Friday, 31 January 2014

Shadow Dancer

I have always been a fan of small British films, especially if they happen to be quiet intelligent spy thrillers. In general, such films are almost all superior to most of what comes out of Hollywood. Unfortunately, such films almost never get shown in Winnipeg theatres and almost never get taken seriously. Shadow Dancer is no exception, which is a pity, because it is one of the best films to come out of 2013 (in the UK, it was released in 2012).

This spy thriller is set in Belfast in the early 1990’s and involves the terrorist activities of the IRA. Clive Owen stars as Mac, an MI5 agent who is put in charge of Collette (played by Andrea Riseborough), an informant whom he talks into becoming an informant after she bungles a London bomb attack. Mac soon realizes that his boss (played by Gillian Anderson) hasn’t given him the big picture and that Collette is in grave danger, but does he have time to save her?

James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer is a suspenseful, slow-moving heart-wrenching film. It begins with a feeling of dread that never lets up. Uniquely, it doesn’t take sides, providing a carefully nuanced character study, though I would have wished for more character development (especially Mac) in such a slow film (you can’t have everything). Owen, Riseborough and Anderson all give excellent understated performances. The screenplay by Tom Bradby, based on his novel, is clever and tight and Shadow Dancer is beautifully filmed. Best of all, Shadow Dancer is never predictable and, unlike certain popular British spy films I shall not name (JB), feels entirely authentic, even if it isn’t based on true events. Maybe that’s because Marsh is best known as a documentary filmmaker. 

This brilliant little film might have made my top twelve had I seen it sooner. It gets a very solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Celebrating an Extraordinary Year for Actors

As I mentioned in my review of the top twelve films of 2013, I cannot recall a year with so many male acting performances that deserve an Academy Award. I therefore thought it was worth giving them special note on our blog. So here, in alphabetical order, are seventeen actors who delivered outstanding performances in 2013 (as to which official nominees I think should win, I would go for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, both for Dallas Buyers Club; note that my favourite female performances were all nominated and there I would vote for Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle):

Christian Bale (American Hustle)

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)

Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street & The Great Gatsby)

Chiwotel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)

Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)

Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines)

Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners)

Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips & Saving Mr. Banks)

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Hugh Jackman (Prisoners)

Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club & Mud & The Wolf of Wall Street)

Joaquin Phoenix (Her)

Robert Redford (All is Lost & The Company You Keep)

Ali Suliman (The Attack)

Friday, 24 January 2014

Don Jon

Hmmm. Not sure what to make of this comedy-drama about a porn addict who is also one of the most faithful thirty-something church-attendees I have seen depicted in film. Every Sunday, Jon is in the confession booth, telling the priest how often he’s been watching porn on his laptop, after which he receives absolution (with the appropriate penance of ‘Our-Father’s’ and ‘Hail-Marys’). Jon, who has no problem finding a different woman (always an ‘8’, ‘9’, or ‘10’) each week to have sex with, prefers masturbating in front of the laptop. At least until Barbara (a ‘10’) and Esther come into his life. In very different ways, these two women will challenge Jon’s addiction (Jon, of course, doesn’t admit to having an addiction; indeed, he states repeatedly that “all men watch porn every day” and implies that anyone who doesn’t believe that is naive). 

There are many fun and refreshing things about Don Jon. Jon’s semi-dysfunctional middle-class family is hilarious (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly are wonderful as Jon’s parents); the dialogue is frank and intelligent (and often funny); there are endless discussion-starters for the right kind of small group (I imagine such groups are rare); and there are occasional nuggets of wisdom. All in all, I applaud Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s writing and directing debut. And his acting (he plays Jon) was, as usual, also very good, as was the acting of Scarlett Johansson as Barbara and Julianne Moore as Esther. 

However, despite all the good acting and the wit and wisdom, Don Jon frequently turned me off. Here I am referring to its depiction of men. To be fair, the flaws of the film’s women are also on display, but they come off far far better than the men. There is not a single sympathetic man in the film (and I include both Jon and the priest). Anyone who wants proof of the adage “All men are jerks” needs to look no further than Don Jon (and The Hangover, etc.). To the men in Don Jon, women are numbers from one to ten  (with limited criteria) and they exist to be bedded. Men exist to watch sports, to watch (and talk degradingly about) women, to drive hot cars while swearing at all the other drivers on the road (especially on the way to church on Sunday morning) and just basically to be ignorant buffoons (or jerks). Only Esther comes across as a fully-developed character. I understand if Gordon-Levitt is painting this picture of men and women as a satire, but either I live in a bubble (which of course I do) and this kind of depiction is truer than I think, or this film is only likely to reinforce stereotypes in its exaggerated negative portrayal of men (even decent men). Either way, it doesn’t work for me. For all his good traits, even Jon was difficult to relate to (and it wasn’t his addiction that bothered me). 

Nevertheless, I did enjoy this entertaining intelligent rom-com much more than the average rom-com and more than I thought I would, so I will give Don Jon a solid ***. My mug is up. But be warned: This is not a typical date movie!

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Walter's Top 12 for 2013 - A Year of Lament

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall writes that “hell is story-friendly.” He states: “Fiction may temporarily free us from our troubles, but it does so by ensnaring us in new sets of troubles – imaginary worlds of trouble and stress and woe.” Of course, when you think about it, we have always known this to be true. But my top movie choices for 2013 reminded me of that quote. In spite of being (in my opinion) very good films, so many of them seem very hard (the year of Gravity? Sorry…). Maybe I’m just getting more sensitive. In any case, be warned if you take these as recommended viewing.  This year really confirms for me that one of the most important purposes of good film is to help us lament.

First, runners up are Mud, Enough Said, Stories We Tell, Song for Marion, and The East. Then here's the top twelve:

 The Attack - In protest, I won't actually number this as part of my top 12 since I just can't accept its central premise. But I did appreciate watching the film, and it is in some ways a better film than my #2 choice about a similar theme. I appreciate what they were going for, but it went too far in trying to help us understand suicide bombers facing their desperation. 
11. Lore - This beautifully painful film makes you think about war in a new way and always sneaks in the question of how future generations will feel about the decisions we are making now. 

10. Populaire – Just to ensure that not all of my choices are heavy, this is the best of the foreign romantic comedies that Carol and I love to watch. Stylish and well made, this would be a good recommendation for those who want to start trying out some French films – even available on Netflix.

9. Gravity – I suspect that this film might have been higher on my list if I’d seen it in a theatre. It seems as though its real power comes from enabling the viewer to enter the terrifying and lonely experience it represents. The small screen just didn’t make that possible for me, and so the first two thirds of the movie were just sort of ok. But I really did appreciate key aspects of the last third and suspect that the ending would have been way better if I’d been drawn in deeper earlier. 

8. Disconnect – This is a painfully realistic film that – in the manner of Crash or Babel or Mammoth – weaves together stories of failed connection. Unsurprisingly these failed attempts are generally mediated by cellphones and computers. It seems the art world will keep screaming at us to wake up before it’s too late while we keep sliding down the slippery slope of virtual connectedness. Deeper, really, than the blame attributed to electronic communication is the foundational reality of an alienated culture. Whatever reasons are at fault, a lot of people are feeling alone, and this film does another good job at calling attention to our need to connect. 

7. Her -  I expected to like this more, but I didn't really care for Phoenix in the lead role (sorry, Vic, maybe it was the pants and mustache), and maybe the futuristic urban scene (filmed in Shanghai) was just too depressing for me. Yet, much of the film worked on a lot of levels. There was much to chew on psychologically and philosophically. Very interesting film.

6. Blue Jasmine – This was a very solid film by Woody Allen, who won me back last year with Midnight in Paris. This one, while very different, still finds me a fan. It’s a fascinating character study of how the narcissistic wife of a wealthy (and crooked) financier can seem incredibly competent in one context and utterly lost when that collapses. I suppose one could also view it as something of a metaphor for all those clinging onto a corrupt capitalist society who feel lost when that world starts to crumble. While the acting was all very talented, it’s a pity that Cate Blanchett fell into the very temptation to over-act that will probably get her an Oscar (as it has in the past for Streep and Portman). She could have been absolutely brilliant if she’d just reined it back a bit. (Do that many people like their emotion that over-played, or have I just lived for so long among more sane people than average? Excuse the rant.)

5. The Company You Keep – This film was a great mixture of plot, ideas and fine acting. The scene near the beginning when Sarandon’s character was being interviewed was worth the price of admission.Very solid, enjoyable film.

4.  Saving Mr. Banks – This was a surprise to me. I’d read a review that suggested it was boring and plain until a great speech by Disney about the power of imagination toward the end. I did appreciate that speech, but I’d also been engaged all the way through. I thought the Australian back story was played a little melodramatically, but was otherwise woven in perfectly.

3. Broken - One of the most painful of the lot, this film set in a British cul de sac seems to contain all that can go wrong in the suburban world surrounding an eleven year old girl. It's a cathartic lament on stolen innocence that notices the crucial role that courage and goodness still play. Some viewers might find this too painful and others may dislike the ending as "too much" - but I found it powerful and well done. Full review to follow soon.

2. The Reluctant Fundamentalist –  This is another powerful and difficult movie that I’ve reviewed earlier. Skillfully blending a leisurely life story with a tense stand-off following a kidnapping in Pakistan, this film makes a good case against the fundamentalism of capitalism.

1. Short Term 12 – This was a film I’d been waiting to see for a long time, and I was surprised that this one turned out a little less painful in its reality than I’d expected. But what an excellent film! The acting is consistently perfect down to the smallest role - so perfect it never looks like acting at all. I suspect that must mean the director (pretty much a newbie – Destin Cretton) must be amazing. The mixture of realism and workable narrative seems just right. The confrontation between the passionate Grace (Larson) and the experienced therapist/administrator was a perfect demonstration of the film’s ability to get the nuances right.
For the record, there are many films on your list, Vic, that I haven't seen that could have made it including 12 Years as a Slave and All Is Lost.  Not a bad year for films.