Sunday, 22 June 2014

TV13: True Detective, Season One

Someone I trusted told me I would like True Detective, so I acquired it the minute it was available on blu-ray and watched it over a period of ten days (it only has eight one-hour episodes). I can’t remember who told me about the show, so I would like a confession. Because why would I like this show? I mean, I don’t generally like cop shows and I don’t like serial killer shows (or films) and True Detective is both. Sure, it’s made by HBO and stars Matthew McConaughey, last year’s best actor, along with Woody Harrelson. And sure, it’s directed, in its entirety, by Cary Fukunaga, whose two feature films (Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre) were both among my favourite films of their respective years. But is the presence of great actors and a great director enough? Who is this Nic Pizzolatto guy anyway, who thinks he can create and write a series like this for HBO?

No, no, I do not like True Detective. I LOVE it! If it hadn’t been for the standard serial-killer climax, which was a major let-down for me, True Detective would rank high among my all-time favourite TV shows. Not that it can be treated as a typical TV series, since the first season is its own complete story and the second season will feature different actors and a different location. So this first season of True Detective needs to be reviewed as a mini-series. 

True Detective, season one, covers a seventeen-year period in the lives of two very intense and troubled detectives on the hunt for the man or men responsible for the ritualistic slaying of children and young women in southern Louisiana. Unoriginal ending aside, the writing, acting, directing, cinematography and score (the latter by T-Bone Burnett) of this show are extraordinary, not just for television, but also when compared to films. This is an entertainment masterpiece, though certainly not for those who have trouble watching dark serial-killer entertainment (and really, shouldn’t we all have trouble with that?). What makes the writing special is the intelligent dialogue of, and relationship between, the two protagonists (Rust and Marty). Not only does True Detective take the time to develop their characters, it actually spends as much or more time on the drama of their personal lives as it does on the suspense of their work lives (which involves limited action). And while the show does not do justice to its female characters, Michelle Monaghan is perfect as Maggie, Marty’s wife. 

As for McConaughey, he is as good here as he was in his two starring roles last year (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud). His performance alone is worth watching the series. Who’d have thought he would become one of the greatest actors of our time? Fantastic TV! True Detective, season one, gets an easy ****. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

The Good: Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt are perfectly cast in Edge of Tomorrow and they do a great job with a tricky and unlikely premise, in which their characters (Cage and Rita) are forced to replay the same scenes over and over again. The premise has been used before in Star Trek episodes and Groundhog Day (among others), but I nevertheless found the story both engaging and entertaining throughout. In other words, the plot may be old, but it was intelligently used here, with a very clever screenplay. I’m a sci-fi fan, which is why I felt I had to see this film, and I’m always relieved when the action doesn’t get in the way of a clever story (you’ll recall I appreciated Cruise’s last sci-fi outing, Oblivion, for the same reason). I especially appreciated the slow moments between Cage and Rita and wish there had been more.

The Bad: There was far more action in Edge of Tomorrow than I could comfortably handle. Because of the film’s unique premise, I never knew where the action was going, so it didn’t bore me the way action often does, but it still felt overwhelming and like a waste of the film’s precious time.

The Ugly: I was forced to watch this in 3D because the 2D was only showing during work hours, but I assume that even in 2D the cinematography would have been ugly, the ugliness I associate with almost all made-for-3D films. 3D was supposed to be a passing fad, but some greedy person in Hollywood didn’t get the memo and so Hollywood keeps trying to force us to watch this stuff. Just a few months ago, I read that one of the popular 3D films in Winnipeg was drawing larger crowds in 2D than 3D. The response of our wonderful customer-friendly theatres: “We’ll offer 2D, but only during the day, so that the bigger film-desperate crowds will be forced to pay extra for 3D.” As one of the unfortunate victims of this policy, I will one day be forced to boycott 3D as a matter of principle and use vacation days to watch films in 2D.

The Outcome: If the action hadn’t been quite so overwhelming, Edge of Tomorrow would have gotten an easy ***+ for its acting and engrossing plot. As it is, the combination of the ugly cinematography (I at least have to punish films for this) and the action lower it to a solid ***. My mug is up.

Monday, 16 June 2014


Wow! Something unexpected; something original: One man in a car driving down a freeway (in this case, a motorway) heading into London, England, talking to one person after another on his car phone as his life falls apart around him. That’s the entire film. The only actor we see in Locke is Tom Hardy, who plays Ivan Locke, a construction manager who decides to leave his worksite on the eve of his biggest workday ever in order to be at the side of the woman giving birth to his child, even though the woman in question is not his wife and he only ever spent one night with her. As they say in England, everything goes pear-shaped in a hurry and this two-hour drive to London will be the longest drive of Locke’s life. 

As in the last one-actor film I watched (All is Lost), to make such an original idea work, you need a fantastic acting job and a brilliant tightly-written screenplay. Locke (like All is Lost) has both. I was completely sold by Hardy’s performance, right down to the allergy or cold symptoms Locke struggles with while one person after another tries to make his life miserable. Hardy deserves an oscar for this awesome work. And Steven Knight (who also directed) wrote what felt like a great play, with dialogue that not only gives us deep insight into Locke’s character but also gives us the story of a man trying desperately to do the right thing while being punished for it at every turn. In other words, Locke carries a strong emotional punch and leaves lots of thought-provoking ideas behind. Great stuff!

Unlike All is Lost, Locke did require other actors to provide voices, which also worked well. And while you wouldn’t think the cinematography would amount to much when 90% of the film is seeing Locke drive his car, it needs to be very good indeed to keep us engaged and convey the constant sense of movement. It’s flawlessly done.

Locke is not the kind of film that will appeal to a wide audience. I read in two places that it was a thriller. I’m not sure who created that lie, but I assume it was done to lure a broader demographic to the theatre. The fact is there is absolutely nothing in Locke which would qualify for the use of the word ‘thriller’. This is pure drama from start to finish. And it’s pure drama at its finest. **** for another top ten contender in what has been an excellent spring (though some of these great films were made in the UK in 2013). My mug is up.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Maleficent 3D

I do an entire one-hour film talk about Disney and the way it uses and promotes the myth of redemptive violence. One example of this is the way, since its first animated feature film (Snow White) in 1937, Disney has been killing off the irredeemable ‘baddie’ at the end of the film, usually by letting him/her fall to his/her death. Often the villain isn’t killed by the hero (sometimes the hero even tries to save him/her) but by ‘God’ or by the villain’s refusal to accept mercy from the hero, resulting in one attack too many against the hero, followed by the inevitable fall. So pervasive are these scenes in Disney films that some of us (well, at least Janelle and I) watch Disney films just to see if, by a miracle (surely the writer would get fired if such a miracle took place!), a fatal fall by the villain can be avoided. I understand last year’s Frozen avoided the fatal fall because of a song that made it impossible for the writers to kill off an irredeemable nasty baddie. If that’s what it takes, I’ll go with it, though I didn’t like the song very much and felt the plot in that animated blockbuster was rather weak. But never mind, I was talking about Maleficent.

Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent is a re-telling of Disney’s own Sleeping Beauty, an animated film from the 1950’s that gave us a very nasty villain by the name of Maleficent and turned her into a monstrous dragon at the end so that our hero (Prince Phillip) could kill her, stabbing her with his enchanted sword before she plunges to her doom. (spoiler alert) In an act of awesome and courageous originality, Maleficent gives us not only a redeemable Maleficent but makes her a well-developed character who becomes the film’s protagonist and even the film’s only real hero. Wow! As a crusader against simplistic black and white villains in films, I can only applaud this bold re-telling of Maleficent’s story. Indeed, I was so impressed by it (and by Angelina Jolie’s magnificent performance - it turns out she was perfectly cast), that I could overlook the otherwise poorly-developed characters, the flaws in the plot and even the ugly 3D cinematography (a few scenes were almost beautiful and, apart from the 3D ugliness, the film as a whole features gorgeous cinematography).

What I could not overlook, however, was the possibility that Disney would create a different villain for its revision of Sleeping Beauty and have that villain fall to his/her death at the end. I know, I know, how paranoid can you get, right? As if Disney could be so original as to make Maleficent the hero of the story and yet so incredibly unoriginal as to fall back on the same old same old falling-baddie routine at the film’s climax. Only a studio which is so completely sold on the idea that this routine is what audiences are expecting, and desiring to see, could be that appallingly stupid. Surely the many geniuses at Disney are incapable of that level of stupidity and only Janelle and I would dare to suspect otherwise. So of course our paranoia was unfounded - in your dreams!!! Unbelievable stupidity reigns!

Until the film’s climax, I enjoyed Maleficent so much more than I had expected that, in spite of an ending that made me (and Janelle, who was quietly weeping beside me) want to stand up and scream in agonized frustration , I am going to give it ***+ in the hope that one day Disney will wake up and allow originality to extend as far as changing its most hideous trademark. My mug is up.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch likes to film in cities at night. The result, even when depicting ordinary people in ordinary situations, is a magical glimpse into the unique character of each of the varying urban landscapes he chooses as his base. He is therefore the ideal filmmaker to make a film about centuries-old vampires living in Detroit and Tangier (north coast of Morocco), because we all know vampires only come out at night.

Only Lovers Left Alive is the story of Adam and Eve (played perfectly by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton), world-weary vampires who have moved beyond killing people to get the blood they need and who acquire their O-Neg through illegal but less fatal means (Adam from a doctor played by Jeffrey Wright; Eve from fellow-vampire Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt; yes he is THE Marlowe, the writer of Shakespeare’s plays, at least according to this film). Adam and Eve are lovers but Adam lives in an abandoned area of Detroit while Eve lives in Tangier (after a hundred and some years of living together, this is understandable). Adam is a brilliant musician who is tired of living in a world full of zombies (as he calls humans), the walking dead who have forgotten what life is about. When Eve senses Adam’s depression, she hops on a night-flight to Detroit to join him. Unfortunately, someone else is coming: Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a vampire who, however old she may be, still acts like a teenager. 

As in most of Jarmusch’s films, plot is secondary to character-development, style, mood and lots of Jarmusch’s trademark droll humour, so if you are looking for action or a story to follow, don’t look here. But if you are looking for a gorgeous and gorgeously-filmed, slow-moving, intelligent, haunting, melancholic and funny poem about life in the 21st century, with a great score as a bonus, this is for you. I am no fan of horror films, but obviously a Jarmusch horror film works for me, because I am giving Only Lovers Left Alive ****. My mug is up for this top-ten contender. 

Thursday, 5 June 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Spoiler alert: Do not read the following paragraph until you have watched the film (jump down to the next paragraph instead). For a less sarcastic review, read my review at Media Matters:|X-Men%3A+Days+of+Future+Past

I don’t know what the writers of X-Men: Days of Future Past were thinking, but come on: Where’s the redemptive violence at the end? Where’s the bad guy getting killed at the end (indeed, did anyone at all end up getting killed)? I mean, not only is there no satisfying demise of the baddie, it’s not even clear who the baddie really is. Is it Erik (Magneto), who does very nasty things to Logan (Wolverine)? Or is it the weapons manufacturer (Trask) who is trying to save the world from Magneto? And what’s with Raven/Mystique? Like Erik, one minute she’s ‘good’, the next she’s ‘bad’ and then ‘good’ again and then ‘bad’ again and so on. Come on, we all know that people are either purely good (our superheroes) or purely evil (the baddies). And if all that craziness isn’t enough, there is the suggestion that the world can be saved through a nonviolent action! How absurd can you get? It’s bad enough when the protagonist of Looper (another attempt to save the future through actions taking place in the past) chooses to save the world through self-sacrifice instead of directing violence at others; but to do away with violence altogether? To suggest that the ripples of one nonviolent act can transform the world, undo countless acts of violence in the future and save millions of lives ? Utter madness! Let’s get real and bring in the AK47s, without which no real improvement of the future is possible. That’s so obvious that the ending of X-Men: Days of Future Past left me numb with befuddlement. Okay, take a deep breath; I’m sure I worry for nothing and that the inevitable sequel will put all this love and nonviolence behind us and get us back into the real world, where only an act of violence can save us from evil. 

Another side to the story: Someone brought their four-year-old daughter in to watch X-Men: Days of Future Past. I don’t get it. The film has so much terrifying and horrifying violence that I would not have been able to handle watching it at age fourteen, let alone age four.  What are parents thinking? The amount of violence allowed under a PG rating is criminal and this rating does not mean that it’s okay for a child to see the film if accompanied by an adult. In my opinion, no one under thirteen should be exposed to so much violence. 

This film’s violence-related issues are likely not as simplistic as I describe them above, but they are key to both my appreciation of the film as well as a concern that is bothering me more and more (namely, our ridiculous rating system).

X-Men: Days of Future Past: A dark, violent and very entertaining story about a dystopian future in which all mutants, and all people carrying mutant genes, are hunted down and terminated by powerful, almost invincible, robots. The only thing that can save the few mutants who remain is using Kitty Pride’s mutant power to send someone’s consciousness into the past to prevent these robots from being built in the first place. That means going back to 1973, when the X-Men still looked like they do in X-Men: First Class, which takes place in 1963. This is very convenient, but it does result in a very convoluted plot, especially when you try to fit all the time-lines together. Of course, if this last effort to save the mutants is successful, all of the future (i.e. post-1973) will change and none of the previous X-Men films (except First Class) will ever have happened (a trick used in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek). 

For me, the biggest flaw of X-Men: Days of Future Past was the way the convoluted plot tried to maximize opportunities for action and violence while still maintaining an intelligent story. So much of the action felt pointless and the story and characters could have been developed much more. 

Ah well, this time around I feel inclined to overlook the above flaws and express my appreciation for the fine group of young actors X-Men: Days of Future Past has managed to attract: James McAvoy (Professor Xavier); Michael Fassbender (Erik), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven), Nicholas Hoult (Hank/Beast) and Ellen Page (Kitty); in addition to the veterans Patrick Stewart (older Xavier), Ian McKellen (older Erik) and Hugh Jackman (Logan). And of course I can’t forget Peter Dinklage as Trask. All of the acting was excellent and fun to watch.

The most remarkable thing about the cinematography is that, unlike The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I never once thought about how X-Men: Days of Future Past was made for 3D. That’s a huge compliment! The score was more than adequate, as was Bryan Singer’s direction. 

I have always liked the X-Men films much more than the Avengers films and X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best X-Men film to date. If the story had been a little more satisfying and coherent, the ending might even have persuaded me to consider giving four stars to a superhero film, which is very rare. As it is, X-Men: Days of Future Past gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.