What To See (And What to Skip) In the Theatres This Weekend

If you see just one Spider-man movie this year, why not see a whole lot of them at once? 

That’s what you get in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Rating: A), the new wildly inventive animated film from the producers of The Lego Movie , features the first black Latino Spider boy, though he’s just one of the several web-slingers in different forms, who pop through one of those rips in the space-time continuum. Jim Slotek declares this “crazily imaginative, hilarious and frenetic animated feature” is “practically a palate-cleanser for comic book earnestness.”

Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse: As many arachnids as it takes!

Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse: As many arachnids as it takes!

Now, back to the earnestness. This week’s seasonal frock drama is Mary, Queen of Scots (Rating: B), starring Saoirse Ronan as the unfortunate Catholic Queen, and Margot Robbie as her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, in a film tracing their different lives until Mary’s last unfortunate day.  Reviewer Kim Hughes did not lose her head over the movie, a film she describes as historically accurate and beautiful to look at but with a dull pall.

In our other bio-pic, Blaze (Rating: C-plus), Ethan Hawke, taking the director’s chair,  traces the life of the late Texas singer-songwriter, Blaze Foley, starring Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat as his wife, Sybil Rosen, whose memoir inspired the first half of the film. Jim Slotek found the cameo-stuffed film deficient in grit and somewhat meandering in tracing Blaze’s downward spiral.

Also based on a true story is The Mule (Rating: B)  directed by and starring 88-year-old Clint Eastwood as an egocentric flower enthusiast who starts transporting cocaine for a Mexican cartel to impress his estranged family. More a well-crafted sentimental comedy than a hard drama, it’s an entertaining “old man” road movie, says reviewer Liam Lacey, if not on the level of The Straight Story or Nebraska.

For another perspective on drugs in the family, we have a possible Oscar acting contender, Ben Is Back (Rating: B-plus), starring Julia Roberts as the mom, whose son (Lucas Hedges) shows up on Christmas morning, straight from a rehab facility, an appearance that gets more complicated when someone steals the family dog. Karen Gordon says the drama, written and directed by Lucas Hedges’ father, Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) is somewhat uneven but superbly acted by Roberts and Hedges.

Because it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a post-apocalyptic fantasy, we have two of them this week. Long-time Peter Jackson collaborator Christian Rivers brings us Mortal Engines (Rating: C minus), a young-adult story about a future where giant predator cities like London, roll around Europe on big tank treads ingesting smaller towns. 

There’s lots of expensive eye-candy onscreen says Liam Lacey, but the script is clogged with clichés.  On the budget side, Lowell Dean’s Super-Grid is a predictable but decently-executed calling card feature, says Jim Slotek, starring Saskatchewan as a future wasteland, where sibling mercenaries Jesse and Deke (Leo Fafard and Marshall Williams) make a run through the lawless territory populated by murderous mutants to pick up a mysterious cargo. Both Mortal Engines and Super-Grid feature an Asian female assassin, apparently de rigueur for post-apocalyptic dramas.

Have a great weekend.

Blaze: A soft, touching movie about a not-so-soft forgotten country outlaw

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C-plus

Before watching Blaze, the biopic about the late, almost country-star Blaze Foley, directed and co-written by Ethan Hawke, it’s worth watching the Foley episode of Mike Judge’s animated series about country outlaws, Tales from the Tour Bus.

(Season 1, episode 8, if you subscribe to Crave TV in Canada, Cinemax in the U.S.).

Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in Blaze.

Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in Blaze.

In the words of the people who knew him, Foley was a man who, though inwardly sensitive, was outwardly so menacing, he scared bikers. He would spit at people he disliked, and could nail someone from across a room. When he met his fiance’s middle-class Jewish parents, he wore an IUD as an earring. He was a blind-drunk cohort of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and wrote a lot of songs, a fraction of which were recorded, and some that were covered, including, “If I Could Only Fly,” by Merle Haggard.

He also was obsessed with duct tape, and though the movie does portray his coffin as being covered in it, it neglects to show he also festooned his clothes with duct tape and even made cowboy boots out of it.

That, in 20 minutes of animated escapades and maybe exaggerated reminiscence, is more colour and insight than all the overthinking in Hawke’s film about a big drunk lovable song-writing Teddy bear who happens to be named Blaze Foley.

The real Blaze Foley

The real Blaze Foley

Come to think of it, maybe it’s not a good idea to know who Blaze Foley was going in.

Skip over that, and Blaze does manage to tell a convincing story about how creative genius tragically often doesn’t translate into fortune and fame. The artistic urge obviously means a lot to Hawke (his earlier directorial works include a thoughtful doc on the classical pianist Seymour Bernstein). And, to the handful who know who Blaze Foley was (most of them live in Texas), just the fact that he could finally find some posthumous fame is reason enough to applaud the film.

Even if he is a pretty soft version of the real Foley (and some might argue that’s irrelevant, since the real Foley is not well-known), burly newcomer Ben Dickey does credibly perform and bring presence to his story – particularly in the first half of the film that’s devoted to both his music and his relationship to his performance-artist wife Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). That this half seems the most genuine isn’t surprising, since Rosen co-wrote the film based on her memoirs.

But Rosen wasn’t there for the down-and-dirty Foley, the guy who is said to have sold the same guitar to four different people and who was banned from the stage of nearly every bar in Austin. Does it seem like I was expecting a much grittier film?

The presentation of the film is awkward. The initial framing is that it’s a telling of Foley’s life in a radio interview with Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and another Foley friend Zee (Josh Hamilton). The set-up seems to be a promotional interview for Van Zandt’s new album, with the deejay (Hawke) asking about the song “Blaze’s Blues.” The indication is that the two spend the next hour answering that one question, which would make most interviewers sorry they asked.

At other times, the story is told as a wraparound to a sparsely-attended bar performance by Foley that’s being recorded for an album. A mention of a song will bring on a memory, etc.

There are some choice cameos in Blaze, including Kris Kristofferson as Foley’s sumbitch of an abusive father, suffering dementia in his final days. And Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and Richard Linklater make a fun trio of obnoxious Texas oilmen who sign him to a vanity record label, his only record contract.

At more than two hours, Blaze is a meandering tale of genius and futility, tender, but overlong and wallowing, given that we know how it ends.

Blaze. Directed by Ethan Hawke. Co-written by Hawke and Sybil Rosen. Starring Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat and Charlie Sexton. Opens Friday, December 14 in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Halifax.