Wednesday, 25 May 2016

TV46: Five Recent British Political/Spy Thriller Miniseries Worth Watching: The Honourable Woman, London Spy, Restless, Secret State, The Worricker Trilogy


During the past two years, I have had the privilege of watching these five excellent British miniseries, all of which were made in the past five years and all of which fall into one of my favourite genres: political/spy (conspiracy) thrillers with a focus on intelligent dialogue over action. My memory of some of these series has faded, so I will provide only capsule reviews of these shows, but they are all highly recommended.


The Honourable Woman

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Nessa Stein, a Jewish businesswoman who runs the powerful Stein Group and uses her influence to work for peace in the Middle East (specifically in terms of Jewish-Palestinian relations). When an apparent suicide by her business partner delays a long-planned project to provide an optical fibre connection to the West Bank, Stein’s life begins to unravel. The acting (especially by Gyllenhaal and Stephen Rea, who works for MI6) is exceptional, as is much of the writing of this very compelling miniseries. There were a few scenes I found less than convincing and the violence was disturbing (this is not a show for the squeamish), so Hugo Blick’s 2014 The Honourable Woman gets only a solid ***+.


London Spy

Hot off the press, Tom Rob Smith’s 2015 London Spy stars Ben Whishaw as Danny, a young man who falls in love with a spy (Secret Intelligence Service) named Alex (Edward Holcroft) who suddenly disappears eight months into their relationship. Danny is in for a great many nasty surprises in the weeks ahead, including learning of Alex’s involvement in a major conspiracy involving … well, that would be telling. Despite the enormity of the conspiracy and its implications, London Spy is not about that conspiracy but about relationships, especially the relationships between Danny and Alex and between Danny and Scottie (Jim Broadbent). Once again, the acting of Whishaw and Broadbent (as well as Charlotte Rampling, who is a central figure in the story) is exceptional, as are the writing, cinematography and score. London Spy is a first-class miniseries (though, again, it may be too dark for many viewers) and gets a solid ****.


Restless

This 2012 miniseries, directed by Edward Hall, is a WWII spy thriller (though it begins in the 1970’s and then flashes back) starring Hayley Atwell as Eva Delectorskaya, a young woman recruited by Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell) in 1939 to become a British spy, following the path of her recently-killed brother. Eva gets involved in some operations that go wrong and indicate the possible existence of a strange conspiracy. When Eva begins to uncover the truth, her life is suddenly in danger and it’s time to run. A little too much action in this one, as well as a few unsatisfactory plot elements, but the acting (Charlotte Rampling is on hand again), writing, cinematography and score are again very good and Restless has a well-conceived and unique structure. A solid ***+.


Secret State

Another miniseries from 2012, Secret State stars Gabriel Byrne as Tom Dawkins, an honest idealistic man who suddenly finds himself taking on the role of the British Prime Minister (following the sudden death, via plane crash, of the prime minister), a job he has never wanted. Faced with pressure from colleagues who want to replace him with a real politician, and faced with revelations of a major conspiracy involving the banks and big business (and the truth about what really happened on that plane), Dawkins find himself in a dark lonely place (though one of this show’s flaws is that we see so little of Dawkins’ personal life). Secret State shows what would happen if someone like Bernie Sanders became president of the United States. That’s good enough for me. Byrne is terrific and he’s supported by Charles Dance. This intelligent thriller is the most obscure of the miniseries described in this post, but it’s worth a watch. Secret State gets somewhere between ***+ and ****.


The Worricker Trilogy

Technically, David Hare’s The Worricker Trilogy is not a miniseries but three TV movies about Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy), an aging MI5 officer who gets caught up in various conspiracies at the heart of British intelligence (and the British government). The Worricker Trilogy features particularly complex, intelligent and compelling plots (of the John Le CarrĂ©  variety), first class acting (by an incredibly high-quality cast, which includes, besides those mentioned below: Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Felicity Jones, Rupert Graves and Olivia Williams) and top-notch production values (with gorgeous cinematography). Great stuff!

The first film of the trilogy is Page Eight (2011), in which Worricker tries to stand up against Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes), a British Prime Minister who is not an honest idealist like Tom Dawkins. Along the way, Worricker begins a relationship with Nancy Pierpan (Rachel Weisz), a neighbour who happens to be a political activist whose brother was killed by Israeli soldiers. Various clandestine activities ensue. Page Eight is the best of the trilogy and gets ****.

The second film is Turks & Caicos (2013), in which Worricker finds himself once again at the centre of a conspiracy, even when he’s in hiding on the Turks & Caicos Islands. Christopher Walken plays the mysterious Curtis Pellisier, who introduces Worricker to a group of corrupt businessmen working for a company called Gladstone. When one of those businessmen is found dead the next morning, and a Gladstone liaison named Melanie Fall (Winona Ryder) acts suspiciously, and Pellisier’s true identity is revealed, Worricker has to think very fast to get himself out of trouble without compromising his principles (he has the help of his former girlfriend (and former MI5 analyst), Margot Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter). Turks & Caicos gets somewhere between ***+ and ****.

On the run once again in the final film, Salting the Battlefield (2014), Worricker and Tyrell try to evade MI5 while exposing Beasley’s corrupt business dealings. While still a very good spy film, this is the weakest film of the series, with some disappointing plot elements, and gets only ***+. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

TV45: Black Sails



Ever since I read Treasure Island as a young boy (it was the first ‘classic’ novel I read; I think I was nine years old), I’ve had a soft spot for pirates and the Caribbean. But I am no big fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and I never would have watched Black Sails (which, knowing Starz cable-TV serials, I assumed would contain an endless series of violent and sexual encounters and not much of interest by way of plot) had Katrina not mentioned to me one day that she thought I should give it a chance (she knows my taste fairly well).

So I picked up the first two seasons for $10 a piece at a Black Friday sale (seemed appropriate) and gave them a chance. And was very pleasantly surprised. Sure, Black Sails really is an endless series of violent and sexual encounters (including the kind of gratuitous sex and violence I abhor but have come to expect from Starz), but there is indeed a compelling, well-written and well-conceived plot to be found in between those encounters, along with some fascinating, unexpectedly intelligent and nuanced dialogue and some very good acting, not to mention extraordinary cinematography (to be expected in the Caribbean) and good music.

It takes a while to figure out who the central characters of Black Sails are, so skip this paragraph if you want to do that figuring out for yourself. Toby Stephens stars as the mysterious Captain James Flint, the most successful and feared pirate in the Caribbean. He’s based in the pirate town of Nassau on New Providence Island, which is governed by Richard Guthrie (Sean Cameron Michael) but run by his daughter Eleanor (Hannah New). Other key characters include Flint’s closest associate, Gates (Mark Ryan); Flint’s first mate, Billy Bones (Tom Hopper); Flint’s mysterious friend Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes); Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a woman who knows how to use sex for power; Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), a particularly nasty pirate captain; his first mate Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and Rackham’s close friend Anne Bonny (Clara Paget). Oh, and I must not forget a character whose name I didn’t really catch until well into the second episode, a young would-be pirate by the name of John Silver (Katrina failed to mention that there was a connection to Stevenson’s novel, something which would certainly have piqued my interest).

My biggest complaint of the series is that they killed off my favourite character (I won’t say who) in the first season. That was very unwelcome, especially because of how it was done, but other characters became more interesting after that and the incident was addressed a number of times in a satisfactory way, so …

The casting is inspired, and the acting, as I mentioned, is very good for TV. Since I’m not a fan of pirate violence/action, I don’t think of Black Sails as a guilty pleasure - it’s a real pleasure. If you can tolerate and overlook the violence (difficult for me, but worthwhile in this case), Black Sails is, in my opinion, actually an excellent example of good serial television and gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Jungle Book



I need to begin by confessing that, despite loving almost all things Disney when I was a boy, I was never a fan of the original Disney animated version of The Jungle Book, which I saw at the theatre in its initial release. So the remake, which is made in something approaching live action, didn’t attract my attention at all, even when it was critically-acclaimed. But Gareth loved it and encouraged me to watch it, so last night we went to see The Jungle Book.

I won’t bother describing much of the plot, which is well-known, other than to say that it involves a young boy (Mowgli, played wonderfully by Neel Sethi) who, as an infant, was found alone in the jungle by Bagheera (voice by Ben Kingsley), a kindhearted panther, and brought up in a family of wolves. Mowgli’s life as a man-cub is going well until he is smelled out by the tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who hates all humans and wants to kill Mowgli (as he had killed Mowgli’s father). 

Running away from Shere Khan, Mowgli encounters Kaa (Scarlet Johansson), a snake with kind words who views Mowgli as a nice lunch, Baloo (Bill Murray), a lazy fun-loving bear who wants Mowgli to help him get his own lunch, and King Louie (Christopher Walken), a giant orangutan who wants Mowgli to give him the secret of the red flower so he can be as powerful as a human. 

All of the voices are spot-on and Mowgli’s interactions with each of these characters are generally a lot of fun to watch. No longer remembering the original Jungle Book, I can only take Gareth’s word for it that some very inappropriate stereotypes have been corrected in Jon Favreau’s new version. This film is full of positive messages about diversity and community, which makes the ending all the more painful to watch.

Those who have read my reviews of Disney films over the years, or heard one of my talks on Disney films, will know that I have a particular disgust for the way Disney loves to create nasty evil villains and then kill them off at the end of the film, usually by having them fall to their deaths from a great height (this started with Disney’s first big animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937). Sometimes Disney will have the film’s hero try to prevent the villain’s fall, sometimes the fall is clearly the hand of God at work and sometimes the hero actually causes the villain’s fall. The latter is the worst and that is precisely what happens in The Jungle Book, where the young Mowgli deliberately lures Shere Khan to his death. For me, this is an unforgivable example of the myth of redemptive violence at its worst (though at least no one cheered when Shere Khan fell).

When combined with the dreadful washed-out cinematography, which was caused either by the fact that it was made for 3D or the fact that the theatre has inferior projection equipment, there is no way I can give The Jungle Book the ***+ most of it deserves. So *** it is. My mug is up. 

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Films of Shane Carruth: Primer and Upstream Color



Primer

I don’t usually review older films, but my guess is that few, if any, of my readers will have seen, or even heard of, the strange films of Shane Carruth, so I thought I should introduce you to those films (since I like them a lot). Carruth has only released two films, both of which he wrote (including the score) and directed, and in both of which he played a lead role. 

Carruth’s first film, Primer, was released in 2004. It was made for a paltry $7000, making it a super-super-low-budget film, and it sometimes looks like it was made for $7000, but it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance that year and I won't argue with that decision.

Primer tells the story of two young men (Abe and Aaron, played by David Sullivan and Carruth) who accidentally create a time machine in a home garage. As Abe and Aaron try to understand the implications of this, their lives spiral out of control in a hurry, not least because they spend so little time considering the consequences (especially the ethical consequences) of their actions. 

Outside of Carruth and Sulivan, all of the actors in the film are non-actors. The cinematography and score vary from very good to okay and locations are chosen for their low cost (generally free). Whats sets Primer apart, and caused it to win at Sundance, is the intelligence of its fascinating and engaging, though understated, time-travel story. Carruth is an engineer and a mathematician as well as a filmmaker, which makes it possible for him to think through the logic of a time-travel narrative in a more satisfying way than most. I confess, however, that I still can’t get my head around what happened in the last ten minutes or so (I’ll watch the last half hour again today). Until I do, I can only award Primer ***. So I watched the last twenty minutes three times and listened to the commentary without getting farther ahead, but then I found a wonderful article on Primer by Jason Gendler which is ever-so-helpful and reveals just how incredibly complex Primer actually is. So, while the fundamental logical impossibility of time-travel remains (as far as I am concerned), I am prepared to award Primer ***+. My mug is up.



Upstream Color
Upstream Color, which was released in 2014, is a very different kind of film in almost every way. For one thing, it very much falls into the Terence Malick style of filmmaking, with almost no dialogue, gorgeous cinematography (including lots of natural scenes) and a baffling poetic narrative. It comes closest to Tree of Life, may favourite Malick film, though what sets it apart is its horror/sci-fi edge. 

Upstream Color begins with the drugging and kidnapping of a young woman (Kris, played by Amy Seimetz), followed by a series of medical experiments (on the woman) that will leave you cringing. In other words, this is a dark film and not for the squeamish. Unaware of what happened to her, but knowing that something bad happened (including the loss of most of her assets), Kris wakes up one day in a car on the side of the road. She loses her job and her life declines. A year later, while riding the subway, she meets Jeff (Carruth), who has also been the subject of experiments from the same strange experimenter, and who shares an almost telepathic connection with Kris. Together, they try to piece together what is going on while struggling to hold on to their sanity.

Along the way, you have roundworms, pigs and orchids, and a very strange man, playing a key role in what is happening to Kris and Jeff, and that’s all you want to know (not that I could begin to tell you what happens in this very cerebral film). Don’t watch this film alone - you’ll need help to unravel its story and message (and use of colour). 

Upstream Color is a much higher quality piece of filmmaking than Primer, in every way, with the cinematography this time varying only from very good to outstanding, with a higher quality of acting (especially by Seimetz) and with much surer direction. Like Primer, though, what sets Upstream Color apart if the intelligence of its screenplay and the way it doesn’t talk down to its audience. And while I called it a cerebral film, it is the emotional power of some of its scenes that carry the greatest impact. Upstream Color is a thoughtful mesmerizing film that gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Money Monster



I rarely attend opening-night film releases, but the opportunity was there and I decided to take a chance on a film that stars (and is produced by) George Clooney and is directed by Jodie Foster. I had, unfortunately, seen too much of the trailer, which basically covers the entire film (pathetic!), but that added to my hope that Money Monster was a thriller with something to say.

Sigh. My hopes were unjustified.

Clooney plays Lee Gates, an over-the-top host of a daily TV show about investments. Gates tells viewers where they should, and should not, be investing their hard-earned money. Unfortunately for Gates, his last recommendation turned out to be a disaster, with the IBIS investments he told people to buy suddenly tanking in value, supposedly due to a computer glitch. 

Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) has lost all his savings ($60,000) and can’t take it anymore. On behalf of all those who lost money (a total of $800m) thanks to Gates, and as a message to the wealthy 1% who rule the world, Kyle brings a bomb and a gun to the TV studio, straps the bomb onto Gates and pushes down the switch in his hand (if he releases it, ka-boom). 

Panic ensues, the police rush to the studio, Gates’s producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), tries to do what she can to keep Gates alive, and Kyle tells everyone on live TV that he’s going to blow up the studio unless someone can tell him the real story behind how IBIS lost $800m in one afternoon, and then apologize. The IBIS CCO (chief communications officer), Diane Lester (Catriona Balfe) also wants to know what really happened and finally tracks down the IBIS CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West), whose story just doesn’t hold up.

That’s more than enough to say about the plot, which, unfortunately, felt less than credible from the get-go and only got less credible as the film wore on. The questionable premise and denouement might have been forgivable, especially since the acting by all concerned was actually quite good, if not for two factors: 1) Despite trying to be an intense dramatic thriller, there are consistent (and often successful) attempts to make the most horrific scenes humorous. This, of course, is what you want if you are making a dark comedy, but if you are making a thriller about a very serious and sad situation, with a serious message, you have to be very careful about where and how you use humour. In Money Monster, half of those attempts were, for me, inappropriate; 2) The ‘serious message’ in question is nowhere near profound enough to make this otherwise ordinary thriller something special. I had hoped for some kind of anti-capitalist or anti-investment or anti-1% message to come through, but in the end the anti-corruption message that was there felt banal and toothless. 

So, for me, Money Monster was a mildly entertaining and well-made little thriller that could have been so much more. I went away quite disappointed. ***. My mug is up, but …

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Chi-Raq



Wow!

After a very brief and very limited release in the U.S., Spike Lee’s new film went directly to Amazon Prime and video. As a result, I would, to this day, have no knowledge of Chi-Raq’s existence if it hadn’t been for my recent trip to Edmonton, where Deanna found it on one of her streaming services and recommended we watch it. 

The little I was willing to learn about Chi-Raq sounded promising, so we started watching it. But after five minutes or so, I was ready to try something else. I mean, I just don’t care for rap and I was getting the idea that Chi-Raq was a rap musical (yeah, musical-lover that I am, I have problems with Hamilton too). I was correct in my fears, but luckily I didn’t voice my disappointment, and we kept watching. Eventually, I was blown away by this wondrous and magical mess of a film; Chi-Raq is guaranteed to have a place in my top-ten films of 2016.

Chi-Raq (a mix of Chicago and Iraq) takes place in the neighbourhoods of Chicago’s south side, where gang violence is spiralling out of control. When a child is killed by a stray bullet, a group of women, led by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), decide it’s time to try something drastic to reduce the violence. The film’s poster says this strategy goes by the name “No peace, no piece”, but those are NOT the words used in the film (i.e. the last word does start with a p and does have four more letters, but the letters i, e, and c are not among them). 

The story is based on the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes, and on the women’s movement in Liberia which was presented in the great 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In communities ruled by men, women can have a lot power if they chose to exercise it. In the case of Chi-Raq, the example of one community begins to spread around the world.

Among the other actors in Chi-Raq, we have Nick Cannon as Demetrius Dupree, Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes, Wesley Snipes as ‘Cyclops’, Angela Bassett as Helen Worthy, Jennifer Hudson as Irene and John Cusack as Fr. Mike Corridan. Cusack may be the only prominent actor in the film who isn’t African-American, but he gets some of the film’s best lines, including a sermon on guns that’s worth the price of admission all by itself. 

Chi-Raq is an absolutely wild, fearless, out-there, quirky, musical satire full of brilliant dialogue and many wonderful things to say. It’s like nothing I have ever seen before and I loved it! An easy ****. My mug is up.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!



Everybody Wants Some!! is the kind of film (college comedy-drama) I would normally avoid at all costs, but it was made by Richard Linklater, one of my favourite filmmakers (he has five films in my top 150) and has been getting very positive reviews, so I had to take the chance.

Everybody Wants Some!! takes place in a southern Texas college town over the course of three days just before college starts in September, 1980. While the action focuses on two people (Jake and Beverly, played by Blake Jenner and Zoey Deutch), the film is really an ensemble piece involving eight college baseball players who have just moved into a large house where they will live together for the next eight months or so. Jake is a freshman, so he’s subject to certain trials and surprises, though nothing too outrageous. There’s a lot of alcohol consumed, some drugs are on hand and most of the players are looking to score a woman each night before college starts. Jake, however, is thinking about a serious long-term relationship and has his eyes on a particular girl (Beverly). 

Everybody Wants Some!! has its charms and insights, highlighting the joys of living in the moment and suggesting that life and creativity are about working with the options you have been given to find your place. But this is not a typical Linklater film full of thought-provoking dialogue about the meaning of life and relationships. There is some of that, but only in small doses.  Add the fact that it was impossible for us to identify with any of the characters because their activities and thoughts were so foreign to our experience (despite the fact that I was a baseball-loving college student in 1980) and you have a film that, for us, was never really compelling. It did, however, elicit a long discussion about what it was trying to say about Texas college life in 1980; that discussion alone made the film worth watching.

Having mentioned the characters, it should be noted that Everybody Wants Some!! provides us with a unique set of characters, each of whom have are given a story of their own and each of whom are played well by the cast of unknowns (though most of the performances fell short of outstanding). This is definitely a highlight. The problem was just our failure to identify with any of these stories. I should also note my assumption that the story is somewhat autobiographical, suggesting that Linklater, despite the way he connects with me in so many films, had a very different experience in college than I did. 

The cinematography felt like 1980 while still being gorgeous to look at, which is quite the feat. The music didn’t work for me, but that’s because the glorious 70’s had passed and I appreciated very little popular music from the 80’s (U2 is the most notable exception). All in all, the best I can say is that, for a college comedy-drama, Everybody Wants Some!! could have been a lot worse (most critics, apparently, don’t suffer from my natural aversion to the genre). A solid ***. My mug is up.