Wednesday, 22 February 2017

TV56: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

The first season of American Crime Story is really a ten-part miniseries on the so-called Trial of the Century: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Unlike many people around the world, including tens of millions in the U.S., I didn’t pay much attention to the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Perhaps that’s one reason the show didn’t blow me away, the way it blew away a majority of TV critics. The People v. O.J. Simpson has received countless awards and overwhelming critical acclaim. Frankly, I can’t see it. For a TV show, and even for a TV miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson is very good. But, in my opinion, it’s far from great.

The People v. O.J. Simpson begins with the police arrival at the murder scene and goes on to show Simpson’s arrest, the preparations for his trial, and the trial itself. The story makes for fascinating television, especially when it highlights the racial implications of the trial, which are, in fact, a focal point of the show. I thought that aspect of the series was handled very well, with lots of good writing and dialogue in evidence. And there were a number of marvellous scenes in the courtroom (and outside of it). But, in the end, The People v. O.J. Simpson suffers from exactly the same major flaw as most miniseries: it’s far too long for what it offers.

In particular, I thought the second episode was abysmal and I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that millions of viewers stopped watching the show after the second episode. The entire episode is about a slow-moving interstate car chase, in which Simpson, fleeing his arrest, is sitting in the back of his white Ford Bronco with a gun to his own head, while dozens of police cars follow. Sure, this scene was watched live around the world and was major news, but the very fact that this was the case shows how warped our society’s obsession with celebrity is. This scene deserved maybe fifteen to twenty minutes. To draw it out for a whole episode was completely unnecessary and very boring. I could point to many other scenes in the eight-plus-hour show that were unnecessary. It’s a common flaw in miniseries, so it’s forgivable, but this example of poor writing alone prevents me from calling the show great.

Then there’s the acting. Leading the prosecution is Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson, who is certainly the best thing about the show and deserves all her awards for her phenomenal performance. Helping her is Chris Darden, played by Sterling K. Brown, who is well-cast and does a good job. Simpson is played by Cuba Gooding Jr., whose acting was generally quite good in its own way. But Gooding Jr. doesn’t sound at all like Simpson and his whiny voice didn’t feel credible as a representation of Simpson. So, despite Gooding, Jr.’s abilities, I can’t help but think this was a serious casting mistake. But not as big a mistake as casting John Travolta as Bob Shapiro, one of the core members of Simpson’s defence team. Regardless of how close Travolta came to emulating Shapiro, his over-the-top acting made Shapiro look like a fool and made me cringe most of the time. Other members of the defence team fared much better, especially Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, who took over the leadership of the defence. Vance was superb, second only to Paulson. Nathan Lane was also very good as F. Lee Bailey and David Schwimmer had his moments as Simpson’s lawyer and close friend, Robert Kardashian. 

Other actors of note were Bruce Greenwood as Gil Garcetti, the L.A. D.A., who did fine, and Kenneth Choi as Judge Lance Ito, who was solid enough. At the end of the series, we are shown what people looked like side-by-side with the actors who played them. Clearly it was a priority to find lookalikes, because the resemblance is amazing. But rather than impressing me, this only served to explain the mistakes in casting.

I should point out that the cinematography was of the finest Cable TV standard. In the end, The People v. O.J. Simpson gets a solid ***+. My mug is up, but I had expected something tastier and more stimulating inside. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

It's Our 10th Anniversary!

It has been exactly ten years since we (Walter and Vic) started this blog. During those years, the blog has evolved. At first, it was envisioned as a way for the two of us to dialogue about the films we were watching, with the hope that others would be interested in reading, and contributing to, this dialogue. However, it soon became clear that the dialogue element of the blog would be somewhat limited, due to varying opportunities to access and watch films. As a result, the blog became more focused on providing film reviews from our personal perspectives, which, whether or not it was overt, always included a theological component. Due to Vic’s writing of film reviews for other publications (e.g. Canadian Mennonite and Third Way Café), and his ability to watch far more films, he became the primary contributor, with Walter contributing as he was able.

In total, we have written 675 posts during the ten years, reviewing more than 750 films and cable TV shows. With less than 30 posts a year during the first four years, we have averaged 94 posts a year since 2010. Our readership has increased steadily over the past decade, with more than 132,000 pageviews to date. A big thank you to all our followers and readers, and a special thanks to those who posted comments. Please don’t be shy about joining the conversation.

To celebrate our tenth anniversary, we decided to share with you a list of our jointly-favourite films of the past decade, listed in order of how highly we agreed on our appreciation of the films. To clarify, this list does not contain all of Walter’s favourite films or Vic’s favourite films (annual lists of this kind can be found on the blog, generally in January), but a list of films that we are equally excited about (two mugs held high, as it were). So the first film on the list, Of Gods and Men, was, for both os us, our favourite film of 2011, the only time this happened. 

This does not mean that we think this list represents the best thirty films of the past decade. Rather, these are films that, for whatever reasons, we particularly enjoyed. While most of the individual years are equally-represented below, there are six films on the list from 2014 (the best year for film during past decade). Another stat of interest is that ten of these thirty films are foreign-language films and only a couple would qualify as Hollywood films.

Some readers may be wondering why we use mugs to describe our appreciation of films, something we haven’t addressed since our very earliest blog posts. Well, we happen to both be coffee lovers, so, ‘thumbs up’ being taken, we decided to lift up our mugs to the good films we were watching. The films below all got a ‘mug up’ from both of us, and the mugs were full of Colombia’s finest (fair trade, of course).
  1. Of Gods and Men (2011)
  2. The Lives of Others (2007)
  3. The Visitor (2008) 
  4. Les Miserables (2012)
  5. Calvary (2014)
  6. Short Term 12 (2013)
  7. Winter’s Bone (2010)
  8. Once (2007)
  9. Tangerines (2015) (made in 2013 but released in 2015)
  10. Monsieur Lazhar (2012)
  11. Captain Fantastic (2016)
  12. The King’s Speech (2010)
  13. Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2009)
  14. Ex Machina (2015)
  15. The Salt of the Earth (2015)
  16. A Man Called Ove (2016)
  17. Locke (2014)
  18. Ida (2014)
  19. Incendies (2011)
  20. Cloud Atlas (2012)
  21. Take Shelter (2011)
  22. The Ghost Writer (2010)
  23. Selma (2014)
  24. Pride (2014)
  25. Hellbound? (2012)
  26. The Way (2011)
  27. Her (2013)
  28. Doubt (2008)
  29. Leviathan (2014) 
  30. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Saturday, 11 February 2017

20th Century Women

Filmmaker Mike Mills’s last film, Beginners (2010), was about his father, who came out as gay at the age of 75. 20th Century Women, which is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979, is about Mills’s mother (his father is completely absent and apparently long out of the picture). 

Mills is represented by 15-year-old Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann), who lives in a large house with his mother (Dorothea, played by Annette Bening) and her two boarders: William (Billy Crudup), the handyman and former hippy, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who is recovering from cancer treatments. Jamie’s best friend is 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who climbs up the side of the house each night to sleep beside Jamie. Jamie has a crush on Julie, but their relationship is platonic (at Julie’s insistence). 

20th Century Women is an ensemble film - all of the above characters (some of whom are quite eccentric) are fully-developed and given significant airtime - but at its centre is Dorothea, who, at the age of 55, is struggling with aging and with the rapid changes happening in the life of her son. She regularly invites men to dinner, and has feelings for William, but she resists deeper relationships.

As for her son, Dorothea feels that Jamie might need more than just one parent at this point in his life, so she enlists Abbie and Julie to help her parent Jamie. Abbie, a radical feminist, tries to help Jamie by sharing with him the most intimate details of being a woman and giving him books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful. Julie, meanwhile, is sharing with Jamie the intimate details of her active sex life. When Dorothea realizes what she’s done, she tries to protect Jamie from the other two women in his life. But he keeps assuring her that everything is alright.

20th Century Women is a meandering film, moving through time and experiences in a quirky and almost haphazard way, but many of its scenes are absolutely magical - full of wisdom and astonishingly good performances, and, as the stories of each character unfold, we begin to see the larger picture of Jamie’s and Dorothea’s lives in a way that makes the film seem greater than the sum of its parts, even while many of those parts are profound and beautiful. The result is a deeply-satisfying film that feels incredibly real and honest, a depiction of everyday life that everyone can relate to in some way, full of natural and brilliant acting by all concerned (Bening stands out with one her best performances). 

At the same time, one gets the feeling that the story is a little too easy. Where are the emotional outbursts that usually accompany the pain and loneliness some of these characters are experiencing? Where are the tragic consequences of stupid choices? Or have films made us think that life is always dramatic? Because the film is autobiographical, I have to assume that this relatively calm and understated story is a reliable reflection of Mills’s life at the time. And maybe the story can connect more deeply with us as a result.

Despite the fact that Jamie is, in some way, the central figure of the film, what sets 20th Century Women apart are the strong, dynamic, fully-realized women, from three different generations, who surround Jamie. Each of these women is struggling to find her place in a life and time full of challenges for women. Though written by a man, this is, in my opinion (as a man) very much a feminist film.

20th Century Women gets ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up. While I wouldn’t recommend 20th Century Women to those who generally don’t like quirky arthouse comedy dramas, or to those who are offended by explicit sexual conversation, I think this underrated gem about relationships and community is a must-see.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

La La Land and the 2017 Academy Awards

Having just watched La La Land for the third time, this time on IMAX, I am ready to change the order of my top fifteen films of the year and declare La La Land my favourite film of 2016. La La Land is not as profound as I, Daniel Blake, it’s not as bold as Chi-raq, and it has a number of serious flaws (mostly involving some of Seb’s dubious character traits), but La La Land is pure movie magic from beginning to end. This is best symbolized for me by the fact that, in all three viewings, I cried during the opening song and dance number on the L.A. freeway. I can’t say why this happened, but my guess is that it has to do with my deep gratitude and wonder that magical films like this are still being made (I had a similar experience with Pete’s Dragon, which is why it’s my eighth-favourite film of 2016).

As for the IMAX presentation, I barely noticed any improvement in the picture (other than the size) but the sound was noticeably louder, which in this case was what I was most hoping for.

And the Academy Awards? Well, I had no sooner decided that this was one year when, after almost a decade, I would try to watch it live, when I realized that I will be on a plane to Brussels that evening (Maybe they’ll show them on the plane? No, I thought not.). So I’ve decided to note here what I would be voting for if I was a member of the Academy (major categories only).

Best Actress in a Lead Role: Emma Stone, La La Land

I was disappointed that Amy Adams and Jessica Chastain didn’t get nominated, but even if they had been nominated, I would have voted for Emma Stone. Her acting in La La Land was absolute perfection. Of course, I have long considered Stone to be one of the finest actors of our time. Just look at how I’ve describe her on this blog: “Stone was remarkable, stealing every scene she’s in” (Birdman); “Stone was the standout” (Irrational Man); “Stone does an excellent job with a poorly-developed character” (Magic in the Moonlight).

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Naomie Harris, Moonlight

This was a tough one, because Viola Davis certainly deserves an award for her performance in Fences, but Harris was, for me, the best actor in Moonlight and she gets the nod.

Best Actor in a Lead Role: Denzel Washington, Fences

Yeah, I know Casey Affleck is going to win, and his performance was certainly Oscar-worthy, but Washington was phenomenal in Fences and I have to go with that.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

This was the toughest choice of all. Jeff Bridges was may favourite thing about Hell or High Water and Michael Shannon was great in the underrated Nocturnal Animals. But Ali was my favourite actor in Moonlight (and my second-favourite thing about that film) and I would have voted for him.

Best Animated Feature Film: Moana

I’ve only seen Moana and Zootopia. Of those, I liked Moana more. 

Best Cinematography: Linus Sandgren, La La Land

This could have gone to Prieto for Silence

Best Director: Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Best Editing: La La Land

Best Foreign Language Film: A Man Called Ove

The other nominees were very good films, but only one of the nominees got four stars from me. 

Best Score: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

Easiest choice of the night.

Best Song: Audition, La La Land

City of Stars will win, but I liked Audition more.

Best Writing (adapted): Arrival

Best Writing (original): La La Land

20th Century Women came a very close second. 

Best Picture: La La Land

No contest on this list. 

If you’re counting, it’s no contest: This is the year Hollywood goes to La La Land!

Saturday, 28 January 2017


Lion tells two true stories. The first takes place in India, where a young boy named Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar) wakes up in a deserted train station to find that his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), has not returned as promised. Saroo goes out in search of Guddu and falls asleep on a decommissioned train. Two days later, he is over a thousand kilometres away, with no knowledge of how to get back. Saroo doesn’t even know the name of his mother, and when he tells people where he is from, they can find no such place on the map. (The rest of my description carries a spoiler alert) Eventually Saroo finds himself in a scary orphanage. But a social worker offers him the chance to be adopted by Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a couple in Australia, where he is joined by another Indian boy. 

The second story takes place twenty years later, most of it in Australia. Saroo, now played by Dev Patel, has just started a course on hotel management and falls in love with a fellow student (Rooney Mara). His ‘brother’, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) is struggling with mental health issues, putting a lot of stress on their mother. But when Saroo’s classmates ask him about his real family, he becomes obsessed with finding his real mother and brother in India. 

Lion, which has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Supporting roles for Patel and Kidman, is a beautiful film, has an excellent score and does indeed have fine acting by all concerned, most notably by the young Pawar. 

The first story’s details are critical for giving us an insight into what Saroo remembers of his early years in India, but they take up so much time that there is no opportunity to see what happens to Saroo during those intervening twenty years. This jump of so many years, without providing much context for what happened, makes it much harder to fully appreciate the older Saroo’s story. There seems to be no solution to this problem, as the second story has few superfluous scenes, but it must nevertheless be seen as a flaw because of the way it cuts down on character development and emotional engagement.

Directed by Garth Davis and written by Saroo Brierley himself, Lion is an inspiring and entertaining film that gets ***+. My mug is up and I again recommend this film to everyone.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Walter's Top Ten for 2016

Apart from the reminder that I make no attempt to aim for objective quality, I’ll dive right in. 

But deciding that I didn't like ending on a bad note, I'll start this year with my “spilled coffee list” – the worst or most disappointing films I wasted my time on this past year. Spooks: The Greater Good was just like extended, poor quality, TV.  I wanted to like Deadpool because of its wit, but it was wrapped up in so much thorough tastelessness, I couldn’t handle it and shut it off. It seems to me there comes a point when bad taste is dehumanizing. Finally, Hologram for a King wasn’t a terrible movie, but it was so disappointing that I wished I hadn’t bothered. 

The honourable mentions for this year are: The Lady in the Van, Eye in the Sky, Louder than Bombs, Sing Street, and Passion of Augustine (coincidentally all European films in English, except the last, which is a Canadian film in French).

Then before starting my top ten proper, I will point out that I haven’t seen the following that I suspect may all have had a good chance of making my list: Manchester by the Sea, Paterson, Silence and Loving.

Here we go:

10. Stanford Prison Experiment – This is not a pleasant watch, but I’ve been waiting for an accurate classroom version of one of the world’s most intriguing (and unethical) psychological experiments. In spite of my familiarity with the experiment, watching it drove home how potent (and potentially evil) institutional or social definitions of roles are. Considered accurate by Zimbardo, the experimenter, in spite of its unflattering depiction, this is an important film.

9. Snowden – This is another important film. This one is more fun to watch, though the anger and paranoia it can arouse may not be pleasant. This is a great companion to Citizenfour (documentary version); the pros and cons of each complement each other well.

8. A Perfect Day – A unique film that somehow manages to provide a comedic, while somehow realistic, “day in the life,” feel to NGO work in the sort-of-postwar Balkans.

7. I, Daniel Blake – It is all that Vic says it is, but I could only rate it at 7th because of its slowness and the pain of the frustration in watching it. Thank goodness for Ann, the warmhearted bureaucrat to help ease the pain. In fact, the inclusion of several key sources of goodness in what would otherwise be a lifeless world is incredibly important to the film. It makes you ache for those who are crushed by workers who feel like following policy without empathy is their only option. Lord help us - flexibility should be considered a spiritual gift.

6. Arrival – I had hoped that this one would be higher on my list. I loved parts of the film that were done with unique excellence, but there was too much time wasted on the “flashbacks” when that time could have served better making the flow of the last half hour work. Great addition to and development of the genre though.

5. Room – This was a fascinating watch. Never have I seen a room full of viewers so engaged as they were during the pivotal scene in the middle of the movie. Everyone at our movie night was engaged with their body and their heart. Add to that some excellent insight into parenting and child development and you have a strong and unique film.

4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – A fun romp the way only New Zealand’s Taika Waititi can do it. This is the kind of comedy to share with groups of friends. It’s quirky, warmhearted, quotable and a great example of what a “feel-good” movie should be.

3. Brooklyn – This one was borderline in terms of belonging to last year’s list. Excellently made and acted, it has the feel of an old-fashioned classic. The themes and conflicts are also classic and universal. Just solid.

2. A Man Called Ove – First a complaint: since when is the old curmudgeon in a film only four years older than myself? Then a warning: there are suicide attempts which though treated lightly, in keeping with the film’s comedy genre, are realistic enough that they could really bother some viewers. After that it is all good. And what makes it deserving of a place near the top of the list is that it provided just a little healing after watching the depressing election south of the border. I will overstate the point: the movie depicts what is necessary to respond to the reality of what’s going on down there (and apparently to some extent in Canada, if Conservative candidates like O’Leary and Leitch actually have real followers). And I saw it in what might be the best little independent theatre I’ve seen, just a few hours away in Brunswick, ME.

 1. Captain Fantastic – When a movie can entertain and inspire you, something is going right. As Vic says, this film may not always confine itself to the entirely credible, but what it does is provide something of a parable of what honest (and a little crazy) parenting could look like. The title’s role does not seem obvious when watching. I don’t think the two words are ever said together. There is, however, something fantastic about the character of Ben beyond Viggo Mortensen’s fantastic acting. He is nowhere near perfect; he’s way too intense for my taste. But how often do you see that kind of intensity combined with an honesty and an openness to criticism. And admit it: aren’t there lots of days when you want to run out into the woods and stay there?

I might just point out that a higher percentage of my films than normal are comedies this year. It's possible that I needed this. 

Finally, there were two great films that should have made my list last year but didn’t because I saw them too late: Spotlight and The Salt of the Earth are both excellent and should not be missed.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, tells the story of three African-American women (friends) who worked as mathematicians for NASA’s space program in the 1960’s and had more than a little to do with the success of that program. 

Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Goble, a mathematical genius who was instrumental in calculating the numbers for the launch and re-entry of the NASA spacecraft. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, who learned how to use NASA’a new IBM computers faster than anyone else and supervised a group of programmers (mostly African-American women who, along with Goble and Vaughan, had been working at NASA as human “computers”) whom she refused to work without. Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, who fought against segregation and a variety of challenges to become NASA’a first black female aerospace engineer. 

The stories of how these three women won the respect of NASA’s mostly white male power structure (especially Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner) are told in a mostly by-the-numbers way, though the overall writing is very good. The acting by the three women mentioned above is outstanding, and even Costner was quite good (I’m not generally a fan). Kirsten Dunst is also fine as Vivian Mitchell, Vaughan’s supervisor. And I should also mention the presence of the very busy and very talented Mahershala Ali as Jim Johnson, Goble’s boyfriend and future husband. 

Hidden Figures is a very well-made entertaining film, but it would nevertheless have received only *** from me if it wasn’t for the importance of the story it tells. For me, the heart of that story is the fact that, in 1960’s U.S., these three African-American women were not among the smartest women in the U.S. or among the smartest African-Americans in the U.S., but among the handful of smartest people in the U.S. Even so, because of the handicap of their race and gender, they would not have risen far without the incredible courage and tenacity they displayed. This story is critical for people to know. Since it’s well-told here, Hidden Figures gets ***+. My mug is up and I recommend it to all readers.