Wednesday, 29 April 2015

TV18: Two HBO Updates: Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones has been one of my favourite guilty pleasures, a gorgeously made and endlessly compelling fantasy with Peter Dinklage absolutely marvellous as my favourite character, Tyrion Lannister. But season four has taken a dive; not in quality, but in its story. The fault then probably lies with George Martin, the writer of the novels. I don’t really care who’s to blame. All I know is that a number of my favourite characters, including Tyrion and two female characters, have suddenly become obsessed with revenge and violence. This just doesn’t work for me, on all kinds of levels. Is it honest? Would the characters I have come to know for three seasons become suddenly so violent, given all they have gone through? Perhaps, but not necessarily. And my hope for the series lay in the ‘not necessarily’. I don’t think I can watch Game of Thrones anymore. It makes me too sad, and then there’s all those zombies, or equivalent (I just have no use for zombies). Sigh. My mug is no longer held up.

Boardwalk Empire

The fifth and final season of Boardwalk Empire, on the other hand, was one of the best seasons in the series. The focus is on Nucky’s life, beginning with his childhood, and we all know how it’s going to end. But it doesn’t matter, because the story moves along at just the right pace and with great class, closing off the various story lines as they needed to be closed (and I suppose much of it was based on actual events). Buscemi is wonderful, and the writing, acting and cinematography are outstanding. Great television, though it won’t make my favourites list thanks to all the violence. My mug stayed up all the way through, though the third and fourth seasons were the weakest for me. 

Friday, 24 April 2015

TV17: Fargo

Noah Hawley’s Fargo is a sweet romance involving two sweet police officers: Molly (played by Alison Tolman), who also has a sweet father (Keith Carradine) and Gus (Colin Hanks), a widower with a sweet daughter. This is one sweet television show.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s not a lie, as such, but Fargo is, of course, much more than a sweet romance. And that ‘much more’ is about as far away from all that sweetness as you can get. It is, in fact, a very dark comedy with lots of almost-graphic violence. In other words, it’s very much like the Coen Brothers film from which it derives its name (though not the plot). 

Martin Freeman (yeah, Bilbo and Dr. Watson) plays Lester Nygaard, a very nasty insurance salesman in Bemidji who kills his wife with a hammer and pins it on someone else (no spoilers) in the most nasty way. Not that Lester is even one-tenth as nasty as Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a hit-man who kills and tortures people without a second thought. Each episode begins with the claim that this is a true story and is shown exactly as it happened. Do not be fooled. The real world is nowhere near this nasty (especially in Bemidji).

The real truth is that Fargo is a nasty thriller involving a couple of very nasty men. But Fargo is also brilliantly-acted, cleverly-written, beautifully quirky (darkly funny) and appropriately slow-moving. And it takes place in northern Minnesota in winter, with lots of snow (I love snow). This is television at its finest. If it wasn’t so nasty, I’d have to give it four stars. But it’s just a little too dark and violent for me to do that. So ***+ it is. My mug is up but the stuff inside is the darkest of brews and has quite a bitter bite (offset somewhat by the sweetener). 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Woman in Gold

It’s 1998. Maria Altmann (played by Helen Mirren), an older Jewish woman living in Los Angeles, loses her sister and begins reflecting on her younger years in Vienna. As a young woman, she escaped Austria just in time (in the late thirties). But much was lost to her, including a stolen painting of her aunt by Gustav Klimt which was now worth over one hundred million dollars and had been hanging in Vienna’s Belvedere museum since WWII. When Altmann hears of an art restoration project in Austria, she enlists the help of a young lawyer (Randy Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds) who also had roots in Austria, to help her recover the painting. An investigative journalist (Daniel Bruehl) in Vienna assists them, but the odds of getting the painting back seem insurmountable.

I tried hard to like Woman in Gold, which was directed by Simon Curtis. There were some wonderful scenes (Mirren is always fantastic, and our friend Erich Redman had a great short scene playing a Nazi officer). Much of the acting was very good, and I enjoyed the score. But there were too many things I didn’t like. It’s not necessarily a flaw, as opposed to a matter of taste, but I didn’t like the hyper-real style of cinematography (I never do), especially during the many flashbacks, which were otherwise a highlight. I didn’t like Reynolds (I just can’t seem to appreciate him). But my biggest problem was not being able to get into the story. I couldn’t figure out what the film was supposed to be about. Was it about Altmann? Was it about the painting? Was it about the plight of Austrian Jews in the late thirties? Was it about Austria in 1998? Was it about Schoenberg, or the relationship between Altmann and Schoenberg? Too much going on without a sense of focus for me to latch onto. Maybe more suspense or a sharper edge would have made it more compelling for me.

Then there was the distraction of having so many of the American scenes filmed in London and using British actors (or American actors living in London) to play many of the smaller roles. (e.g. Charles Dance and Jonathan Pryce, both of whom I love but felt distinctly out of place).

All in all, it’s a by-the-numbers fictionalization of an important true story. Because J&L liked it more than I did, I must give Woman in Gold at least ***. My mug is up, but the stuff inside is a little flat.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I quite enjoyed the first Marigold Hotel film, so I went to see the second in spite of the mediocre reviews it has received. With my expectations kept in check, I quite enjoyed the second film as well, though it is definitely a big step down from the first.

With most of the same actors, John Madden’s The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel continues the story of Sonny (played by Dev Patel) as he and Mrs. Donnelly (Maggie Smith) try to acquire a second hotel in Jaipur in the midst of Sonny’s wedding preparations. While Sonny was off in America, trying to secure finances, his fiancĂ©, Sunaina (Tina Desai), was taking dancing lessons with a handsome friend who seems to have all the qualities Sonny lacks. Sonny’s subsequent jealousy is one of the central stories of the film, though Sonny is also stressed about other things, like a man (Guy Chambers, played by Richard Gere) who shows up one day without a reservation and whom Sonny believes to be a hotel inspector who could impact Sonny’s future. When Guy sets his sights on Sonny’s mother, panic ensues. Meanwhile, the residents of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are each involved in their own stories, involving romance, health issues, etc.

The biggest problem with The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is that none of its many small stories really get off the ground (i.e. none of them really captured my attention). The first film, in contrast, had many stories which captured my attention. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call this film boring, its plot was nothing more than a pleasant and amusing entertainment. 

On the plus side, however, the cinematography was as gorgeous as it was in the first film, and I’m a sucker for gorgeous cinematography in exotic locations, especially at night. And then there’s the actors. It’s just so much fun to watch older masters like Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie working together. And even though the second film lacks the profundity of the first, it’s still a lot better than most of the romantic comedies out there. 

So I am giving The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ***. My mug is up. 

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Divergent Series: Insurgent

My review of Insurgent can be found at the Third Way Cafe website:

While this series continues to provide some thought-provoking ideas, the second film is a step down from the first (which was no classic). Apparently the screenplay diverges from the novel in many places, even in the central focus of Insurgent's plot. Since I am told the novel was poorly written, this is no cause for complaint, but the screenplay is the weakest part of this film, which features some of the stupidest scenes I have seen in a long time (in fairness, I generally stay away from silly action films aimed at the young). Insurgent gets **+. My mug is down.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015


Disney’s latest fairytale, which is raking it in at the box office (so you just know that lots more are coming) is a live action version of their animated Cinderella. Directed by Kenneth Branagh (that’s impressive), it stars Lily James (Downton Abbey) as Cinderella, Cate Blanchett (always a good choice) as her stepmother, Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as the Prince, Derek Jacobi (always a good choice) as the king, Stellan Skarsgard (odd casting choice but I like him) as the Grand Duke and Helena Bonham Carter (perfectly cast) as the ditzy fairy godmother. In other words, Disney found some very good actors and a very good director to make their perfectly good film, with everyone doing a very good job (including the cinematographer, the composer, the costume designer and the set designer).

And the story that Disney chose to tell is remarkably harmless. It is truly a film you can show to children of any age, with not so much as a hint of redemptive violence or ‘pain’ (a rare thing indeed for Disney films made this century). And the changes Disney made to its story (from its animated source) are often attempts at character development and humanization. That’s a very good thing indeed, though it makes one wish for more of that. And this version focuses on having courage and being kind. Nothing wrong with that. Otherwise, Cinderella tells the Cinderella story as simply and traditionally as one could imagine.

Alas, Cinderella’s biggest flaw is precisely that it has no surprises. Unlike Ever After, there are few attempts to bring 21st-century sensibilities (e.g. feminism) to the 1950 animated story. This is not a romantic comedy using a familiar story to challenge tradition. The result is that Cinderella is a little boring. And yet … And yet it could have been so much worse. And yet it had one marvellous scene after another between the king and prince. And yet the credits were an added thrill, with Lily James and Helena Bonham Carter treating us to songs from the animated version. And yet Cate Blanchett was having so much fun. And yet, I must repeat, the film is utterly harmless. All of these ‘and yets’ need to be rewarded. So I am giving Cinderella ***+. My mug is up. Take your kids without fear.