Saturday, 30 November 2013

Populaire

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

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

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

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Enough Said



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

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

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

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


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


The Killing (Danish original)

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

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

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

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

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


The Killing (American version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 11 November 2013

All is Lost



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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 November 2013

12 Years a Slave



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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Ender's Game



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Captain Phillips



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

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

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

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

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

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