Sunday, 29 September 2013

TV7: Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, Boss and The Sopranos






Four cable TV ‘soaps’ about powerful men trying to gain ever more power, usually by destroying the lives of those around them and frequently acting with the motive of revenge against those who dare to challenge them. All four men struggle, to varying degrees, with their personal demons, their moral choices and their need to love and be loved. This struggle is one of the things that makes these shows worth watching. Coincidentally, each of these four men is married to a strong woman who is not afraid to challenge, even defy, her powerful husband, leading to side-stories which are often more interesting than the stories of the four men, another reason to watch the shows. There’s no ‘formula’ here as such, but clearly the theme of power-hungry men is popular (even Breaking Bad has some similarities to what I have described above).

The four men in question are Nucky Thompson (prominent bootlegger in 1920‘s Atlantic City), Francis Underwood (Majority Whip for the Democratic Party), Tom Kane (mayor of Chicago), and Tony Soprano (New Jersey mob boss), played by Steve Buscemi, Kevin Spacey, Kelsey Grammer and James Gandolfini respectively. All four actors are superb in their roles, each providing a unique take on the joys and pains of power (much more pain than joy, in my opinion, another factor contributing to the watchability of these shows). The wives are played by Kelly Macdonald, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen and Edie Falco, and they are also superb in their roles. Combined with the fact that these are all well-made (again, to varying degrees) cable TV shows, that’s enough factors to give all four shows ***+. 

That’s right. None of these shows gets **** from me. Why? Precisely because they are about men in power using whatever means necessary to gain more power (or hold on to the power they have). I can’t relate to this theme sympathetically enough (who can, I ask?) to engage emotionally with any of these protagonists. Even if these were not all violent men, my personality style prevents me from understanding their relentless drive for power. Such a drive so clearly costs much more than it’s worth (again, not just for those who use violence). Keep in mind that, film buff though I may be, I am also not a fan of The Godfather. No matter how brilliant and profound a film or show may be, if it’s about gangsters or men chasing power, I’m just not that interested.

(Sidebar for further reflection: Why is it that I am able to relate more sympathetically to Dexter, a serial killer?)

Okay, let’s take a look at these shows one at a time (because of my memory issues, I will devote more space to the most recent shows). 


Boardwalk Empire

Just finished the third season. Oh my! Come on, guys! Rosetti? Really? I won’t argue that Bobby Cannavale isn’t well-deserving of his recent Emmy Award for playing the nasty Gyp Rosetti, but Rosetti’s dominating presence in the third season is the primary reason I couldn’t enjoy this season (well, okay, I could enjoy Cannavale’s performance). Every time Rosetti is on screen, we expect (anticipate?) him to kill somebody. This is not a good thing, especially in a show that arguably promotes violence as entertainment. It doesn’t help that Boardwalk Empire is generally a very slow-moving, dialogue-heavy show (this is usually a plus for me, but not when I have so little interest in the gangster-related pieces of the plot). I don’t know if other viewers get bored with parts of the show the way I do, but I do know that for me it adds to the feeling that the inevitable graphic violence is there to be anticipated and enjoyed. Who doesn’t want to see gangsters kill each other off? If they are killed off en masse by one of the show’s more sympathetic characters, all the better. And best of all is if the nastiest of the big baddies (Rosetti, made to look depraved in every way) gets it as brutally, graphically and painfully as possible. Yup, that’s exactly what the world needs more of today: TV shows that promote dehumanization and the enjoyment of graphic violence (after all, it’s cathartic, right, Mr. King?). Sigh.

So why, you are asking, would I give Boardwalk Empire ***+ and keep watching (indeed, usually watching the new season as soon as it’s released on DVD)? Excellent question. Well, for one thing, it’s a gorgeous period drama based on the lives of real gangsters. It features great acting and intelligent writing. It has some worthwhile and fascinating side-stories like Maggie’s work for women’s rights (and yes, I have a soft spot for Kelly Macdonald, who plays Maggie, if for no other reason than that I bumped into her five years ago on my birthday, as she was walking her dog in Hampstead). And Buscemi’s (I’ve always liked his work) Nucky Thompson is, for me, the most sympathetic of the four protagonists. He’s a broken thoughtful man driven to ruthlessness against his better instincts. He just wants some respect (don’t we all?). So, perhaps I’ll call this a guilty pleasure with rationalizations. 

Warning: Lots of graphic violence as well as graphic sex and nudity. Sometimes these scenes feel gratuitous, other times not.


House of Cards

Oh my! Come on, guys! Russo? Really? Sigh. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that this show’s treatment of my favourite character, Peter Russo (the most sympathetic character in the show), doesn’t make me look forward to the second season.

House of Cards, a show actually designed to be watched in one sitting (yes, all thirteen episodes), concerns Frank Underwood’s scheming for political power in Washington. While Underwood is the least violent of the four men highlighted above, he is also, for me, the least sympathetic (his ruthlessness emanates from a colder darker place). This is problematic for the show’s most fascinating feature: Underwood looks at the camera and speaks directly to the TV audience. I enjoy that, especially since his dialogue is usually witty and insightful, but the idea is that we are meant to love this nasty fellow at some level. While I appreciate that concept in principle, it doesn’t work for me in this case. And while much of the writing in the show is intelligent, there are times when it feels over-the-top. 

The show’s biggest flaw for me, however, is the sense that I am watching something hollow, something so superficial and cynical that any opportunity to say something meaningful is wasted. This is sad.

On the other hand, House of Cards is gorgeously filmed and very well-directed. It also contains a major sub-plot about investigative journalists that I find particularly compelling (though I won’t say it has been handled very well so far).

House of Cards has the distinction of having much less violence and sex/nudity than the other three shows and thus avoids getting critiqued for gratuitous use of same.


Boss

Tom Kane, mayor of Chicago, finds out he is suffering from a terminal neurological disease but remains determined to hang onto power as long as possible. This show has many similarities to House of Cards, but is nowhere near as polished. Indeed, in terms of overall production values, Boss is by far the weakest of the four shows (though it has some beautiful stylistic elements). Among its many failings are the laughably melodramatic romantic entanglements, in which all of the sex/nudity feels gratuitous, and a deeply cynical sentiment in much of its uneven dialogue. And yet, ironically, I find Boss among the most compelling of the four shows, perhaps because of Grammer’s performance as a man suffering at so many different levels (but, like the other three men, needing to remain ruthless to hold on to a warped sense of self and self-worth).


The Sopranos

The godfather of cable TV (in various ways)! The Sopranos started it all, brilliantly capturing the feel of mob life in New Jersey while giving us the unique central plot hook of seeing mob boss Tony Soprano regularly undergoing psychotherapy (his therapist is played perfectly by Lorraine Bracco). Because this show concentrates on what’s going on in the head of its protagonist, it is usually (though not always) easier to be sympathetic. 

In terms of overall writing and acting, The Sopranos remains by far the best of the four shows, the standard to which other cable TV shows must aspire. But even The Sopranos, thanks to its dark tales of mob life and revenge that are more life-draining than life-giving, doesn’t get **** from me. And, partly because it was breaking new ground, I do accuse The Sopranos of occasionally presenting gratuitous violence and nudity. 

My mug is up for all four of these shows, but they are recommended only to those who are not scared off by violence (though hopefully don’t enjoy it). 

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Prisoners


After watching the first few minutes of Prisoners, I remembered seeing the trailer and I asked myself what I was doing in the theatre, because the trailer had not excited me. It was not until the credits rolled at the end of the film that I recalled why I felt I needed to view this film as soon as it was released, namely because it’s directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian director whose last film, Incendies, is among my all-time favourites. 


Prisoners is Villeneuve’s first English-language film and his first collaboration with a major studio. The latter is generally not a good thing, but no one can accuse Prisoners of being typical Hollywood fare. For one thing, this is a very difficult film to watch. The older couple sitting in front of me should not have been in the theatre (and I am not referring to their tendency to share their thoughts and feelings with the rest of the audience). Prisoners was simply too dark, too traumatic and too graphic for them to handle. So be warned. Stay away unless you are up for a gruesome night out.

I will give as little away as possible, but I assume almost everyone with any interest in the film knows (even I knew) that Prisoners is about the kidnapping of two young girls. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki, the lonely melancholic police officer in charge of the case. Hugh Jackman plays Keller, the distraught father of one of the girls. We learn in the opening scene that Keller is a devout Christian and a survivalist, ready for any global catastrophe. But he’s not ready for this. Loki and Keller are both after the same thing but their methods are quite different, so their frustration and anger is often directed as much at each other as it is at the kidnapper. 

Prisoners is a psychological thriller full of relentless suspense and terror. And yet I would argue that it worked for me because it’s primarily a drama; a drama about the sudden turns life can take and the lines people will cross when enough is at stake. The film also worked because both Jackman and Gyllenhaal deliver awesome performances (among the best I’ve seen this year) that take us deep into the psyche of their characters. Maria Bello (as Keller’s wife), Terrence Howard and Viola Davis (as the parents of the other girl) and Melissa Leo also deliver first-rate performances.

The cinematography is almost as important and impressive as the acting. Prisoners is set in Pennsylvania in late November. Talk about bleak and dreary. Even the days are dark in Prisoners. The skies are always grey and most of the time it’s raining (sometimes even snowing). It’s a brilliant evocation of the mood of all of the film’s characters and was one of the highlights of my viewing experience.

It all sounds great so far, but, as intelligent, well-structured and captivating as the screenplay is, I can’t let the writer (Aaron Guzikowski) off the hook. Even if I could forgive an overdose of twists and turns, some of which I predicted, and the isolated, but major, cliches, I cannot get over the feeling that Guzikowski got carried away with his clever plot, leading to a last half hour that is out of control and ultimately let me down (though I liked the final scene). I am partly referring to the murky moral waters of Prisoners, waters so dark that even I (with my strong stomach) am afraid to look too closely, lest I see something too terrifying to consider. Scary stuff. 

Of course, an argument could be made that Prisoners is a very discussable thought-provoking film, a film which asks important questions and even delivers some accurate political commentary. And the film’s title is a good discussion-starter on its own. There are many ways in which the characters in Prisoners (not to mention the viewers) find themselves in prison. But so far I have no one with whom I can discuss the film.

I won’t say more, in case there are readers brave enough to disregard my warnings and head to the cinema. And I’m giving Prisoners a solid ***+ to entice them further. My mug is up but don’t assume that’s a recommendation. 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Fruitvale Station



Fruitvale Station begins with a shooting that took place on New Year’s Eve, 2009 at a rapid transit station in Oakland, California. Then the clock turns back 24 hours to show us a day in the life of a man (Oscar Grant) involved in that shooting. 

Amazingly, Fruitvale Station is Ryan Coogler’s first film. He has made a film which features terrific natural performances (the film feels real, not sentimental) and a lean tight screenplay. The cinematography is of the handheld variety I don’t care for, but it’s appropriate for this kind of film (based on a true story). With the help of an excellent performance by Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station does such a good job of presenting Oscar and his environment to us, on that one ordinary day of his life (with some flashbacks), that we feel we know Oscar and his family. This makes the ending especially powerful.

The straightforward way Oscar’s story is told is a strength of the film, but also its primary weakness. The story is told in such a simple way that opportunities to ask some bigger questions about the shooting are wasted. In other words, the film could have been more thoughtful and profound in its story-telling.

While Fruitvale Station is about an African-American family and does a great job of presenting the life of that African-American family, the film isn’t about race or racism (as far as I can tell), which makes the very last scene of the film confusing and unnecessary. Specifically, it seems to be a call for justice, with racial overtones, in a story that had a far more just ending than the shooting of, for example, Trayvon Martin. Indeed, that last scene seems to be asking for more jail time as if justice is measured by jail time. As I have mentioned previously, I have no patience for such ideas, or retributive justice in general, and feel that we (and the film industry) need to do a lot more to challenge our society’s assumptions regarding such false ideas of justice, not reinforce them.

Minor complaints aside, Fruitvale Station is an important well-made film and gets ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

TV6: Homeland, 24 and Spooks (MI-5)





The past decade has seen the release of three popular TV shows about counter-terrorism. Homeland is just starting its third season, while 24 and Spooks have finished their long runs. I have watched every episode of 24 and Spooks and just finished the second season of Homeland on DVD (the only way I watch TV). Because of their subject matter, my rather strong political/ideological (and yes, theological) views always come into play when I watch these shows, either adding to my enjoyment of them or subtracting from that enjoyment. With that in mind, let’s begin (I will do this chronologically).

The first of these shows to air (in 2001) was 24, starring Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland as the relentless Jack Bauer. 24 had the ingenious hook of being shown in real time, with each of the 24-episode seasons taking place over the course of one 24-hour day. This must have presented a huge challenge for the writers, but they were usually up for the task, delivering clever, suspenseful and fast-paced episodes on a regular basis. Sutherland, whom I have always appreciated as an actor, was perfectly-cast as Bauer and his acting was strong enough to carry the show when fellow-actors did not fare as well. 

While I obviously enjoyed 24 enough to keep watching to the bitter end, I was constantly infuriated by it, especially by its use of torture. I even christened the show “Torture Inc.” after the first few seasons. Since I consider the use of torture to be one of the most heinous and inhumane of acts and do not believe it is ever justified, regardless of the circumstances, I was appalled at the way the characters in 24 used it regularly as a legitimate means of extracting information. Experts question the efficacy of torture, but even if they thought it a reliable means of extracting information, I would always be opposed to its use and would certainly consider any government which used torture to be both barbaric and inhumane. 

One of the reasons I continued to watch 24 in spite of the torture was what I knew about Sutherland’s political views. Since Sutherland was also one of the show’s key producers, I kept hoping that his left-leaning political views would show up in the show one day. In this I was largely disappointed, though I twice heard (on video) Sutherland defend 24 as being a show which challenged many of the Bush government’s views on things. Sutherland also stated publicly that he was, like me, always opposed to the use of torture, though how he would then allow himself to be so closely associated with a show that I call ‘an ode to torture’ is beyond me. 24 gets *** for its unique premise, though some seasons do not deserve even ** (season four was despicable and gets no stars at all).

Spooks first aired in 2002. It concerned the activities of an elite group of Great Britain’s MI-5 agents, tasked with preventing terrorist attacks on British soil. I watched it at the same time as 24 and was constantly amazed at how different these two shows were, in spite of their similar themes. To be clear, in every way imaginable, Spooks was immeasurably superior to 24. It was far more grown up, far more intelligent, far more real, far more compassionate, far better acted, far more suspenseful, and so on. So as not to spoil things for prospective viewers, I will not mention some of the ways Spooks achieved this, but I will say that on the few occasions Spooks depicted torture, it took torture tremendously seriously and conveyed the message that no civilized government should ever use it. 

Spooks was never afraid to challenge or even expose the views of its own government and regularly (though not consistently) humanized terrorists. In my opinion, Spooks was one of the finest TV shows ever made and has a place in my top-ten favourite shows since the 1960’s. A very solid ****.

The new kid on the block is Homeland, starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin, three of the best actors to ever do TV. Unlike the other two shows, Homeland is cable TV and thus has much higher production values. With its incredible cast giving flawless performances, its brilliant writers, its great cinematography and a female protagonist struggling with serious mental illness as she combats terrorism (for the CIA), Homeland stands head and shoulders above 24 (though it was made by some of the same people) and most of everything else that’s on TV these days (including Breaking Bad). This is compelling TV at its finest, except …

Except that I am quite worried about its political/ideological direction. I have this niggling feeling in my gut that the ways in which terrorists and Muslims are portrayed are dangerous (even wrong), though there is regular evidence of thoughtfulness in this portrayal. If it were not for the presence of Patinkin, I would be even more worried. Like Sutherland, Patinkin is a lefty. He is also a Jew with a great love for his people and his heritage. And yet I have seen him on stage publicly challenging the actions of the Israeli government and the occupation of Palestine. Patinkin exudes integrity, intelligence and compassion, even in most (if not all) of the characters he has played in film and TV, including the role of Saul Berenson on Homeland. I want to believe that Patinkin would not remain involved in a show that reinforces stereotypes and dehumanizes, and so far the mistakes on Homeland have not been overly blatant, though Homeland does not have anywhere near the courage of Spooks (there are critiques of the CIA but nowhere near enough). Homeland gets **** for now, but I’ll be updating that every season as necessary. 

As for the involvement of Fox in both 24 and Homeland, I will just say it can’t help.

Comparing 24 to Homeland is like comparing an Aveo to a Cadillac. But Spooks is a Lamborghini (or at least a Rolls-Royce) and is the only one of the three I can recommend without reservation. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The World's End



The Thiessen brothers had the rare opportunity to go to the cinema together this week. Choices being somewhat limited, we watched The World’s End, the third film in a so-called trilogy of films which were directed by Edgar Wright, written by Wright and Simon Pegg, and star Pegg and Nick Frost (the first two films were Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), who made the classic TV series Spaced

I cannot believe I was able to go into The World’s End cold (i.e. knowing absolutely nothing about where it was going, not even the genres associated with the film, which alone would have given too much away), but I was. I won’t say it was anywhere near as important to go in cold as it was for The Hidden Face, but I do believe it allowed me to enjoy the first half hour of the film in a way I would not have done had I known more.

The first half hour or so of The World’s End was one of the funniest and most entertaining half hours of comedy I have seen at the cinema in years. It introduces the story of five friends, growing up together in small-town England, who plan to do the Golden Mile, a pub crawl involving twelve pubs (and twelve pints) and ending at The World’s End. They fail to finish the Mile, which haunts one of the five friends for ten years, until he decides to get the gang together again for another attempt. The writing here is very sharp, with the drama as thoughtful and wise as the comedy is funny, the acting is stellar (with great chemistry between the five perfectly-cast leads) and, despite sitting in an almost empty theatre (there were four of us), Walter and I were laughing out loud every few seconds. Great stuff! 

Then the film turns an unexpected corner (unexpected for me at least). Potentially, the corner it turns could have led to an even more enjoyable viewing experience for me, because the film switches genres to one that I generally appreciate much more than comedy (and no, I won’t mention the genre, just in case there are still two or three people in the world who don’t know what it is). Unfortunately, The World’s End wastes its potential, primarily because, after turning the corner, it starts to get silly instead of clever. There are some clever moments and stimulating conversations along the way, but the silly pointlessness of the numerous action scenes gets in the way. A climactic scene involving Bill Nighy is thoroughly entertaining but an opportunity for the film to be profound as well as clever is wasted and thus the twists at the end of the film are more disappointing than satisfying.

Still, The World’s End is vastly superior to the likes of The Hangover (which has similar themes) and it saddens me that the masses fill the cinema for the latter while the former struggles to recoup its modest budget. A fun film that could have been a classic, The World’s End just crosses the line at ***+. My mug is up and I think Walter’s is as well. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Hidden Face



As mentioned in my previous review, I had a number of discussions about films at Greenbelt. One of these was with Jeremy Clarke, my film-critic friend from London with whom I have watched many an advance screening. Jeremy recommended that I watch a recent Colombian film called The Hidden Face, directed by Andi Baiz. He told me very little about it (THANK YOU, JEREMY!) but it was enough to spark my interest, so I picked up a copy and watched it last night (alone, in the dark, the way such films should be watched). 

I think The Hidden Face is my first Colombian film. I will be looking for more. While not a perfect film by any means, it nevertheless had me in its grip from the first second to the last. Indeed, the film was so intense and compelling that I barely remember reading a single subtitle. And the horrific plot was so well-structured that I barely noticed that the acting wasn’t very strong. Neither was the character development. The score and cinematography, however, were both top-notch.

What is The Hidden Face about? Well, now we are into pet peeve country. After watching the film, I took a look at the trailer and read the back of the DVD case. These were more horrifying to me than the film, by which I mean that they both gave away the key plot twist at the centre of this carefully-structured film. If I had known this twist in advance, the impact of the film on me would have been a tiny fraction of what it was. For a film described as “a haunting thriller” (a very apt description), this is a catastrophe of the highest order. If you have read any review of this film (other than this one), or read the back of the DVD case or have seen the trailer, then don’t bother watching the film. That’s how outrageous and inexcusable this blunder is to me. So not another word from me on what The Hidden Face is about, except to warn away all potential viewers who do not appreciate very dark haunting thrillers.

Well, okay, maybe I’ll say as much as Jeremy did: A man comes home one day to find that his girlfriend and all her belongings are gone. She left behind a video message indicating that she was returning to Spain, but the police say she never left the country and grow increasingly suspicious. Enough said!

With my last review in mind, I must say that I am much more forgiving of dark films than dark TV. The Hidden Face gets ***+. If you’re looking for an obscure foreign thriller you’ve never heard of, and don’t mind getting scared (or being horrified), then turn out the lights, lock your doors, cover your windows, curl up with your popcorn, and enjoy. Thanks, Jeremy. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

TV5: Breaking Bad



Breaking Bad has become one of the most popular TV shows of all-time, highly acclaimed by both the critics and the masses. I have found few people who share my misgivings about the show and many who challenge my views (as seen in the comments responding to my previous mentions of the show). 
I was prompted to write this review after an opportunity to discuss Breaking Bad with Gareth Higgins at Greenbelt (where I also had the chance to talk film and TV with Hazel, Jeremy and Ian, three of my other UK film-buff friends). Gareth is another huge fan of the show and he made some persuasive arguments, so I picked up the first half of the fifth season in London (where I could already find it used for $20) and watched it in three days last weekend.
As I have said before, I have no complaints about the quality of Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston is phenomenal as Walter White, the protagonist (a high school chemistry teacher who turns to the production of crystal meth to provide support for his family after he is diagnosed with cancer). His performance and the character he plays will be long remembered as one of the definitive roles in television, and deservedly so. Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, Walter’s sidekick, is equally deserving of praise and I have only good things to say about the rest of the cast. Meanwhile, the writing is intelligent and tight, with one gripping screenplay after another, the cinematography is brilliant and the direction is as good as anything you will see on TV. So I agree that it is one of the most compelling shows on TV, which is why I watched the first 54 episodes of Breaking Bad in a total of 12 days (over three separate time periods). 
And yet, there is a part of me that remains skeptical about the acclaim Breaking Bad has received (i.e. I can’t help feeling that this show is overrated). It seems to have universal appeal, but I would hesitate to recommend it to others without a number of warnings. This can’t help but make me wonder whether Breaking Bad isn’t largely a guilty pleasure. Having said that, I did find the first eight episodes of the fifth season to be generally more thoughtful than the first four seasons, particularly from a moral standpoint. (BTW, I find it ridiculous that season five is divided into two parts when these parts are shown a year apart; the final season should be called the sixth season). Walter and Jesse finally have some serious (and fascinating) discussions about the morality of drug production and the violence that accompanies it. As Gareth said, Jesse consistently represents the show’s conscience. Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, has been quoted as saying that Breaking Bad is about the consequences of making poor moral choices. This sounds like a spoiler, indicating that Walter will get his comeuppance at the end of the series. If the consequences Gilligan is referring to mean punishment in the form of prison or death, I will not be impressed. Nor am I impressed by such a succinct description of the show (one of my complaints about Breaking Bad is that it generally has a narrow, limited, simplistic, superficial focus in its plot constructions). 
I grow increasingly tired of films and television shows that depict retributive justice as a positive thing, as if we all know that such justice is good and required for a society to operate effectively. I challenge that assumption. Despite my lack of sympathy for Walter (something I have previously mentioned as one reason I find this show less compelling than Dexter), I will not be relieved or satisfied if he gets his just deserts in the end. Nor would I be relieved or satisfied if he gets away with his crimes. Justice to me has nothing whatsoever to do with the concept of punishment or just deserts. What is needed is restorative justice that restores right relationships by allowing victims to confront offenders and truly allows offenders to experience the consequences of their actions.
Another quote I have read about Breaking Bad is that it is “a feel-good show about feeling bad.”  Perhaps that refers to the dark humour lurking in the background as we watch Walter’s descent into evil. Or maybe it refers, like Dexter, to the shadow side in each of us. This leads me back to my need to sympathize with TV characters, something I have found difficult on Breaking Bad. I have heard that I would experience similar difficulties with another popular cable TV show called The Walking Dead, a show I will probably never watch because of my aversion to all things ‘zombie’. Zombie films frequently draw attention to the dark side in each of us. Sure it’s important to be reminded that we are all human, that we are all in some ways broken and selfish, and it is helpful to watch others struggle with this. But what we need to see more of in films and TV is not how flawed we all are but how good and beautiful we all are. Network TV shows like Gilmore Girls, 7th Heaven and even Star Trek may be hokey but they are grounded in the goodness of people and regularly contribute to helping people think about how they can make the world a better place (Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons are other classic examples). Cable TV may be more authentic, intelligent, nuanced and thoughtful, but what are shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter and The Walking Dead (not to mention Boardwalk Empire, which is coming up soon) really contributing to?
In conclusion: Yes, Breaking Bad is superior compelling TV which gets a solid ***+, but this should not be viewed as a blanket recommendation. If you haven’t seen it and you are not put off by dark, hard-edged violent entertainment, then by all means check it out. But it’s certainly not for everyone. 
Note: Probably because of the network that distributes Breaking Bad (AMC), you will find very little sex or extreme language on the show. I call this semi-cable TV. You will, however, find all kinds of graphic violence, because we all know it’s okay for our kids to watch graphic violence so long as they are not exposed to breasts or the F-word!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

TV4: Introduction to Upcoming TV Reviews





I promised more reviews of TV shows. I will attempt to fulfill that promise, as time permits, but an introduction is required, so that I can share some general observations about TV entertainment and allow my reviews of individual shows to focus specifically on the shows' own merits, or lack thereof (so far, my three TV reviews in this blog all contain superfluous information).
For me, reviewing TV shows is not the same as reviewing films. TV shows require many hours of viewing time. Even if one is binge-watching (my favourite way to watch prime-time TV soaps), it is impossible to appraise sixty hours of TV in the same way I would appraise a two-hour film. My memory problems may be unique, but I can barely remember a film two months after viewing, let alone an entire season of TV seen two years before. Even a subjective reliable assessment of TV shows is therefore difficult for me to provide. TV shows do, however, leave strong gut reactions in me, so that when a number of new seasons of cable TV shows are released simultaneously on DVD, I instinctively know which shows I want to watch first (e.g. I just picked up the new seasons of Boardwalk Empire and Homeland; I dropped everything else I was watching and popped Homeland into the Blu-Ray player). My TV reviews will therefore often be relatively vague, not only in my observations of the technical merits and content, but in my personal impressions, but they will be reliable indications of how my gut feels about the shows in question.
I have previously mentioned my feelings about network TV (see review of Dexter). With few exceptions, cable TV shows are vastly superior, in every way (writing, acting, directing, cinematography, etc.),  to network TV shows. In particular, good cable TV shows have an intelligent authentic feel that is almost never found on network TV (Sorkin shows, as I have said before, are one exception). So I can watch and enjoy prime-time network soaps like Brothers & Sisters or Desperate Housewives, appreciating the decent writing and generally above-average acting, but in terms of intelligent authentic drama, those shows can’t get anywhere near Six Feet Under or Mad Men or Treme. Indeed, watching network TV frequently makes me cringe because, after watching cable TV, it feels so hokey.
I have also previously mentioned my general distaste for formulaic episodic TV shows. You won’t find too many reviews of such shows on this blog. As a general rule, I prefer shows that tell one long story (i.e. pure soap, in a positive sense). More and more, non-network TV is providing me with those kinds of shows. And House of Cards, which I will be reviewing soon, was even released all at once (on Netflix, which, like Facebook and smartphones, is not part of my world).
One final note: With few exceptions, I will be reviewing shows I enjoy (why would I watch more than a few episodes of a show I don’t enjoy?), so don’t look for me to condemn what I think is poor-quality TV.

Tomorrow: Breaking Bad!

Friday, 13 September 2013

Blue Jasmine



Click on the link below to see my review of Blue Jasmine at Media Matters in the Third Way Cafe. As you will see, thanks largely to Cate Blanchett's superb performance, I think Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen's best film in many years, proving that Allen's career as a filmmaker is far from over. A solid ***+ and a likely candidate for my top ten films of 2013.

http://www.thirdway.com/mm/?Page=7858_Blue+Jasmine

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Attack



The Attack, made by Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, is based on the novel by Yasmina Khadra (pen name for Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer).  It’s the fascinating account of a man’s desperate search to uncover the truth behind the accusation that his wife is a suicide bomber responsible for the death of 17 people, including 11 children, in a Tel Aviv restaurant.

Ali Suliman plays the man in question, a Palestinian doctor named Amin Jaafari who has become a respected member of the Israeli medical establishment in Tel Aviv. Jaafari cannot begin to comprehend what has happened to him and Suliman conveys this brilliantly in a marvellous understated performance (he is in almost every scene). The actors around him are also very good. In combination with the excellent cinematography, the result is a film that feels very real. 

What makes The Attack unique, however, is its sympathetic take on suicide bombing, refusing to make clear moral judgments even in such an extreme case. Not that the film condones such activities. On the contrary, by putting a human face on terrorism and showing how ordinary people, in the face of constant oppression, can be driven, in their despair, to unimaginable actions, The Attack is a plea for understanding and peace.

About the content of his books, Moulessehoul has said: “Because fanaticism is a threat for all, I contribute to the understanding of its causes and backgrounds. Perhaps then it will be possible to find a way to bring it under control.” 

The Attack is compassionate, humanizing and thought-provoking and gets a solid ***+.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Films En Route: 42, The Big Wedding, Hannah Arendt, Jack Reacher, London – The Modern Babylon


I watched eight films on the way to Europe and back. Leaving aside the three obscure (and mediocre) foreign films I watched, here are capsule reviews of the other five, from worst to best:
The Big Wedding
I watched this because it stars the likes of Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams. Big mistake! To call this film a waste of talent would be a huge understatement. Written and directed by Justin Zackham, The Big Wedding is an incredible misfire. The silly plot only gets sillier as it develops, with hardly an ounce of originality or real humour. A disappointing mess. *+
42
Strictly by-the-numbers biopic. It’s an important story (first African-American in the major leagues) and it’s fairly well-told, but it’s handled in a disappointingly unimaginative TV-movie style. The only bright light is Harrison Ford’s surprisingly effective effort as Branch Rickey, the man who gave Jackie Robinson a chance. **+
Jack Reacher
Far more interesting than I had expected, with a solid intriguing (and satisfying) plot, this Tom Cruise effort, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie,  was quite entertaining for much of the way (until the predictable violent ending). ***
Hannah Arendt
Margarethe von Trotta’s film, about a few weeks in the life of one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, could have/should have been much better. Barbara Sukowa does well as Arendt, and this snapshot of a vital debate on the banality of evil as manifested in the trial of Adolf Eichmann is effectively structured, but the dialogue often made me cringe (worse than a bad TV movie). Still, the film provides much fruit for discussion and is definitely worth a look. ***
London – The Modern Babylon
This documentary from Julien Temple, about life in London since the beginning of the 20th century, is not so much a history of London during that period as it is the story of how its people have changed over the years (especially focusing on immigration issues and how London became the most multi-cultural city in the world). That focus makes this film uniquely fascinating and important. ***+

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

To the Wonder



Okay, after a an incredibly chaotic summer, where I watched only a handful of films (not counting the eight films I saw on my flights to and from Europe, which I will be reviewing later this week), I am back, with at least seven films on my schedule for the next two weeks. In the meantime, here's a review I wrote almost a month ago:

Another gorgeous profound work of cinematic poetry from Terrence Malick, To the Wonder was generally panned by the critics. I have no idea why. Sure, this isn’t up to The Tree of Life standards, but it’s still eons ahead of most of what passes for filmmaking these days. I missed seeing it at the cinema, if it even made it to Winnipeg, which is a shame.

To the Wonder primarily concerns the love between Neil and Marina. Neil (Ben Affleck)is an American; Marina (Olga Kurylenko) is French (yes, Linklater’s Before series definitely springs to mind, especially when we discover that To the Wonder is about life and love, though, unlike the Before films, it has almost no conversation). Neil and Marina fall in love in Paris (what Neil is doing there, we never discover). Marina has a daughter (Tatiana) from a previous relationship. Neil offers to take them both back to Oklahoma, where he has a large new house on the outskirts of a small town. At first they are delighted, but soon there are obvious signs of discontent. 

When Marina’s visa expires, she and Tatiana move back to Paris. Meanwhile, Jane (Rachel McAdams), Neil’s old flame, shows up in Neil’s life. In the background, we encounter a Spanish priest (Father Quintana, played by Javier Bardem), whose lonely days are filled with visiting the poor, the sick and those in prison. He spends his moments in the film in prayer, trying to recover a dwindling faith. 

All of the above, and much more, is conveyed with almost no dialogue and with only brief scenes that provide poetic glimpses into these four lives, lives filled with joy and wonder but also with pain, loneliness, sadness and even despair. This is, after all, a pure Malick film, which is a very good thing indeed, though many won’t get it. Does Neil represent Malick at one stage in his life? Perhaps. It would explain why Neil’s character is the least-developed, as if he is both central and in the background the whole time.

As usual for a Malick film, the cinematography is as beautiful as any you will ever see, while the score is haunting and evocative, like the film itself. The acting is generally excellent (Affleck barely says a word, which is not a bad thing). 

To the Wonder is a thoughtful spiritual meditation that gets a very solid ***+. My mug is up.