Monday, June 29, 2015


Welcome to Me is not a documentary about Borderline Personality Disorder or mental illness in general.  Yes, it does feature a woman, Kristen Wiig as Alice Kleig, with diagnosed BPD who elects of stop her medication in and around the time she wins 80ish million dollars in the lottery. With her windfall she buys time on an infomercial channel and creates a TV show, in the image of Oprah, that is entirely about her, conforming to the untethered whims of her personality. But Welcome to Me is absolutely not a documentary.

As a sort of comedy, Welcome to Me is a rarity. Most movies that either deal with or feature mental illness skew towards the dramatic. Culturally, disorders are still much misunderstood and sometimes derided, and so the handling of mental illness is often reverent and dramatized and to find humour in a reality that can so often be destructive for the sufferer and those close to them runs the risk of being tacky and disrespectful. No doubt there will be some concern over whether or not Welcome to Me is mocking afflictions, especially considering Wiig's particular, slanted sensibility.

But these are Welcome to Me's concerns as well. Yes, it's funny and odd that Alice rides out on a swan boat and eats a meat cake and has actors re-enact traumatic scenes from her life – it's right up the alley of found footage/cable access humour – but the rightness and wrongness of being audience to this process that resembles a type of catharsis is never settled on. The TV crew have doubts about enabling someone clearly having a tough time and the slowly-building audience find the show funny until it's not funny. Whatever doubts the viewer might have about whether or not Alice's unstymied BPD is being played for laughs get echoed throughout Welcome to Me.

But are we allowed to find Alice Kleig funny? A question persists: where does a disorder begin and the person end? To reduce someone to only as a sufferer is to treat them as the sum of their imbalances. The film allows Alice to be an unlikable, difficult person, a challenge to her friends and family, while at the same time revealing an essential oddness and warmth about her. In this way, Welcome to Me, as a comedy, manages to be a more effective look at a person living with mental illness. Dramatic portrayals tend to dwell on struggle, in the process blotting out a great deal of the person struggling, becoming more about the disorder than the person. The title itself nods to the fact that this is a movie about Alice Kleig, who has BPD, and not one about BPD, which has Alice Kleig.

- Andrew

Monday, June 22, 2015


Is Back to the Future II the perfect sequel? Quite possibly.

Before all you rabid fans of The Exorcist 2, Psycho 2, Jaws 2, Teen Wolf Too, Baby Geniuses 2, Speed 2, Weekend at Bernie's 2, and The Empire Strikes Back totally Biff-out on me, let's consider what makes a great sequel. It's a dicey errand, as the line between a great number two and a crumby one is thin and hardly straight. 

We should set our terms first. What are counting as sequels? I'm hesitant to include the likes of Indiana Jones or James Bond, as these are more serials than sequels, hewing more closely to the early days of cinema and the old days of literature where a common hero threads through various adventures. And do we include fare like Star Wars – also a throw back to Flash Gordon-like serials – which is ostensibly a full, unfolding narrative series? Dictionary-wise, yes, these do fall under the definition of sequel, but let's culturally qualify a bit. 

The kind of sequel we're talking about is generally compelled by commerce more than storytelling. Once a movie has proven to be bankable, people who are in the business of making money will want another one. But it's not as evil as it sounds. Lazy, maybe, but not evil. Hollywood wouldn't make sequels if we didn't go to them. So, in some ways, the kind of sequel we're talking about is for fans of the first movie who want more from a story that doesn't have a lot more to give.

Bruce Willis' John McClean, for instance, is just your every day half-saucy/half-crusty NYPD officer who is just trying to mind his own business when international incidents keep getting foisted on him over and over again. We, the audience, take for granted that the same or similar things happen to a character who doesn't go looking for trouble. And we don't care, so long as it's entertaining.

I'm not saying this is an essentially a bad thing. Yes, it's frustrating when every movie that comes out is a retrofit of a previous one, but there is a sort legitimate glee to rehashing the same experience over and over again, a reality that became clear to me the other weekend as I watched my four-year-old nephew go up and over the same bouncy slide incessantly. When we like an experience, it's understandable that we'd want to have it again.

"There's something very familiar about all this."

And so this is the challenge set to a sequel that isn't part of a greater mythology or serial: it has to be different from, but also sort of the same as, its predecessor. Is Back to the Future II a great movie? Not necessarily. But we don't usually hold sequels up to the same standards as the originals. The first in a series comes out of nowhere, is a discovery, whereas sequels are familiar, and we want them that way. And this sequel gives us what we want in spades. Not only does the movie use all the characters from the first movie (sort of sans Crispin Glover and with a swapped Jennifer), but it features different versions of them throughout time. (So many Biffs!) Too, it mimics a few of the famous scenes from the first movie, though with the added spin of these new old events taking place in a futuristic 2015. And, as a good sequel should, it doesn't ignore its own cultural echolalia. As an old Biff says while watching the redux of the Biff and Marty chase from the original, '"There's something very familiar about all this."

But what makes Back to the Future II the perfect sequel is the fact that it doesn't only nod to the first movie, but actually takes place within it. Thanks to the logic of its own universe, it's able to literally do what all sequels strive to do figuratively. 

I realize that there are plenty of number twos out there are better movies than the second Back to the Future – I'm looking at you, fans of The Boondock Saints 2but no other follow-up manages to tick as many sequential needs as this one does.

- Andrew

Monday, June 15, 2015


The old idiom is "keeping up with the Joneses," used to describe the psychology of constantly comparing yourself to your neighbours. Living in a global neighbourhood now, we're exposed to an inexhaustible population of social, cultural, and economic Joneses. We're inundated with the thoughts and lifestyles of others, gobbling pictures of friends and strangers zip lining through the jungle on their honeymoon, or posing with their newborn in pork pie hats, or showing off how they've turned reclaimed dresser drawers into faux-distressed planters. Everything others do seems so perfectly and effortlessly executed and they seem so happy. The question gets begged: what are we doing wrong that we don't have kids, or haven't turned skids into wall art, or don't do yoga on mountain tops while the sun sets?

It's not just material or cultural wealth that we compare and contrast and sweat, but wealth of character. The essential act of comparing yourself to your peers was captured finely by Sheila Heti in 2010's genre-bending How Should a Person Be? "How should a person be?" the "novel of life" opens,
For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too. I noticed the way people dressed, the way they treated their lovers–in everyone, there was something to envy. You can admire anyone for being themselves.
Heti got her hands on a kind of zeitgeist, on a generational interest in and/or worry about how other people are getting along, where peers are turned into a type of celebrity through our interest in them. But, more than that, she uses this interest as a means of friendship and love and personal recalibration. In this way, Noah Baumbach's While We're Young flirts with the cynical side of cultural and personal "keeping up", but it also sides with Heti's study of how we can be enlivened by our admiration of others. 

Cornelia and Josh (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) are a forty-something couple, respectfully a producer and a documentary filmmaker who's newest project has been eight years in production. Past attempts to have children unsuccessful, they're getting left behind by their friends who are successfully taking those steps forward. It's in this adult dead zone that they meet the twenty-something couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who take them under their wing, exposing them to antique hats and hip-hop dance class.

"It's like their apartment is full of everything we threw out," Cornelia observes after their first visit, "but it looks so good the way they have it." As millennials, Jamie and Darby have reclaimed everything Cornelia and Josh have moved beyond. They've got a tube television and a wall of vinyl and only watch movies on VHS and pass the time playing boardgames, almost version of the older couple in their own youth. The younger pair walk the hipster line – as many do in real life – of being caricatures, but their enthusiasm and their seeming devotion to a more "authentic" way of life jostles Cornelia and Josh out of their middle-aged yuppie torpor.

While We're Young wrings a lot of Portlandia-esque humor out of the affectations of hipster Millenialls and just as much out of the inelegance of the adult aping of that style, making this Baumbach's funniest and broadest film to date. But there are also more serious questions of authenticity – both artistic and personal – running beneath the yuks. The film doesn't just take shots at the pomp of the youngsters, but calls foul on the purported ease with which Cornelia and Josh's friends are tackling adulthood and parenthood. In its own way, While We're Young asks, "How should a person be?"

Heti's non-fiction novel amounts to one of the best love stories in the past few years, digesting that concern with the activities of others into a loving appreciation of friends. While We're Young struggles a little in its third act with dramatic reveals, but where it really succeeds is as a How Should a Person Be?-type love story. Yes, there's a lot of laughs at the Generation Xers trying to keep the Millennial Joneses, but there's a sturdy allowance for authentic affection in all that posed affectation.

- Andrew

Monday, June 8, 2015

Guelph Movie Club: Hoverboard Countdown Edition

<Whistles the first three notes of the Back to the Future theme, but real slow like>

Please tell me that first sentence worked for you. Look folks, if it’s not already self-evident, my comedy skills are but one of the reasons I could use a time travelling DeLorean. But I digress. The Guelph Movie Club selection for June happens to be the sequel to one of our most popular showings ever. It’s Back to the Future II.

It’s an interesting time for sequels. So Hollywood, am I right? Hard reboots, soft reboots, expanded universes, sequels – all such dirty words at the moment. But come on folks, we need to get serious about the return on investment we receive from our most lucrative multimedia properties.

I’m kidding.

Yes. We’re all conflicted about seeing the old favourites rehashed and redone, but let me take you back to a simpler time. Marty has edited his own past. His family is cool. He owns a truck! Everything is perfect. Then, suddenly, Doc Brown is back (from the future) with a dire warning about Marty and Jennifer’s kids.

This scene almost exploded my eight-year-old brain. The idea that a movie – of all things – could end, and then there could be an entire other movie with more story was, well, pretty neat.

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. But, just maybe, we could stand the occasional great sequel.

You’ll see there’s no poll in this blog for July. We’re taking a break for July – Hillside and all that. So, get yourself to the Bookshelf Cinema on June 25th at 9:00 p.m. We’re giving out freer copies of Grey’s Sports Almanac. Ok, we’re not, but we’ll have some neat prizes.

Till then, see you at the movies.


Sunday, June 7, 2015


Desk jockey Caleb is alerted at his terminal that he's won a contest. He's got a Charlie-finding-the-golden-ticket smile and the other employees rush to high-five the hell out of him. In one cut, he goes from his office to a helicopter chopping over a vast, secluded landscape. The bird comes down in a field and Caleb is informed he'll have to walk the rest of the way. "Keep your head down and follow the river," the pilot tells him. Maybe it has something to do with the new Jurassic Park's imminence, but the set-up of Ex_Machina seems to imply that whatever's about to happen will be large, loud, and probably computer generated. It's not out of the question that our hero will be fleeing from giant humanoids by the 45 minute mark.

But the rest of Ex_Machina plays out through conversations in a contained, sterile, underground facility. And, for my money, the result is more compelling and gripping and troubling than an island's worth of loosed dinos.

Caleb has "won" the opportunity to put a new model of Artificial Intelligence through a "Turing Test" – that is, to determine whether a human will know it's interacting with a computer. The inventor is prodigy/mogul Nathan, eccentric and alcoholic, alone in his compound save for a servant that doesn't speak English. In Caleb he seems to be expecting a friend as much as a colleague. And, kept behind glass – like an experimental dino in a zoo maybe? – there's Ava, the AI that Caleb is meant to interrogate and either pass or fail. Caleb interviews Ava, Nathan interviews Caleb about that day's interview with Ava.

Ex_Machina is a tight three-hander, and proof that you don't need heaps of special effects to alter reality. Knocking back and forth between Nathan and Ava, Caleb becomes suspicious about the intentions of his facilitymates, dubious about the nature, meaning, and endgame of his task. The larger themes are the familiar stuff of sci-fi – man playing God, man playing Prometheus, etc. – but the smaller, more personal ideas and questions in the film make for a huge meal. Thankfully, writer and first-time director Alex Garland (heretofore at his best when teamed with Danny Boyle) plates and serves his feast in a refined way.

In keeping the action contained to a few rooms in the seemingly-vast compound and players down to just Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac (recently the titular Lewyn Davis in the Coen's film), and Alicia Vikander, Garland achieves an almost theatrical tidiness to a topic that might otherwise get huge and unruly. Though only anecdotally similar films, Ex_Machina is successful in the way Her was, suggesting a future culture and civilization instead of belaboring it, letting the human – or humanoid – element of the story take the wheel.

- Andrew