Friday, 10 July 2015

Love & Mercy



A month ago or so, Walter and I had a chance to watch a film together here in Winnipeg. We saw Love & Mercy, which is based on the life of Brian Wilson, the lead singer/songwriter for the Beach Boys. But this is no ordinary biopic.

My full review can be found at Third Way Cafe: http://thirdway.com/love-mercy/

Love & Mercy gets a solid ***+ and two mugs up.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence



Don and I watched A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence at the Princess Theatre (Edmonton) on Sunday. If reading that title makes you think: “Hmmm, not sure this one is for me,” then let me encourage you to follow your instinct: It’s probably not for you.

Similar to his previous film, 2007’s You the Living, Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a super-quirky brain-numbing series of bizarre, though often hilarious and always beautiful, vignettes. While many of these vignettes seem to have no connection to the others, there a number which feature the same two characters: a pair of salesmen trying to sell silly items that will contribute to people having fun (though they never seem to be having any fun themselves). Watching the unfolding story (such as it is) of these two salesmen is indeed great fun, though some of the best scenes don’t involve them at all.

The two films mentioned above are the last parts of a trilogy which began with Songs from the Second Floor (2000). These three films do not resemble any other films ever made, which is one reason why they are rarely seen or appreciated except by those for whom watching an obscure foreign film with little by way of plot and no obvious connection between scenes is sometimes considered a treat (as it is for me).

The camera in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is as static as in any film I’ve seen, with each scene taking place without any camera movement. The dour characters are almost as static, with little movement by the actors, who often show little or no emotion of any kind (there are a few exceptions). Their faces are pale, as is the cinematography as a whole, making you wonder if they are even alive. 

The scenes are almost too absurd to describe, including a marvellous musical number in a 1943 bar and a visit by King Charles XII (from the 18th century) and his troops to a contemporary suburban bar (all taking place in Gothenburg, Sweden). The vignettes are often very sad and very funny at the same time. Sometimes they are even horrific and funny at the same time. So what is Andersson trying to say? That life can be full of tedium, suffering and even horror (especially in the way people sometimes treat each other) but you can still laugh at the absurd meaninglessness of it? Not sure that’s a sentiment I would want to support, which is one reason why I find it difficult to give Andersson’s films more than ***+ in spite of their obvious genius.

So A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence gets a solid ***+. My mug is up, but don’t assume that this a recommendation unless you’re a fan of arthouse cinema at its most obscure.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Last Days in the Desert



One of the highlights of the recent Movies and Meaning Film Festival was the advance screening of a new Jesus film, Last Days in the Desert, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, who was at the festival for a Q&A.

My review of the film can be found at Third Way Cafe: http://thirdway.com/last-days-in-the-desert/

Last Days in the Desert had a number of flaws, including the dialogue, which could have been more creative and insightful, given the material, but it's the best Jesus film since Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, so don't miss it. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd



Watched this eleven days ago, but have not had the time to write a review.

First of all, I’m a sucker for old-fashioned epics based on nineteenth-century novels. I also think Carey Mulligan is one of the best actors out there. So Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd, based on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, and featuring Mulligan in almost every scene, was almost certain to entertain me. And it did.

Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful headstrong woman who inherits a farm in England and has three very different kinds of men wishing to marry her: Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sheep farmer; William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), Bathsheba’s wealthy and lonely neighbour; and Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a young, charming and handsome (though rather shallow) soldier. Whom, if any, is Bathsheba going to choose, and what will be the consequences of her choice?

The romances in Far from the Madding Crowd don’t always feel credible and Bathsheba is consistently infuriating (as I suppose she should be), but the performances are all excellent and the film is worth watching just to see Mulligan and Sheen perform together. The cinematography in such a film needs to be a highlight, and it was. The score is more than adequate. So I found this film to be a solid, if sometimes uninspiring, piece of entertainment. 

I’m a fan of John Schlesinger’s 1967 filming of Hardy’s novel. It starred Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Peter Finch, had a marvellous score, and was a staple of classy late-night TV viewing when I was in my late teens and early twenties. It would have been hard for Vinterberg’s film to match that one in my eyes, and it didn’t, but the style and performances are different enough that I still found the new version very enjoyable. I also suspect that that the new film more accurately reflects the life in England in the 19th century (and Mulligan stands up well against Christie). So I am going to let Far from the Madding Crowd slide just over the line to ***+. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Pride Revisited



I don't usually write a second post for a film, but I need to make an exception this time, because, in spite of my positive review the first time, I got it wrong (and Janelle got it right). 

My Third Way Cafe review of Pride (now found at: http://thirdway.com/pride), which I watched last October, was overwhelmingly positive, noting that the film’s key themes were empathy and the power of solidarity and that it had one moving scene after another. But watching the film back then in an almost-empty theatre at a particularly stressful time obviously impacted my appreciation for this film, which I awarded only ***+ (though I did note that I almost gave it **** and that it would have made my top ten list in any other year). It did not impact my daughter (Janelle’s) appreciation of the film because Pride was her favourite film of 2014. It was also Walter’s fifth-favourite film of 2014. I did not remember those facts when I watched Pride for the second time (in a theatre) at the marvellous Movies and Meaning Film Festival in Albuquerque this past weekend. 

This time I was surrounded by 250 people who enjoyed the film immensely, though no more than I did. I have rarely enjoyed a film this much more the second time around than the first (and I did love it the first time). Every scene in Pride is pure movie magic. I could hardly stop crying. And yes, it may have some flaws related to structure and predictability, but those flaws pale beside the magic, the humanization and the inspiration. And this is where a sympathetic audience is helpful. Pride is an incredibly inspiring and humanizing story. And even the one character I complained about in my previous review was not handled in a typical Hollywood way. The fact that she was not redeemed is not as important as the fact that she was not punished.

With the help of an extraordinary ensemble cast, Matthew Warchus (the director) and Stephen Beresford (the writer) have turned the true story of the support of lesbians and gays for striking miners  in the UK in 1984 into a masterpiece for our time. 

Indeed, I came away from my second viewing of Pride thinking there are few films more important for our time than this one. Not only am I now giving it the solid **** it deserves, I am making it my second-favourite film of the year in what was, for me, the greatest year in the history of cinema. If you have not yet seen Pride, find it and watch it, preferably with others. It is an absolute treasure that should be seen by all.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road



I am fighting back tears as I write this. Tears of joy, you ask? Or tears of wonder and amazement? Sadly, sadly, no.

You all know I love post-apocalyptic sci-fi as much as anyone (as long as there are no zombies).  And Mad Max: Fury Road certainly has a post-apocalyptic sci-fi feel to it. The atmosphere is great. Tom Hardy, my favourite actor of 2014? Also great. Charlize Theron, one of my all-time favourite actresses? Also great. The score? Perfect for the story. The ride? As wild as one could hope for. The special effects? Unobtrusive and adding nicely to the atmosphere. 

So why the tears, Vic? You have a wild and amazing ride through a beautifully-rendered sci-fi desert landscape, with hardly a moment to catch your breath, and you have two heroes played by favourite actors fighting against all odds to bring hope and redemption to humanity. And you have a particularly sympathetic character (unexpectedly so) played by Nicholas Hoult. Surely you can’t ask for more than that! So what’s with the tears?

I suppose they are tears of loneliness as well as sadness. Every one of my favourite film critics, including Gareth Higgins, loves Mad Max: Fury Road. Based on what I’ve read, I believe the critics were blown away by the awesome and endlessly-exciting spectacle, and by the brilliant filmmaking that was no doubt required to create such a spectacle. I get that. 

But here’s the thing: While I found the action in Fury Road much less boring than the action in Age of Ultron, I still find action boring. And Fury Road is at least 90% action. And it’s very violent action. And very repetitive action: I can only handle so many exploding cars and trucks in one film, not to mention the bodies flying all over the place. I was not only bored, I was repeatedly disgusted. Any positive messages (and I’m willing to admit there were some) got lost in the endless violent spectacle before me. I call it a failure of the imagination, but others will challenge that. 

Is Fury Road a feminist version of the Mad Max story? Perhaps. But, if so, it’s not a type of feminism I can support. The turning point in the film, for me (spoiler alert!), was when our heroes meet up with Furiosa’s people. At that point in the film, one of the characters, when talking about killing, says: “I thought somehow you girls were above all that.” If that were true, it would represent a feminism I could support (though the use of the word ‘girls’ is hardly feminist). Unfortunately, it is not true, and the women in the film are ultimately persuaded by a man to undertake a course of action which leads to what was, for me, the worst part of the film (the last half hour or so). 

And then there’s the way the 3D (I watched the 2D version) botched what could have been exquisite cinematography (some moments still shone through), especially early in the film. But then, I believe 3D poisons virtually everything it touches, so what can you do? Sigh.

So: I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Gareth. I’m sorry, Jeremy. I’m sorry, Kenneth. I’m sorry, Paul. I’m sorry, Rachel. I did not like Mad Max: Fury Road and would never want to see it again. **+ for the acting and the atmosphere. My mug is down. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron




Yeah, I know I said I had no interest in watching The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but since almost everyone else in Winnipeg has seen it, I need to talk about it. If I do so without first seeing the film, I lose my credibility as a critic. So I found a coupon in my wallet and went to Grant Park to watch the 2D version of the film. Needless to say, I went in with the lowest of expectations. As a result, I enjoyed Ultron more than I thought I would. 

I mean that last sentence literally, because it was the character of Ultron I enjoyed most about the new Avengers film. More to the point, it was James Spader (one of my favourite actors), who provides Ultron’s voice, that made Ultron such a fascinating character to listen to, though it didn’t hurt that Ultron had most of the film’s best lines.

For the two or three of you who don’t know, Ultron (the character) is yet another consequence of the brilliant but stupid actions of the world’s favourite superheroes - the Avengers. This time, we have Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Banner (The Hulk), our two resident genius scientists, deciding that the best way to bring lasting ‘peace in our time’ to our violent planet is to create an artificial intelligence, in robot form, who will permanently keep the peace, allowing the Avengers to rest up or take a vacation. The result is Ultron, an artificially intelligent robot whose mission is indeed to bring lasting peace. Ultron wants to be the Earth’s saviour, just as he was created to be. Unfortunately, for those living on the Earth, Ultron’s analysis is that such lasting peace can only be attained by ridding the Earth of those most dangerous of lifeforms known as humans. Leading the way in protecting those destructive humans are a group of monsters calling themselves the Avengers, so Ultron will have to get rid of them as well.

Given that a number of the Avengers in Age of Ultron refer to themselves as monsters, there seems to be some consensus emerging here. But no, while the Avengers do spend some of their action time fighting each other (due to the influence of a young woman who'll become known as Scarlet Witch), they eventually focus their fighting energies on destroying their latest creation even when that creation is simply trying to save the planet from the scourge of humanity. Poor Ultron! So unfair! Just because James Spader has a reputation for playing sleazy characters (or cold-blooded fellows like Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington in The Blacklist) doesn’t mean Ultron isn’t a nice guy. 

Alas, it is the Avengers (monsters though they may be) who are supposed to be the superheroes in this film and they attack the poor villain and his robot minions with wild abandon. I suppose we should be relieved by the fact that most of the countless creatures killed (destroyed?) by the Avengers in Age of Ultron are lifeless robots. But are they really lifeless? And while we are led to believe that Ultron’s opposite number is an artificial intelligence called The Vision, what does it say when The Vision, who thinks it’s wrong to kill, nevertheless decides that the only course of action in this situation is to kill Ultron (just as Ultron’s only course of action was to kill humans)? 

Sigh. To say I’m disappointed with Joss Whedon’s writing and direction of The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an understatement. I know he’s capable of better than this. As enjoyable as Ultron is, the film as a whole is  waste of time and talent. The plot is thin, the interminable action is as boring and repetitive as superhero action can get and there are fewer moments of fascinating and/or funny dialogue between the Avengers than in the first Avengers film. There is still some of that, and you can tell the actors (far too many in this ensemble cast to mention by name) are probably having fun here, but mostly Age of Ultron seems to be an excuse for same old same old pointless action and special effects. Kenneth Turan, one of my favourite film critics, summarizes the film well when when he says: “the ideal vehicle for our age of immediate sensation and instant gratification, it disappears without a trace almost as soon as it's consumed.” There’s nothing here for the masses to be wasting their time and money on.

Though there is Ultron, who is given such fascinating lines as: 
  • (to the Avengers): “How could you be worthy? You're all killers. You want to protect the world, but you don't want it to change. There's only one path to peace... your extinction.”
  • “Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war. Invaders create Avengers. Parents create … smaller people? Er … children! I lost the word there. Children! Designed to supplant them. To help them end.”
  • “They put the building in the middle of the city, so that everyone could be equally close to God. I like that, the symmetry, the geometry of belief.”
  • (when asked why he killed someone): “Wouldn't have been my first call. But, down in the real world we're faced with ugly choices.”
Good stuff, though the words often ring hollow (e.g. Ultron’s ‘change’ is a world devoid of humans, hardly what anyone would endorse). Somewhere in this film there may be an attempt to satirize the military-industrial complex, but it all gets lost in the endless violent action which is obviously aimed at a young audience that has become utterly desensitized to such violence. Still, if we think of Ultron as the victim, and the Avengers, who have brought so much misery and mayhem to the planet (and then worked tirelessly to undo the damage they have caused), as the villains, maybe there is some potential for thoughtful discussion here. So I’ll give Ultron: The Age of the Avengers (:-)) ***, though my mug is nowhere to be found.