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. 

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Into the Forest

Into the Forest is a Canadian indie film written and directed by Patricia Rozema, based on the novel by Jean Hegland. It stars Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood as Nell and Eva, two sisters (in their twenties) living with their father in a rundown house in the woods (in New England somewhere, though it’s filmed in BC) when the electricity suddenly goes out all over North America. In just a few short days, there are no more groceries and gas to be found, followed shortly by the loss of the internet and radio. They have food and water to last a few months, but what if this power outage lasts longer than that? How will they (and everyone else) survive?

This scenario feels all too plausible. By focusing exclusively on how the two sisters cope with the crises they encounter and try to think beyond just survival to also thriving, Into the Forest creates an intense, almost horror-like, atmosphere that made me feel like I was right there in the house with the two women. That kind of engagement is all too rare for me and is always appreciated, even if I had trouble breathing at times. With excellent performances from Page and Wood, a solid screenplay that’s faithful to the novel and provides strong character development, and the occasional use of haunting music, Into the Forest worked for me. 

It didn’t work for some of the critics, however. They wanted the film to go beyond the lives of the two young women. I think that misses the point of the novel/film and would have watered-down the kind of intense engagement I just mentioned. I would argue with those critics (all of whom are male) that this inspiring and haunting film about embracing life should be viewed as the rare privilege of having a film made almost exclusively by women and almost exclusively about women (there are three men in minor roles). This gives us an opportunity to think about whether and how the story would play out differently if it was made by men, and I think the negative male critics may provide some answers. Watching the film with two women allowed me to discover some immediate differences in our reaction to the film which I found very intriguing (e.g. I thought the film was darker and scarier than they did). Into the Forest gets ***+. My mug is up.

Monday, 13 June 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

I’ve always appreciated the X-Men films more than the Avengers films, and most other superhero films, not least because they encourage us to think about how we treat those who are different from us, so when I had an opportunity to watch the 2D version of X-Men: Apocalypse, I took it. But the critics were spot-on in their lukewarm reception of the film. It’s virtually nonstop action and there is very little of substance in the film.

I mean, haven’t we all seen enough cities get destroyed by creatures with superpowers (usually aliens)? Apparently, filmmakers don’t think so (the trailer for Independence Day: Resurgence shows much more of the same coming our way - on the basis of that trailer, I am already prepared to award that film the one star it so richly deserves). I, for one, no longer care how great the CGI is - my mind tunes out as soon as buildings come apart and bridges start to wobble. 

The plot of X-Men: Apocalypse is so simple it can summarized in just a few words: ‘A mutant buried 5,600 years ago is freed and tries, with the help of other mutants from ‘today’, to take over the planet. The X-Men try to stop him.’ It’s an exceptionally silly plot, revealing an incredible lack of imagination on the part of the writers (the same writers who wrote much better X-Men films in the past). And I’m not sure how director Bryan Singer thought this would be a good addition to the X-Men filmography. 

I won’t bother listing the many actors who appear in X-Men Apocalypse's ensemble cast, none of whom are particularly good here. I will simply note that the one thing worth watching the film for (for me) was the score, which combined Beethoven and John Ottman’s music for an action thrill-ride. Because of that score, I will bump X-Men: Apocalypse up from ** to **+, but my mug is still down. Don’t waste your time on this one.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

A Bigger Splash

An Italian English-language remake of a 1969 French film, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash tries to be a combination of Sorrentino and Hitchcock, an artsy Continental suspense drama. This stylish mystery doesn’t quite succeed in its aspirations but is nevertheless a well-made and very entertaining film, worth watching just for the delicious performances by Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton (with Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson holding up their own as the rest of the foursome).

Swinton and Schoenaerts play Marianne and Paul, a couple taking a much-needed vacation on the remote Italian island of Pantelleria. Marianne is an aging rock star and is recovering from voice surgery. She can’t talk, so this getaway, alone with Paul, is the perfect opportunity to recuperate. Unfortunately, not long after their arrival, Marianne’s ex, Harry (Fiennes), shows up with his daughter, Penelope (Johnson) and begins to take over the vacation. Harry is a manic narcissist who enjoys being the centre of attention and has no qualms about stripping down for a swim in the pool at all hours of the day or night (the pool is part of the villa in which they are all staying).

Despite Harry’s flirting with every woman in his presence, it’s clear that he is still very much in love with Marianne and is trying to win her back from his close friend, Paul (to whom he introduced Marianne some six years earlier). Paul is, understandably, not impressed, especially when he sees Marianne going along with Harry’s every suggestion and enjoying herself a little too much in Harry’s presence. Meanwhile, the beautiful young Penelope is trying to seduce Paul. In the long run, these dynamics and the sexual tension are not a recipe for a good time and eventually things turn dark.

Besides the wonderful acting, A Bigger Splash works because of its fully-realized beautifully-crafted smouldering atmosphere, especially for the first three-quarters of the film. The plot, which is minimal, isn’t as important as the relationships, the emotions and the character development, highlighted by gorgeous cinematography that provides frequent close-ups of the faces and enjoys showing us what’s going on in reflection (usually via Marianne’s sunglasses). The writing is sharp and darkly funny at times and the music is well-chosen. Despite a slightly disappointing denouement, A Bigger Splash gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Monday, 6 June 2016

Creative Control

Every few months I check out the indie film scene to see what I may have missed by living in a city with few opportunities to watch arthouse cinema (my apologies to Cinematheque, which tries hard but can only do so much). I look for hidden gems, festival films that remain obscure and may get mixed reviews but might still be magical to me. That’s how I found the films of Shane Carruth, which weren’t quite magical for me but which I enjoyed very much. And that’s how I found yet another obscure sci-fi film with a writer/director (Benjamin Dickinson) who also plays the lead role. Despite being generally panned by critics and viewers alike, Creative Control (released just this spring) was, for all its flaws, one of those magical gems I look for. 

Dickinson plays David, an advertising exec who is tasked with coming up with an ad for Augmenta, a pair of augmented-reality glassed that allow the wearer to see information and interact with images in ways that sci-fi writers and sci-fi films have been hinting at for decades. While the concept isn’t original, Creative Control feels so immediate, as if all of its technology is just around the corner (if it doesn’t exist already), that I could imagine just such a story happening in the very near future. So even though David’s character is not fully realized and is not particularly sympathetic (this is definitely an “all-men-are-jerks” kind of film), I found myself fully engaged in this haunting tale of a depressed pill-popping man who is falling in love with his best friend’s girlfriend (Sophie, played by Alexia Rasmussen) and discovers a new use for the Augmenta glasses. 

David’s own girlfriend, Juliette (Nora Zehetner), a yoga instructor, knows something is wrong with their relationship and finds her own unique way of coping. As for Wim (Dan Gill), David’s best friend, well, he’s having an affair with one of his models (he’s a photographer), making it all the easier for David to fantasize about Sophie, who is the film’s only sympathetic character.

The lack of sympathetic characters in Creative Control is okay in a sci-fi film like this because this is a quirky cautionary tale that feels very real and is told in a very compelling way. What makes it so compelling? First, there’s the extraordinary 2.35:1 black and white cinematography - a perfect choice for this film and it’s perfectly shot. Second, there’s the perfect choice of music, mostly classical, for every scene. The perfection, style and use of the cinematography and music remind me very much of Stanley Kubrick, my favourite director. Watching and enjoying Creative Control the way I would watch and enjoy a Kubrick film made it possible to overlook the lack of sympathetic characters, the occasionally uneven acting and the many flaws in the plot (and the resemblances to the better film, Her). But the primary reason I find the film so compelling (and can overlook its flaws) is because of the way it offers insightful commentary (often with dark humour) on our drug-filled, work-obsessed, smartphone/Facebook culture and on the very real dangers presented by our technological advances, especially as we move into an era of virtual reality.

As a result, I am giving Creative Control ****. My mug is up, but be warned that this film is rated 18A and contains almost no violence. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Sunset Song

Terence Davies’s new film is a gorgeous Scottish epic with similarities to classic melodramas like How Green Was My Valley but with an arthouse style all its own.

Based on a 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song tells the story of a young woman, Chris Guthrie (played by Agyness Deyn), who grows up on a farm in the beautiful hills of northeastern Scotland in the early twentieth century. Chris’s family is dysfunctional, ruled by John Guthrie (Peter Mullan), an abusive tyrannical father/husband who is responsible for much of the horror that plagues Chris’s late childhood and early adulthood. But as Chris comes to terms with the loss of her childhood dreams, she faces the crises of her young life without ever giving up on her independent strong-willed spirit.

Chris’s story is depicted in a series of scenes that highlight the traumas and joys of her life without actually showing some of them (i.e. sometimes we hear them happening in the background, sometimes we are left to imagine them). Combined with the slow and lingering style of cinematography and an almost nonexistent score, this provides a unique and engaging viewing experience. The infrequent use of poetic and insightful voiceovers (by Chris) adds much to this experience. The similarity to Terence Malick’s films is evident, but Sunset Song is more linear and accessible than most of Malick’s films. 

One of my favourite scenes in Sunset Song shows people walking across the fields to church on a Sunday morning shortly after Scotland becomes involved in World War I. The choir-like hymn we hear as they walk followed by the horrific sermon from the Presbyterian minister are as haunting as they are beautiful and devastating.

Unfortunately, it is after that scene that Sunset Song begins to lose its way, as its portrayal of the effects of the war feels jarring and unconvincing. Prior to the last half hour, Sunset Song was on its way to collecting four stars. Still, even in its less-satisfying scenes, the film is profound and moving in ways that few films today come close to, as summarized perfectly by one critic (Michael Koresky), who writes: “[Chris’s] sorrowful love and Christ-like forbearance grant the film a humane, earthbound spirituality that Davies’s atheism might otherwise not allow for.” 

Sunset Song gets a very solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

TV46: Five Recent British Political/Spy Thriller Miniseries Worth Watching: The Honourable Woman, London Spy, Restless, Secret State, The Worricker Trilogy

During the past two years, I have had the privilege of watching these five excellent British miniseries, all of which were made in the past five years and all of which fall into one of my favourite genres: political/spy (conspiracy) thrillers with a focus on intelligent dialogue over action. My memory of some of these series has faded, so I will provide only capsule reviews of these shows, but they are all highly recommended.

The Honourable Woman

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Nessa Stein, a Jewish businesswoman who runs the powerful Stein Group and uses her influence to work for peace in the Middle East (specifically in terms of Jewish-Palestinian relations). When an apparent suicide by her business partner delays a long-planned project to provide an optical fibre connection to the West Bank, Stein’s life begins to unravel. The acting (especially by Gyllenhaal and Stephen Rea, who works for MI6) is exceptional, as is much of the writing of this very compelling miniseries. There were a few scenes I found less than convincing and the violence was disturbing (this is not a show for the squeamish), so Hugo Blick’s 2014 The Honourable Woman gets only a solid ***+.

London Spy

Hot off the press, Tom Rob Smith’s 2015 London Spy stars Ben Whishaw as Danny, a young man who falls in love with a spy (Secret Intelligence Service) named Alex (Edward Holcroft) who suddenly disappears eight months into their relationship. Danny is in for a great many nasty surprises in the weeks ahead, including learning of Alex’s involvement in a major conspiracy involving … well, that would be telling. Despite the enormity of the conspiracy and its implications, London Spy is not about that conspiracy but about relationships, especially the relationships between Danny and Alex and between Danny and Scottie (Jim Broadbent). Once again, the acting of Whishaw and Broadbent (as well as Charlotte Rampling, who is a central figure in the story) is exceptional, as are the writing, cinematography and score. London Spy is a first-class miniseries (though, again, it may be too dark for many viewers) and gets a solid ****.


This 2012 miniseries, directed by Edward Hall, is a WWII spy thriller (though it begins in the 1970’s and then flashes back) starring Hayley Atwell as Eva Delectorskaya, a young woman recruited by Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell) in 1939 to become a British spy, following the path of her recently-killed brother. Eva gets involved in some operations that go wrong and indicate the possible existence of a strange conspiracy. When Eva begins to uncover the truth, her life is suddenly in danger and it’s time to run. A little too much action in this one, as well as a few unsatisfactory plot elements, but the acting (Charlotte Rampling is on hand again), writing, cinematography and score are again very good and Restless has a well-conceived and unique structure. A solid ***+.

Secret State

Another miniseries from 2012, Secret State stars Gabriel Byrne as Tom Dawkins, an honest idealistic man who suddenly finds himself taking on the role of the British Prime Minister (following the sudden death, via plane crash, of the prime minister), a job he has never wanted. Faced with pressure from colleagues who want to replace him with a real politician, and faced with revelations of a major conspiracy involving the banks and big business (and the truth about what really happened on that plane), Dawkins find himself in a dark lonely place (though one of this show’s flaws is that we see so little of Dawkins’ personal life). Secret State shows what would happen if someone like Bernie Sanders became president of the United States. That’s good enough for me. Byrne is terrific and he’s supported by Charles Dance. This intelligent thriller is the most obscure of the miniseries described in this post, but it’s worth a watch. Secret State gets somewhere between ***+ and ****.

The Worricker Trilogy

Technically, David Hare’s The Worricker Trilogy is not a miniseries but three TV movies about Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy), an aging MI5 officer who gets caught up in various conspiracies at the heart of British intelligence (and the British government). The Worricker Trilogy features particularly complex, intelligent and compelling plots (of the John Le CarrĂ©  variety), first class acting (by an incredibly high-quality cast, which includes, besides those mentioned below: Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Felicity Jones, Rupert Graves and Olivia Williams) and top-notch production values (with gorgeous cinematography). Great stuff!

The first film of the trilogy is Page Eight (2011), in which Worricker tries to stand up against Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes), a British Prime Minister who is not an honest idealist like Tom Dawkins. Along the way, Worricker begins a relationship with Nancy Pierpan (Rachel Weisz), a neighbour who happens to be a political activist whose brother was killed by Israeli soldiers. Various clandestine activities ensue. Page Eight is the best of the trilogy and gets ****.

The second film is Turks & Caicos (2013), in which Worricker finds himself once again at the centre of a conspiracy, even when he’s in hiding on the Turks & Caicos Islands. Christopher Walken plays the mysterious Curtis Pellisier, who introduces Worricker to a group of corrupt businessmen working for a company called Gladstone. When one of those businessmen is found dead the next morning, and a Gladstone liaison named Melanie Fall (Winona Ryder) acts suspiciously, and Pellisier’s true identity is revealed, Worricker has to think very fast to get himself out of trouble without compromising his principles (he has the help of his former girlfriend (and former MI5 analyst), Margot Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter). Turks & Caicos gets somewhere between ***+ and ****.

On the run once again in the final film, Salting the Battlefield (2014), Worricker and Tyrell try to evade MI5 while exposing Beasley’s corrupt business dealings. While still a very good spy film, this is the weakest film of the series, with some disappointing plot elements, and gets only ***+.