Friday, 30 May 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I agree with the critics on this one. By far the worst of all the Spider-Man films, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (directed again by Marc Webb) was very disappointing. I knew there would be no return for Martin Sheen, but I did expect another thoughtful entry in the Spider-Man saga. Not this time. The promising backstory about Peter’s father, which begins the film, was completely wasted. 

I won’t waste my time by describing the silly plot revolving around Electro and Harry Osburn (Peter’s former best friend). Silliness abounds in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the silliness of Peter Parker himself grated on me all film long. I don’t fault Andrew Garfield for this (though Tobey Maguire did a better job). The only fun in the film was watching the young actors (Garfield and Emma Stone) argue. The obvious chemistry between them (they are a real-life couple) certainly helps.

Another thing that grated on me all film long was the obvious fact that the film was made to be a 3D thrill-ride. I didn’t watch it in 3D, but the 3D colours and special effects made the film ugly and barely endurable. None of the action worked for me. Neither did the film’s score. Nor did the ‘villains’. I don’t even know who the real villains were supposed to be - Electro and the Green Goblin felt more like victims than villains - but a strength of former Spider-Man films was forgotten this time around. 

One thing that did work for me was the surprise ending (or almost-ending; a ridiculous anticlimactic ending was tacked on after it). I was definitely not expecting it. Unfortunately, it was much too little too late. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gets **+. My mug is down. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Railway Man

As I become more and more convinced that a film’s moral compass should be a primary criterion for film criticism, many film critics seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Belle is a case in point. Despite being one of the most thought-provoking films in recent years (from a social justice standpoint), it received only middling reviews, with few critics taking its message into account. The reviews for The Railway Man, which has an even more powerful message, this time about war and forgiveness, are on the low side of mediocre. One critic writes: “I think I’d rather have the waterboarding than the movie’s bromides about how we’re all victims and hate must end.” Yeah, let’s not have films that actually say something and contribute to making the world a better place when we can have wonderful action-packed distractions like The Avengers and Captain America

Unlike Belle, which is only loosely based on facts, The Railway Man, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, is based on a true story. Eric Lomax was a British soldier captured by the Japanese in WWII and forced, like thousands of other prisoners, to work on the construction of the Thai/Burma railway. Lomax got into trouble due to his passion for trains and radios and ended up being tortured for weeks or months before rescue forces arrived. While almost half of the film is a flashback to the war, The Railway Man is actually set more than thirty years later. During the intervening years, Lomax has been haunted by nightmares and has shut himself off from the world. But as the film starts, he falls in love with a woman who wants to help him, leading to an eventual confrontation between Lomax and one of his torturers (who is running a war museum at the site of Lomax’s incarceration).

Many of the negative reviews of The Railway Man focus on how quiet and understated the film is (those are my words; the critics say things like “dull as ditchwater”). They also insult the film for being old-fashioned, as if that’s a negative (see my comments on Belle). It’s true The Railway Man doesn’t always do a great job of knowing how to dramatically connect the two very different halves of its story. But I’m sure if it was more dramatic, it would be accused of sensationalizing. It’s really about how one views the pacing of the film. Some will find it a little awkward, but I was mostly impressed. And, for the most part, I appreciated the quiet understated flavour of The Railway Man. If you watch it carefully, the emotional engagement is something you bring to the film as a viewer; it doesn’t have to be sucked out of you by a manipulative filmmaker. 

As usual, Colin Firth is brilliant in the lead role (he is perfectly cast) and that is absolutely essential for the emotional engagement mentioned above. Nicole Kidman as Lomax’s wife does what she can in an under-used role. The other acting is solid. The cinematography is beautiful and The Railway Man boasts an excellent score. Combined with the fact that it presents a profound, deeply moving story and you have another solid ***+ film. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014


Belle is one of those now-rare old-fashioned romantic period dramas with no violence, no foul language and no sex. It’s rated G, of all things (in Canada at least), the kind of family film that could have been made sixty years ago. This is by no means a criticism. On the contrary, I have nothing but praise for a film that dispenses with all the trappings supposedly needed to attract today’s moviegoers (e.g. things like action and special effects) and concentrates instead on the kind of intelligent dialogue which made films in the 40’s and 50’s so much better than the average films made today. Sure, Belle has its flaws, including a plot which is as predictable as they come, but what a relief to see a gorgeous, beautifully-scored, well-acted, intelligent film about really important stuff. There can never be enough of such films.

Inspired by a true story, Belle, directed by Amma Asante, tells the tale of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, a young woman in 18th-century London whose father (whom she only knew for a few hours) was a navy officer and whose mother (whom she never knew at all) was an African slave rescued by her father. With her father out at sea (where he will perish before Dido has a chance to see him again), Dido is brought up by her father’s parents in an estate north of London. Her grandfather (Lord Mansfield) is none other than the Lord Chief Justice, the most powerful judge in Britain. Mansfield is about to hand down a decision about an insurance claim on the death of 142 slaves, who were thrown overboard on a voyage to England (supposedly due to a water shortage). Dido has rather strong views on the subject, as does a certain idealist son of the local vicar, a man who wants to be a lawyer and is constantly challenging Mansfield.

Okay, the romance is strictly chick-flick country and the film didn’t have to be quite so simplistic and obvious. But whatever its faults, Belle manages to tackle issues like racism, sexism, classism and the place of law in the 18th century in a way that actually still contributes to these discussions in the 21st century and that’s quite a feat. When you add in solid performances by all involved, especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido, Tom Wilkinson as Mansfield, Penelope Wilton as Dido’s spinster aunt and Sam Reid as the vicar’s son, as well all the things mentioned above, and then stir in the fact much of Belle was filmed at Kenwood House, near where we lived for eight years and the fact that I was engrossed throughout, you have created (in my opinion) quite a delicious treat, which gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Great Beauty

Wow (yeah, it’s been awhile)! I waited far too long to watch the 2014 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. The Great Beauty wasn’t released in Winnipeg until March and I lost my brief chance to see it on the big screen, which is very sad because it is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. The cinematography is extraordinary. So is everything else about this film; it’s the best film I’ve seen since I watched Before Midnight last June. It’s such a relief to see that masterpieces like this are still being made, though apparently not on this side of the ocean.

Like Gloria, The Great Beauty is about someone who is aging and seems bored with life. But, unlike Gloria, The Great Beauty is a magnificent work of cinematic art, with layers of depth and intelligence that leave films like Gloria in the dust. It reminds one immediately of Fellini’s 1960 classic La Dolce Vita (this is obviously intended), but I liked The Great Beauty a lot more.

The Great Beauty stars Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella, a wealthy journalist in Rome who has just turned 65 and takes this opportunity to reflect on his life. While there are some important flashbacks, most of Jep’s reflections come in the midst of the life he is experiencing at 65. It’s a life full of the distractions wealth provides, including many friends, but it seems devoid of meaning or passion. Indeed, Jep seems to conclude that life is ultimately pointless, and that it is lived only for the occasional moments of great beauty, for which he has been constantly searching since the love of his life left him four decades before.

Back then, he wrote a prize-winning novel. Everyone wants to know why he hasn’t written any novels since then. His reply is that nothing has happened in his life during the past forty years that is worth writing about. This seems to suggest that writing requires deep pain or emotion and cannot spring from the comfortable boring life Jep has been living for forty years.

Jep nevertheless appears to be always playing the role of a writer, floating through life as an observer. He begins the day by joking with his maid/cook, then wanders around Rome or looks down from his penthouse balcony, which overlooks the coliseum. He spends evenings drinking with his friends (whom he is not averse to insulting in an arrogant dismissive way) and spends passionless nights with one of his female admirers.

Jep has decided he is now too old to do anything he doesn’t want to do, which seems to mean he doesn’t have to worry about hurting the feelings of those around him. That begins to change when he meets Ramona, the daughter of an old friend, but ultimately that relationship will become just another fleeting moment of great beauty.

Despite Jep’s many flaws, we get a sense of a deep goodness residing within, along with a hunger for spiritual awakening. The church plays a prominent role in The Great Beauty and is variously represented by a cardinal who is primarily interested in cooking and a 104-year-old nun who has lived her life in poverty and eats only roots (because roots are important). 

I could go on and on about Jep, a sad lonely cynical man who is one of the most haunting and fully-realized characters in recent films (and who is played so brilliantly by Servillo). What makes this all the more amazing is that Jep’s melancholic self-reflection as a man approaching old age is the creation of a relatively young filmmaker. Paolo Sorrentino is only 43.

But The Great Beauty is as much about the city of Rome as it is about Jep. In this endlessly thought-provoking satire of contemporary Rome, the great city itself is perhaps condemned for its pointless existence during the past forty years (except for moments of great beauty). 

Of course, if Janelle is correct in her assessment that Sorrentino must be as cynical about life and people as Jep, then I have my worries. But while there are characters in Sorrentino’s previous films who also echo such cynicism, I don’t believe that’s where he is coming from (BTW I have thoroughly enjoyed every Sorrentino film I have watched).

In any event, I look forward to repeated viewings (I already can’t wait to see it again) and give the gorgeous The Great Beauty a very easy ****. My mug is up! Since it was only released in Canada in 2014, it is assured a place in my top ten films of the year (the way this year is shaping up, it could easily be number one). 

Saturday, 17 May 2014


Gloria, directed by Sebastian Lelio, is a Chilean film set primarily in Santiago. It tells the story of Gloria (Paulina Garcia), a woman in her late fifties whose life has become overwhelmingly boring. She is divorced, her son lives nearby but is busy and her daughter is flying off to Sweden to live with her boyfriend. So Gloria hits the night clubs looking for some action (specifically, looking for some male companionship). Eventually she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), an older man who falls in love with Gloria but is regularly shocked by her treatment of him, causing him to disappear, something Gloria cannot tolerate.

Gloria is a very well-made film, with brilliant performances by the lead actors, many wonderful scenes and an intelligent and thoughtful depiction of life after 55. I can understand why the critics like it so much. Unfortunately, the ‘story’ just doesn’t work for me. I can only suppose that viewers are supposed to be frustrated with Gloria’s flawed character, but film critics seem to see Gloria as a celebration of Gloria’s journey toward liberation. If that’s what Lelio was going for (and I assume it is), then I didn’t get it. I enjoyed the ending, but to me the scenes that led up to it do not support the ending that follows. 

Gloria gets ***. It’s worth watching, but not, in my opinion, the great film the critics watched.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Heaven is for Real

I liked it better than any of the other three faith-based/Bible-based films released this year, but I'm afraid I am still only giving it **+. See my full review at the Third Way Cafe: