Saturday, 30 April 2016

Knight of Cups

I watched this with Deanna in Edmonton in early April, under less-than-ideal conditions (noxious fumes permeating the theatre), so my review isn’t trustworthy until I watch it again.

Like To the Wonder (Terence Malick’s last film), Knight of Cups has been poorly received by critics. Partly this is due simply to the fact that it’s a very typical Malick film, with frequent meditative voiceovers and dream-like sequences; it’s more poetry than narrative and many critics think this is getting old. I don’t agree. I think the film industry hugely benefits from filmmakers like Malick who masterfully take film in new directions.

Having said that, I don’t think Knight of Cups is Malick’s strongest film. Perhaps because of the fumes, I found that Knight of Cups had fewer profound ideas and insights than Malick’s previous films, something that is essential for my enjoyment of a film like this (under better viewing conditions, I might have just let the gorgeous images and enigmatic dialogue in Knight of Cups wash over me like the waves in the film, but …)

In what appears to be another autobiographical film (the third in a row, beginning with Tree of Life), Malick is represented by Rick (played by Christian Bale), a young man struggling to find meaning in life in Los Angeles, where he is working as a screenwriter.

The film is divided into chapters named after tarot cards, with each chapter focusing on a failed relationship with a different woman (including his ex-wife, played by Cate Blanchett). Rick, it seems, is quite the womanizer. Woven among these failed relationships is Rick’s also failed relationship with his father (brilliantly played by Brian Dennehy, the only actor whose talents weren’t under-utilized in this film) and brother (Wes Bentley). 

But, as already said, Knight of Cups doesn’t have a plot. It’s about life, meaning, lost opportunities, relationships, and celebrity, all suffused with religious overtones which make the film that much more fascinating for me. With the world’s greatest cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki) on hand to give us a new look at L.A., we are invited to see and experience life through Malick’s unique vision. That’s good enough for me. Once I see Knight of Cups without the fumes, I will likely award it ***+, but for now I will only commit to somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

A Hologram for the King

I have a special bond with German filmmaker Tom Tykwer. I say this not because I have enjoyed every film he has made (though I have) or because three of his films are in my all-time top 100 (each of those was my favourite film of the year); I say this because three of my favourite Tykwer films (including two of those referred to above) were panned by most film critics. So the fact that Tykwer’s new film, A Hologram for the King, has received mostly mediocre reviews hardly served to scare me off or even lower my expectations. And while A Hologram for the King, which is based on the novel by Dave Eggers, won’t be my favourite film of 2016, it did not disappoint. 

Tom Hanks stars as Alan Clay, an American IT salesman who flies to Saudi Arabia in 2010 to try to sell a new holographic teleconferencing system to the king. In the brilliant opening scene, we learn that Alan has lost his house, his wife and his car. His work isn’t going well either and his life feels like a rollercoaster. Alan’s pain and depression (midlife crisis?) are real, but he is not to be compared to Job (or Nikolay in Leviathan). This is, after all, a comedy, the kind of film (and role) Hanks does as well as any actor ever has. Alan’s losses are the result of a messy divorce, his wife being tired of Alan’s inability to see the big picture. But Alan does have a college-age daughter (Tracey Fairaway) who loves him and tries to assure him that she doesn’t blame him for the fact that she can’t afford college.

Alan’s high hopes for Saudi Arabia are dashed quickly when his driver (Yousef, played wonderfully by Alexander Black) laughs at the prospect of the king’s new city, where Alan hopes to make the sale. When he arrives at a handful of buildings in the middle of the desert and finds his team in a large tent, wondering when to expect wi-fi (a requirement for the system) and food, he begins to despair, especially when he hears that the king hasn’t visited his new city in the past eighteen months and no one can guarantee when he might show up for the demonstration Alan and his team are preparing. 

A large bump that has recently appeared on his upper back adds to Alan’s worries. After a particularly bad night, Yousef takes Alan to the hospital, where he is cared for by Dr. Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), one of the few female doctors in SA. Does Alan have cancer on top of all his other problems? Is his stress overwhelming his body or is he spending too much time with Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the Danish woman in the office who is trying to be a little too helpful?

All of the characters in A Hologram for the King are unique and memorable. The presence of two strong older women as romantic leads is refreshing. The cinematography is excellent, the score (Tykwer wrote much of it himself) is very good and there are some interesting ideas lying just beneath the surface that I’m still trying to interpret.

A Hologram for the King is a gentle, quiet, sad and funny film, with some thoughtful comments on life, and I was delighted by almost every minute of it. Comedy-drama is not my favourite genre, but this one works for me. I recommend it to almost everyone (not to those who yawn at the mention of a gentle quiet film). A solid ***+. My mug is up and a place in my top ten of the year is not out of the question.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Embrace of the Serpent


Gareth was in town a couple of weeks ago and we got to watch one of his favourite films of the decade at Cinematheque. It will surely make my top ten of the year as well.

Reminding me of Fitzcarraldo, The Mission and Apocalypse Now, Embrace of the Serpent is nevertheless a wholly original and utterly spellbinding work of art. It tells the story of Karamakate, an indigenous Amazonian shaman, at two points in his life (1909 and 1940) when he is asked to guide a white man upriver in search of a sacred healing plant called yakruna. 

Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), possibly the last survivor of his tribe, is still young, living by himself in the heart of the Amazonian jungle (in Colombia), when Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is near death, arrives in 1909, needing yakruna to heal him. In 1940, it is Evan (Brionne Davis), an American botanist, who, having read Theo’s diaries, wants the older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) to help him find the plant. 

The two trips up the Amazon reveal the horrors of colonialism, including the enslavement and genocide of indigenous peoples by the Colombian rubber barons. One stop along the river, in both time periods, is particularly haunting, not least because it’s a Catholic mission and shows the way religion can be part of the horror.

My first response to watching Embrace of the Serpent was: “Wow. In the midst of superhero and special effects madness, some people are still making old-fashioned masterpieces.” Full of wonder, mystery and magic (as well as horror), Cio Guerra’s film is a breath of fresh air. While I kept wondering how green the locations really were, the black and white cinematography is gorgeous and adds to the mystery and the feeling that you are watching history unfold (by way of an old documentary). 

The highlight of the film, however, is the character of Karamakate and the incredible performance of the two actors (or non-actors) who play him. A wise man who constantly makes us wonder who is the wiser and more civilized (the enlightened supposedly-advanced white people or the indigenous peoples being wiped off the earth), Karamakate reveals the oppression without, as Gareth points out, demonizing the oppressor. Remarkable. 

Embrace of the Serpent gets an easy **** and is not to be missed. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Midnight Special

As it should be, I knew absolutely nothing about Midnight Special before going into the theatre (apart from the names of some of the key players involved). This is the only way, in my opinion, to get the fullest enjoyment out of watching this film, even if (or precisely because) Midnight Special is a very enigmatic film (i.e. one never learns what is really going on at the beginning of the film or what really happens at the end). 

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, whose previous two films (Mud, Take Shelter) were among my favourites in their respective years (2012, 2011), Midnight Special stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver (among others) in what I will only describe for you as an ‘adventure’ film (I do this on the off chance that you have not yet been informed of its actual genre or genres, thus potentially increasing your enjoyment of the film). 

While this ‘adventure’ film contains a number of action scenes, those viewers looking for an action film will go away disappointed, as Midnight Special is a slow-moving thoughtful film which focuses on characters, relationships, tension and mystery rather than action (even though the ‘action’ drives the film’s narrative). Even so, my only complaint about Midnight Special is that there was too much action (i.e. more than was necessary, including some violent scenes which, while remarkably restrained, were nevertheless not absolutely required). 

One of the many joys of watching Midnight Special is its obvious (and, I assume, intentional) similarity to one of my favourite films of all time (a film made in the seventies, which I won’t identify lest it give too much away). It isn’t in any way a remake of that film, but it felt like watching another version of the story, one with strong undercurrents of one of my all-time favourite writers (a Canadian writer by the name of Robert Charles Wilson, whose specialty is ‘mystery’, though not of the Agatha Christie variety). 

There is a lot of mystery in Midnight Special, especially, as I have indicated, at the beginning and end of the film. But I found both the beginning (which drops us into the middle of the story) and the end to be absolutely brilliant. It was only the ‘action’ in between that occasionally failed to satisfy. 

The acting was excellent, with Shannon standing out as a man suffering from all kinds of doubts and anxieties as he tries to … oops, almost gave you too much information. Add a perfect score and handheld cinematography that felt right for this kind of film (which felt so much like an indie film that it’s hard to believe it was made by a studio) and you have another winner from Jeff Nichols, one of the best new directors out there. For the second review in a row, I have to give Midnight Special ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up. 

Friday, 8 April 2016

Eye in the Sky

Alan Rickman's final screen performance is one of his best, and the film he stars is in one of the best films of the year so far. My full review can be found at Third Way Cafe:

One thing I forgot to mention in that review is the effort the filmmakers made to humanize the terrorists. I had noted that (as I watched) with great appreciation, but forgot about it until I read Gareth's review (after I had sent my review in). A very solid ***+, verging on ****. My mug is up for Eye in the Sky, a thoughtful, thought-provoking and brilliantly-acted film.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Divergent: Allegiant

The decline of the Divergent series continues with this third instalment. Since the second film received only **+ from me, this is a very sad thing indeed.

So I’ll make this brief: Jeff Daniels joins a cast that includes Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer along with the usual Divergent regulars. To say it’s a step down for them is an understatement. All of the acting takes a huge step down in this third film, with not a single performance worth mentioning. A number of scenes were downright embarrassing (including one featuring Daniels). But actors can only do so much with a bad screenplay, and what we have in Divergent: Allegiant is a bad screenplay. 

With a little imagination, heart and a lot more thought, it could have been a good film, as we watch the group of young leaders from a dystopian Chicago finally discover what lies beyond the wall. For me, it wasn’t that the plot was too convoluted. I generally understood what was happening throughout the film. What I couldn’t understand was WHY it was happening. The story is messy and boring, with lots of holes and inconsistencies, like the fact that (minor spoiler alert) an organization with unimaginably high-tech surveillance capabilities has no idea what’s going on right under its nose (the CIA and Mossad do much better with much less). 

But the worst part of the screenplay (for me) was its poor opinion of people in general and of people’s readiness (often eagerness) to use violence for the tiniest of excuses in particular. This leads to far too much violence and a lot of stupidity. 

As in the first two films of the series, there are some thought-provoking ideas in Divergent: Allegiant, like a discussion of what happens when the character traits of any faction become too dominant (e.g. too much emphasis on intelligence in Erudite leads to a lack of compassion; too much emphasis on pacifism in Amity leads to becoming passive, etc.). But these ideas are completely wasted in this film. 

So unless you’re a huge Divergent fan or just can’t resist dystopian films (that’s me), you’ll want to give Divergent: Allegiant a miss. ** My mug is down.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

I was an avid comic-book reader when I was young, but I never so much as glanced at the cover of a Marvel comic book. I was a DC-guy through and through. Maybe that’s why The Avengers generally bore me. The only Marvel superhero I enjoy watching on film is Spider-man

Back to DC: My favourite comic book was World’s Finest, which featured both of my favourite superheroes: Superman and Batman. But my favourite superhero, by far, was Batman. So I much appreciated Tim Burton’s Batman films with Michael Keaton as Batman (though I had no use for the sequels), and of course I loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman films (with Christian Bale), though I had some serious problems with the second and third films. 

Now we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While it’s breaking box office records, it has received mostly dismal reviews from the critics. Since I didn’t like Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (the prequel), and since I’m no fan of Ben Affleck (who plays Batman), I thought this was one superhero film I wouldn’t have to watch. But then I heard people arguing about all the religious talk and religious symbolism in the film and I couldn’t stop myself. 

One of the most obvious features of Batman v Superman, and one of the biggest complaints from critics, is the unremitting and overwhelming darkness. Unlike in the Marvel films, there is no fun to be had here. Not even the eccentric-genius villain (Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg) is having any fun here. Superman (Henry Cavill) is confused and depressed about all the people complaining about his attempts to protect Metropolis (a senator, played by Holly Hunter, asks why Superman should be trusted when he never bothers to consult anyone about what he does) instead of complaining about the much more worrisome vigilante across the river in Gotham, the one branding his victims (baddies though they may be) with the image of a bat. Meanwhile, Batman is angry and depressed because twenty years of crime-fighting in Gotham seem like a waste of time for all the good they’ve done, especially now that this alien Superman fellow is causing so much trouble (Superman’s fight against General Zod in Man of Steel begins this film and results in the destruction of one of Bruce Wayne’s office buildings, and the death of many of his employees, something Batman is still stewing over eighteen months later). Meanwhile, Alfred (Jeremy Irons) is tired of putting up with his boss and worried because of Batman’s constant anger and depression, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) are worried about Superman’s enemies and his emotional wellbeing, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) is worried about Clark Kent’s obsession with Batman, and even the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) just seems to want to get away from all the darkness. 

If the darkness of the characters isn’t enough, the cinematography and atmosphere are as dark and gloomy as they can be, enhanced by the desaturated colours which are no doubt partly the result of making the film for 3D (I watched the 2D version of course). Then there’s Hans Zimmer’s overwhelmingly heavy (dark) score. Even the superhero action (i.e. violence) is dark, with dark thoughts fuelling the fight between the two superheroes and despair fuelling the fight against Luthor’s monster, Doomsday, whose name says it all.

But here’s the thing: All this darkness is what I liked best about Batman v Superman. I’m a Batman fan after all - I like my superheroes dark and I like my superhero films dark. Not sure how that fits into my personality (I’m an optimist at heart), but I’ve always been attracted to dark films (yup, I’m a film noir fan). Sure, I would have enjoyed the darkness of the characters much more if the plot and character-development had been stronger (the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, feeling contrived in a lazy way, unlike Nolan’s brilliantly-contrived plots), but I find it much easier to identify with superheroes who are in a dark space and thus felt much more engaged with this film than with any of the Avengers-related films. I also much prefer to see my superhero redemptive violence take place in a dark environment where it’s more difficult to enjoy the violence (instead of being disturbed by it and wanting it to stop), as opposed to the ‘fun’ environment of The Avengers, where the violence feels like it’s there to entertain. Which is not to say that I in any way condone all the violent action in Batman v Superman. I do not. I found the violence repetitive, boring and largely unnecessary, just as I do in most superhero films (most of which I describe as odes to redemptive violence). 

Another thing I didn’t like about the film was the way it hinted at all the DC films to come, creating a superhero franchise to rival Marvel’s Avengers, though those of us familiar with the comics knew what Dawn of Justice was referring to (i.e. the Justice League). Despite my love of superheroes as a child, my ongoing fascination with Batman, and my deep respect for the Tobey Maguire Spider-man films, I grow weary of superhero films and I’m worried about the fact that few people seem to share that view.

One of the future DC-film superheroes already makes an entrance in Batman v Superman, in a scene which felt too much like The Avengers. As for the film’s controversial ending, I will only say that I was not dissatisfied, though it was drawn out too long for me.

While I will admit that Affleck was not the worst choice for Batman, I was not particularly impressed with his acting, or with the acting of anyone else in the film, other than some who appeared all-too-briefly (Hunter, Irons, Fishburne). It was all adequate enough.

But what about the religious symbolism that tempted me to watch Batman v Superman in the first place? I suppose it deserves an essay of its own, but it’s so difficult to understand exactly where the filmmakers are going with it that an essay seems pointless. There is no question that Superman is intentionally portrayed as a Christ-figure (as in Man of Steel), with a number of Biblical allusions and symbols. It’s likely that the Good Friday release was part of that. Exactly where Batman fits in with the religious symbolism is less clear. Bats have an association with hell and there are inferences that the battle between Superman and Batman is a battle not just between God and ‘man’ but between God and the devil. But I may be reading too much into that and it certainly doesn't go anywhere. It seems clearer that Doomsday is a demonic figure, but that isn’t developed either.

The most conspicuous religious content of the film is Lex Luthor’s words to Superman in which he discusses the age-old question of how God can allow so much suffering in the world. Luthor, who thinks Superman represents God (part of the Christ-figure storyline) concludes that God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful and tries to prove that Superman is neither. Again, all this religious talk doesn’t seem to go anywhere or say much to viewers (partly because of the overwhelming anti-Christlike presence of redemptive violence rather than Jesus’ emphasis on nonviolence). The Spider-man films were much more thoughtful and profound. 

Nevertheless, going in with the lowest of expectations, I was surprised enough by my engagement with the film to award Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a surprising ***. My mug is up.