Thursday, 26 November 2015


With its subject matter (investigative journalism) and the incredible acclaim from critics, I went into Spotlight with dangerously high expectations. While I didn’t come away disappointed, Spotlight won’t be my favourite film of the year (which might be because of those expectations - sigh).

Yet another based-on-true-events film, Spotlight tells the story (spoiler alert?) of a group of investigative journalists working for the Boston Globe in 2001 who uncover a mega-scandal in the Catholic church when they discover that more than seventy priests in Boston alone have been sexually abusing children over the past few decades. But that’s  not the scandal. The scandal is that the church hierarchy was aware of these abuses and not only covered it up, but allowed the priests to continue their work after moving them to another location. The local district attorney is also implicated for making plea deals with the church that keep the abuses confidential (i.e. covered-up). 

The story moves along in a fairly straightforward way, showing us how each of the reporters contributed to the exposé, but the intelligent and gripping screenplay is well-written and well-paced and Tom McCarthy’s direction is quiet and tight. I particularly appreciated the avoidance of sensationalism and also the way the filmmakers avoided demonizing the men responsible, even showing some of their positive attributes. The cinematography and score are not extraordinary, but do the job. 

The ensemble cast is terrific, with Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James as the reporters, Liev Schreiber as the editor, John Slattery as the boss and Stanley Tucci as a lawyer who helps them. Schreiber stood out, surprising me with his nuanced and understated performance as the person who pointed the Spotlight team to this investigation. Noteworthy are the physical characteristics displayed by the actors in their portrayals, providing insight into each of the characters, though one complaint I have is that we see too little of the characters’ home lives.

I very much appreciated the inspiring way investigative journalism was presented in Spotlight, I loved all of the characters in the office (all good people trying to do something vital) and I loved the way the film ended. I have already praised the film’s quiet intelligence, though I can’t help thinking a little more passion might have been a good thing. 

Spotlight is a suspenseful and important film which gets an easy **** and will surely make my top ten films of 2015. My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

So sad.

I had hoped that somehow the final film of the Hunger Games cycle would find the kind of resolution that would ultimately make the four Hunger Games films worth watching. After all, I had heard a professor at the Wild Goose Festival speak enthusiastically about the value of the books (which I haven’t read). Alas, it was not to be. 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 was in most ways the worst of the four films. Its entire plot can be summarized in four words: ‘rebels attack the Capitol’. Sure, there’s a subplot about Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) deciding it’s her personal mission to kill the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) regardless of what President Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of the rebels, wants her to do, and another subplot about Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), but this final film is focused on action (on the rebels attacking the Capitol). And when the plot twists finally come, they are entirely predictable.

There are some interesting conversations along the way, mostly in the first few minutes and the last few minutes of the film. A number of those conversations seem to question whether the ends ever justify the means (is it better to kill a few so that a great many more might be saved?), and there’s a strong anti-killing theme. When Katniss questions military actions that endanger the lives of civilians, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) tells her that no one who supports the Capitol is innocent. Katniss is not persuaded and replies that this line of reasoning would justify even the Hunger Games themselves. I won’t give away the end, but again we have Katniss in a conversation which suggests the ends can never justify the means. Not long after that conversation, we have the film’s final message: “Well, actually, good ends can sometimes justify violent (lethal) means,” thus undoing any positive messages that preceded it. So sad.

Readers of the books can argue that none of the violence was meant to be seen as the best way and that Katniss will suffer trauma for every life she took, but that doesn’t explain the underlying message of the books’ conclusion or the fact that the film clearly supports the final violence of the film as the best way forward. So sad.

The first two Hunger Games films at least had a variety of allegorical references that criticized the wealthy nations of our world which exploit the poor or which criticized reality TV or which criticized the use of violence as entertainment. But there’s precious little social commentary in Mockingjay, Part 2. And given the amount of PG violence in this film, which is clearly meant to entertain at some level, the criticism of the first film seems rather hypocritical. So sad.

At least it wasn’t 3D and the cinematography and score were diverting. Sadly, like Part 1, Mockingjay, Part 2 gets only **+. My mug is down.

NOTE: I’m writing a longer review for the Canadian Mennonite and will post the link when that’s available.

Monday, 23 November 2015

TV28: Battlestar Galactica

Note: I like to limit the photos I use on this blog to scenes from the film or show, but this photo is just too good to pass up.

While many sci-fi TV shows have an ongoing storyline, there are few I have seen that I would consider pure serials. The best of those, in my opinion, and one of the very best shows in the history of television, is the new Battlestar Galactica which aired from 2004 - 2009. 

The Cylons, in their second war against the humans who created them, have destroyed all twelve human colonies (on twelve planets), leaving only the Battlestar Galactica to carry the last surviving humans in a search for the fabled 13th colony of Earth, while the Cylons try to hunt them down. 

The captain of the ship is Admiral William Adama (played by Edward James Olmos), but his authority is limited due to the presence of President Laura Rosen (Mary McDonnell). Other major characters include Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis), Captain Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), Number Six (Tricia Helfer) and Adama’s son, Capatain Lee ‘Apollo’ Adama (Jamie Bamber). All of the acting is good, but Olmos, Callis and Sackhoff stand out. 

Battlestar Galactica, made for the Sci-Fi Channel, has the highest production values, though I am not a fan of the style it uses for its space cinematography, however much it adds to the show’s strengths. Those strengths include intelligent thought-provoking writing throughout, often featuring moral dilemmas and full of religious, philosophical and political discussions that are as relevant for our time as for the distant future (indeed, it is, like Star Trek, a commentary on our time). If that’s not wonderful enough (for someone like me), this dark, raw, terrifying, intense and haunting show is as gripping as TV gets (making Star Trek, which I love, often feel like a children’s program in comparison). The best episodes left us utterly drained and I don’t recommend watching more than two or three episodes at a time. This is brilliant television that should not be missed by anyone who can handle its intensity, and, yes, its violence, which I never found gratuitous. 

Battlestar Galactica gets a very easy ****. My mug is up.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

TV27: Scandinavian Noir 4: The Bridge, Salamander, The Fall

Since I'm reviewing TV serials, it's time to catch up on some thrillers from the other side of the ocean. Only the first is from Scandinavia, but both of the others owe a lot (possibly their existence) to Scandinavian Noir and I consider them to be part of the same genre.

The Bridge

The title of this excellent, pure-Scandinavian-Noir police drama, created and written by Hans Rosenfeldt, refers to the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden. When a body is found on the middle of the bridge, local police from both countries are called in and Danish inspector Martin Rohde must work together with his Swedish counterpart, Saga Noren, to find the killer.

Rohde and Noren are unique, flawed and fascinating characters, making for an interesting working relationship. The well-developed characters are played to perfection by Kim Bodnia and Sofia Helin. Helin’s role is particularly challenging as Noren suffers from some form of autistic spectrum disorder, with poor social skills and a lack of empathy, though she is trying to learn. Rhode, meanwhile, has his own challenges, focusing on his family relationships.

There’s lots of drama in The Bridge, but also lots of suspense. The writing is intelligent and the cinematography is excellent. I didn’t enjoy The Bridge as much as The Killing, finding it especially difficult to relate to and appreciate Noren, though I do find her fascinating. I also didn’t enjoy the second season (2013) as much as the first (2011). But in the end, I am still inclined to award The Bridge ****, though just barely. My mug is up.

Salamander (2012)

Moving south to Brussels, we have yet another fascinating police inspector, Paul Gerardi, who cannot be bribed as he investigates an odd bank robbery leading him to a secret organization known as Salamander, which includes some of the country’s highest-ranking political and business leaders. With both the criminals and the authorities after him, Gerardi has an almost impossible task ahead just to stay alive.

Salamander, created and written by Ward Hulselmans, has an intriguing premise that is particularly appealing to me, and I really enjoyed Filip Peeters in the lead role. But I did not appreciate the graphic violence and found many of the plot twists too predictable. So Salamander only gets ***+. My mug is up.

The Fall

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m generally not a fan of films or TV shows about serial killers (though Scandinavian Noir is an exception). But Katrina alerted me to this British TV show starring Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson, a brilliant English police detective who is sent to Belfast to hunt for a serial killer. This is no ordinary police or serial killer TV show (my review is of the first two season from 2013-14).

For one thing, this is not a typical whodunit. We are introduced to the killer early on and spend a lot of time with him. He’s a bereavement counsellor named Paul Spector. We see Spector’s home life (yes, he actually has a family), his work life, his motivations and his crimes. It’s very rare to be given such a thorough look at a serial killer (not counting Dexter, of course).

Secondly, despite the suspense, The Fall (created by Alan Cubitt) is more about thoughtful drama than action. 

Jamie Dornan plays Spector and he’s terrific, as is Anderson, whose character has no shortage of flaws of her own. One of The Fall’s unique dynamics is the way the two lead characters share personality traits, specifically the ability to live two separate lives.

This is television at its darkest, but The Fall is intense, intelligent, suspenseful and very compelling viewing. A surprising **** for this British psychological thriller that owes a lot to Scandinavian Noir, of which I am a big fan. My mug is up.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

TV26: Six Feet Under

It’s time to write about the king of TV serials, my second-favourite TV show of all-time (after The West Wing): Six Feet Under, created by Alan Ball.

It’s been a long time now since I last watched this show, but I can’t wait to watch all 65 episodes (five seasons) of this HBO treasure over again. It’s the story of a dysfunctional family that runs a funeral home, making death a major theme in the series. Indeed, each episode starts with a death, someone whose funeral the family will be planning that week. Six Feet Under has an undertone of dark humour throughout, and there’s usually a ghost to talk to, but the emphasis is on thoughtful family drama, with each episode examining specific themes related to death and the meaning of life. For me, the episodes were so well-developed that I often thought I had just watched a great short film. And no television show I have ever seen offers even a fraction of the discussion-worthy content which Six Feet Under provides.

Of course, Six Feet Under would not be the great show it is if it didn’t feature such a terrific ensemble cast: Richard Jenkins as the deceased father, Frances Conroy as the mother, Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall as the two brothers at the heart of the show, Lauren Ambrose as the sister, and many more non-family members. The cinematography and music are also of the highest standard. 

There’s not much more to say except that if you haven’t yet seen Six Feet Under, put it high on your list. It’s life-affirming, humanizing and profound. ****+ is needed for this one. My mug is up and the tastiest brew can be found inside.

Friday, 20 November 2015

TV25: Last Tango in Halifax

We just finished the third season of Last Tango in Halifax, a British serial starring Derek Jacobi, Anne Reid, Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire (among others). Jacobi and Reid play Alan and Celia, a couple in their mid-seventies who had been in love as teenagers but then lost each other through bizarre circumstances. Now, after the death of Alan’s wife, they are reunited and quickly plan to marry. They both have daughters (Gillian and Caroline, played by Walker and Lancashire) with semi-functional families and major lover problems, producing an endless series of traumatic challenges. 

Last Tango in Halifax is rather melodramatic and sometimes feels way over the top in the way it creates one crisis after another for these families. But what sets Last Tango in Halifax apart are the extraordinary acting and dialogue, among the best ever seen on television. The dialogue in particular feels incredibly real, almost always sounding exactly like what I would expect these people to say in the situation in which they find themselves. This is obviously unusual, because I kept noticing it. It’s not improvised, but it feels improvised, which only great writing and acting can accomplish. 

Last Tango in Halifax is about very flawed people who make you want to pull your hair out in frustration at their self-destructive behaviour. What makes it work is that all of these flawed people are trying to help each other become better people, because, like the rest of us, they are all good people at heart who are struggling to find their way. Great stuff (and the gorgeous North England cinematography doesn’t hurt)! Last Tango in Halifax gets ****. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


Unlike its critically-acclaimed predecessor, Skyfall, the new Bond film (directed by Sam Mendes) has been getting only mediocre reviews. Since I was no big fan of Skyfall, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my expectations certainly weren’t high. As a result, I was pleasantly surprised by Spectre, which didn’t overwhelm with its action, had enough intelligent and humorous conversations and even had some positive messages. Which is not to say that Spectre is one of the best Bond films ever; it’s just very far from the worst (that would be Moonraker). 

Daniel Craig, in his fourth and final appearance as James Bond, has got his Bond persona so ingrained by now that it sometimes feels like he’s just going through the motions. For the most part, though, I like Craig as the steely-eyed unflappable Bond. This time out, Bond is working largely on his own as he follows the former M’s final instructions (to kill a man and not miss the funeral). While the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is fighting to keep MI6 alive in the wake of the development of a new surveillance/security network called CNS (Centre of National Security), led by Max Denbigh, aka C (Andrew Scott), Bond is chasing down leads to find the secret sinister super-organization known as Spectre, the organization behind so many of Bond’s trials over the years, led by arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). 

Along the way, Bond will meet Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the daughter of another arch-enemy (Mr. White). The relationship between Bond and Swann is more developed than most and includes interesting conversations on Bond’s chosen profession. Seydoux, who is an excellent actor, makes a good ‘Bond girl’. Waltz, on the other hand, while doing his usual good job, is under-utilized, with Blofeld’s words and actions being one of Spectre’s disappointments (the big clichéd scene between Bond and Blofeld made little sense to me). Indeed, the entire Spectre storyline felt anti-climactic to me, given that this is the grand conclusion to Craig’s four Bond films. Nevertheless, as usual, I loved most of the film’s exotic locations (the cinematography was outstanding), the score was good, the pace was more relaxed (it had an old-fashioned feel to it) and Ben Whishaw was back as Q (the acting as a whole was good, though I missed Judi Dench, one of the highlights of the last three films). 

So, on the whole, I quite enjoyed Spectre, not least because of its criticism of the current governmental obsessions with viewing security, surveillance and drone warfare as the way of of the future. The film even suggests that a terrorist organization might target a large city in order to get a country to increase its security levels (as if). I also appreciated Bond’s actions in the film’s climactic moments. The writing of the ending as a whole felt weak to me (no doubt because there were so many writers), but there was evidence that at least one of the writers was putting some serious thought into Bond’s ongoing development as a human being. Since I liked Spectre more than Skyfall, I am going to have to be generous and award Spectre ***+. My mug is up.