Thursday, 24 December 2015

TV40: Summary of TV serials worth watching



As promised, here is my summary of hour-long TV serial television worth watching. Since The West Wing, very few episodic TV shows have held my attention, so the shows below represent at least 95% of the TV shows I have seen that I consider worth watching. 

I begin with a list of my thirty favourite television serials, in order. The numbers in parentheses refer to the blog post carrying my review of the show (the numbers are preceded by TV; e.g. my review of Six Feet Under is found in blog post TV26). It is no surprise that all thirty of these shows are either European or made-for-cable-TV. That means that most of these shows contain language, sex and/or violence that might offend some viewers. I have noted some exceptions to this with the letter G in parentheses. 

In the spirit of Gareth’s recents comments about the fact that good films are those that help us become better people or help make the world a better place, I have also noted, with an asterisk, those TV shows that are, for me, most worthwhile in that regard, recognizing that to some extent all good television shows, like those below, work at humanization.

Below the first list, I have also included alphabetical lists of other serials worth watching as well as a list of shows (in order of how much I like them) that don’t qualify as serials but have strong ongoing story arcs (e.g. LOST). Perhaps someday I will review these as well. For now, I will focus again on reviewing films, with the odd TV update.

There are, of course, many TV serials I have not had the time to watch. I am currently watching Orange is the New Black, The Returned (French version) and The Knick (yes, I am one of those crazy people that always has three TV serials and three novels on the go at the same time - makes me feel more productive). All of those shows look promising. Among the cable or European serials I am planning to watch in the near future are: Better Call SaulOrphan Black, The 100, White Collar and Spiral. Network serials I would like to watch someday include: Friday Night Lights, Extant, Parenthood and Everwood.

If you have other TV serials to recommend which are not listed on this post, please do so (but don’t suggest The Walking Dead - I don’t do zombies).
  1. Six Feet Under (26) *
  2. Rectify (20) *
  3. Mad Men (23) (G)
  4. Spooks (MI5) (6)
  5. Battlestar Galactica (28)
  6. Downton Abbey (10) (G) *
  7. Borgen (14) *
  8. The Killing (Danish) (8)
  9. Dexter (1 & 11) 
  10. Homeland (6 & 16)
  11. Game of Thrones (12 & 18)
  12. The Newsroom (3) (G) *
  13. True Detective (Season One) (13)
  14. The Hour (3) 
  15. Twin Peaks (32) (G)
  16. The Sopranos (7)
  17. Deadwood (1)
  18. Broadchurch (10)
  19. Treme (22) *
  20. ReGenesis (36)
  21. The Wire (30) *
  22. Fargo (17) 
  23. MANH(A)TTAN (21) (G)
  24. Fall, The (27)
  25. Carnivàle (32) 
  26. Breaking Bad (5 & 11) 
  27. Boardwalk Empire (7) 
  28. Last Tango in Halifax (25) (G) *
  29. House of Cards (7) 
  30. Luck (2) 
Dramas

The Affair (33) 
Big Love (31)
Brothers & Sisters (34)
Desperate Housewives (34)
Huff (39)
The Leftovers (33)
Masters of Sex (24)
The Tudors (36)
What About Brian (34)

Thrillers

The Americans (39)
Boss (7)
The Bridge (27)
Brotherhood (35)
Damages (39)
Durham County (36)
Fortitude (38)
Justified (29)
The Killing (U.S.) (8)
Magic City (35)
Murder One (Season One) (34)
Prison Break (34)
Ray Donovan (35)
Salamander (27)

Science Fiction

Caprica (39)
Dollhouse (34)
Invasion (34)
Jericho (34)
Odyssey 5 (36)

Good episodic TV shows with strong ongoing story arcs:
  1. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
  2. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
  3. Pushing Daisies
  4. Eli Stone
  5. Babylon 5
  6. LOST
  7. The Good Wife
  8. Doctor Who
  9. John from Cincinnati
  10. Wonderfalls
  11. Fringe
  12. Alias
  13. Ripper Street
  14. Silk

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens



Despite the critical acclaim it has received (even from trusted friends), I went into Star Wars: The Force Awakens with only one thought: “I have a bad feeling about this.” So it would not be accurate to say that I went away disappointed. But it would be accurate to say that I consider J.J. Abrams' version of Star Wars a major disappointment. 

You have to understand that in spite of all the flaws in the original Star Wars film (e.g. some wooden acting and inane dialogue) I loved that film so much that on the day I first saw it, I went to the noon screening and stayed in the theatre for all four screenings. It was utter magic for me, especially the first half of the film with Alec Guinness, who was wonderful. It was the perfect epic adventure and the perfect enactment of Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey at exactly the point in time (I was a very young man) that I needed it. It was also gorgeous to watch and an absolute delight to listen to (i.e. John Williams’ score). I have seen that Star Wars film about 35 times and it remains my second-favourite film of all time.

While, unlike the critics, I didn’t like The Empire Strikes Back as much as the first film, it did have Yoda and Dagobah, which were also magical. Things generally went downhill from there as far as Star Wars films were concerned, though I have a soft spot for Revenge of the Sith. But knowing that Abrams was also a big fan of the original film, I did have hope that maybe he could inject some real class into Lukas’s brilliant concepts. Sigh.

Note: Rather than write a vague spoiler-free review and then come back to the review a month from now, I decided to write this review with some details that would qualify as minor spoilers (number 4 on the second list below might even be called a major spoiler, but we all knew it was going to happen, which is one of the film's many flaws). So if you have not yet watched The Force Awakens, you may want to stop reading at this point and come back later.

So, what I liked about The Force Awakens: 1) the fact that the hero was a mysterious young woman this time and that she’s more skilled than Luke; 2) the overall acting quality (esp. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Harrison Ford and Adam Driver),which was the best of the entire series; 3) the overall dialogue, also the best of the series; 4) the character of Maz; 5) Harrison Ford (and Han and Chewbacca); 6) Max von Sydow’s cameo; 7) some of the Kylo Ren character; 8) BB-8; 9) the way Finn refused to shoot and the way his character develops; 10) the last thing Han Solo does in the film; 11) the return to the feel of the original film.

What I didn’t like about The Force Awakens: 1) the endless violent action, with much more shooting than in any of the previous films; 2) the incredible lack of originality in the plot, as if we needed to watch the same film again; 3) the First Order Nazis; 4) the much greater sense of incredulity at the way a handful of resistance fighter planes and the three-person crew of the Millennium Falcon could, with almost no time to plan or act, bring down the greatest technological achievement ever created, which should not have had a weak spot or should have been defended by a fleet of thousands of ships, because any power that can produce the weapon should have no trouble amassing such a fleet; 5) the clever nods to the original film that weren’t so clever (e.g. the garbage compactor? Really?); 6) the way Finn had no trouble shooting as long as it was for the good guys; 7) the fact that a strong lead role for a woman has to come with the ability to be as violent as any man; 8) the general lack of magic, which only the first two Star Wars films (IV & V) possessed; 9) the lacklustre cinematography (probably caused by making it for 3D) and score; 10) did I mention the endless shooting?

The bottom line is that, thanks to that overwhelming violent action (AGAIN!!!), I found The Force Awakens mostly boring instead of entertaining and kept waiting for the magic moments that never came (the encounter between Maz and Rey came closest but was far too brief). The last scene involving Han Solo had a different kind of magic, and was the best thing in the film for me. So, again I must say sorry to Gareth (whose reflections on this film I mostly agree with, but with a different overall result) and to all my friends who loved this film. I had hoped for much more and don’t think I can give The Force Awakens more than a solid ***. My mug is up. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

TV39: Four more cable serials to consider: Caprica, Huff, Damages, The Americans


The last of my serial reviews (for now), these four all get ***+ and are listed in the order in which I enjoyed them:


Caprica (2010)

A prequel to Battlestar Galactica that shows how the Cylons came to be created, Caprica doesn’t have the quality of BG but is still very stylish and entertaining sci-fi TV and not to be missed if you’re a BG fan (as I am). Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), a wealthy scientist, and Joseph Adama (Esai Morales), a civil rights lawyer lose their daughters in a bombing  and Daniel thinks he can bring them back. Created by Remi Aubuchon and Ronald D. Moore for SyFy. 


Huff (2004 - 2006)

Hank Azaria stars as Dr. Craig “Huff” Huffstodt, a psychiatrist in L.A. whose life takes a dramatic turn after one of his clients commits suicide in his office. Paget Brewster plays Huff’s wife, Beth, Oliver Platt plays his close friend, Russell and Blythe Danner is great as Huff’s mother, Izzy. Created by Bob Lowry for Showtime.


Damages (2007 - 2012)

Glenn Close is perfect as Patti Hewes, a brilliant but ruthless lawyer in New York City whose newest protégée, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), may be more than she can handle. A legal serial featuring stellar acting and intelligent writing throughout, this should have been a favourite, but Damages is just too dark and twisted for me, with a lack of sympathetic characters and a feeling that it’s sometimes ‘too-clever-for-its-own-good’. Created by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman for FX. 


The Americans (2013 - )

A spy serial drama set in the early 1908’s certainly sounded like an intriguing premise to me. And Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys do a very fine job playing the two KGB spies who have been living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. for fifteen years, ‘pretending’ to me a married couple (with two kids) who run a travel agency. But the first season has been somewhat disappointing, with an uncalled-for formulaic episodic feel, too much emphasis on action and screenplays that are too predictable and not as intelligent as they could be (though it is compelling). Created by Joe Weinberg for FX. 

TV38: Scandinavian Noir 5: Fortitude



Fortitude  (2015 - ) is set in one of the most beautiful places on Earth: an island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean (though the show was shot in Iceland). Not only is this island beautiful, but its biggest town (pop. 713), Fortitude, is the safest place on the planet, where everyone has a job, everyone is happy, and everyone lives in harmony, giving the police absolutely nothing to do. At least that’s what the island’s governor says to potential investors for the glacier hotel she would like to build. 

And maybe the governor (played by Sofie Gråbøl from The Killing) even believes her sales pitch, but, if so, she doesn’t believe it for long. Indeed, it would be safe to say that we soon discover that Fortitude is actually one of the most dangerous and violent towns on the planet.

Fortitude is Scandinavian Noir meets Twin Peaks meets The X-Files. This show is extremely dark, bloody and gruesome television. You might think it could be fascinating to watch a TV show set in the Arctic, especially if it features such gorgeous landscapes at every turn. I did. But let this be a warning to you: STAY FAR AWAY!!!!

Unless, that is, you’re as crazy as I am and think you have the fortitude to make it through a 12-episode season of the bleakest, bloodiest and most depressing TV you can find. In that case, by all means read on.

While Fortitude is officially a Norwegian town, its inhabitants come from various countries, including the UK (this is actually a British cable series). And when The Metropolitan Police in London get a call from Henry Tyson, an old Brit (played by Michael Gambon) in Fortitude, saying that the sheriff of Fortitude has committed two murders, they even send an American into the mix (DCI Morton, played by StanleyTucci) to see what’s going on in this peaceful town. Morton is as cool as they come and you can tell that nothing could ever phase him. But he should have stayed home. Everyone should have stayed home, especially the sheriff (Richard Dormer), who will soon regret ever setting foot in Fortitude. 

Very early in the first episode, after we see Tyson shoot a man who is being mauled by a polar bear and then watch a series of disconnected scenes, with more violence being hinted at (there will soon be a particularly gruesome and unexplainable murder), and especially when I saw two men discover a 30,000-year-old mammoth carcass uncovered by a retreating glacier, I had this feeling I was watching, not a Scandinavian Noir murder mystery, but The Thing. I was definitely on the right track, though I wouldn’t admit it if it wasn’t misleading. The cryptic disconnected scenes were among my biggest frustrations with Fortitude. You could call it careful horror-show pacing, but there was a lack of flow or continuity that in some cases never gets explained (it gets better as it goes along). 

The lack of sympathetic characters also doesn’t help. Morton seems to be the focus at points, and he’s quite sympathetic, but Tucci plays him in an odd way, as if he’s trying to create the kind of singularly odd cop that Kyle MacLachlan plays in Twin Peaks. Didn’t really work for me, but in general I found the acting quite good for television. Oh, did I forget to mention that Christopher Eccleston is in Fortitude? Enough said.

It’s hard to imagine what they’ll do in Fortitude in the second season and it’s hard to imagine wanting to see it, but I obviously found the first season compelling enough, because I watched it in six days. I’m going to give Fortitude a solid ***. My mug is up, but unless you have a strong stomach, you don’t even want to think about it. 

Monday, 21 December 2015

TV37: Cable comedy-drama serials worth a look: The United States of Tara, Enlightened, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, Girls


These five quirky half-hour cable comedy-drama (more drama than comedy and the comedy tends to be dark) serials all feature women in the lead roles and all are worth watching if the subject matter is of interest and the shows are not too offensive for you. They all get ***+. In order of how much I like them:


United States of Tara (2009 - 2011)

Toni Collette stars, and is amazing, as Tara, a wife and mother of two in suburban Kansas who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, which means that under stress she can instantly transition to another personality, even one that is male. Scary stuff, and it gets pretty dark. Created by Diablo Cody for Showtime, United States of Tara can be a little over-the-top.


Enlightened (2011 - 2013)

Laura Dern stars as Amy, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown who leaves her executive position and spends a month in a holistic treatment centre. Upon her return, she tries to put her life back together, though no one wants to believe she has changed. Eventually she decides to bring down the corrupt business she works for. Created by Laura Dern and Mike White for HBO, Enlightened can be uncomfortable to watch and isn’t as enlightening as the title suggests, but this lesser-known show may be the best of the five.


Weeds (2005 - 2012)

Mary-Louise Parker stars, and is wonderful, as Nancy Botwin, a typical single mother of two in a Los Angeles suburb, except that she makes her living selling marijuana and running from the law. This dark satire created by Jenji Kohan for Showtime can get violent, and some of the plot lines are way out there.


Nurse Jackie (2009 - 2015)

In another dark satire from Showtime, Edie Falco stars as Jackie Peyton, an emergency nurse at All Saints Hospital in New York City. Jackie has all kinds of problems, not least of which is her addiction to pain meds to help her through her life. The comedy can get a little depressing in Nurse Jackie. Created by Liz Brixius, Evan Dunsky and Linda Wallem.


Girls (2012 - )

Lena Dunham created Girls for HBO and she stars as Hannah, a young aspiring writer trying to survive in Brooklyn. This very raw and graphic comedy-drama is based partly on Dunham’s life and so has a realistic edge not found in the other series. Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to relate or feel sympathy for the characters and situations.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

TV36: Canadian cable serials worth watching: ReGenesis, The Tudors, Durham County, Odyssey 5


Canada hasn’t made a lot of great cable dramas, but these four are definitely worth a look, though only the first (ReGenesis) gets ****. The others get ***+. In order of how much I liked them:


ReGenesis (2004 - 2008)

This original, intriguing and often thought-provoking (especially in terms of ethical questions) series is hard to find but worth watching just to see what a purely Canadian show can accomplish. Created by Avrum Jacobson for The Movie Network and Movie Central, ReGenesis stars Peter Outerbridge, who is very good here, as David Sandström, the head (and chief scientist) of NorBAC (North American Biotechnology Advisory Commission), a fictional organization investigating scientific anomalies related to things like bio-terrorism, diseases and environmental changes. The good ensemble cast includes Ellen Page as Sandström’s teenage daughter.


The Tudors (2007 - 2010)

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays King Henry VIII in this historical drama created by Michael Hirst. It’s gorgeously filmed and very entertaining, but the writing and acting are uneven, resulting in some lesser and often shallow storylines. The solid ensemble cast includes Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsely, Jeremy Northam as Thomas More, James Frain as Thomas Cromwell and Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn. 


Durham County (2007 - 2010)

Hugh Dillon stars as Mike Sweeney, a homicide detective from Toronto who moves his family to suburban Durham County after his partner was killed only to discover that his new neighbour may be a serial killer. This very stylish atmospheric thriller focuses on the psychological trauma left behind after a serial killer’s work and is much more about character development than police work, which is a good thing. While I found the show compelling, the storyline isn’t my thing. Created by Janis Lundman, Adrienne Mitchell and Laurie Finstad Knizhnik for The Movie Network and Movie Central. 


Odyssey 5 (2002)

This time-travel sci-fi series was created by Manny Coto for the Space channel. Five astronauts on a space shuttle observe the complete destruction of Earth but are rescued by an inorganic being who sends them back five years into the past to prevent the disaster from occurring. Time travel is a very tricky and inherently implausible subject, so the show doesn’t always satisfy, but it’s an intriguing premise. Peter Weller leads the ensemble cast as the shuttle’s commander, Chuck Taggart. 

Saturday, 19 December 2015

TV35: Cable crime serials worth watching: Ray Donovan, Brotherhood, Magic City


These three crime dramas are for those who miss The Sopranos, to which all of these serials can be compared (though none is as good as The Sopranos). While each of these shows gets only ***+ (that’s all I gave The Sopranos as well), the first two are better than all of the network serials mentioned in my last review. Indeed, the primary reason the first two series get only ***+ is because they are crime dramas and such shows just don’t sit well with me. In order of how much I like them:


Ray Donovan (first season) (2013 - )

Liev Schreiber is terrific as Ray Donovan, a ‘fixer’ who grew up in South Boston and now takes care of problems for people in L.A. who have lots of money. But can he fix his own problems when his father, Mickey (Jon Voight), gets out of prison after twenty years and moves to L.A.?. While Ray doesn’t know that his father is working with the FBI to get him, he does know that he hates his father and doesn’t want him near his family. Meanwhile, Ray’s three brothers (Terry - Eddie Marsan; ‘Bunchy’ - Dash Mihok; Daryll - Pooch Hall) are dealing with problems of their own, and Ray’s wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson) is increasingly unhappy with Ray’s lifestyle. Created by Ann Biderman, this Showtime drama is full of deeply-drawn eccentric characters, intelligent writing and brilliant acting (Schreiber, Voight and Marsan are exceptional). The biggest problems I have with Ray Donovan are: Mickey, who comes across as one of the nastiest people on the planet; the relentless violence (though at least it’s a slow-paced show); and the overall darkness of the story.


Brotherhood (2006 - 2008)

Another Showtime crime drama about an Irish family from New England, Brotherhood, created (and written) by Blake Masters, tells the story of the Irish-American Caffee brothers in Providence, Rhode Island: Tommy (Jason Clarke) is a politician with his sights on high places and Michael (Jason Isaacs) is part of an Irish mob. Each thinks they are less corrupt than the other and believes they are making the city a better place. Holding the family together is their mother, Rose (Fionnula Flanagan). The other key character is Tommy’s wife, Eileen (Annabeth Gish), who is having an affair. This intelligent, well-written series again features deeply-drawn characters and great acting, especially by the four actors just mentioned. Its biggest flaw is the lack of sympathetic characters.


Magic City (2012 - 2013)

Created by Mitch Glazer for Starz, Magic City tells the story of Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who owns a magnificent hotel in Miami in 1959, but only because he’s made a deal with the local mob boss, Ben Diamond (Danny Huston). Other key characters include Ike’s wife, Vera (Olga Kurylenko), and his two adult sons, Stevie (Steven Strait) and Danny (Christian Cooke). While the writing (especially the predictability of the plots), acting and character-development are a major step down from the previous two shows (though I did enjoy Morgan’s character and performance), Magic City does have a much more beautiful setting, both in terms of time and place, and is more stylish than the other two shows.

TV34: Network TV serials


Here, in alphabetical order, is a list (with brief remarks) of ten network serials worth watching (if the subject matter is of interest). Because they’re network TV, the quality generally can’t compare to cable serials and that may be one reason none of these shows gets ****. The primary flaw exhibited by these shows is uneven writing. All of them get ***+, but none of these are likely to make my list of twenty favourite serials (the best of the shows below would be Desperate Housewives).


Brothers & Sisters (2006-2011)

This drama about a wealthy family in southern California trying to run a food company features strong female roles, including the marvellous Sally Field as the recently-widowed mother and Rachel Griffiths and Calista Flockhart as her two daughters (she also has three sons).


Desperate Housewives (2004-2012)

Another show which features female lead roles is this dark-comedy soap opera about four women living on Wisteria Lane, a short street with more than its share of mysteries and family drama. The four women are played by Teri Hatcher, Felicity Hoffman, Marcia Cross and Eva Longoria.


Dollhouse (2009-2010)

This is a Joss Whedon sci-fi about an organization which loans out ‘dolls’, people who have had their memories wiped and can now be programmed to a client’s specifications. Yet another show with a female lead (Eliza Dushku).


The 4400

This sci-fi serial concerns a group of 4400 people who suddenly appear in a remote location in Washington after vanishing at various points during the previous sixty years. The National Threat Assessment Command team tries to figure out what's going on. Filmed largely in Canada.


Invasion (2005-2006)

Yet another sci-fi serial, this one gets its name and subject from the Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, as the residents of a small Florida town get gradually replaced by aliens. Can Sheriff Underlay (William Fichtner) stop them before they take over the world?


Jericho (2006-2008)

This is a post-apocalyptic serial about the residents of the small town of Jericho, Kanses in the aftermath of a nuclear attack on major U.S. cities. Jericho features a large ensemble cast. 


Murder One (Season One) (1995-1996)

Daniel Benzali stars as Ted Hoffman, a brilliant no-nonsense defense lawyer in this legal drama that was one of the first to experiment with telling one long story over an entire season. Of special note is Stanley Tucci’s supporting role.


The O.C. (2003-2007)

Basically a teen soap opera, The O.C. centres on the wealthy Cohen family (in Orange County, California) and my interest lay primarily in the goings-on of the parents, Sandy and Kirsten (played by Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan). 


Prison Break (2005-2009)

This compelling serial thriller revolves around two brothers, one of whom (played by Domini Purcell) is in a maximum-security prison for a crime he didn’t commit and the other of whom (played by Wentworth Miller) is the genius who plans to get him out. Very dark and violent for network TV.


What About Brian (2006-2007)

Yet another serial soap (this one a comedy-drama) about people in southern California. Brian is played by Barry Watson, who is joined by an ensemble cast playing his friends.


Friday, 18 December 2015

Tangerine



Tangerine is a super-low-budget indie film that was filmed entirely with an iPhone. Directed, written and largely filmed by Sean Baker, Tangerine tells the story of two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve (this is most definitely not your average Christmas film). 

Sin-Dee (played wonderfully by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from prison and meets up with her best friend Alexandra (likewise wonderfully played by Mya Taylor) at a Donut Time. Alexandra inadvertently informs Sin-Dee that Chester, her pimp/boyfriend, has been seeing another woman. Sin-Dee immediately runs out in search of Chester (James Ransone) and the other woman (Mickey O’Hagan), while Alexandra hands out fliers for a short concert she is performing in a bar that evening. On the way, Alexandra runs into an Armenian taxi driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who has a particular interest in transgender prostitutes and is excited to hear that Sin-Dee is back on the streets. Razmik’s mother-in-law, however, is not as excited.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is an exchange between Razmik and one his customers, a Cherokee whose voice (though not his face) I recognized instantly as belonging to Clu Gulager, one of my favourite character actors back in the 80’s. Great cameo. 

Tangerine is a raw, real, funny and humanizing film that largely avoids melodrama despite its eccentric characters, and the cinematography is much better than I expected. In spite of these attributes, and the fact that a few of the scenes are magical, the overall impression I had was that Tangerine was not as good (not as deep or satisfying) as the critical acclaim had led me to believe it might be. But I’ll give it ***+ for being unique and having a good heart. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Trumbo



Despite the mediocre reviews, I felt I needed to watch Trumbo just because I’m a film buff and Trumbo (the film) is all about the history of cinema from the mid-forties to the early sixties. Besides, Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay for one of my all-time favourite films (Spartacus) and a number of lesser favourites like Roman Holiday and Papillon

So, for me, Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach, was an endlessly fascinating film. It tells the true story of a well-respected Hollywood writer who was blacklisted as a communist in the late forties and spent almost a year in jail for contempt of Congress when he refused to answer questions at a congressional hearing (along with the other nine members of the Hollywood 10). Blacklisted and booted out of the Screen Writers Guild, Trumbo was not allowed to write, but he survived by writing screenplays under a variety of pseudonyms (or people who fronted for him), especially for the King brothers (played by John Goodman and Stephen Root). Two of the uncredited screenplays he wrote (Roman Holiday and The Brave One) won Oscars, which were accepted by others. The scandal was that Hollywood needed these blacklisted writers and found ways to use them until common sense prevailed.

Bryan Cranston delivers a great performance as Trumbo, and I also enjoyed the performances of Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife, Louis C.K. as a fellow blacklisted writer and Trumbo’s closest friend, Michael Stuhlbarg (what a year he’s had) as Edward G. Robinson, who is forced by circumstances to testify against the Hollywood 10, Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, a Hollywood columnist who does her best to condemn the Hollywood 10 in the media, and the aforementioned Goodman and Root. With a more-than-adequate score and cinematography, I did, as I said, enjoy watching Trumbo.

But that doesn’t mean I thought it was a great film. On the contrary, Trumbo could have been (and should have been) a much better film. While Trumbo starts and ends strong (partly because it gives us a bigger picture of how Hollywood was impacted by the insanity of the House Un-American Activities Committee), there was over an hour in the middle, when the film focused on Trumbo’s life, that lacked depth and momentum and failed to engage the audience. In the end, I was left feeling that good actors had been wasted on an average screenplay. So I can’t, in good conscience, award Trumbo more than a solid ***. My mug is up. Film buffs and Cranston fans won’t want to miss it. 


Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Spring



I recently wrote that while I don’t like horror films, I can handle sci-fi horror just fine. So when a so-called horror film is also called a sci-fi film, I assume it is more the latter than the former (my definition of horror means  that few sci-fi films are really also horror films). That was the case with the small independent 2015 so-called sci-fi film, Spring.

Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, Spring is a very unusual sci-fi film and I’m not convinced you can call it sci-fi at all (though I’m not sure it qualifies as horror either). Whatever it is, Spring feels like a combination of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Since those two films are among my favourite films of all time, this can’t be a bad thing.

Evan (played by Lou Taylor Pucci), a young American who has just watched his mother die of cancer (after taking care of her for months), gets in trouble with the law and takes off for Italy. In a small Italian coastal village (can’t go wrong with setting a film in such a place) near Mt. Vesuvius, Evan meets and falls in love with Louise (Nadia Hilker), a young Italian woman. But Louise is no ordinary woman (or an ordinary human), and let’s just leave it at that. 

Spring comes so close to being a great horror/sci-fi film. The acting is surprisingly good (if not perfect), as is the direction by the young filmmakers, and Spring is full of gorgeous cinematography and fascinating conversations, most of them between the two protagonists as they walk through the village and explore its surroundings (as in Before Sunrise). Some of those conversations have thought-provoking things to say about love, but others, unfortunately, lacked depth, and a couple of key scenes didn’t feel credible enough (leaving aside the question of the plot’s credibility). So this little film gets only a solid ***+. My mug is up.