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.


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


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.