Friday, 28 November 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


Yeah, I know, I have exceeded the allowable ‘Wow’s for 2014. But Birdman, despite leaving me ‘dazed and confused’, is such a unique amazing film that a ‘Wow’ is unavoidable.

Birdman, directed (and co-written) by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who has not made a film I didn’t love) stars Michael Keaton as Riggan, an actor whose popular role as the action hero Birdman is two decades behind him (just like Keaton’s role as Batman).  Riggan has adapted a play by Raymond Carver for Broadway and has invested everything he has in one last attempt at a comeback (he is directing and starring in the play) because he’s in the midst of an existential crisis, wondering if his life matters (or has mattered) at all.

But one crisis follows another, especially when Riggan hires Mike (Edward Norton) as a last-minute replacement for one of the play’s four roles. Mike, who is living with another one of the actors (Lesley, played by Naomi Watts), is an egotist. Meanwhile Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who works as his assistant, is not an encouraging presence in his life; and his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan) isn’t always helpful either. And then there’s his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who tells Riggan she’s pregnant on the eve of the play’s preview.

All of this could be entertaining enough even without the absolutely astonishing camerawork and flawless acting. The camera follows characters from room to room and in and out of buildings as if the film is one long shot (which it isn’t). It also dances around in a fluid way that is mesmerizing while often zooming in for some stunning close-up work that let’s the actors shine. And wow do those actors shine. I’ve always liked Keaton, but this is far and away his best performance and well-deserving of an Oscar in a year that again boasts many excellent performances. And Stone is remarkable, stealing every scene she’s in. The rest of the actors named above are not far behind. 

On top of that, you have lots of intelligent (and often funny) dialogue that satirizes our cult of celebrity, a fascinating drum score, a Raymond Carver play and even a comment about the way people prefer mindless action flicks to philosophical dramas (like this one).

But let’s come back to my use of the word ‘could’ in the beginning of the fourth paragraph. There is so much to love in this work of art (it is the work of a genius), but Deanna was correct in warning me that this unusual film is often difficult to enjoy. Birdman is clearly meant to be a thoughtful and thought-provoking film, and it is. The problem is the constant struggle to get your head around what it’s trying to say and do, a struggle that’s exacerbated by the intentional fine line between fantasy and reality. Just when you think you have it figured out, something happens to derail your assumptions.

But never mind; that just means I need to see Birdman again, as soon as possible. In the meantime, it deserves no less than **** for being such an original example of independent filmmaking at its bravest and finest. My mug is up, but I haven’t figured out exactly what kind of liquid is inside. What a year!

Saturday, 22 November 2014


Jon Stewart's first film tells a very important story and features some good actors, but it blows the opportunity to tell us more about life in Iran and it all felt a little too much like made-for-TV. A solid *** and I look forward to Stewart's next effort. For my full review of Rosewater, see:

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Before I Go to Sleep

This psychological thriller has received very mediocre reviews, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to watch Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman together again (they were great in last year’s The Railway Man), so I took a chance on this small British film.

Before I Go To Sleep starts well, developing just the right kind of grey-toned atmosphere (which focuses on the isolation of the two protagonists and their house) while immediately introducing the voice of the mysterious doctor who is supposedly trying to help Christine.

Christine (Kidman) wakes up every morning without any memory of the last twenty years of her life, an amnesia phenomenon that was caused by a traumatic event which happened a number of years before the start of the film. Every morning she needs to be told, first by her husband, Ben (Firth), and then by her doctor (played well by Mark Strong), whom she has become. Unknown to Ben, the doctor has encouraged Christine to use a camera (which she hides in a drawer) to leave messages for herself. Gradually she realizes that there are a few too many things Ben has been hiding about her past, while Ben begins to suspect Christine is not staying home as much as he would like.

It’s an interesting premise, full of potential (especially with these actors), but writer/director Rowan Joffe isn’t quite up to the task. Before I Go To Sleep soon devolves into a standard thriller with an unsatisfying ending and just a few too many plot holes. And while the performances of Firth and Kidman are more than acceptable, the actors are capable of better. Still, it was a fun bit of distraction that I will award ***. My mug is up, but don’t expect anything very exciting inside. 

Saturday, 15 November 2014


Sometimes I feel caught between my desires for films that are more thoughtful and artistic than mainstream North American films but more accessible and entertaining than highbrow European films. Ida by Polish director, Pawlikowski, is one of those that fits perfectly in between. 

It’s filmed in black and white with an artistic eye so simple and elegant (think Vermeer) that you could frame dozens of beautiful stills. The artistic side is heightened by a pacing in the scenes that allows you to sink into the moment and think deeply about what might be going on within the main character (Anna, a young novitiate nun who has grown up as an orphan in a convent). 

Now, thus far, this might sound like it tips more toward the kind of arthouse European fare that drags on mercilessly why you pretend you are moved by the sombre, existentialist themes (or fall asleep or leave the room). But in spite of the artistic eye and the gentle pacing of the scenes, the plot is fascinating and somehow manages to move on at quite a clip (though it’s true that it does this partly by large leaps during which you sometimes have to fill in the gaps with thought and imagination).

The result is a film that is moving and thought-provoking. If you enter in, you’ll have stepped into a context that is most likely different from any you have considered before. The acting is of the quality that you forget to notice they are acting. This one is in the running for one of the top couple of spots for my best movie of the year. **** and a mug up high.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014


My longer Canadian Mennonite review can be found at:


Okay, Paul is correct in saying the science doesn't work. I could tell you exactly why the science doesn't work, but even to hint at it would give away more than I should, so I will be updating this review in a few weeks, after everyone has had a chance to see the film (on an IMAX screen if possible).

And yes, I predicted the biggest plot twist about a third of the way into the film. But I have watched a few too many sci-fi films and my brain just can’t help itself. 

And sure, some of the characters needed some greater depth.

But this is what Hollywood should be doing with its millions instead of making stupid superhero films or animated films full of redemptive violence. Interstellar is the kind of grand epic that IMAX theatres were made for. Christopher Nolan has become the master of IMAX and he never uses 3D (THANK YOU, MR. NOLAN!). Instead, he uses Han Zimmer’s score and gorgeous jaw-dropping visuals to create an intense escapist entertainment that is also relatively intelligent and thought-provoking. In this case, Interstellar has both a head and a heart. 

Interstellar is set in the relatively near future, in a time when the earth (thanks to global warming) is becoming less and less able to sustain life. Is the answer, therefore, to give up on earth and find a way to relocate to another planet? Some scientists believe it is and set about trying to make that happen. But there are seemingly insurmountable problems, at least until Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murph (as an adult, played by Jessica Chastain) get involved. For now, that’s all I will say.

I have written about Nolan at length. It is no surprise that I would love Interstellar because he has never made a film I didn’t like. It’s also no surprise that Interstellar would suffer from the same problem as most of his films, namely an implausibly contrived plot. This time he has taken it to an extreme level that would not be forgivable if Interstellar wasn’t so much fun to watch (by fun, I mean intense).

McConaughey, Chastain, Anne Hathaway (as Brand, Cooper’s colleague) and Michael Caine (the genius behind it all, and Brand’s father) are all excellent, as are those playing smaller roles, like Matt Damon, John Lithgow and Ellen Burstyn. I’ve said enough about the rest - great stuff!

Interstellar has been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are certainly many similarities. But the magic of Interstellar wasn't up to the level of 2001. 2001 was also about an earth that was losing its way and about the possibilities for interstellar travel, but it didn't have the kind of "the earth is doomed" foundation that Interstellar has. It's a problematic foundation, of course. Do we put our resources into the possibility of saving this planet or escaping this planet. As much as I am enticed by the prospect of space travel, I would have to say that the former is far more sensible.

Nevertheless, Interstellar is a wonderful exhilarating experience that deserves no less than ****.

For the first time ever, I have awarded **** to ten films in a single year, and there’s still two months to go. Interstellar is the only member of the ten made by Hollywood (thanks to Nolan’s genius). What a year for film! **** My mug is up. Stay tuned for an update in a few weeks. 

Tuesday, 11 November 2014



I didn’t see Nightcrawler coming at all (having no idea what it was about), so it blew me away. An intelligent sociopath by the name of Louis Bloom drops in (to L.A.) out of nowhere (like an alien visiting earth) and uses his self-taught (online and TV) skills to turn the world into his own set of toys. We never get any background on Bloom, other than that he lives alone and has received no formal education. Frankly, I don’t want to know any more than that. It all reminded me a bit of Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive

Anyway, Bloom decides that collecting video footage from deadly accidents and crime scenes is the life for him. Fortunately for him, he runs into a TV news producer who is almost as ruthless as he is and who tells him to focus on suburban violence perpetrated by minorities, because that’s the kind of fear-mongering that will keep the rich white folks in L.A. glued to their TV screens. 

Yeah, what we’ve got here is a brilliant indictment of the news industry, the people who decide, based strictly on the bottom dollar (i.e. ratings game) what viewers get to see when they turn on the news first thing in the morning or after they get home from work (“if it bleeds, it leads!”).

To do this, writer/director Dan Gilroy (I can’t believe this is his first film!) has created an incredibly dark and cold masterpiece, built around the astonishing performance of Jake Gyllenhaal (Bloom), who deserves an Oscar for this. The screenplay is a work of genius, especially when the perfect dialogue is delivered by a flawless Gyllenhaal. Rene Russo is also terrific and terrifying as the TV producer. Even Bill Paxton, of whom I’m not a big fan, is exactly right in his role as a rival videographer. And then there’s Riz Ahmed, who is wonderful as Bloom’s assistant, and the small but vital role played by actress Michael Hyatt as Detective Fronteiri.

The late-night cinematography is gorgeous, the music is just right and the direction is as tight as it can be. Every awful scene (and they’re pretty much all awful) is a work of art. Normally, I would come down hard on a film for being as cold and dark as Nightcrawler is, complaining vociferously about its lack of heart. But sometimes a film needs this kind of cold darkness to make its point. And it makes its point very well indeed. I debated for a long time about awarding yet another **** in 2014 (especially since I know there are still a few great films to come), but it deserves no less. So **** it is. My mug is up (but remember, that is NOT a recommendation unless you can handle cold dark (and somewhat violent) films). 

Sunday, 9 November 2014


Snowpiercer is a quirky, surreal, ultra-violent post-apocalyptic nightmare. It feels European, which makes sense, since it’s an indie film and it’s filmed primarily in the Czech Republic, but it’s directed by Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong and stars an incredibly international and eclectic cast. That makes sense too, since it’s the story of humanity’s last survivors following a human-made ice age (a failed attempt to counteract global warming). Those survivors managed to find their way onto a very long train that’s hurtling nonstop around much of the frozen planet (in some self-sustaining way which includes the “eternal engine”). 

The train has different classes of people (as trains do) and those at the rear of the train (called the tail) are the lowest of the low, living off of some strange jelly manufactured by  those ahead of them on the train. These people, led by an old one-armed, one-legged man named Gilliam (played by John Hurt), are regularly subjected to head-counts and to having one or more of their children taken away without explanation. It’s a miserable life, so these folks occasionally attempt a revolt, which is a very difficult (and ultimately ineffective) thing to do on a train, especially if the higher classes have all the weapons.

When one man gets too violent in his resistance, he is subjected to a bizarre form of punishment that only such an environment could produce. The punishment is ordered by a strange woman named Mason (Tilda Swinton in an extraordinary, barely-recognizable performance). Our hero, Curtis (Chris Evans), has had enough. Encouraged by mysterious notes being passed along from a sympathizer ahead of them on the train, Curtis and his close friend Edgar (Jaimie Bell) decide, with Gilliam’s support, to lead a rebellion.

Perhaps you’re thinking I’m giving too much of the plot away. Nope. The above all happens in the first few minutes of Snowpiercer. I won’t say more about the plot, though I will say there is ample opportunity for social commentary throughout. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t think some commentary on violence might have been helpful (actually, there is some commentary on violence, but it’s basically of the “people are inherently violent; what can you do” variety). Still, the social commentary is often quite profound, if not particularly deep, giving us lots to think about and talk about. 

Among the more prominent members of the ensemble cast (who have not yet been mentioned) are: Olivia Spencer, Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, Alison Pill and Ed Harris. All of the acting is excellent, though Swinton, who is an amazing actor, stands out, and Chris Evans is the biggest surprise. I’ve seen him around (mostly as Captain America), but never thought he’d be up to the dark lead role in Snowpiercer. The claustrophobic atmosphere is brilliantly evoked, the cinematography and music are flawless, and I can see why many critics hailed the film as a masterpiece, in spite of its rather outrageous premise.

Unfortunately, critics seem to be immune to the stupidity of the violence and to the film’s assumption that people are, for the most part, pretty awful and capable of all manners of evil. I applaud the the fact that most of Snowpiercer’s characters are not black and white but various shades of grey, but I couldn’t disagree more with the cold assumption that humans are all murderers at heart. Add to that the needless graphic violence, and Snowpiercer is lucky to come away with ***+. My mug is up, but this was a lost opportunity for greatness due, once again, to a failure of the imagination.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Maps to the Stars

On the first Tuesday evening (cheap night) that Maps to the Stars played in Winnipeg, at the closest thing we have to an arthouse cinema (after the real arthouse cinema, the Globe, was closed earlier in the year), there were eight of us watching David Cronenberg’s new film. Pretty dismal numbers. Needless to say, the film was gone in a week, though it’s playing at a different theatre for another week. Clearly, Winnipeggers aren’t that keen on Canada’s most prolific, and surely among its all-time best, directors. And since I can’t think of too many people to whom I would recommend Maps to the Stars, I suppose that’s not surprising. 

For my part, I’ve always found Cronenberg’s films thought-provoking and under-appreciated, and some are excellent (my favourites include Spider, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, eXistenZ and Scanners), so I was excited to be watching a Cronenberg film months before its release in the U.S. I knew almost nothing about Maps to the Stars (as it should be), but I had seen it described as a comedy. Anyone coming to the film expecting a comedy is in for a nasty shock. Even to call it a dark comedy is misleading, though there were a few laughs and the film is clearly meant to be a satire of Hollywood. The film is strongest as a drama and has elements of horror, but I would put the film in the psychological thriller genre.

To even begin to describe the plot of Maps to the Stars is to take away one of the primary joys of watching the film, because the timing of its revelations is critical. So I will simply describe a few of the key characters in the film. We have Julianne Moore playing Havannah Sagrand, a disturbed actress who keeps seeing, and talking to, her long-dead mother (as a young woman) and wants desperately to play her mother in a new film, even if people have to die for that to happen. Then there’s Mia Wasikowska as a young woman haunted by demons of her own who has met Carrie Fisher on Twitter and, through Fisher (and yes, Fisher appears in the film), gets a job as Sagrand’s personal assistant. John Cusack plays Dr. Stafford Weiss, a TV psychotherapist who could use some serious therapy himself. Stafford’s wife, Christina, is played by Olivia Williams and she has got a few too many crosses to bear, including her 13-year-old son, Benjie (played by Evan Bird), a confused, arrogant, angry and moody child star. Robert Pattinson as a limousine-driver also has some important scenes. Throw all of these ingredients together (and yes, they do somehow connect), add a pinch of malevolent ghosts, and you’ve got an explosive concoction in the making. 

Moore’s acting is incredible, Wasikowska is always fun to watch, Cusack is remarkable at playing a (well, I won’t give it away, but he’s remarkable doing it) and Williams does very well. Bird and Pattinson, on the other hand, weren’t always convincing. The cinematography and music are excellent, the writing is intelligent, darkly amusing and, for the most part, well-constructed. Some of the scenes didn’t quite work for me, which are probably Cronenberg’s fault. 

All in all, Maps to the Stars felt as much like David Lynch as David Cronenberg (be afraid!). Yup, it’s creepy and horrifying at the same. This is dark, dark stuff, folks. Stay away! One critic (Robbie Collin) said it perfectly when he said this is “a film you want to unsee – and then see and unsee again.” This assumes one actually enjoyed the film at some level, which (I hate to admit) I did. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I am going to let it slide just over the line to ***+. My mug is up. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

TV16: Homeland, Season 3

As I was saying, the CIA is one of the greatest evils the world has ever known, so ... let’s put Mandy Patinkin’s character (Saul Berenson) in charge! In theory that might not be a bad idea, because we know that Saul (like Patinkin) is a man of tremendous integrity and surely the CIA could use a man of integrity at its helm. But in practice what this does is legitimize an organization that deserves no such legitimacy. While Saul was an underling, challenging the corruption and duplicity among the powers that be, there was an opportunity to expose and challenge the evil machinations of the CIA. That opportunity is now lost and thus Homeland is in danger of becoming a show that legitimizes the existence of an organization responsible for countless crimes against humanity.

In the third season of Homeland, Saul as CIA chief is determined to prevent a U.S. attack on Iran, suggesting that such military intervention will only make matters worse. Good stuff! I couldn’t agree more! BUT! What is Saul’s plan instead? He wants to assassinate his counterpart in Iranian intelligence, a man who has been working to undermine talks which could lead to an improved relationship between Iran and the U.S. (something the CIA would never do!!!). Well, at least it’s consistent with typical CIA strategy to assassinate foreign leaders. Bad stuff!

I promised to keep an eye on Homeland, so this is my update on season three. The acting remains at the highest level TV has ever produced. The writing remains intelligent and tight. Production values are top-notch. But the overall plot is going downhill and we know where that takes us. I’ll probably watch at least one more season of this show to see if the slide continues, but if it does, I’m getting out.

Kill the Messenger

Finding time to write reviews has been a major challenge of late, but expect a flurry of reviews between now and the end of the year.

I watched Kill the Messenger a week ago. It tells the incredibly vital and horrific true story of Gary Webb, an investigative journalist in San Jose, California who uncovers the story of the CIA selling cocaine in the poorest parts of Los Angeles to finance the sending of weapons to the Contras during their war in Nicaragua in the 1980’s. Webb becomes an instant celebrity until the CIA gets their ‘controversializing’ machine in gear to discredit Webb and make him look like a lunatic. Like many who try to challenge the CIA, Webb ends up committing suicide by putting two bullets into his head (quite the trick). 

Kill the Messenger was directed by Michael Cuesta, a television director who needs more experience in feature films to tell this kind of story in a compelling way. In other words, it felt like a TV movie instead of what it could have been in more experienced hands. The writer, Peter Landesman, is also relatively inexperienced, which may not have helped. In surer hands, this story could have been far more intense as well as more scathing in its exposure and its relevance for today. On the positive side, Cuesta got a great nuanced performance out of Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb, and the rest of the acting was solid enough.

The CIA is one of the greatest evils the world has ever known and we can’t get enough films that expose its heinous crimes against humanity. Because of that, I am giving Kill the Messenger, an otherwise average film, ***+. My mug is up.