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Dumb Money: 3 stars
Creation of the Gods I: 4
Cassandro: 3 ½
Big, pompous, funny, smart and strange. There are films this week to fit each of those, but let me first talk about a couple on Indigenous themes. It's a growing genre in Canada and these are two very good examples. Bones of Crows, which I praised very highly when it came out in June now has a second life. It's longer, now a five-part series, not only about one woman but her entire family. She and her sisters were forced into a residential school. We feel the effects. She also had a career in World War 2 using her language as code. The series is on CBC GEM.
Here today I write about Stellar, another film by and about Indigenous folks.
Also there's a Chinese fantasy legend, a gay wrestler, some old timers of the action genre and that not-so-dumb stock market oddity.
DUMB MONEY: It was one of the most anticipated titles at the Toronto Film Festival and why not: a David and Goliath story about small-time investors sticking it to hedge funds and other pros of the stock market had to be pleasing, right? Well, yes and no. It's fun and satisfyingly critical, but not the whole truth.
You might remember the stock market frenzy that erupted two years ago over a chain of video games stores called GameStop. Hedge funds were short-selling it; expecting it would succumb. An amateur financial guru on the internet, played by Paul Dano, went the other way; he recommended it. His followers bought in and the stock's value went up, as much as 90% in a single day. The short-sellers lost big, some of them billions. The little investors won big. Good story, if it were exactly true.
Actually, many of them also lost big. As the frenzy built they bought in as the price rose, didn't sell out when they should have and found their stock dropping in value when the excitement faded. The film doesn't deal with that preferring instead to highlight the victory of the little people, who are apparently known as "dumb money" on Wall Street. The film ends by claiming the street learned from this incident that it has to pay attention to what these people are doing. I don't see much evidence of that. Seems more like wishful thinking.
The film though is entertaining, with stars like Seth Rogen and Nick Offerman, as hedge fund executives, Shailene Woodley, as the guru's wife, Pete Davidson, as his brother, America Ferrera as one of the investors and many others relishing, strutting and/or fretting about the ups and downs of the stock. It's brightly directed by Craig Gillespie who previously brought us the story of Tonya Harding. (In theaters) 3 out of 5
STELLAR: Here's a good example of what Indigenous filmmakers are bringing us these days. Their view of the world and thoughts about their life and history subtly stated in a story with no obvious didactic agenda. But think about it and you'll find a message within the dreamy mood of this film. It's set in a bar with only a bartender (Rossif Sutherland) and two patrons.
They (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Braeden Clarke) aren't together but gradually as they talk come closer. We hear about how connected to the land they feel, or “the dirt” as he puts it. “We are in a sacred space,” she says, “Even in the city.” That's a pretty direct statement of Indigenous thinking.
There's more. People burst in now and then; some fight, one insults Indians and their understanding of a changing world. A professor (R.H. Thomson) pontificates and in effect gives us some anti-colonialism thoughts. More of the outside world is seen through a magical window, sometimes as grim industrial sites, sometimes as unruly crowds, even floods and fires. Also, in occasional contrast, natural landscapes, woods and streams. To writer-director Darlene Naponse, from the Anishinaabe first nation in Northern Ontario, all those changes Indigenous people have lived with have been a barrier for them to connect with each other. That's her point in this film, eloquently made and acted. (In theaters in Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Victoria and Saskatoon) 4 out of 5
CREATION OF THE GODS I: KINGDOM OF STORMS: It's been a huge hit in China and it's amply apparent why. It's a spectacle with huge sets and scenes and special effects giving us a very involving story. Two and a half hours go by pretty fast and they're only the beginning. This is part one of a trilogy that mixes real history (the changeover from the Shang Dynasty to the Zhou Dynasty about 3,000 years ago with mythology and fiction in which human beings, gods and monsters fight for power. That story is from a novel written in the 16th century and has already been presented, in part, in various films and is therefore known to most everyone in China. Director Wuershan, who has a background in commercial and video production, has made it into a grand epic film.
There's a great deal of exposition here, especially to start off, about the gods and an artifact (the scroll of Fengshen Bang) that is guarded by the immortals of Kunlun and only accessible to the King of all the Realms. Much of the movie deals with the struggle to become that king and then keep the position. King Zhou becomes a tyrant. He's influenced by a fox demon who emerges from the mouth of a beautiful woman. Around him a great curse has been inflicted on the land, leading to drought and famine. The Supreme God of Heaven sends the scroll and with it a chance of turning things around. I have no idea if I caught all of the story, it's very complex, and at key points deals with the responsibilities of fathers and sons for each other. They're tested repeatedly. There are deceptions, brutal commands, an unintended assassination, a couple of dragons and one king's offer to save the land by committing suicide on a funeral pyre. Understand it all or not, you'll be amazed at the scope and the fantasy. The actors, like Kris Phillips' (aka Fei Xiang) and the veteran Li Xuejian, are celebrated and popular in China. (In theaters) 4 out of 5
CASSANDRO: The bizarre world of Lucha Libre wrestling is about the last arena I'd expect to find a tale about gay empowerment but here it is, based on a true story and starring the always interesting Gael García Bernal. He plays Saúl Armendáriz a gay wrestler in Mexico who wasn't satisfied with the usual role the sport assigned his type, the weaklings called “exoticos” that the big, burly types could manhandle while the crowds yelled homophobic insults. He wanted to win and with the help of a wily trainer (played by Roberta Colindrez) and a strutting, sashaying play to the crowd managed to become a popular star going by the name Cassandro.
Roger Ross Williams originally told his story in a short documentary and here, in his first dramatic film, concocts quite a moving tale. Saúl is an outsider. He lives with his mother, never sees his father (who conceived him in an extra-marital affair) and seems too scrawny to wrestle. But there's a sense of longing and overcoming here that the film nicely conveys and Bernal projects perfectly. Seeing him win over the crowd feels liberating. He's got a secret boyfriend (Raúl Castillo), a helper at the venues (played by a singer Bad Bunny) and a real Lucha star, Son of Santo, who he wrestles in a climactic match. Plus a calm but emotional final scene. (Streaming on Prime Video) 3 ½ out of 4
EXPEND4BLES: It was once a good idea: honor the action films of years ago by bringing back some of the stars and putting them through again. But here, in #4 (as slyly indicated in the title) it's become pretty ridiculous. The plot is thin, hackneyed even, the action is uninteresting and the stars are merely reliving old times. They are Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture and others. There are also newcomers, Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais from Asian action films, rapper and sometime actor 50 Cent and to add someone to ogle, Megan Fox, though I didn't buy her stint filling-in as leader of the group.
The story has a seen-it-all-before feel. An arms dealers is trying to get hold of some nuclear detonators and start World War III. Why? We don't know. Andy Garcia as a CIA agent sends the Expendables team (very secret, no connection to the US government, you realize) to stop the transfer of those detonators. Stallone, as Barney Ross, is also trying to find out who one of the people in the plot is. His code name is Ocelot and he foiled Ross in some other action in the past. The film puts us on a freighter heading to Vladivastock, Russia. Why? Again we don't know. Novelty maybe. The film needs more of that. At best it's a violent and very virile adventure. (In theaters) 2 out of 5