Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Much Ado About Nothing and Frances Ha: Two Low-Budget B&W Films Worth a Look

Speaking of important TV writers, we should not forget Joss Whedon, the man behind Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Super 8 and the blockbuster film, The Avengers. Now Whedon has made a low-budget black & white film based on a Shakespeare romantic comedy, using actors from his TV shows and filming at his home in only twelve days. The result is a surprisingly enjoyable Shakespeare adaptation. It is well-cast, well-acted,  beautiful, funny, classy, and has a great score. Standouts in the cast include Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker and Nathan Fillion. If you are a Whedon fan or a Shakespeare fan, Much Ado About Nothing is not to be missed. ***+. My mug is up.

A few days later we caught another low-budget black & white comedy drama: Frances Ha. It was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, and stars co-writer Greta Gerwig as a young woman in New York City who just can’t seem to get her life together. Frances is a dancer but she can’t move beyond being an apprentice. When her best friend moves out, she struggles to find a place to call home. For a while she lives with two men who declare her to be un-dateable, a label she seems to wear proudly. Desperately lonely, she looks for comfort at the home of her parents and then at her old college, but nothing seems to help. It sounds depressing, but this is a warm, funny, honest, natural and ultimately optimistic film about friendship and feeling alone while surrounded by people. The acting is very good, the score is fascinating and the lack of colour gives it the feel of an old NYC classic. It also reminded me of Woody Allen, which is not a bad thing. Another ***+ and another mug up.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

TV3: The Newsroom and The Hour: Exposing the Truth

In my two previous TV reviews, I have tried (albeit rather subtly) to suggest that all TV shows (indeed, all entertainment) should aspire to making the world a better place and to helping us all become better people. Any entertainment (and there are far too many) which actually contributes to making the world a worse place (i.e. a crueler, poorer and more violent place) and/or to making people less human should, IMHO, be condemned, and people should be warned to stay away. In recent months, I have argued that critically-acclaimed films like Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty are among those films which deserve this form of condemnation. I have also suggested that there are popular cable TV shows, like Breaking Bad (and perhaps also Dexter), which are heading in the wrong direction.

My two all-time favourite network TV writers are Aaron Sorkin and David E. Kelley. Not only are these men incredibly prolific and obvious geniuses when it comes to writing for TV, they consistently prioritize their desire to contribute to making the world a better place and helping people become more fully human (I should mention that one of the reasons I have been a Trekkie since 1966 is that Star Trek, and similar shows like Babylon 5, work far more consistently at this than most TV shows). The first four seasons of The West Wing, which were written by Sorkin, are, by far, my all-time favourite TV seasons (since 1967 anyway), outshining anything on cable TV. Sorkin’s other TV series (Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) are also outstanding. 

So when I heard that Sorkin was coming to cable TV (HBO), my anticipation was high indeed. But since we don’t have TV reception, I had to wait for The Newsroom to come out on DVD, which it finally did last month. Was it worth the wait? Yes, it was. Was it as good as The West Wing? Sigh. Not even close.

Where The West Wing tackled issues from the viewpoint of American Democrats, The Newsroom does so from a Republican angle. I applaud Sorkin for this brave and worthy effort, which has only increased my respect and admiration for this man, but I do find the regular theme of exposing the ignorance of the members of the Tea Party, and other right-wing Republicans, to be somewhat limiting.

The Newsroom is about a daily TV news show hosted by Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels. McAvoy, who is a Republican, has been going through the motions for years but has his fire for ‘telling it like it is’ relit by his old flame, Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), the new Executive Producer for the show. The owners of the network (including Leona Lansing, played by Jane Fonda) are not impressed and give Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the show’s director and a big fan of the new McAvoy, a hard time. Meanwhile there’s a love triangle on the news team and so on. Like Sorkin’s previous series, The Newsroom is a brilliantly-cast (and acted) ensemble effort.

The Newsroom uses actual events taking place between 2010 and 2011 as the foundation for its episodes. This is a fascinating approach, allowing Sorkin to comment on how those events were reported and what the truth actually looks like. About half of The Newsroom’s first ten episodes (which make up the first season) are first-rate Sorkin, television at its very best, written by a master. The other half fall short, thus the reason for my earlier sigh. I found the episode about the death of Osama bin Laden particularly disappointing. Nevertheless, even second-rate Sorkin is better than 99% of the rest of TV. 

TV critics are not huge fans of The Newsroom, accusing it of being “too Sorkin”, as if it is a bad thing to try to actually “say something” on TV (or in recent films like The Company You Keep and The East). I think you know where I stand on complaints like that. The Newsroom gets ****.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, BBC has just released the second season of its own newsroom drama, The Hour. The Hour is set in the 1950’s (the period feel is brilliant) but also features the attempts of a news show (in this case a weekly show) to expose the truth behind events (with the focus being on serious investigative journalism). The outstanding cast includes Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw and Dominic West. The first season was another example of television at its finest, so I was thrilled that BBC decided to do a second season. Unfortunately, season two, while still very well-made and very entertaining, was a step down, so I was not surprised to hear that it has been cancelled. Still, if you are looking for first-rate intelligent and gorgeous TV, with a heart (though much darker than The Newsroom), give The Hour a chance. It also gets ****. My mug is up for both of these top quality news-based TV shows. 

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The East

For the past seven years, I have taken an expensive pill every night before I go to sleep. I am fully convinced that this medication should never have been prescribed for me - that my doctor (along with millions of her colleagues) was brainwashed by a large pharmaceutical company into seeing this medication as a miracle drug which would reduce the risk of heart problems by 90%. The big pharmaceuticals regularly create both the drugs and the need for their drugs and as a result have become among the wealthiest industries in the world. IMHO, a profit-driven pharmaceutical industry is one of the greatest evils on planet earth, not its saviour.
Early in The East, members of an eco-terrorist group calling itself The East begin their campaign to counterattack three mega-corporations by literally giving the people running a giant pharmaceutical company a taste of their own medicine. I confess to being somewhat sympathetic to both their aims and their methods, but since The East is convinced the drug in question has potentially disastrous side effects, I cannot condone its actions (i.e. they are clearly violent actions, which I happen to believe will never ultimately produce the desired good ends), any more than Sarah can.
Sarah (played by Brit Marling), is a new recruit of a huge and powerful private security firm. She is sent undercover to infiltrate The East, which has attacked a number of the firm’s clients. Not surprisingly, as Sarah gets to know the members of the cult-like group and the reasons why they do what they do, her opinions about life on planet earth begin to change, though not enough to prevent her from doing her job. I will say no more about the plot (I’ve said too much already) except to note that Sarah’s life, in a few short weeks, becomes a traumatic roller-coaster of emotions.
Marling is one of the writers of The East (the other writer is the director, Zal Batmanglij), so there is no surprise that she is in the lead role (as she was in her previous two projects, Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, the latter also having been written and directed by Batmanglij). I was also not surprised to learn that Marling and Batmanglij were once penniless travellers who hung out with the kind of anarchists who make up the members of The East, because there is a feeling of authenticity in the depiction of that lifestyle. All three of the films mentioned in this paragraph are odd indie flicks clearly made by ‘odd’ people. Since I consider myself to be an ‘odd’ person, I find myself resonating with these odd films in an odd way, enjoying them very much while feeling a sense of nagging uncertainty about the way the films are made.
Technically, The East is an independent film of the highest quality, with great cinematography, music and acting (Marling is joined by Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page, among others). The writing has been done with great care and, while some might find it preachy, I found the story to be carefully nuanced, ambiguous and worthy of much discussion (always a very good thing), especially in how it looks at the question of challenging the evils of corporate greed.
Somewhat puzzling, however, is the involvement of Rupert Murdoch’s Twentieth Century Fox, part of a mega-mega-corporation with many of its own evils to challenge. 
While I found The East to be a very satisfying entertainment, the nagging uncertainty I mentioned as well as some credibility issues prevent me from giving it more than a solid ***+. It might still make my top ten of the year. My mug is up. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

Room 237

Stanley Kubrick is my all-time favourite filmmaker and Stephen King is one of my all-time favourite writers. In 1980, Kubrick made a film based on King’s novel The Shining. The Shining is one of my least favourite King novels and by far my least favourite Kubrick film (and indeed their collaboration was not a happy one).

Nevertheless, the brilliance which made Kubrick my favourite director is very much in evidence in The Shining if I put aside my distaste for the subject matter, though, until I saw Room 237, I was not willing to set that distaste aside long enough to study The Shining

Room 237 is a documentary (directed by Rodney Ascher) about the hidden meanings in The Shining (room 237 refers to a hotel room where some particularly nasty things take place). Kubrick was well-known as a filmmaker who enjoyed populating his films with details and hidden meanings which require repeated viewings to uncover. So the people whose views are presented in Room 237 had good reason to be suspicious and to watch The Shining over and over again in search of clues (but does that make them sane?).

The result is, for me, scarier than The Shining itself. Room 237 reveals how obsessive some people are about films (and especially Kubrick films) and how deceptively easy it is to find hidden meanings just about anywhere if one is looking for them. Some of the attempts to read meaning into the details and inconsistencies in The Shining not only feel tedious and unwarranted, they feel absolutely ridiculous (like superimposing a backwards running of the film onto the film and seeing how images overlap). But other attempts are utterly fascinating and much more difficult to discount. 

Among my favourites are the attempts to show that Kubrick’s film is really about the genocide of Native Americans or about Kubrick’s obsession with the Holocaust and his/our need to find a way to let go of the horror and pain of the past. But by far the most compelling and frightening of the hidden meanings relates to Apollo 11 and the first walk on the moon. 

While I have heard conspiracy theories about how the filming of that first walk on the moon was faked, I had not heard that it was Kubrick who was supposed to have done that filming. One of the presenters/interviewees in Room 237 (himself a filmmaker)makes an incredibly convincing case that The Shining was Kubrick’s fake filming of King’s novel. What Kubrick was really filming (albeit subtly) was his story about the filming of the moon landing. The pieces of The Shining which were not in King’s novel include speeches by Jack Torrence in which he tells his wife about the importance of contracts and responsibility and the need to sometimes hide things from his wife. Then there is the unexplained change of the room number from 217 (in the novel) to 237, something Kubrick actually lied about. The moon is 237,000 miles from the earth. There is also the way the boy, Danny, stands up in a critical moment in the film and we see that he is wearing a sweater depicting Apollo 11. There is much more of the same for those willing to look for references linking Kubrick to the moon landing. The interviewee makes it clear that he doesn’t question the moon landing itself, only the filming of it. This may all simply be the ravings of a madman, but this is scary stuff!

Whether Room 237 is supposed to show us how crazy and obsessive people can get trying to uncover hidden meanings in film and/or to show the power of the viewer in the film-watching experience and/or to present compelling evidence for Kubrick’s genuine intentions, this is a very entertaining film. A must-see for Kubrick fans, it gets ***+. My mug is up.