Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis



The Coen brothers show us once again why they are among the very best filmmakers of our time. Inside Llewyn Davis is not a typical Coen film, with only a hint of the Coen quirkiness. Instead, we are treated to a depressing drama about a struggling New York City musician in 1961 whose life is going around in circles.

Oscar Isaac is amazing as the lost, tired, lonely and desperately unhappy Llewyn Davis, whose inability to make a decent income as a folk singer forces him to sleep on the couches of friends. They always let him in, though it’s clear Davis is not the most likable guy to have around.

There are hints that Davis was a different man before his partner left him. Without his partner, Davis no longer knows where he’s going. There are allusions to Homer’s Odyssey (though not as overt as they were in the Coens’ O Bother, Where Art Thou). Davis is on a journey and unable to find his way home (or, I would say, even unable to know where home is).

Inside Llewyn Davis features a couple of fairly small but spot-on performances from Carey Mulligan and John Goodman, flawless writing and direction from the Coen brothers and outstanding cinematography. I’m not a fan of desaturated cinematography, but here it perfectly evokes not only the mood of the film (bleak, grey) but also the time (winter, 1961) and place. For 105 minutes, I was in New York City and Chicago (and the highway in between) in 1961. 

Inside Llewyn Davis has a tired, melancholy and unsentimental feel that mirrors the life of its unlikable protagonist, though there is an underlying touch of humour. The bleakness makes it harder to enjoy the film, but it does make feel like you are watching a work of great cinematic art. Indeed, the film is so well-made, it is almost impossible to give it less than ****, regardless of whether it makes my top ten films of the year (which is not based on how good a film is, but on how much I enjoyed it). 

And then of course there’s the cat(s). 

So Inside Llewyn Davis gets **** even though I haven’t figured out how much I like the film. My mug is up.

Frozen



Speaking of Disney, let’s take a look at Disney’s new blockbuster animated film. Is it worth all the hype and the overwhelmingly favourable reviews?

Well, to start with, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Frozen is a return to the days of animated Disney musicals. Unfortunately, Alan Menken didn’t compose the music and Howard Ashman didn’t write the lyrics. Some of the songs worked for me, but most fell into the so-so range. Still, the musical side of the film was a definite highlight.

Another highlight was the animation, which is as gorgeous as we have come to expect from Disney. I, of course, did not watch it in 3D, which usually taints whatever it touches. But I hardly noticed I was watching a 3D film in 2D. Excellent work! There are numerous examples of clever and funny dialogue, one of which even satirize Disney animated films of the past. And (big sigh of relief!) there is almost no sign of the redemptive violence common to so may Disney films. Good stuff!

So Frozen has a lot going for it. Nevertheless, my overall reaction to the film was one of disappointment. With such positive reviews, I was expecting, at the least, a well-told original story. I didn’t get it. For me, the plot of Frozen was a mess. Although the sister (Anna) is the protagonist of the piece, which is a nice change, the story revolves around Elsa, a woman who grows up with the magical ability to manipulate ice. This ability is, unfortunately for Elsa, largely uncontrollable and therefore seen as a curse, forcing her into a life of obscene isolation (motivated by a laudable desire not to hurt those around her).

Such a story, properly fleshed out and logically told, might have worked as a foundation for a good Disney animated film, but Frozen, in my opinion, is poorly fleshed out and both randomly (while predictably) and illogically told. Good guys and bad guys alike suffer from a lack of character development and Elsa in particular is a complete mystery. Where did her powers come from? What are they exactly? How can she live such a completely isolated life? Does she ever eat? If so, how does she get food? What is this bizarre kingdom Elsa and Anna dwell in and what are their roles (I know it’s a fairy tale set in Scandinavia, but it bears no resemblance to The Snow Queen, which inspired it, and doesn’t provide me with enough context)? How can a snowman talk, but not the reindeer? These are just a few examples of a plot that I found full of holes and inconsistencies, with a chaotic randomness to the story that left me profoundly unsatisfied, even when the film was generally fun and beautiful to watch. I do not recall feeling this way about most previous Disney films. Maybe my brain was frozen (the temperature here in Winnipeg having hovered around -30 for most of December) and I missed something.

Whatever the cause of my disappointment, I had the feeling the writers and directors were going through the motions to create another Disney blockbuster for Christmas, which they certainly succeeded in doing. But I keep hoping for more and I cannot give Frozen more than ***. My mug is up.

I should mention that Janelle, who accompanied me and knows much more than I about Disney animated films, liked Frozen more than I did and would have given it ***+.

Saving Mr. Banks



Despite the mediocre reviews, this is a film I’ve been waiting to see since the first time I saw the trailer. That’s because, like countless numbers of people, I owe so much to Walt Disney. With the exception of The Sound of Music, no films or TV shows had a greater impact on my childhood (and the adventurous life I chose to live) than Disney’s films and Sunday afternoon TV show. Sure, I regularly criticize Disney for introducing the myth of redemptive violence to children through its animated films. And sure, not all of what I learned from watching Disney shows was positive. And sure, the commercialism around Disney shows drives me cray. But I still believe that the world would have been a far poorer place had Walt Disney not been in it. He gave me much for which I am very grateful. 

Mary Poppins is one of those gifts Disney gave us. While it is not one of my favourite Disney films, it contains wonderful songs written by Bob and Dick Sherman that I listened to for years, and how can anyone not love Dick van Dyke and Julie Andrews? So a film about the making of Mary Poppins and Walt’s frustrations with Pamela Travers, the author of the book on which it is based, was something I had to see, especially as it starred Tom Hanks as Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers. 

What makes Saving Mr. Banks special, however, is not the acting of Hanks and Thompson (though they certainly don’t disappoint), but the intermittent flashback story of Travers’ childhood in Australia, where Colin Farrell has the major acting role (along with an excellent performance by Annie Rose Buckley as the young girl who would one day use the name Pamela Travers). It is here we learn the background to the story of Mary Poppins (including why saving Mr. Banks is so important),  and why Travers is such a nightmare to the folks at the Walt Dinsey Corporation in 1961, when they try to persuade her to sign the rights to filming her book. 

Those folks at Disney include Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Sherman brothers and there are some marvellous scenes with them interacting with Travers. Paul Giamatti also has a great role as the man assigned to be Travers’ driver. 

All in all, John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks uses a wonderful ensemble cast, intelligent writing and great cinematography to tell a moving story about a film that has brought joy to countless millions of viewers. Saving Mr. Banks is not a perfect film by any means, giving up on any appeal to greatness both by sugar-coating the characters depicted in the film and by its schmaltzy sentimentality. But I never thought the film was pretending to provide an accurate history. So I loved it and give it a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

TV11: Dexter & Breaking Bad Come to an End




Two of the best (and worst) shows on cable TV came to an end in 2013. Referring to the ‘worst’, I have to say that I am not sad to see them go, though I worry about what might take their place. Dexter and Breaking Bad may be well-written, well-acted and compelling television, but they are not particularly edifying. Of the two, as I have stated previously, I believe Dexter, in spite of its more gruesome scenes, is ultimately the more thoughtful and moral show. Breaking Bad does offer Jesse Pinkman as a moral compass, and that definitely helps, and its writing is more intelligent, but these are not enough to overcome the big difference between the shows: how one protagonist, however horrific his actions, tries to become more fully human, while the other, however innocent at the start, steadily loses his humanity.

The final season of Breaking Bad, entertaining and well-made as it might have been, was generally predictable, though I would never have predicted the third-last episode, which was the second-most disturbing (horrific) episode of the series and deserves (indeed, requires) hours of debriefing and discussion, as do the final two episodes. 

Unlike Dexter, Breaking Bad never declines in the overall excellence of its writing. Because Dexter is more episodic than Breaking Bad, there is a greater need for intelligent creative writing in Dexter, which makes the difference in overall writing quality that much more noticeable. 

Dexter’s final season was a major improvement on season six, which was a dud, but it still didn’t match the intensity and excellence of Dexter’s first four seasons, so it was ultimately disappointing. Nevertheless, the final season of Dexter was much less predictable than the final season of Breaking Bad (thank goodness my fears for Dexter at the end of season six were unfounded) and I found the ending of Dexter more satisfying than the ending of Breaking Bad

So there you have it. Two very dark, very intense cable TV shows, each with its own unique flavour, are done. Michael C. Hall and Bryan Cranston did such a great job embodying their roles as Dexter Morgan and Walter White that it may take them a while to lose those negative images, but they are both great actors and I expect them to survive. 

A final note: No matter how intelligent and creative some screenwriters may be, they can’t seem to avoid the biggest cliche that has plagued suspense/action films/TV shows for over a century: you’ve got to kill the bad guys at the end (and revenge is an acceptable motive), because the only way to get rid of evil in our world is to kill all the people responsible. So why not just nuke the planet and get it over with? Sigh. 

Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street



The word that best describes Martin Scorsese’s new film is ‘outrageous’. It is based on the true story of a Wall Street stock broker named Jordan Belfort who used semi-legal and illegal business practices to turn himself into a multi-millionaire in a few short years. The Wolf of Wall Street gives us another real-life character possessing the wonderful traits of Ron Woodroof at the beginning of Dallas Buyers Club: Belfort is a drug addict, a sex addict, a racist, a sexist and altogether crazy. But in this story, our protagonist never really changes (though efforts are made). 

The Wolf of Wall Street will appeal to few of our readers and I will recommend it to none, despite outstanding performances by Leonardo DiCaprio (probably his best ever, and that’s saying something) as Belfort and Jonah Hill as his closest associate and friend (and a wonderful cameo by Matthew McConaughey, his third great performance in 2013). The film has a number of brilliant and often hilarious scenes which are almost worth the price of admission, but these are overshadowed by numerous scenes which are either disgusting or boring and are ultimately a waste of time. For this film to work for me at all, it should have been at least an hour shorter (and I am a fan of longer films).

I say this because for The Wolf of Wall Street to be called a good and worthy Scorsese film, it needs to be viewed as an over-the-top dark comedy that satirizes the ‘outrageous’ lifestyles of the wealthy as well as the greed and corrupt behaviour of Wall Street and Swiss banks. At a maximum of two hours, such a satire might have succeeded, but at three hours the disgusting behaviour is too overwhelming and you just leave with a bad taste in your mouth (at least that’s what I did).

Again, the film might have worked if it had even a smidgeon of heart, but it has none whatsoever. I can watch a cold heartless film for ninety minutes but not for three hours, even if it’s outrageous. For those who enjoy outrageous dark comedies or want to see DiCaprio’s great performance, you should also know that I have never seen an American film with so much foul language or full frontal nudity. In some films, that might have been described as refreshing, but in The Wolf of Wall Street it felt like a gratuitous addition to an already overindulgent enterprise.

While the brilliant hilarious scenes I mentioned might be worth a second look, I can’t imagine sitting through the whole film again to see those scenes, so The Wolf of Wall Street gets a whopping **+ from me (sorry to all you Scorsese fans; I, too, am a big Scorsese fan who has given almost all of his films either ***+ or ****). My mug is down.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

TV10: Four-star British TV 'Dramas': Broadchurch, Doc Martin, Downton Abbey, Parade's End



Broadchurch

This new British mystery drama strikes me as an attempt to bring The Killing (hugely popular in the UK) to a British setting, in this case the Southwest coast of England. David Tennant (a popular Dr. Who) plays Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, a city cop with a mysterious past who thinks he can hide in the quiet village of Broadchurch. He is mistaken, as he is immediately put in charge of the investigation of a young boy and his health (physical and emotional) soon starts to deteriorate.

Working with Hardy (and resenting his presence) is Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, played by Olivia Colman. Broadchurch is very much a continuing story (non-episodic), like The Killing, and devotes serious time to character development, both of which I appreciate, especially when combined with the excellent performances by Tennant and Colman. 

Aside from the occasional cliche, Broadchurch is well-written, with a clever plot and engaging characters as well as the Scandinavian Noir emphasis on justice issues (especially in its depiction of the media and the mob mistreatment of an old man). The location is used to good effect and both the music and cinematography are outstanding. Broadchurch is not as dark or noir-like as The Killing, but it has its dark moments and will appeal to those who like Scandinavian Noir. Great TV entertainment. 



Doc Martin

On the lighter side of village life on the Southwest coast of England, we have the wonderful comedy drama Doc Martin. Martin Clunes is perfectly cast as Dr. Martin Ellingham, a city surgeon who moves to the small village of Portwenn because of his mysterious past (hmmm, sounds familiar), which includes a fear of blood. Doc Martin also probably suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, which would help to explain the fact that he has the worst bedside manner in the history of GP’s (and my GP is pretty bad!).

Doc Martin is brilliantly-written. It’s funny but thoughtful, has great characters (well-acted), great stories, great cinematography and features one of the most awkward romances (Doc Martin with the teacher Louisa, played by Caroline Catz) you will ever see. A beautiful TV show I recommend to everyone. 



Downton Abbey

For pure old-fashioned soap opera period drama of the highest calibre (and the highest production values), look no further than Downton Abbey, set in a Yorkshire country house beginning in 1912 and continuing into the 1920’s. Featuring a marvellous ensemble cast, depicting abbey life upstairs and downstairs with strong character development, Downton Abbey is remarkably compelling viewing. It is no surprise that it may be the most popular TV show in the world today. Again, I recommend it to everyone.



Parade’s End

Parade’s End is a British miniseries written by Tom Stoppard and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Rebecca Hall as Christopher and Sylvia Tietjens, a young eccentric couple caught up in the trials of life during WWI. Adding spice to the proceedings is the strained relationship between them and the arrival on the scene of a beautiful young suffragette named Valentine (Adelaide Clemens) who immediately falls in love with Christopher (the feeling is mutual). 

So yes, this is an old-fashioned period romance, but written with exquisite skill and featuring perfect performances. It is a gorgeous film to watch (worth getting on blu-ray). Some viewers will be off by the very deliberate (i.e. slow) pacing of the show, but for me the pacing was exactly right. 

My mug is up for these four **** British TV dramas.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

TV9: Scandinavian Noir 2: Wallander & Wallander



Wallander (Swedish original)

The original Swedish version of Wallander is a series of 90-minute films (many aired first in cinemas) made between 2005 and 2013. They are based on the novels and short stories of Swedish writer Henning Mankell and concern a police detective (Kurt Wallander) and his daughter (also a police detective) in the town of Ystad, Sweden. As in most Scandinavian noir, there is an underlying theme of fighting not just crime but a society facing chronic injustice and oppression. 

The TV films are well-made and feature excellent acting by Krister Henriksson as Kurt and Johanna Sallstrom as Kurt’s daughter, Linda. Some of the stories are very dark, but as a whole the series does not have the same moody noir feel of The Killing. A particular strength of the Swedish Wallander is time given to Linda and her life in Ystad, and her relationship with an emotionally-distant and melancholy father.

Like The Killing’s Sarah Lund, Kurt is a driven man who cannot let go of a case once he has started, with the rest of his life frequently put on hold. I am not a fan of police TV but enjoy these films very much. ***+




Wallander (British version)

The BBC remade Wallander for British TV, beginning in 2008. The BBC made the unusual decision of filming the English-language version in the same town of Ystad. But although the series of 90-minute films are based on the same novels and stories of Mankell, the two versions (like the two versions of The Killing) are very different, with not only different takes on the stories but different characters as well (e.g. Linda is not a police detective and has only a minimal role in the British series).

Kurt Wallander is played by Kenneth Branagh, who is an excellent choice for the role. If anything, Branagh’s Wallander is moodier, more driven and more melancholy than the Swedish original. Indeed, the British version is altogether darker and has a much stronger noir feel than the original. Like the original, it also features excellent acting, especially by Branagh. 

Despite being filmed in the same setting, the British version is more beautifully filmed, with a focus on haunting landscape scenes. The relative lack of character development in the British version is offset by the cinematography, Branagh’s performance and a greater emphasis on justice issues (racism, sexism, immigration, etc.). As a result, I actually like the the British remake of Wallander more than the Swedish original. This is top-quality TV and gets ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up for both versions of these compelling police dramas. 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Dallas Buyers Club



Far from getting caught up on my reviews, I've been so busy lately that I forgot I had a blog. Time to slow down! Ron Woodroof, in Dallas Buyers Club, not only slows down but transforms his life after hearing that he has AIDS and only thirty days to live. My full review can be found at the Third Way Cafe: http://www.thirdway.com/mm/?Page=7906_Dallas+Buyers+Club

Matthew McConaughey gives his second Oscar-worthy performance of the year and may even have two films in my top ten of 2013 (the other was Mud). But as great as his performance was, Jared Leto (as Rayon, pictured above) was even better. It will be a crime if he doesn't win Best Supporting Actor. Leto has been magnificent in every film in which I have seen him and is surely one of the best actors out there. Unfortunately for us film buffs, Leto is first and foremost a musician with his own popular band (Thirty Seconds to Mars) and so his acting is sporadic.

Dallas Buyers Club gets ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up!

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (updated)



The second film in the four-film Hunger Games series is better than the first, with much more developed plot and characters. Unlike the first film, Catching Fire provides a clear and strong message that the oppression, injustice and military occupation suffered by the districts cannot be tolerated. Will the millions of young viewers understand that this film serves as an allegory of our world today and that they too can raise their arms in nonviolent defiance against the Domination Systems of our time? 

See my full review in the Canadian Mennonite: http://www.canadianmennonite.org/articles/catching-fire-turns-heat***+ My mug is up.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Populaire

Like romantic comedies in general, French romantic comedies are rarely awesome movies. But it certainly seems true to me that French romantic comedies tend to be more consistently watchable than their American counterparts. While I have reviewed a couple, there are many more French comedies that I would recommend for a pleasant evening's entertainment for those who can find them and don't mind subtitles. Here's some rating *** with their English titles: The Grocer's Son, Romantics Anonymous, Paris (2008), Heartbreaker, Orchestra Seats, The Girl from Paris, The Women on the 6th Floor, The Valet, Priceless. Of course some of these are not exactly loaded with substance, but they're enjoyable.

A recent film in that category is Populaire. Stylishly mimicking older romantic comedies starring the likes of Audrey Hepburn, this film adds some unique twists to the usual formula. The setting, first of all, is a quirky look at competitive speed typing (which probably never existed the way it looks on-screen but one comes to believe it). Throughout it's well-acted (though perhaps Deborah Francois is trying a little too hard to imitate the styles of former stars).

The film even points toward deeper themes (such as the character shaping events that make the protagonists the quirky types that they are). But this is a glitzy, fun film and perhaps they wanted to avoid the dramedy feel of a film that goes deeper. Perhaps the right move, but I think it could have been a notch better by giving those touches a bit more attention and scaling back a bit on the whole focus on competitive typing (which they clearly had a lot of fun with). Still, somewhat generously, I'll give this one ***+

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Enough Said



After a busy few months, it’s time to catch up on some review-writing (however brief), starting with a film Kathy and I watched a month ago. As you know, I’m not a big fan of romantic comedies, but I decided to give Enough Said a chance because James Gandolfini is not a typical rom-com lead (and he died earlier this year) and because it was written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, whose last film was the thoroughly delightful Please Give (2010; reviewed below). 

Enough Said was not as good as Please Give, but I wasn’t disappointed. Gandolfini and his co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus were great in the lead roles, with excellent support from Catherine Keener in the third major role. Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus play Albert and Eva, two insecure middle-aged divorced parents of older daughters trying one more time to make romance work. Their actions, dialogue and responses all feel very natural, which was a strength of Please Give as well. As a result, Enough Said is a big step up from your average Hollywood rom-com and gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

TV8: Scandinavian Noir 1: The Killing & The Killing (updated at bottom)


The term ‘Scandinavian Noir’ refers to a recent series of books and films (thrillers or crime fiction) which take place in Scandinavia. This includes films like those based on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy as well as television shows like Wallander and The Killing. Scandinavian Noir is dark, moody, realistic and morally complex. It also almost invariably includes a feature which lifts it well above the average thrillers made in other parts of the world. That feature is an emphasis on justice issues, whether it be racism, sexism, elitism, immigration, military abuses, etc. (including peace and environment issues), so you will not be surprised to learn that I am a fan of Scandinavian Noir.


The Killing (Danish original)

Even so, I delayed watching The Killing for many years, despite hearing good things while I was still living in London. The reasons for that delay are simple: 1) I consider the English-language title to be one of the lamest titles for a TV show in history; and 2) the title and brief description of the show (police investigating the death of a teenage girl) made me think ‘serial killer’, and, as I have previously mentioned, I am neither a fan of police shows nor of serial killer shows. 

I think it was one of my friends at Greenbelt who told me I needed to watch The Killing anyway. So I finally gave in and picked up used copies of all three seasons while I was in London in August. I have now watched the first two seasons, which is a lot of watching because the first season is a full twenty hours long (longer than any season of North American television since the sixties). My thanks to everyone who recommended it to me. The Killing is indeed a television masterpiece, worthy of all the acclaim it has received, and it is not really about a serial killer. 

Season one of The Killing centres on police investigator Sarah Lund (played by Sofie Grabol) and her  obsessive search for the killer of seventeen-year-old Nanna Birk Larson. Lund is in her last day of work in Copenhagen before moving to Sweden to get married, but she just can’t let this case go. Important side stories include the life of Nanna’s family after her murder as well as a political story about the campaign of Troels Hartmann to become mayor of Copenhagen. All of these stories are told with great patience while not preventing this long series from being both fast-paced and riveting. Twists and turns abound. Indeed, one of The Killing’s few flaws is that there are so many twists that they become somewhat predictable. Issues like racial profiling, immigration, gang violence and many more are dealt with during the twenty hours (most as part of the political story). The careful attention to the impact of a murder on the victim’s family is a highlight.

But the heart of The Killing’s greatness is the terrific performance of Grabol and her fellow actors. Grabol chose to play Lund as a cool, driven, fiercely intelligent, unemotional and yet vulnerable woman and this worked perfectly for me. The other actors are likewise natural and excellent in their roles. When combined with brilliant writing, the dark moody atmosphere (it definitely has a noir feel) and the outstanding music, The Killing becomes one of the best prime-time ‘soaps’ ever made, comparable to anything you see on American cable TV.

The second season of The Killing isn’t quite as good, but it’s still great TV. It concerns the murder of people associated with a group of Danish soldiers serving in Afghanistan who killed a civilian family. Another excellent ensemble cast. If anything, the second season is even darker than the first, and that’s saying something. The two seasons of The Killing get ****.


The Killing (American version)

American cable TV finally caught up with The Killing and decided to make its own version in 2011 (the Danish show first aired in 2007). The American version tells basically the same story but sets it in Seattle. By choosing Seattle, this version is able to maintain the grey moody atmosphere (it seems to rain every day in Seattle, at least in October) of the original. It also retains the same music, which is great, but the music is softer here and this version fails to retain the way the music which signals the end of each episode leads into the credits, which, for me, is a huge error, because that music at the end was one of the highlights of the original. While the storyline is largely the same, there are significant differences. 

Sarah ‘Linden’ is played by Mireille Enos. Enos does a very good job, but she cannot pull off what Grabol did in the original and her Linden is warmer and much less intense. I would say that this difference represents a significant way in which the original The Killing differs from the remake. There is a raw intensity in the original that grabs you and keeps you glued to the screen that is missing in the remake. In my opinion, none of the acting in the remake is as strong as the acting in the original, though most of it is competent enough, especially for TV. But it’s not just the acting that is weaker. The writing in the remake, like the music, has a sentimental edge that is completely absent in the original. The remake strives for its own dark edge but doesn’t quite get there and the dialogue doesn’t feel as sharp (though I know enough Danish to know that the subtitles I was reading were very loose and often missed entire sentences).

On the positive side, the American version makes a greater effort at character development, especially with the major characters. An entire episode sets the investigation aside to concentrate on the characters. I appreciate that, though it also contributes to the sentimentality mentioned above. 

The American versions chose to tell the first story over two seasons, leaving the first season ending with a cliffhanger that diverges significantly from the original story. Since that is all I have seen, I will wait to see whether the second half does as well as the first.

I have a feeling that if I had not seen the Danish original, I would have appreciated the American remake much more (i.e. I am unable to be entirely objective). The remake is above-average TV fare, but it does not stand up that well against the original and I can only give it at most ***+.

I have now watched the second season. The second half of the Danish Season One story has been dropped and the same characters have been used to tell a very different story. There are some things about the American story that I appreciate more than the Danish story but it has a more disconnected feel (the killing just doesn't seem justified) and overall the Danish story is much more realistic. In the end, I retain my above impressions about the American version.

Monday, 11 November 2013

All is Lost



Sometimes the world of film and its relationship to the box office leaves me wondering whether all is lost for the future of cinema. You know what I mean: all the big money and mass audiences going to mediocre or lousy films while many of the best films fade quickly into obscurity, if they make it to the theatres at all. There are of course exceptions, even in Hollywood, like Gravity, but at the moment the top of the box office chart features useless films like the latest Jackass film (Bad Grandpa), Last Vegas and the new superhero blockbuster (Thor: The Dark World) while one of the best films of the year played in only one Winnipeg theatre for two weeks and is unlikely to recoup its modest budget. 

I’m talking about All is Lost, the latest film by J.C. Chandor, who made one of my top ten films of 2011 (Margin Call). All is Lost is a very unusual film in that it features exactly one actor (Robert Redford), whose character doesn’t even have a name, and virtually no dialogue whatsoever. It is also a masterpiece.

Our protagonist (getting on in years but still in good shape) is alone on a sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean (sounds like fun to me, but Kathy doesn’t think so) when his boat is struck by a container which has fallen off a container ship. Water is coming in fast, the electrical equipment has stopped functioning, and our sailor has to work quickly and with great ingenuity to try to stay afloat. This continues for the better part of two hours, with all kinds of bad things happening to him and his boat in the meantime (I won’t spoil the film by saying what they are). I also won’t tell you whether he survives his ordeal. 

Redford’s performance is spot-on as the retired, calm fast-thinking sailor. Without words, he is able to convey his thoughts and fears throughout the film. This is aided by Chandor’s brilliant screenplay. Chandor uses countless small actions to convey thoughts as he moves the film along at just the right pace to keep the audience always on edge and at the edge of their seats. The cinematography and powerful (though minimal) use of music are likewise excellent. 

All is Lost works well as a pure adventure film but it is much more than that. Despite the lack of dialogue, this film is a profound work of theological reflection that operates at various levels. Unfortunately, to describe and engage with that theological reflection would require revealing things (like the ending) which I will not reveal. Maybe after All is Lost has been on video for a while, I’ll revisit this review. In the meantime, All is Lost gets **** and will certainly be in my top ten of the year (along with Gravity, which has much in common with All is Lost, and 12 Years a Slave - it’s been a good fall for film; maybe all is not lost). My mug is up! If it’s still playing where you are, watch it on the big screen.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

12 Years a Slave



12 Years a Slave is one of those old-fashioned historical dramas that are relatively rare these days. Like last year’s Lincoln, this one takes place in the U.S. during the middle of the19th century and concerns the subject of slavery. If anything, 12 Years a Slave is even better than Lincoln (and Lincoln was one of my favorite films of 2012). 

12 Years a Slave, as the title suggests, tells the true story of Solomon, a man who was kidnapped from his home town in New York State in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he worked as a slave for twelve years. Solomon’s wife and two young children had no idea what happened to him and he had no way of contacting them. 

12 Years a Slave is a harrowing tale which is told simply and without sentimentality. It features extraordinary performances all around, but particularly outstanding is the acting of Chiwotel Ejiofor as Solomon, Michael Fassbender as one of the slave owners and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a fellow slave (all three of those performances are Oscar-worthy). Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt also do very well in lesser roles. 

12 Years a Slave is brilliantly directed by Steve McQueen, with a perfect sense of pace. The cinematography is excellent and the score works well, though I kept thinking that the composer should apologize for stealing the sounds of Hans Zimmer. It somehow never occurred to me that Zimmer might be the composer. I’m not sure if that makes the theft better or worse.

One could point to minor flaws like some dialogue that doesn’t sound authentic or the overall dispassionate feel of the film, but 12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece of cinema and gets an easy ****. My mug is up and I recommend it highly to most readers, though there are a couple of scenes which some people will find very difficult to watch. 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Ender's Game



Ender’s Game was panned by the critics, so I wasn’t sure I should even make the effort to watch it, especially with the ongoing controversy surrounding Orson Scott Card’s views on gay marriage. But it is a sci-fi film and I had read and enjoyed Card’s novel decades ago and was eager to see what they had done with it. Besides, I wanted to reward the filmmakers for not making a 3D film out of a story which so clearly typifies films which are now made in 3D as a matter of course.

Set in the future, Ender’s Game is the story of a young genius (around thirteen years old) named Ender Wiggin, who is recruited by the Earth’s military powers to help them defeat the Earth’s bug-like alien enemy. That enemy was driven off during the last attack and the Earth needs to find a way to prevent the aliens from returning to obliterate all of human life. Ender’s brilliant strategic mind may just be that way.

While Ender’s Game has many flaws, I found it much more entertaining than I had anticipated (those wonderful low expectations). Until the last twenty minutes, I was engaged and satisfied. But then came the ending, which involves two climactic scenes. I was amazed and disappointed that I was able to remember the first of these from the book, thus reducing its impact. But the real disappointment was the anticlimactic nature of these climactic scenes (i.e they fell flat!). Writer/director Gavin Hood should take some lessons from Paul Greengrass on how to end a film with the appropriate level of intensity. What happens in those last twenty minutes of Ender’s Game is mind-blowing stuff and it should leave the audience breathless and paralyzed. Instead, the ending, like much of what preceded it, feels like it’s aimed at adolescents and is just blandly going through the motions (though they are very beautiful motions). 

The cinematography is outstanding and the music is very well done. The acting is solid, for the most part, featuring veterans like Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley. Asa Butterfield as Ender tries hard and is probably a good choice, but he has a very demanding role and can’t quite pull it off. 

Ender’s Game’s biggest flaw is that it feels much too light for the themes it is dealing with. Those themes, which focus on the use of violence, are what makes Ender’s Game particularly fascinating. From basic training (training dominates the film) to engagement with the enemy, what are the means which the military can justify using to achieve their ends? If those means include the abuse of a young boy and other children, are there any ends which can justify that (you know my response to that question)? The film is remarkably ambiguous in its presentation of these issues.

I understand that Card’s novel is standard reading in the U.S. Marine Corps. That being the case, it is hard to imagine any response to the book and film other than general condemnation. But both the novel and the film raise questions about Ender and his use of violence, and about dehumanization, xenophobia, and ends and means, that defy such an easy condemnation. At the very least, the film is a thought-provoking discussion-starter and is therefore to be praised.

So I will award Ender’s Game a solid ***. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Captain Phillips



After watching the trailer, I thought I could pass on Captain Phillips. But the critics raved about it, making it sound intelligent, and it was made by Paul Greengrass, who has made some favourites, so I took a chance. I won’t call it a mistake but I won’t encourage anyone else to watch it. 

Captain Phillips stars Tom Hanks as a cargo ship captain whose ship is attacked by a small boatload of Somali pirates off the Somali coast. Phillips proves more resourceful and difficult than the pirates had hoped and things get very very messy. The film is based on actual events which took place in 2009, which makes the harrowing experience to which we are exposed that much more painful to watch.

Greengrass likes his handheld camera work, so I knew what to expect. In films based on a true story, I am more patient with this, and, during the last half of the film, the camera is used to great effect to show us the intense chaos of fears and anxieties that have reached the breaking point. The excellent use of the score also helps with this.

The acting is top-notch, with Hanks delivering his usual first-rate performance and the many unknown actors looking very natural. 

The problem with Captain Phillips is that it is really just a hostage-rescue action film, using the U.S. military (Navy Seals) instead of a SWAT team. Yes, it is an incredibly well-made action film with a number of features (including the powerful final scene, my favourite scene in the film) which lift it well above average action-film fare, but Captain Phillips could have been so much more than just an action film. There are brief references to the plight of Somali fishermen, whose livelihoods have been taken from them by multi-nationals, thus forcing many into a life of crime, but those brief references are nowhere near enough to get any serious message across. Instead, the message that comes across is that you do not want to mess with the mighty and magnificent U.S. military machine. Sigh.

I am going to give Captain Phillips ***+ because it does such a superb job of filming this horrific tale (especially by making it feel so horrific), but I’m still disappointed.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Cloud Atlas Revisited



I read David Micthell’s novel during the summer. I almost wish I hadn’t. If you have read the comments following my review of Cloud Atlas, you will already have seen my initial reflections on the first half of the novel. I will include those reflections here as well.

You may recall that Cloud Atlas was my favourite film of 2012; this in spite of my major complaint about the redemptive violence that is featured in most of the six stories that make up the film. In my review, I mentioned my hope that the redemptive violence was in the film because it was in Mitchell’s novel and the filmmakers wanted to remain true to that novel. When I learned of the close collaboration between Mitchell and the directors (Tom Tykwer, Lana and Andy Wachowski), my hope seemed well-founded. Not so much.

In fact, the six stories in the novel were almost all better than their film versions. The Sonmi story in particular was a revelation, easily my favourite in the book. Imagine my shock and disappointment (with respect to the film) when I read a story that featured no violence whatsoever on Sonmi’s behalf. There was no grand shoot-out in Sonmi’s rescue or in her defense when she is captured. Sure there is a line in the novel where Sonmi advocates violence if necessary to end the horrific abuse and slaughter of fabricants. Like elsewhere in the novel, the attitude toward violence is ambiguous at best. But following the recording of her video, Sonmi allows herself to be captured without violence. That’s because her boyfriend Hae-Joo was really an ‘agent provocateur’. Yes, the most fascinating and entertaining story in the novel was turned into something completely different in the film: a bizarre special-effects romance/action/sci-fi. How Mitchell could have allowed this travesty is beyond my understanding.

The first story of the novel, Adam Ewing’s adventure in the South Pacific in 1849, also suffered from a new ending. In the novel, the good doctor is not killed for his crimes but slips away once his evil deeds are revealed. This story also includes an account of the Moriori people who lived on the islands of New Zealand before being wiped out or enslaved by the Maori. The Moriori were pacifists who refused to use violence even to defend themselves. Again, the novel doesn’t exactly support the pacifist position, suggesting as it does that the Moriori were wiped out precisely because they refused to fight, but it is nevertheless a fascinating account of what is portrayed as a unique and marvelous people. 

Then there is the story from the far future, which points to a major flaw in both the novel and the film. In this story, we see the protagonist (Zachry) slitting the throat of a Kona man who has passed out in Zachry's home (the Kona had just wiped out the village, enslaving the survivors). Zachry had been given three prophetic warnings earlier in his life, warnings which he took very seriously. The first warning was not to kill Meronym by cutting the rope which would have led to her death. The third warning was not to cross a certain bridge. Zachry heeds both of those warnings and the results have a very positive outcome in his life. The second warning is not to slit the sleeping man's throat. The warning causes him to hesitate, but he kills the man anyway, though he is convinced that he will suffer dire consequences as a result. Indeed, he lives in constant fear every minute that he will suffer those consequences. But as far as I can determine, the only consequence of that action is that he gets an arrow through his leg. Painful, yes, but it eventually heals with no long-term effect and hardly seems worth the warning. So what was the big deal? On top of that is the inner conversation Zachry has just before killing the sleeping man, a conversation in which he convincingly argues against the killing of the man because: 1) his people forbid the stealing of another person's life, saying it will poison the killer's soul and such a person is then shunned for life lest they infect other's souls; 2) this act of revenge would not bring his family back to him; 3) it would "stone" his soul; 4) he himself, or his brother, might have been born a Kona or adopted by Konas and so it was like he was killing himself or his brother; and 5) Old Georgie clearly WANTED Zachry to kill this man. All very good arguments but he kills the man anyway, saying that "in our busted world, the right thing ain't always possible”. Okay, I understand where Zachry and the writer (Mitchell) are coming from, and I wish some of that conversation and hesitation had been conveyed in the film, but ultimately all of the "redemptive" violence in the story is excused in one way or another as part of what it means to be human. Killing the Kona was seemingly supposed to result in consequences which would make Zachry ultimately regret the human impulse of revenge, but I find no evidence of such consequences.
Perhaps you have noticed that all three of these highlighted stories were directed by the Wachowskis. For this, at least, I am grateful, because it allows me to maintain the illusion that Tykwer (who directed the other three stories) and I are kindred spirits. But my disappointment with the Wachowski half of the film is profound. I will never be able to watch Cloud Atlas again without seeing how much better it could have been had it remained more faithful to the novel.
Nevertheless, let me be clear that in many ways I liked the film better than the novel and Cloud Atlas will remain my favourite film of 2012. As someone who has little time to read novels and can take months to read a 530-page book, I found the structure of the novel extremely difficult. It highlights for me the amazing genius of Tykwer and the Wachowskis in the way they chose to structure the film. Indeed, this structure is so brilliant that it adds many layers of meaning to the stories in the novel and turns a good novel into a masterpiece while at the same time reducing some great stories to mediocrity through the use of action and redemptive violence. If Cloud Atlas the film had remained faithful to the content of the stories, it might have become one of my top ten films of all time. Now it will be lucky to break into my top 100. So very sad!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Lore



There is a lot that is painful about watching Lore. Perhaps at the most shallow level, it is painful to watch a film where a baby cries this much. But there are lots of good reasons to cry.


The film is set in the dying days of WWII, and the death of Nazi dreams and German confidence did not come easily. Over the course of the film, the teenaged German protagonist who is left to care for her four siblings in incredibly trying circumstances is stripped of pretty much everything that made her life seem secure and beautiful. She is shaken to the core, and the audience is invited to come along on a pretty rough journey, a purgatory of sorts.

The acting is solid, though perhaps not perfect – but then it's pretty hard to know how such deep inner conflicts would look in real life. Perhaps it was done very well. The artistic touches seem to enhance the movie instead of taking over. (Terrence Malick should pay attention to this skill, but I know he's not, unfortunately, trying for the same thing.)

Since my mom's family experienced the chaos of being refugees in Germany at this same time, it was easy to connect personally to this film, which made it even more painful to watch. But perhaps the most painful moment came on reflection of reading another review of this film: “'Lore' offers up its lessons for all time. Citizens everywhere are often lost in the fog of their nation's propaganda, until reality comes crashing in…. This can't be real. I don't live in a country that could do this to innocent people." Perhaps our Western imperialist sins are not as obviously evil as the those of the Nazis, but one wonders how painful will be the waking up of our own generation of youth to the violent sins of their parents.

The film is beautiful and difficult and gets ***+ from me.