Saturday, 29 December 2012

Silver Linings Playbook



This comedy-drama from writer/director David O. Russell (based on a novel by Matthew Quick) is a refreshingly different kind of American romance. It’s the story of a dysfunctional lower-middle class family and two people (Pat and Tiffany) struggling with mental illness who try to help each other overcome their limitations. Pat and Tiffany are unlikely protagonists in a film that avoids cliches and that is high praise indeed.

Pat’s mother has just taken him out of a mental institution after an eight-month stay following his vicious attack against the man he caught with his wife (Nikki). Pat just wants to be reunited with his wife, who has a restraining order against him. Tiffany’s husband died a few months earlier and she blames herself. She’s looking for connection anywhere she can find it. Pat and Tiffany are lonely and afraid, knowing that they suffer from a tendency to behave inappropriately, resulting in alienation. “You have poor social skills,” Pat says to Tiffany shortly after they meet, to which Tiffany responds, “You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things.” Great stuff. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence play Pat and Tiffany. Lawrence can do no wrong and has yet another exceptional performance. Cooper is outclassed but generally does well.

Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver offer superb support as Pat’s parents. Pat Sr. may not be diagnosed but his own struggle with mental illness is obvious and possibly more debilitating than that of his son. Father and son have much in common and they care for each other but their relationship is one of mutual distrust and frustration. Their relationship is a highlight of the film, though a climactic scene in their living room didn’t really work for me (I was also disappointed with the handling of the major subplot about Pat Sr.’s gambling problems).

Silver Linings Playbook isn’t perfect, but it’s a quirky and honest film that bears little resemblance to what passes for comedy drama in Hollywood these days (yeah, I’m referring to Ted again). A solid ***+ effort. My mug is up.

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey



Having once again had my expectations lowered by critics (not to mention a scathing review from Janelle), I went into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fearing the worst. I thought for sure I would now be writing something like: ‘Sorry, Zack (nephew), but The Hobbit was a disaster.’ Instead, I am forced to apologize to Janelle for liking The Hobbit much more than she did.

It must be said, however, that I saw The Hobbit in 2D and in the normal 24 frames per second. I have no doubt that if I had been forced, as Janelle was, to watch the film in 3D and 48 frames per second, my appreciation for The Hobbit would have suffered a major blow. Why Peter Jackson (director) chose to film it that way at all is a complete mystery to me (even after hearing his excuses). 

I must also say at the outset that I agree with Janelle’s complaints about the film, especially the extent of the fighting and battle footage and the unfortunate mix of humour and violence. However, the amount of violence in The Hobbit, measured in both minutes and intensity, is much less than in any of the three Lord of the Rings films (which I loved), so I am inclined to be lenient. My big fear is that by making three long films out of a short novel, the final film will focus so much on the Battle of Five Armies that I will wish the trilogy had ended after the second film.

But getting back to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I thought it did a commendable job of introducing us to the dwarves and the young Bilbo and taking us on the first stages of Bilbo’s grand epic adventure, a journey to the Lonely Mountain and the dragon sitting on its hoard of gold (stolen from the dwarves). On the whole, I thought The Hobbit was beautifully filmed, well-acted and altogether enjoyable, but only if taken on its own and not compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy or viewed as the first part of a second trilogy or even compared too closely with the novel.

The big problem with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is precisely that it is based on a novel which is, in my opinion, in every way inferior to The Lord of the Rings. So even if the novel was as long as The Lord of the Rings, the film would have to be inferior, for The Hobbit lacks the grand story elements which make The Lord of the Rings one of the greatest works of fiction ever written. Taken on its own, I do think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a great epic tale full of wonder and an impressive ‘fantasy’ feel. But it does not have (and cannot have) the magic which made LOTR the classic it is. When you add in the fact that The Hobbit is no more than a quarter of the length of The Lord of the Rings, the likelihood of disappointment increases exponentially. Even two long films would be a stretch. Three is simply unnecessary.

Weighing all of these factors in order to make a fair judgment of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not easy. For my part, I will award it ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Les Miserables - Updated Review



See the last paragraph below for updated comments.

Les Miserables, the stage musical version of Victor Hugo’s magnificent epic novel, written by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil (Herbert Kretzmer did the English lyrics), is, for me, the greatest piece of entertainment ever created. I have seen Les Mis on stage four or five times, watched the concerts on DVD seven or eight times and listened to the various CD recordings over a hundred times. A filmed version of Les Mis was a long-time dream of mine (as it had been for Lord of the Rings). So even with a Christmas Day release of the film, I could not help but be there on opening day, trying hard to keep my expectations in check (and I had seen enough negative reviews to make that fairly easy).

As a result, Les Miserables rather handily exceeded my expectations. A final verdict must await a second viewing of the film, but I will share some initial thoughts. Knowing that the director, Tom Hooper, had chosen to go with big-name actors rather than musical heavyweights (and I cannot really fault him for that), I was expecting to have issues with the singing (and I did). What I was hoping for, by way of compensation, was superior acting. With few exceptions, I got it. I thought Hugh Jackman’s lead performance as Jean Valjean was remarkable, and Oscar-worthy (joining the ranks of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day-Lewis). Jackman’s singing voice does not have the range or power required for the lead role but his singing was nevertheless entirely acceptable to me given the quality of his acting. 

Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine was also outstanding and I have no complaints about her singing, which came as a mild surprise. A much bigger surprise was Eddie Redmayne’s singing (and acting) as Marius. I had heard that he had very little singing experience and had therefore wondered why he had been given the part, but he blew me away in every department. Amanda Seyfried’s performance as Cosette was adequate but her singing voice grated on me (some people like her voice, but Seyfried was my biggest singing disappointment). Samantha Barks as Eponine was magnificent. It was immediately obvious (as it was for a few other roles in the film) that Barks is a musical performer (and I recognized her from the 25th anniversary concert in London), but her acting was as good as her singing. Aaron Tveit was likewise a good Enjolras. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were interesting choices for the Thenardiers. While there were some glitches, I found their performances more than acceptable. Colm Wilkinson (the original London Valjean) as the bishop was a pleasant surprise. 

And then there’s Russell Crowe as Javert. Crowe is a very good singer and a very good actor, but I do not believe he was a very good choice to play Javert. The range and power issue, identified above for Jackman, was a much bigger issue for Crowe. Javert needs to be a daunting presence with a powerful voice to match. Crowe’s acting and singing missed on both counts. Nevertheless, there was just enough of a Javert feel and look about Crowe to keep me from getting too distracted by the inadequacies, so I will not describe this as a disaster. 

Besides the incredible acting display (often in close-ups), which give Les Mis an emotional power the stage cannot reproduce, I was particularly impressed with the scenes which were added to the musical, most notably the scene in which Valjean and the young Cosette try to elude Javert. The additional music was underwhelming but tolerable.

Les Miserables is a very dark film with desaturated colours and a dingy feel. This is well-suited to the story, much of which focuses on the life of the poor in 19th century France, and I generally found the cinematography to be excellent. I haven’t tried to summarize the plot, assuming a general familiarity with the story of Valjean (a former convict who breaks his parole) and Javert (the officer who hunts him).

All in all, in spite of obvious imperfections, Les Miserables the film was a thoroughly satisfying experience. But those are not words I would normally use to describe one of my favourite films of the year. So the question for me is whether, upon at least one repeated viewing, Les Mis can move beyond satisfying to thrilling or mind-blowing. If so, an appearance among my top three films of the year (and even my top thirty films of all-time) is not out of the question. If not, well, it is still a film I will want to watch again and again. I will give it a tentative ****. My mug is most definitely up.

I have now watched Les Miserables for the second time. As I had hoped, I was able to free myself from critical considerations and just enjoy the film for what it was. Again, as I had hoped, the result was that I enjoyed the film more the second time around, forgiving all manner of imperfections. I am now giving Les Miserables a solid **** and stating that it will almost certainly be my second-favourite film of the year.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Life of Pi



With Les Mis coming right up, it's time to squeeze in another short review:

A gorgeously-filmed old-fashioned adventure, Life of Pi is not to be missed on the big screen. It’s directed by Ang Lee and based on the bestselling novel by the French-Canadian writer Yann Martel, which I read a few years ago. I thought the novel would be impossible to film. I was wrong, though I cannot explain the wondrous special effects that must be involved. 

Life of Pi tells the story of a teenager stranded on the ocean in a small boat for 227 days. If that isn’t hard enough to imagine, he has a tiger for company. The teenager is played by Suraj Sharma and he does an incredible, if not perfect, job.

We watched the film in 2D, though I understand the 3D is amazing (I’ve heard that story before and it has never yet been true for me). The 2D was sufficiently amazing for us. I’ll just add one complaint - the film is quite slow-moving and does drag at times. But Life of Pi is a wonderful wise spiritual uplifting film that gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Anna Karenina



I watched three films in two days and have lots of projects on the go, so I’m going to have to keep these reviews brief.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina deserves a contemporary filming, so I had looked forward to seeing Anna Karenina. With Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) at the helm and Tom Stoppard (Brazil, Shakespeare in Love) doing the screenplay, I didn’t see how the film could go too far wrong, but it did.

Anna Karenina is filmed in a very unique style, with much of it shown on a stage. This unique stylistic decision, which includes short scenes and constant movement, is no doubt supposed to make the film feel more like an innovative art house film than a typical period drama. Well, it certainly does that, but not in a successful way. The style and the story are an awkward fit at best.

Production values are very good and the acting (Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald) is generally adequate, but there’s no real chemistry between Anna (Knightley) and Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson) and the result is a film that completely failed to engage me on an emotional level.

I found Anna Karenina interesting rather than entertaining and can’t imagine being willing to see it again, so it gets a dismal **+. My mug is down.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Seven Psychopaths



Seven Psychopaths is a dark and very violent comedy in the Tarantino mould. What sets it apart is the way it satirizes not only film violence but redemptive violence in general. Add in the central story about a screenwriter’s need to write something new and meaningful, the intelligent dialogue and the excellent acting, and surely greatness awaits. Unfortunately, the violence-for-laughs thing doesn’t work for me (as you know) and the plot is just too silly for greatness.

Seven Psychopaths is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who made In Bruges, a brilliant and twisted dark and violent comedy (obviously McDonagh likes that genre). Once again McDonagh brings Colin Farrell in for the lead role and Farrell is perfectly cast as the screenwriter trying to write a different kind of thriller, one about seven psychopaths that doesn’t end with a showdown where the bad guys all get killed. But he has a serious case of writers’ block. Given that the writer’s name is Marty, it is not a stretch to view this film as McDonagh’s own struggle to write a thriller that doesn’t succumb to the cliches of redemptive violence. For a pacifist, this struggle is hugely entertaining to watch. But the payoff just isn’t there as the film’s silliness continues through to the bitter end. 

Joining Farrell are Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits. These men are also perfectly cast, in this case as psychopaths (make of that what you will, but the acting in Seven Psychopaths is a real joy to watch). 

Seven Psychopaths has many brilliant scenes and a thought-provoking story. If only McDonagh had found a way to tell his story without the silliness and the ultra-violence. It gets ***+ anyway. My mug is up.

The Woman in Black



As you know, I am not a fan of horror films. So even when a gothic horror film comes along that is the kind of film I might find truly frightening, I am not likely to catch it at the cinema. Of, course, being frightened is not my idea of a good time, so that is not going to encourage me. But I knew I had to watch this film, so I finally caught it on Blu-ray.

The Woman in Black is a ghost story about a man spending far too much time alone in a dark haunted house. The Blu-ray cover says: “Don’t watch it alone.” So I watched it alone in an empty house at night with all the lights off. ‘Lights off’ is the way I watch all my films. Since the film is trying to scare viewers, I find the advice confusing. Surely, for maximum effect, you should actually encourage people to watch the film alone in the dark. It certainly worked for me.

The Woman in Black features solid acting by Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer, as well as magnificent cinematography (I actually regretted not seeing this on the big screen). It takes place almost a century ago and, while it doesn’t try to be a pure period film (the speech is contemporary), it does create a strong sense of place (i.e. somewhere in the UK a century ago). 

Two other things make The Woman in Black work: a truly frightening haunted house (director James Watkins and crew do a great job creating the perfect haunted house, inside and out) and an ending that does not disappoint. 

The Woman in Black is a bleak, serious and scary film. For me, it is much more enjoyable than horror films which feature blood and gore (and zombies - I hate zombies), so I am giving it a solid ***. My mug is up.

Coming up next: Seven Psychopaths, which I watched a month ago (it has been one of those insanely busy months, what with vacationing in Europe…).

Thursday, 6 December 2012

A Long Flight: Ted, Premium Rush, We Bought a Zoo, Lawless, Frankenweenie, Your Sister's Sister, Liverpool, Blood From a Stone, Lost in Siberia


I caught nine films while flying to Germany and back. Such trips provide a chance to watch films I intentionally missed on the big screen. While I’m always hoping for a surprise, I expect little and I wasn’t disappointed (i.e. I got little). As an alternative to catching up on Hollywood, three of the nine films were foreign language films I had never heard of. It was certainly no surprise that all three of these films were better than any of the English language films (if you want to call me a film snob, so be it), though none of the nine films was really outstanding. 
Anyway, here are my brief reviews of the nine films, in order of how much I enjoyed them (beginning with the worst):
Ted
The premise about a teddy bear which comes to life and grows up to be a sex-obsessed trash-talking friend to John (Mark Wahlberg) is about as ridiculous as they come. I am not a Wahlberg fan and he certainly did not impress me here. Mila Kunis is wasted as his love interest. Ted is a pathetic excuse for a film which I can only suppose is aimed at those who liked The Hangover. The crude sex and toilet humour did not work for me at all. Seth MacFarlane should stick to making TV shows (American Dad, Family Guy). I can’t believe Roger gave this three and a half stars. *+ My mug is down.
Premium Rush
An utterly pointless action film about bicycle delivery folks in New York City. A waste of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s talents, Premium Rush makes no sense and has no story worth watching. ** My mug is down.
We Bought a Zoo
You all know how much I like Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, but they could not save this predictable and forgettable by-the-numbers family comedy-drama about a man who buys a struggling zoo. Yawn. **+ My mug is down.
Lawless
Another film which wastes some good actors (and decent acting), Lawless is a violent true story about three brothers in Virginia who led the way in bootlegging during the prohibition. Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf are good as two of the brothers, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are the love interests, and Guy Pearce is the cold deputy who’s hunting them down. Lawless could have been good film but doesn’t achieve the epic feel it’s trying for. **+ My mug is down.
Frankenweenie
A black-and-white, animated Tim Burton film, Frankenweenie is a very watchable tale about a boy who uses lightning to bring his dog back to life. I loved the science teacher. A number of precious scenes puts this into *** country. My mug is up.
Your Sister’s Sister
Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt are outstanding in this independent comedy drama about a man who sleeps with the sister of the woman he is in love with (who is his best friend). Lots of obvious improv keep this from being even more predictable than it is. Still, a very entertaining film. *** My mug is up.
Liverpool
A lightweight but thoroughly enjoyable French-Canadian adventure film set in Montreal, what sets Liverpool apart are the likeable leads (Stephanie Lapointe and Charles-Alexandre Dube)and the excellent underlying social satire about our age of disposable electronics, computers and iphones (showing both the good and the bad). *** My mug is up. 
Blood From a Stone
Daniel Auteuil is magnificent in this dark French film about a man who owns a yacht-making company which falls on hard times. The workers protest and things get out of hand. This could have been a great film but the ending is terrible. ***+ My mug is up.
Lost in Siberia 
A German comedy drama wins the day with another tale about a man struggling to find his way in a world that feels like a prison. In this case, the man (played very well by Joachim Krol) finds his way out of prison by finding love in Siberia. A delightful if predictable film. ***+ My mug is up.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Skyfall



Hailed by critics as one of the best Bond films ever, with many critics (including Ebert) giving it four stars (out of four), Skyfall may be the most overrated film of the year. I read a number of the glowing reviews to see what I missed but found nothing at all which would make Skyfall a great film.

Don’t get me wrong. Skyfall is a very compelling Bond film, with a long list of strengths. Unfortunately, it also has a long list of flaws, more than enough to drop it well out of four-star range. 

Let’s start with the strengths. The 23rd Bond film features some of the best acting found in any Bond film. Daniel Craig makes a very good Bond and he is at his best in Skyfall. Then there’s Judi Dench as ‘M’. In previous Bond films, Dench has had a relatively minor role. Not so in Skyfall, where she gets almost as much air-time as Craig. That her performance is top-notch is just par for the course for Dench. I also enjoyed Ben Whishaw as Q. And of course there’s the villain of the piece, Silva, played by Javier Bardem in a way that only Bardem could pull off. Great stuff.

I particularly enjoyed the overall dark atmosphere of Skyfall, which is aided by the fact that Skyfall features less action and more dialogue than most Bond films. Since much of the dialogue is both intelligent and entertaining (I particularly appreciated the debate about espionage), Skyfall could easily have been a special Bond film. With Sam Mendes at the helm, it should have been a special Bond film. And for much of the very strong first half of the film, I was thinking the critics got it right. Thomas Newman’s score is also excellent, and uses the old Bond music, which I appreciated. The locations are always a highlight in Bond films and that remains true in Skyfall, and the cinematography is outstanding. 

So with all this great acting and dialogue and so on, what’s the problem? Well, you may have noticed that I have yet to mention the plot. It’s not worth mentioning. I don’t care how good the acting and production values are if there’s no story to go with it. Revenge of a former spy against ‘M’ for past wrongs? Can you hear me yawn? Still, the thin plot might have been forgivable in a film that also highlights Bond’s childhood and his relationship with ‘M’ if it were not for the ridiculously convoluted ‘Christopher Nolan over-planning syndrome’, the horrible ending and Skyfall's attitude toward violence.

(Minor spoiler alert!) At one point, Silva apparently comes up with a grand scheme to get caught, a scheme that has exactly one chance in a billion to succeed, but somehow Bond does precisely what he needs to do at every moment to make it work. That scene (involving the death of a woman) is disgusting in every way and one of the worst scenes I have seen in a long time. As for the ending, Bond’s scheme to catch Silva is both ridiculously risky and utterly pointless. I loved the Scottish highlands setting, the allusions to Bond's childhood and the two buildings used for the finale (and watching Albert Finney), but what a waste when used for the predictable, stupid and violent showdown.

The violence is of course always a problem in Bond films, but I was particularly offended by the way some of the violence was designed to elicit laughter (not a Bond first). For me, despite its many strengths, Skyfall does not come close to Casino Royale. Still, like I said, it was a compelling Bond film and is worth at least ***, verging into ***+ territory. My mug is up.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Argo



Ben Affleck continues to grow on me as an actor and a director, though I still think he is much better at the latter. In Argo, Affleck stars and directs a film about the rescue of six American hostages in Iran in 1980 (Affleck plays the CIA agent who masterminds the rescue). Despite the fact that we know how it ends, Affleck plays this story for suspense and laughs. Amazingly enough, they both work, making this a very watchable true story.

To play the six hostages, Affleck seems to have gone for lookalikes to the actual hostages. The result is satisfactory but none of those actors stand out and Affleck succeeds only because he doesn’t stand out as unsatisfactory. Bryan Cranston and Victor Garber do well in supporting roles, but the real film-stealers are Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who are often hilarious as a film producer and make-up man who help provide the cover story that the hostages need to leave Iran (namely that they are a film crew checking Tehran out for locations for the space opera, Argo). 

Argo features handheld grainy camera work that doesn’t impress but at least it doesn’t seriously distract (in other words, given the nature of the film, it works well enough). The greatest strength of the film is Chris Terrio’s expertly-crafted suspenseful screenplay, which begins perfectly by making it clear that the U.S. really messed things up in Iran by supporting the oppressive Shah and then giving him a safe haven after the Iranian revolution in 1979. So the U.S. was partly responsible for creating the perfect environment for a hostage situation.

Unfortunately, it is not so clear that the rest of the film sustains this politically wise beginning. By the end, when Iranian soldiers are desperately trying to catch the hostages, there has been far too much emphasis on the nasty Iranians. At a time when there is so much tension between the U.S. and Iran, I am left wondering whether Argo poured oil or water on the flames of that tension. As a result, I cannot consider giving Argo more than ***+. My mug is up but I’m not sure if the contents will sit well in my stomach.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Lincoln



I couldn’t pass up a free advance screening of Steven Spielberg’s new film, even if his last effort (War Horse) was disappointing. After all, as I’ve mentioned before, Spielberg has more films in my top 150 than any other director and that’s got to count for something. Even so, I went into the theatre with low expectations for Lincoln, my greatest fear being that a Spielberg/Disney collaboration, following the melodramatic War Horse, would idealize Lincoln as the great American hero who abolished slavery.

Well, thanks to my low expectations, I enjoyed Lincoln much more than I thought I would. My fear was well-deserved, because Lincoln was indeed idealized exactly as I feared he would be (though he was portrayed as somewhat manipulative), but Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln was so brilliantly flawless (surely this is a guaranteed Oscar nomination) that it was just a nonstop pleasure watching him work. And it wasn’t just Day-Lewis. Spielberg managed to assemble an incredible ensemble cast, featuring actors like Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook and many many more. This is a dialogue-heavy long film, so there are a lot of lines to spread around. I love dialogue-heavy films and the acting was uniformly excellent, so this was great fun.

Lincoln is in colour, but it's so desaturated, dark, grained, and bluish-brown that it almost feels black and white. No complaints. The cinematography seems perfectly suited to the subject matter. 

Lincoln takes place almost entirely in the month of January, 1865, during which Abraham Lincoln, in the last months of the Civil War, tries to get the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed through Congress. It will not be easy, with many obstacles to overcome, but the biggest threat he faces is peace. The Confederates have sent a delegation to negotiate a peace settlement which will make it almost impossible to get the amendment passed. What to do? 

The melodrama which plagued War Horse was occasionally evident in Lincoln though not nearly as blatant. But at least War Horse had an anti-war feel to it. Lincoln, while clearly depicting the horrors of war (like Saving Private Ryan), seems to suggest that no price is too high to pay for the abolition of slavery, for freedom! I do not share that sentiment. There are many things worth dying for, but nothing at all that’s worth killing for (IMHO), even freedom. I would argue that the legacy of the horrific Civil War has haunted the U.S. ever since. The use of violence always results in more violence. But enough with the sermon.

If Lincoln had engaged me more on an emotional level, I might have been tempted to give it four stars. It was clearly trying to make that engagement, but the whole process felt a little to neat and unimaginative, though on the whole I think the screenplay was very well done. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Cloud Atlas



Wow!

That word is not sufficient to describe the experience of watching Cloud Atlas, a breathtaking work of cinematic art made by one of my favourite directors, Tom Tykwer, together with the Wachowski siblings. All three of these writers/directors enjoy thinking outside the box and experimenting with new ways of making film. This film certainly qualifies as such an experiment, though it’s a big budget experiment with clear ties to Hollywood (even if independently financed).

There were times when Cloud Atlas felt like a Hollywood film, but mostly it felt like an odd European film (something Terry Gilliam might make, for example), which it is. It’s very long but it’s the kind of film you don’t want to end. And it doesn’t feel long because it never slows down long enough to notice the passage of time. More specifically, very few scenes are more than a minute in length and I’m sure the majority are closer to twenty seconds. If that isn’t hard enough on those of us who still have long attention spans, the scenes bounce back and forth through 500 years of time (between 1849 and 2349), telling six different stories which happen to feature most of the same actors (well-disguised, of course, though I recognized most of them immediately). I will make no attempt to tell you what the six stories are about.

By now, you should have a feel for how bizarre a film Cloud Atlas is. It’s a sci-fi film, an action-adventure film, an historical drama, a mystery, a romance and so on. One does eventually get into each of the six stories, short scene by short scene, but trying to tie the six stories together to see the big picture of how lives across time impact each other is a feat that surely can’t be contemplated until a second or third viewing, which is absolutely required, though I’m not sure how I’ll pull it off before it leaves the theatres (since I am on the road for most of the next month). 

Cloud Atlas stars Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Tykwer-favourite, Ben Whishaw, among others. Each of these plays five or six different roles and, for the most part, they do so extremely well. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, the score is magnificent and the six stories are all worth watching, though I appreciated some much more than others. Cloud Atlas is based on the novel by David Mitchell, which has been sitting in a stack of books beside my bed for three years, waiting to be read. Had I known what it was about, I suspect I would have read it long ago. Now I am both afraid and eager to do so. 

As wonderful as Cloud Atlas is, it suffers, alas, from at least one serious flaw, one that I am particularly sensitive to, namely redemptive violence. While some of the stories are much more violent than others, it is a feature found in most of them and almost always in a redemptive (often revengeful) way that I abhor. So sad. As in Looper, the violence is not meant to be enjoyed, even when a baddie gets it, so that’s good, at least. 

Of course, the violence is part of the big picture in Cloud Atlas, a big picture which has to do with standing up (like Jesus? - there is at least one crucifixion scene) against the Domination Systems of whatever time you happen to find yourself in and, well, darn if that isn’t as good a reason to make a film as any I can think of, even if you mess it up with violence. Cloud Atlas is not content with dealing with just one favourite theme of mine but also throws in the themes of how we are all connected, impacting the lives around us every minute (even the lives of people in the distant future), and how, as one character says twice, “By each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” 

Cloud Atlas is full of memorable lines and wondrous ideas. I suspect I will love it even more after the second viewing. If that is the case, it may very well become my favourite film of 2012 (though there are still some treasures awaiting at the end of what has been a dull year for film). An easy ****. My mug is up and overflowing with rich flavours.

BUT BE WARNED: Many critics panned Cloud Atlas, so obviously this is not for everyone. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Music Never Stopped

Oliver Sacks' stories have long been interesting to me - whether directly in written form or occasionally in movies (Awakenings, At First Sight). He is a neurologist and likes to write about unusual cases in a very human and intriguing way.

The Music Never Stopped is another great example that is worth watching both for its fascinating example of the power of music in shaping and activating the brain and for its simple and moving story. The story begins with a couple in their sixties becoming reunited with their thirty-something son after the son is found with severe brain damage (from a benign tumour that was left far too long). As a result the son is fairly "blank" and lifeless - very difficult to connect with and incapable of forming new memories.

As the story unfolds, we see that father and son both were deeply formed by music, but the music was different and the accompanying beliefs at odds. The result was a break that left the relationship completely cut off. The movie is about how music's miraculous ability to access memory and other parts of the brain creates an opportunity for music to re-connect what it once helped to separate.

This film is filled with things to think about for fathers and sons, for considering life's priorities and for wondering about the mystery of music and all of its potential which we still barely understand. It may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it's a story I heartily recommend. I gladly rate it ***+ with a mug held high.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Looper (Updated!)



Wow!

Maybe I should stop there. For regular readers, that one word communicates all you need to know (indeed, even more than you should know) except for a warning that Looper is a very very violent film. Not that it will be the first time that a violent film makes into my Top Ten (though I don’t always admit it publicly).

If the violence doesn’t scare you off, you might consider reading the rest of this review after watching the film, although, unlike a certain Mr. Ebert, I have no intention of writing any spoilers in my initial review (Ebert goes so far as to say that he isn’t giving too much away, but he gives EVERYTHING away). 

So what we have here is a critically-acclaimed futuristic neo-noir time travel thriller. For some of us, that’s enough to make us run to the theatre, even if the concept of time travel is hopelessly illogical and it is therefore unlikely the film will make sense. And indeed the sci-fi time travel background story in Looper doesn’t really make sense and cannot, in my humble opinion, withstand intellectual scrutiny. Still (and I am reluctant to say this much), time travel is not (IMHO) what Looper is really about.

Looper takes place in Kansas in 2044 and 2074. Time travel is invented in 2074, but immediately outlawed. For the mob bosses in 2074, however, time travel becomes a convenient method of executing and disposing of enemies at a time when it has become otherwise difficult to do so (another largely unexplained logic flaw). So they send their enemies back to 2044 where a looper is waiting to execute them and dispose of their bodies. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, one of those loopers. He works for Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man from 2074 who has travelled to the past to oversee the looper operation (among other things). Loopers and those they work for are killers, so they should hardly warrant any sympathetic attention from the viewers. And yet … (I am unwilling to finish this sentence at this time – catch my future self in a few weeks).

For now, I will tell you that Looper, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is in many ways a work of genius. The writing is much much better than one usually finds in an action film, ditto the acting (where we have outstanding performances by Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt), there’s a great dystopian-future sci-fi atmosphere, a good score, excellent cinematography and something much more important than all of these (which I will only hint at by saying that Looper’s thought-provoking discussion-worthy appeal lies not in its sci-fi plot but in its philosophical musings).

Part of me thinks I need to make Looper one of the few **** offerings of 2012. But all that needless graphic violence (and the illogical plot) makes me hesitate, so I will give it a very strong ***+. It is almost certainly going to make my Top Ten of the year. My mug is up!

Update: For reasons I won't go into, I just watched Looper for the second time in six days. The result requires a reassessment of the above review. 

First, despite the inherent inconsistencies of time travel, I have to admit that Looper tries much harder than most,so I should not complain about this. Second, regarding the graphic violence which disturbed me so much, well, duh, that may be the point! The Avengers features violence which does not disturb and thus allows viewers to take pleasure in watching it. That is a very bad thing. Looper, on the other hand, does not allow you to enjoy the violence. It hits you like a punch in the guts. Violence should be disturbing. So if you feel you have to make it graphic in order to make it properly disturbing, I suppose that too should be forgiven.

Finally, and this is the most important thing, I actually appreciated Looper more the second time around, even after only six days. That is an awesome achievement. So Looper now gets a solid **** and is assured a place in my top five films of 2012. But keep in mind that I have not yet mentioned exactly why I like this film so much. A lengthy theological reflection is called for and will come in due course (after most potential viewers have had a chance to see Looper at the theatre).

I promised more theological reflection on Looper. This can be found at: http://www.canadianmennonite.org/articles/punch-gut

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower



Teenage romances not being high on my list of favourite genres, I must confess I probably would have missed this film altogether if I hadn’t been given a pass for an advance screening. That would have been a shame, because The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an altogether captivating film with more than enough positive qualities to overcome its flaws.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower was written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his own bestselling novel. That’s unique in its own way and I think it’s responsible for the film’s most endearing quality, which is the honesty that flows throughout. It is also responsible for the fact that the film is intelligently-written and carefully structured. This is an indie film and I understand it is fairly low-budget, but the production values are top-notch and the film is perfectly cast (and very well-acted). 

Logan Lerman stars as Charlie, the wallflower in question. He’s a lonely, troubled but brilliant artist-type kid just starting high school. When a classmate is mistreated by a teacher and acquires a bad nickname, Charlie seeks him out and they become friends. Patrick, the friend, is played by Ezra Miller, who was so outstanding in We Need to Talk About Kevin. He is just as good here as Charlie’s gay friend. Patrick has a kindhearted step-sister named Sam, played by Emma Watson (from Harry Potter), and Charlie falls in love. Patrick and Sam introduce Charlie to their little band of outsiders and the next thing you know he is attending one of those special midnight The Rocky Horror Picture Show events. Charlie’s fortunes seem to be improving, but of course there are hard times coming and there are reasons why he is such a troubled teenager.

I liked the flow of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the way the film changed in the last half hour. That worked for me. I also liked the themes of teenage friendship (especially among alienated outsiders) and the importance of mix tapes and certain types of music back in high school. I just finished listening to a bunch of mix tapes I created when I was in high school, so the nostalgia was working for me. Unfortunately, this is also where the film failed me. If Charlie is a wallflower, then what did that make me? Charlie had far more friends and dates and a much more active social life than I would have even dreamed possible when I was his age. A wallflower? I don’t think so. If you want to hear about a wallflower, check out one of those songs I was listening to from 1975: Janis Ian's "At Seventeen".

And then there was the disappointment, especially in an indie film, of seeing the typical middle class environment of far too many Hollywood films (though this is not a typical Hollywood film in other ways). These teenagers lived lives of suburban privilege that made it harder for me to engage with their anxieties. There were a number of related disappointments, but I’ve said enough. Overall, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a superior film and gets ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Master



When the director of one of my favourite films of the past twenty years (Magnolia) starts getting rave reviews for his latest film, it is, I hope, understandable that I would develop high expectations and rush out to see it on the first day of its release in Winnipeg. 

As I have stated before, high expectations are always a mistake. If only I had thought to check Roger Ebert’s review of the film (he gave The Master only **+), my expectations might have been more realistic. Instead, after seeing dozens of four-star reviews, I became so convinced I would love The Master that I was telling people I was finally going to see a film which was sure to be in my Top Ten of the year. Alas, that is far from certain.

What The Master does offer is some of the best acting you’ll ever see. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are phenomenal. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a disturbed man with a taste for serious alcohol who served in the navy during WWII. Five years later (1950), his erratic behaviour and addiction to poison find him hiding on a ship, which is where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and his wife (Adams) as well as a group of Dodd’s followers.

It is obvious that Dodd is supposed to be L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of that strange religion called Scientology. Dodd (the master) takes a special interest in Freddie and tries, for the rest of the film, to ‘convert’ him. For his part, Freddie becomes a loyal servant who’ll do anything to protect Dodd but is more interested in booze than religion. The odd relationship between Dodd and Freddie becomes the heart of The Master.

Besides the outstanding acting, The Master boasts amazing cinematography as well as excellent writing and direction from Paul Thomas Anderson. Many of the scenes are mesmerizing. Unfortunately, a couple of extended scenes didn’t work for me at all. I got the repeated sense that the film just wasn’t going anywhere with its great characters and dialogue. I found it very hard to sympathize with Freddie and impossible to sympathize with anyone else and this obviously didn’t help. Overall, my lack of emotional engagement was enough to significantly detract from the brilliance of what I was watching.

As a result, I can only give The Master a disappointed ***+. My mug is up, but Top Ten isn’t likely (though this has been a very disappointing year thus far).

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Cabin in the Woods



At least ten people told me I needed to watch The Cabin in the Woods even when they knew I do not like horror films. The last time I watched a critically-acclaimed tongue-in-cheek horror film recommended by friends (Drag Me to Hell), it turned out to be a mistake. But this time Joss Whedon, a master of characterization and dialogue, is one of the writers (joined by director Drew Goddard) so, having missed it at the theatre, I took a chance and watched it as soon as it was released on DVD (Blu-ray, to be precise). 

Let me start by saying that satirizing slasher/zombie horror films by making a slasher/zombie horror film is what I would call precarious undertaking. At one level, I can understand why many people (especially horror fans) believe that The Cabin in the Woods succeeded in its attempt to do this (among its other accomplishments). At another level, however, my intense dislike of slasher/zombie horror films (I can’t think of a sub-genre I like less) prevents me from fully appreciating what this film is doing.

As for the plot, let’s just say it starts with five stereotypical college students (the jock, the brain, the bad girl, the good girl and the nerd) deciding to spend the weekend at a remote cabin in the woods. Warnings that they may be in danger are of course ignored and soon enough some very bad things start to happen. But there is much much more to this horror flick than these formulaic cliches, which it is obviously satirizing. 

For example, the film starts with a dialogue between Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, who are marvellous and very funny as two scientists/technicians overseeing the events taking place in the cabin. This is not usual fare for slasher films and is worth the price of admission by itself, but there were actually many more things to appreciate. The five actors playing the students are effective and well-cast. As expected , the dialogue is intelligent, funny and generally outstanding. In one classic scene, the decision of the group to split up instead of sticking together (they can cover more ground that way?) is particularly effective. But the clever satire goes beyond satirizing horror films (and the film industry in general) by venturing into philosophical questions like the nature of self-sacrifice.

There is no doubt that The Cabin in the Woods is both insightful and entertaining, but for me (the opposite of a horror fan, though keep in mind that I love Alien) it was only slightly better than tolerable, which is not exactly high praise. Setting aside the fact that I was able to predict two major plot twists, which is disappointing, my big problem with the film is the blending of comedy and slaughter. Many people in this film meet a very grisly demise at the hands of monsters of every variety. The last line of one of these people, just before one of the monsters begins to devour him, is meant to be hilarious. It may be a great line and part of me did start to laugh at the irony, but I find it very difficult to laugh while people are killed off. Those who do not share this difficulty will appreciate the film much more than I did (and no doubt laugh throughout). 

I can’t give The Cabin in the Woods more than ***, but my mug is up.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Robot and Frank



Robot and Frank, directed by Jake Schreier, is a quiet comedy-drama which takes place in ‘the near future’. It stars Frank Langella as Frank Weld, an older man who lives by himself in rural New York and has begun to suffer from dementia (e.g. he has trouble remembering his son’s name (Hunter) and the past fifteen years of his son’s life). To save on constant travel, Hunter buys his father a robot which can cook, clean and monitor Frank’s health. At first, Frank is angry and resistant. But then he discovers the robot can be trained to help him make a successful return to his previous career as a burglar. While the robot keeps reminding Frank that it is not human, an unlikely friendship begins to develop.

Robot and Frank is completely unbelievable and the plot is shaky at best. But its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. Langella, perfectly cast, does a great job as Frank, the likable forgetful crook, and gets good support from Susan Sarandon, among others. The film is beautifully shot, it moves at a good pace, it’s intelligent and it deals with the trials of aging in a funny, warmhearted and wise way, asking important questions about the things that give life meaning. Best of all, Robot and Frank has a couple of surprise twists I did not see coming. A delightful satisfying film for those who aren’t looking for action or outrageous comedy.

Robot and Frank gets a very solid ***. My mug is up.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Mammoth


This 2009 film passed me by until I began searching for movies for a film-based course on Southeast Asia. While the course is centred on cinema by Thai, Malaysian and Filipino directors, I also wanted some "outsider" perspectives and Mammoth seemed perfect - a Swedish writer/director (Lukas Moodysson) looks at the interaction between American, Thai and Filipino cultures in our contemporary globalised world. 


And it did not disappoint. This is a powerful, well-acted story of our times. The central theme is the future of our species (and here the mammoth symbolism comes to the fore) given our increasing disability to provide real human connection, especially for our children. Instead of direct family connection we see the alienating results of people desperately trying to connect with their cell phones or else they ended up with substitute connections (nannies, prostitutes, doctors) replacing the touch that families - in spite of their best intentions - are unable to provide. The cultural interaction, while highlighting the very real disparities, also shows that the threat of human disconnection is common across cultures.

Compared frequently to Babel or Crash, many critics accused the movie of heavy-handed guilt manipulating, but this seems a false charge to me. One has to wonder if these critics are protesting too much with their cell phones in hand and their children cared for by others. The depictions are all fair and realistic, and while one incident in particular may have poured it on a little thick, it was certainly plausible. The warning is indeed urgent, but it seems well-presented and realistic. It's not hard to sympathize with all of the main characters who clearly love their children and are trying to be good people. I give it a strong ***1/2 and recommend it to those looking for discussion starters on where society is heading.