Sunday, 29 November 2015

TV30: The Wire



Speaking of brilliant police shows, let’s not forget The Wire, one of the most extraordinary shows in TV history and one of the best. It’s another HBO show and it’s created by David Simon. The Wire’s five seasons (2002 - 2008) each highlight one facet of life in Baltimore: the drug trade, the seaport system, the city government, the school system and the print news media. The Wire has a huge ensemble cast, highlighted by Dominic West as detective Jimmy McNulty, Wendell Pierce as detective ’Bunk’ Moreland, Sonja John as detective ‘Kima’ Greggs and Lance Reddick as Lt. Cedric Daniels. But there are many many more, most of whom are not police officers. All of the acting is excellent.

What makes The Wire unique are the remarkable realism of the show (including distinct language), the incredible intelligent writing and the accurate and sympathetic social and political commentary. By the end, you get a fair idea about what life is like in Baltimore. It’s not a pretty picture. 

The first season of The Wire, about the drug trade, was my least favourite, though it contained one of my favourite scenes in the history of television (featured in the photo above).

The Wire isn’t the easiest of shows to get into, due to its slow style, difficult language and complex plots, but this is television at its finest, so it gets my highest recommendation for those who can handle raw crime dramas like this. ****. My mug is up.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

TV29: Justified



Timothy Olyphant stars as Raylon Givens, a U.S. Marshall who grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky and ends up back there after he shoots a mob hitman while stationed in Miami (he has a bit of an Old West style - even wearing the hat to prove it). Now stationed in Lexington, whose jurisdiction includes Harlan, Givens needs to deal with the bizarre criminal underworld in the Appalachian Mountains where he grew up, including a father (Arlo, played by Raymond J. Barry) for whom no love is lost and former schoolmates like Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Then there’s his ex-wife, Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea) and Givens’ very patient but often frustrated boss, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), who have to put up with a man who does things his own way, regardless of the rules.

Justified, created by Graham Yost, is a Southern Gothic show, which has a unique appeal of its own, and this show is very well-made, with excellent cinematography, clever writing (the dialogue is often exceptional) and some very fine acting all around, with Goggins and Searcy standing out. But it’s Olyphant’s sensitive pitch-perfect performance as the flawed but sympathetic protagonist that makes me come back season after season (I’ve watched the first four seasons out of six; the show ran from 2010 - 2015). 

Justified is dark and violent television, so I don’t recommend it to everyone, but it’s certainly one of the better police shows I have seen. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Spotlight



With its subject matter (investigative journalism) and the incredible acclaim from critics, I went into Spotlight with dangerously high expectations. While I didn’t come away disappointed, Spotlight won’t be my favourite film of the year (which might be because of those expectations - sigh).

Yet another based-on-true-events film, Spotlight tells the story (spoiler alert?) of a group of investigative journalists working for the Boston Globe in 2001 who uncover a mega-scandal in the Catholic church when they discover that more than seventy priests in Boston alone have been sexually abusing children over the past few decades. But that’s  not the scandal. The scandal is that the church hierarchy was aware of these abuses and not only covered it up, but allowed the priests to continue their work after moving them to another location. The local district attorney is also implicated for making plea deals with the church that keep the abuses confidential (i.e. covered-up). 

The story moves along in a fairly straightforward way, showing us how each of the reporters contributed to the exposé, but the intelligent and gripping screenplay is well-written and well-paced and Tom McCarthy’s direction is quiet and tight. I particularly appreciated the avoidance of sensationalism and also the way the filmmakers avoided demonizing the men responsible, even showing some of their positive attributes. The cinematography and score are not extraordinary, but do the job. 

The ensemble cast is terrific, with Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James as the reporters, Liev Schreiber as the editor, John Slattery as the boss and Stanley Tucci as a lawyer who helps them. Schreiber stood out, surprising me with his nuanced and understated performance as the person who pointed the Spotlight team to this investigation. Noteworthy are the physical characteristics displayed by the actors in their portrayals, providing insight into each of the characters, though one complaint I have is that we see too little of the characters’ home lives.

I very much appreciated the inspiring way investigative journalism was presented in Spotlight, I loved all of the characters in the office (all good people trying to do something vital) and I loved the way the film ended. I have already praised the film’s quiet intelligence, though I can’t help thinking a little more passion might have been a good thing. 

Spotlight is a suspenseful and important film which gets an easy **** and will surely make my top ten films of 2015. My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2



So sad.

I had hoped that somehow the final film of the Hunger Games cycle would find the kind of resolution that would ultimately make the four Hunger Games films worth watching. After all, I had heard a professor at the Wild Goose Festival speak enthusiastically about the value of the books (which I haven’t read). Alas, it was not to be. 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 was in most ways the worst of the four films. Its entire plot can be summarized in four words: ‘rebels attack the Capitol’. Sure, there’s a subplot about Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) deciding it’s her personal mission to kill the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) regardless of what President Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of the rebels, wants her to do, and another subplot about Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), but this final film is focused on action (on the rebels attacking the Capitol). And when the plot twists finally come, they are entirely predictable.

There are some interesting conversations along the way, mostly in the first few minutes and the last few minutes of the film. A number of those conversations seem to question whether the ends ever justify the means (is it better to kill a few so that a great many more might be saved?), and there’s a strong anti-killing theme. When Katniss questions military actions that endanger the lives of civilians, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) tells her that no one who supports the Capitol is innocent. Katniss is not persuaded and replies that this line of reasoning would justify even the Hunger Games themselves. I won’t give away the end, but again we have Katniss in a conversation which suggests the ends can never justify the means. Not long after that conversation, we have the film’s final message: “Well, actually, good ends can sometimes justify violent (lethal) means,” thus undoing any positive messages that preceded it. So sad.

Readers of the books can argue that none of the violence was meant to be seen as the best way and that Katniss will suffer trauma for every life she took, but that doesn’t explain the underlying message of the books’ conclusion or the fact that the film clearly supports the final violence of the film as the best way forward. So sad.

The first two Hunger Games films at least had a variety of allegorical references that criticized the wealthy nations of our world which exploit the poor or which criticized reality TV or which criticized the use of violence as entertainment. But there’s precious little social commentary in Mockingjay, Part 2. And given the amount of PG violence in this film, which is clearly meant to entertain at some level, the criticism of the first film seems rather hypocritical. So sad.

At least it wasn’t 3D and the cinematography and score were diverting. Sadly, like Part 1, Mockingjay, Part 2 gets only **+. My mug is down.

NOTE: I’m writing a longer review for the Canadian Mennonite and will post the link when that’s available. Here it is: http://www.canadianmennonite.org/stories/any-price-victory

However, Canadian Mennonite decided to edit out the following two sentences, which concluded my review. I consider them important enough to add here: The Hunger Games films could have inspired young adults to dedicate their lives to taking action against poverty, war, climate change, racism, consumerism, etc. Instead, they have become an example of the very conformity they set out to confront, providing simplistic and formulaic violence-based entertainment that takes few risks. 

Monday, 23 November 2015

TV28: Battlestar Galactica



Note: I like to limit the photos I use on this blog to scenes from the film or show, but this photo is just too good to pass up.

While many sci-fi TV shows have an ongoing storyline, there are few I have seen that I would consider pure serials. The best of those, in my opinion, and one of the very best shows in the history of television, is the new Battlestar Galactica which aired from 2004 - 2009. 

The Cylons, in their second war against the humans who created them, have destroyed all twelve human colonies (on twelve planets), leaving only the Battlestar Galactica to carry the last surviving humans in a search for the fabled 13th colony of Earth, while the Cylons try to hunt them down. 

The captain of the ship is Admiral William Adama (played by Edward James Olmos), but his authority is limited due to the presence of President Laura Rosen (Mary McDonnell). Other major characters include Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis), Captain Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), Number Six (Tricia Helfer) and Adama’s son, Capatain Lee ‘Apollo’ Adama (Jamie Bamber). All of the acting is good, but Olmos, Callis and Sackhoff stand out. 

Battlestar Galactica, made for the Sci-Fi Channel, has the highest production values, though I am not a fan of the style it uses for its space cinematography, however much it adds to the show’s strengths. Those strengths include intelligent thought-provoking writing throughout, often featuring moral dilemmas and full of religious, philosophical and political discussions that are as relevant for our time as for the distant future (indeed, it is, like Star Trek, a commentary on our time). If that’s not wonderful enough (for someone like me), this dark, raw, terrifying, intense and haunting show is as gripping as TV gets (making Star Trek, which I love, often feel like a children’s program in comparison). The best episodes left us utterly drained and I don’t recommend watching more than two or three episodes at a time. This is brilliant television that should not be missed by anyone who can handle its intensity, and, yes, its violence, which I never found gratuitous. 

Battlestar Galactica gets a very easy ****. My mug is up.


Sunday, 22 November 2015

TV27: Scandinavian Noir 4: The Bridge, Salamander, The Fall


Since I'm reviewing TV serials, it's time to catch up on some thrillers from the other side of the ocean. Only the first is from Scandinavia, but both of the others owe a lot (possibly their existence) to Scandinavian Noir and I consider them to be part of the same genre.


The Bridge

The title of this excellent, pure-Scandinavian-Noir police drama, created and written by Hans Rosenfeldt, refers to the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden. When a body is found on the middle of the bridge, local police from both countries are called in and Danish inspector Martin Rohde must work together with his Swedish counterpart, Saga Noren, to find the killer.

Rohde and Noren are unique, flawed and fascinating characters, making for an interesting working relationship. The well-developed characters are played to perfection by Kim Bodnia and Sofia Helin. Helin’s role is particularly challenging as Noren suffers from some form of autistic spectrum disorder, with poor social skills and a lack of empathy, though she is trying to learn. Rhode, meanwhile, has his own challenges, focusing on his family relationships.

There’s lots of drama in The Bridge, but also lots of suspense. The writing is intelligent and the cinematography is excellent. I didn’t enjoy The Bridge as much as The Killing, finding it especially difficult to relate to and appreciate Noren, though I do find her fascinating. I also didn’t enjoy the second season (2013) as much as the first (2011). But in the end, I am still inclined to award The Bridge ****, though just barely. My mug is up.


Salamander (2012)

Moving south to Brussels, we have yet another fascinating police inspector, Paul Gerardi, who cannot be bribed as he investigates an odd bank robbery leading him to a secret organization known as Salamander, which includes some of the country’s highest-ranking political and business leaders. With both the criminals and the authorities after him, Gerardi has an almost impossible task ahead just to stay alive.

Salamander, created and written by Ward Hulselmans, has an intriguing premise that is particularly appealing to me, and I really enjoyed Filip Peeters in the lead role. But I did not appreciate the graphic violence and found many of the plot twists too predictable. So Salamander only gets ***+. My mug is up.


The Fall

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m generally not a fan of films or TV shows about serial killers (though Scandinavian Noir is an exception). But Katrina alerted me to this British TV show starring Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson, a brilliant English police detective who is sent to Belfast to hunt for a serial killer. This is no ordinary police or serial killer TV show (my review is of the first two season from 2013-14).

For one thing, this is not a typical whodunit. We are introduced to the killer early on and spend a lot of time with him. He’s a bereavement counsellor named Paul Spector. We see Spector’s home life (yes, he actually has a family), his work life, his motivations and his crimes. It’s very rare to be given such a thorough look at a serial killer (not counting Dexter, of course).

Secondly, despite the suspense, The Fall (created by Alan Cubitt) is more about thoughtful drama than action. 

Jamie Dornan plays Spector and he’s terrific, as is Anderson, whose character has no shortage of flaws of her own. One of The Fall’s unique dynamics is the way the two lead characters share personality traits, specifically the ability to live two separate lives.

This is television at its darkest, but The Fall is intense, intelligent, suspenseful and very compelling viewing. A surprising **** for this British psychological thriller that owes a lot to Scandinavian Noir, of which I am a big fan. My mug is up.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

TV26: Six Feet Under



It’s time to write about the king of TV serials, my second-favourite TV show of all-time (after The West Wing): Six Feet Under, created by Alan Ball.

It’s been a long time now since I last watched this show, but I can’t wait to watch all 65 episodes (five seasons) of this HBO treasure over again. It’s the story of a dysfunctional family that runs a funeral home, making death a major theme in the series. Indeed, each episode starts with a death, someone whose funeral the family will be planning that week. Six Feet Under has an undertone of dark humour throughout, and there’s usually a ghost to talk to, but the emphasis is on thoughtful family drama, with each episode examining specific themes related to death and the meaning of life. For me, the episodes were so well-developed that I often thought I had just watched a great short film. And no television show I have ever seen offers even a fraction of the discussion-worthy content which Six Feet Under provides.

Of course, Six Feet Under would not be the great show it is if it didn’t feature such a terrific ensemble cast: Richard Jenkins as the deceased father, Frances Conroy as the mother, Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall as the two brothers at the heart of the show, Lauren Ambrose as the sister, and many more non-family members. The cinematography and music are also of the highest standard. 

There’s not much more to say except that if you haven’t yet seen Six Feet Under, put it high on your list. It’s life-affirming, humanizing and profound. ****+ is needed for this one. My mug is up and the tastiest brew can be found inside.

Friday, 20 November 2015

TV25: Last Tango in Halifax



We just finished the third season of Last Tango in Halifax, a British serial starring Derek Jacobi, Anne Reid, Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire (among others). Jacobi and Reid play Alan and Celia, a couple in their mid-seventies who had been in love as teenagers but then lost each other through bizarre circumstances. Now, after the death of Alan’s wife, they are reunited and quickly plan to marry. They both have daughters (Gillian and Caroline, played by Walker and Lancashire) with semi-functional families and major lover problems, producing an endless series of traumatic challenges. 

Last Tango in Halifax is rather melodramatic and sometimes feels way over the top in the way it creates one crisis after another for these families. But what sets Last Tango in Halifax apart are the extraordinary acting and dialogue, among the best ever seen on television. The dialogue in particular feels incredibly real, almost always sounding exactly like what I would expect these people to say in the situation in which they find themselves. This is obviously unusual, because I kept noticing it. It’s not improvised, but it feels improvised, which only great writing and acting can accomplish. 

Last Tango in Halifax is about very flawed people who make you want to pull your hair out in frustration at their self-destructive behaviour. What makes it work is that all of these flawed people are trying to help each other become better people, because, like the rest of us, they are all good people at heart who are struggling to find their way. Great stuff (and the gorgeous North England cinematography doesn’t hurt)! Last Tango in Halifax gets ****. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Spectre



Unlike its critically-acclaimed predecessor, Skyfall, the new Bond film (directed by Sam Mendes) has been getting only mediocre reviews. Since I was no big fan of Skyfall, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my expectations certainly weren’t high. As a result, I was pleasantly surprised by Spectre, which didn’t overwhelm with its action, had enough intelligent and humorous conversations and even had some positive messages. Which is not to say that Spectre is one of the best Bond films ever; it’s just very far from the worst (that would be Moonraker). 

Daniel Craig, in his fourth and final appearance as James Bond, has got his Bond persona so ingrained by now that it sometimes feels like he’s just going through the motions. For the most part, though, I like Craig as the steely-eyed unflappable Bond. This time out, Bond is working largely on his own as he follows the former M’s final instructions (to kill a man and not miss the funeral). While the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is fighting to keep MI6 alive in the wake of the development of a new surveillance/security network called CNS (Centre of National Security), led by Max Denbigh, aka C (Andrew Scott), Bond is chasing down leads to find the secret sinister super-organization known as Spectre, the organization behind so many of Bond’s trials over the years, led by arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). 

Along the way, Bond will meet Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the daughter of another arch-enemy (Mr. White). The relationship between Bond and Swann is more developed than most and includes interesting conversations on Bond’s chosen profession. Seydoux, who is an excellent actor, makes a good ‘Bond girl’. Waltz, on the other hand, while doing his usual good job, is under-utilized, with Blofeld’s words and actions being one of Spectre’s disappointments (the big clichéd scene between Bond and Blofeld made little sense to me). Indeed, the entire Spectre storyline felt anti-climactic to me, given that this is the grand conclusion to Craig’s four Bond films. Nevertheless, as usual, I loved most of the film’s exotic locations (the cinematography was outstanding), the score was good, the pace was more relaxed (it had an old-fashioned feel to it) and Ben Whishaw was back as Q (the acting as a whole was good, though I missed Judi Dench, one of the highlights of the last three films). 

So, on the whole, I quite enjoyed Spectre, not least because of its criticism of the current governmental obsessions with viewing security, surveillance and drone warfare as the way of of the future. The film even suggests that a terrorist organization might target a large city in order to get a country to increase its security levels (as if). I also appreciated Bond’s actions in the film’s climactic moments. The writing of the ending as a whole felt weak to me (no doubt because there were so many writers), but there was evidence that at least one of the writers was putting some serious thought into Bond’s ongoing development as a human being. Since I liked Spectre more than Skyfall, I am going to have to be generous and award Spectre ***+. My mug is up. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

TV24: Masters of Sex



Showtime’s Masters of Sex (created by Michelle Ashford) is, in my opinion, an attempt at creating another Mad Men and appealing to a similar audience (I’ve watched the first two seasons). Set in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, we have another show with fantastic period detail, great style and gorgeous cinematography. We also have great acting, especially from the two leads, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, and regular guest star Beau Bridges. 

Sheen and Caplan play William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneers in the study of sex (yes, this is based on true events). As one can imagine, their initial investigations were met with a lot of hostility from the medical and scientific communities and their courage and tenacity in continuing their work in the face of this hostility is central to the show. It’s a fascinating premise and Masters of Sex is intelligent, well-written and very well-made television. It’s also critically-acclaimed and popular. 

But (hope you could tell that was coming), despite all its wonderful attributes, Masters of Sex is missing something, at least for me. Unlike with Mad Men, where I couldn’t wait to watch the next episode, I have at times struggled to continue watching Masters of Sex at all, sometimes taking a break for weeks at a time. Yes, some of the episodes are fantastic and easily deserve ****, but others more or less bored me in a way that Mad Men never did. It’s just not compelling in the way I expect serial television of this calibre to be. So I can only give Masters of Sex ***+. My mug is up and I do recommend you try it out, if the subject matter (which is treated quite explicitly) is not offensive to you. 

Monday, 16 November 2015

TV23: Mad Men



Mad Men recently completed its eight-season run (I say eight in direct defiance of AMC’s silly two-part seventh season, which is just nonsense since the two parts were shown basically a year apart). Since the day I first started watching Mad Men (shortly after its initial release on DVD), I have been mystified by its pull on me (and its pull on countless millions of others). Mad Men has little suspense or the kind of gripping drama (which even Rectify has) which is typical of compelling television. And yet I’ve always been drawn to watching every episode as soon as possible, usually completing each season within a week of its release on DVD. What is this magic of Mad Men (created by Matthew Weiner)?

Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper, a brilliant advertising executive in New York City in the 1960’s. Don may be one of the best ad men (‘mad men’) out there, but he is a very troubled soul, with a mysterious and dark past and a wide variety of character flaws in the present. Watching Don sell himself as a confident businessperson who has everything while his life falls apart around him is surely one of the appeals of Mad Men, not because we enjoy watching Don fail (we don’t) but because his character is so well-drawn and Hamm’s acting so good that we develop a deep attachment to this flawed man.

While Don is clearly the central character of Mad Men, we also catch regular glimpses of his family and of the lives (at home and at work) of his colleagues in the ad firm (Sterling Cooper), making Mad Men largely an ensemble show featuring an excellent cast, including Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, Robert Morse, January Jones, Jessica Paré and many more.

The acting is superb all around, but Mad Men has it all: great writing, gorgeous cinematography, a good score when needed and an incredible sense of its time (i.e. perfect period detail). The latter is likely a key component of its draw on us, especially for those of us who were alive back in the 60’s: we feel that this is exactly what life was like in New York in the 60’s. Part of this allure is the attention Mad Men focuses on all of the social issues of the period it portrays (e.g. sexism, racism, homophobia, alcoholism, alienation, etc.). Unlike many (most?) of the other great cable TV serials, Mad Men manages to feel real and raw with virtually no bad language, sex or violence, making one question why shows like Game of Thrones (and even the early great The Sopranos) feel it is necessary to take full advantage of the freedom cable offers. 

Another example of the very best TV has ever offered, Mad Men gets an easy ****. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 15 November 2015

TV22: Treme



Let’s go back a couple of years to another slow-moving favourite that many people missed: Treme (pronounced trem-ay; don’t know why the title isn’t accented like the neighbourhood in New Orleans that gives it its name). The four seasons of Treme, which was created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, aired on HBO from 2010 to 2013. 

Set in New Orleans three months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Treme follows the lives of a number of New Orleanians as they try to put their lives back together after the traumatic event, not neglecting the political and corporate insanity which made life more difficult for those who were struggling to rebuild. The show focuses especially on musicians and contains a lot of typical New Orleans music (i.e. jazz and blues) sung by many different artists.

Treme features a marvellous ensemble cast, including Khandi Alexander, Rob Brown, Kim Dickens, India Ennenga, John Goodman, Michael Huisman, Melissa Leo, David Morse, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce and Steve Zahn.

The first season of Treme was superb (John Goodman's character and performance being a major highlight), but there was a steady if gradual decline in quality in each of the subsequent seasons. Still, Treme remains one of the best examples of cable serial TV and is definitely worth watching (language warning), especially if you're a jazz fan (I'm not much of a jazz and blues fan but still loved the music of Treme).

Treme gets ****. My mug is up.


Saturday, 14 November 2015

TV21: MANH(A)TTAN



I’ve only had a chance to see one season of MANH(A)TTAN (which premiered in 2014), but that first season was very impressive.

MANH(A)TTAN uses fictional characters to tell the story of the people stuck in the middle of nowhere (a military base in New Mexico) in 1944 whose responsibility it is to come up with a working atomic bomb. They called it The Manhattan Project to keep its purpose secret. For the families of those working on the project, it’s known simply as a ‘gadget’ that will help end the war.

The show begins with the arrival of a genius physicist named Charlie Isaaks (Ashley Zuckerman) and his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan). Charlie is assigned to one of the two teams working on the project, the one getting most of the funding and personnel and led by Col. Alden Cox (Mark Moses). The other team, struggling to work with limited means but convinced they have the only workable solution, is led by Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey). Winter’s wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), is a frustrated botanist struggling to keep her sanity in this crazy little town.

MANH(A)TTAN introduces us to many more characters whose lives are put on hold during these intense months, giving us a picture of the life of everyone in the town rather than just focusing on the work being done there. Created by Sam Shaw and directed by Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing), MANH(A)TTAN is top-notch serial television, featuring great writing, acting and cinematography and telling a fascinating story that is based on true events.

MANH(A)TTAN is not in the same league as Rectify, but it also gets **** and is definitely worth your time. My mug is up.

Friday, 13 November 2015

TV20: Rectify



In my opinion, Rectify is the slowest-moving show in the history of television. 

In my opinion, Rectify is one of the very best shows in the history of television.

The first two seasons of Rectify take place in a remarkably short period of time and very little manages to happen in that time, but WOW this is great television (yes, even better than Mad Men). 

Aden Young stars as Daniel Holden, a man who spends nineteen years on death row in Georgia before new DNA evidence forces his release. The local DA and associates remain convinced that Holden is guilty (after all, he confessed to the crime), so they start work on finding more evidence and creating plea deals. Meanwhile, Holden experiences life as a free man (in small-town Georgia) for the first time since he was eighteen. It’s not pretty, but there are people who support him, including his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), his mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), his step-brother’s wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) and his lawyer, Jon ((Luke Kirby).

Rectify was created (and the episodes frequently written) by actor Ray McKinnon. He has done something so unusual here that it feels like a new art form. It’s a meditation on life and death and spirituality and guilt and on what it means to be human. Sometimes deeply sad, sometimes funny, always haunting.

Intense (often breathtaking), thoughtful, profound, gorgeous, brilliantly-written, perfectly acted and so deliciously slow - television just doesn’t get any better than this, folks. Rectify gets an easy **** and is on my list of the top ten TV shows of all time. 


Life’s Too Short to Watch Bad TV or In Praise of Good TV



No, this essay is not a comparison of Breaking Bad and The Good Wife (both of which are examples of well-made television shows that are worth watching for the right kind of audiences). Rather, I want to address the new world of Netflix TV-binging that allows (and even encourages) people to watch an entire season of House of Cards (for example) in one sitting (House of Cards was actually designed with that in mind). 

I have repeatedly mentioned, on this blog, that I have always been a fan of primetime serials, of TV shows that tell one long story. Even before such shows became common, my family would watch for what we called the ‘big-picture’ episodes in shows like The X-Files and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And I was a huge fan of the miniseries that began in the 1970’s with Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots (though the idea was technically introduced in the UK with The Forsyte Saga in 1967). 

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy episodic TV. My all-time favourite TV show, The West Wing, is almost entirely episodic, and other favourites include episodic TV shows like Star Trek and Boston Legal. But I love the long story arcs that make me wait breathlessly for the next episode and sometimes even encourage me to sit through ten episodes back-to-back. Obviously, I am not unique in this. Decades ago, Dallas (introduced in 1978) and its spin-offs had the world in its grip and even episodic shows began teasing viewers with little pieces of longer stories, usually tossed in during the last few minutes so people would be eager to see the next episode. By the beginning of this century, you had shows like Alias, which tried to mix the long story arc with episodic stories in almost equal measure. The Good Wife, mentioned earlier, and the new Doctor Who are more recent examples, while The Blacklist (don’t waste your time) continues the tradition of episodic TV with a weekly hook at the end. And some of the very best primetime serials, like Mad Men, are able to incorporate unique themes into each episode while still telling one long story. 

But the point of this essay is that (thanks in part to Netflix, which I don’t use) more and more people are spending their evenings and weekends immersed in TV serials. Since I’m a fan of TV serials, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. But life is too short to waste time on the lesser TV serials (or bad episodic TV shows), especially when (thanks especially to made-for-cable shows) there are an increasing number of excellent TV serials out there, some of which even contribute to making the world a better place by exposing injustices and dehumanization or by helping us to empathize with others or by helping us to reflect on our own lives and encouraging us to work at becoming more humane human beings. 

People often ask me to recommend such good TV shows, which is why I started putting TV reviews on the blog. Over the next month or two I want to be more intentional in my TV recommendations, providing brief reviews of the TV serials (or semi-serials) that, for me, are worth watching, either because they are so well-made or because they tell such a compelling story or because they help me understand the lives of others and make me want to be a better person. I’m not going to provide a list of duds, because I try to stay away from them and so can’t review them (i.e. my life is definitely too short to watch bad TV just so I can condemn it). And my recommendations will by no means be exhaustive, because my life is also too short to watch all the good TV that’s out there. So stay tuned for the reviews and watch for a comprehensive list of good TV shows coming before Christmas (at which time I will invite readers to add to the list by sharing their own recommendations). 

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Truth



Truth, yet another based-on-true-events film in a year that has been flooded with such films (which has its positive and negative sides), tells the intriguing story of one of the most embarrassing failures in the history of TV journalism. The year is 2004, the U.S. is caught up in election fever, and Bush and Kerry are using TV ads to attack each other’s military records. Mary Mapes, a producer for  60 Minutes (CBS’s flagship primetime news program), has been sitting on a story for years about Bush’s limited service in the Texas National Guard in the early 70’s, including the fact that someone pulled strings to get the wealthy Bush into the Guard so he wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam. When a retired and unwell colonel offers Mapes two documents, copies of memos written by Bush’s commanding officer in 1972, in support of the above, Mapes puts a team together to investigate the big story, working closely with her friend Dan Rather, one of the most respected news anchors in U.S. history. 

(Spoiler alert, though this is a known story)

Truth makes it clear that Mapes and her team of investigators work very hard to verify the authenticity of the documents and the truth of the larger story, tracking down officers who will corroborate the story and be willing to appear on 60 minutes to share their views. At the same time, however, time constraints and Mapes’s conviction that the story is true, cause her to proceed even when some of those looking at the documents question their authenticity. Following the explosive broadcast, the internet is flooded with posts showing that the documents could not be genuine and everything starts to unravel for Mapes and Rather, eventually ending their journalistic careers.

At least one person in the audience watching the film with me thought Truth was an expose of bad leftist journalism, where preconceived ideas about political figures caused journalists to run with a story before it was verified. That one person jumped up in the middle of the theatre about 90 minutes into the film and shouted, at the top of his voice: “Oh, come on!!” before stalking out of the theatre. It was at that point in the film that it became clear that the filmmakers were in no way questioning the truth of the story about Bush, but rather how the obsession with one detail of the story (the authenticity of the documents) could be used to completely derail the larger story of Bush’s service and bring down some of the world’s leading investigative journalists. That person who left the theatre was lucky to leave when he did; he might have had a heart attack if he had watched the last few minutes of the film. For me, Truth is more truthful than the film that person was expecting.

While not a perfect film, I thought Truth did a great job of telling this true story in a compelling and authentic way. Yes, there is evident bias, no doubt because the screenplay (by James Vanderbilt, who also directed the film) was based on a book written by Mapes, but there was a convincing attempt to place some of the blame for the failures on both Mapes and Rather (who are depicted as very ‘human’) while at the same time showing how the big-picture truth can be lost in the process of defending the details. Who knows how many big stories (exposes) have never seen the light of day because of the inability to find sufficient evidence or a sufficient number of people willing to go on record (and possibly sacrificing their careers). Yes, of course evidence should be air-tight before people’s lives are ruined, but to ruin people’s careers because they report an obviously true story without fully verifying some documents is just as messed up. 

Mapes is played by Cate Blanchett, a good choice and she gives a convincing heartfelt performance. Rather is played by Robert Redford, who is much better here than in anything he’s done since All is Lost. He doesn’t really try to be Rather but that makes him even more effective. The smaller roles are all well-acted (by actors like Bruce Greenwood, Elizabeth Moss, Stacy Keach and Dennis Quaid), with a special nod to Topher Grace as Mike Smith. The cinematography is excellent and the score is good. The film’s only major flaw lies in the way its story is presented. Given its subject matter, it should have been more dynamic at appropriate times (I liked the ending), though there is something to be said for understatement. 

I have said before that in my opinion there is no more important profession in our time than investigative journalism. Truth shows us how difficult that profession is at a time when the media is owned by the powerful and money is the primary concern for news programs. This is a truth we need to hear. Truth gets a solid ***+ and may make it to my top ten. My mug is up.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Horrors of Drone Warfare: Good Kill and Homeland, Season 4

Over the past fifteen years, missile-carrying drones have become key weapons of the CIA and  the U.S. ‘war on terror’. They are frequently used to search for and kill specific ‘targets’ (i.e. suspected terrorist leaders). Just before watching the fourth season of Homeland, in which an ill-advised drone strike is central to the plot, I finally had a chance to watch Andrew Niccol’s latest film, Good Kill. It was released in May but never made it to Winnipeg (as far as I heard) and so I knew nothing about it until someone I trust (Gareth?) recommended it to me. Good Kill is entirely about the horrific use of drones by the CIA and the U.S. military.


Good Kill

Andrew Niccol consistently makes flawed films with something important to say. Since I am quick to forgive many of a film’s flaws if I think its heart is in the right place, I generally give Niccol’s films much better reviews than the average critic. His films S1mOne, In Time and The Host were generally panned by the critics, but I enjoyed all of them, appreciating them for what they were trying to say. And Gattaca and Lord of War were excellent films in spite of their flaws. And let’s not forget that Niccol wrote The Truman Show, one of my all-time favourites. 

Good Kill follows the pattern precisely, though I think it’s one of Niccol’s best. It is very well-made, with solid acting (especially Ethan Hawke as the film’s protagonist), gorgeous cinematography and a good score. The typically intelligent screenplay is often masterful, but this is where the flaws are usually the most evident. Niccol has important things to say and finds entertaining ways to say them, but he can’t always figure out how to both share those important thoughts and tell the human stories he wants to tell (The Truman Show and Gattaca are exceptions). Sometimes this is due to plausibility problems. In the case of Good Kill, the two pieces of the well-developed story just don’t come together in a fully satisfying way. 

Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, a former fighter pilot who's has become one of the very best at flying a drone from his base in Nevada, thousands of miles away from the targets he is taking out. When he hits a target cleanly, he reports a ‘good kill’ and the mission is complete. Then he drives to his suburban home in Las Vegas ("I blew away six Taliban and now I am going home to barbecue,”), showing just how out of synch drone warfare is with any sense of being in a war or killing the enemy. Egan’s wife (played by January Jones) isn’t sure Egan is really there at all (and neither is he; he wants to return to the Middle East and fly the plane himself). Egan is also struggling with the sudden involvement of the CIA, forcing him to participate in drone strikes that he finds morally questionable.

The best lines of Good Kill belong to Egan’s CO, Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood). He says things like “Don’t ask me if it’s a just war. It’s just war.” While Johns does as he’s told, he conveys the feeling that he hates drone warfare even more than Egan. 

Good Kill is what American Sniper could and should have been, the story of a soldier whose work of killing changes his life and exposes the insanity and immorality of the current war on terror. Good Kill also exposes the scary way drones can spy on anyone and everyone at any time. This quiet, thoughtful and very scary war film gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. 


Homeland, Season 4

I promised to keep you updated on Homeland’s progress, especially after season three seemed to be moving in the wrong direction. Well, while the quality of the series as a whole has been on a gradual decline since season one, season four did a good job of exposing the horrific insanity of drone warfare (like Good Kill) and (unlike American Sniper) humanizing the people on all sides (even giving the official ‘baddie’ some very thought-provoking lines about why he does what he does, while unfortunately also trying to get viewers to hate him). The progress of Homeland, from a moral point of view, remains ambiguous, so I’ll keep reporting, but for now I’ll also keep watching. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

The Forbidden Room



One of the most indescribable, outrageous and surreal films ever made, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room defies categorization and hardly qualifies as a film in any traditional sense. What it is, though, is a brilliant work of art; one that relatively few people would enjoy sitting through. Indeed, The Forbidden Room had only a single screening in Winnipeg, Guy Maddin’s home town, there were only about twenty people there, and four of them walked out after about thirty minutes. They’d had enough of Maddin’s madness. 

Having seen Maddin’s previous films, I had an inkling of what might be in store and I was riveted from the opening scene. I wouldn’t have missed a minute of this film but I did sometimes feel overwhelmed by it and can’t say that my first viewing was wholly satisfying. Still, I found parts of it hilarious, parts of it jaw-dropping, parts of it horrific, parts hugely entertaining and parts mind-numbing.

The Forbidden Room contains a series of short dream-like scenes that look like excerpts from old (often silent-era) films and follow no linear plot, though they do somehow fold into each other. Perhaps it is meant to be a dream, a voyage into Maddin’s unconscious mind. The Forbidden Room begins with a lesson on taking baths that looks like it was filmed in the 60s and moves into the bathwater to find men trapped in a submarine that’s about to explode who suddenly encounter a woodsman looking for Margot, who has been captured by wolf-men in a forest. And so it goes for 130 minutes, with one insane story after another, interrupted frequently by cards with different fonts that tell us who the actors are - sometimes recognizable actors like Charlotte Rampling or Udo Kier or Geraldine Chaplain, but mostly obscure actors.

Since very few readers will have any interest in getting on this insane ride, I won’t spend more time writing about it. If you’re a Guy Maddin fan (I should mention that technically Evan Johnson is one of the directors of the film) or a real diehard cinephile, you won’t want to miss this film (ideally, watch it on a big screen). Otherwise you can just forget you ever heard about it (I expect very few people will have a chance to see it). I’m glad I took the ride but I’m not sure if I would want to take it again. The Forbidden Room gets ***+ for the sheer genius involved in its making. My mug is up, but be wary of the dark brew inside. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Steve Jobs



Wow! (Yeah, it’s been a while)

I just watched Steve Jobs in Toronto with two friends. After the film, my friends talked about how hard it was to get into the film. They found the first thirty minutes quite boring and they found the flashbacks which occur throughout the film confusing and off-putting. They still enjoyed the film, but didn’t think it was anything special.

I experienced something entirely different in my viewing of Steve Jobs. As usual (ideally, anyway), I knew next to nothing about the film and had forgotten the little I did know (including the initial reason I couldn’t wait for the film’s release). Thanks to the way the opening credits are shown alongside the opening scenes of the film, I also managed to completely miss those.

I could not have been less bored during the first thirty minutes of Steve Jobs. I was riveted from the first few seconds on, caught up in the brilliantly-written dialogue, the fantastic score and the wonderful camera movement. 

To my embarrassment, it was not until I was nearing the end of those first thirty minutes that my mind started to process what I was watching. At that point, I was thinking: ‘Wow, this is a brilliantly-written film! It reminds me of … oh, yeah, now I remember, this IS written by Aaron Sorkin (based on the book by Walter Isaacson), my all-time favourite TV writer (who has also done well in his films). 

Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle, stars Michael Fassbender as the man behind the MacBook Pro I am currently using to write this review. Seth Rogan plays Steve Wozniack, Jobs’ friend and collaborator who created the first Apple computers and changed the future of computing. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Andy Hertzfeld, another computer developer who worked for Apple. Kate Winslet is Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ long-suffering marketing chief. Jeff Daniels is John Scully, the man who gave Jobs the chance and became the first CEO of Apple. Katherine Waterston is Chrisann Brennan, seen primarily as the mother of Jobs’ daughter Lisa. 

Steve Jobs has a unique and fascinating structure that virtually guarantees that the film takes some serious liberties with the true events upon which it is based and that this is no ordinary biopic. But, as I hinted above, I thought it was a brilliant idea: telling the story of Jobs in three acts (each taking place in a short time frame), to coincide with critical product launches in 1984, 1988 and 1998 (which is when Jobs really took off). Pieces of Jobs’ story that took place prior to 1984 or between launches are shown in flashbacks which are delicately interwoven into the dialogue (i.e. one or two lines of ‘present-day’ dialogue followed by a few seconds of flashback dialogue followed by ‘present-day’ dialogue, etc.). I can understand why some might find these flashback scenes confusing, and maybe this feature accounts for the fact that the masses don’t like Steve Jobs as much as the critics do, but I loved it. 

Steve Jobs may not be an accurate or plausible biography of Steve Jobs, but if we set aside any need for accuracy or plausibility, the film works beautifully even as a fictional account of a genius obsessed with his vision for the future who begins to realize only too late what he has missed along the way (despite the foreshadowing provided by the young Lisa). In many ways, the relationship between Jobs and his daughter forms the heart of the film. This is no doubt entirely unrealistic, but the story worked for me.

The acting in Steve Jobs is phenomenal. Fassbender, one of the best out there, conveys with his eyes every emotion Jobs is experiencing (I’m expecting an Oscar nomination). Daniels is much better here than he was in The Martian, Stuhlbarg continues to impress me, Rogen is perfectly cast and has never been better, and the almost unrecognizable Winslet is amazing as the woman who tries singlehandedly to help the demanding and often unreasonable Jobs do the right thing and become a better person. Marvellous stuff!

Does the film flag a bit as it wears on after the first act and then tack on an unbelievable Hollywood ending? Sure. Does it provide us with an intimate portrayal of the real Steve Jobs? Not a chance. Do I forgive Steve Jobs for these flaws? I do! Steve Jobs gets an easy **** and will be high in my top ten films of 2015, proving, thanks to the presence of the inimitable Aaron Sorkin, that Hollywood can still make great films. My mug is up and the brew inside is delicious. 

I’m thinking I may have to travel to Toronto to watch films. I have now watched two of my favourite five films of 2015 in Toronto (the other one was Leviathan, which I watched with Gareth in February).