Sunday, 31 August 2014

Calvary



After a slow start, 2014 is turning into the best year of the century for independent-filmmaking, with film after film leaving me saying Wow! Calvary is a brilliant little Irish film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (whose only other film is 2011‘s The Guard). I’ve seen Calvary advertised as a thriller and as a dark comedy (similar to The Guard), but, like Locke, which was also falsely advertised, Calvary is pure drama at its finest (though, like Locke, it is certainly a dark film, and, unlike Locke, it does have many funny moments and a scene of extreme violence). 

Calvary stars Brendan Gleeson, in a flawless Oscar-worthy performance, as Father James, a small-town priest who seems to be losing the respect of his parishioners on an almost daily basis. Not that this is his doing. He is a good priest, trying to do his best to help those around him. But he is the face of a church that no longer seems relevant and, indeed, is viewed as corrupt and possibly evil. Shouldering the blame for all that’s wrong with the church is not easy, especially when Father James is told he has only eight days to live before one of his parishioners kills him for crimes committed by his predecessors.

Calvary is the story of those eight days in the life of Father James, eight days which are made more intense by the visit of his adult daughter, Fiona (from before he went into the priesthood), who has recently attempted suicide. Fiona is played very well by Kelly Reilly, who stands out among a great ensemble of co-stars playing the parishioners Father James interacts with during those eight days (including Chris O’Dowd, M. Emmet Walsh, Isaach De Bankole, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Marie-Josee Croze, David Wilmot, Gary Lydon and Orla O’Rourke).

The cinematography is stunning, the screenplay is intelligent and subtle, the direction is  perfectly-paced and the quiet score is there when needed. There are beautiful touching moments, light moments, funny moments and many very dark moments during the eight days presented in Calvary. Along the way, there are also many profound scenes about the current state of the Catholic church and about the future of the church in general. Most important to me, however, are the the ups and downs of Father James’s thoughts as he contemplates his response to the threat he has received. This, once again, is filmmaking at its finest. A very easy **** for yet another guaranteed member of my top ten films of 2014 (that’s my sixth four-star film of the year, which may be a record, and we are only two-thirds of the way through the year). My mug is up! 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Boyhood



Wow! 

My most-anticipated film of the year! Richard Linklater already has five films in my top 150, so when he makes a film that gets virtually-unanimous four-star reviews, my expectations could not be higher. Not that I was worried. I knew Boyhood would get four stars from me before I watched a second of it – it just had to be. So while Boyhood did not exceed my expectations (almost impossible to do), it easily met them. Boyhood gets the predicted **** and will certainly be among my top ten films of the year (it’s even possible that Linklater will get number one two years in a row - again, Wow!).

Boyhood is an amazing film. Shot over a period of twelve years, using the same cast throughout, it follows the life of a typical boy in Texas from the age of six through eighteen as if it’s a documentary, aided by the incredibly natural acting and dialogue. But it’s not a documentary, and it has the gorgeous cinematography, perfect pacing, great acting, marvellous direction and helpful soundtrack to prove it.

Hollywood treats such epic stories as a series of melodramas. But while Linklater also carefully chooses (creates) the moments of Mason’s life which he wishes to reveal, and while they also represent the highs and lows of a sometimes stressful boyhood, there is little melodrama here (just a couple of scenes in a 163-minute film). It’s just day-to-day (or year-to-year, in this case) life. 

What makes Boyhood special, however, is the way those chosen moments give us profound insights into the four main characters (Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane; his sister Samantha, played by Lorelei Linklater, who is Richard’s daughter; and Mason’s parents, Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette; and Mason Sr., played by Ethan Hawke)  and how each of them views the life he or she is living. Because we spend twelve years with these characters, watching them grow and change, we care about them as if they are real. It’s an extraordinary achievement in filmmaking. 

At the risk of giving too much away (minor spoiler alert), one example of the above is the way Olivia spends Mason’s boyhood trying to improve her situation and use the skills with which she has been gifted in a way that will give her life meaning. Despite some obvious successes with this, she seems unable to look back on her life in a positive way. Instead of embracing the precious moments her life has provided, she thinks primarily about the sacrifices and the drudgery. Others in her family see life differently.

Filming Boyhood over twelve years was an incredible risk on Linklater’s part, but it worked. The result is a masterpiece from a filmmaking genius who now has six films in my top 150. My mug is held high in salute. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Lucy



My expectations were low on this one. Luc Besson has made some interesting films (and some good ones) and this was a sci-fi film with an interesting premise, so I could not resist, but it’s a good thing my expectations were low.

I will start by saying this was a fun film to watch (apart from the graphic violence throughout, of course). At less than 90 minutes, Lucy zooms along, with lots of short scenes and lots of action. You hardly have time to catch your breath and think before it’s over. That’s a good thing and allows one to enjoy the silliness. But make no mistake: this is one extremely silly film.

Lucy, a rather ditzy blond (played by Scarlett Johansson in the fifth film I have seen her in during the past seven months – wow) gets caught up in a drug mule scheme that, following an injury, results in the release of a powerful new drug into her system, in mega-quantities. Instead of killing Lucy, it gives her the ability to use more than the 10% of her brain capacity that we humans are able to use (supposedly). This means she can learn languages in an instant, defy the laws of gravity and eventually travel in time. What utter nonsense!

When you go into a sci-fi film, as opposed to a typical action film, you hope for at least a minimal level of intelligence. There are some intelligent things in Lucy, but come on, no one still believes we only use 10% of our brains. And no scientist would expect someone using more brain power than others to be able to defy the laws of gravity.

All of this nonsense could be forgiven (especially since most of the acting is passable and the music has its moments) if it were not for one gigantic flaw, namely that the smarter Lucy gets, the less attached she is to her emotions and to compassion in general. In other words, Lucy assumes that if we get smarter (like Mr. Spock), we will cease to bother with emotions and we will cease to care about the lowly lives of human beings. At one point, Lucy says something like: “People never really die” to excuse her cavalier slaughter of bad guys and the occasional collateral damage. This is unconscionable, suggesting that becoming fully human means becoming inhuman. Why wouldn’t someone whose abilities are suddenly limitless (yeah, there’s a similarity to that film) think more about how she could make the world a better place than how she could become immortal while killing baddies? 

Anyway, I’m not sorry I watched it, but can’t imagine being willing to watch it again, so, for the second time in a month, I will leave my mug uncommitted for this **++ film.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Tribute to Robin Williams



For the second time this year, we have lost, prematurely, one of our most precious actors. Robin Williams was not as good an actor as Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I always enjoyed watching his performances. He could make even mediocre films like Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man and What Dreams May Come fun to watch. And few, if any, actors have more starring roles in my favourite 150 films than Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting, Dead Poet’s Society, The Fisher King, Good Morning, Vietnam), with an honorable mention for his role in one of my favourite Disney animated films: Aladdin.

It did not surprise me to learn of Williams’ depression, because I had always thought of him as a ‘sad’ clown, someone who carried the pain and suffering in the world as a personal burden. Perhaps that is why I felt he was at his best in some of his most serious roles. Williams was, I believe, a good intelligent man and brilliant comedian who wanted to make the world a better place, something I think he accomplished through his work in various ways. Robin, you will be missed.

Friday, 8 August 2014

I Origins



I Origins, directed by Mike Cahill and starring Michael Pitt along with Brit Marling, is the latest film by the group of friends responsible for the mystical and quirky Another Earth, Sound of My Voice and The East. I Origins fits neatly into the mix, but is not as good as the other three, primarily because it is too predictable and because it gets a little too heavy-handed in its new-agey mysticism.

More specifically, I Origins is about the theme of reincarnation. It concerns two scientists working to prove that eyesight can evolve in a creature which is unable to see, thus somehow punching a hole in some people’s proof for the existence of God. I’m not sure why that should be so important an issue, but it does lead to a startling discovery having to do with reincarnation, which I’m guessing this group of friends (Mike Cahill, Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij) believes in.

It’s an interesting premise and the film is thoughtful and well-made, with strong acting by all involved, but, as I mentioned, it suffers from far too much predictability. One of the less predictable themes, which comes into play early on, is the role of so-called coincidences in bringing people together. That is something I also happen to believe in, but unfortunately the film does not explore this theme as well as it could have.

Still, any intelligent film that explores the relationship between science and faith in an interesting story is a step in the right direction and I enjoyed watching it. A solid ***. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

A Most Wanted Man



Watching Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final starring role is alone worth the price of admission. Hoffman plays G√ľnther Bachmann, the head of a small, secretive German counter-terrorist organization which is always butting heads with German intelligence and the CIA. Bachmann is based in Hamburg, where a young Chechen man (Issa, played by Grigoriy Dobrygin) has just turned up (illegally), claiming to want asylum (he has obviously been tortured) and to lay claim to his father’s hidden bank account (the father has died, leaving behind a mysterious letter). The money in the account (and there’s a lot of it) is ‘dirty’ and Issa doesn’t want it for himself, which works well for Bachmann, who is scheming to find out how certain donated funds end up being used to arm terrorists and sees an opportunity to use Issa expose those responsible.

The plot of A Most Wanted Man wanders in all kinds of directions, with a German lawyer (played by Rachel McAdams) trying to protect Issa but getting caught up in Bachmann’s plans, with a CIA agent, played by Robin Wright, scheming with Bachmann on the side (but with mysterious motives), with the confused innocent complicity in the scheming by the bank manager (played by Willem Defoe) and so on. There are too many characters involved to do justice to anyone other than Bachmann, which is a major flaw of the film – I just couldn’t relate to any of the film’s characters other than Bachmann. Fortunately, Hoffman’s great performance means that the flaw is not as critical as it could be.

A Most Wanted Man is based on the excellent novel by John Le Carre (a novel I read just last year). This helped me understand the rather convoluted plot but it also exposed the problem with character development. The film, like the novel, is a quiet intelligent European spy thriller, the kind that features only a few seconds of action. That happens to me one of my favourite specific genres, so I thoroughly enjoyed the film in spite of its flaws, especially appreciating the Hamburg cinematography and the minimalist score by Herbert Gronemeyer (who had a small role in the film), a German ‘rock’ musician I was listening to twenty years ago. 

A Most Wanted Man (the film) is not nearly as effective as the book in revealing some of the justice issues surrounding the work of counter-terrorism, but, in combination with the fine acting and interesting setting, there is enough to think about in Anton Corbijn’s film to give it a solid ***+. My mug is up.

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.