Monday, 23 February 2015

Leviathan


Wow! 

My first wow film of 2015 is another one of those films that was made in 2014 but not released in Canada until 2015. I don’t know if it will ever come to Winnipeg, but I had the chance to see it with Gareth in Toronto last weekend and I'm sure glad I got the chance to see this gorgeous film on the big screen.

Leviathan is one of those bleak, relentlessly depressing, always-grey films, which somehow suits the north Russian fishing village where it takes place. Since the film makes references to the Book of Job, it’s no surprise that the protagonist (Kolya, played by Aleksey Serebryakov) is a man who is about to lose everything, including his home, his wife and his freedom. His bad temper contributes to this, but all of those losses have more to do with others than with him, and are largely undeserving. He is most definitely a victim here, and his closest friends are no help (as in Job). Kolya's wife, Lilya (played by Yelena Lyadova), gets some serious airtime as a desperately unhappy woman who feels unloved and useless at home and bored at work. Her attempts to find distractions from her unhappy prove to be singularly unsuccessful. Meanwhile, their son Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev) tries without success to understand what is going on with his parents. 

It’s no big surprise that Kolya would turn to the vodka bottle in the midst of his struggles. But everyone in Leviathan drinks vodka like water. I have never watched a film that made me never want to touch a drop of alcohol again more than this one. I don’t know how realistic all the drinking is, but if it’s even halfway there, it’s scary stuff. 

There are many references in Leviathan to Christianity and the church. It’s not pretty. Indeed, the film is an indictment of the church (at almost all levels) as well as an indictment of all levels of the Russian government. Church and government alike are pictured as corrupt and without a soul (there are a few exceptions).

The acting in Leviathan is phenomenal, as is the cinematography. The direction by Andrei and Andrey Zvyagintsev is flawless. It’s a very long film, but it did not feel long because I was engaged for every minute of it. I loved this film and it is sure to make my top ten of 2015. **** My mug is up. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

In the Air Again: The Judge, The Two Faces of January, Men, Women and Children, St. Vincent


It’s been a while since I crossed the ocean and caught up on some films that I didn’t think would be worth watching on the big screen. I’m usually right about that and this group was no exception, though the first half of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window was entertaining me more than the others (I’ll report on that in a month when I go home).

Starting with the worst and moving to the best:


The Two Faces of January

This should have been my kind of film. A couple, played well by Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, is hiding out in Greece. A young man, played well enough by Oscar Isaac, who likes to use his knowledge of the language to swindle tourists (he works as a tour guide), gets caught up in the couple’s story, not knowing where that might lead him. It all has a film-noir feel, takes place mostly on the island of Crete, and has minimal action. It has it all. Except, that is, for sympathetic characters. Neither of the two men (both are crooks) are that evil, but I just couldn’t connect with their characters at all. Neither could I connect with the woman. That meant that the film never captured my attention (i.e. I didn’t care what happened to the characters). This is a very dark and bleak tale without much heart. I suppose it might have looked gorgeous on the big screen, but I’ll never know. **+ My mug is down.


Men, Women and Children

Jason Reitman’s latest film is full of potential, and full of warnings about our smartphone/internet /video-game culture. It could have been a great film, or at least as good as Crash, which it most closely resembles, but it fails in one-too-many ways. Men, Women and Children is about families whose lives are being impacted by either the internet, video games or smartphones, driving a wedge between parents and children or between spouses. There’s some good thought-provoking stuff hidden in the inter-connected stories, but almost none of the stories work. It’s hard to say why. The acting by the ensemble cast isn’t bad (though it’s far from great), but the characters they play are less interesting than the way their lives have been taken over by their electronic gadgets. The teenage (and adult) addictions to porn, to video games, to smartphones and to peer expectations are real enough in our time, and parents are right to be concerned (though not as much as the parents in the film), but this film loses its opportunity to communicate its messages with poor, predictable, contrived storytelling, poor dialogue and a poor style. Another **+ film that could have much better. My mug is down.


The Judge

This David Dobkin film features excellent performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, and is worth watching just for those performances. Duvall plays a judge in his seventies who is struggling with cancer. Downey Jr. plays his lawyer son, who has never felt loved or respected by his father. When the judge’s wife dies, the judge takes a drive and an old enemy is killed. Did the judge do it? Will his son get him off, if he’s even allowed to defend his father? Will there be some reconciliation between father and son? Yet another film full of wasted potential, at least The Judge doesn’t make too many mistakes in its by-the-numbers storytelling. *** My mug is up. 


St. Vincent

St. Vincent, on the other hand, actually does more with its premise than it might have done. Bill Murray does well as a grumpy old gambler who does whatever he feels like doing, while being generally rude and obnoxious. But he also visits his wife (who has Alzheimer’s) regularly, is good to the Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts) who visits him regularly, and befriends the boy next door, with not altogether positive results. This is a fun predictable film, noteworthy for its humanizing of people who are rarely humanized (particularly the prostitute, but also Vincent) but not for much else. Still, St. Vincent was the best film I watched on the plane and gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Force Majeure

I had suspected that this Swedish film would have made my top ten list if I had seen it in time, and it certainly would have. The slow but potent drama draws us into the life of a Swedish family (husband, wife and two young children) who face a near avalanche. But as the title indicates (a French phrase meaning "superior force" or "unexpected event"), the crisis strikes even if the avalanche doesn't. The response of the father under pressure exposes a seam of human weakness for which they are not prepared.

The film uses several effects to suggest an ominous threat, but undisclosed fears may be the biggest enemy. Conversations eventually lead deeper into unexplored and uncomfortable territory. Having just had a conversation with someone on this theme, I was aware that one dynamic going on was a social search for how to respond to and cope with human weakness when spiritual understandings have been forgotten or ignored. Could they have helped?

This is the kind of movie that one could speculate on, argue about, and continue interpreting for a long time. The movie may be slow-paced but there is a lot going on. The film begins with a clear one-sidedness to the conflict, which creates a refreshing change from the "who is right?" perceptual tension, but that one-sidedness certainly drifts toward an appropriate complexity and balance as the film progresses.

There is an oddly comic tone that erupts here and there that actually creates a completely different layer of subtext, making you question the seriousness of all the relational tension or perhaps giving the viewer a choice of staying a step removed if one wishes. Is the emotional distance that this creates helpful or unhelpful? Are we meant to empathize with this family or question where they have ended up? (I should balance my positivity by saying that there were also a few strange editing decisions that seemed like clear mistakes - at least, hard to understand.)

The final scene worked well for me, and was perhaps the most emotional part because I feel like I have been in positions similar to the one depicted. Sadly, I can't say more without disclosing too much, but if you like realistic psychological drama, artfully depicted, this one is for you. ***+ and a mug held high.

Friday, 6 February 2015

A Most Violent Year



J.D. Chandor’s previous two films (Margin Call and All is Lost) both made my top ten of the year lists. A Most Violent Year (technically released on the last day of 2014 but not until 2015 in Canada, so that’s what I’m going by) is the first contender for my 2015 list. It is further proof that Chandor is one of the most exciting filmmakers out there. With a writing style that reminds me of David Mamet, Chandor has again created something wholly original that exudes intelligence (thoughtfulness) and elicits outstanding performances. This time, Chandor has chosen to give special attention to the cinematography, lending a unique atmosphere to the film. Great stuff.

Perhaps I should have started my review by noting that A Most Violent Year is a deeply sad and unsettling film. I knew from the opening scenes that this was going to be a scary and intense film to watch. I was right. Given its title, it’s surprising (positively so) how little violence there is in the film. The violence there is, however, is jarring and hits you where it hurts (as it should).

Set in New York City in the winter of 1981 (the sense of time and place is terrific), A Most Violent Year concerns the cutthroat business of selling heating oil. Yeah, despite the violence and the constant police interest, it’s not a gangster film as such (there are some gangsters) and the men involved have no desire to kill anyone (how refreshing is that!). But they do like to carry handguns and one of the strengths of A Most Violent Year is the way it draws attention to the fact that the minute you bring in guns, the threat of serious violence increases exponentially. 

Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac) purchased the heating oil company from his gangster father-in-law five years before and is on the verge of making it big, closing a deal with Jewish landowners that will give him an edge over all of his competitors. But just days before the deal closes, everything starts to unravel for Abel. His drivers and salespeople are being beaten up by persons unknown, the police have indicated that he is facing indictments for various crimes (also unknown) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is hiding something and showing a sudden interest in guns despite having come home to their new house one day to find her young daughter playing with a loaded gun she had found in the bushes.

Morales is an honorable man (as we hear repeatedly). He doesn’t understand why the world has suddenly aligned itself against him when all he wants is to do things the right way. At one point he describes his view of life as something like: “doing things the right way is more important than accomplishing my goals”. But Morales is terrified of failure and the events of these days will repeatedly test that conviction, which is what A Most Violent Year is all about. 

Along the way, there are moments which feel too contrived, but I tend to overlook such contrivances if they are in the service of making a moral point as opposed to being part of an action scene.

Isaac, as usual, is so good that you think he is Abel Morales. Chastain is likewise perfect as Anna. Providing excellent support are Albert Brooks (haven’t seen him for a while) as Abel’s lawyer and David Oyelowo as the assistant disctrict attorney who’s on his tail.

Given what happened last year, I feel like I’m being suddenly very generous, but I am giving Chandor’s powerful and gut-wrenching suspense-drama ****. My mug is up for the first four-star entry of 2015. 

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Paddington



Paddington is a delightful British comedy about a talking bear from Peru who sneaks onto a ship bound for the UK in order to find the explorer who ‘discovered’ his parents decades before and introduced them to the wonders of marmalade. It sounds outrageous, and it is, but it works because the writing is intelligent, inventive and often very funny (though many in the audience we were with did not seem to get the British style of humour) and because Ben Whishaw’s voice is perfect for Paddington, adding just the right level of urbane sophistication to make the bear absurdly in and out of place in London.

When he gets to London, Paddington finds a home with the eccentric Brown family, though Mr. Brown (played by Hugh Bonneville) isn’t happy about it. Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins), however, can’t leave a poor immigrant on the street. Also in the family are two children and Mrs. Bird, a classy housekeeper played by Julie Walters. The kind of misadventures Paddington gets up to in a strange house are fun enough, but this is a suspense comedy, with Nicole Kidman playing the baddie. She’s a taxidermist who wants a stuffed Paddington in her collection. All of the acting is excellent. And did I mention Ben Whishaw’s perfect voice?

The cinematography is beautiful and creative and the score is appropriate. While one could quibble about the lost opportunity for more satire, all in all Paul King has made a perfect warm and witty family film I would recommend to all. Paddington gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Blackhat



There is so much wrong with Blackhat. I hated the hyper-real camera work with a passion. I hated the gratuitous graphic violence in the action scenes. I hated the climax of the film (near the end). I was disappointed in the way a film that deals with a very real and serious subject in a supposedly serious and realistic way had so many contrived and less than credible plot elements. No surprise then, that Blackhat was basically panned by critics.

And yet … I loved the score by Harry Gregson-Williams. When the score is a film’s best feature, it’s a bit worrying, but it’s better than nothing. I also love the way director (Michael Mann) pauses for breath in his films, often giving us beautiful scenes as he does so (if only the camera work was better). In this case, Mann also gives us exotic locations like Hong Kong and Jakarta. While the acting by Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis and Wei Tang wasn’t outstanding, it was competent enough. Best of all, I like the fact that Blackhat is a 133-minute thriller with less than 15 minutes of action. That’s my kind of action film, especially if there’s intelligent thought-provoking dialogue going on in the meantime (though there wasn’t enough of that). 

What is Blackhat about? There’s a cyber-criminal doing some very bad things. He’s so good at his badness that super-hacker Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth) is freed from a long prison sentence (though with an ankle bracelet to monitor his whereabouts) to help track down the criminal in question. China is involved, so a sister-brother team from China works with Hathaway (Tang and Leehom Wang), as does FBI agent Barrett (Davis). The team makes better progress than they deserve, but not without some nasty losses.

In the end, I’m giving Blackhat *** for holding my attention for 133 minutes of horrible camera work, for its very current theme and for limiting the action. My mug is up, but don’t expect too much flavour from what’s inside.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Vic's Best Actors of 2014



While there were not as many great performances as last year, 2014 was still a great year for actors, so here is my list of actors deserving an Oscar in 2014. The list is alphabetical but my nod for the best actor of 2014 goes to Tom Hardy for two magnificent performances (Locke and The Drop). Hardy was not even nominated. Neither was my second choice, Brendan Gleeson (Calvary). Of those male actors who were nominated, my choice is Michael Keaton (Birdman). My favourite female acting performance was Reese Witherspoon in Wild (note that I have not yet seen the nominated performances by Julianne Moore and Marion Cotillard). I am not including best supporting actors in the list below, but my Oscar nods go to J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) and Emma Stone (Birdman). 


Male:

Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)

Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Colin Firth (The Railway Man)

Brendan Gleeson (Calvary)

Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) (second year in a row)

Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins)

Tom Hardy (Locke and The Drop)

Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Most Wanted Man)

Michael Keaton (Birdman)

Irrfan Khan (The Lunchbox)

David Oyelowo (Selma)

Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice) (second year in a row)

Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Christoph Waltz (The Zero Theorem)


Female:

Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin)

Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)

Nimrat Kaur (The Lunchbox)

Agata Kulesza (Ida)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle)

Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)

Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive)

Kirsten Wiig (The Skeleton Twins)

Reese Witherspoon (Wild)