I didn’t hate Fifty Shades of Grey when I watched it at a packed screening back in 2015. And I didn’t hate Fifty Shades Darker when I watched in at home last Spring in all its timid “Unrated” glory. Both films were badly written and badly acted, but they were functional pieces of entertainment that were clearly not designed for me. They provided some intentional and unintentional laughs, and were not nearly as bad as some of the films I actually went to see purposely.

But the finale, Fifty Shades Freed — or climax as the posters so playfully tease — is a whole other beast entirely. And while I joked on Facebook that it was a “triumph of cinema”, it is easily the exact opposite.

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When Pixels came out earlier this year, everyone took their turns hating on it. I was excited to see it because of the Toronto connection (I walked through a literal war zone near my girlfriend’s apartment on Queen West), but there was not much else drawing me to it. And after watching the movie, I can say I did make the right decision skipping the theatre.

It’s not that Pixels is a bad movie — no, it is certainly far from. There is a lot of fun and wild imagination going into some of the battles with classic 1980’s video game characters. If you know the characters and the games, then you will be astounded by some of the details that have gone into bringing these characters to life. And they all look and sound authentic to the time period — a feat in itself considering the money that must have gone into licensing them all (Mario shows up for a brief cameo, and I’m sure that alone cost millions). It reminded me a lot of the wonder I had watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit? when I was a kid, and the fascination I have to this day of seeing Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse talking to each other.

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Nearly two weeks later, and I am still not quite sure what to make of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa. It was a curiosity when I first picked it in my TIFF package, and remained that way well after it premiered at Telluride and Venice. I have always admired his work, and he was one of my favourite screenwriters for a very long time. But he has been entirely absent from the big screen since 2008’s Synecdoche, New York — a film that is easy to admire but hard to sit through — and his only credit since is for an unaired FX pilot starring Michael Cera.

But you would never think any of that based on how wonderful a film Anomalisa is. Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a motivational speaker on a trip to Cincinnati. Michael has no real drive, and nobody stands out to him — everyone just sounds and looks the same. He meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and is immediately quite taken with her.

Revealing anymore about this unconventional romance would be a disservice to Kaufman, his co-director Duke Johnson and their extremely talented production team. The description may not have hinted at it, but Anomalisa is filmed entirely in stop motion, with puppets, and only has three credited voice actors starring in it (the other is character actor Tom Noonan, who does his very best to make every character sound just as mundane and ordinary as the next). But I cannot even begin to imagine this as a live action film. It just has too much imagination and wonder compacted within its 90-minute running time. While the look of the film is truly wonderful, the details of each puppet are even more spectacular. The emotions they display are nothing short of astonishing, and truly compliment the impeccable voice work.

Kaufman’s screenplays have by and large been about people on the fringes of life, wrestling with internal conflicts and how mundane life can become. And Anomalisa is no different. It says so much, by saying very little. I enjoyed it by and large, but there is something about it that is compelling me to revisit it as soon as I possibly can. And with Paramount buying and releasing the film by year’s end, it will not be nearly that long a wait.

Anomalisa does not quite measure up to the brilliance of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it is yet another eclectic and unique treasure that only a man like Charlie Kaufman can deliver.

This is a group photograph of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and several Commanders in Chiefs taken on July 1, 1983, in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff dining room, located in the Pentagon. Shows (left to right): U.S. Navy Adm. Wesley L. McDonald, Commander in Chief, US Atlantic Command; U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Paul X. Kelley, Commandant of the Marine Corps; U.S. Army Gen. Paul F. Gorman, Commander in Chief, US Southern Command; U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Robert C. Kingston, Commander in Chief, US Central Command; U.S. Army Gen. John A. Wickham, Chief of Staff, US Army; U.S. Army Gen. Wallace H. Nutting, Commander in Chief, US Readiness Command; U.S. Air Force Gen. James V. Hartinger, Commander in Chief, Aerospace Defense Command; U.S. Navy Adm. William J. Crowe, Commander in Chief, US Pacific Command; U.S. Air Force Gen. Charles A. Gabriel, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force; U.S. Army Bernard W. Rogers, Commander in Chief, US European Command; U.S. Army Gen. John W. Vessey, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; U.S. Air Force Gen. Bennie L. Davis, Commander in Chief, US Strategic Air Command; U.S. Navy Adm. James D. Watkins, Chief of Naval Operations; and U.S. Air Force Gen. Thomas M. Ryan, Commander in Chief, Military Airlift Command. OSD Package No. A07D-00347 (DOD Photo by Robert D. Ward) (Released)

Well the cat’s out of the bag — Michael Moore’s secret documentary Where To Invade Next premiered on Thursday night at TIFF and it was nothing like anyone expected. Instead of skewering the American government and their foreign policies abroad, Moore decided to travel various European countries and discuss social/economic improvements they made that could help improve the quality of life in the US. The only footage on US soil is archived news and cell phone videos.

What he discovers abroad is initially ludicrous in how wildly different it is from American (and by proxy Canadian) life. 8-week vacations in Italy. Amazing school lunch programs in France. Free college education in Slovenia. Some of the things he discovers are downright mind-boggling. Of course, he avoids all of the social problems each of those countries have in favour of cherry-picking the best elements to contrast to American life, but that is besides the point. Instead of grabbing American government by the throat, Moore calmly and carefully lays out the ways life can be improved. It is a very different kind of movie for him, and I think that’s why it resonates so well. It provokes discourse in the best possible way, and is moving, hilarious and downright disturbing all at the same time. This is easily his best work since Bowling for Columbine, and one that does not feel like it is entirely agenda driven.

If I hold anything against it, it is that it feels a bit sluggish at 2 hours (but this could also have been due to the delayed and increasingly late time I watched it), and I’m not entirely sure his culminating thesis is sound. He presents a lot of information, and by the time the film comes to an end, it does not feel all that conclusive. Almost as if something is missing.

But that said — Moore is tired, and he wants to continue campaigning for change. But he does not want to be the only one. And Where To Invade Next may just be his last attempt at trying. Hopefully it helps.

If you can score tickets (or want to test your luck in the rush line), the film is playing at the Ryerson on Friday September 18 at 12pm and Sunday September 20 at 6pm.

Another Blu-ray/DVD release #ShortCuts review for you this week — this time for Cameron Crowe’s Aloha. Pretty proud of how quickly I wrote this one up. It came out a lot longer than I thought it would. But trust me, be glad I saw it and you didn’t.


alohaposterRemember when I was complaining about how awful Hot Pursuit was a few weeks back? Well, I had the privilege of watching Aloha a short time later – and I think I may have found the worst movie of the year. Even that retched excuse called The Wedding Ringer was better than whatever the hell this is. Is it a comedy? Is it a romance? Is it a drama? Is it some hybrid mix of the three with thinly veiled allusions and commentaries on…everything? I could not tell you for the life of me, and I doubt writer/director Cameron Crowe could either.

Now it may sound like I am just jumping on the bandwagon and bashing this movie like everyone else did when it was released in May. But I am a huge Crowe fan – Almost Famous is legitimately one of my top five favourite films of all time. I love Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything…, Vanilla Sky and Jerry Maguire, and I did not hate Elizabethtown or We Bought A Zoo (Singles is sitting in a pile of movies waiting to be watched). But Aloha is easily the worst film he has ever done. It just lacks any form of cohesive story, the performances are all wasted, and it just comes off like a total disaster. I can readily admit I was not fully paying attention at all times, but it felt like the film had new ideas being introduced every 15 minutes, and then fully resolved without much conflict quickly afterwards.

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American Ultra – Review

By David Baldwin

Six years ago in the thick of Twilight fever, Kristin Stewart starred with Jesse Eisenberg in the little seen but ridiculously enjoyable and offbeat Adventureland. It tragically came and went without much fan fare, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the film has still not found its true audience. The film was great, and the pair were great together. And now they are reuniting for this week’s offbeat American Ultra — and it may prove to be another film that will struggle to find an audience.

Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner living with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in a small US town. He is not all there and has a number of behavioural and social problems. While he struggles to control his issues, he harbours a secret even he does not know — he is actually a fully trained government operative, and has been marked for extermination. But all bets are off when this “sleeper agent” is activated.

It gets a little more complicated from there, but at its heart, American Ultra wants to be a genuinely silly action/comedy. It just lacks all the ingredients to successfully pull it off.

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As a writer, my problem has consistently been brevity. I always write too much and tend to overwrite in some cases. So as an exercise, I’ve devised #ShortCuts — short, timed reviews that I write within 15-minutes, check for spelling and grammar, and that’s it. The idea is a bit daunting for someone who has never really been limited with what he writes, but it’s something I’m keen to try out. I will continue writing long form reviews, but may try to post these a few times every few weeks and see if it helps make my writing a bit more concise.

With that, here are my #ShortCuts reviews for Hot Pursuit and Unfriended, both hitting Blu-ray/DVD this week.

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Entourage Poster

Entourage – Review

By David Baldwin

I made the mistake of not boarding the Entourage train during the height of its popularity. By the time I started actively watching the show during Season 6, it was already going downhill. The show was still fun to watch, but lacked the creativity and heart of what preceded it. College Humor posted this sketch outlining the show’s formula perfectly – and it became all too obvious how true it was in those last few seasons.

So following the varied success of the Sex and the City films, we finally have an Entourage movie just over four years since the Series Finale. And it starts off as if the show never ended.

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This Is the End – Review

By David Baldwin

Jay Baruchel is in town to meet up with his friend Seth Rogen. Despite Jay’s insistence to just hang out on their own, Seth takes him to a wild party being thrown at James Franco’s new house. After running into a number of celebrities, Jay just wants to leave. But after a near fatal encounter at a convenience store, Jay is certain something bad is happening. Sure enough, a sinkhole opens in the lawn, followed by death and complete chaos in the surrounding area. The three celebrities quickly barricade themselves inside James’ house alongside Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride. They are certain they will be rescued, but it quickly becomes apparent the event going on outside is actually the apocalypse.

Celebrities playing exaggerated and not-so exaggerated versions of themselves? The apocalypse, the rapture, heaven and hell? As the trailers began appearing for This Is the End, I was not exactly sure that a comedy like this could be made, much less actually be funny. But rather surprisingly, Rogen alongside writing/directing partner Evan Goldberg have crafted a sweet and hilarious send-up of one of the darkest subject matters around, and have a whole lot of fun doing it in the process. Continue Reading

The Bastardization of the American Dream

By David Baldwin

*Please note this article contains spoilers*

This past weekend, Michael Bay finally unleashed his long gestating Pain & Gain with Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson. It made just over $20-million, nearly one-fifth of the opening of Bay’s last film – Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It had its share of problems (a lengthy and verbose first act, an almost criminal use of narration and a really odd tonal structure to name just a few), but it is easily the best work Bay has done in well over a decade. The man is known for spectacle, and this is his least spectacular film yet.

As I left the theatre, I was unsure of how I felt about the film. It certainly was not at all what I was expecting, especially from an “auteur” like Bay. But at the same time, I was very impressed with what I had just witnessed. I felt disgusted with myself, especially after how much I have hated pretty much the entirety of his directorial output (save for The Rock, which remains one of my favourite action films to this day). But there was something about the film, something I did not quite catch onto as I watched it, that acted as the narrative crux of the whole thing. It dawned on me a few days later, rather obviously, that this was the inherent quest to obtain the American Dream. I mention the phrase and immediately it evokes an aura of tall tales and myths, of true stories of glory and failure – the never-ending search for a practically unattainable euphoria. It is exactly what the characters in this sordid and bleak tale crave the most. It drives their actions, reactions, and is ultimately the cause of their downfall. Well, that and their own stupidity. Continue Reading