Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Review: Cold War

cold war

I don’t often wish that movies were significantly longer than they already are, but I think Cold War easily could have added another 20-30 minutes to its run time. And not in the sense where I just wanted to spend more time with the characters (although also kind of that). It’s because a scant 89 minutes didn’t feel long enough to tell this story in a fully satisfying way.

Following the “romantic epic” model, Cold War bounces between years and countries to tell the complicated love story of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). But the story moves at such a clip that it’s not until the second act, taking place largely in Paris, where it feels like the film finally gets the space it deserves to let the story breathe.

Obviously it was Pawlikowski’s intention to present the story more in snippets or as fragments of a relationship. I’m just not sure I agree with him that that was the best way.

You may be surprised to learn, though, that my review of the movie is a positive one. The truth is that I liked everything else about the film so much that I still think it’s ultimately a success, and quite a visual achievement in particular. The black and white cinematography (as was the case in Pawlikowski’s previous film, Ida) is absolutely stunning, heightening the tension, longing, and volatility of many a scene.

The performances, too, are excellent. Kot is equal parts sadsack and dreamboat (to great effect), while Kulig deserves every word of praise she’s been getting for her turn. Zula is a fantastically complex and fiery character, and Kulig brings both the charisma and depth to carry her off perfectly. (I’ve been seeing a lot of Jennifer Lawrence comparisons, but there are many moments where she seemed to me the spitting image of a young Gena Rowlands.)

It was a thrill simply watching the central relationship play out. While I did feel the narrative structure made Cold War feel remote at times, ultimately the spirited performances and dazzling visuals brought it right back into the here and now.

Review: Sorry to Bother You

sorry to bother you

When I saw a quote on the cover of Sorry To Bother You’s DVD case proclaiming it to be “Get Out on acid” (courtesy of Dana Harris from Indiewire) I thought that was a bit of topical marketing hyperbole. Turns out it’s actually a fairly accurate assessment.

Boots Riley’s debut film tells the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who finds himself quickly rising in the ranks at his new telemarketing job. As he gains more and more success it comes at the cost of his more socially-minded roots, alienating him from his union pals at the company (Jermaine Fowler and Steven Yeun) and his activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He also begins to learn more about the extent of corporate greed and… well, things spiral from there.

Sorry to Bother You mines its social satire through a dystopian-esque world that is equal parts whimsical and bleak. In this version of reality, for example, citizens revel in a show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me. (So in other words it’s heightened, yes, but not THAT many steps away from our current reality.) Riley recalls the work of Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze in his off-kilter, daydreamy visual innovation, lending Sorry to Bother You a bite and creativity that only strengthens the very blunt statements Riley is making.

In fact, I’d argue that there are actually a few too many ideas at play at times, muddying Riley’s otherwise clear vision. Had certain ideas or plot points been pushed further (and others done away with entirely) they could have made even more of an impact. His social commentary is vibrant and important, but it feels like he’s still figuring out the best ways to cohesively convey it.

Some reviews seem to feel that Sorry to Bother You gets a bit too, well, weird for its own good by the end. But while things certainly escalate quickly and go in unexpected directions, that’s part of the appeal of this bold film. And the fact that this got a wide release in theatres is perhaps a minor miracle. It’s an insanely ambitious first film and while it doesn’t entirely stick the landing, it works far better than it should and promises all sorts of exciting things to come.

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man Homecoming

Aren’t we all sick to death of the Spider-Man origin story? You don’t need to be a comic book buff to know about the spider bite, Uncle Ben, and web-slinging. So when it was announced that the Spider-Man tale was going to be rebooted for the big screen yet again – for the third try in the past 15 years – I wouldn’t blame you if you audibly groaned. Of course, this time it was supposed to be different, because Spider-Man is now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Still don’t really understand what that means, despite having seen about a dozen of the MCU films? Join the club.) But is Spider-Man: Homecoming really a significant departure from the past iterations of the story that are so fresh in our minds? Well, yes and no.

Mercifully, director Jon Watts (Cop Car) spares us the bulk of the origin story, instead joining Peter Parker (Tom Holland) in progress as Spidey. After getting a taste of the superhero life with the work he did in Captain America: Civil War, we now see him honing his skills. Itching to don the superhero suit at any opportunity and bumbling his way through stopping small-time crime, Peter is really just waiting for Tony Stark and the rest of the Avengers to call him up for the next mission. At the same time, being just 15 years old, Peter still has to navigate high school, which to him now seems like a total snooze in comparison. However, it’s not all bad, since he has best buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) and crush Liz (Laura Harrier) to help occupy his time.

This sets the scene for Spider-Man: Homecoming, and I was actually pleasantly surprised to see how much of the film focuses on the process of Peter coming into his own, both as a superhero and as a teenager. Nowhere to be found is the flashy, perfect badassery of the Avengers crew. Instead, Peter fumbles and gets in over his head, sometimes inadvertently causing more trouble than he prevents. He’s obviously got a lot of heart and skill, but he’s still finding his footing, and Spider-Man: Homecoming works best when it navigates that uncomfortable in-between phase – even down to the touch of showing the awkward process of trying to change from street clothes to a full-blown superhero costume in public. Superhero movies often struggle with humanizing their heroes without either making them seem weak or going the satirical route, a la something like Deadpool. Here, by contrast, I felt more invested in the character because he actually seemed fallible, and we get to see so many of his less glamorous moments.

This added dose of humanity also comes partly thanks to Holland, who balances the many character demands of Peter Parker. Charming and quick-witted, Holland can also bring a vulnerability that is refreshing to see in the MCU. This is underscored during a particular moment during the film’s climax, which (without heading into spoiler territory) finds Peter at an extreme low point. Holland plays the moment perfectly, as well as true to Peter’s age, and I also applaud Marvel for showing their protagonist react in an unexpected way that we haven’t necessarily seen in an MCU film before.

Despite these strengths, the film has its weaknesses, especially when wading into its big action set pieces. The action is just lacking the flow or even the comprehensibility seen in many other films of its ilk. For example, there is a sequence that takes place on the Staten Island Ferry that should have come across as inventive and exciting, but instead it becomes overly complicated trying to figure out the geography of where certain characters are. With some exceptions, many of the film’s big “action” moments lose their punch thanks to sub-par direction. This is perhaps the most compelling argument as to why Marvel should have invested in a director with more of a resume.

Fortunately, I guess, the film doesn’t overly rely on action to tell its story, and it has other strong aspects working in its favour, including the fact that they scored Michael Keaton to play a villain who actually has some substance. As well, the film’s humour and slightly shaggier feel make it feel like both a breath of fresh air, and like a film that could easily appeal to younger audiences in addition to the adult fanboys who have been breathlessly following the MCU from the start.

Those looking for a film to reinvent the superhero wheel won’t find it in Spider-Man: Homecoming, as it does for the most part tow the Marvel line. But by featuring such a youthful protagonist and focussing more on his struggles than his victories, this is a film with more heart than many of us have come to expect from the subgenre. While feeling oddly slight in some ways, Spider-Man homecoming is still a middle-of-the-pack entry in the MCU and makes for pleasant summer viewing at the multiplex.

Review: All These Sleepless Nights

All These Sleepless Nights

It’s tempting to spend this entire review pondering whether All These Sleepless Nights is really a documentary or not. Of course, there’s much more to Michal Marczak’s film than questions of form. But those questions also turn out to be pretty compelling.

Low on story and heavy on style, All These Sleepless Nights provides a slightly voyeuristic look at a group of mostly directionless young adults living in Warsaw, Poland. We spend a lot of time wandering the city streets with them, witnessing their often mundane encounters. We also watch as they use a combination of sex and drugs to lull themselves in a passive state of detachment, adding an even more meditative tone to the movie.

The film’s two main subjects are Kris and Michal, two quasi-handsome, vaguely charismatic friends whose hedonistic and egotistical behaviour unsurprisingly puts some tension on their interpersonal relationships. There are love triangles and some conflict throughout, but All These Sleepless Nights is more about conveying a mood and capturing a mindset, rather than telling any sort of conventional narrative.

It may seem like a pedantic distinction, but going into All These Sleepless Nights thinking of it as a documentary or as a narrative will affect the way you experience it. There’s room for grey areas and blurred lines, yes, but the film’s heavy stylization complicates things. Is this meant to be an accurate document of youth, or a constructed interpretation of it? The answer is undeniably somewhere in the middle. And while it may sound like that formal non-commitment would obscure the film’s impact, it actually increases it, adding to its already hazy, dream-like aura.

All These Sleepless nights has played at documentary film festivals such as True/False and Hot Docs, yet on IMDB it’s classified as a drama rather than a documentary. In viewing it, I found it difficult to view its subjects as anything other than “characters”. The way the scenarios play out (some of which feel quite obviously staged), the subjects’ sometimes less-than-natural reactions, the reliance on the musical soundtrack, and the impeccably lit cinematography all really prevent the film from feeling like something that was captured on the fly and in real time. But again, that isn’t really a knock against it. Marczak (who has been upfront about the fact that aspects of the film were manipulated, re-shot, and improvised, rather than simply “documented”) has crafted something that feels authentic, if not completely grounded in reality. If a film involves real people and strives to represent the authentic feelings they experience (but uses unconventional means to do so) who’s to say it’s not still non-fiction?

Ultimately, though, these questions fade to the background as you’re watching All These Sleepless Nights. You get lulled into the film’s hazy tone, basking in the beautiful visuals. Marczak, also a cinematographer, cultivates one striking image after another. The film is absolutely worth seeing just for that, though don’t go into it looking for any real narrative thrust.

Atmospheric and distinct, All These Sleepless Nights captures the strife, power, and mundane feelings of youth all in one arty little package. It may not appear to say much on the surface, but its impact lingers.

Review: The Levelling

The Levelling

The Levelling, the debut feature of English director Hope Dickson Leach, is understated and solemn, but also crackling with emotional intensity.

At just 83 minutes long, the story is slight – at times too much so – but it feels like the perfect length for this quiet slice of life that writer-director Leach is conveying.

The Levelling is set during the Somerset Levels floods of 2014, which jeopardized the livelihoods of many in the area. However, that real-life event largely serves as a backdrop (and metaphorical tie-in) for Leach’s fictional story. It follows Clover (Game of Thrones’ Ellie Kendrick), a veterinary student who returns home to her family’s farm after the sudden death of her brother, Harry (Joe Blackmore). In the immediate aftermath of Harry’s death, their father (David Troughton) struggles to come to terms with it, so Clover must take care of the farm while also trying to piece together exactly how her brother died.

The Levelling is largely a film about grief. While the mystery-of-sorts surrounding Harry’s death serves as a loose plot to propel the movie along, the main focus is on the ramifications that incident has on Clover, her father, and their relationship. Leach’s examination of loss is delicate, saying more with silence, characters’ body language, and cinematic atmosphere than she does with words in the screenplay. The Levelling has a tone that is understated and a little grim without ever feeling morose. Leach’s handle on the material is too steady to venture into melodrama and The Levelling is all the more captivating because of it.

Also greatly helping to convey the film’s subtle narrative themes is Kendrick, whose performance is nothing short of stunning. Her face is so expressive that it’s easy to know how Clover is feeling without it ever feeling too obvious or exaggerated. Clover is a very internalized character, which doesn’t always translate on screen, yet rather than her introversion feeling like a hurdle for the film to get over, Kendrick sinks her teeth into it, finding other ways to inhabit the character. Despite the film’s other strengths, it seems doubtful this character study would have worked without a strong lead actress like Kendrick.

The Levelling may not grip everyone, but I found that its quiet impact lingered with me, hitting in unlikely ways for a seemingly low-key movie. Let the beautiful cinematography wash over you and accept the story for what it is. You might find that it says some unexpected things about human nature in the process.