Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Tenet


Okay then.

Uh-huh.


Coulda been a wow, at least on one level. 


Christopher Nolan, you have certainly made my first trip to the cinema since early January a memorable one, with a mind-blowing film that kept me riveted for two and a half hours. Some would say (and do say) that this is the perfect way to et back into the cinema seat after such a long break. And maybe I would agree iff only the film had made even a little bit of sense. And if only the sound wasn’t so poorly done that neither Walter nor I could understand more than about 80% of the dialogue.


Yeah, Walter and I headed back to the cinema yesterday to watch Nolan’s big blockbuster, Tenet. The reviews were mixed, with half of the critics giving Tenet some absurdly generous four or five-star reviews. I can only assume that the overwhelming nature of Tenet (one reviewer said you “must be entertained by the overwhelming nonsense of it all”) left these critics in a state of shock, where only the fact that they had watched a riveting spectacle on the large screen for the first time in months was important. Based on that criteria, Tenet does indeed deserve the highest praise. And maybe I was “entertained” but I cannot endorse nonsense - just doesn’t work for me.


It’s true that Tenet is precisely the right kind of film to watch when you haven’t been to the cinema for a while, with eye-popping special effects, gorgeous locations, a good score and endless action done with Nolan’s characteristic brilliance.


Unfortunately, I expected more, especially as I found the endless action very tedious (I just don’t like action). From Nolan, I expect a challenging film that doesn’t talk down to the audience, and Tenet certainly was that. But as difficult as Nolan’s previous films have been to understand, I was able, at least after a second viewing, to follow their stories. Films like Memento, Interstellar and Inception are among my all-time favourites. But Tenet isn’t going to come close, because neither Walter nor I could follow the story at all. And when I tried to find a synopsis online, I couldn’t find a single one that made any more sense than the film.


So I won’t try to summarize the plot. I’ll just say that it involves a secret agent (John David Washington) trying to prevent World War III, a war in which the enemy is from the future and believes it can wipe out the past and still live on. That alone stretches the grey cells, but when the concept of inverted entropy is introduced, involving objects moving backwards through time, the plot gets out of hand very quickly. The unnamed secret agent gets the help of a mysterious fellow named Neil (Robert Pattinson) and does business with some very wealthy arms dealers who know too much (e.g. Priya, played by Dimple Kapadia), and then there’s Kenneth Branagh as Andrei Sator, the Russian baddie. Some critics have cringed at Branagh’s accent, but I thought he gave an excellent relatively-understated performance. Playing his wife, Kat, a central figure in the plot, is Elizabeth Debicki.


The acting wasn’t exceptional but it was good enough. There were times when Washington was terrific and times when I wondered why he had been cast as a Bond-like secret agent. Pattinson and Debicki were particularly good. The dialogue, when it can be understood, is also quite good, but, like the acting, a little uneven.


The main problem with Tenet is Nolan. I wrote a post about him back in July, 2010, because I was beginning to wonder whether I had overrated his films. Specifically, I was worried about Nolan’s tendency to give us contrived plots that stretched credulity too far (The Dark Knight is my favourite example, but all of his films are overly-contrived). As with Inception, Tenet is so impossibly convoluted and inherently contrived that it’s almost impossible to extract the individual  contrived moments. But, as I said, I eventually understood Inception’s plot and forgave Nolan for his contrivances. Perhaps someday my future self will watch Tenet for the second or third time and move backward through time to correct this post (in which case you probably aren’t reading this), but for now I am sticking with my initial assessment: Tenet is definitely one step too far for Mr. Nolan - I don’t believe it is possible to make sense of it and I think it was a mistake for Nolan to try. I also hated all that nonstop action and the film’s general lack of heart. So I can’t give Tenet more than **+. My mug is down.


To all you action lovers: Sorry about that. I do, in fact, recommend this film to folks like you.



Sunday, 9 August 2020

Sorry We Missed You

I’ve been a big Ken Loach fan for decades. I haven’t watched all of his films, but, of the dozen or so that I have watched, almost every one received either ***+ or ****. The amazing thing is that his last two films (which Loach made in his 80’s) are, for me, his very best films. I, Daniel Blake was one of my two favourite films of 2016 and Sorry We Missed You (a 2019 film not released in Canada until 2020) is currently my favourite film of 2020.

Due credit needs to be given to Paul Laverty, who wrote the screenplay for most of Loach’s films (including the two mentioned above). The writing in Sorry We Missed You is brilliant throughout, as are the raw and natural performances of the largely unknown cast.

Sorry We Missed You stars Kris Hitchin as Ricky, a middle-aged man who is given the opportunity to be a self-employed delivery driver in a northeast England city (Newcastle?) and sees it as a way out of the debt that has haunted his family (wife, two children) since the 2008 financial crisis. Ricky’s wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), works long hours as a home care nurse, a job made bearable by the use of the family car. But Ricky needs to sell the car to buy the delivery van, creating a lot of stress for Abbie. Ricky’s delivery job is also rather stressful (understatement).

If the work stresses aren’t enough, teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) is in trouble at school and acting out in other ways, leaving daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) to try to keep the family from self-destructing, a job she may not be up to. The tension in Sorry We Missed You builds relentlessly as crisis follows crisis.

You got it - this is not a happy film, which is no big surprise from Loach and Laverty. What Sorry We Missed You is, is a raw heartfelt film about the ordinary lives of average people in England struggling to make ends meet and make their lives better. There is no sentimentalizing melodrama here, just a lot of empathy and a thought-provoking story about life and alienation in 2019 England. Good thing financial stress is no longer an issue in 2020! Sigh.

Sorry We Missed You gets an easy ****. My mug is up.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

The Vast of Night




Up until two weeks ago, I had seen only two films that were worthy of being on my list of top ten films of 2020. One of those is the previously reviewed Disclosure. The other is Ken Loach’s 2019 film, Sorry We Missed You, which was not released in Canada until 2020. But I’ve watched two more top-ten-worthy films in the last two weeks, so it’s time to post reviews of the year’s best films so far (that I’ve been able to watch). One of those reviews is posted here. The others will follow during the next few days.

Amazon Prime (in Canada at least) does not offer the greatest collection of films (understatement). But one of the surprising gems on offer is a low-budget indie sci-fi flick called The Vast of Night that was released at the end of May (it was not financed by Amazon, but is being distributed by Amazon).

Set in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico in the late 1950’s, the story follows the lives of two teenagers during one evening in fall, when most of the town’s people are watching a high school basketball game. Fay (Sierra McCormick), is a switchboard operator who suddenly hears strange sounds coming from her radio and over a telephone line. She calls Everett (Jake Horowitz), who works as a disc jockey at the local radio station, and he confirms the strange sounds were heard on the radio. When people start calling in about also seeing strange things in the sky, Fay and Everett take it upon themselves to investigate.

Uniquely framed to look something like an episode of The Twilight Zone, Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night looks and feels very much like something made in the late 1950’s. But while this film should be rated G and has a sci-fi B-movie feel, the production values are entirely Grade A, with stunning cinematography and style to spare. The acting by the unknown cast is likewise excellent, as is the writing by Patterson and Craig W. Sanger.

If you like well-made old-fashioned sci-fi films that are heavy on dialogue and atmosphere and low on action, don’t miss this one. The Vast of Night gets ***+ - ****. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Dark - update after all three seasons



I have now watched the first season of this German Netflix sci-fi ‘thriller’ three times, the second season twice, and the third (final) season once. Endlessly captivating in spite of (or because of) its slow pace, Dark is gorgeous to watch and listen to (though the score was occasionally overwhelming) and features an intelligent screenplay and solid acting (some performances were less convincing than others). It sounds like a winner, and maybe it’s one of the greatest TV shows ever, or maybe it’s just pretentious pseudo-science and pop philosophy/psychology/theology masquerading as brilliant TV.

Created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese (who also wrote most of the episodes), Dark is nothing if not an enigma. Despite the hours I spent on it, I do not claim to have the foggiest idea what happened in this show. It is easily the most complex TV I have ever watched. I had the feeling that I couldn’t binge watch it fast enough to keep up even if I did nothing else but watch all 26 episodes back to back. Perhaps if I could watch all 26 episodes simultaneously (in alternate universes?).

Dark is a time-travel show as well as (spoiler alert) a parallel-world show. The same set of characters (there are 33 characters played by 73 actors) appear as their older and younger selves and travel to six major time periods. It’s possible to see the same character appear as three or four people in one scene. Utter lunacy! And yet I couldn’t stop watching it. Dark presents an an endless array of philosophical ideas that may not have been as profound as they sounded but nevertheless made me think a great deal (always a good thing for me). 

Here’s a sample of some of the show’s juicy quotes: “Man is a strange creature. All his actions are motivated by desire, his character forged by pain. As much as he may try to suppress that pain, to repress the desire, he cannot free himself from the eternal servitude to his feelings. For as long as the storm rages within him, he cannot find peace. Not in life, not in death. And so he will do what he must, day in, day out. The pain is his vessel, desire his compass. It is all that man is capable of.” “We’re not free in what we do because we’re not free in what we want. We can’t overcome what’s deep within us.” “We are all full of sin. No pure human being exists. But no matter what we do, we never fall any lower than into God’s hands.” “In short, the god mankind has prayed to for thousands of years, the god that everything is bound with, this god exists as nothing other than time itself.” “Life is a labyrinth: Some people wander around their whole lives looking for a way out, but there’s only one path and it leads you ever deeper, into the centre.” And so on.

From the beginning, Dark is full of menace and mystery, as one boy disappears and another suddenly appears (dead) in the vicinity of a vast cave system that lies beneath what is supposed to be the first German nuclear power plant (it seemed like a good idea to build a nuclear reactor on top of a cave?). Both the mystery and the menace build from there until it is revealed that the town of Winden is at the heart of battle (supposedly between light and shadow) for the control of time itself. 

Dark is not afraid to mention all the paradoxes related to time travel and so the writers feel free to create more paradoxes than you can possibly keep up with. Perhaps Dark is as brilliant as it sounds - a work of pure genius. Perhaps not. The cinematography is stunning, the score uses a variety of sounds (including Inuit throat singing) to great effect, often giving the show a horror feel. The acting is solid but some actors (including the young star, who won awards for this role) give less-than-convincing performances. If you think you’ve read this here already, it’s just deja-vu - a glitch in the matrix. It means the universe is trying to tell you something.

The show’s biggest flaws are a number of violent scenes that seem to have no purpose and are not well-explained. Those flaws are a big enough problem to prevent me from giving Dark four stars, at least until someone explains to me why they were necessary.

So there it is. If you enjoy mind-bending shows like LOST and Fringe (and a great many people do) and you don’t mind a slow pace and not having a clue what’s going on, then Dark is a must-see show for you. Everyone else will probably want to give it a pass. As for me, I had a great time. A solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Disclosure



Now showing on Netflix is one of the most important documentaries made this century: Disclosure. The film examines the history of portrayals of trans people in Hollywood over the past century (or more). Led by a brilliant team of interview subjects (or commentators), Disclosure reveals the countless ways Hollywood has failed the trans community with its dehumanizing portrayals. Early on, the presence of a trans woman (or often a man pretending to be a woman or dressed like a woman) in film and TV was used as a way to get a quick laugh. Later, trans people became the focus of violence (portrayed as either violent people or inevitable victims of violence). With The Crying Game, vomiting became a standard response of characters in film/TV to the discovery that a woman was trans. In almost all cases, until very recently, trans women were played by either men or cis women (e.g. Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, Felicity Huffman in Transamerica). Only recently have trans women like Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) and Daniela Vega (A Fantastic Woman) played trans women in films and TV.

As Disclosure points out, the power of these various portrayals on young people who are transitioning (or considering it) has been huge. That alone makes Disclosure a critical contribution for the trans community, one which will no doubt help a large number of people feel better about who they are. But it’s equally important to those of us who are not part of the trans community. Not only does Disclosure serve to normalize the presence of trans women and trans men, it provides an incredibly entertaining yet enlightening introduction to the way the trans community has been treated (very badly) for most of history.

The balance between the expert commentary and the many film/TV clips is perfect. Especially insightful are the contributions by Cox and Jen Richards, but there are many more voices, all of them eloquent and heartfelt.

Disclosure isn’t quite perfect. The last third of the film focuses almost entirely on this century’s TV shows and misses an opportunity to highlight the many ways trans people have been portrayed in film during the past decade (both positively and negatively). An example would be a possible interview with Vega. For a documentary that spends so much time on film during its first sixty minutes, this seems like an oversight, especially as I felt some of the time spent on TV shows during the last half hour was less impactful than other parts of the documentary. The focus on American TV  (and films), while a product of the film’s Hollywood theme, was, for me, unfortunate. I would like to have seen a broader story.

Nevertheless, Disclosure gets a solid **** for providing a captivating and intelligent story that is desperately needed at a time when trans people are being murdered or assaulted in record numbers. Don’t miss the chance to watch this film, and don’t shy away from letting your teenage children watch it with you. My mug is up.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

The Bare Necessity (Perdrix)

Here's a film that you're not likely to see reviewed anywhere else (of course, you might have a hard time finding it too...). If you like your comedies absurd and deadpan, but also clever and somehow managing to both existential and light - this is a comedy for you.

It's a story about a man who is stuck in a family rut in which obligations and expectations allow for no change and a woman who is determined to avoid love, with its obligations and expectations. OK - you can see where it's going....

I will describe one of my favourite scenes. The police in a sleepy little town are gathered around a lunch table, all discussing their captain (who is present and the protagonist of the film), trying to make sense of why he is so frustrated (after he had just had a little outburst). He occasionally adds a comment, but they are assuming that he has too little self-awareness to contribute much himself. The policeman who has the most insight is opposite the table from the captain and just happens to be dressed in only his socks (because the "revolutionary nudist" that he had been interviewing refused to speak to a clothed officer), but that is completely ignored in the scene and, after all, he is modestly protected by the table. There is also romance and the hope of liberation. It is very French and very odd. I hope you find it. ***+ and a delightful mug held high.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Walter's Top 25 Films of the Decade (2010-2019)


OK – I've tried and have given up writing an understanding or justification of how I determined this list. The truth is that it’s just a gut feeling that is strikingly mis-aligned with the annual lists along the way (several #1s don’t show up, for example). So the bottom line is that I find this terribly hard to explain and comparing different genres of films when summing up a decade feels even harder than doing the same in a single year. All that to say: “I have no justification for this list or its order, and I might change it all around tomorrow.” It’s just what feels right to me right now, and I recommend all of them (but also many that I have omitted, of course).  Here we go:

25. The Way – We walk along the Camino with Martin Sheen and the company he picks up along the way with humour and a reflection on life’s priorities along the way.

24. Pride – Can a common human cause overcome the barriers between two very different groups of people? Let’s hope so.

23. Calvary – a hard but potent look from a different perspective on a messed up church with messed up people and good within.

22. Even the Rain – This is an unusual film, that uses a “film within a film” to make a point of how we stay caught in old patterns.

21. Lady Bird – a smart, well-made, witty look at high school life.

20. Selma – I need to re-watch this as my memory is fading, but it felt like a powerful reminder of an important moment in history. I ask myself why there are so many zillions of movies about wars and relatively few on historical moments like this.

19. Brooklyn – This doesn’t sound strong enough, but it just feels like a classic.


18. The End of the Tour – As I once called it: a mutually vulnerable conversation between two intelligent young men. Some would be bored, but I found it stayed with me.

17. Incendies – A challenging and unique story aimed at helping people re-think the cycle of violence.


16. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Good, thoughtful fun in Kiwi style.


15. The Salt of the Earth – a documentary on the life and photography of SebastiĆ£o Salgado, whose work documents the humanity of forgotten people and forgotten corners of the world.


14. Ex Machina – a sci fi thriller that strikes me as one of the most effective at pointing out the inherent mistakes in the way AI is sometimes being seen and pursued.


13. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri – beautifully made film that manages to combine passionate intensity with a deeply human appreciation for all sides of conflict.


12b. Take Shelter - Somehow almost missed this one and so had to wedge it in. A fascinating drama about when the lines between mental illness and what's needed start to blur.


12. Never Look Away – After his masterpiece thirteen years ago (The Lives of Others), here is a film that shows again this director’s brilliance and ability to provoke deep questions.  

 
11. Ad Astra – To be honest, I already want to watch this again to remind myself of why I was so impressed. Imagine a film that in the same stroke guts the way both thoughtless Christians (waiting for a saving apocalypse) and thoughtless materialists (looking to space for salvation) place their hope in the wrong place.


10. Les Miserables – Just re-watched this for the first time in years and it sailed up the list again. Still magic.



9. Monsieur Lazhar – For a comedy, this film starts hard, but this provides poignancy for the beautiful story of the immigrant protagonist.


8. Locke – I enjoy films that pull off holding my full attention with a very limited setting – in this case, entirely within one car ride. Brilliantly done, reminding me of an old favourite, Phone Booth.


7. Short Term 12 – Everyone should hug someone who works with kids “in care” after a film like this. Brie Larsen and a great cast makes this work so well.


6. Gravity – This only made #9 the year it came out, but it has crept up and up as I’ve found myself drawn back to it and appreciate it more and more each time. The director somehow creates a deeply reflective symbolic journey that is also an adrenaline ride. I wish I had caught it on the big screen.


5. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – Creatively made film about a transformative encounter between a journalist and a man with love and integrity.


4. Captain Fantastic – Enjoyable, thought-provoking and unique film that struck a chord in me.


3. A Man Called Ove – I admit that I’m still biased by the fact that I saw this in an amazing independent little theatre in Brunswick, ME, sitting on a couch. And that it felt like a small moment of healing after seeing Trump elected. A funny and serious story about the healing of a curmudgeon.


2. Spotlight – I didn’t see this in time to make my list the year it came out. But I love investigative journalist films, and this one was very well done.


1. Of Gods and Men – I can’t remember another time when I so much wanted to show a film to so many people. A beautiful and challenging true story that is captured perfectly in the spirit of the community it represents.