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. 


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes



Aaaaaargh! Where to start? I hate it when films make me want to tear my hair out in frustration (an experience I have had far too often in 2014), especially when in every case this year the problem can be summarized in one phrase: an awesome failure of imagination!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the immediate sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which everyone (including me) agreed was better than expected. Dawn is getting the same responses and has received mostly excellent reviews, so my expectations were high. Given that I have condemned three critically-acclaimed films already this year, I should have known better.

Dawn begins in the near future, after an epidemic, caused by the same research (and retrovirus) which created intelligent apes, has decimated the world’s human population. Ten years after the plague began, the apes, who have built a village in the woods north of San Francisco (actually a park in B.C.), have decided that humans must have been wiped out altogether. So when a small group of humans, looking for a dam that will provide San Francisco with the power it so desperately needs (their generators have run out of fuel), bump into two young apes, both apes and humans are taken by surprise. It doesn’t take long for all hell to break loose.

The apes are led by Caesar, from Rise, who has many fond memories of humans, allowing him a small level of trust in the humans’ intentions, a trust not shared by Koba, his closest aide, who had been tortured repeatedly by humans before being released by Caesar near the end of Rise. Trust becomes a key word in Dawn, as it does not take long for humans to abuse and lose the trust which Caesar has placed in them. Of course, the distrust is caused by just one bad egg (Carver), who himself distrusts the apes. This theme is repeated with San Francisco’s leader, a military man who does not trust the apes and is ready to use the town’s vast arsenal against the apes if necessary. On the ape side, Koba has zero trust in the humans and goes behind Caesar’s back to check out what the humans are really up to. Will Caesar stop trusting Koba in time to avert disaster? And what does it mean when trust is lost?

I won’t give away more plot specifics here, though I will make some vague statements about what follows which might be considered spoilers by some (they would to me, but then even what I have written so far would be a spoiler to me). One of the biggest problems I had with Dawn is that I was able to predict virtually everything (in general, not specifics) which followed based on the first fifteen minutes of the film. No film that predictable should be universally praised for its writing and plot. I kept hoping I was wrong, and there were repeated hints that Dawn was trying to be morally nuanced and intelligent (i.e. the potential for a great film was certainly present), but the last half hour was a disaster that let me down time and time again.

In all fairness to Dawn, it must be stated that Dawn is a brilliantly-made film in many ways. The special effects and cinematography are amazing (I did not watch it in 3D, of course, but only rarely noticed I was watching a 3D film), the acting is strong by all involved (a special note of praise here for Andy Serkis as Caesar, as well as for Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman as the prominent humans), the score by Michael Giacchino is good if sometimes overwhelming (i.e. the constant cuing of emotions, especially near the end, is distracting, to say the least), the direction by Matt Reeves is tight, and the final result is a very entertaining film. Leaving aside the question of morality, I can see why critics liked Dawn as much as they did. And just a couple of months ago, I gave ***+ to an entertaining morally-nuanced film (Maleficent) that let me down at the end. Unfortunately, Dawn, which was praised by critics for its humanistic statements, and its insightful social commentary on the conflicts which plague humans today, failed on far too many levels to get the same result.

As I said, Dawn did try. Both the ‘bad’ ape, Koba, and the misguided human leader, were ‘humanized’ with background stories. But the film’s awful ending undid much of this humanizing (literally so, in one case). In Dawn’s opening moments, we see young apes being taught that apes do not kill apes (unlike humans, who have no trouble killing apes and other humans). But the film’s final message seems to be that humans do not kill humans either. The humans killed by good humans are no longer human (i.e. they have been fully dehumanized – turned into monsters) and so they have become killable.

Dawn also positively shows us the role of leaders in inciting the masses to go to war, (spoiler alert) going so far as to suggest that some leaders are willing to manufacture a pretext for war, like killing their own leaders or burning down their own villages, and blaming it on the enemy. Yes, that’s provocative social commentary! Add to that the great job Dawn does of depicting the big battle scene, making it appear that war is incredibly stupid and evil (which it is), as well as the creation of an atmosphere that allows us to sympathize equally with both sides in the conflict and to highlight the power of cooperation, and the potential for meaningful humanizing filmmaking is all around us. That potential is wasted, however, by an ending which suggests that peaceful resolutions of inter-species (or international?) conflict are simply unrealistic. War is simply inevitable.


Then there is the way that certain people and apes are portrayed (and literally described) as particularly ‘good’, while others are portrayed as mixed or ‘bad’. And what about forgiveness? At one point in the film, Caesar says humans will not be able to forgive certain things, but just moments before he was also unable to forgive certain things. That about sums up the film’s attempts at moral engagement: endless mixed messages, which, like Dawn’s ending (such as it is), leave us worse off than when we started. I can’t imagine sitting through Dawn again, so I should be giving it **+, but I should be rewarding it for its overall quality and its obvious desire to say some good things, so I’ll say it’s verging on *** and I will leave my mug uncommitted at this point.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

TV14: Scandinavian Noir 3: Borgen



I’m not sure how Borgen qualifies to be called ‘noir’, but since it is considered part of the ‘Nordic Noir’ collection of TV shows, I’ll use that term as well.

I watched the Danish show Borgen (and The Killing) thanks to an anonymous commenter on this blog, so a big “thank you” to the commenter in question, because both of these shows are among the best shows out there.

Borgen follows the personal and political lives of a female Danish prime minister (Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen), her ‘spin doctor’ (Kasper Juul, played by Pilou Asbaek) and his girlfriend, a TV reporter (Katrine Fonsmark, played by Birgitte Hjort Sorenson). The writing and acting are top-notch, with numerous issues (political, personal, media-related) covered in intelligent, thoughtful and nuanced ways. 

What sets Borgen apart from The West Wing, with which it does have some similarities, are the emphasis on the private lives of its characters and its continuing storyline. Both of these are most welcome, but they can’t overcome The West Wing’s advantage in having Aaron Sorkin, the greatest TV writer ever (IMHO), on board, so The West Wing remains my all-time favourite post-1970‘s show.

I have only watched the first two seasons of Borgen but will soon be watching Season Three, after which I may offer additional comments. In the meantime, I highly recommend this series to those looking for first-rate TV with some powerful messages for the world and time in which we live (though I’m not saying I agree with all of its points of view). ****. My mug is up!