Saturday, 18 October 2014

God Loves Uganda



 
Here is a film to make you angry and make you cringe – and both for two very different reasons. 

The documentary is about the American evangelical church’s influence on Ugandan attitudes and political responses toward homosexuality. Regardless of what most any person’s attitudes (or theological responses) toward homosexuality are, one might expect that any decent person would not support a life sentence or death sentence (funny how those sound like opposites) for homosexual acts. 

This film demonstrates that this is not the case. Caught up in religious fervour and intoxicated by the possibilities of a country that can be swayed even more easily than the US by the religious right – evangelical leaders are shown as inspiring and strongly supporting a most immoral law (though the death sentence was eventually dropped). I suppose one shouldn’t be too surprised. 

However, another cringe-worthy aspect of the film is the filmmakers’ deception. Having clearly won the trust of a young adult mission team, the camera crew was welcomed along for the ride and recorded the sincere hopes and attempts of well-meaning young people. Though they are largely innocent of the actions of the older leaders, they end up being framed as deluded and bad people. I felt very sorry for them and the trust that they had had betrayed. Twice – because their trust has also betrayed by the older religious leaders whose colonizing distortions of Christianity may have inoculated them against the actual teachings of Jesus. The film effectively exposes the dark side of the evangelical movement, but I don't believe in the ends justifying the means (of deceitful filmmaking). 

It’s a good film (probably some people really need to see it) – but it leaves one feeling defiled in two very different ways. As a result, I just can’t give it a rating.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Gone Girl



Gone Girl is an old-fashioned (somewhat Hitchcockian) psychological thriller, full of twists and turns and intelligent dialogue that has a lot to say about the world we live in today (especially with regard to the media). I generally enjoy such films and Gone Girl is no exception, but I do have one big complaint.

Without giving anything of consequence away, I’ll tell you that Gone Girl focuses on the trials of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a man who comes home one afternoon to find his wife missing and clear signs of a struggle. He calls the police and into his life comes Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), who takes over the case. Nick has a twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), who supports him throughout the twisted ordeal which follows, though not without worries and suspicions (the police and the media, of course, immediately suspect Nick of foul play). 

Woven into the first half of the story are excerpts from a diary written by Nick’s wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), through which we get to see some of the backstory of how Nick and Amy met and what the first years of their marriage were like. 

Gone Girl is directed by David Fincher and you can tell from the opening scenes that you are watching the work of a master. The atmosphere, the cinematography and the music blend together in a style perfectly suited to the genre (if the emphasis is on intelligent drama instead of action). It doesn’t hurt if you have the writer of the novel (Gillian Flynn) also writing the screenplay. I predicted a few of the twists (because I can’t stop my brain from trying to do that whenever I watch such films), but there were enough twists I didn’t predict to make this long thriller a very satisfying piece of entertainment.

So what’s the problem? Well, the biggest weakness of the film, for me, is Ben Affleck. I have said it before: I don’t think Affleck is a very good actor. Nothing in Gone Girl changes that opinion. Sure, there were many scenes in which his acting was passable and his performance was wisely understated, but I couldn’t help thinking that the presence of a better lead actor would have made Gone Girl far more emotionally compelling. I just couldn’t identify in any way with Nick Dunne (whether I was supposed to or not). 

The three lead female actors (Pike, Coon, Dickens), on the other hand, were terrific and it was their characters who kept me riveted to the screen (I wish Dickens, in particular, had had more air time). Anyway, it’s great to see that top quality films like Gone Girl are also drawing crowds to the cinema. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Pride



My review of Pride can be found at the Third Way Cafe: http://www.thirdway.com/MM/?Page=8066_Pride

I might have given Pride **** if I hadn't already awarded **** to so many films this year. So it will have to settle for a very solid ***+. My mug is up.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Drop



The Drop is one of the most unusual thrillers I have ever seen. Written by novelist Dennis Lehane and directed by Belgian filmmaker Michael R. Roskam (a relative newcomer), The Drop has an unusual style, an unusual atmosphere, an unusual story and an unusual denouement. Unusual is good, of course, at least for me.

Tom Hardy delivers his second Oscar-worthy performance of the year (he’s the Matthew McConaughey of 2014) as Bob Saginowski, a lonely quiet bartender who works for his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini, in his final performance) in a small bar in Brooklyn. Once owned by Marv, the bar is now owned by Chechen gangsters and is used on occasion as one of a large number of ‘money drops’ (a way to funnel cash).

Walking in his neighbourhood one day, Bob comes across a wounded puppy that someone has tossed into a garbage can. As he takes the puppy out, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), the house’s owner (or renter) comes outside to confront him. Together, they decide to take care of the puppy and they become friends. That sure sounds like the beginning of a thriller to me! Murder and mayhem are obviously just around the corner!

Well, actually it turns out that the owner of the puppy is a sociopath named Eric Deeds, a man who boasts of killing a kid named Richie Whelan (also known as ‘Glory Days’), last seen alive in Cousin Marv’s bar. When Deeds comes looking for his puppy, things get tense. Although, things were already tense because a couple of masked men robbed Marv’s bar the day before. Actually, The Drop oozes tension (and dread) from the first shot to the last. That’s part of its weird style and magic. There’s a lot more I could say about the plot, but that would reduce the pleasure of the weirdness. 

Hardy’s performance is extraordinary and is more than worth the cost of admission - yes, it’s that good. If Hardy’s greatness as an actor was ever in question, Locke and The Drop have ended the doubt. Gandolfini is also excellent in his final role. And Rapace is solid as the nervous Nadia. The cinematography is ‘unusual’ but perfect for this unusual film. 

If you want to see a thriller that’s a few cuts above the average thriller coming out of Hollywood, look no further. But be warned: it’s a dark, disturbing and occasionally violent film. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Zero Theorem



Wow!

Panned by critics, The Zero Theorem barely made it to the cinema at all (and not at all in Winnipeg). No surprise that Terry Gilliam is misunderstood. Brazil, my third-favourite film of all time, was largely ignored by critics and the masses when it was released in 1985, but now the critics love it and it’s a cult classic.

Wow!

The Zero Theorem is clearly a Brazil for the 21st century, focusing on consumerism, our computer age and corporate capitalism instead of totalitarian governments, and adding theology and philosophy into the mix, which obviously isn’t going to discourage me. I knew zip about this film before I watched it - not even that the critics had panned it. All I knew was that it was a sci-fi directed by Gilliam. That’s all I needed to know. 

Wow!

I’ve wanted to watch The Zero Theorem since the day it was released on DVD (July 22), but it’s been a busy summer, so I let two months pass. I would be more upset by this if it were not for the fact that I ended up watching it, alone, on precisely the day when its subject would impact me the most. In my theology, God does this kind of thing all the time; when it happens, I can only sigh in grateful awe (even when I just missed a chance to watch it with Walter).

Wow!

If you want to know no more (though I won’t spoil too much), stop reading this and watch The Zero Theorem (unless, of course, you don’t like Brazil, or other Gilliam films; me, I’ve always been a big Gilliam fan and most have his films have been profound experiences for me). 

Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, a lonely man living in an abandoned church in a near future which features The Church of Batman the Redeemer. Qohen is some kind of computer genius who is given the assignment (from Management, played by Matt Damon) of proving that everything is for nothing in the end (i.e. there is zero meaning to existence). The trouble is he has been waiting for years for the CALL ( a call he is convinced he missed) from (and here I speculate) God (Waiting for Godot anyone?) to tell him what the meaning is to his life. This makes Qohen’s task rather ironic (and impossible). But a strange woman named Bainsley (played by Melanie Thierry) and Management’s son (Bob, played by Lucas Hedges) are around to help him. And then there’s Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) and Qohen’s supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis), whose help may not be wanted. It’s all quite chaotic (like Brazil), right up to and including the ending which I can’t tell you about.

Every performance is spot-on, Waltz deserves an Oscar and the cinematography is glorious, as are the sets. The Zero Theorem is written by Pat Rushin, a rookie (which is amazing). He has written a screenplay which is mysterious, funny, tragic and, above all, thought-provoking in its depiction of where we are headed and its questions about the meaning of life. You knew what kind of rating I was going to give it from the opening word - ****. My mug is way up for another Gilliam masterpiece. This best of all years for independent films just keeps getting better! Waiting for the odd great film has never been this rewarding.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Magic in the Moonlight



At 78, Woody Allen is still churning out a new film every year, and I continue to enjoy just about everything he makes. Magic in the Moonlight is no exception, despite unfavourable reviews from most critics.

Magic in the Moonlight stars Colin Firth as Stanley, a famous magician in the 1920’s who is frequently called upon to expose fraudulent spiritualists. That’s what happens here as Stanley’s friend Howard (Simon McBurney) invites Stanley to southern France to expose a young woman named Sophie (Emma Stone). Stanley, who is engaged to be married, finds himself strangely drawn to Sophie. Various complications and twists ensue in this rather lighthearted romantic drama.

It’s all quite predictable and the characters and plot are not at all believable (thus the unfavourable reviews), but Magic in the Moonlight is still a lot of fun to watch. That’s because Firth and Stone do an excellent job with their poorly-developed characters, the score is wonderful, the cinematography gorgeous and, always a draw for me, the dialogue is very intelligent in that witty Allen way (and there’s lots of dialogue, as one would expect in an Allen film).

So Magic in the Moonlight gets a solid ***. My mug is up. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey



Putting Guardians behind me as quickly as possible, let’s look at something completely different: The Hundred-Foot Journey, directed by Lasse Hallstrom. The critics actually liked Guardians a lot more than Journey, which just leaves me utterly dumfounded. The Hundred-Foot Journey is no masterpiece, or even one of Hallstrom’s better films (e.g. Chocolat, My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Nor is the screenplay one of Steven Knight’s better efforts (e.g. Locke, Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises). But compared to Guardians, Journey is a priceless work of art. I’m left wondering whether what I look for in a film is not only very different from what the masses are looking for – it’s also very different from what the critics are looking for.

However, an interesting thing to note is that I watched The Hundred-Foot Journey at a theatre in Winnipeg a month after its release and the theatre was almost sold-out on a Tuesday evening. I suspect Journey will still be playing here long after Guardians has disappeared. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (admittedly a better film than Journey) played in Winnipeg for more than six months. There’s a core group of Winnipeg film fans with a deep appreciation for these kinds of films (and films like The Way, which also played here for a number of months).

But I digress. The Hundred-Foot Journey tells the tale of Hassan Kadam (played by Manish Dayal), a young cook whose mother was killed during an act of political violence in India. Fleeing to Europe, Hassan’s father (played by Om Puri) decides to open an Indian restaurant in a small French village, right across the street from a high-class French restaurant owned and operated by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Madame Mallory is not impressed. While she goes to war with Hassan’s father, Hassan falls in love with her sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte le Bon), who teaches him how to cook French-style. The war heats up, the romance cools down, and Hassan’s life takes some predictable, and also unbelievable, turns.

The Hundred-Foot Journey moves at a slow quiet pace, inviting viewers to digest the meal properly and enjoy the stunning cinematography, the beautiful score and the acting of Mirren and Puri. Even so, the romance feels rushed (with the acting of the young actors not matching that of the veterans) and the story doesn’t always seem to know which pieces of the drama it should focus on (I preferred the story of Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam, and the village dynamics, more than the story of Hassan, which seemed to be the focus). Nevertheless, I found the scattering of profound observations about conflict, loneliness and life’s priorities more than sufficient to provide, in combination with the film’s other attributes, a thoroughly entertaining film-watching experience.

The Hundred-Foot Journey gets ***+. My mug is up.