Thursday, 24 July 2014

TV15: British Mega-hits: Sherlock & Doctor Who


No TV shows made in the past decade have been recommended to me more often than Doctor Who and Sherlock. I held off a long time before watching either of these British mega-hits, but I have now watched the first three seasons of Sherlock and the first three and a half seasons of the new Doctor Who, so it’s time to respond to those who recommended these shows to me, noting in advance that I have always been a huge fan of British TV and that a great many of my all-time favourite TV shows come from the UK.



Sherlock

Sherlock brings the tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle into the 21st century and gives us the inimitable Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and the excellent Martin Freemen as Dr. Watson. The acting is as good as one might expect and definitely superior to most TV shows and the writing is very clever indeed (and very funny), with a level of intelligence that exceeds almost anything else on TV (i.e. it demands a lot from its audience). Combine the writing and acting with first-rate cinematography and a great score and you could hardly ask for more.

Nevertheless, I was quite disappointed with the first season of Sherlock, finding two of the three plots to be unconvincing under-achievements. Which is not to say that they weren’t very good (they were still ***+ TV); just that they were not as good as I had been led to believe they might be. However, the plots improved during the second season and in the third season the show reached the kind of **** level I had been hoping for (though not without being very disappointed with at least one of the endings). So to all those who recommended this show to me, as one I would love: you were correct. **** My mug is up.



Doctor Who

I first watched Doctor Who when I was a child in the sixties. It scared me silly (especially those Daleks), though now I laugh to think of it. For some reason, the trailers for the new Doctor Who did not appeal to me and so I did not watch my first episode until 2011. I crept slowly through the first season, being underwhelmed far more often than not and almost giving up on the series. Oh, I loved the character of Doctor Who (who doesn’t?) and thought Christopher Eccleston was great (as was David Tennant after him). I also liked Billie Piper as Rose. And I thought the production values were quite good. What I didn’t like were the aliens. Silly aliens just don’t work for me and most of the aliens I have encountered on Doctor Who have been, in my opinion, very silly. I know the original Doctor Who was aimed at children, but I had hoped the new version might actually be aimed at adults. Unfortunately, far too many episodes feel too silly to me to be treated as anything except children’s TV, and so I was not at all impressed.

Nevertheless, people kept encouraging me to continue, promising me that the best seasons of Doctor Who were the fourth and fifth and that I should just persevere and I would be rewarded. So I kept watching, and I now have a household of Doctor Who fans getting me through the seasons at a rapid pace. I remained generally unimpressed (i.e. some episodes were exceptional but most were only average), and in solid *** country, until the last half of the third season. I thoroughly enjoyed the last half of season three, with at least two episodes (Blink, starring Carey Mulligan, and Last of the Time Lords) rising well above average TV fare and giving me the hope that perhaps Doctor Who could yet become a favourite of mine. Alas, the first half of season four has not been promising. I very much appreciated the question, raised in Planet of the Ood, about whether those who make our clothes are slaves, but one question, in one of season four’s first six episodes, does not a brilliant TV show (or season) make. 

I have, however, been appreciating the often-intelligent and funny dialogue much more in the last twelve episodes than I did in many of those which preceded them, so, as a whole, Doctor Who has almost reached the ***+ level, though some very good episodes will be needed in the last half of season four for it to cross that line permanently. In the meantime, Doctor Who gets only *** and, to those who recommended this show to me, I say: I am still in wait-and-see mode but so far I am not persuaded of Doctor Who’s excellence. 


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes



Aaaaaargh! Where to start? I hate it when films make me want to tear my hair out in frustration (an experience I have had far too often in 2014), especially when in every case this year the problem can be summarized in one phrase: an awesome failure of imagination!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the immediate sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which everyone (including me) agreed was better than expected. Dawn is getting the same responses and has received mostly excellent reviews, so my expectations were high. Given that I have condemned three critically-acclaimed films already this year, I should have known better.

Dawn begins in the near future, after an epidemic, caused by the same research (and retrovirus) which created intelligent apes, has decimated the world’s human population. Ten years after the plague began, the apes, who have built a village in the woods north of San Francisco (actually a park in B.C.), have decided that humans must have been wiped out altogether. So when a small group of humans, looking for a dam that will provide San Francisco with the power it so desperately needs (their generators have run out of fuel), bump into two young apes, both apes and humans are taken by surprise. It doesn’t take long for all hell to break loose.

The apes are led by Caesar, from Rise, who has many fond memories of humans, allowing him a small level of trust in the humans’ intentions, a trust not shared by Koba, his closest aide, who had been tortured repeatedly by humans before being released by Caesar near the end of Rise. Trust becomes a key word in Dawn, as it does not take long for humans to abuse and lose the trust which Caesar has placed in them. Of course, the distrust is caused by just one bad egg (Carver), who himself distrusts the apes. This theme is repeated with San Francisco’s leader, a military man who does not trust the apes and is ready to use the town’s vast arsenal against the apes if necessary. On the ape side, Koba has zero trust in the humans and goes behind Caesar’s back to check out what the humans are really up to. Will Caesar stop trusting Koba in time to avert disaster? And what does it mean when trust is lost?

I won’t give away more plot specifics here, though I will make some vague statements about what follows which might be considered spoilers by some (they would to me, but then even what I have written so far would be a spoiler to me). One of the biggest problems I had with Dawn is that I was able to predict virtually everything (in general, not specifics) which followed based on the first fifteen minutes of the film. No film that predictable should be universally praised for its writing and plot. I kept hoping I was wrong, and there were repeated hints that Dawn was trying to be morally nuanced and intelligent (i.e. the potential for a great film was certainly present), but the last half hour was a disaster that let me down time and time again.

In all fairness to Dawn, it must be stated that Dawn is a brilliantly-made film in many ways. The special effects and cinematography are amazing (I did not watch it in 3D, of course, but only rarely noticed I was watching a 3D film), the acting is strong by all involved (a special note of praise here for Andy Serkis as Caesar, as well as for Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman as the prominent humans), the score by Michael Giacchino is good if sometimes overwhelming (i.e. the constant cuing of emotions, especially near the end, is distracting, to say the least), the direction by Matt Reeves is tight, and the final result is a very entertaining film. Leaving aside the question of morality, I can see why critics liked Dawn as much as they did. And just a couple of months ago, I gave ***+ to an entertaining morally-nuanced film (Maleficent) that let me down at the end. Unfortunately, Dawn, which was praised by critics for its humanistic statements, and its insightful social commentary on the conflicts which plague humans today, failed on far too many levels to get the same result.

As I said, Dawn did try. Both the ‘bad’ ape, Koba, and the misguided human leader, were ‘humanized’ with background stories. But the film’s awful ending undid much of this humanizing (literally so, in one case). In Dawn’s opening moments, we see young apes being taught that apes do not kill apes (unlike humans, who have no trouble killing apes and other humans). But the film’s final message seems to be that humans do not kill humans either. The humans killed by good humans are no longer human (i.e. they have been fully dehumanized – turned into monsters) and so they have become killable.

Dawn also positively shows us the role of leaders in inciting the masses to go to war, (spoiler alert) going so far as to suggest that some leaders are willing to manufacture a pretext for war, like killing their own leaders or burning down their own villages, and blaming it on the enemy. Yes, that’s provocative social commentary! Add to that the great job Dawn does of depicting the big battle scene, making it appear that war is incredibly stupid and evil (which it is), as well as the creation of an atmosphere that allows us to sympathize equally with both sides in the conflict and to highlight the power of cooperation, and the potential for meaningful humanizing filmmaking is all around us. That potential is wasted, however, by an ending which suggests that peaceful resolutions of inter-species (or international?) conflict are simply unrealistic. War is simply inevitable.


Then there is the way that certain people and apes are portrayed (and literally described) as particularly ‘good’, while others are portrayed as mixed or ‘bad’. And what about forgiveness? At one point in the film, Caesar says humans will not be able to forgive certain things, but just moments before he was also unable to forgive certain things. That about sums up the film’s attempts at moral engagement: endless mixed messages, which, like Dawn’s ending (such as it is), leave us worse off than when we started. I can’t imagine sitting through Dawn again, so I should be giving it **+, but I should be rewarding it for its overall quality and its obvious desire to say some good things, so I’ll say it’s verging on *** and I will leave my mug uncommitted at this point.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

TV14: Scandinavian Noir 3: Borgen



I’m not sure how Borgen qualifies to be called ‘noir’, but since it is considered part of the ‘Nordic Noir’ collection of TV shows, I’ll use that term as well.

I watched the Danish show Borgen (and The Killing) thanks to an anonymous commenter on this blog, so a big “thank you” to the commenter in question, because both of these shows are among the best shows out there.

Borgen follows the personal and political lives of a female Danish prime minister (Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen), her ‘spin doctor’ (Kasper Juul, played by Pilou Asbaek) and his girlfriend, a TV reporter (Katrine Fonsmark, played by Birgitte Hjort Sorenson). The writing and acting are top-notch, with numerous issues (political, personal, media-related) covered in intelligent, thoughtful and nuanced ways. 

What sets Borgen apart from The West Wing, with which it does have some similarities, are the emphasis on the private lives of its characters and its continuing storyline. Both of these are most welcome, but they can’t overcome The West Wing’s advantage in having Aaron Sorkin, the greatest TV writer ever (IMHO), on board, so The West Wing remains my all-time favourite post-1970‘s show.

I have only watched the first two seasons of Borgen but will soon be watching Season Three, after which I may offer additional comments. In the meantime, I highly recommend this series to those looking for first-rate TV with some powerful messages for the world and time in which we live (though I’m not saying I agree with all of its points of view). ****. My mug is up!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Tracks



Mia Wasikowska, one of the great young actors of our time, returns to her home country of Australia in a perfect performance as Robyn Davidson, a young city woman who walked across 2000 miles of the Australian outback in 1977 with only four camels and a dog for company. 

Why was Davidson so determined to take on this lonely adventure? The answers provided aren’t too clear, but she wants to get away from society, she wants to be alone and she wants to do something that is well beyond society’s expectations for a young woman. 

In order to afford the seven-month trek, Davidson needs sponsorship from National Geographic, which comes with the condition that she allow a photographer to take photos of her at various points along her route. Davidson detests the intrusion into what she viewed as a one-woman-alone adventure, especially when the photographer (played well by Adam Driver) shows a lack of sensitivity to the Aboriginal people they encounter en route, but she has no choice. In the end, they become good friends, but she still groans almost every time he shows up.

Employing different styles throughout, Tracks is a haunting beautiful film about a woman who seems to be running away from all kinds of inner demons related to her traumatic childhood. While sometimes distracting, the flashbacks are kept to a minimum, with the focus being on the various setbacks and challenges Davidson faces on her walk across the Outback (including the hounding presence of tourists and reporters, who want a glimpse of the crazy ‘camel lady’).  

Tracks, which is directed by John Curran, uses some of these challenges to expose the racism and misogyny of the time, though one could question whether the making of the film is not in itself part of the media frenzy. In any event, Tracks gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Chef



Chef is written, directed and stars Jon Favreau. That combination doesn’t always work, but Favreau pulls it off with this warm-hearted and funny road movie about Carl Casper, a chef (Favreau) in Los Angeles who is frustrated by the lack of control he has over what he can cook. His ex-wife (played by Sofia Vergara from Modern Family) cons him into taking a trip with her and his son to Miami and there she encourages him to consider getting his own food truck, which her ex-husband Marvin (a priceless cameo by Robert Downey, Jr.) just happens to be able to provide. And away we go, with the heart of the story not focusing on Carl’s success as a chef but on his relationship with his 10-year-old son, Percie, whom he has largely neglected in his obsession to be a successful chef.

A number of scenes in Chef didn’t quite work for me, but overall this is a wonderful film full of eccentric flawed characters who are all good people trying as best they can. It’s a rare kind of film that feels natural but doesn’t need to be dark; instead, it’s full of light, optimistic humanization. It’s all done in a way that feels real (not Hollywood), with great natural acting, great locations and a plot that moves with a slow quirky pace all its own. Some will of course find that boring. Chef isn’t very deep but its insights are good. 

Of particular note is Carl’s clash with a food critic, played by Oliver Platt. Without the scenes involving the critic, Chef gets a solid ***, but those scenes are worth half a star by themselves, especially if you add in the ‘cameo’ scenes involving Marvin and Molly (Scarlett Johansson), so I am giving Chef ***+ and recommend it to all. 

Sunday, 22 June 2014

TV13: True Detective, Season One



Someone I trusted told me I would like True Detective, so I acquired it the minute it was available on blu-ray and watched it over a period of ten days (it only has eight one-hour episodes). I can’t remember who told me about the show, so I would like a confession. Because why would I like this show? I mean, I don’t generally like cop shows and I don’t like serial killer shows (or films) and True Detective is both. Sure, it’s made by HBO and stars Matthew McConaughey, last year’s best actor, along with Woody Harrelson. And sure, it’s directed, in its entirety, by Cary Fukunaga, whose two feature films (Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre) were both among my favourite films of their respective years. But is the presence of great actors and a great director enough? Who is this Nic Pizzolatto guy anyway, who thinks he can create and write a series like this for HBO?

No, no, I do not like True Detective. I LOVE it! If it hadn’t been for the standard serial-killer climax, which was a major let-down for me, True Detective would rank high among my all-time favourite TV shows. Not that it can be treated as a typical TV series, since the first season is its own complete story and the second season will feature different actors and a different location. So this first season of True Detective needs to be reviewed as a mini-series. 

True Detective, season one, covers a seventeen-year period in the lives of two very intense and troubled detectives on the hunt for the man or men responsible for the ritualistic slaying of children and young women in southern Louisiana. Unoriginal ending aside, the writing, acting, directing, cinematography and score (the latter by T-Bone Burnett) of this show are extraordinary, not just for television, but also when compared to films. This is an entertainment masterpiece, though certainly not for those who have trouble watching dark serial-killer entertainment (and really, shouldn’t we all have trouble with that?). What makes the writing special is the intelligent dialogue of, and relationship between, the two protagonists (Rust and Marty). Not only does True Detective take the time to develop their characters, it actually spends as much or more time on the drama of their personal lives as it does on the suspense of their work lives (which involves limited action). And while the show does not do justice to its female characters, Michelle Monaghan is perfect as Maggie, Marty’s wife. 

As for McConaughey, he is as good here as he was in his two starring roles last year (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud). His performance alone is worth watching the series. Who’d have thought he would become one of the greatest actors of our time? Fantastic TV! True Detective, season one, gets an easy ****. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Edge of Tomorrow



The Good: Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt are perfectly cast in Edge of Tomorrow and they do a great job with a tricky and unlikely premise, in which their characters (Cage and Rita) are forced to replay the same scenes over and over again. The premise has been used before in Star Trek episodes and Groundhog Day (among others), but I nevertheless found the story both engaging and entertaining throughout. In other words, the plot may be old, but it was intelligently used here, with a very clever screenplay. I’m a sci-fi fan, which is why I felt I had to see this film, and I’m always relieved when the action doesn’t get in the way of a clever story (you’ll recall I appreciated Cruise’s last sci-fi outing, Oblivion, for the same reason). I especially appreciated the slow moments between Cage and Rita and wish there had been more.

The Bad: There was far more action in Edge of Tomorrow than I could comfortably handle. Because of the film’s unique premise, I never knew where the action was going, so it didn’t bore me the way action often does, but it still felt overwhelming and like a waste of the film’s precious time.

The Ugly: I was forced to watch this in 3D because the 2D was only showing during work hours, but I assume that even in 2D the cinematography would have been ugly, the ugliness I associate with almost all made-for-3D films. 3D was supposed to be a passing fad, but some greedy person in Hollywood didn’t get the memo and so Hollywood keeps trying to force us to watch this stuff. Just a few months ago, I read that one of the popular 3D films in Winnipeg was drawing larger crowds in 2D than 3D. The response of our wonderful customer-friendly theatres: “We’ll offer 2D, but only during the day, so that the bigger film-desperate crowds will be forced to pay extra for 3D.” As one of the unfortunate victims of this policy, I will one day be forced to boycott 3D as a matter of principle and use vacation days to watch films in 2D.

The Outcome: If the action hadn’t been quite so overwhelming, Edge of Tomorrow would have gotten an easy ***+ for its acting and engrossing plot. As it is, the combination of the ugly cinematography (I at least have to punish films for this) and the action lower it to a solid ***. My mug is up.