Friday, 15 June 2018

Ocean's 8




Ocean’s 8, directed and co-written by Gary Ross, is a film about eight women trying to pull off the biggest jewel heist in history - at the Met (museum) in New York City. Leading the gang is Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister to Danny Ocean (George Clooney, who isn’t in the film) from the Soderbergh films. Debbie just got out of prison, where she spent five years planning this heist. Now she gathers together her team, played by actors like Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulsen, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina and, later, also Anne Hathaway. Ocean’s 8, in other words, is a film about women. Women don’t usually pull off heists, and I assume this is a film that’s supposed to draw attention to the lack of films featuring women in such roles and do its part to counter that lack.

But here’s the thing: Ocean’s 8 only really got entertaining for me when James Cordon got involved in the last quarter of the film. Cordon plays John Frazier, an insurance investigator who knows the Oceans all to well. Every minute of Ocean’s 8 with Cordon in it was more entertaining than all the minutes without him. I consider that a huge fail on the part of the writers. The problem isn’t that Cordon outshines the women as an actor. He is very good, but so were all of the women, especially Bullock and Blanchett (as Debbie’s partner). The problem is that Frazier is just a better-drawn character than the ones the women play (whom I’m not even bothering to name), and his lines snap the way all the lines should have snapped. The only other male actor of note was Richard Armitage, but he didn’t fare as well.

The entire film needed to snap and flow instead of meandering along with some scattered fun scenes between the women (the best involving Bullock and Blanchett). And by the time we get to the twists that are mandatory for the end of every heist caper, they almost made me yawn because of their lack of originality and boring delivery. 

And what was with the change of date at Danny Ocean’s grave marker: At the beginning of the film it read 2017; at the end it was 2018, which no one else seems to have noticed?

Thanks to Cordon, Ocean’s 8 was worth a look and there was just enough fun along the way to slide over into ***. My mug is up, but, again, just barely.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Disobedience



Walter was in town, and we were fortunate to catch a new indie film to watch together.

Sebastian Lelio made my seventh-favourite film of 2017 (A Fantastic Woman), so I wasn’t about to miss his new film, regardless of subject matter. I was surprised by how very different Disobedience feels to his last film, but I was not disappointed, though its one major flaw prevents it from receiving the four stars which would have guaranteed Lelio’s second consecutive appearance on my top-fifteen list.

Disobedience tells the story of three close friends in London whose lives have taken unexpected turns and who are brought together again after years of separation (one lives in New York, for reasons which become clear during the film), resulting in the release of long pent-up emotions and passions.

Rachel Weisz plays Ronit Krushka, a New York City artist who has abandoned her Jewish faith but now returns to the Orthodox Jewish community in London after the death of her father (the community’s rabbi). Ronit does not receive much of a welcome, even from one of her close friends, Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who has married Esti (Rachel McAdams), Ronit’s other close friend. In an absolutely brilliant first half hour, we are slowly introduced to these three characters (whose surface successes seem clouded by deep unhappiness and even loneliness), their relationship and the reason Ronit left her father and friends to move across the ocean.

It’s only an introduction, though, as additional pieces fall into place throughout the film. Disobedience is in no hurry to reveal its secrets, which is great, though its major flaw is related to this strength. I would like to leave all the secrets for you to discover (as you know, I rarely do spoilers), but since every other reviewer (and even the film’s poster) gives away the central secret, I suppose I need to do so as well (minor spoiler alert): Ronit and Esti’s friendship goes much deeper than friendship and was the cause of the estrangement between Ronit and her father. 

I share this because one of the film’s highlights is the perfect chemistry between Ronit and Esti, made possible by the wonderful understated performances of Weisz and McAdams (perhaps their best performances ever). The acting of everyone in the film is excellent and this is matched by the outstanding cinematography and score (the singing is another highlight). 

Unfortunately, Disobedience could not sustain the brilliance of its first half hour. As it moves towards its unexpected ending, there is an increasing sense that vital pieces of character development are missing, especially for Dovid. Decisions seem to lack enough context, as if the film is sometimes as lost as its three central figures. The result is a last half hour with moments of great beauty and power but too many moments that don’t quite satisfy. 

Nevertheless, Disobedience is a marvellous, thoughtful and moving drama that gets a solid ***+. Two mugs up.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story



And now for another episode of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly:

The Good:

1) What’s not to love about L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando Calrissian’s droid?

2) The acting and dialogue (written by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan) are, again, well above the old Star Wars level. Emilia Clarke stands out as Qi’ra, the woman who has somehow stolen Han Solo’s heart and is at the heart of the action during the second half of the film (and the most fascinating character in the film). Then there’s Thandie Newton (playing Val) and Woody Harrelson (playing Beckett), who are always fun to watch. Paul Bettany plays Dryden Voss and Donald Glover is Calrissian. They’re okay. Alden Ehrenreich (Solo) grew on me, but is never really convincing as Solo. So-so.

3) The last half hour of the film actually has a compelling storyline, though by then I was almost asleep.

4) Given all the controversy around the making of this film, Ron Howard (director) acquitted himself well.

5) There were moments of fun and adventure that reminded me of Indiana Jones. Not a bad thing.

The Bad:

1) The first three-quarters of the film. What a mess. Non-stop action involving endless chases and PG violence of the kind that bore me to tears. No story to speak of. Just an attempt by Han, Chewbacca, and company to steal some valuable resource to pacify Voss and something called Crimson Dawn. Very sad.

2) Given that we know where Han Solo and Chewbacca will end up, this film should be providing a much much much more interesting backstory (blaming the Kasdans this time). What waste!

The Ugly:

1) The cinematography is appallingly awful!!! It was like watching the film through a dark grey fog. No colour! No faces! The original Star Wars films were magnificent beyond words in comparison. I assume it was all because of 3D, but that certainly doesn’t excuse it. Unforgivable!!


Solo: A Star Wars Story has just enough good to outweigh the bad and ugly, and allow me to award it ***. My mug is up, but just barely. 

Friday, 18 May 2018

TV77: Babylon Berlin





I was recently surprised to discover that one of my favourite European filmmakers was part of a team that created, wrote and directed a 16-episode (so far) German TV show called Babylon Berlin, playing on Netflix. Since nothing Tom Tykwer has made has received less than ***+ from me, I immediately dived in. I wasn’t disappointed, though the show has a few flaws.

Babylon Berlin stars Volker Bruch as Gereon Rath, a police inspector in Berlin in 1929, in the days of the Weimar Republic. Rath is a survivor of WWI, but has a very bad case of PTSD, one that leaves him shaking without a constant dose of morphine. Rath has been in a relationship with Helga (Hannah Herzsprung), his brother’s wife, since the war (his brother went missing in action). Rath, who is working homicide, is in Berlin (from Cologne) to find a certain pornographic film but gets involved in a case involving a train from Russia carrying poisonous gas and a wealth in gold. Working with Rath (or against him?) is an older detective named Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth).

Liv Lisa Fries co-stars as Charlotte Ritter, a young woman with a lot of ambition who wants to become the first female homicide detective in Berlin. She also gets mixed up in the two investigations, taking on the dangerous role of Rath’s assistant. Ritter’s friend, Greta (Leonie Benesch), shows up in town and becomes a maid for August Benda (Matthias Brandt), the head of Berlin’s political police, who becomes Rath’s closest ally.

There are a lot more characters in the show, including communists who want to overthrow Stalin and a secret group of soldiers rebuilding Germany’s air force in Russia. With sixteen episodes, you can have a lot going on and, in 1929 Berlin, there was a lot going on, with major changes around the corner.

Babylon Berlin has a marvellous period feel, aided by gorgeous cinematography and a great soundtrack. The acting is generally outstanding, especially for TV, as is the writing. While there was a little too much melodrama on occasion (especially late in the series), and some credibility issues, I found the story compelling and intelligent throughout, with a lot to say about the history of Germany during that time. Best of all, Babylon Berlin has a strong noir feel that works perfectly with its 1929 setting. Rumour has it that this is the most expensive non-English TV show ever made. I’m not surprised. 

Despite its flaws, I am giving Babylon Berlin ****. This is outstanding TV and better than most of the stuff on Netflix. But I should note that this is a slow-moving and decidedly adult TV show. My mug is up. 

Friday, 11 May 2018

Tully



Tully is one of those films you need to see twice before you can fully appreciate it. I have not yet watched it twice, but already know that I will like it more the second time around (for reasons I won't say). In the meantime, I am giving Tully a solid ***+. I will update that, as needed, once I have seen Tully again. My mug is up.

My review of Tully can be found at Third Way: http://thirdway.com/tully/


Monday, 7 May 2018

Anon



As I have mentioned on this blog before, Andrew Niccol is a fascinating director. He has made a couple of excellent thought-provoking anti-weapons films (Lord of War, Good Kill) and a great thought-provoking sci-fi film (Gattaca). But his other efforts, while also thought-provoking (and his heart is clearly in the right place), have been seriously flawed sci-fi flicks (SimOne, In Time, The Host). Niccol’s latest film, Anon, a Netflix Original sci-fi noir (a favourite genre) that was just released last Friday, unfortunately joins those lesser ranks.

Anon, written and directed by Niccol, stars Clive Owen as Sal Frieland, a New York City homicide detective in the not-so-distant future. In this future, everything people see is permanently recorded by something in their minds (nanobots?), effectively reducing crime to a fraction of what we have today, and making it very difficult to get away with murder. Nevertheless, someone has tried it multiple times and managed to mask their identity in the process, even making the victims look out of their killer’s eyes. Meanwhile, Sal’s ability to identify everyone he sees (including a full bio) has come across a glitch, a young woman  (Amanda Seyfried) whose identity comes up in his mind as ‘unknown - error’. Sal suspects this mysterious Anon has something to do with the murders. But tracking her down is going to be a dangerous game indeed, because she can apparently manipulate everything he sees. 

The plot is rather weak and full of holes (not entirely unexpected), but its vision of the future is, as expected, thought-provoking and not unrealistic. Owen, Seyfried and Colm Feore (as Sal’s boss) make the best of a thin, though intelligent, screenplay, and they are fun to watch. The worst thing about Anon is the graphic violence. Was it really necessary? In my opinion, the answer is no, at least not as often as it was shown. There were some unnecessary sex scenes as well.

But what makes Anon worth watching despite its flaws is the breathtaking and stylish cinematography. It’s almost devoid of any colour, but that just accentuates the noir feel. Magnificent stuff! There are some great shots of NYC and I loved all the white lines of data that people can look at. 

So I am giving Anon a solid *** in spite of its flaws. It’s a fun ride, even if it doesn’t satisfy. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Avengers: Infinity War



You wish!

I grow weary of The Avengers (and the whole superhero genre, which has had occasional bursts of promise but has generally failed to live up to its potential - noting that I don't think Black Panther qualifies as a superhero film). In reading a few reviews from my favourite critics, I get the distinct impression that none of them think Infinity War is worth the hype - that, in fact, it’s a hollow film that viewers love because it’s an entertaining distraction full of mindless action (i.e it’s fun), not because it has anything of value to offer as a story or as a film. But these critics feel compelled to give Infinity War a decent rating because they’re afraid of losing credibility and support from the masses who may make Infinity War the most popular film of all time.

I suffer from no such fear (after all, I receive no income for writing these reviews). I may be alienated by those masses, but I consider it a badge of honour as a film critic to say I will never watch one of the most popular films of all time (just as I avoided watching Civil War in 2016 and Guardians last year). I mean, who needs more of that endless and endlessly tedious superhero action (i.e. PG violence), set in a mediocre plot? Not me. But if you want to tell me why you think Infinity War is worth watching, I’m listening.

Update: I was just talking to a certain daughter of mine who had just watched Infinity War and enjoyed it very much. But she confirmed that I would be upset by the film, especially by the violence. The violence was so dark and brutal that it even made her cringe and wonder what was in the minds of those who would allow so much violence to get a PG rating. This is very disturbing, especially when I observe how many violent action films aimed at a young audience are regularly among the most popular films of our time. How can this possibly be a good thing? When is Hollywood/Disney going to admit that watching so much violence as entertainment is not that far removed from the kinds of horrors found in some of the circuses of ancient Rome?

I couldn’t find my mug the last time I reviewed an Avengers film. I won’t need to look for it this time.