whole thing is shot in extreme close-ups, usually of someone’s eye. Oddly enough, though, there wasn’t a split-focus diopter shot. It does have all or at least most of the typical Giallo trappings, but the styler overall is turned up past eleven an into some theoretical number that modern math hasn’t reached yet.

The plot, for its part, is prettymuch Giallo through and through. After our protagonist, Dan, returns home to find his wife missing, he begins investigating her disappearance himself, with a stern police detective on his heels who himself suspects Dan of foul play. While searching for clues. Dan comes across the strange denizens of the apartment building where he lives, most of whom feel the need to relate their own tale of woe, which all could be the plots of Giallo films in themselves.

And I’m sure it all means… Something. The film flits in and out of being full-on impressionistic, with an almost nightmare logic of repetition and visual double-speak. There’s some kind of plot involving a secret S&M/murder club behind the walls and the police inspector possibly being traumatized by having seen a vagina as a small boy (Shock! Horror!) and if you were to watch it with a group of friends everyone would probably have a completely different idea about who or what the killer turned out to be in the end. I kept imploring the film to drop me some kind of hint about just what the hell was actually going on, but whenever I did I felt like it met me with a condescending European sneer and called me a boorish oaf before continuing on it’s merry, oblique way.

So if you’re into movies that leave you with clear, concise answers about what exactly it is you just saw, this one may not be for you, since it’s honestly about as impenetrable as a concrete wall. A very well-adorned concrete wall, mind.

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If nothing else, the film replicates the (stereo)typical look of over-designed everything in Giallo films. There isn’t a single window that isn’t a big, rounded, stained-glass art installation, not a single door handle that isn’t carved to look like a tree branch or a cleverly disguised phallus. The mise-en-scene is about as striking and in-your-face as the formal elements are, so you can’t say the film is inconsistent at least.

But the problem is that it’s all just too damn much. I kept begging the film to slow down, take a breather, maybe have some nice, simple shot-reverse-shot, maybe a simple pan, anything other than the storm of clever cuts and lurid frames it keeps going for almost the entire film. As much as I can appreciate the atmosphere and how visually striking the film can be at times, it’s just an overload that goes too hard on the visuals, the narrative obliqueness, the… everything.

It gets to the point that you can’t see the trees for the forest, in a manner of speaking, and every stylistic element is jostling with each other for our attention so much that the whole thing just becomes a blur, and an exceptionally unintelligible blur at that.

While I do think The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is interesting, it’s more interesting as an example of rampant excess than anything else. Which is a shame because if that style were toned down significantly and maybe just a tiny bit more transparency added to the story, we’d have a pretty fun, atmospheric little Giallo throwback on our hands, something akin to Berberian Sound Studio, maybe. As it is we’re just left with an example of how do over-do something, and I learned that the last time I tried to make a grilled cheese sandwich and wound up with a new doorstop, thank you very much.

With the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, summer movie season has officially begun. It’s one of my favorite times of the year, because one of the kinds of movies I like best, and feel most comfortable and confident assessing critically, is being catapulted at audiences worldwide like flaming boulders at an invading barbarian army.

With one hand, I shall smite the unworthy like a vengeful God, denouncing their crass, dumb boorishness. With the other, I shall hold aloft the chosen ones, the examples that prove that not all summer blockbusters are crass, dumb and boorish.

Over these offerings shall I sit in judgment, a stern but fair arbiter, sorting the wheat from the chaff, the worthy from the unworthy.

But until then, there’s fuck-all for me to watch. Nothing in the theatres, nothing new on Blu-Ray. So this week, I present to you a desperation move: Nightflyers, a frankly godawful 80s sci-fi horror flick that has fallen into such obscurity that even I hadn’t heard of it until recently. It has, thankfully, been uploaded to YouTube, in a sign that not even the film’s copyright holders could be bothered to give even the smallest fraction of a shit.

So what’s the hook, then? What makes this bargain-bin fodder worth digging up?

nightflyers posterGeorge R.R. Martin. Yes, that’s right. Nightflyers is based on a novella by a pre-Game of Thrones Martin. How much it has in common with the source material is something I’ve yet to find out, but let’s take a look and see if Nightflyers is something Game of Thrones fans or general Martin devotees should look into.

Our protagonists are a crew of scientists en route to the supposed site of a mysterious alien entity. To get there, they’re aboard the Nightflyer, a cargo ship captained and crewed by one man, Royd, who appears to them via hologram. While Royd and Miranda, who is one of the scientists, are striking up a relationship/potential romance, several mysterious incidents take place as the scientists learn more and more about Royd and the Nightflyer’s strange past.

Those watching Nightflyers expecting a work covered in Martin’s signature moves and motifs, or what the popularity of Game of Thrones has made him known for at least, will probably be disappointed. There’s nary a gratuitous sex scene or naked woman to be seen anywhere, so Last Starfighter fans looking for Catherine Mary Stewart to show some skin are bound for a let-down. None of your favorite characters die, but that’s more because the characters are, on a whole, so bland and underdeveloped that picking a favorite would be like picking your favorite shade of off-white paint.

Not that anyone’s that bad – the cast is actually all right, with appearances by John Standing, who would play Jon Arryn’s corpse years later on Game of Thrones, and The Shredder/Uncle Phil himself, the sadly departed James Avery. But none of them ever registers something as ambitious as a real personality. The closest we get is Miranda, Catherine Mary Stewart’s character, who initially gets set up as an Ellen Ripley style badass before becoming a fairly generic and agency-devoid female lead in the second half.

The closest thing to a Martin-ism is when Royd is revealed to be the gender-swapped clone of the Nightflyer’s previous captain, intended to be her son/companion/lover. Oh there you are, George! Wasn’t sure you were gonna show up, and really the intention of incest (or clone-cest in this case) must be the George R.R. Martin equivalent of a quick Stan Lee cameo in a Marvel movie. Just a quick hello to remind you what you’re watching.

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As a George R.R. Martin property, Nightflyers only bears the faintest stamp of what Thrones fans would recognize as his thumbprint, so for the most part Nightflyers is forced to survive not as a Martin property but as one of the countless 80s space-horror movies that sprung up in the wake of Ridley Scott’s Alien.

And in that regard, boy does it suck. It definitely has that “adapted from a book, or novella in this case” feeling, with hints of a much larger and more developed universe occasionally popping in to tantalize us with the promise of something more interesting than what we’ve got here, which is mostly a cramped, poorly paced slog. Plot points will come out of nowhere, you’ll think you’re seeing the climax on at least three occasions, and the whole alien entity thingy that the movie initially seemed to be about quickly gets forgotten for an oh-so-original rogue spaceship AI plot, with a slightly Freudian twist.

Stewart narrates a lot of it in this dry monotone, like she was auditioning for Metroid: Other M a few decades too early, and even if she had put a bit more nuance into the performance, narration is something that rarely works in movies for me. It almost always feels like a cheap way to deliver exposition without having to weave it into dialogue organically. There are exceptions, obviously, but I can’t think of many.

If the film has one feather in its cap, it’s the set designs and effects, which are rather nice. Though, admittedly, the low-quality Youtube version probably did the film’s visuals a lot of favors. The sets have a sort of artsy, surrealistic vibe to them, lots of backlighting and flowing panels and such. There’s a tiny bit of makeup and gore action going on, the best effect probably being when the prissy British psychic has his head exploded by a laser.

There’s a reason you’ve never heard of Nightflyers. In the face of other, slightly more interesting Alien ripoffs like Forbidden World, Creature or Christ even Critters fucking 4, it isn’t hard to see why this thing never went anywhere. I mean jeez, at least Creature had Klaus Kinski in it for God only know what reasons. It’s very likely that in the next few years some company like Shout! Factory will pick up the rights to Nightflyers and re-release it, with “From the Creator of Game of Thrones!” on the cover, but I’d give it a pass unless you’re a hardcore Martin devotee or just a fan of really unremarkable 80s sci-fi horror.

Whenever a new horror film comes out and starts garnering rave reviews from people in the know, my reaction is usually to have my eyebrow thrust skyward with the force of an Apollo rocket. I’m not generally a fan of modern horror movies, which is to say I hold them in the same regard as I do garden slugs or Jake Busey. And yet, people kept telling me I HAD to see It Follows, an indie horror film with a killer hook and great execution, that it would turn me around on modern horror movies and restore my faith.

It didn’t.

It isn’t bad, the hook is definitely killer and it has some interesting formal elements as well. But it’s also a bit muddled, tries to be retro and modern at the same time, and, for my money, doesn’t go deep enough with its central idea.

It followes posterThe hook is pretty simple: the monster is an STD. After a round of the old backseat boogaloo with her boyfriend, teenager Jay finds herself pursued by a mysterious entity that appears as normal people, sometimes people she knows, walking steadily towards her with a glassy stare. The entity can appear at any time and if it catches you, as the now ex-boyfriend tells her, it kills you. The only way to get rid of it is to sleep with someone else, passing it on to them.

As horror movie hooks go, it’s direct, simple, and clever. STD’s have always been sort of lurking in the subtext of a lot of horror movie monsters, and It Follows is one of the few I can think of to come out and take the sexual/disease element out of the shadows and make it part of the actual text of the film rather than subtext.

Similarly, the monster itself, if it can even be called that, is extremely simple. No fangs, no claws, no jumping out and going “arglebargle” (except for one scene), just someone that no one else can see walking towards you with a blank expression, carrying with them the subtle implication that if they catch you, that’s your ass. I tend to find stuff like that scarier than the usual jump scares, and indeed It Follows can be damn chilling at times.

The problems really are in the execution. The film seems to be sorta going for a retro vibe, very much in the vein of classic Wes Craven or John Carpenter. The film could – almost – be set in the 70s, everyone drives old cars and watches 40s sci-fi movies, at one point the characters go to a movie in this gorgeous old movie palace with a live organist, and modern conveniences like cell phones are almost totally absent. The soundtrack is even this actually really good synth affair.

The problem is that the 70s affectation feels sorta half-assed. In the face of all the retro-isms, this one character (a completely pointless one who could have been cut from the movie entirely at almost zero consequence) is always reading on this weird clamshell e-reader. The photography is also extremely crisp and modern looking, which often puts the look and sound of the film at odds. Whenever that retro soundtrack kicks in I thought to myself “Wow that sounds awesome. But it doesn’t fit what I’m looking at at all”. Perhaps had they gone full House of the Devil and made it look convincingly like a 70s horror movie, as well as sound like one, this discrepancy could have been avoided.

It Follows insertOn the subject of photography, the camera work is very deliberate, with a recurring motif of 360-degree pans, but I still can’t quite tell if they worked for me or not. On the one hand, it’s nice to see a film pay enough attention to its camera work to even have a motif; on the other hand, the recurring pans felt a bit over-used and heavy handed.

On the scripting side of things, It Follows often feels muddied and in need of some refining. There’s that aforementioned pointless character, and I got this nagging sense that the film never quite knew what it wanted to say on the heady issue it was engaging with.

It Follows had a really great opportunity to say something really important and profound about the way we deal with STD and STI sufferers as a society, and while it is true that the film can be seen as a statement about how we demonize them, I kept waiting for the film to go that extra allegorical step.

The movie also sorta betrays itself in certain ways, especially during one scene where the monster’s existence is made plain to Jay’s friends after it sneaks up behind her and grabs her hair (in a kind of lame looking effect) and throws the resident beta male out of the way. Admittedly the old ‘is she really just crazy’ shtick is a bit played out, but I think the film might have functioned better over all if it focused on Jay’s private battle instead of surrounding her with a Scooby Gang of friends, highlighting the stigma of isolation and shame that STD sufferers still face all too often.

So is It Follows everything it’s cracked up to be? Probably not. It wades half-heartedly into the retro aesthetic pool, but its unwillingness to go all the way makes things like the Casio soundtrack and 70s paraphernalia more distracting than enjoyable. Similarly it feels as though the film just doesn’t go deep enough with the STD allegory it seems to be trying to be, and as such feels more exploitative than profound. Not that there isn’t room for exploitation, but with the hype this film was garnering I was frankly expecting more.

Hype is probably this film’s worst enemy, really, and I think once the chorus of praise that currently surrounds It Follows dies down and people can just stumble upon it with no expectations of brilliance, it will be more able to make an impression on people.

For a long time I believed, elitist scum that I was, that there are really two kinds of Ghibli movies: the ones Miyazaki himself did, and everything else. But really, I was wrong. There’s the ones Miyazaki did, the Isao Takahata ones, and everything else.

Takahata’s Ghibli movies aren’t really like any other Ghibli films, or any other anime movies in general. They have their own pace, their own mood, their own way of doing things. They’re almost uniformly not the kind of movies I’d recommend for kids, and not just because they’ve been known to involve the firebombing of Kobe and magical animal scrotums.

By the same coin, I think his films are the most likely of Ghibli’s repertoire to have trouble connecting with North American audiences. His latest film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, might just be the best example of this yet, a breathtakingly beautiful movie, but one I can’t shake the feeling won’t quite work for a lot of people.

After a bamboo cutter finds a tiny woman in a bamboo stalk not far from his home, he takes her home and presents the “princess” he has found to his wife. Shortly thereafter, the princess transforms into an infant child that the couple resolve to raise on their own.

Later on, the bamboo cutter finds gold and silks inside bamboo stalks in the same grove he found the girl, and decides that heaven is telling him that the girl must be raised as a true princess in a resplendent home in the city. He takes the girl and his family to Tokyo and she is trained as a lady and finds herself faced with suitors and increasing pressure from her father to enter high society, whether she wishes to or not (she doesn’t).

Princess Kaguya posterThe thing that will strike you about Princess Kaguya right from the start is that it’s just darn pretty. If this movie were the daughter of a wealthy businessman in The Stars My Destination, it would be shut in a windowless room in an undisclosed location for most of its life (shout out to my classic sci-fi peeps).

I’m not sure what you’d call the art style, somewhere between impressionistic and minimalist, modeled after emakimino, Japanese scroll stories and sort of a precursor to comics in a Scott McCloud kind of way. The extreme background will often be a blank white, figures will be minimally detailed, and the whole thing has this extremely hand drawn kind of look to it.

It’s incredibly striking, and a definite deviation from what Ghibli fans would recognize as their usual style. Like the narrative itself, it’s simple, effective, and beautiful in a disarming sort of way.

Speaking of the narrative, we’re in full-on fable/fairy tale mode here, which is where that disarming aspect comes in, and where I start to feel that some people may not be totally able to connect with the film. See, this is old-school fairy tale storytelling here. Characters will develop previously unmentioned superpowers like they were pre-crisis Superman, and the ending….well, I won’t spoil things, but odds are it won’t be the ending you expect, or the one you want.

Overall, it’s pretty melancholic as films go, slow paced and lyrical. Which isn’t a bad thing, by all means. If you can move to this film’s rhythm, it’ll take you on a hell of a dance. But I get the sense a lot of people won’t quite be able to match the tempo, and will end up sitting on the sidelines sipping punch with the chaperones.

For one thing, as I mentioned before, I wouldn’t really recommend it for kids. At least not most kids. If you’ve got an exceptionally patient, attentive, open-minded eight-to-ten year old, they’ll probably be able to watch it without falling asleep or fidgeting the whole time. Which again, is NOT a knock against the film, but against the attention span of the youth these days.

Princess Kaguya insert

But I think a lot of grownups are going to have trouble connecting with Princess Kaguya as well, and that’s not because of any fault of them or the film. I think North American audiences have a certain set of ingrained expectations about how fairy tales are supposed to feel and play out, blame Walt Disney if you must, but really it goes further back than that.

They expect clearer resolution, they expect clear cut heroes and villains, and especially these days, they expect it to move faster. Look, I don’t want to say that it’s “too foreign,” but let me put it this way: this definitely is a fable from a different culture, one with a different set of rules than what you’re going to expect coming at it from a North American perspective.

It’s gonna take turns that seem to abrupt to you, throw you sudden curve balls that dial up the culture shock and make it a bit hard to fully connect to the thing. I wouldn’t call it alienating, but I think it’s gonna throw people who aren’t as immersed in Japanese cultural norms when it comes to storytelling in myth and fable for a bit of a loop.

Even more so than Takahata’s other works, I think that The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a film I’d recommend more for anime and foreign cinema buffs than the kinds of people I usually direct towards Ghibli films, that being people looking for something to watch with their kids that’s a shade deeper than Disney or Dreamworks fare. And I wanna say for the umpteenth time that that isn’t a mark against the film, I just think it’s playing to a more specific audience than other Ghibli movies.

And that’s ok, we need more movies like that, broad appeal gets dull after a while. Just be forewarned that you’re getting into something a little different.

If you’re firmly a part of this film’s ideal audience, you’re in for a breathtakingly beautiful film. But sort of like Jim Jarmusch or Wes Anderson, I can appreciate that some people might just not be of the right mindset to appreciate what this film has to offer, not because something’s wrong with them, more because they’re walking to a different beat. If it were live action, it would be a Criterion Collection movie, and if you know what that means, there ya go.

I have a feeling that by starting his career on District 9, Neill Blomkamp may have done himself, and the rest of us for that matter, a bit of a disservice. After coming out of the gate with one of the most original, inventive, thoughtful, and just all-around good sci-fi films of the decade, Blompkamp followed up with Elysium. Elysium sucked. Mostly because it just wasn’t District 9. Where District 9 felt fresh and new, with a nuanced perspective and an interesting lead, Elysium felt like a collection of broad clichés, posing as an allegory for the wealth gap built around a shockingly generic turn by Matt Damon. The hope was that Elysium was a misstep, a slight stumble in what would otherwise be a great career for Blomkamp, and that he’d be back up to old form soon.

But now, with his new film Chappie receiving a critical paddling virtually across the board, we may have to accept a very uncomfortable truth: that Blomkamp was never the director we really wanted him to be, the golden boy who would deliver us a bright new future of intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi that also kicked ass, finally cementing the idea that fun and intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive when it comes to sci-fi blockbusters. Because as you may have heard, Chappie isn’t great. Just like Elysium, it strings together a collection of shallow observations and allegories with a fairly dull collection of performances, with the mechanical designs and effects being the only thing worth remarking on.

chappie-posterA few years into the future, a brand-spanking new robotic police force is rolled out onto the streets of Joburg, bringing down crime rates and bringing up “cliched monotone robot voice” rates. The creator of the robots, played by Dev Patel, isn’t satisfied however, and imbues a busted robot with true AI, creating a thinking, feeling robot named Chappie. Of course, this all happens at the same time as Patel being kidnapped by a trio of criminals played by South African rave rappers Die Antwoord, whose influence throws Chappie’s future into question. While all this is happening, Hugh Jackman lurks around in the shadows, plotting Chappie’s downfall.

Given the film’s pedigree, I went in expecting Chappie to at least offer something approximating a discussion on the dangers, ethical and otherwise, of creating a truly sentient AI. But then again, I could walk into a Burger King expecting haute quisine, too. The problem is that all the elements are totally there for Chappie to actually be the nuanced look at a loaded topic I want it to be. Prince Zuko is totally set up to be the idealistic dreamer who creates something without fully considering the consequences of ethical ramifications of his actions. He even panics, and tries to control Chappie when the reality of what he’s done dawns on him. But at no point does he acknowledge that he may have acted in haste, that maybe he should have slept on it, or written a pros and cons list for bringing about the greatest technological achievement since the invention of the wheel.

By the same coin, Wolverine could totally have had legitimate fears and concerns over Chappie’s creation, because after all the prospect of an AI a billion times more intelligent than a human and capable of unraveling fundamental secrets of life with a stack of Playstations is pretty goddamn scary. But the only reason he hates Chappie, and all of Slumdog’s robots is that their development cuts into the funding of his own robot, an ED-209 ripoff controlled by VR. He never has a legitimate or understandable viewpoint, he’s just some mean Australian dude who got screwed out of some money.

No real questions are raised, no issues are addressed or ethical quandaries grappled with, just another noble, lovable robot messiah who faces down two-dimensional evil with catchphrases and childlike naivete.

Chappie insert

Maybe I wouldn’t be so cynical about Chappie, if it weren’t also littered almost as much Sony product placement as The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I mean, thank GOD Chappie had the amazing processing power of the Playstation 4 and the intuitively designed Sony Vaio laptop to help him discover the secrets of consciousness. Without these fine products, that evil, multinational mega-corp would have won out over individuality and free thought! Thankfully, Chappie doesn’t lean too hard on any kind of anti-corporate message, otherwise the product placement would have made the whole thing feel more disingenuous than my OKCupid profile.

But on the topic of commercial products dropped into the movie for no real reason… Why is Die Antwoord in this movie? I mean, really. They even go by their stage names, and are basically just playing versions of, what I assume, are already their Joburg gangster personas, and given the fact that they also provide a healthy chunk of the soundtrack, Chappie often ends up feeling like one of those high-concept music video movie album things, like Interstella 5555 something Kanye West would do.

As an action movie, it works well enough. Guns get shot in slow-motion, things explode, but the thing is that Blomkamp has set me up to ask that his movies be more than just action fests. District 9 had ideas, it had allegories, it had interesting and nuanced characters, it addressed the social ramifications of its central idea. Chappie never dares to go as deep, content to wade in the ideological kiddie pool. It even has the gaul to make motions toward some kind of religious allegory, carefully positioning Chappie and Sonny Kapoor into theological positions, with Chappie pointedly asking his creator why he was put in a body that will soon break down and die. But the problem is they never go anywhere with it, they never take it anyplace interesting.

“See, see!?” says the film, “The troubled relationship between Chappie and his creator is just like the theological questions grappled with by people of faith!” “Well great, movie”, says the audience, “Where you gonna take this next then?” At which point the film gives a panicked stare and goes “Oooh look Chappie’s got a rubber chicken isn’t it cute?!”

What happened, man? What happened to that horizon we were promised in 2009, of awesome sci-fi movies with intelligence and wicked cool action? What happened to the guy who was gonna deliver us from Avatar, and Michael Bay’s Transformers? Did we just put District 9 and Blomkamp on a pedestal they weren’t ready for? Would we be kinder to Chappie and even Elysium if they weren’t standing in the shadow of their predecessor? Maybe on all counts. But whatever the case may be, Chappie still doesn’t amount to a very good movie. As more than a couple of critics have suggested, just watch Short Circuit and the Robocop remake back to back and save yourself the let-down.