Friday, 30 December 2011

Hugo 3D Revisited


I watched Hugo 3D again last night, this time with J&L (and Kathy). I knew in my gut that they would love it, and they did. Janelle, as usual, offered reflections on the film which had not occurred to me, forcing me to reconsider what I had previously written. But first, my initial observations upon a second viewing.


I was surprised that I found the story even more compelling this time. As in my first viewing, I found the screening of the early films of George Melies somewhat distracting and the story rather predictable, but neither of these would prevent me from giving Hugo ****. However, if anything, I found the 3D even more problematic for me on second viewing and realized that my initial ***+ rating was caused almost entirely by the 3D presentation. In my previous review, I mentioned that I could appreciate the 3D if I thought of it as an experience other than a film. But the bottom line, for me, is that I find 3D ugly. I found it ugly in Avatar and I find it ugly in Hugo. For me, 3D literally saps the beauty out of any film it touches.


Janelle, however, suggested that 3D is integral to Hugo because it is about (among other things) the wonder of watching films for the very first time. Because 3D is still fresh, it can help recreate that feeling of wonder. The 3D also gives Hugo a surreal dreamlike quality which connects to Melies’ comments linking films and dreams. I can see her point, though it frightens me. Apparently the Lumiere brothers who invented film thought it would be a passing fad, as I believe 3D to be a passing fad. If I am as mistaken as they were, then I fear the world of film is heading down a dark and unfortunate path, though obviously many people must disagree with me.


Further to the theme of rediscovering the wonder of the earliest films, Janelle pointed out that viewing excerpts from Melies’ films was likewise integral to Hugo. Laurens added that the theme of fixing broken people includes the theme of finding lost things and bringing them to light to be appreciated for what they have given us.


If those aspects of Hugo which I found most distracting are in fact integral to the film, then I must reevaluate my previous rating and give Hugo a somewhat reluctant ****.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Young Adult


The writer/director duo who brought us Juno (Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman) are back with another wonderful, intelligent, adult comedy drama called Young Adult. Reitman is also the director of Up in the Air, one of my favourite films of 2009.


Young Adult stars one of my favourite female actors, Charlize Theron, perhaps the most beautiful woman in film today, playing a woman who, incredibly, is actually insecure about her beauty and goes to great lengths to make herself more attractive. Theron plays Mavis, a woman who is not only insecure but also a self-absorbed, depressed alcoholic recovering from a failed marriage and a failing career (as a ghost writer of young adult fiction). Mavis is a very unsympathetic protagonist and only a terrific performance by Theron and a brilliant screenplay by Cody could make this work.


The title of the film refers not to Mavis’s writing but to the fact that she is still living in the world she writes about. She still misses the life she feels she should have had with Buddy, her high school sweetheart. When Mavis discovers he has a new baby girl, she is determined to get him back.


But the first person she meets when she returns to the small town of Mercury, Minnesota is Matt who, as a boy, had the locker next to hers and who no doubt worshipped her, but was completely ignored by her. He was the victim of a hate crime that left him permanently disabled. In a way, Matt is also still living in the past, having given up on a normal meaningful life. But he immediately understands Mavis’s desperation and tries to talk some sense into her, without much success. Patton Oswalt plays Matt to perfection and his character is the key to making Young Adult the excellent film that it is.


Young Adult’s dark intelligent humour and profound wisdom is miles away from most of the popular comedy dramas made today. Among other things, it asks important questions about the meaning of life (if you stayed in your home town, you must be stupid and worthless), about happiness (we made it to Minneapolis -we must be happy) and about self-delusion (we hear how Mavis uses the protagonist in her final book of the young adult series to justify the craziness of what she is doing).


Young Adult gets a solid ***+. My mug is up yet again as 2011 continues to impress.


Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (IMAX)


I need to start with a story (if that sounds boring, skip to the third paragraph). So Kathy was flying in from Iraq yesterday and I planned to watch a film at the nearby mall (Polo Park) on the way to the airport. Just as I was about to leave, Kathy called to say she had missed the Winnipeg flight and would be arriving three hours later. For some reason it occurred to me that this would give me the chance to watch MI:Ghost Protocol at the IMAX. It would be tight but not impossible. Why did I want to see MI:GP at the IMAX in its first few days in town? Well (sarcasm alert!), apparently everyone else in the world is doing it and I do so much want to do what everyone else is doing. Besides, it was getting good reviews and it was NOT in 3D and I hadn’t visited an IMAX since London.


Okay. Mission One: Purchase ticket online to avoid last-minute problems. The website, however, is very unfriendly (poorly worded) and I wasted a precious three minutes finding the ticket-purchase page. Mission accomplished. Mission Two: Print out the ticket. I suddenly realized the laptop I was using was not set up to use my wireless printer. So run to my MacBook, which for some reason did not receive the email from cineplex using the same email account I had just accessed on the Dell. So run back to the Dell and forward the email to myself. Yes, it worked. Mission accomplished. Mission Three: Drive through the heart of Winnipeg in the middle of rush hour to get to the theatre before showtime. Already ten minutes later than I thought I could possibly be, this mission sounded impossible. But I drove like one of the maniacs who regularly frustrate me, weaving in and out of lanes like I was in the Indy 500. I’m getting close, but I’m trapped behind buses. Cut through the mall parking lot. Stopped by a huge crowd of college students crossing at the crosswalk. Drive another fifty yards. Stopped by an ambulance driver redirecting traffic in the opposite direction of where I needed to go. Don’t panic. Things are crowded ahead and not moving. But there’s an open parking spot. Park and hoof it, walking very fast through the entire length of Winnipeg’s largest mall six days before Christmas. Then zip through the parking lot and into the theatre. Get to the ticket checker. A newbie. Never seen an online ticket before. Don’t know why this machine not working. Getting manager. Manager scans ticket and I am in the theatre with five minutes to spare (good thing: there were no ads whatsoever before the film started - that’s worth the extra five bucks right there). It’s 25 minutes later than I had wanted it to be (I insist on a good seat) but the theatre is less than one-quarter full, so I actually found a decent seat. Mission accomplished.


That the above experience was thoroughly apropos to what I was about to see did not occur to me until well into the film. When it did, it enhanced my viewing experience, because MI:GP is just one long exhilarating roller-coaster ride of impossible missions needing to be completed within a four-minute or four-hour time frame while facing one obstacle after another. I understood. I was pumped full of adrenaline already. Bring it on!


So what have we got here? Fantastic exotic locations, nonstop action involving constant death-defying feats of agility, implausible minimalist plot, state-of-the-art cars, gorgeous women, the latest in technological gadgetry… wait a minute, this sounds like … Yeah, I’m no action fan, but I’m a sucker for a good Bond film, and when MI gets it right it is almost as good. And unlike MI II and III, MI:GP gets it right. At least at the IMAX, which immerses you in the action with its huge screen and mind-numbing sound.


The actors in MI:GP are well-cast, with Cruise at his best as Ethan Hunt (a man who endures more pain than is humanly possible; Cruise looks and acts WAY too young for his age), Simon Pegg providing lots of comic relief, Paula Patton, who grew on me throughout the film, Jeremy Renner, who can do no wrong, and my favourite Swedish actor, Michael Nyqvist, on hand as the baddie.


Brad Bird has made an action film that no action-lover or MI fan can afford to miss. I am no big fan of sequel films, so I should mention that MI:GP is no more a sequel than the Bond films. Maybe because of the IMAX or maybe because my life and that of Ethan Hunt are virtually indistinguishable ☺, I am going to give MI:GP ***+. My mug is up.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Trust



Trust is a small 2011 independent film that, as far as I know, never even made an appearance in Winnipeg theatres. Its title does not seem well-chosen to induce mass attendance, but it is certainly apt, for Trust is primarily the story of how a trusting 14-year-old girl learns to distrust almost everyone around her, from her best friend to her parents to the 35-year-old man who seduced her in an online chat-room and then raped her.


If that sounds horrifying, it is. But how David Schwimmer (writer/director) deals with this horror is uniquely unsensational and unpredictable. Trust could have been a thriller of sorts or pure melodrama, but in my opinion it chose to stay real and focus on how two traumatized people (Annie and her father, Will, played very well by Liana Liberato and Clive Owen) try to deal with the horror of what has happened in their lives.


The production values may not be outstanding but they are adequate. With the excellent acting by Liberato, Owen, Catherine Keener and Viola Davis (and a very scary Chris Henry Coffey as the rapist), Trust is a powerful and haunting film well worth watching (especially for 14-year-old girls). I am therefore going to let it slide into ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Skin I Live In


Once again I was not expecting a horror film.


Watching one of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's films always feels a little risky and unpredictable. That an Almodovar film should also feel a little perverse is nothing new (e.g. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Live Flesh, Talk To Her). But generally I appreciate most of his films and at least two in the last decade (Talk To Her, Volver) made my top ten of the year. I particularly look forward to Almodovar’s suspense films because there is an obvious Hitchcockian element to these films. The Skin I Live In is no exception and may even be one of the clearest expressions of this. But I would describe this film as Hitchcock Dark. Maybe even Hitchcock Dark and Twisted. Indeed, The Skin I Live In also reminds me of many mad scientist horror films.


More precisely, The Skin I Live In is about a mad plastic surgeon (Robert Ledgard, played by Antonio Banderas) who, after failing to give his wife a new face after a car crash, seems determined to perfect his ability to restore or recreate skin, moulding it into whatever shape he wants. But nothing in The Skin I Live In is what it seems and it takes one dark turn after another as it explores the importance of the skin we live in.


Like all of Almodovar’s films, The Skin I Live In is full of rich colours, beautiful cinematography, good acting and lots of style. Banderas makes a good mad scientist, a very different kind of role for him (at least compared to Puss in Boots). Elena Anaya is excellent as Vera, a woman Ledgard is experimenting on as if she is nothing but an android he is building. Since The Skin I Live In is as much science fiction as horror, that was indeed an option I was considering before the film took its final dark turns.


This is a film that starts off in a very disturbing place and finds a way to get more disturbing with each passing minute. It is therefore not something my average reader is likely to enjoy. But if you are a fan of Almodovar or of dark and twisted stylish thrillers, then you probably want to check it out. As for me, I will give The Skin I Live In a solid *** for keeping me intrigued and for the allusions to my favourite Hitchcock films. My mug is up.


Thursday, 15 December 2011

Margin Call




From the opening scene in a major Wall Street investment firm to the digging-a-grave-on-the-front-lawn scene that ends this unique film, the word that kept occurring to me was “fascinating”, in the best sense of the word. Margin Call is endlessly fascinating, providing an inside (albeit fictitious) view of the mortgage speculation crisis unfolding during one fateful night (presumably in 2008). Margin Call features a splendid ensemble cast, led by Kevin Spacey (playing Sam Rogers) in his best role since American Beauty (though I had to get over his similar, yet also very different and very inferior, role in Horrible Bosses). Margin Call feels like a play at points, probably because it is so deeply layered, the dialogue is so intelligent and real and it makes no attempt to talk down to the viewers. It certainly does not feel like Hollywood (this is a very good thing).

Margin Call was written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Amazingly, this is his first film. With a small budget, Chandor uses his excellent cast to both humanize the people who precipitated the crisis and show the dehumanizing impact of money. Spacey’s Sam is a case in point. By showing us how devastated Sam is by the death of his dog and how uncomfortable he is with what his superiors are proposing, we are invited to sympathize with him. But we also know that he has risen to his extremely well-paid (millions a year) position through constant compromise and stepping over those who callously get the axe so the firm can make a bigger profit at any given moment.

In 2008, the men most responsible for the financial crisis which messed up the lives of millions of people around the world, walked away with millions of dollars in their pockets. Margin Call does not claim to be about these men (it’s not a true story) but we presume it is giving us a glimpse of what might have happened in those first days of the crisis.

The big cheese in the firm is John Tuld, played brilliantly by Jeremy Irons. Tuld tells Sam that there will always be the haves and the have-nots and the percentage of those who are rich and those who are poor will always be the same. That is just the way the world works. I would like to see some statistics to back this up, but even if it is true it does not address the fact that in recent decades the rich minority have been getting richer while the poor majority have been getting poorer. In any event, to use such a statistic to justify being one of the wealthy and to justify destroying the lives of millions of people is the utmost in cold-hearted arrogance.

The question that comes up repeatedly in Margin Call is whether the work these investment traders are doing is worthwhile – does it contribute to the wellbeing of society. The usual response in the film is that it of course it helps people, but when Sam makes his big speech to rally his traders to sell worthless investments, he is completely unconvincing as he tells them that the work they do is for the common good. For me, the underlying message of Margin Call is that the way money is traded today is a game that only benefits the rich. As the Occupy movement has identified, it’s time to investigate and evaluate the ridiculous greedy practices on Wall Street, the ones exposed so well in the great documentary Inside Job (one of my favourite films of 2010).

Margin Call may be one of my favourite films of 2011. It gets a very solid ***+ heading toward ****. My mug is up.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Harry Potter Revealed as Christ-Figure?


Months ago, I promised to provide a theological reflection on the final Harry Potter film. I did write such a reflection at the time but it was published elsewhere and I was unable to put it on this blog. I do so now:


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (DH2), the final installment of the hugely popular eight-part Harry Potter film series, was released this summer to overwhelming acclaim. Like the first two Narnia films, DH2 focuses unnecessarily—and disturbingly— on a climactic epic battle between good and evil. Apparently, filmmakers are convinced that this is what filmgoers want to see. For that reason alone, DH2 is not, in my opinion, the best film in the series, although it is certainly one of the better ones, highlighted by the acting of a brilliant ensemble cast (most of Britain’s finest actors). However, DH2 is clearly the most theologically profound film of the series, positioning the young master of magic as a Christ-figure.


In a discussion during one of my seminars at this summer’s Mennonite Church Canada assembly, participants argued about the use of the term “Christ-figure.” It was noted that many so-called Christ-figures bear little resemblance to Jesus, especially in their attitudes toward violence, and are often labelled as Christ-figures simply because of the manner of their death. This argument is especially pertinent to Harry Potter, where the films and books apparently do not convey the same message.


When the first Harry Potter film—Sorcerer’s Stone—was released in 2001, many Christians condemned it because of its positive portrayal of magic and witchcraft. Since the film was about children, it was feared that impressionable young viewers would develop an unhealthy interest in paganism and witchcraft. I have seen no widespread or convincing evidence to validate this claim. In fact, a strong argument could be made that the eight Harry Potter films promote Christian values, culminating in a film which suggests that author J.K. Rowling is telling a story with a solid Christian foundation.


Throughout the series, Harry Potter is the focus of messianic expectation. His behaviour seems to be driven by an innate wisdom and “compassion for all” that is beyond his years and distinct from his peers. This is exemplified in DH2 by Harry’s willingness to risk his life to save the lives of his “enemies.” Then, near the end of the film— in a scene reminiscent of Gethsemane— Harry makes the decision to give up his life to save his friends and destroy the power of evil. When he “dies,” he finds himself at “King’s Cross” subway station, where he learns that he is protected by his mother’s blood and did not actually die. In the film, this is not as clear as it is in the book, and Harry’s return comes across as a resurrection. What did die, however, was the part of Voldemort—the evil one— which was inside Harry and which Harry needed to kill before Voldemort could be defeated.


The final confrontation between good and evil in DH2 makes it look like Harry Potter returns to life and overpowers Voldemort. But book readers interpret Voldemort as being defeated when his killing curse bounces off Harry and returns to kill him. Apparently, the final book suggests that Harry eventually renounces violence and power as a way to overcome evil. DH2 and the other films portray Harry as one who does not want to kill others and who uses violence only in defence, but not as one who rejects the possibility of redemptive violence. Such a rejection, combined with his love and compassion, his passion for justice and his willingness to die to save the world, would package the protagonist into a true, albeit fictional, Christ-figure.


In the end, the Harry Potter books and films provide a lot of food for theological reflection, especially for Christians who appreciate the re-telling of the gospels in a way that engages a new generation. For non-Christians, the thematic significance and parallels to Scripture may be lost. Among the questions I am led to ask are:


Is the fear of death, which led Voldemort to split up his soul, the root of all evil? (See Daniel Liechty’s Reflecting on Faith in a Post-Christian Time.)


Is killing the shadow within us the only way to make peace with our souls?


Can Harry Potter, despite his association with witchcraft, be a positive role model for our youth?


Whatever our answers, the Harry Potter films can be the subject of much fruitful engagement.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

My Week With Marilyn


Despite my love of classic films, I have never been a fan of Marilyn Monroe. My Week With Marilyn does more to help me understand why I have never been a fan than it does to help me rethink my position (i.e. I just don’t get why people were so enchanted by Monroe). It does, however, begin to make me a fan of Michelle Williams, whose portrayal of the troubled Monroe is so spot-on that she will surely be nominated for an Oscar.


My Week With Marilyn is a quiet British drama that avoids sensationalizing and melodrama and gives us a wonderful glimpse into what it was like to be involved in the making of a film starring Monroe and the great Laurence Olivier (brilliantly played by Kenneth Branagh). Based on a true story by Colin Clark, My Week With Marilyn stars Eddie Redmayne (well-cast) as the 23-year-old Clark who gets to be Monroe’s closest friend during the final days of filming The Prince and the Showgirl in 1956.


Everything about My Week With Marilyn is very well done, with the acting and the dialogue being the highlights. Judi Dench shines in a small but vital supporting role, Emma Watson is perfectly cast in another smaller role and Dougray Scott is surprisingly effective as Monroe’s husband. While some will think the dialogue uninspiring, I was impressed by its intelligence. Some, perhaps most, will also think this film is about Monroe. I am not convinced of this. Monroe’s insecurity and deeper problems are well-known. What makes My Week With Marilyn work for me is that it’s about a young man whose dream comes true when Monroe turns to him for comfort during a difficult time (well, that and the performance by Williams). Watching Clark bounce between Olivier and Monroe is precious.


My Week With Marilyn is not an outstanding film but I think it’s better than most critics think it is, so I am going to let it slide just into the ***+ category. My mug is up.


Saturday, 3 December 2011

Horrible Bosses


Roger Ebert gave Horrible Bosses ***+, so I thought it must be worth taking a look at. It wasn’t. Roger, my confidence in your appraisal of films is waning - sigh!


I put Horrible Bosses in the same category as The Hangover: utterly inane, insulting and offensive excuses for comedy. The cinematography, especially for such a film, is outstanding, but other than that, Horrible Bosses is a complete mess that deserves no further comment from me (because I wasted enough of my time watching the stupid thing).


If you liked The Hangover, by all means give this one a try. If you prefer intelligent rewarding comedies, well, even something like Friends With Benefits looks like a classic beside Horrible Bosses. ** for the cinematography. My mug is down.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Like Crazy


Like Crazy is a serious indie romance about a British college student in L.A. (Anna, played by Felicity Jones) who falls in love with an American student (Jacob, played by Anton Yelchin). Anna decides to overstay her visa so that she can spend the summer with Jacob, with consequences that will haunt them for a very long time.


Like Crazy works as well as it does primarily because of the acting of, and chemistry between, Jones and Yelchin (with some excellent supporting work from Jennifer Lawrence, Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead). You may recall that I was recently singing the praises of Yelchin and Lawrence when they teamed up in The Beaver. It seems rather coincidental that they would team up again here. I predict great things for all three of the young actors.


Like Crazy’s forte is not its dialogue (which isn’t profound but did feel very real), but the way emotions are conveyed by these actors without dialogue. I always felt like I knew exactly what these characters were thinking and that drew me in and helped me to care about them. This is important because the structure of the film actually works against caring too deeply for the characters. In fact, the characters consistently disappoint (e.g. If Jacob loves Anna as much as he says he does, then why doesn’t he move to London?). At the same time, I have watched a number of actual young romances in the 21st century which have taken similar paths after that initial burst of ecstatic passion (i.e. I think Like Crazy reflects a fear of commitment which is fairly common among today’s young adults - less so when I was a young adult).


Taken on its own, Like Crazy is an original and entertaining film, with more than its fair share of precious scenes, both joyous and depressing. But I could not help but compare it to one of my favourite serious young adult romances: Before Sunrise. The dialogue in the latter film made me hang on every word, and watching the film, which also reflects the values of many of today’s young adults, was a profoundly satisfying experience. Like Crazy was not. Still, I will give it a solid *** that verges on ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Melancholia


Someone forgot to tell me this was a sci-fi film. Or is it? Of course, since I am a lover of sci-fi, this element only enhanced my enjoyment of the film, even if it is meant as a metaphor. And yes, unlike some other von Trier films, Melancholia can actually be enjoyed.


Not to say that Melancholia isn’t relentlessly depressing, as its title would suggest. But the title refers to a planet that has been hiding on the far side of the sun and is now on the move. That makes two independent films in one year dealing with this rather odd subject. If I was an astronomer, I’d be making sure there isn’t anything hiding out there.


Melancholia is divided into two parts, telling two very different stories involving the two sisters, Justine and Claire. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are both extraordinary in playing these two roles, but it is Dunst who steals the film, well-deserving her best actress award at Cannes. All of the acting is outstanding (Kiefer Sutherland is particularly effective in the major supporting role).


Part one of Melancholia is about Justine’s wedding, a wedding that is not only depressing (partly because Justine is clearly suffering from ‘melancholia’) but eerily unsettling. And yet it is also very funny, in a darkly comic way (partly because of the dysfunctionality of Justine’s family). Part two focuses on the planet Melancholia and its effect on the two sisters. This part moves away from comedy toward a haunting beauty that stays with you long after the film.


The impact of melancholia (either as disease or planet) is life-draining. “Life on earth is evil,” says Justine at one point, indicating that there would be no great loss if it was destroyed. Sometimes I wonder whether Lars von Trier, the writer and director of Melancholia, shares that sentiment. Certainly his last film, Antichrist, would support that possibility. Von Trier is one of the most distinctive filmmakers out there and all of his films (that I have seen) are odd and disturbing. This is true of Melancholia as well, but at least this film is accessible (I would not advise any reader to watch Antichrist, thought-provoking though it may be). I think von Trier is a genius whose voice deserves to be heard, but I also think his voice needs to challenged (e.g. by films like The Way, which was playing in the next room and being watched by two of my favourite former college professors – they came out with broad smiles on their faces; I did not).


The score is a major force in Melancholia and it frequently repeats a piece from Wagner’s opera ‘Tristan and Isolde”. It is a good choice and it is used effectively, but the repetition got a little old for me after a while.


Melancholia has some stunningly beautiful cinematography but it is the cinematography which prevents Melancholia from being a great film (IMHO). To be precise, the problem was the prevalence of jerky amateur-style handheld camera work of the kind I very much dislike. While there are a limited number of films which use that style effectively, I have no use for it (as I have said before) and other than contributing to a feeling of disorientation, I did not appreciate its use in Melancholia.


I would have given Melancholia an easy ***+ for being as relentlessly fascinating as it was relentlessly depressing, but the lazy camera work deserves to be punished, so I am knocking it down to ***. My mug is up but I recommend this film only to those who enjoy watching odd independent films (which I do).

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene


Someone forgot to tell me this was a horror film, though at least it’s the kind of horror film (like Peacock) I can appreciate. And the way the horror quietly builds and subtly sneaks up on you is one of the major strengths of this altogether absorbing film.


Martha Marcy May Marlene is about a troubled young woman who gets involved in a cult. We know at the outset that Martha wants to get out of the cult, because she runs away and calls her sister and goes to live with her. In flashbacks, we then find out what precipitated Martha’s desperate departure.


Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha perfectly, giving us real insight into her character. This is Olsen’s first major film, reminding me of Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance in Winter’s Bone (maybe because the whole film reminded me of Winter’s Bone - it also stars John Hawkes and also takes place in backwoods America). All of the acting is very good, though Hawkes as the cult’s leader is an odd casting choice. There may be something charismatic about him, but I did not feel he should have been able to command the respect and devotion that he is able to command.


An odd thing about Martha Marcy May Marlene is the way it treats the practices of the cult. Sometimes they are apparently viewed as liberating and as positively challenging the materialism and consumerism of our society (among other things). But maybe that’s just my radical viewing of the film. Maybe the cult’s practices and teaching are all supposed to be viewed as brainwashing and obviously wrong-headed (even evil). I hope not, because if that’s true, then the film gets one star. But if it’s not true, then the way Martha processes and shares her new anti-capitalist insights comes across as ambiguous at best. It doesn’t help that many of the cult’s practices are indeed obviously wrong-headed.


Despite that flaw, this truly frightening and thought-provoking film is worthy of ***+. My mug is up.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Descendants


The Descendants stars George Clooney as Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident. Matt finds himself needing to connect in a new way to his two daughters (aged 10 and 17), his in-laws and his wife while in the midst of a huge land sale involving his cousins. He is the sole trustee of a beautiful piece of ocean-side property that has been handed down for generations and originally comes from King Kamehameha himself. The time has come to sell the land and make himself and his cousins (some of whom are poor) independently wealthy.


The land sale story provides the opportunity to make Hawaii one of the characters in the film, augmented by the prevalence of Hawaiian folk music (not that I’m a fan) and, of course, by the gorgeous Hawaiian landscape. But what makes The Descendants special are the human characters. Alexander Payne is a master of character development (as evidenced in his last two films, About Schmidt and Sideways) and The Descendants is perhaps his best effort yet. The film is full of fascinating characters and relationships, all of which centre around Matt. So we see a number of marvelous two-character scenes as Matt talks to: each of his daughters, his oldest daughter’s friend (Sid), his father-in-law, his cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), his wife, his wife’s lover, his wife’s lover’s wife, etc. The extended scene between Matt and Sid was especially precious, one of my favourites of the year (Sideways had my favourite scene of 2004).


So here we have George Clooney (you know what I think of him) in one of his best performances (Oscar nomination?), Hawaii (did I ever mention how the South Pacific has always captivated me), an intelligent complex plot full of intelligent complex characters (you also know what I think of these) and great acting, directing and cinematography. Surely The Descendants must be getting ****. Well, actually, no, it’s not. What? First you give the wonderful Hugo ***+ and now this? What’s your problem, Vic? A bad week at work? Did the Blue Bombers lose the Grey Cup game? (They did, but not until after this review was written.)


I am, of course, generally very stingy with my awarding of four stars. Yeah, I know, I gave four stars to Anonymous, but, well, that’s the point. I went away from Anonymous feeling completely satisfied. I did not feel that way after The Descendants, or after any of Payne’s films. He’s a great filmmaker and I eagerly await his future efforts, but all of his films have, for me, missed something. It’s hard to pinpoint, but the closest I can come is to say that The Descendants felt cool (not cold) and distant. And this may have been true of the other two films as well (both of them also got only ***+). So once again I am awarding a very solid ***+, though a place in my top ten is not out of the question. My mug is up.


As I walked out of the theatre, I heard the old couple behind me complain that the preview had made The Descendants look like a comedy. “This was certainly not a comedy!” the woman said. It’s true that the preview (which I saw far too many times - I knew it by heart even after all my attempts to avoid watching it) misrepresents The Descendants (nothing new there - previews frequently misrepresent films) and makes it look like a comedy. It’s also true that it’s described as a comedy. Whether it actually is a comedy is debatable. Yes, there are a number of funny scenes, though the humour is almost always subtle. But I would put The Descendants in the category of “dramas that are intentionally mislabeled as comedy dramas” - there are far too many films in this category.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Hugo


Let me say at the outset that I found Hugo to be a delightful old-fashioned adventure flick. The setting (a Paris train station in the 1930s) was wonderfully and beautifully realized, the focus on clocks and similar machines was fascinating and original, the acting was uniformly good (I particularly enjoyed watching Ben Kingsley), the cinematography and music were excellent and, as a film buff, I loved the theme of the early history of film. I also appreciated the theme of ‘fixing’ broken people, people who have lost their purpose in life. So why didn’t I like Hugo more than I did? Gareth calls it a masterpiece. I understand how Hugo can be called that, but I can’t do so.


Perhaps all the hype about Hugo, especially the glorious 3D and the fact that it is directed by Martin Scorsese, made me expect to see my WOW film of the year. After all, my WOW film of the last decade also took place in Paris and also featured a full moon. But in spite of some breathtaking scenes, Hugo failed to WOW me. Perhaps it was the story. While the story may have featured original themes and a worthy plot, I found the human drama to be rather predictable and ordinary and a little too slow-paced (which is an odd complaint from me). Or perhaps it’s because the film is about children (an orphan boy who lives in the train station and takes care of the clocks and the daughter of one of the station’s shopkeepers who befriends him), though these are hardly typical child protagonists.


Masterpiece or not, Hugo is a film I would not hesitate to recommend to almost everyone (action lovers beware). Hugo gets a solid ***+ but probably won’t make my top ten in a great film year like 2011. My mug is up.


And now, about the 3D: Did Hugo convince me that I have been too hard on 3D and will I now stop complaining about it? Not a chance. I mean, come on, I hated seeing Avatar in 3D, so no 3D film is likely to impress me. Maybe my brain is wired differently, though I maintain that this is a passing fad (unless the manufacturers of 3D TVs are more powerful than I think). But I have to say that the 3D in Hugo did make an impression on me. I was particularly impressed that Scorsese didn’t pile on the action scenes designed to highlight 3D. On the contrary, it was in the way that Hugo managed to make 3D integral to all the ordinary and quiet scenes that I realized how effective 3D can be. Just not in a film. By this I mean that as I watched Hugo I began to feel that I was watching a 3D ‘show’ (for lack of a better term) rather than a film, which is especially ironic in a ‘so-called’ film about the history of film. I think this explains why the only 3D ‘film’ I have thoroughly appreciated (for being in 3D) is U23D. U23D is also not a ‘film’ for me; it is a concert, and therefore the 3D can add to my enjoyment of the ‘experience’.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

In a Better World



This is a film I've been waiting to watch for a long time. It has weaknesses, but is a very well done film: beautifully filmed and acted. The story is slow but powerful and, except for a few moments, unpredictable. Strong themes are touched on - especially that of responding to violence and to tragedy. In fact, the unique way those two themes are tied together is one of the strengths of the film. Early on, one boy's response to tragedy leads him to violence that saves another boy - but is that the right response? The film is very even-handed with these kinds of choices. Difficult choices in the film where violence is opposed on principle are left messy and the viewer is forced into the romance-free difficulty of such choices. Are we really strong enough to do non-violence well? Or do we simply substitute social/verbal violence - or leave the dirty work to others?

The film is deeply European in so many respects. I could be completely out to lunch because I have not spent any recent time in Scandinavia, but it feels like a taste of some of their current paradoxes: a strong culture of non-violence and protection of human rights, but violence still simmers below the surface and there is a cool secularism that makes it all feel a little barren and devoid of some of the potent stories, symbols and Spirit that could breathe life more deeply into the lives of good and kind people. There's such an underlying tone of loneliness or of the pain and alienation that keeps people apart that I longed for every moment of connection. Fortunately there are some deep moments of that. I would give this ***+

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Unknown


What do we have here?:

  • a Hitchcockian thriller filmed in Berlin; check
  • Liam Neeson as a man lost in a situation beyond his understanding and control; check
  • reminding me of Polanski’s Frantic, which I love; check
  • a surprise twist near the end that actually caught me by surprise; check
  • Bruno Ganz in a nifty supporting role; check
  • Frank Langella in another nifty supporting role; check


Yes, indeed, Unknown has a lot going for it. If only it could have sustained it to the end instead of simply resorting to excessive violence to kill off all the baddies. The film immediately lost half a star for that unnecessary nonsense.


Not that Unknown was perfect before that. Let’s focus on the surprise twist for a moment (trying hard not to give anything away). Prior to the twist, the film was in the land of the utterly preposterous, with all sorts of bizarre goings-on which just didn’t seem remotely explainable. But they were. So much so that after the surprise I said to myself: “Duh, why didn’t I think of this?” Unfortunately, the surprise twist unveiled an implausible and unexplainable element that was almost as bad as what it resolved. And the ethical implications of this were particularly worrisome.


And then there were all the car chases. If you like car chases, I suppose they were quite well done. But I don’t like car chases.


The cinematography was good, the score was fine, and the acting was generally better than average for a thriller (although I’m not convinced January Jones was the best person for her role; it was a very difficult role to play but still…). Unknown needed only a decent (and I mean that in every way) ending to put it into solid ***+ country, even with all its implausibilities. Nevertheless, I did feel entertained, it did get all those checks, and it did have Bruno Ganz in that nifty supporting role (the scene with Ganz and Langella was my favourite scene in the film), so I have to give Unknown a solid ***. My mug is up. If you like thrillers, you could do far worse than this one.

Friday, 18 November 2011

J. Edgar


J. Edgar might have been a great film. I can’t clearly identify the things which might have made it great. I just know it wasn’t great because it left me unsatisfied. Perhaps it was because I was never sure where it was going or what it wanted to say. I suppose if you are making a film about a mysterious unusual man and you don’t want to sensationalize the story or dig too deeply into unsubstantiated rumours, the result might be exactly this kind of unsatisfying film. This might explain Clint Eastwood’s decision to make J. Edgar the way he did, but I was still disappointed.

J. Edgar is, of course, the story of J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI and one of the most powerful people in the U.S. for decades (until his death in 1972). While the film supplies some historical context, it was not enough for me to get a clear sense of what all Hoover was involved in during his many years in ‘power’. This is at least partly because the film focuses on the kind of man Hoover was and not so much on what he did. But for me to fully appreciate the story of who Hoover really was, I need to know more about what he did. How did Hoover’s personal life affect his work and the major events of which he was a part (the hints are there but I wanted more)? We know Hoover kept secret files on various politicians and leaders, but what was in them that had Nixon panicking at Hoover’s death?

Some critics have argued that Eastwood (or Dustin Lance Black, the writer of the screenplay) was too sympathetic towards Hoover, but that’s not the film I watched. What I saw was the depiction of a very disturbed, sad and lonely man who put his own obsessions and pride ahead of everything else. Sure, Hoover was also a genius who changed the science of criminal investigation forever. But behind that genius was a man obviously struggling with issues of sexual identity and, for most of his life, struggling under the thumb of an overbearing mother (the kind of mother one associates with sociopaths, not FBI directors).

Among J.Edgar’s many strengths were the period detail and the acting. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to impress me and will likely be nominated for an Academy Award for this role. Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts were excellent in major supporting roles and Judi Dench can do no wrong (as Hoover’s mother). But all that good acting could not overcome what I can only describe as a lacklustre screenplay. Clint Eastwood, one of the best directors out there, couldn’t put it all together this time, though I have to give him credit for making a film about a powerful figure as understated as he did.

I will give J.Edgar a solid ***. My mug is up, but the taste of what’s inside just doesn’t satisfy.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Way

Okay, this is what I’m talking about (i.e. insanity alert: God made me write this)! What are the odds that the next film I would watch after The Limits of Control (see previous review) would also be about a lone man on a mission across Spain who meets people on the way who give him vital clues for his journey of discovery? A million to one, Mr. Spock? And yet that is precisely what just happened to me. And no, I had no idea where The Way was set or what it was really about. Do not tell me that is coincidence. As you saw below, I do not believe in such things and never have. On the contrary, I believe, without a smidgeon of a doubt, that God put these two films in my way precisely at this time, even if for no other reason than to remind me that God is still there, still putting the pieces together a zillion times a second for all those able to see it. But of course I also believe God is trying to tell me something, to help me, as I said below, on my own journey of discovery.


I don’t want to tell you much about The Way because I want everyone to rush out and see this film (the way I wanted you to rush out and see Of Gods and Men). This has already been one of the best years for film in a long time and The Way is another proof of that (although you should know that film critics did not quite see it that way, giving The Way less than a *** average).


The Way stars Martin Sheen (whom I have admired since I was a kid and saw him in some religious TV show with Jack Albertson) and was written and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. Emilio also plays Martin’s son in the film, although the son (Daniel) is dead by the time the film starts. Sheen plays Tom Avery, whose son dies in a freak accident while on the first day of a long and famous pilgrimage in France/Spain (to Santiago de Compostela). Tom flies off to France to collect the body and when he finds out what his son was doing, he decides to do the pilgrimage himself. Along the way he meets a Dutchman, an Irishman, a Canadian woman, an American priest, a Gypsy father and many more who will change his life. All of this is done in a subtle understated way that keeps The Way far away from made-for-TV land.


The Way is about people and it’s full of lonely people who are lost and trying to find their way. The Way is about God and how much more precious life is for those who know there is a God who loves them unconditionally (okay, that’s just my interpretation again; it’s never stated in the film). The Way is about life and how we live it (but not about how we choose to live it, as Daniel tells his father in a flashback). The Way is a beautiful, funny inspiring film (did I mention the actors were all perfectly cast?) and gets an easy **** from me and you will certainly find it among my favourite few films of the year.


Monday, 14 November 2011

The Limits of Control


The Limits of Control (2009) was almost unanimously panned by film critics. Roger Ebert gave it all of half a star. So why, you may ask, did I feel that it was worth two hours of my time? I’m so glad you asked.


The Limits of Control was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, who happens to be one of the world’s most insane, I mean ‘original’, filmmakers. Whenever I see a Jarmusch film, I think of Wim Wenders, another one of our most ‘original’ filmmakers. Not surprisingly, Jarmusch and Wenders have worked together. But my point is that some of us are attracted to ‘original’ films, films that are unlike anything else out there, films that are always trying to make you think, films that you know are attempting to communicate an important message even if you’re not sure what it is. Many critics find these ‘original’ films pretentious, self-absorbed, and even deluded. Both Jarmusch and Wenders have made films that the critics loved (Stranger than Paradise and Broken Flowers for Jarmusch; Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas for Wenders) but most of their films get a mediocre reception.


Personally, I love these guys, considering even their worst films well worth watching and almost always liking their films more than the critics. That is why I took a chance on The Limits of Control. I was not disappointed.


The Limits of Control is a thriller with almost no action, a drama with almost no dialogue. It gives a whole new meaning to the words ‘slow-moving’. It’s not exactly like watching paint dry but it is like a watching a painting. It’s plot is so minimalist that it could be filmed in twelve minutes instead of 112 minutes. The same things happen over and over again. Only the faces change. On the surface, The Limits of Control is about a man on a secret mission in Spain. We don’t know what or why. We know only that he keeps meeting people who give him one more piece of the puzzle.


Under the surface, however, we know (at least we hope) that The Limits of Control is not about a cold unnamed spy (who says almost nothing and whose expression rarely changes) trying to save the world. It’s about an existential journey of discovery. The lone spy likes to visit art galleries to look at paintings and some of the fellow ‘spies’ he meets represent art (the very paintings he is looking at) in some way. One represents science. The mysterious enemy represents a corporate structure which has lost interest in the arts and sciences and in creative thought of any kind and sees the world as being only about the acquisition of capital. That’s my interpretation, anyway, but I have not had it confirmed.


Perhaps The Limits of Control captured my attention because during the last few days I just happened to be thinking about how people who pursue careers in the fine arts (or any creative or thoughtful work) are not respected like those who go into business or computer technology. Jarmusch, like me, does not believe in chance, fate or coincidences, so I do not believe that I chose to watch this film by mere chance. Rather, I believe that its message was one of my own fellow ‘spies’ passing along information for my journey of discovery.


Perhaps you’re thinking that the reason I like Jarmusch’s films is because I am as insane as he is. Perhaps. Jarmusch’s motto is: “It’s hard to get lost if you don’t know where you’re going.” When he makes a film, he doesn’t know where he’s going. And he enjoys being ‘lost.’ “I feel free when I’m lost,” he says. His films, like those of Wenders, certainly reflect this sense of being lost and looking for freedom on the way to something or someone or somewhere. I ramble because I too feel lost when I watch films like this. Watching The Limits of Control was like looking at a gorgeous surreal painting (one which contains occasional movement) for two hours while also looking deeper and deeper into oneself. It’s mesmerizing.


BTW, the people our lone spy, played stoically enough by Isaach De Bankole, meets on his journey include Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Bill Murray, among others. The Limits of Control gets a mug up from me, though I can’t decide how many stars it’s worth (let’s say *** just to be safe). If looking at a painting (however beautiful) for two hours is not your idea of a good time, you may want to avoid this one. At the least, you should read one of the many scathing critiques before taking the plunge.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

In the Air Again: Larry Crowne and Friends With Benefits


I caught two films on the plane this week, both in the romantic comedy category (that’s all Air Canada had to offer that I hadn’t seen).



While I’m no fan of Julia Roberts, I thought Larry Crowne would be the strongest entry of the two. After all, who doesn’t like Tom Hanks, and in Larry Crowne, he not only plays the protagonist, he also wrote and directed the film. Unfortunately, Larry Crowne turned out to be a dull dud. The performances were okay but the story was not well written, none of the characters really interested me, and the film lacked any real energy or chemistry. So Larry Crowne gets a mug down and only **.



Friends With Benefits is a film I did not think I would ever get around to seeing. So I was very pleasantly surprised when the first half of the film compared favourably with the best romantic comedies I have seen in the past year. It was fresh and refreshingly adult (explicitly so). It was intelligent (full of clever fast-paced dialogue). It was filmed in New York. It starred two actors (Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis playing Dylan and Jamie) from whom I did not expect very much but who performed admirably, with obvious chemistry.


If only Friends With Benefits had ended halfway instead of moving to L.A. for a visit to Dylan’s family. I like Richard Jenkins and he was good as the father. I like Jenna Elfman and she was good as the sister. What I didn’t like was the beginning of what would be one Hollywood cliche after another as we move to the finish line, especially in a film that actually made fun of Hollywood cliches.


If it hadn’t been for the predictable second half and the predictable ending, Friends With Benefits would have been safely in ***+ country. As it is, I will give it ***. My mug is up for this one, but let me warn you that this is not a romantic comedy for the family or for anyone offended by explicit sexual dialogue.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Bang Bang Club


I no longer remember who suggested to me that I watch this film, but I trusted that person enough to do so, with mixed results.


The Bang Bang Club tells the true story of four white combat photographers in South Africa in 1994 during the last days of apartheid. During that time, one would suppose the combat would be between the white government troops and the black members of the ANC, but the war in the film is between two black tribes, one of whom is the Zulus of the Inkatha Freedom Party which opposed the ANC.


Greg Marinovich (played by Ryan Phillippe) is the fearless rookie photographer who gets caught up in the war and has the dubious opportunity to watch (and click) as each side brutally kills a member of the other side. One of these photos wins him the Pulitzer Prize.


Greg and his colleagues go where few would dare to go. Is it courage or insanity or do they have a death wish? They document the atrocities of humanity with an objectivity that’s scary, as if they can remain unaffected by the horrors they see. Is that possible? The film provides a mixed response, focusing on a man who is able to do this work for years, regardless of the toll it takes on him, but who is sometimes depicted as hesitating in a way that implies doubt, doubt about the morality or sanity of clicking away while someone is murdered in front of him. One of Greg’s friends experiences a moral dilemma much more profound and his life takes a very dark turn as a result.


What motivates these photographers? Surely it must be more than just the money or the glory. Surely they are risking their lives to share the truth in an effort to make the world a better place? The film does not do enough with that question, as it does not do enough with many other questions, like what was actually going on in South Africa that caused black people to kill black people when the primary conflict was between white and black.


The Bang Bang Club seems to want to take an objective stand on the war, refusing to get into the politics. Is that wise? We are left with no clear sense of what was happening in South Africa in 1994 and what role the government played in the events of the film other than that the police were quite hostile to the photographers. By showing the horrors of war so starkly, one can hope the film is at least trying to highlight the insanity and absurdity of war, but even that is debatable.


The acting is quite good, the cinematography is great (as one would expect in a film made by photographers) and The Bang Bang Club has a number of very powerful scenes. But it also has many lesser scenes, it flows awkwardly (with no clear sense of the passage of time) and it doesn’t do enough character development for a film that focuses on such intense characters. In the end, Steven Silver’s The Bang Bang Club is another flawed film with lots of thought-provoking potential. On the assumption that it is trying to say something profound, even if it fails, I will be generous and give it ***. My mug is up, but just barely.


Monday, 7 November 2011

Fish Tank


I waited far too long to watch this British masterpiece from 2009.


Fish Tank tells the story of Mia, an angry, lonely fifteen-year-old girl who has grown up with her mother and younger sister in a council estate just outside of London. Her young mother clearly has no clue how to be a parent and Mia struggles alone to find her way in life. She spies on her peers and seems to want to have friends, but can’t control her foul mouth and thus alienates everyone around her. To pass the time, Mia practices dancing in an empty flat because that’s what she wants to do with her life. When her mother’s latest boyfriend tells her how good she is, she develops a crush on him, with rather disastrous results. But Mia is nothing if not resilient and the word disaster seems exaggerated in this understated film, though it is hard to imagine Mia ever having a happy life.


Katie Jarvis plays Mia and she is in every second of this film, so Fish Tank lives and dies with her performance. In this case, Fish Tank lives because her performance is flawless. This is less surprising when one learns that Jarvis grew up in a housing estate just like the one in the film. Michael Fassbender as the mother’s boyfriend is also very good. But it is the writing and direction of Andrea Arnold that must be credited for creating a sublime, haunting and truthful work of cinematic art.


One of the things that makes Fish Tank special is the way we see everything from Mia’s viewpoint and begin to feel and think what she is feeling and thinking. It is rather terrifying and the whole story feels all too real.


There are far too many teenagers in the UK growing up in the kind of environment depicted in Fish Tank. With ridiculously-high levels of unemployment among young adults, these teenagers have little to look forward to and start turning to the bottle at a horrifyingly young age. Binge drinking has become far too common among the young people of the UK. The future is bleak for all the Mia’s unless the government funding that is going to the military or to protect the wealthy starts focusing on programs to help the young. The very future of the country is at stake and as a British citizen I am more than a little concerned.


Fish Tank gets an easy ****. My mug is up.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Conspirator


“I would do anything to ensure the survival of this nation,” says the war secretary (Kevin Kline) to the lawyer defending a woman accused of conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. By this he means that if a possibly innocent woman needs to be sacrificed (i.e. murdered by the state in the form of execution) in order to restore order and maintain peace in “this nation”, thus saving countless other lives, then so be it.


It is not a big leap from that statement and that sentiment to the suggestion that “the survival of this nation(‘s wealthy elite) must be ensured at any cost even if it means using lies about 9/11 and WMDs to invade and occupy a country at the cost of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives". Hundreds of other examples also apply. For that reason alone, The Conspirator is worth watching and worthy of appreciation.


The Conspirator is not about the possibly innocent woman, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), on trial for conspiracy to assassinate the president, but about the lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who is forced to defend her. Aiken is understandably reluctant to defend a woman all believe to be guilty of this most horrific of crimes. His reputation and friendships are at stake. But as he goes through the process of defending Mary, he realizes that the very process of justice hangs in the balance. Guilty or innocent, Mary deserves a fair trial and Aiken becomes obsessed with making sure she gets it.


As I watched Aiken fight the corrupt domination system of his time, I couldn’t help thinking that Robert Redford, at 75, made The Conspirator as his own personal attack on injustice, standing up to challenge the way the domination system today treats people as pawns in its protection of power and wealth.


While The Conspirator has a great message, it is, unfortunately, not a great film. It is intelligent, relatively well-acted, and is full of beautiful cinematography, but it is too slow-moving even for me, with a screenplay that verges on dull. It takes a lot of guts to make a film so quiet and thoughtful instead of appealing to the masses with something full of action, suspense and melodrama. It made me realize that I might have been too hasty in granting Anonymous (which has more than its share of melodrama) four stars. Nevertheless, I cannot give The Conspirator more than a solid *** for effort. My mug is up but the brew inside is rather bland.