Tuesday, 28 May 2013

TV1: Deconstructing Dexter: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly



For years I have been asked to write occasional reviews of TV shows. I have resisted. Though I am passionate about my favourite TV shows, I consider film to be a far superior medium. TV tends to offer the same mediocre entertainment week after week (though you feel compelled to watch because they get you hooked on the characters, who become like family). Of course, many of the most popular films at any given time are also mediocre entertainments at best.

While my favourite post-sixties TV show (The West Wing) is a network show, I can barely tolerate watching network TV anymore. That’s because cable TV is, in general, so much better in every way (especially the writing, which is particularly critical for TV). When I watch TV, I want something intelligent, provocative and compelling, something that makes me want to watch the next episode as soon as possible (and if you watch TV with a DVD player, as I do, that often means the minute the previous episode is finished). Yeah, you got me: I’m a primetime soap opera junkie, with very little interest in what I call formulaic episodic TV, in which each week involves a new “case” (there are, of course, exceptions, like the above-mentioned West Wing, or Boston Legal, House, Star Trek, Babylon 5, etc.). 

Which brings me to cable TV’s Dexter. Keep in mind that I have absolutely zero interest in any form of entertainment that involves serial killers. I have always considered our society’s fascination with serial killers to be at best dangerous and at worst disgusting. What attracts people to serial killers is a complete mystery to me. Dexter is about a serial killer who kills serial killers. It’s a very dark, twisted, ugly and violent entertainment. And I am an addict. The instant a new season is released on DVD, it’s in my mailbox. Shortly thereafter, it’s in my DVD player, to be devoured as quickly as possible (usually within a week; it’s only twelve episodes).

Why? Excellent question. I wish I could remember the ‘friend‘ who recommended Dexter to me, so I could take whoever it was out back for a little chat to help me answer this question. Failing that, let’s begin by noting that Dexter is, in general, very-well-made TV. The acting (Michael C. Hall as Dexter, Jennifer Carpenter as Deb, his sister, David Zayas as Batista, and so on) is outstanding. The writing is astute, intelligent, witty and tight. Dexter is a psychological thriller and the ‘psychology’ is complex and haunting. Dexter is, after all, shown from the point of view of a serial killer, with his commentary (voiceover) throughout, often reflecting on what it means to be human, what it means to love, and why he needs to kill people. While Dexter is clearly a ‘soap opera’, each episode (and each season) is a self-contained expertly-crafted unit with its own theme, its own introduction and its own conclusion. Other shows, like Desperate Housewives, use such devices, with voiceovers, to frame each episode, but to nowhere near the same degree of intelligence or effectiveness. Sometimes the ending is so good (bad?) that I have to stop watching for the day, regardless of the time, because I’m too drained, like I often am after watching a good film.

There are, of course, exceptions to the good writing on Dexter. The sixth season, for example, should have been one of the best, since it was all about Dexter’s relationship with God. Instead, the writing quality suddenly dropped to mediocre network standards and the season was largely a dud. And the last few episodes of the seventh season had some very uneven writing (I have yet to decide whether I think the final moments of the season were brilliant or awful). My eroding sympathy with Dexter and his sister may yet end my addiction. While there are some interesting developments in seasons six and seven, a strong case could be made that Dexter should have stopped after its first five ugly seasons. Few shows can maintain consistent writing excellence episode after episode, year after year (exception: Six Feet Under). Even The West Wing had some misfires after Aaron Sorkin (best TV writer ever, by far) left the show. 

But I digress. The point I still need to make is that I don’t want anyone to think I am recommending Dexter. If anyone suggests I am so warped that I once recommended Dexter to my own daughter, I would have to deny it or claim temporary insanity. Because as brilliant as it may be, I think Dexter is one of the worst and most dangerous shows ever offered on TV. 

What I’m talking about is the fact that our protagonist is a sympathetic serial killer. Yes, you heard me right: sympathetic! Indeed, I find Dexter a much more sympathetic character than Walter White in Breaking Bad (a compelling show but inferior to Dexter exactly because it has no sympathetic characters). In viewing Dexter’s struggles to find a glimmer of human feeling inside himself, we can’t help but be attracted to his deep humanity, sensing that in some ways he is more human than those around him (I believe his sister makes such an observation in the seventh season). That’s all fine and good, except that Dexter is a serial killer KILLING BAD GUYS (other serial killers). Yeah, now you see where I’m going with this. We’re talking ‘myth of redemptive violence’ taken to the extreme. I think we are meant to identify with Dexter as he kills those bad guys. We are meant to see him as a vigilante hero, killing in order to save (these bad guys would have killed countless innocents without Dexter’s intervention, a point that is made repeatedly). We are even meant to take pleasure in the ritualistic killing of these bad guys. That is a very dangerous path for a TV show to walk down (not that Showtime has ever been worried about that).

Dexter’s need to kill is supposedly the result of his traumatic childhood (seeing his mother brutally murdered when he was just a toddler). He calls this need his ‘dark passenger’, a shadow side that he admits is much darker than most and over which he believes he has only limited control. Insofar as Dexter’s struggles with his dark passenger relate in some way to each of our struggles with the shadow that lies within, this can be profound and edifying stuff. But if we, the viewers, are supposed to be seeing the potential serial killers within each of us being exorcised through Dexter, I have a problem.

Stephen King, one of the best and most moral writers of our time (I’ve read almost everything he’s ever written), writes about the potential catharsis in reading or viewing horror/violence. I don’t buy it. I won’t deny the possibility (though I am not admitting the possibility either) that deep down I sometimes feel ‘glad’ (to quote Dexter’s sister) when Dexter kills a particularly nasty bad guy. But if I do, I feel very guilty about it and see it as only a negative thing. For one thing, it reinforces the black & white dichotomy between those who are good and those who are bad (though no one would describe Dexter as someone purely good) instead of seeing everyone as representing various shades of grey. For another thing, it reinforces the myth of redemptive violence by suggesting we can somehow be freed of our darkest impulses by watching others release theirs in a fictitious setting. What needs to be reinforced instead is the goodness that is inherent in each of us (and yes, King does this very well and Dexter also works at this, though not as overtly).

Perhaps the creator and writers of Dexter are trying to alert us to the very dangers of which this essay has spoken (as I said, there are some very positive messages in Dexter). If that is so, they have chosen a very disturbing and dangerous method to convey this.

There are very few people who have not already seen Dexter to whom I would recommend it (and you probably know who you are). For the rest of you, if you want to watch some intelligent, provocative, compelling cable TV, try: Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Treme, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica or Homeland, or try BBC shows like MI5 and Downton Abbey. As for Game of Thrones, that requires another essay (but darn if it isn’t awesome and compulsive TV). ‘What about The Sopranos?’ you say. Well, leaving aside the question of whether mob boss Tony is as sympathetic as Dexter, The Sopranos has a lot to answer for. It kicked the whole ‘brilliant cable TV’ thing off, which is obviously a good thing. But did it also kick off the use of gratuitous profanity, violence and sex/nudity which tends to prevail in cable TV (think Thrones and Deadwood) as if these are necessary to attract viewers? Of course, in the case of Deadwood, you have to take into account that it’s among the most intelligent and brilliantly-written pieces of entertainment ever (though you did not hear that from me) and, especially in the case of language, I find the ‘gratuitous’ question to be quite complex. 

And then there’s LOST. It’s not cable TV but the title and contents perfectly represent our generation(s) (and it is certainly intelligent, provocative and compelling TV). 

I have wanted to write this essay for years. If you want me to write more essays on TV shows, let me know. And please do argue with me.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Mud



Ellis and Neckbone, two fourteen-year-old boys in small-town Arkansas, find a boat stuck high in a tree on a small island and claim it as their own, kicking off a wonderful heartwarming summer adventure. Well, not exactly, but when a film starts that way, I’m remembering my days with Disney, back when I was a fourteen-year-old boy. Mud is definitely not a Disney film. It starts calmly enough, to be sure, though the island stream full of baby cottonmouths is a bad omen, but when Ellis falls in love with a sixteen-year-old girl who seems to return his affections, Ellis indeed seems to be having that most romantic and adventurous of summers.

The problem is that the boat in question already has an occupant, a mysterious fellow by the name of Mud (played by Matthew McConaughey), who carries a gun. Mud says he’s waiting on the island for his girlfriend Juniper and enlists the boys to help him get food and other supplies. Ellis, the young romantic, is eager to assist in the cause of love, but he is in way over his head and his adventure is just going to get darker and darker, as is the marriage of his parents and, well, let’s just say that he is in for a rude awakening.

Mud is a slow-paced, suspenseful, old-fashioned coming-of-age story with great cinematography and an incredible ensemble cast, which includes Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker and Ray McKinnon, all of whom do outstanding work. And Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are simply awesome as Ellis and Neckbone, reminding me of Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix in Stand By Me. McConaughey rounds it off with a perfect performance as Mud.

Meanwhile, the writing and direction of Jeff Nichols is nothing short of brilliant (no surprise from the man who made Take Shelter, one of my favourite films of 2011). Aside from the last fifteen minutes (what a challenge those fifteen minutes must be for screenwriters), almost all of Mud rings true, with an unerring sense of place and with many nuggets of wisdom. The highlight for me was the character of Ellis. I understood every thought in Ellis’s mind and every action that he took. With a minor difference or two, I can imagine thinking and acting in precisely that way when I was fourteen, even though I grew up in a very different environment. To me, this was an amazing and haunting revelation.

If it were not for those final fifteen minutes, which I cannot talk about, Mud, like Take Shelter, may have received ****. I’m still tempted, but I’m stingy with my four star reviews and I think I will let this great film slide into ***+ range. My mug is up.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Hitchcock



Hitchcock played in one Winnipeg theatre (the Globe) early this year. At the time, Ebert was still alive and I had not yet noticed how my opinions of films were increasingly diverging from those of the major critics. So I allowed the negative critical opinion of Hitchcock to persuade me to postpone watching the film until it was released on DVD. That was a mistake, since once again I enjoyed a film much more than I had expected after seeing the critics’ ratings.

I have always been a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Hitch has been my second-favourite director for decades because I could always rely on his films to entertain me and because of how frequently he employed one of my favourite plot elements (a man in over his head, caught up in a situation he doesn’t understand). Hitch also made a number of films that, for me, defined the very essence of classic (pre-sixties) films. Just like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Great Expectations, Laura, The Big Sleep, It’s a Wonderful Life, His Girl Friday, The Third Man and a dozen others, my favourite Hitchcock film, Rebecca (which I have watched at least fifteen times), is an example (for me at least) of the pure movie magic that came out of the 1940’s (and has almost never been seen since). 

I’ll come back to Hitchcock’s films below, but first let’s return to the 2012 film directed by Sacha Gervasi and starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as his wife Alma and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, one of the stars of Psycho. Hitchcock is set during that brief period in Hitch’s life when he was making Psycho. It describes how Psycho came to be made in spite of a long series of challenges confronting Hitch at the time. But it also gives us a rare glimpse into the man responsible for making 59 films (many of them among the best ever made), a driven man who had unusual relationships with his female actors and who had a very close but strained relationship with his wife (and work partner, who made Hitch jealous at the time by working closely with a writer). 

Hitchcock (the film) was criticized for being too superficial, for not being a bold expose, for leaving out any sense of Hitch’s cruelty and regular sexual harassment. It was also criticized for focusing too much on Hitch’s marriage and not enough on the making of Psycho. I don’t get it. Hitchcock is not a documentary. It’s a film about a haunted but brilliant filmmaker at the peak of his powers. It doesn’t have to be accurate or comprehensive; it has to be entertaining and well-made. In my opinion, it was those things.

Hopkins does an absolutely remarkable job looking and sounding like Hitch, so much so that you eventually forget he isn’t. Mirren is the perfect partner for Hopkins, performing magnificently (as usual) as Alma. Johansson is convincing as Leigh. And James D’Arcy is positively spooky as Anthony Perkins. 

I found Hitchcock to be an intelligent thought-provoking film which finds a nice balance between Hitch’s work and private life. Sure, the film could have gone deeper and provided more insight and emotion. It’s certainly not as well-made as many of Hitch’s films. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it and give it ***+. My mug is up.

In preparation for watching Hitchcock, I decided to watch twenty of Hitchcock’s films during the past month. I watched all my favourites again as well as a few I had never seen before. In watching so much Hitchcock, one does see recurring patterns which give one pause, such as the role of mothers in Hitch’s films. It is hard not to think that Hitch must have had a very uneasy relationship with his own mother (was she overbearing and possessive like many mothers in his films, or clueless, like in other films?). Another recurring theme is how often men are wrongly accused of something. Did Hitch feel that he had been, or still was, wrongly accused of things? It’s been a long time since I read anything biographical about Hitchcock, so maybe the answers are all there to be found. I have no doubt that Hitch was dealing with his fair share of inner demons (as Hitchcock also reveals). But he was a filmmaking genius whose influence has probably been second to none.

I did watch one film that Hitch should never have made. It was (IMHO) an utter embarrassment for all concerned. That was Torn Curtain, made in 1966 and starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Newman and Andrews are horribly cast and their performances are abysmal, as is the writing and overall direction. I have no idea what Hitch was thinking when he allowed this mess to be released. Hitch’s last great film was The Birds, made in 1963, though I am also a fan of Frenzy, Hitch’s second-last film, made in 1972.

While some of Hitchcock’s British films from the 1930’s were excellent, for me there was a huge leap forward when Hitch moved to Hollywood in 1940 and made Rebecca. None of Hitch’s pre-Hollywood films made it into my top ten Hitchcock films, which are: 

Rebecca (1940)
Vertigo (1958)
Rear Window (1954)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
North by Northwest (1959)
Psycho (1960)
The Birds (1963)
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Frenzy (1972)
Notorious (1946)

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness



My first reaction while watching the new Star Trek film was one of amazement. I was amazed that in spite of seeing a couple of trailers and glancing at some reviews, I had caught not a hint of the surprises that awaited me in Star Trek Into Darkness. Since those surprises were the most satisfying parts of the film for me, this was a very good thing. 
My second reaction occurred when, about a third of the way into the film, I wondered why the cinematography was so awful on a blockbuster film like this. Then I recalled that, like The Great Gatsby, Star Trek Into Darkness was made for 3D. I may have to start boycotting such films even if they are available in 2D. It’s time for this ridiculous fad to be over.
My third reaction was a feeling that the exact words critics used to condemn The Great Gatsby (overblown dazzling spectacle, full of style but with little substance) could apply as well to this film, which, like its predecessor, emphasizes action over a thought-provoking intelligent story.
My fourth reaction was that, in spite of my third reaction, I was quite enjoying Star Trek Into Darkness and, with only fifteen minutes to go, I was planning to give it ***+.
My fifth reaction was that my fourth reaction was premature, and that I needed to remember that the last fifteen minutes of a film can be fatal. 
My sixth reaction was to a speech given by one of the main characters at the end of the film, a speech that perfectly summarized all that was wrong with Star Trek Into Darkness. Unfortunately, there was not a hint of irony in the speech and no apparent awareness by the film’s writers that there was a huge disconnect between the speech and the preceding fifteen minutes. Based on the reactions of my neighbours when I couldn’t stifle an agonized burst of laughter, they didn’t have this awareness either. Impact of this speech on my opinion of the film? Instant death (well, instant loss of half a star anyway)!
My seventh reaction came moments later when the “These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise ...” Star Trek slogan was recited, reminding us that these first two J.J. Abrams instalments  had not yet begun that five-year-mission of exploring strange new worlds – they were still introducing us to the violent mayhem that preceded their mission. A useful but depressing reminder.
My final reaction occurred the moment the film ended with a tribute to all those who have “served” since 9/11, thus highlighting the sometimes forgotten fact that our favourite Starfleet officers are part of a military machine. I have nothing against most of those who have “served” since 9/11, but I have everything against how and where they have “served”. To connect Star Trek to that “service” reflects a grievous misunderstanding of what Star Trek is all about.
So with those eight reactions behind me, I left the theatre feeling an overwhelming sense of disappointment, with even a hint of depression. I had watched an entertaining spectacle with moments of brilliance but all the joy had been sucked out in the last fifteen minutes or so. I have to give Star Trek Into Darkness *** because I am willing to watch it again, so my mug is up, but the stuff inside is bittersweet at best.
P.S. You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the names of any actors or said anything about the plot of the film. There are too many actors involved to name them, but I will say that they all acquitted themselves quite well. As for the plot, my first reaction above explains why I can tell you nothing about that.

The Company You Keep



This evening I watched a low-budget indie flick made in Canada in 2012 but just released a couple of weeks ago. Never heard of it, you say? Uh-huh. Critics didn’t like it  much, so it can’t be worth watching? Uh-huh. And while it may be a thriller, it’s sure not an action film, so why bother? Uh-huh. Playing in only one theatre in Winnipeg for a week or two (that being the Globe, which is the closest thing we have to an art-house cinema, though it often plays junk)? Uh-huh. The masses don’t like it any more than the critics (so why would anyone make such a thing anyway?). Uh-huh. Why even put it on the blog and waste our readers’ precious time? Uh-huh.

What if I were to tell you that this film was directed by Robert Redford and stars Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Chris Cooper, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Stanley Tucci, Terrence Howard, Brit Marling, Richard Jenkins and Nick Nolte, and that it was a fantastic ensemble performance? A spark of interest, perhaps. And what if I were to add that this is a political thriller that subtly asks why young people today are not protesting the outrageous corporatism and militarism that rules our world the way young idealists did back in the days of the Vietnam War? 

What’s that, Vic? Watch a film that’s actually about something, a film that’s thoughtful and provocative, when we can watch Iron Man 3 or Star Trek Into Darkness (which ends with a tribute to those who’ve been fighting since 9/11)? You gotta be kidding, Vic! What’re you smoking?

I’m sorry, are you detecting some bitterness here? What’s that? You think even that last sentence might have been written in a facetious tone? Come on! We all know you can’t read tone! Just think of all those emails you’ve written that were misunderstood. 

I think I digress. The Company You Keep: a quiet, understated, intelligent and engrossing political thriller about a group of 70’s radicals (Redford, Sarandon, Christie) who have been hunted by the FBI for decades for supposedly being involved in a bank job that cost a guard his life. When ‘Sarandon’ gets caught, a journalist (LaBeouf) starts putting the pieces together and soon everyone is on the run again. 

No, it’s not a perfect film by any means. Some of the dialogue is clunky and I had the constant feeling that this film could have been much better (i.e. the story told more effectively). But give me The Company You Keep any day over the escapist waste of time that most of today’s films represent (yes, I’m getting upset about Star Trek again, but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for that). I loved this film and give it a solid ***+. It will probably even make my top ten of 2013. My mug is up.

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Great Gatsby



After a brief interlude with The Gatekeepers, the critics and I part company once again on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. The critics found the film way over-the-top, an overblown dazzling spectacle, full of style but with little substance. Leaving aside the obvious parallels between that description and the man Jay Gatsby, who builds a castle on Long Island to impress the woman he loves (who is married to another man, who has a mansion of his own across the bay) and holds the world’s wildest parties every single weekend for New York City’s wealthiest and oddest folks, the critics seem to be missing one vital piece of the equation, namely that this is not just a filming of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, but that this is Baz Luhrmann’s filming of that novel.

The Great Gatsby is a non-musical Moulin Rouge set in 1922 New York instead of 1899 Paris. This comparison may not impress some critics, but Moulin Rouge happens to be one of my favourite films of the last twenty years, so it impresses me. Yes, the first hour of The Great Gatsby is outrageous, overwhelming, frenetic, chaotic and full of insanely colourful cinematography. Buhrmann comes from the ‘no-shot-should-last-more-than-five-seconds’ school of filmmaking. Whether this is designed to appeal to the younger generations, who have some issues with attention deficit, or whether it is Luhrmann himself who has these issues, is beside the point. It’s what Luhrmann does and while it is occasionally distracting, it also fuels the sense of eye-popping wonder which lies at the heart of Luhrmann’s films. 

If all of The Great Gatsby was this frenetic, I would add my voice to the critics who panned the film, but, like Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby settles down (for the most part) in the last half to focus on the tragic romantic tale of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), as husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) and Daisy’s doting cousin Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the film’s narrator, watch from the side. This is a story of how the pursuit of wealth and the American Dream is both hollow and unhappy and it is told in a remarkably haunting and effective way (I have not read the novel, so cannot speak to how well it handles the source material).

The acting in The Great Gatsby is a little uneven. DiCaprio is perfectly cast as Gatsby and he continues to display his formidable talent with a stellar performance as a vulnerable man pretending to be something he is not. Tobey Maguire is solid as Gatsby’s neighbour (and Daisy’s cousin), who, against his better instincts, gets caught up in a story that quickly gets out of control and which he always knows will end badly. Carey Mulligan is never other than outstanding in all of her roles, but her talent is under-utilized here. The weakest link is Edgerton, who is unconvincing as Tom, a chronic philanderer who is appalled when his wife shows an interest in another man. 

My biggest complaint with The Great Gatsby is not even mentioned by the critics. As you know, I despise 3D and will never watch a 3D film if I can watch it in 2D. The Great Gatsby was made for 3D and, in watching the 2D version, you can tell by the film’s poor colour (especially in the day-time scenes) that this was made for 3D and that this fact has negatively impacted the cinematography throughout. It could have been so much more beautiful!

And yes, there is a disappointing superficiality to the character development, limiting the emotional connection of the viewer. Nevertheless, for me, this flaw was overstated by the critics. I am giving The Great Gatsby ***+ for being a solid piece of entertainment that felt both old-fashioned and wildly original. My mug is up.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Je vous trouve très beau



I am always on the lookout for French comedies and one of the surprise favourites of recent months has been Je vous trouve très beau (I find you very handsome). 


This is the story of a middle-aged French farmer who really needs someone to do the laundry and care for the animals after his wife dies (due to a faulty milking machine). It doesn't take long before he turns to a match-making service that is well represented with would-be brides from Romania. As is no doubt already clear, this is a somewhat silly but warmhearted story about a relationally restrained and very pragmatic man.

Apart from interesting characters and humour that usually works, there is just a little more depth to the character development than one might expect. I'd love to comment on that but don't want to add a spoiler. Mugs up and recommended for a light and delightful evening. ***+  

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Gatekeepers



The Gatekeepers is a brilliant, amazing, fascinating, depressing, profound and terrifying film. It could not be more different from 5 Broken Cameras, the other Israeli nominee for Best Documentary at this year's Academy Awards (see review below), and yet the underlying message is the same, namely that the only way to peace in Israel/Palestine (and, indeed, in the Middle East) is the creation of a Palestinian state. 
While 5 Broken Cameras gave us a very grassroots look at Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation during the last few years, The Gatekeepers looks from the top down, focused on interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet. Shin Bet is the big Israeli internal security organization, in charge of protecting Israeli citizens from terrorists, whether those terrorists are Palestinians or Jewish extremists. 
Instead of defending the reputation of Shin Bet over the years, the six leaders question the effectiveness of its policies. While some of the leaders defend their decisions to order the murder of terrorists or their involvement in collateral damage (deaths of innocent civilians), they all suggest that Shin Bet has been helping to lead Israel down a path toward, as one of the interviewees said, ‘a very dark future’. With the exception of Yitzhak Rabin (who was assassinated by a Jewish extremist), Israeli prime ministers have, according to these Shin Bet leaders, handled the Palestinian situation very poorly, basically putting the country in ever-greater danger rather than negotiating with the Palestinians to create a Palestinian state. 
The Gatekeepers is an awesome technical achievement by director/cinematographer Dror Moreh. He uses some form of special effects (CGI?) to turn old photos into something like moving images and invents countless unique ways of conveying information. The six interviews which form the heart of the documentary are filmed in a style that feels cold, with grey and blue predominating, but the stark lighting and colours create a feeling of suspense and gravity that make this a riveting film.
The Gatekeepers is worthy of its overwhelming critical acclaim (the critics got one right!) and gets an easy ****. My mug is up for this must-see.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Still Mine



Walter, this is a film (released yesterday in Winnipeg) you should have been able to watch first - it’s filmed in New Brunswick (St. Martins) and is based on a true story about an old (late eighties) couple in St. Martins who fought against the local authorities in an attempt to build a small house on their land. Apparently it was big news in the Telegraph Journal, so maybe you read about it.

Specifically, Still Mine tells the story of Craig Morrison (played by James Cromwell), a long-retired lumber man (he has his own sawmill) who wants to build a house where he and his wife can spend their final days together. His wife, Irene (played by Genevieve Bujold), is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, with memory problems that grow worse as the film (which covers a two-year period) goes on. When she falls down the stairs, Craig knows the new house is the only future he and Irene have together (though his seven children are not so sure).

Unfortunately, building a house, even on your own property, requires permits and a ton of paperwork and inspections. If you’re not a builder, this can be daunting, and Craig does not have the patience for it, especially since he is an excellent builder using top-notch materials. Though his work exceeds the standards being measured by all the codes, he does not follow the rules and finds himself in front of a judge for defying a stop-work order and for 26 code violations. That’s sort of where the film starts, but also where it ends. 

Still Mine was written and directed by Michael McGowan. He tells the story in a remarkably understated way, which worked very well for me. The dialogue could use some improvement, but Cromwell’s acting is good enough to overcome that flaw and he gives us a solid feel for all the mixed emotions Craig experiences during those tumultuous two years. Bujold and the other Canadian actors provide excellent support, with Campbell Scott a good choice for the lawyer trying to help (without much success). The cinematography is outstanding. The score is rarely used or needed but it is effective. 

Still Mine cannot avoid comparisons with Amour, the winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (see review below). Like Amour, Still Mine is the story of an old man coming to terms with living with a woman, his lifelong companion, who is losing her hold on the world around her. Both stories are told with a minimum of sentimentality. Both films are quiet and understated. Both films feature a strong loving relationship and the involvement of children. In terms of pure filmmaking, Still Mine can’t compete with Haneke’s masterpiece. And yet I think I enjoyed Still Mine more than Amour. It certainly engaged me more on an emotional level. And maybe I was connecting to the rural New Brunswick setting which was my home for eight years. 

I am giving Still Mine a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Monday, 6 May 2013

Collaborator

Oh, the pain of what could have been. It's so hard when a movie seems to have such potential and falls short.


Consider the possibilities: a playwright is held hostage by his childhood neighbour. They are poles apart in just about every way, but in the midst of the tense situation, the playwright gets the criminal talking by doing an improv exercise and by offering a chat with a famous friend. Communication channels are opened up between opposites. One wonders how much of what has bogged down the life of the beer-swilling gun-wielder has been the lack of ability to imagine and communicate.

But alas - a few great ideas and barely developed plotlines are just left hanging. Martin Donovan wrote, directed and acted in the lead role, and I have to wonder whether that was a mistake. Sure this sometimes works, but it can also lead to a lack of input from others who could give perspective and help overcome blindspots. I suspect part of the problem comes in the fact that the movie didn't succeed in finding that tricky balance between thoughtful dramatic dialogue and comedy. Too often the humour didn't quite succeed, and the serious drama was foiled by the slightly comic tone.

Still, it made me think and I never considered turning it off, and that is not nothing. So I will give it ***, a mug reluctantly held up but I'm sadly wishing it could have been more.