Every movie lover has their admitted blind spots and sad to say mine is definitely Akira Kurosawa, the famed Japanese director who was behind such celebrated features as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961). Chances are, if you have an art-house film nearby you can wait it out for a Kurosawa film to make its way into the rotation; however if you are lucky enough to live near an Alamo Drafthouse you should check out their upcoming slate because my Alamo Drafthouse Twin Cities is playing Kurosawa’s 1958 action adventure The Hidden Fortress coming up on Wednesday, March 11 to celebrate it’s 60th Anniversary. I’m finally going to get my first taste of Kurosawa and it’s going to blessedly be on the big screen in a movie I’ve heard a lot about over the years.
The plot of The Hidden Fortress is described as this: Lured by gold, two greedy peasants escort a man and woman across enemy lines. However, they do not realize that their companions are actually a princess and her general. Parallels to this film and Star Wars have been drawn for years, even being confirmed as by George Lucas who cited Kurosawa’s movie as inspiration for the plot he developed for that 1977 global sensation. It will be hard to watch the film and not try to match up the characters between the two movies but I’m going to try to go in with as little expectation as possible. This was Kurosawa’s first film in the widescreen format and I’m looking forward to seeing his eye for imagery fill the large screen at the Alamo, a theater chain that truly knows how to display a classic film of this nature with great reverence.
Synopsis: Two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.
Stars: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, John Ratzenberger, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodgriguez
Director: Dan Scanlon
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: By this point, I’ve gotten pretty good about preparing to see a Pixar film. I always make sure I bring Kleenex from home because when I inevitably cry, wiping my eyes/nose with the rough napkins from the movie theater always leaves them a bit red and raw. Also, it’s best to make sure you know where the exit is so you can make a quick dash out of the place if the theater is cruel and turns the lights on immediately when the movie is over, exposing all the tear-stained faces to the rest of the crowd. The best place to sit is near the entrance, on an aisle and definitely not near a family with small children because you don’t want to step on any kids as you try to avoid people seeing the after effects of your ugly cry.
I say this now looking back at my experience of watching Onward and recognizing that my mind was in a completely different place that day and I totally forgot all my pre-planning rules. Here I was, a guy that just celebrated a milestone birthday and about to mark the 12 year anniversary of the loss of my father and I had no tissues, was seated in the middle of a row with families all around me seeing a movie about sons using magic to spend one last day with their deceased father. Was I completely crazy?
The town of New Mushroomton isn’t quite the magical mecca it used to be as we see when the prologue for Onward begins. All sorts of magical creatures coexisted and used their gifts to get by, whether it was creating fire for light/heat or flying over vast oceans. Then, with the evolution of science the world began to find ways to accomplish magical tasks without magic (lightbulbs, airplanes) and the need for wizards, magic staffs, and important quests dissipated. On the eve of his 16th birthday, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) is just wanting to feel a little more at home in his own skin. His mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said) encourages him to be more outgoing at school and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World) thinks that life should be lived like its one big role-playing game. More than anything, though, Ian wishes he had met his dad who died before he was born. Barley barely remembers him but at least he has something…Ian doesn’t have anything. So when their mom presents a gift their dad had asked her to reveal when both were over 16, it sets them off on a journey to complete a spell that will bring him back for 24 hours.
The first attempt at the spell only brings back the bottom half of their dad so communication comes through the feet, and it will take finding another rare stone to complete the magic that will restore him fully. Forcing the vastly different brothers to work together, the search for the gem puts them into contact with a mythical Manticore (Octavia Spencer, Ma) who was once fearsome but is now toothless and through challenges straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure. As is typical with any Pixar film, there’s a host of wild supporting characters throughout with some appearing briefly (two words: feral unicorns) and others getting a bit more screen time (Queen & Slim screenwriter Lena Waithe is Pixar’s first confirmed lesbian character) but the main focus is on the brothers and how they come to appreciate one another through their time together.
The long and short of it is this: yes, I did cry in Pixar’s latest tear-factory fantasy movie but it was not the severe ugly cry I was afraid it would be. Instead, I was taken with how the studio has once again managed to take a sensitive subject and made it palatable for children and a good jumping off discussion point for adults to have with their kids if any questions come up after the movie. Death is always a hard topic to discuss but in several of their movies, Pixar has found a way into that conversation that isn’t as scary as it might have been years ago when there weren’t animated characters that are saying some of the same things children are also feeling. Writer/director Dan Scanlon also has a nice way of bringing a lot of plot points together into one theme as the film moves toward its conclusion – I wasn’t sure how he was going to do it but it gets there in a lovely way.
It’s always risky now in this Must Be Proven Franchise Material cinema world we live in to create original story but Onward is a striking bit of computer generated fun with pathos on top of it all. The animation is beautiful…so is the message.
Synopsis: Though an Irish driving instructor has a love-hate relationship with her supernatural abilities, she decides to help a local man and his possessed daughter.
Stars: Maeve Higgins, Barry Ward, Will Forte, Claudia O’Doherty, Jamie Beaming, Terri Chandler, Risteard Cooper, Emma Coleman, Carrie Crowley, Mary McEvoy
Director: Mike Ahern & Edna Loughman
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Here’s one of those “bad” problems to have if you’re a movie critic…try not to roll your eyes. Sometimes, I have offers to watch so many screeners that I don’t know which one to choose and I wind up going simply on the logline or the poster – whichever catches my attention first. Then I line them up by release date and start knocking them out, hoping I’ve chosen titles that won’t be eye-rollers like the horror film about a priest that turned into a dinosaur (The VelociPastor) or the latest in a line of rural crime dramas (Inherit the Viperand Disturbing the Peace). At the back of my mind, I’m always waiting for the true diamond in the rough.
It took me a while and even though I’ve been fortunate to see an amazing amount of good movies from the comfort of my home I was so pleased to find Extra Ordinary exceeded all expectations. Here’s a movie that has a description that sounds like a lot of fun, boasts a poster that looks like a wacky ride, produced a trailer that didn’t give all the laughs or twists away, and winds up being one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen so far in 2020. Mixing genres is tough with any combination but comedy and horror is, surprisingly, often the most difficult. The team involved in front of and behind the scenes for Extra Ordinary know what they’re doing and they’ve not only turned out a wholly satisfying blend of gory horror and laugh out loud comedy but they’ve likely created a small cult classic at the same time.
The daughter of a famous paranormal psychiatrist who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, Rose (Maeve Higgins, who also co-wrote the film) is a driving-instructor that enjoys her peaceful life in the Irish countryside. With her love-life non-existent, she hangs out with her pregnant sister (Terri Chandler) and dodges gossip hounds looking for information on her dad and also requesting her services. Seems that while her dad investigated unexplained occurrences, Rose actually has supernatural abilities that manifest themselves in different ways. She can talk to spirits and other objects, which is great for those that want her help but bad for Rose who thinks that her “gift” killed her father. Meanwhile, making a pact with a demon to resurrect his career is one-hit wonder rock musician Christian Winter (Will Forte, Nebraska) and he’s looking to sacrifice a virgin. When he takes Sarah (Emma Coleman), her father Martin (Barry Ward) enlists Rose’s help in saving his daughter and stopping Christian from bringing forth an evil that wants to do a hell of a lot more than assure success for its minion. Racing against time, Rose must face her childhood fears and put aside her burgeoning feelings for Martin if she’s to save Sarah and herself from certain hell.
If you’re reading this you’d think by now it was some new Blumhouse horror movie but the writers and directors have delivered it all with tongue firmly in cheek and a never ending barrage of one-liners and visual gags that work almost exclusively to its advantage. Truth be told, there were so many asides and small touches that I thought I’d have to watch the movie again in order to catch everything before writing this review. I’ve seen many compare the movie to Ghosbusters and I can see where that may tie in (those that were grossed out by Slimer in that ’80s movie should brace themselves for a host of icky phlegm appearances here) but I’d liken this movie more to Peter Jackson’s underrated horror comedy The Frighterners or Housebound, mostly because the humor seems in better alignment. Many movies start out with a bang but can’t maintain that energy or interest but the wonderful thing about Extra Ordinary is that it just gets better, funnier, and more engaging as it goes along.
That’s due in no small part to the enormous charm of Higgins leading the cast of talented players that all fit their roles to perfection. I wasn’t familiar with Higgins before this but I hope to see more of her and I’m betting more people will take notice after this. The way she presents Rose as so relatable without making her some sad-sack or the butt of jokes (an early scene in her kitchen where she eats a microwave meal in nothing but control top pantyhose deserves some kind of Not Giving Zero F***s Award) is exactly the right approach. As the straight man to Rose, Ward supports Higgins well as does Forte who resists the urge to go fully over the top and make the movie more about him than anything else. He tends to push too much at times (as many former SNL players do) but when he gets it right the role hums perfectly.
Likely to be a movie you’ll hear about a lot before you actually see it, make some extra time in your schedule for Extra Ordinary. Sure, you may not be a horror fan or the target audience for this type of film but Higgins and company may convince you otherwise and coax you to their side with their charming whip of frights and fun.
Synopsis: Unable to become a priest because of his criminal record, when Daniel is sent to work at a carpenter’s workshop in a small town he accidentally takes over the local parish, providing an opportunity for the local community to begin the healing process after a tragedy.
Stars: Bartosz Bielenia, Eliza Rycembel, Aleksandra Konieczna, Tomasz Zietek, Leszek Lichota, Lukasz Simlat, Zdislaw Wardejn, Barbara Kurzaj
Director: Jan Komasa
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: The past few years, I’ve started to feel a little bad for the other four nominees in the Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Film) at the Oscars. The way things have shaken out, by the time the nominations are announced there is already a clear front-runner and that tends to push the other films in that category to the sidelines. Though people can say they want to be well-rounded and globally astute, if there is one blind spot at the Academy Awards where they can be comfortable it’s Best International Feature. That’s why I get the feeling that once voters know about the front runner (this year Parasite, last year Roma, the previous year A Fantastic Woman) they then feel they can ignore the other nominees.
That’s a shame because doing that means you miss other interesting features like Never Look Away and Capernaum from 2018 and the selections from this year: Les Misérables, Honeyland, Pain and Glory, and this Polish entry just getting a wider release now. I was fortunate enough to get a look at this one before the ceremony and while I don’t think I could have rightfully voted it as the winner, you can easily see why the nominating committee took notice of this interesting feature. Mixing themes of faith, drama, redemption, and, astonishingly, a little bit of mistaken identity comedy, I thought I knew the familiar path Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało) was going to tread but director Jan Komasa, working from a script by Mateusz Pacewicz, finds a unique and scenic cinematic route to take.
Developing faith during his stay in a youth detention facility, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) wants to continue his training when he is released and become a full time priest. His past run-ins with the law prevents that from happening so he accepts the terms of his work release and travels to a small town to begin work as a carpenter. Through a series of coincidences that can only happen in the movies (but a smartly crafted one), he winds up being mistaken for a new priest that’s been expected at the parish and uses that misunderstanding to his advantage. Barely met with a sideways glance or anyone questioning his true identity, he fits in remarkably well and it’s only when he challenges the town’s approach to a tragedy that feathers get ruffled and truths are uncovered. Until then, Daniel forms a bond with the daughter (Eliza Rycembel) of a devoted pillar of the church (Aleksandra Konieczna) while trying to avoid a figure from his past that shows up at a most inopportune time. Through it all, he manages to impart on the town, and on himself, some words of true wisdom that only someone speaking from the heart could drum up. In doing that, he tells the truth even when living with a lie.
Aside from a rather unfortunate graphic sex scene and the insistence of finding some kind of villain to fill the film’s third act, Corpus Christi is a rather lovely film that could have been something they showed in church. As Daniel, Bielenia commands the screen with not just charm but a passion that makes you root for him even though you know he’s deceiving others and digging a dangerous hole deeper and deeper. I wish the film had focused a bit more on figuring out who he was before we met him instead of making him such an enigma but perhaps that’s the point and we the audience are being treated like the townspeople – how do we judge Daniel based only on what we are presented with? Interesting questions for an intriguing film.
Synopsis: Two white South Africans, imprisoned for working on behalf of the African National Congress (ANC), determine to escape from the notorious white man’s `Robben Island’, Pretoria Prison.
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Ian Hart, Daniel Webber, Mark Leonard Winter, Nathan Page, Stephen Hunter
Director: Francis Annan
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Just when you think you’ve seen all the prison movies you can take, along comes Escape from Pretoria and you find that you have to give it a chance. I mean, it’s an important true-life tale of political prisoners in the late ‘70s South Africa unjustly jailed for spreading propaganda denouncing apartheid who form a clever plan over time to escape their captors. Along the way there are setbacks and strife, inspirational moments and bitter defeats, culminating in a broad daylight break out for freedom. Let’s be real, The Shawshank Redemption it ain’t but it stirs some of the same emotional vibes of that gem of a film and uses them to keep your interest for much of its tense running length.
Caught setting off small explosives that send political messages with anti-apartheid sentiment into the air, Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee were both sentenced to multiple years in Pretoria Central Prison in 1979. Unable to bribe their way out of confinement, it would have been easy to just accept their sentence and serve their time but Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe, Victor Frankenstein) wasn’t going to give his racist government the satisfaction of holding him prisoner. Though his other anti-apartheid inmates felt that serving their time was an honor and an important representation of their sacrifice for the cause, Jenkin, Lee (Daniel Webber), and French prisoner Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter, The Dressmaker) were of the belief they could do more outside the walls.
For over a year, Jenkin plotted an ingenious method of escape. It didn’t involve digging a hole or shimmying through a sewer drain but making keys to the prison cells out of the wood scraps they had at their disposal. With a number of doors to account for and even more methods of opening them, making the keys was easy but figuring out the sequence of events without getting caught was the real challenge. Jenkin’s trial and error over time is what writer/director Francis Annan uses to create some fairly suspenseful sequences along the way, keeping audiences unconsciously biting their nails or gripping their armrests. Each bead of sweat that hangs precipitously from a brow and every key that won’t open a lock when it has to is worth at least a few fingernail clippings. That Annan can keep up this atmosphere throughout is worth noting, especially when you can tell the budget for this one wasn’t huge and the simple sets require some imagination to work in.
Though he (like everyone in the movie) battles more with his accent than any prison guard, Radcliffe continues to take on interesting roles that challenge him. He seems intent to not play the same character or shade of character the same way twice and that’s impressive. He’s long past the point of having to prove he’s more than just Harry Potter and now you can see he’s doing it for himself and not to show his naysayers he’s limited. As an elder prisoner, Ian Hart (Mary Queen of Scots) has a nice turn as a source of sage advice for Jenkin…even if he doesn’t always like what the more seasoned inmate has to say. Winter, too, is good in early scenes as a man determined to get out not just for his own freedom but so that he can reunite with his child, though he gets increasingly wild as the film progresses, the first half of the movie is a well crafted look at a man intent on not letting the system beat him.
It would be easy to browse past this one but I’d encourage giving it a chance. Like the recent underseen remake of Papillon, while it may look predictable, it isn’t as cut and dry as it may appear at first glance. With Annan’s intelligent direction and the excellent performances throughout, this is one prison film you could get locked up in.
Synopsis: An emerging political scandal in Toronto in 2013 seen through the eyes of young staffers at city hall and a local newspaper.
Stars: Ben Platt, Nina Dobrev, Mena Massoud, Damian Lewis, Jennifer Ehle, Scott Speedman
Director: Ricky Tollman
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Political movies can go one of two ways in my book. They can either be timely pieces that illustrate how current events line up with the past (or vice versa) or they can be too talky, with insider-baseball scripts that only a third year Senate intern would appreciate. So it’s interesting to note that Run this Town is one of these genre films that wants to have it both ways. It revels in deep dive dialogue that strives to impress while looking to find a way to connect up with our political climate today.
Living in the early months of 2020 and the simmering pot of salty water that will soon be brought to a boil by our November presidential election, it can be easy to forget the 2013 events that are covered in Run this Town. Even I needed to stop the movie for a few minutes to get a little refresher about what’s happening in writer/director Ricky Tollman’s breathless opening, a back and forth between a group of young politicos that hits the ground running without much of a warm-up. While I’m more familiar with Toronto’s Rob Ford for his infamous antics first as Mayor and then as a scandalized fallen citizen with drug charges, I admit I wasn’t aware of the late politician’s troublesome behavior in a pre-Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment landscape.
At the center of the film is Bram (Ben Platt, Pitch Perfect), a recent college grad hoping to become a journalist that lands a job at an impressive paper in Toronto where his bosses are Scott Speedman (The Vow) and the imposing Jennifer Ehle (RoboCop). Coming from a privileged family (not unlike Platt himself), Bram has an uphill battle in proving himself and he’s after a big story…and it presents itself to him when he catches wind of the dirty dealings surrounding Mayor Rob Ford (Damian Lewis, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, unrecognizable in a fat suit and prosthetic facial additions) and his political office. As Bram attempts to navigate the tricky ethics of exposing a political animal, Ford’s long-suffering aide (Mena Massoud, Aladdin) struggles with his own morals in protecting his boss though he knows what kind of man he is. An encounter between Ford and a young aide (Nina Dobrev, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) proves to be a catalyst that will send a ripple effect through the political halls and newspaper rooms of Toronto and, soon, the world.
Reminding me to a lesser extent of Spotlight, Run this Town absolutely has its focus in the right place but I’m not sure if there was something lost in the translation of Tollman’s script to the screen or what but the movie is dense and distracting. Even focusing in on the dialogue, the movie is sometimes hard to follow and at a not that long 99 minutes the film feels padded for time. The performances are solid across the board, but the jury is out if Lewis is excellent under all that plastic and padding or if it’s an absolutely terrible hammy take on Ford. You won’t be able to take your eyes off it, that’s for sure. There’s promise in Tollman’s ear for sharp dialogue though and, with time, I think he’ll be a director to watch out for. Not quite the talk of the town yet, but Run this Town is a good start.