Thursday, 29 January 2015

American Sniper

Two lousy Academy Award-nominated films in a row. But American Sniper is infinitely worse than Foxcatcher. Foxcatcher at least has its heart in the right place (i.e. it is trying in its flawed way to make the world a better place). American Sniper, on the other hand, can only make the world a worse place. Indeed, watching it was utterly soul-draining and the biggest sacrifice of my life as a film critic. Not even my very low expectations could do justice to this travesty. What on earth was Clint Eastwood thinking? Clint has made so many marvellous films, including films which humanize ‘the enemy’ and challenge the myth of redemptive violence. Why this?

You all know what American Sniper is about: In this true story, Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, an American sniper in Iraq (following the American invasion, and subsequent occupation, of Iraq in 2003) who became a great hero because he was able to kill, from his rooftop perch, more than 160 people (‘terrorists’), including a Syrian sniper with a reputation of his own and women and children who were throwing bombs at the American invaders.

I had heard enough positive things about the way Kyle’s family drama was depicted that I thought the film would at least be worth watching for seeing the toll that being a soldier takes on the families back home and on life after Iraq. Not so much. Yes, what it showed was a heck of a lot more interesting and entertaining than all that crap in Iraq, especially when it described the way Kyle had lost some of his humanity in Iraq, but relatively speaking it showed precious little of the family drama. American Sniper is foremost about Kyle’s experiences in Iraq (though having his wife on the line while he’s being shot at is a nice touch). 

As for Iraq? One of the film’s few glowing moments comes when a fellow soldier named Mark starts to question why the Americans are in Iraq at all. Kyle responds to this evident weakness by pointing out that they are not there just to protect “this piece of dirt” but to protect the people in San Diego and New York, because that’s where these ‘terrorists’ would be going if it were not for soldiers like Kyle. Yeah, I get that. I mean, can you imagine what it might be like for enemies from across the ocean to come into your cities and towns (San Diego, New York) and start shooting at you and banging down your doors and shoving a rifle in your children’s faces? Surely Kyle’s right: Only ‘evil savages’ (his words) would think of doing such a thing. Oh. Wait a minute… What the … Come on. Does no one get the irony here???

Even more baffling for me is how such a film could become such an enormous blockbuster (not to mention the critical acclaim and the Oscar nomination for Best Picture). [Disclaimer: Unwilling to add one penny to the phenomenal and undeserved box office success of American Sniper, I purchased a ticket for Selma and then snuck into American Sniper instead. I understand that I have committed a crime and humbly await the RCMP’s imminent knock on my door (on behalf of Warner Bros.).]

Dan Fellman, the domestic distribution chief at Warner Bros., says American Sniper is so popular because it “deals with family, with patriotism and it recognizes a hero. Regardless of anything that’s come out on the negative side, the reaction from the public is so positive and this is one movie they have really supported.”  WHY??? For me, the film wasn’t even remotely entertaining - it was horrific from beginning to end. Is it because people think the story of Chris Kyle somehow justifies everything the U.S. military has been doing in Iraq? After decades of feeling beaten up by global anti-Americanism (can’t imagine why), especially after the invasion of Iraq and its subsequent scandals, does American Sniper tell Americans that it was okay? They can be proud of their heroes, like Kyle, who have made the world a safer place by killing little kids who are trying to tell the invaders to go home? 

The most appalling flaw in American Sniper is that there is virtually no attempt to humanize the people of Iraq, people who have suffered so much for so long. Instead, the message is that if ‘it’ is wearing a cloth head-covering, ‘it’ is an evil savage that must be killed for the world to be safe. Surely the result is that in many quarters of the world American Sniper, with its depiction of American soldiers invading the homes of Iraqi people and treating them like criminals (like evil savages), will only fuel hatred toward the American military machine.

I won’t even get into the fact that 9/11 is shown on TV not long before Kyle is shown being deployed to Iraq to “do his job”, as if there’s some link between 9/11 and Iraq, which there is not. The reason those so-called terrorists were there for Kyle to shoot(and the reason the IS is there now) is exactly because the Americans invaded and occupied Iraq for their own interests (among the countless other crimes they have committed in the Middle East). That’s what this film should have been about.

I’ve wasted enough time talking about a film that should never have been made. If you value your soul, stay far away. American Sniper gets zero stars. My mug is so far down, it’s scraping the dirt. 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015


A critically-acclaimed (four stars from all my favourite critics, and Gareth gave it at least ***+) indie film made by Bennett Miller, whose previous films, Moneyball and Capote, both made my top ten lists: sounded like an obvious winner. Sure, it’s about wrestling, and I have as much respect for the sport of wrestling as I do for the sport of boxing (which is to say absolutely none). And sure, it stars Channing Tatum, an actor I just don’t like. But still. I mean, I knew Foxcatcher wasn’t really about wrestling and I heard Tatum did a good job, so how bad could it possibly be?

Yeah, unfortunately, I did not go in with low expectations and the result wasn’t pretty. This glacially-paced film bored me so much I was tempted more than once to just walk away (and I am a fan of slow-paced films). Foxcatcher is the least-compelling film I have watched in a long time. For me, it bears no resemblance at all to the compelling Moneyball. I have no complaints about Foxcatcher’s moral compass, which is great, and I can see how critics see this film as an indictment of the American Dream and how it affects both the rich and the poor, which is also great. And I am willing to accept that Foxcatcher is supposed to be an uncomfortable and even horrific film to watch, but there is uncomfortable/horrific and dull (Foxcatcher) and uncomfortable/horrific and compelling (e.g. Requiem for a Dream). 

Foxcatcher’s true story is about two brothers (Mark and Dave Shultz, played by Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) who were among the best wrestlers in the world in the 1980’s. This brought them to the attention of John Dupont (Steve Carell), one of wealthiest and most disturbed men in the U.S., who invited them to train for the Olympics at his special facility in order to fulfill his dream of being a renowned wrestling coach and impressing or angering his mother (or some such aspirations). The brothers should have stayed far away (after five minutes in a room with Dupont, you can be sure I would have stayed far away), but the money and facilities offered are just too good to pass up. Things go downhill from there (though not immediately) as Dupont’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) looks on (yeah, we know Dupont has mother issues, and maybe if we had had more time with mother and son the film would have been more interesting for me).

Carell is nominated for an Academy Award. I can understand why, because this is a very brave and sure performance, but there were many better performances in 2014 (my list is coming soon).

There is certainly a story here that is worth telling, about the relationship between the brothers and between them and Dupont and between Dupont and his mother and between Dupont and his misfiring grey cells. But Foxcatcher doesn’t tell the story in a way that captured my attention for even a minute. I could never sit through this again, so Foxcatcher gets **+ (out of respect for the message behind the madness). My mug is down. 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Walter's Top Ten Films of 2014

So let’s begin with the honourable mentions: The Theory of Everything, Magic in the Moonlight, The Good Lie, and The Giver. This list will also have to include Boyhood, and this, I think, requires an explanation. I am not a hater – I think it was a good film and some very important and creative moments were achieved in this film. However, the beginning was just plain, bad entertainment. The acting was sketchy (mostly the mom – who gets better over the years - and the first step-dad). Nothing happens to help you engage and point you in the direction of a narrative because – well... – there really was no narrative. After a while, I did finally find my way into a connection with the movie, but not enough to give it more than an honourable mention. But I do understand what those who love the film see in it.

I should also point out that I haven’t yet seen Selma, Wild, The Imitation Game, Leviathan, Birdman, or Force Majeure, which all could have been contenders. Onward...

10. Ragamuffin. I confess that this is making my list mostly because I feel it deserves more attention than it got. As someone who really appreciated the difference that Rich Mullins brought to the Christian music scene, I valued this story, which was well, if not perfectly, told. If you listened to Rich Mullins' music – check out this film.

9. Two Days, One Night. This French film is somewhat like Boyhood in that the pace is not for the impatient. Long takes of walking through ordinary French residential streets help convey the protagonist’s persistence in overcoming her depressive resistance and trying to change the outcome of events by facing all of her co-workers one-on-one. But beneath the leisurely pace is a solid and important narrative.

8. The Hundred Foot Journey. This enjoyable comedy drama about the meeting of cultures doesn’t run as deep as it might have, but is a fine evening’s entertainment, with a few real highlights.

7. Begin Again. This film, by the writer/director of Once, did not make it up to that surprising and unique creation. But it’s still a fine music-filled movie that proved that I could stand watching another Keira Knightley film after A Dangerous Method made me question whether I ever could.

6. The Lunchbox. A unique Indian romantic comedy about notes passed through a lunchbox. Several elements make it very thoughtful and creative, and its glimpse into Indian culture was rich. Definitely not Hollywood.

5. Pride. It would have been hard to go wrong with this based-on-truth storyline – a ragtag group of London gay men and one lesbian start collecting money for Welsh miners because they recognized them as another group that suffered from government and police harassment. The connection that emerges from the meeting of these two groups unfolds with dignity and humour. There were moments that made me uncomfortable, for a variety of reasons, but mostly for the good reason of exposing my pain in thinking of how I would have responded back in 1984 when it took place.

4. Calvary. Brendan Gleeson. That’s probably enough reason to make the list. This film is not for everyone, but it’s a very thought-provoking drama that mixes in a little mystery to keep you guessing. Important questions are raised about perceptions of the church and its ministers as well as what real Christian integrity might look like in the face of a hostile community.

3. Interstellar. I’ve written a lot about this one already. So I’ll just say that it was creative and powerful movie-making that leaves you thinking – hopefully thinking critically about the movie’s message as well as other things.

2. Locke. A brilliant piece of film-making demonstrating how good skills all-around can make a powerful story out of normal human situations in the space of one car ride. Creative, thought-provoking, humanizing and occasionally even funny.

1. Ida. This choice is a bit of a departure for me. I usually don’t choose highly visual criteria nor are European art-house films among my favourite genres. But this just seemed to be so perfectly done – so that I could fully appreciate the visual beauty and elegance of nearly every scene and the slow pace.

I think this underlies that for me the key element in film is the power of a narrative. Ida has a strong story that makes the visual beauty and the slow pace come alive. When films (like those of Malick) largely ignore narrative, I can’t connect with the visuals – it’s like my brain can’t figure out which gear to be in and so it spins in neutral. Boyhood stands somewhere in between in that it does manage to create a series of mini-narratives, many of which were quite effective.

Late Additions - I’d like to add some films that took me a while to get to. Still Mine (2012) was a beautiful and quiet film about a local true story. Even the Rain (2010) would definitely have made the top ten list for that year if I’d seen it close to its release, and Le Prenom (2012) was a great dialogue-rich French film about a group of friends who break through to talk on a more honest level.

Spilled Coffee List – Finally, the losers. I would suggest that Transcendence, Goodbye World, The Counselor, and I Give It a Year all should be avoided if you still have the chance – big disappointments that caused wasted time. But the biggest loser of all was Lucy – a film entirely based on absolutely incorrect science, with nothing good to redeem it (and a lot of silly ideas and gratuitous violence to make it worse). As you watch the film, you will be the only human using only 10% of your brain.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Conversations After Church

Conversations After Church is a 38-minute documentary by Bevan Klassen (co-directed by Mark Humphries) that explores the faith journeys of six Winnipeggers, each of whom has faced personal challenges which have impacted their attitudes toward God and the church over the years.  

Walter and I had the privilege of viewing and critiquing earlier drafts of the film (since the spring of 2012), giving us a unique insight into the challenges and accomplishments of the editing process (the first draft was about 100 minutes long). The result is a very tight set of interviews that capture, in remarkably few words, the essence of the faith struggles of the six individuals (two of whom are a couple, though interviewed separately).

Conversations After Church begins by giving us an opportunity to hear these individuals describe the faith that initially shaped them. As they discuss the questions that begin to arise in early adulthood, we learn that each of the interviewees has faced challenges which have impacted their faith and attitudes toward the church; challenges like depression, sexual orientation, marital issues and deaths in the family. 

The result is a set of stories which are remarkably honest, calm, eloquent, brave, easy to listen to and easy to relate to, full of profound questions and observations which can open up thoughtful discussions among viewers. “I don’t believe in the God I was raised with,” says Allen. Many viewers will resonate with that statement and hopefully engage each other with what that means for them. For me, none of the six stories resembles my own, and yet they all do. 

Framing the interviews are scenes of Klassen at Winnipeg’s The Forks (the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers), beginning in winter (in black and white) and then moving to spring (and colour). This framing is of course subject to interpretation but it provides a unique contemplative way of helping us reflect on different types of faith and the different seasons of faith. 

If I have a complaint about Conversations After Church, it’s that I want to hear more from the interviewees and get to know them better. This is no doubt because I had the opportunity to view longer drafts of the film. The fact is that the shorter timeframe makes Conversations After Church the ideal length for church and small groups. 

At a time when people are leaving traditional forms of church in record numbers, Conversations After Church provides examples of why this is happening and why this is not a cause for despair. People are resilient and, to me, the film is full of hope for the future of Christianity. Highly recommended for groups of all kinds!

Here are links to the film’s Facebook page and a trailer (note that the film will be available online in mid-February):

Friday, 16 January 2015

Vic's Top Fifteen Films of 2014

As regular readers know: for me, 2014 has been one of the greatest years in the history of cinema. I have never before awarded more than half as many **** ratings in one year as I did in 2014, and that goes for all the films I have watched (I keep a database). Indeed, I need a minimum of a top fifteen this year because I couldn’t possibly leave any **** films off the list (as I was forced to do for Third Way cafe). I know that at least one other 2014 film (which I may count for 2015, since as far as I know it was not released in Canada in 2014) is almost certainly going to get ****. That film is Mr. Turner, a critically-acclaimed film about my favourite British painter made by my favourite British filmmaker (Mike Leigh). Even with a top fifteen, I regret having to leave ***+ films like Citizenfour, Pride, The Lunchbox, The Skeleton Twins and Love is Strange off my list, as they would have made many previous top-ten lists. 

It goes without saying that this great year has nothing to do with Hollywood or the box office. Four of the five highest grossing films of 2014 were duds (IMHO) and only one Hollywood film is included in the list below (number 12). So calling 2014 a great year for cinema does not refer to the film industry as a whole. The masses continue to be drawn to inferior films and thus Hollywood continues to churn out inferior films, because all it cares about is the box office. But it is marvellous to see so many independent films of such a high quality being made despite the current emphasis on numbers (while I pay attention to the box office, I am appalled by the way film news is now focused on how much money a film makes on its opening weekend). 

Every time I walk into a cinema, I hope for that elusive experience of being so captivated by a film that I will come outside feeling disoriented and thinking: “Wow!”. Some years, I just sigh and hope such experiences may come the next year. In 2014, I experienced the ‘wow’ time and time again. This, my friends, is what film-watching and film-loving is all about. 

I should note that those who have seen my top ten list at Third Way Cafe will see a difference in the content and ordering of my lists. I confess that I wrote the Third Way list with its audience in mind and thus left out and rearranged certain films (no change to my top six). The list below is therefore the accurate one (sorry, I am not taking my audience into account this time). So here are my fifteen **** films of 2014, counting down from fifteen: [Observation: note the prevalence of dark films (I count eight), of thought-provoking satires (I count eight) and of films about the meaning of life (again, I count eight) in this list; this no doubt reveals something about me and my taste in films.] 

15. Whiplash - I said it wouldn’t make my top ten list (and technically it is not in my top ten), but this was one of the “wow” films of the year and I gave it ****, so a nod to this intense, compelling and extraordinary film about a young man who wants to be a great musician and the man willing to do whatever it takes to help make that happen. Damien Chazelle knows how to end a film (a relatively rare skill) and how to make use of J.K. Simmons’s Oscar-worthy (and, I predict, Oscar-winning) performance.

14. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - Michael Keaton delivers the performance of a lifetime as a once-famous actor trying to do one last meaningful thing with his life by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver play. Featuring astonishing camera work, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film is a thought-provoking satire on celebrity and an exploration of the meaning of life.

13. Nightcrawler - Another Oscar-worthy performance gives us Jake Gyllenhaal as a sociopathic videographer in Dan Gilroy’s scathing indictment of the television news industry. Every awful scene is an intelligent work of art. 

12: Interstellar - The only Hollywood film in my top fifteen, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic is one of the wildest rides in the history of film, an audio-visual feast for the senses that engages both our minds and (unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey) our emotions, though its underlying message that we should consider giving up on earth is a dangerous one. 

11: The Congress - Ari Folman’s partly animated (gorgeously so) sci-fi film is based on a 1971 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. It stars Robin Wright as Robin Wright, an aging actor who is offered a form of immortality in this sharp satire of the Hollywood film industry, ‘celebrity’, the pharmaceutical industry and individuality/identity. 

10: Locke - Tom Hardy is the only actor we see (and he delivers a wonderful nuanced performance) in Steven Knight’s film about a man whose life crumbles around him (despite his efforts to do the right thing) as he talks on the phone during a two-hour drive across southern England.

9. The Zero Theorem - Terry Gilliam’s latest sci-fi masterpiece is, like Brazil, a quirky, funny thought-provoking satire on contemporary society. Christoph Waltz is wonderful as a genius in the near future who is assigned the task of proving there is no meaning to our existence. 

8. Ida - This small Polish film by Pawel Pawlikowski, set in 1962 and stunningly filmed in black & white, tells the moving and compelling story (featuring exceptional character development) of a young woman, about to take her vows as a nun, who discovers her Jewish roots and the horrific history of her family during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

7. Under the Skin - This very dark sci-fi film from Jonathan Glazer gives us Scarlett Johansson as an alien in Scotland who preys on vulnerable men only to become the hunted herself. A mesmerizing thought-provoking film about how we look at people and what happens when we see what lies under the skin.

6: Selma - David Oyelowo is perfect as Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in 1965, led the campaign for voting rights for African Americans in the southern U.S. Focusing on a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Ava DuVernay’s film is an inspiring, moving and gripping drama and a powerful depiction of a story everyone needs to see and from which we all have much to learn, even in 2014. 

5: The Grand Budapest Hotel - Another of his trademark quirky, intelligent and surreal comedy dramas, this film may be Wes Anderson’s best yet. It’s full of superb acting, clever dialogue, gorgeous cinematography and pointed satire (of authority, governments and attitudes toward immigration). 

4: The Great Beauty - This Italian film from Paolo Sorrentino won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013, but was not released in North America until 2014. A breathtakingly beautiful and thought-provoking satire about life in contemporary Rome, The Great Beauty stars Toni Servillo as an aging journalist looking for moments of great beauty in his pointless existence. 

3: Only Lovers Left Alive - I’m no fan of vampire films, but Jim Jarmusch’s slow-paced, gorgeously-filmed (at night, in Detroit and Tangier) drama about the lives of a very old vampire couple (played wonderfully by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) provides a profound and unique perspective on the history of human civilization and the dangers we are facing in the 21st century. 

2: Boyhood - Richard Linklater almost had my favourite film of the year for two years in a row with this amazing drama which he filmed over a period of twelve years. By allowing us to watch family members naturally grow and change over twelve years, as if we’re viewing a documentary, Linklater (one of the greatest filmmakers of our time) gives us an insightful cinematic masterpiece about everyday life. It’s great to see Linklater finally getting the public recognition he deserves. 

1: Calvary - This small Irish film by John Michael McDonagh stars Brendan Gleeson in an Oscar-worthy performance as a small-town priest slowly losing the respect of his parishioners as the church becomes increasingly irrelevant to their lives. While this dark (but often funny) film is not for all tastes, Calvary is a sublime meditation on the future of the church, on violence, on forgiveness and on what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Love is Strange

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been living together in New York City for 39 years and decide it’s time to get married. Unfortunately, as a result George immediately loses his job as a music teacher in a Catholic school, where everyone knew he was gay and living with Ben but that was okay as long as George didn’t make the relationship ‘official’ and therefore contrary to the employment guidelines. With the sudden drop in income, Ben and George decide to sell their apartment and temporarily split up so they can move in with others (Ben with his nephew’s family; George to a friend’s apartment). This all happens in the first five minutes or so. Many complications and frustrations ensue.

But Love is Strange is not about the trials of being an older gay couple (though it’s about that too, in a normalizing way) as much as it is about everyday ordinary family life in contemporary New York City. It’s a beautiful, simple honest film with lots to say about love, about family, about aging and about not being afraid to be true to yourself and others (e.g. the wrongness of being unable to express your true thoughts on same-sex relationships and sexual orientation because your employer forces its employees to keep a lid on the public sharing of such thoughts). 

Lithgow and Molina are wonderful as Ben and George. Other production values are solid (with Ira Sachs at the helm), with a particularly effective scene near the end which I won’t describe. I again wished for more of an emotional connection and a bit more zip to the story. But, for hopefully the last time, I will say that in a different year, Love is Strange could have made my top ten. Not in 2014. A very solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Immigrant

Showing his amazing versatility as an actor, Joaquin Phoenix plays a character (Bruno) in The Immigrant utterly unlike Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice (or Theodore in Her). Bruno, who appears to rescue the ‘immigrant’ in question from certain deportation in 1921 New York City, is not a likable fellow at all. 

The immigrant is Ewa Cybulska from Poland, played very well by Marion Cotillard. Ewa has come over with her sister, who has tuberculosis and is forced to stay on Ellis Island for six months. If that’s not bad enough, Ewa’a aunt and uncle don’t show up to get her and the government official claims their address isn’t valid. So it’s back to Poland for Ewa until she is ‘rescued’ by Bruno, who offers her a place to stay and a job where he works. Unfortunately for Ewa, we soon discover that Bruno is a pimp. Persuaded that she has no choice, and needing to support her sister, Ewa reluctantly becomes one of Bruno’s girls. Then along comes Bruno’s cousin, Emil, played by Jeremy Renner, another would-be rescuer. But is Emil really the hero he appears? 

The Immigrant is a straightforward, though dark, film, filmed in yellow tones that make New York City seem like a very different world than the 1920‘s New York City of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. But there are a couple of things that make The Immigrant a special film. 

First is the way all of the characters in The Immigrant are humanized. Bruno, Emil and Ewa (and others) are all flawed characters but they are all treated as people struggling to make the best of life. There are no moral blacks and whites in The Immigrant

Second is the depiction of Ewa’s Christian faith. At a time when few films depict faith of any kind, or do so very critically, The Immigrant presents a faith that, in many ways, is Ewa’s only hope for redemption, getting her through one traumatic episode after another (despite a less-than-helpful priest) and giving her both a powerful strength of character as well as the power to forgive people who have done terrible things to her.

What The Immigrant lacked, for me, was the kind of pacing (it’s very slow-paced) and intensity that might have created more interest and a stronger emotional connection. Still, a solid ***+. My mug is up.