Monday, 8 February 2016

TV42: Bloodline

I got up at 8:00 on Saturday morning, facing an empty house for the first weekend in years and no concrete plans for the day, so I decided to start the day with my toast and coffee in bed, watching episode 7 of the first season of the Netflix serial Bloodline. Next thing I knew it was getting dark outside and I was still in bed, watching the 13th and final episode of the season. THAT is a sign of good compelling TV. 

Of course, Netflix specializes in binge TV-watching, designing its series to be watched as quickly as possible (something I have enjoyed doing for decades, if and when I can find the time to do it). And Bloodline, even more than most serials, is structured to be watched as one very long film. Indeed, Bloodline’s masterful structure is one of its best qualities. The writing as a whole is intelligent and of the highest quality. And the cinematography is as good as TV gets, not least because it’s filmed on location in the Florida Keys. What makes Bloodline really special, however, is the acting.

But first - what is Bloodline? Bloodline is a very dark (though not that violent) family drama (by ‘family’, I do not mean it is family-friendly, but that the show is entirely about the dark adventures of one family). The well-respected Rayburn family has been living in the Keys for almost fifty years, running a gorgeous little hotel/resort. The hotel was started by Sally and Robert Rayburn (Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard), who had five children. It would be a spoiler to go into too much detail about what happened to the children over the years (the show is all about the dark secrets of the past), but when the show starts we see that the oldest son, Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), has been out of the picture for a while. Danny’s homecoming, for a major celebration, is the trigger that unleashes all kinds of pent-up feelings and memories from the whole family. The second-oldest (and the show’s central figure) is John (Kyle Chandler), who is a detective known for his integrity, working his way up. John is the only one with kids of his own (now teenagers), and his wife, Diana (Jacinda Barrett), also has a major role. Then comes Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), who owns a small boat-repair shop near the hotel, and Meg (Linda Cardellini), who is a lawyer who also works for the family. Yeah, I know that’s only four - enough said. 

All of the actors mentioned above are tremendous, with Mendelsohn and Chandler standing out (they also get the most airtime). Created by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, Bloodline, from beginning to end of the first season, is film-quality stuff, and I’ve already mentioned how compelling it is was for me. Objectively I consider Bloodline one of the best TV shows ever made. I particularly appreciate the raw film-noir feel and tension of the show and its lack of gratuitous sex or violence. If only I appreciated the overall story a little more. That I didn’t is the reason Bloodline won’t get too high on my favourites list, but I’m still awarding it the highest ***+ rating (very close to ****; I may reconsider). My mug is up. If you have Netflix, check it out. 

Sunday, 7 February 2016

TV41: The Returned and Wayward Pines

I coincidentally watched the serial TV series The Returned (French version) and Wayward Pines back-to-back. I say coincidentally because of the uncanny similarity between the two shows, both of which take place in an isolated modern village in a gorgeous mountain setting where very strange things are going on and from which its inhabitants can’t escape.

The Returned

A village nestled in the French Alps beside a huge dam is the setting for the first bizarre story. Village people who had died in the preceding 25 years suddenly reappear while the water level behind the dam steadily falls with no explanation. The dead people have no memories of what happened to them and are as shocked to find out they have died as their families are to see them alive again. That is, SOME of the dead people are shocked; others seem to know more. But the entire first season remains shrouded in mystery and by the end of that season, we don’t yet have any good idea what is happening.

I have mentioned before that I am no fan of zombie shows. As the first season of The Returned progressed, I became increasingly worried that I was watching a well-disguised zombie show. Perhaps that’s what it is, but it’s certainly not a typical zombie storyline and I will no doubt continue to watch, not least because it’s such well-made TV.

The Returned is a pure ensemble show, with no real stars, and the acting is almost universally excellent. Despite the many characters in the show, there is an emphasis on solid character development, with slow thoughtful episodes, and we sympathize with the plight of many of the show’s characters, alive or dead, even with some whose behaviour is far from laudable. The beautiful cinematography and music are likewise outstanding. Only the disquieting uncertainty about where the show might be heading, and the occasional graphic violence, prevents me from calling this superb television. 

This haunting, thought-provoking and, above all, mysterious French serial gets a very solid ***+. Depending on where it goes in season two, The Returned may rise or fall from there. My mug is up. 

Wayward Pines

After watching The Returned, Wayward Pines felt distinctly American in all the worst ways (described below), but it is also very compelling serial television.

Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) is investigating the disappearance of two agents (including a former lover) when he is involved in a head-on collision that leaves his partner dead. Burke wakes up in a hospital in the mysterious village of Wayward Pines, located in a secluded mountain valley in Idaho. Escaping from the clutches of an overbearing and menacing nurse (Melissa Leo), Burke explores the village and finds the missing agents. But what he finds leaves him doubting his sanity and this only gets worse as the days pass. And when he tries to leave Wayward Pines, he makes another mind-blowing discovery. Meanwhile, Burke’s wife (Shannyn Sossamon) and teenage son (Charlie Tahan) at home are trying to discover what has happened to Burke, something they may live to regret. And I will say no more. 

Wayward Pines is compared to Twin Peaks, and there are certainly similarities, but, especially in the first few episodes, it reminded me much more of my all-time favourite TV show: The Prisoner (1967), which could only be a good thing, though the resemblance waned as the show progressed. 

The back of the DVD case describes Wayward Pines as a supernatural thriller. I have no idea why someone saw fit to describe it that way. There is nothing supernatural in Wayward Pines. This is pure science fiction. This is also a good thing.

The countless twists and turns I didn’t see coming are yet another good thing, as is the general quality of the acting (though there are exceptions to that). Dillon is a good choice for this role and Leo, along with Toby Jones (as the village psychiatrist), are also perfectly-cast standouts. 

So what’s wrong with Wayward Pines? In a word, the writing. I mentioned the very American feel of the show, highlighted by the constant resort to violence, which infuses the show. But the biggest problem is the unevenness of the writing, including plot holes which are deep enough to swallow a cruise ship. There were many fascinating intelligent scenes, but just as many scenes were stupid and ill-conceived, especially near the end of the first season. Meanwhile, the cinematography ranges from very good to questionable, especially in the overly-obvious use of CGI. 

Wayward Pines, created by Chad Hodge and based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch, was meant to be a miniseries rather than an ongoing TV show. But the ratings were so good, it’s coming back. I am going to give Wayward Pines ***+ because it’s my kind of story (sci-fi mystery) and because it’s more compelling than most TV serials. My mug is up, but I remain disappointed by the brew within. The Returned, which I also gave ***+, is actually far superior in almost every way. 

Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Intern

The Intern might be considered an example of a mature comedy, and this is refreshing. It’s relatively free of silliness (with one or two brief exceptions) and it’s certainly an example of a longing for maturity that I suspect runs pretty deep for all those who get past the age when video games and partying define the best of life. The movie seems to suggest that everyone should long to have De Niro as a father figure in their life because his character is pretty much flawless. You could even call him an archetype of maturity in the film, though this points out a few problems since it exposes a Hollywood bias toward a strong link between maturity and a stylish success. The mature man doesn’t only carry a handkerchief but has a powered tie rack in his walk-in closet. But to be fair, there are probably good Hollywood examples of blue collar or rural maturity out there as well.

The other strength/weakness is the film’s clear message promoting women’s leadership in the workplace. The heart is in the right place, but some scenes come across as subtly as if they were written by a feminist focus group. We get it – the outrageous obsession and success of Jules (Hathaway) does not mean that it’s her fault if some parts of her life don’t work. And clearly it is not ok to explore any nuances that would hint that anything should get in the way of the new, feminized American Dream. Still an enjoyable watch and mature comedies aren’t that easy to find, so it’s a somewhat generous *** from me.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

45 Years

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay star as Kate and Geoff, a couple living in rural England who are preparing to celebrate their 45th anniversary when a letter arrives informing Geoff that the body of the German woman he was living with, before Kate, had been found in a block of ice, where she had fallen fifty years before. Geoff is listed as the woman’s next of kin, prompting a series of questions from Kate, who can’t believe she had never heard about this. The conversation continues as the couple prepare for the big party, revealing hidden feelings, more secrets and a struggle to communicate meaningfully even after 45 years of marriage.

The screenplay by Andrew Haigh (who also directed), is intelligent, insightful and nuanced, with a perfect ending. The wonderful performances by Rampling and Courtenay are beautifully understated. Between the writing and the acting, we have honest depths of character rarely achieved in cinema, resulting in a powerful, moving and haunting viewing experience.

The only reason I can’t give the almost-perfect 45 Years four stars is because I couldn’t relate well enough to either of the main characters to be as engaged as I would have liked (and this is meant to be a subjective review). So 45 Years gets a very solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Monday, 18 January 2016

Vic's Top Fifteen Films of 2015

After lengthy consideration, I have decided that, lame or not (see Walter’s Top Ten for the reference), I need to have a top-fifteen films list for 2015. I’ll begin by explaining why I feel this is necessary.

Thanks to the twenty films I watched at the Edmonton International Film Festival in early October, I watched far more new-release films in 2015 than in any previous year of my life. Prior to October, I’d have had a hard time finding even five films worthy of being included in my top ten films of 2015. But since the beginning of October, I have watched at least fifty 2015 films, almost half of them being foreign language films, and suddenly there was an explosion of top-ten-worthy films to choose from. 

[This is not to say that 2015 comes close to the greatness of 2014. It does not. If I created a top-thirty list of films released in either 2014 or 2015, most of my top fifteen films of 2014 would be in the top half of that list.]

Another problem I was facing is that a third of my top fifteen films were actually made in 2014. Most of these are considered eligible for 2015 due to their North American release dates, but at least one (my favourite of those) is considered a 2014 film. So I toyed with making a top-ten list for 2015 and then adding a top-five list of films made in 2014 but not released in Canada until 2015. That just felt too clumsy, but by then I was committed to including fifteen films, so here they are.

I still need to add three honourable mentions: 1) The Lobster, which has not yet been released, is a thought-provoking dystopian film from Ireland, made by Yorgos Lanthimos, that stars Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz as two people trying to break the rules; 2) My Internship in Canada, a Quebec comedy made by Philippe Falardeau. This was my second-favourite comedy of the year but is already dated (it satirized Stephen Harper and his government) and too obscure; 3) Bikes vs Cars, a documentary that resonated strongly with me because of its critical and timely message, but doesn’t possess the quality of filmmaking that is found on the rest of my list.

I also need to note that there are a number of excellent 2015 films I have not yet been able to watch, including Anomalisa, The Assassin and 45 Years, all three of which I still hope to watch this month (with potential changes to my top-fifteen list). 

Observations on the list below: Six of the films, including all of my top four films of the year, are foreign-language films, with two of the top four films set in Berlin. As in last year’s top-fifteen list, there’s only one film from Hollywood (Inside Out). Two of the films star Cate Blanchett and over half of the films feature a female protagonist (even without Star Wars and Mad Max).

Okay, here are my Top Fifteen Films of 2015, counting down from 15:

15. Truth: Lost in the spotlight of Spotlight, James Vanderbilt’s Truth was largely ignored by critics because it seemed to be a biased (leftist) retelling of a major blow to investigative journalism (2004 scandal involving George Bush’s military record which cost the impeccable Dan Rather his job). Such bias is just fine with me and the theme and message are absolutely vital in our world today. Truth has one of Cate Blanchett’s great performances of the year. 

14. Clouds of Sils Maria: Kristen Stewart delivers the best performance of the year as Val, personal assistant to Maria (Juliette Binoche), a famous actress who is asked to perform in the same play, about two women, in which she got her break, but this time in the role of the older woman. This film by Olivier Assayas is incredibly clever, deeply-layered and endlessly discussable.

13. Inside Out: Despite the unwelcome made-for-3D action scenes in the middle of the film, Pixar has another winner with Inside Out, which explores the inner workings of a child’s mind with intelligence, wisdom and endless humour. This animated film was written and directed by Pete Doctor and Ronnie del Carman.

12. Ex Machina: Walter’s favourite film of the year, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a dark atmospheric sci-fi film about the dangers (and possibilities) of artificial intelligence, with brilliant performances by Oscar Issac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander. I do love spooky, intelligent and thought-provoking sci-fi films and this certainly qualifies.

11. Carol: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are terrific as Carol and Therese, two women who fall in love with each other in 1951, a time when such relationships were scandalous and viewed as the product of serious psychological dysfunction. This gorgeous period drama about the struggle to be true to yourself was directed by Todd Haynes. 

10. The Salt of the Earth: Made by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, this beautiful (but also terrifying) documentary shares both the wisdom and the exquisite and otherworldly photographs of SebastiĆ£o Salgado, one of the world’s greatest photographers. A must-see in high definition.

9. Listen to Me Marlon: The best documentary I watched in 2015, this reflection on the life of Marlon Brando, one of the greatest actors in the history of film, is uniquely fascinating because Brando, who died in 2004, provides much of the narration himself (through audio tapes he left behind). Stevan Riley has done an amazing job of structuring this haunting insightful film. 

8. Spotlight:  A great ensemble cast play Boston Globe reporters in 2001 seeking to expose a major cover-up involving child abuse among Catholic priests. Directed (and co-written) by Tom McCarthy, Spotlight handles the investigation and subject with such quiet intelligence and integrity that it makes the work of investigative journalism the inspiring and vital thing it should be.

7. Youth: Italian director Paolo Sorrentino continues to make gorgeous and thoughtful films, often, as in this case, having older men reflecting on the meaning of life (or the lack thereof). Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are perfectly-cast as the old men in question. Full of magical moments, Youth suggests that sometimes children can be wiser than people seventy years older.

6. Steve Jobs: Aaron Sorkin’s captivating and innovatively-structured screenplay, combined with Oscar-worthy performances from Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, are what make Danny Boyle’s unique biopic about the man behind Apple so compelling.

5. Sicario: This film by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (quickly becoming one of my favourite directors of all-time), is a dark and violent thriller about Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent who gets caught up in a CIA mission involving Mexican drug-lords and needs to deal with the morals of Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) and Matt (Josh Brolin), two men supposedly on the same side. A masterpiece that reflects on the question of whether the ends justify the means, Sicario gives us the strongest and most admirable gun-carrying female character of the year (better than Rey or Furiosa). 

4. Phoenix: This riveting German film from Christian Petzold stars Nina Hoss as a Jewish concentration-camp survivor who, after facial reconstruction surgery, returns to Berlin to look for her husband (who doesn’t recognize her). A haunting Hitchcockian period drama, Phoenix has layers of depth which can be discussed for hours.

3. Tangerines: An Estonian/Georgian collaboration directed by Zaza Urushadze, Tangerines is a profound but simple meditation on humanizing the enemy and the absurdity of war. This beautiful film takes place entirely on the property of two neighbours (one of whom grows tangerines while the other builds the crates to transport them) in the country of Georgia.

2. Leviathan: The most passionate, profound and thought-provoking film of the year (technically from 2014, but not in general release until 2015), Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan presents a scathing indictment of all levels of Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church through its bleak tale of a man who loses everything (like Job, who provides the inspiration for the film). 

1. Victoria: The most intense and mesmerizing thrill-ride of the year (forget Mad Max), Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria is an awesome filmmaking achievement. Its 140 minutes, shot in Berlin during the early hours of the morning, are not just filmed in real time - they are filmed in just one shot (including numerous action scenes), as they follow the story of a young Spanish woman whose life changes in a hurry after she leaves a bar one night and is accosted by a group of friendly young men.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Walter's Top Ten for 2015

First, I’ll comment that I was going to copy Vic’s 2014 innovation of choosing a top fifteen on the excuse that the year was 2015. I was convincingly told that this was "lame." I’ll choose ten.

But I will begin with my honourable mentions. The Martian, Far from Men, Wild Tales and Tu Dors Nicole didn’t quite make the cut. Wild Tales is a collection of short films and they certainly take you for a ride, but taken as a whole (combined with the darkness of the stories), I couldn’t quite add it to my top ten. Tu Dors Nicole is particularly worthy of mention as a Quebecois film that is a lighter Canadian take at an arty Euro-style film. Definitely worth watching.  

Before naming my top ten, I’ll also point out that I haven’t yet seen Spotlight or Experimenter, both of which had good chances of making it if I had the chance to see them.

10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. High school movies about dealing with illness are not the kind of movies that easily make my list. But this film struck a combination of wit and freshness (with an occasional stale lapse), sprinkled with appropriate seriousness that worked. A few thought-provoking ideas combined with the humour made it very worth watching.

9. Wildlike. I doubt this film made many top ten lists, but I thought this sensitive exploration of the challenges of responding to sexual abuse, set in the Alaskan wilderness, did a great job. It explores the push and pull of trust – of oneself and others – and when risks pay off and when they don’t. I thought the ending was handled well.

8. Good Kill. I’ll grant this film probably makes my list as much because I think the issue it explores is serious and urgent as because of the film’s quality itself. Ethan Hawke was perfect. The drone shots of North America interspersed through the film gave just the right sense of justified paranoia as a backdrop to the wake-up call of ongoing war crimes committed by the US.

7. Mistress America. Anyone who remembers my previous response to Baumbach’s films (I shut off Squid and the Whale and Greenberg – which I almost never do) will appreciate that this inclusion in my list marks a significant turning point. Baumbach (and Gerwig) opened the door with Frances Ha (which I enjoyed though I still felt like it had too much of Baumbach’s pointlessness in it). Mistress America, however, felt like it finally combined some of Baumbach’s skills (which Vic and my son, Daniel, kept insisting existed) with a story worth telling and intelligent humour that made it enjoyable. Finally there were Baumbach characters that I could actually engage with. As I wrote in my comment to Vic’s review, I appreciated the climax slipping into obvious farce as a presumably artistic point.

6. Citizenfour. I like to include at least one documentary, and I haven’t seen as many lately as I would like. But this was an eye-opening perspective that enabled a re-living of Snowden’s whistle-blowing disclosure. Feeling Snowden’s perfectly logical paranoia while it was unfolding was more powerful than most fictional dramas. Thoughtfully responding to this disclosure is still a conversation that most of North America has avoided.

5. Que Horas Ela Volta (The Second Mother). This Brazilian film is a strongly balanced exploration of the real challenges involved in responding to class inequalities where it strikes home most directly. The film perfectly draws you into the tension of empathizing with the mother and the daughter with their strengths and weaknesses – and their struggles to connect with each other. I found it gave me new insights for where its themes touched my own life, and I hope soon to watch this with others to see what discussions it can open up.

4. Timbuktu. For some reason, I’ve long had a fascination for the mysteries of Mali. Coincidentally, watching this film intersected with several other musical and visual representations of Mali. The film is very beautifully made (in spite of its realistic and disturbing context) and avoids providing any simplistic answers. The story is not quite as rich as the quality of the overall presentation, but it’s enough to ground the deep experience of watching this film.

3. Tangerines. (Not to be confused with Tangerine which is on a fair number of top ten lists.) I often appreciate films that have the feel of a classic dialogue-rich play. That is true of this film, though the dialogue is slow and sparse in a way that fits the story very well. This is a film about simplicity and symbolic action; it is a plea for recognizing our common humanity as deeper than regional hatreds and revenge.

2. The End of the Tour. Clearly this is not the kind of movie that is for everyone, but my experience of watching this was deeply engaging and thought-provoking. One could enjoy the layers of what was going on in the extended conversation at several levels simultaneously – intellectually, relationally, psychologically, etc. If you didn’t read the tag-team review that Vic and I wrote about this, see it here.

1. Ex Machina. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that this film has the kind of brilliance and creates the kind of film experience that deserves topping my list. I wrote a long and spoiler-filled review here (please don’t read it until you’ve seen the film unless you really don’t care). It’s well-acted, well-made, atmospheric, symbolic, question-raising, disturbing in the right ways, and my #1 for 2015.

Two tasks remain. First, leftovers from 2014: there were some great films that didn’t get the chance to make my top ten list last year because I don’t get to a theatre very often. Late additions that would have made my list: certainly Selma and Force Majeure, and possibly Leviathan. Wild and Imitation Game would have been considered but probably left out, and Birdman and Whiplash were interesting to watch but not contenders.

Finally, my annual spilled coffee list of disappointments: First special note should be made of Inside Out, which, though not at all a bad film, was such a disappointment to me. What on earth were they wasting their time on during that long, crazy adventure of trying to get home? It was a pointless shortage of creativity that distracted from what I had so hoped this film could be. I really cannot fathom the extent of the praise for it. Inherent Vice, Wish I Was Here, and Kingsman were examples of time wasted in front of a screen, though I didn’t make it through the first two. And the worst film of the year (that I saw) was Entourage– my watching it demonstrates the desperation one reaches on 14 hour flights. 

Friday, 15 January 2016

Listen to Me Marlon

Listen to Me Marlon is Gareth Higgins’ favourite film of 2015. That was more than enough reason for me to import the DVD from the UK (the film never made it to Winnipeg) so I could watch this extraordinary, brilliant biographical (and autobiographical) documentary on the life of Marlon Brando, one of the greatest actors in the history of film. 

Gareth has written a wonderful review of Listen to Me Marlon, so while I will say a few words here, I would encourage you to find his reviews of his fourteen favourite films of the year on the Movies & Meaning Facebook page:

Marlon Brando died in 2004 after a tumultuous life that included a lot of pain along with the good times. Brando was quite reclusive but made hundreds of hours of audio recordings which were shared with Stevan Riley, the director of Listen to Me Marlon. Most of the documentary’s narration (which includes a wide variety of clips featuring Brando in films and interviews) therefore comes from Brando himself. The result in not only endlessly fascinating (as we hear Brando talk about his life and share his thoughts on various issues) but also quite haunting. 

As we hear Brando talk (as ‘one of us’, as Gareth points out in his review), one of the lines that struck me was in an interview in which Brando was asked whether he primarily made films that contained a message he supported (he was keenly interested, and active, in various social justice issues). His answer was yes, but soon we see that, for a while at least, he made some awful films just for the money. 

To quote Gareth: “It’s clear that Brando wanted to make art that would aim at the truth about life; and that his own search for meaning was lonely. It’s also clear from his poorer choices that the best acting is that done to serve the story, rather than the ego - or bank balance - of the storyteller.”

Another highlight for me: While Brando’s difficulties with authority are well-known, Listen to Me Marlon provides layers of context for his anti-authoritarian ideas and behaviour. For film buffs and those who want to see a finely-crafted film about one person’s struggle to use his gifts to live a life with integrity, Listen to Me Marlon is not to be missed. ****. My mug is way up.