Category Archives: Jesse gets it right

Sing Street

singstreetWhat Jesse said:

You need to watch Sing Street. Just saw it and it is awesome. Homage to the mid-80s. Was made last year and it’s set in Ireland. Dublin. Awesome scene where main character’s (15 year old kid) older [brother] is educating him and their father on the power of the “music video” and the world-changing awesomeness of Duran Duran.

Mike’s verdict:

That grammar-free stream of consciousness mess is all Jesse saw fit to give me. No hint at a plot. No indication of thematic direction. Not even a genre! So it was with a tremendous amount of faith in Jesse’s judgement that I sat down to watch Sing Street.  And minutes in the film it became clear why Jesse had avoided telling me about the story: it’s just another boy-comes-of-age film.

You know the story; you’ve seen it many times: an adolescent boy struggles with a tough but caring home life, a bully at his new school, and an abusive authority figure, all while trying to make sense of a girl – and of course he finds himself in the process.

<sigh> This movie has been done to death.

But nevermind all that; you should watch Sing Street anyway because it is fantastic.  I don’t know where or when Jesse watched this film, but I do know exactly at which points he cheered, laughed, shook his head in dismay, and cringed – because there are moments that are universal to every teen boy.  Details may differ, situations are exaggerated, and the results are unlikely, but the feelings are spot-on.

This film is hopeful all the way through, in a sense that many of this genre fail to be. It doesn’t need overwhelming hardship to make its point. The protagonist struggles meaningfully but realistically, and over comes his life in ways that most boys can only do in day-dreams. Yet as the credits roll, the viewer is left with the sense that while the hero has managed to win in the first chapter of his life, there is still very real potential for disaster to come in the next. Struggle is balance with success, tipping only slightly under the weight of the unknown future.

The story is helped along well by reliable acting – perhaps not surprisingly all the school-age boys are very believable as school-age boys. Even the cleverer bits of dialog seem natural. It’s also supplemented by light symbolism that subtly adds dept: “You can’t put rabbits on the bed and not expect them to shit on your bed.” is surely an apt metaphor for life.

The backdrop to all this is a soundtrack that aggressively makes itself a part of the narrative when its needed, or slips subtly into ambiance when its not. There is a deliberate contrast between songs used in their original 80s glory, followed by quiet piano arrangements that feel timeless. It’s easy to forget that this is a contemporary film.  That is, at least until you realize that it understands the 80s music revolution far better than anyone in the 80s ever could have.

Sing Street is a thoughtful and original take on a very over-done genre. But most importantly, its enjoyable – it uses only the cliches that it needs to lay the foundation, and then layers a tapestry of commercial and original music that revives the 80s perfectly. Jesse absolutely got this one right.

10/10

p.s. It’s definitely worth sitting through the short credits to hear the last bit of music.


Snowpiercer

snowpiercer-posterWhat Jesse said:

Watch Snowpiercer. Do it now.

Mike’s verdict:

I got a copy of this movie years before Jesse recommended it to me, but I never got around to watching it. For some reason I ended up forgetting what it was about or why I found it interesting in the first place. I actually believed that it was a foreign film with subtitles. If Jesse hadn’t recommended it, I’d probably never have watched it at all.

I’m glad that I finally did; given Jesse’s sparse review though I could easily have forgotten about it again. Since he didn’t elaborate on why I should watch Snowpiercer, I will have to assume that he recognized the film for what it truly is: a review of some of the most enduring themes in the history of political philosophy.

I suspect that many people will walk away from this film thinking it is a commentary on economic inequality – something along the lines of the 21st century protest movements that hope to up-end the so-called ‘One Percent’. Certainly, inequality is a major factor here – economic divide is the source of the film’s main conflict. But Snowpiercer isn’t about economic inequality – it’s about the rationale for maintaining that inequality.

The train here should be looked at as a metaphor (thinly veiled) for a society – everything
humanity needs ,thought not necessarily everything it wants, is within the train, while exiting means stepping into the cold, harsh reality of nature. But just as there are consequences to joining any social contract built to protect humankind, living on the train requires sacrifices to maintain balance. Economic classes develop both from the balance and in support of the balance. The upper-class in the front needs the idea of the poor in the back as much as it needs to physically oppress them. Moreover, the poor need to believe in the possibility of revolution just to maintain meaning in their lives. The train is an intricately designed state; meant to allow the human race to continue living safe from the dangers of nature, even if some lives will be more comfortable than others. The point is not to make every person’s life good, but to maintain a balance that will keep humanity in existence, hopefully until nature itself is less brutal.

The architects of this state understood that classes would be necessary, what each class would require to maintain it’s end of the balance, and how to manipulate both sides to facilitate that balance. The philosopher kings control the state through invisible hands that direct the people; deciding where sacrifices are necessary and building mythologies to make these sacrifices palatable. In the back of the train, the mythology is built on the great revolutionary uprisings that are never successful but close enough to give hope. In the front, people are taught to respect and revere the balance – ‘everyone has their place’.

It almost works. And it like it. Snowpiercer is a contemporary exploration of the social contract, continuing the work developed through Hobbs, Locke and of course Rousseau. That said, their are definitely flaws in this film. Leaving aside arguments against it’s philosophical commentary (that would be a whole other kind of blog), Snowpiercer has some pretty annoying holes: Where does the ‘flammable’ industrial waste / narcotic actually come from? What sort of witchcraft powers the train? Why does the train even need to keep moving? Many of the details seem needlessly implausible.

Even so, the acting is good, the story avoids being too obvious, and the ending was nicely
ambiguous. Jesse got it right, well, I assume.

7/10


Slow West

SlowWest.jpgWhat Jesse said:

Yo, I got another one fer ya. This one is called Slow West and it stars Michael Fassbender and some kid named Kodi Smit-McPhee, who, turns out, I’ve already seen in another great movie – The Road.  Anyway, this is kind of a weird love story about a pasty-faced lovesick kid (Kodi) who travels from Scotland to the badlands of 19th century America in search of his massive crush, a girl named Rose.  The kid is uber naive and idealistic about his quest so you know he’s in trouble as soon as you see him in the New World.  Throw in some crazy bounty hunters and a jaded gunslinger with an agenda and you got yourself a pretty quirky twist on the old western genre.  I really enjoyed this one so cancel your plans for the Pokemon Go hunt and go see this movie right now. Go.

Mike’s verdict:

Apparently I took a while getting around to watching this one – as evidenced by Jesse’s outdated reference to a game that I was too old for even a decade ago when anyone cared about Pokemon.  Part of the delay was life – I was busy doing non-movie-related activities. But I was also very skeptical about this movie.  I’m not a fan of westerns generally and the idea that Jesse might have uncovered a good one seemed pretty remote.

Thankfully, this isn’t really a western, or at least it doesn’t feel like one.  It does tick all the western boxes: dusty plains, wooden buildings, people riding horses, everyone has a gun, nobody can aim a gun, the good guy looks just like the bad guys, nobody is ever in a hurry, it rarely rains but when it does everyone just gets wet, etc. Yet somehow this film feels less like western and more like fantasy.  I can’t quite place it, but the atmosphere doesn’t feel like it’s intended to be part of our reality – it has the same once-upon-a-timeness as the beginning of Stardust. You can sort of relate to the characters, but their reality is clearly askew.  This is particularly strong at the start, before the film shifts to the New World, but it continues right through to the end.  That said, it’s doesn’t feel completely foreign in the way that Cowboys & Aliens does.

The whole thing gives off a slight awkwardness that I enjoyed, and also left me constantly guessing where it was going to take me.  In the end, the basic result is pretty obvious – you can predict how Jay’s quest to find Rose is going to turn out just from the interaction between the two characters in the first five minutes. But this is definitely one of those movies that is more about the details of the absurd journey, than the details of the absurd ending.

Aside from some minor gruesomeness near the end, Slow West is fairly easy to watch, has a nice unrushed – but not too slow – pace and is packed with dry humour that you need to pay attention to notice (ha, salt in the wound!).  It’s like an easy-listening radio station during ‘the cool DJ’s’ shift – nothing overly special, but a fine way to spend a few hours.

8/10


Rudderless

RudderlessWhat Jesse said:

I just watched a movie that literally left me speechless. It’s called Rudderless and it stars Billy Cruddup and Anton Yelchin, and was directed by William H. Macy (whom I’ve actually met while waiting for a flight in Vancouver!) I really had no idea what to expect from a movie about the fairly difficult topic of how to deal with unbearable grief following a tragic family event. But then there’s the music (I know that sounds like a non sequitur, but stay with me). Cruddup plays Sam, a man whose life takes a nosedive after losing his college-aged son Josh in a mass shooting. A while after this event, Sam starts to play music in an apparent attempt to learn more about his dead son. Overall, I thought the performances were top-notch, and the movie had some funny as well as some very powerful moments. Awesome. Watch it.

Mike’s verdict:

Finally, a decent recommendation!  It’s been ages since Jesse has recommended any movie at all, let alone one that I thought would interest me. I will admit that based on Jesse’s description I was only vaguely sold on this though.  Human strife is tedious so it takes a good deal of talent to make me think it worth spending my evening. That said, Jesse did get this one right.

On the surface, Rudderless is an engaging and clever look at a side of violence that is rarely considered in film, as the plot follows characters that are normally tangential in stories about mass shootings. This film doesn’t look at the classic victims of violence, nor the classic perpetrators of violence. Instead, it circles those who are affected indirectly. But in a way, even the over-arching plot is itself actually tangential to the real focus of the film/ This is more a story about a man trying to escape his life, and his rediscovery of music as a means to propel himself to fulfillment, than it is a story about a mass shooting.

To be clear, the actual plot itself is pretty light. There’s a nice twist (that you’ll almost certainly foresee if you’re paying attention) but not a whole lot really happens. The pace is good, and the characters are interesting, and that’s enough to satisfy the basics without overdoing it or taking away from the real point – which is to follow a man who reconnects with himself as he tries to reconnect with the son he never really knew.

And along the way you become immersed in a fantastic soundtrack that in some ways over-shadows the rest of the film, but is just so much fun.  You likely won’t ever hear a better rendition of The Wheels on the Bus and Kate Micucci (remember Lucy from The Big Bang Theory?) has an angry/sad open-mic ukulele performance that is perfect. Even William H. Macy (whom Jesse thinks he met in an airport but it was really a 52 year old woman wearing a big hat) is superb as the nondescript open-mic bar owner.

I like this movie – it’ll be going in the ‘keep’ pile, and I’m going to hunt down the soundtrack too.

9/10

 


The Babadook

What Jesse said:

Finally an accurate depiction of parenthood! A well crafted unsettling tale about family. I give you… The Babadook. Essie Davis is mesmerizing as a single mom slowly getting to the end of her rope. And that kid…yikes! Go see it now.

Mike’s verdict:

I hadn’t heard of this one before Jesse suggested it and I think he intentionally tried to mislead me by saying it was about family; thankfully The Babadook is not really a story about family in the way Jesse insinuated, though on a certain level it definitely speaks to the relationship and influence of parents on children.

On the surface, this film is a standard haunted-house ghost story that reminded me a lot of The Shining. There’s no terrifying father figure in this, but Essie Davis‘s early on portrayal of the exhausted mother is eerily similar to Shelley Duvall‘s. Similarly, Noah Wiseman does a less effective but still admirable job of channeling Danny Lloyd as the creepy child. And although it’s less literal than in The Shining, I definitely felt a similar sense of isolation on the part of the characters. Beyond the characters themselves, the atmosphere of The Babadook also reminded me a lot of The Conjuring.

The story base – a scary monster that only a child sees – isn’t particularly novel, but there’s no doubt that this movie is disturbing.  Every setting in this film is designed to build anxiety; the house, the car, the hospital, a treehouse, and even the position of a neighbour’s window, all would have made me uncomfortable even if the activity happening around them didn’t. Added with just the right lighting and some cinematography tricks, the visuals had me uncomfortable from start to finish and I was aware of that discomfort the whole time.

Even better than the visual is the audio. Thinking about it now, I realize that I can’t recall a single moment when I was aware of the soundtrack. A frequent problem with ‘scary’ movies is over-use of those sounds that we all recognize as tropes. In the right measure they add to the atmosphere, but too much pulls you out of the moment. The Babadook feels natural at every point, even when the monster’s noise is at its worst.

That is the face of this film – an effective ghost story that left me needing to watch an anxiety-reducing comedy before moving on with my night (thank you, Archer).

But I think there is actually much more here.

The Babadook isn’t really about a haunting at all – it’s the story of a woman’s rapidly surfacing psychosis, which has been brought on by the overlapping events surrounding the death of her husband and birth of her son.  What at first seem to be the aggravating and sometimes frightening actions of a disturbed child, are in fact the reactions of a child attempting to live with the symptoms of his mother’s illness. There is no Babadook, only the disassociated personality of a woman who resents the child that is a daily reminder of the husband she lost.  The “disobedient child” is actually a completely normal child trying to live with a woman who is sometimes a loving mother and sometimes a terrifying monster. His fascination with building weapons isn’t a burgeoning sociopathy, it’s a very literal attempt to protect himself and the mother he loves from her own demons.

This film speaks very clearly to the need for parents to understand how directly their own fears, disappointments, anxieties and whole mental state affect their children.  It’s an ironic, thought-provoking, and clever take on the “haunted-house”, and a satisfyingly entertaining scare.

8/10


The Grand Budapest Hotel

What Jesse said:

Jesse didn’t really say anything about this one as far as I can remember but he did suggest we get together to see it.  It’s not the strongest recommendation, but a recommendation none the less. We never got around to finding a good time, so I decided to watch it myself.

Mike’s verdict:

Wes Anderson makes strange movies; sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Within minutes of opening, The Grand Budapest Hotel projects a feeling similar to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou which, despite a strong cult following, didn’t work for me. That put me a little on edge to start and in some sense that feeling stayed with me throughout the film, though in the end I felt I had been well entertained. I think anyone who enjoyed Life Aquatic will likely enjoy Grand Budapest but the latter will probably find a broader audience.

Grand Budapest managed to mostly fix the things I didn’t like about Life Aquatic. It’s still very Wes Anderson – you’re watching for an understated quirky story populated by overstated quirky characters. But this time the two halves meshed really well. The endless string of cameos was a lot of fun and the whole cast did a fantastic job. In a lot of cases it took me a moment to figure out why a person was familiar.

One really nice surprise was the variety of cameos this time. You don’t just get the standard Wes Anderson movie fare. A whole new group of recruits meant a wonderfully sparing use of Owen Wilson and no Ben Stiller at all!

The story still moves a little slow, but like with all of Anderson’s films you are expected to make use of the pace to look around at details in the background.

7/10


Gravity

What Jesse said:

Gravity was stupid but very entertaining. There’s only so much Clooney doucheyness a man can possibly endure and that movie pushed that limit to the brink.

Mike’s verdict:

Jesse got this one dead-on; Gravity is stupid. The story failed to suspend my disbelief in almost every way and at no point did I accept the progression of the plot as even remotely plausible. It’s one thing to have the hero be an expert that can make fantastical last-minute achievements to stay alive, it’s another thing entirely to have these achievements made by a bumbling idiot who just randomly mashes buttons. On top of this, add terrible dialogue and Sandra Bullock’s extremely annoying soliloquies. The whole thing is so bad that I barely even noticed the Clooney doucheyness.

As a film, my rating is 1/10. The story is just that bad.

That said, the cinematography in Gravity is absolutely stunning. The visualizations of Earth, the detail in the space stations and the actors fluid motions were fantastic. Even the final scene back on Earth looks great. The physics wasn’t even close to perfect but the most noticeable errors at least made things look good – this is science fiction after all. I don’t think I agree with James Cameron’s judgement that Gravity is “the best space photography ever done”, but I’ll admit it is the best fake space photography ever done.

Assuming a big enough display and the sound turned off, Gravity could be an engaging addition to the background of a party; particularly with the right music playing. But I would definitely not invite people over to watch the movie itself.