Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Finding Dory



The sequel to Pixar’s delightful Finding Nemo (2003) is not as good as the original (not surprising) but still worth watching. This time the focus is on the blue fish named Dory (Ellen Degeneres) who helped Marlin (Albert Brooks) find Nemo in the first film. Dory suffers from short-term memory loss and disappears from her home while still young. Now, many years later, she wants to find her parents, who are likely very far away. With her lack of memory, this will be a serious challenge, but with the help of an octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill) and a whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), not to mention Marlin, there might be a chance.

There are many good aspects to Finding Dory: The voices are well-done, Hank is a wonderful new character (worth the price of admission), there’s a great message about community and family and, best of all, there’s no villain, so need for redemptive violence. Like the first film, it’s good fun for the whole family.

However, there are some problems. The made-for-3D cinematography is actually a step down from the 13-year-old Finding Nemo and there’s far too much silly action (like the way-too-long and ludicrous truck scene), at the expense of imaginative story and dialogue, probably also because it was made for 3D. In a nutshell, Finding Dory is missing the magic of Finding Nemo because it sacrifices the mysterious depths for surface splash. Somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up!

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Our Kind of Traitor



Regular readers will know that quiet intelligent spy thrillers are a favourite of mine and that I’m an avid reader of John Le Carré novels, so Our Kind of Traitor looked promising in spite of mediocre reviews. For quiet spy thrillers to work for me, they usually need to feature a unique, often heavily stylized, kind of atmosphere. When I saw where the cinematography was headed in Our Kind of Traitor, with lots of handheld work and dreamy soft-focus scenes with slightly desaturated colours, I was initially quite disappointed and my expectations dropped a notch. But the cinematography changed constantly and often provided rich colours and sharp, if gritty, photography. By the end, I was convinced that the cinematography provided exactly the right kind of atmosphere for this story and was, in fact, a primary highlight of the film.

Our Kind of Traitor stars Ewan McGregor as Perry, a university professor vacationing in Marrakesh with his lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris). When, during a romantic evening meal, Gail is called away on business, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), an accountant for the Russian mafia, invites Perry to join his table and then a party. Perry is somewhat reluctant to leap into a friendship with Dima, but does so anyway and is rewarded by having Dima share his work woes with him and being asked by Dima to help him get out of the mafia before he and his family are killed the way his predecessor and his family were killed.

The first requested favour seems minor and safe enough, so Perry plays along. But once Hector (Damien Lewis) from MI6 gets involved, things start to get scary and soon Perry and Gail are in way over their heads, as can happen in a le Carré thriller. 

While McGregor and Harris provide the perfect level of innocence for their roles, and while their acting was solid throughout, something was missing in terms of eliciting the kind of empathetic engagement I most enjoy. Skarsgård, on the other hand, was not only perfectly cast but delivered a great performance. Lewis was also well-cast and solid enough. 

The score was traditional and provided the right flavour for an old-fashioned spy thriller. The only real negative of Our Kind of Traitor was, surprisingly enough, the story itself. I say surprising because le Carré is one of the best spy novelists out there. Unfortunately, this is not one of his stronger novels and, ultimately, the story doesn’t have enough depth or originality to satisfy. Nevertheless, the film’s other strengths made up for some of that and I found Our Kind of Traitor to be solid entertainment for a lover of this genre. ***+ My mug is up. 

Friday, 15 July 2016

The BFG



Steven Spielberg's new CGI film is being called a flop, which is rare for Spielberg, but I thought it was one of the better children's films I have seen this century. I'm giving it ***+. My mug is up.

My full review can be found at Third Way Cafe: http://thirdway.com/the-bfg/

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Genius



Genius, directed by Michael Grandage, has been a critical and box office flop, so it was no surprise that it had a very short stay in Winnipeg. If it hadn’t been for a computer glitch, we would have missed our chance to see it, which would have been a shame, because it was well worth watching on the big screen (the beautiful, stylized period cinematography was one of the best things about the film, though many critics found it too drab).

Genius, based on the A. Scott Berg biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, recounts the story of New York book editor Max Perkins (played by Colin Firth) during an incredibly busy time in his life (late 1920’s - early 1930’s) as he worked with the eccentric writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Wolfe was a prolific writer whose massive volumes needed some very serious editing work. To the indignation of Perkins’s wife, Louise (Laura Linney) and Wolfe’s partner and patron, Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), Perkins and Wolfe became almost inseparable for years at a time as the process of this editing took place.

Cameo-style appearances occur with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West), whose novels were also edited by Perkins. Those appearances (clichéd as they might be) are examples of a number of standout scenes and magical moments in Genius. Unfortunately, the film is not as good as the sum of its parts. For me, the film’s mistake was spending too much time on Wolfe and on the cumbersome editing project rather than on Perkins and his relationships. Firth’s performance was wonderful (as usual) and the story about the brilliant, kind and generous editor was much more interesting and inspiring than the story of the self-absorbed Wolfe. This wasn’t helped by a performance from Law that was rather over-the-top (though he was generally a good casting choice; it’s interesting that this American story about American people was made in the UK with mostly British and Australian actors). 

Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching Genius much more than most critics and give it a very solid ***, verging on ***+. My mug is up. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Maggie's Plan



Maggie’s Plan is an indie romantic comedy starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore and Bill Hader. It’s written and directed by Rebecca Miller, which is notable because there are still so few films written and directed by women. 

Gerwig plays Maggie Hardin, a thirty-something college lecturer who has never had a sustained relationship and has decided to give up trying and have a child on her own. But then she meets John Harding (Hawke), an anthropology professor and aspiring novelist who is married to Georgette (Moore), an ambitious academic. Maggie quickly develops a crush on Harding, whose marriage is unhappy, and her life soon turns into a roller coaster ride as her various plans (including her complicated big plan - the one in the title) run into serious problems. 

Maggie’s Plan is certainly entertaining, with a number of memorable scenes, great cinematography, and appropriately quirky acting by a fine cast. The first half hour in particular was a lot of fun. But ultimately I was disappointed (my expectations were too high). Some of that quirky acting, especially by Moore, didn’t really work for me, and the story as a whole wasn’t as engaging as it could have been. In a romantic comedy, you can expect a contrived plot, but too many scenes felt false to me. But then romantic comedies are generally not my thing, even if they’re indie films.

Maggie’s Plan gets somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up. 

Monday, 27 June 2016

Love & Friendship



Based on a novella (Lady Susan) by Jane Austen, Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship is an impeccably made romantic comedy that will enchant Austen fans but may be less engaging for today’s average filmgoers.

Kate Beckinsale stars as Lady Susan Vernon, who, after the death of her husband, is looking to ensure that she and her daughter (Frederica, played by Morfydd Clark) find husbands who will look after their needs (especially financial needs). She moves in with her in-laws (Catherine, played by Emma Greenwell, and Charles, played by Justin Edwards), gets advice from her close friend Mrs. Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) and starts manipulating the lives of everyone around her in order to produce the best result for herself. Other major characters include Reginald DeCourcy (Catherine’s brother, played by Xavier Samuel) and Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett, who steals every scene he is in). 

The acting is as impeccable as the cinematography and music, Stillman’s dialogue is cleverly written and often hilarious, and the entire film is marvellous fun to watch. Love & Friendship is definitely one of the best films of the year (head and shoulders above most of this century’s romantic comedies), but the story just isn’t emotionally engaging enough to make this one of my favourites. It deserves the **** many critics are giving it, but I’ll settle for a solid ***+. My mug is up and I recommend it to almost everyone. 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

TV47: Da Vinci's Demons



Another Starz cable TV show with lots of gratuitous nudity, sex and violence, Da Vinci’s Demons is a Game of Thrones wannabe, but it never really gets close. It stars Tom Riley as Leonardo da Vinci, who, in his mid-twenties, is living in Florence, where he is apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio (Allan Corduner) and working closely with Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan), who rules the city. The year is around 1476 and da Vinci is making a name for himself by designing all kinds of elaborate weapons and gadgets centuries ahead of his time. In no time, he will become the most important person in Italy, singlehandedly trying to save Florence against Italian enemies and all of Italy against the Turks (Ottoman Empire). By the third season, da Vinci has become primarily a fighter and a war hero instead of a great artist and thinker (and you know that can’t be a good thing). 

To make things interesting, da Vinci shares a lover, Lucrezia Donati ((Laura Haddock) with Lorenzo while Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice Orsini (Lara Pulver), is interested in Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano (Tom Bateman). Helping da Vinci in his quests are his two game-for-anything sidekicks, Zoroaster da Peretola (Gregg Chillin) and Niccolo Machiavelli (Eros Vlahos). Opposing da Vinci are Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) and Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson, a particularly inspired casting choice), though what really concerns da Vinci are the Sons of Mithras, led by Aslan al-Rahim (Alexander Siddig) and their enemies, the Labyrinth. There are many more characters of note, but I won’t name them all here. In general, the acting in Da Vinci’s Demons is quite good. 

And Da Vinci’s Demons starts promisingly enough, with a number of interesting plot elements as well as formulaic elements that suggest a lot of intelligence and imagination. And all three seasons feature gorgeous cinematography and a good score. If you can get past the outrageous plots (don’t look for any history here) and da Vinci’s outrageous inventions, which require only hours to create when even today it would probably require weeks; and if you can get past the endless graphic violence (a tall order to be sure; don’t make the mistake I did and try to watch while eating lunch), which is totally out of place in a show that works hard to be funny (a key difference from Game of Thrones, which is a very serious show), then it’s possible to enjoy the first two seasons of Da Vinci’s Demons, even at a ***+ level.

But the third season completely falls of the rails, with absurdity piled upon absurdity (especially surrounding the character of Vlad the Impaler (Paul Rhys), also known as Dracula, who is introduced in the second season and should have been left there) and with plot elements that double back, wander all over the place, and are almost never satisfying. It’s as if a new set of writers was in charge of season three and they didn’t have a clue where they wanted the show to go. Obviously, they learned too late that season three would be the last, so there is evidence of a desperate attempt to provide an ending that ties some of the strands together, but nothing works and lots of stuff is left hanging. The entire third season was, for me, a write-off, an embarrassment that deserved its fate. If it were not for the show’s most fascinating character, Riario, who is plagued by even more internal demons than da Vinci (who certainly has enough of his own) and may, I think, be in love with da Vinci (even when they are enemies), and who features prominently in the third season, I would give that final season no more than **, but I’ll settle for **+, giving Da Vinci’s Demons an average of ***. 

It’s all an incredible waste of potential (interesting characters played by good actors) and I would only recommend it to those who are willing to see the show take a dive in the final season.