Wednesday, 28 December 2016

La La Land



Wow!

It would have been almost impossible for my most-anticipated film of the year to live up to my expectations. After all, I’m a huge fan of musicals, so when an old-fashioned indie musical gets rave reviews, I have to be thinking that it might become my favourite film of the year, if not the decade. There was no place to go but down, and down it went, with one disappointment after another. ‘But Vic’, you say, ‘you started this review with a “Wow”’. I did indeed, because, as disappointing as La La Land was, I still loved it and it’s still going to be in my list of ‘Top Ten Films of 2016’, which will be coming out in about two weeks. It will not, however, be number one on that list.

La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, begins magnificently with a song and dance number on the L.A. freeway during a typical morning traffic jam. If it could have kept up that kind of pace for the rest of the film, as Moulin Rouge did in 2001, then number one would have been assured. But after the first half hour or so, La La Land begins to fade, with far too few songs for a musical (in my opinion). 

Emma Stone plays Mia, who works in a coffee shop but dreams of being a film actress and spends her spare time doing auditions. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a small-time jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz club. Mia and Sebastian meet at a low point in both of their careers and, of course, fall in love (no real spoiler there). The romance grows, but also falters, as Mia and Sebastian pursue their dreams, a pursuit which will have lots of ups and downs. I’ll say no more about the plot.

The key theme in La La Land is whether love is more important than this pursuit of one’s dreams. There is reason to believe the film is ambivalent in its response to this question, leaving lots of room for discussion, which is good, but there’s also reason to challenge the overall direction (regarding this theme) of this young filmmaker’s intelligent and original screenplay.

I’ve always admired Stone but her performance here is beyond terrific (one of the best of the decade) and she deserves an Oscar for this. Gosling was good enough but he failed to impress me (though the obvious chemistry between him and Stone made up for that). The singing of Stone and Gosling was, however, one of my disappointments. I’m not an expert on singing, but it was obvious to me that Stone and Gosling were not singers prior to the making of La La Land and it shows. 

While there were too few songs in La La Land, the quality of the music by Justin Hurwitz exceeded my expectations, as did the cinematography, which was nothing short of perfection. And the ending was, for me, exactly right and a pure delight. The secondary theme of nostalgia, portrayed through Sebastian's desire to save jazz (standing in for Chazelle's desire to save film musicals) was also critical to my enjoyment of the film.

Any attempt to bring back this almost-forgotten genre is going to impress me, regardless of how well it’s done. In this case, Stone’s great performance, along with La La Land’s focus on dreams and love, its marvellous cinematography, its beautiful music and Chazelle’s flawless direction, lift the film easily into my top ten of the year, despite my disappointments. This is what filmmaking is about - magic. A solid ****. My mug is up and I can’t wait to see it again (maybe next week!).

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Doctor Strange



The Avengers, and related superhero films in the Marvel universe, have not fared well in my opinion, with endless PG violence, endless pointless action, endless destruction and minimal plots. There has been the odd exception, like the first Iron Man film, but generally I think the film world would have been better if Marvel had never existed (though the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films would have been missed). 

Doctor Strange, however, is unique in the Marvel superhero film world, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing a super-intelligent hero who believes it’s always wrong to kill and whose arrogance is constantly being challenged by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in yet another utterly distinct role and look), leading him to learn that life is not all about him. This in turn leads him to a very unique showdown with the film’s super-baddie, in which Doctor Strange uses no weapons at all, but only the power of self-sacrifice (and a magic time-bracelet). 

Magic is what sets Doctor Strange apart, and almost all of the action scenes focus on magic, resulting in spectacular visuals which are much more enjoyable (on the whole) than any action scenes previously featured in Marvel films. As for the plot, it’s not as intelligent as it should be (there are many holes), but it’s mildly diverting, thanks to Swinton’s performance as The Ancient One and Cumberbatch’s always entertaining presence. The plot: Dr. Strange is an arrogant surgeon whose reckless driving leads to an accident that destroys his hands. To get those beloved hands working again, Dr. Strange seeks out the healing powers of The Ancient One, not realizing that magic is involved. Eventually, he allows himself to overcome his skepticism and learn, discovering that he is a natural.

I wasn’t satisfied with the way the story was told, wishing there had been much more attention paid to Dr. Strange’s journey toward becoming Doctor Strange. And the PG violent action may not have been endless but there was certainly more than I wanted to see. 

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Doctor Strange much more than I had expected to (low expectations are always helpful). I appreciated an ending that wasn’t entirely sold to the myth of redemptive violence and I appreciated the performances of the two actors mentioned above as well as Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, Dr. Strange’s fellow doctor, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, a fellow magician. So Doctor Strange gets a solid ***+. My mug is up for my favourite non-Spider-Man Marvel film.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Moana



Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars franchises (which, together with Disney’s animated blockbusters, have given Disney more box office sales in 2016 than any other studio in history: an unfathomable 8 billion dollars) continue to deliver the same old same old redemptive violence, showing no imagination whatsoever (okay, Doctor Strange was a little better - see upcoming review), but something wonderful is going on with Disney’s children’s films. Recent Disney films like Inside Out, Pete’s Dragon, Zootopia and Finding Dory have stayed far away from the kind of redemptive violence (e.g. killing off the baddies) so common in Disney films since the day Disney started (with Snow White in 1937). And now comes Moana, which comes very close to following in the path of Pocahontas, Disney’s most ethical animated film (though far from its best).

Of course, that’s already a spoiler, for which I apologize, but since that fact alone is the reason for my rating of Moana, it had to be mentioned. I don’t have any more spoilers, but do offer the following summary: Moana is about a young Polynesian princess (Moana) who decides to follow her grandmother’s advice (instead of her father’s) and leave the island where she and her people have lived for generations. Her reason for leaving is to find the demigod Maui and force him to return the stone he stole from the goddess Te Fiti. That theft has resulted in a creeping darkness spreading over all the islands, making it more and more difficult to find enough food.

Moana is a gorgeous film with the kind of strong female protagonist Disney hasn’t offered since Pocahontas (by this I mean a character who actually looks for ways to avoid using violence if possible in order to achieve her challenging goals, even when confronted with violence). This is a great achievement on its own and alone makes the film worth watching, and worth taking your kids to. But there are a lot of funny scenes and much good dialogue as well. Best of all (at least potentially) is the fact that it's another attempt at making an animated musical like Beauty and the Beast, though the music, as in Frozen, is somewhat disappointing, making one wish Alan Menken had written the songs.

On the downside, Moana also has some very stupid dialogue (especially by Maui) that wasn’t at all funny to me, and it had a scene involving coconut people which was completely ludicrous and unnecessary. That scene alone prevents me from awarding Moana four stars. But the ending guarantees that Moana gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. Don’t miss it.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Miss Sloane



Despite the mediocre reviews it has received from critics, Miss Sloane came close to getting four stars from me and making it into my top ten. I found every minute of this fast-paced drama entertaining and Jessica Chastain deserves an Oscar for her terrific performance in the lead role. 

Elizabeth Sloane (Chastain) is a brilliant Washington lobbyist for whom winning is all there is. She sleeps very little (if at all), living off of drugs that help her stay awake and functioning. She doesn’t have time for a relationship or family that would distract her from her single-minded (obsessive) drive to win every lobbying case put before her. In fact, Sloane is so eager for a challenge, so she can show just how brilliant she is, that when Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) asks her to lead a case that can’t be won, she accepts, even though it means quitting her firm (and taking half her team with her). 

The case in question is a bill in the senate that will make it more difficult to purchase a gun, an issue about which Sloane apparently has strong views (though ethics in general are not her string suit). Sloane’s new team includes Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young woman who had survived a mass high school shooting, so also has strong views on the subject. 

Back at Sloane’s former office, we have her former assistant, Jane Molloy (Alison Pill), and her former bosses, Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) and George Dupont (Sam Waterston) fighting against Sloane and hoping to use their inside knowledge of her methods to stop her. But Sloane is determined to do whatever it takes to beat them, even if it means hurting her colleagues and destroying her health and reputation.

It’s not easy to sympathize with a cold protagonist like Sloane, but Chastain’s performance makes it possible to come close. The other performers mentioned above to a commendable job as well (and I should note that John Lithgow is great as a key senator). And there are no complaints from me about the cinematography and score or John Madden’s direction. 

What prevents Miss Sloane from getting four stars is the writing. While much of newcomer Jonathan Perera’s screenplay is intelligent and sharp, it is clearly the work of an Aaron Sorkin wannabe that falls well short of Sorkin’s masterful way with dialogue. Without the ‘zing’ of Sorkin’s writing, a story like this loses too much credibility. Perra’s heart is in the right place, but too often his dialogue is a stretch, and the subject of the film (gun control) is never convincingly handled or profoundly discussed. Maybe next time.

Nevertheless, like I said, I enjoyed watching every minute of this film and especially enjoyed watching Chastain’s performance, so Miss Sloane gets a solid ***+ from me. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Loving



I’ll start off by saying that Loving is a guaranteed winner of my “Understated Film of the Year” award (if I had such an award). In fact, it may be the most understated film I’ve ever seen. This is a remarkable achievement and one to be lauded, especially when dealing with a subject matter like this, because it could so easily have been sensationalized.

The subject matter in question is the marriage of a white man (Richard Loving, played by Joel Edgerton) to a black woman (Mildred Jeter, played by Ruth Negga) in small-town Virginia in 1958. Such marriages were against the law at the time (it’s unnatural - think about the children!), so the ceremony takes place in the office of a Justice of the Peace in Washington, D.C., just a few hours away. If the couple had stayed in D.C., this would not have been a problem. But they return to Virginia, where Richard has already purchased land for the house he is planning to build for them. Someone ‘talks’ and the couple are quickly arrested, at which point they are given the choice of immediately leaving the state (for 25 years) or spending a year in jail (if they hadn’t had the right lawyer, they’d have just gone to jail). 

Richard and Mildred make the obvious decision, but things happen soon after that force them to return to Virginia, where they find themselves in trouble with the law once again. The story of Richard and Mildred becomes big news when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) gets involved through a lawyer named Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), who wants to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Loving is, of course, based on a true story. In other hands, this story might have been a melodramatic made-for-TV tearjerker or at least a sensationalized story of the ups and downs of the two protagonists. But in this case, the hands are those of Jeff Nichols, whose previous three films (one of which was released earlier this year) all found (or will find) themselves in my top ten films of the year. Nichols goes for the understated version of the story and gets incredible underplayed performances from Edgerton (I've never seen him near this good before) and Negga to make it work (Alano Miller is also notable in a supporting role as Raymond, Mildred’s brother). The result is a film that’s almost jaw-dropping in its subtlety. Unfortunately, there’s a Catch-22 in making a film this understated. It’s a brilliant, gorgeous (great cinematography) film, and I hugely admire what Nichols has accomplished, but it’s so understated that it didn’t engage (or move) me enough to get four stars and make my top ten this time. 

Nevertheless, Loving gets a solid ***+ and is highly recommended to everyone. My mug is up.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Nocturnal Animals




I gave four stars to Tom Ford’s only previous film, A Single Man, which Ford made seven years ago. And as I watched the first half hour or so of Nocturnal Animals (about which I knew absolutely nothing, as it should be), I was thinking: “Wow! Another four stars for Ford and a likely entry in my top ten films of 2016.” You know what’s coming, but let’s stay with the upside for now.

I was mesmerized by the style of Nocturnal Animals, by the magnificent melodramatic noir score from Abel Korzeniowski, by Amy Adams’s portrayal of the very unhappy and insecure Susan Morrow (our protagonist), whose second marriage is falling apart even as she’s achieving success as an art gallery owner in L.A., by the gorgeous cinematography and even by the first terrifying scenes of the West Texas thriller in which Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), our protagonist, tries vainly to protect his wife and teenage daughter from three young rednecks on a lonely road in the middle of the desert.

Now wait a minute, you say. What’s this with the two protagonists, two locations and two very different stories? You’re right to be confused, because Nocturnal Animals is actually two one-hour films for the price of one. In the first story we have the “real” world, with Susan’s failing marriage to Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) and the arrival, at her door, of the first draft of a novel (Nocturnal Animals) written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), a sensitive man whom she had hurt in a number of ways. That the novel, dedicated to Susan, is Edward’s form of revenge becomes clear quite quickly. But Susan can’t put the novel down and we get to watch the novel as she’s reading it (oh joy!). 

The Texas thriller is about a very different kind of revenge - the nasty violent kind. The highlight of this second story is Michael Shannon playing Bobby Andes, the police officer who assists Tony with his revenge. The novel as film and the story of Susan jump back and forth, and Susan’s story also goes back and forth in time, as we see what she did to Edward and how she’s become so unhappy. The intermingling of all the various parts of Nocturnal Animals provides much food for thought and a discussion of the film could go on for hours. Sounds good, right? Indeed, it is good, especially as we watch realization dawn on Susan about how Edward is getting back at her.

But (like I said, you knew this was coming) that second story is so darn nasty and violent that I don’t care how much of it is just in Susan’s mind (or in Edward’s) or how marvellous Shannon’s performance is (he deserves a Best Supporting Oscar for this), I do not need to see stories like this - not at all. So in spite of an intelligent thought-provoking screenplay, terrific performances by Adams and Gyllenhaal (along with Shannon) and all the mesmerizing details mentioned above, the violence in Nocturnal Animals turned a four-star film into one that just manages to hold onto ***+. My mug is up. 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Rules Don't Apply



Gareth called Rules Don’t Apply the most underrated film of the year, so I had to watch it. I’m glad I did, if for no other reason than to see the gorgeous cinematography on the big screen, but I don’t think I enjoyed the film as much as Gareth did.

Rules Don’t Apply is Warren Beatty’s film. He directed (for the first time in eighteen years) and co-wrote the film and he starred as Howard Hughes, one of the film’s three central characters. The other two are Frank Forbes (played by Alden Ehrenreich) and Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins). At the beginning of the film, Forbes is a lowly driver, working for Hughes, whom he’s never seen let alone met. Forbes’s job is to drive around, as needed, one of Hughes’ 26 aspiring actresses, one of whom is Mabrey. Mabrey is a naive and innocent young Baptist from Virginia who comes to Hollywood with her mother, Lucy (Annette Bening) to work for Hughes. Mabrey is also waiting to catch a glimpse of the mysterious Hughes and, when she finally meets him, she shows that, while she may be innocent, she’s not afraid to speak her mind. As for the aging Hughes, he turns out to be every bit as eccentric as his reclusive nature would suggest. Sometimes he behaves like a child, other times he repeats himself so much that he thinks he may have the dementia some people think he does. But always, Hughes does whatever he wants and gets whatever he wants.

As the story progresses, Forbes moves up to become Hughes’s assistant and falls in love with Mabrey. But he’s not allowed to date Mabrey (Hughes has many rules, one of the reasons for the film’s title). Besides, he has a fiancé back home (he had sex with her, so according to Mabrey he’s already married to her) so Mabrey doesn’t want to be interested. But she is, at least until … well, that’s enough of the plot, except to say that Hughes, Forbes and Mabrey form a very bizarre triangle.

And despite the fact that those three characters are primary, there are an amazing number of minor characters (like Lucy), played by such actors as Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, to name just a few. Broderick has the biggest of those roles and he’s terrific (the best I’ve seen him do in many years). But all of the acting in Rules Don’t Apply is outstanding, especially the three actors at the film’s heart. And the characters in the film are a major highlight, with much of the film’s humour (it’s sort of a comedy) being the characters themselves.

Rules Don’t Apply has other highlights, like a number of delightful, even magical, scenes that alone make the film worth watching. Most of those scenes involved Mabrey, who is such a fresh character that the film was, for me, much more entertaining when she was in it than when she was not. 

Unfortunately, there were too many scenes without Mabrey that fell flat for me. On its own, this would have been a fairly minor complaint, but the biggest flaw in Rules Don’t Apply is that Beatty seemed to think the rules of filmmaking didn’t apply here. The film jumps all over the place, with many scenes not fitting into any coherent storyline and characters sometime behaving in inconsistent ways. This isn’t a terrible flaw in a satiric comedy, but it did make the film less entertaining for me. 

Still, I enjoyed watching Rules Don’t Apply almost enough to award it ***+. Almost. But I think I’ll have to settle for *** verging on ***+. My mug is up. 

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Edge of Seventeen



I have little patience with Hollywood comedy dramas (understatement), but I have been known to enjoy indie comedy dramas, especially if they’re quirky. The Edge of Seventeen is only slightly quirky but it’s a delight to watch, for some surprising reasons.

Not surprising is that Hailee Steinfeld would be phenomenal in the lead role as seventeen-year-old Nadine Franklin, because she’s one of the great young actors out there. Nadine has a serious inferiority complex, believing for most of her school years that almost no one likes her. She does have a best friend (Krista, played by Haley Lu Richardson), though, and the boy next to her in history class (Erwin, played by Hayden Szeto) seems to have a crush on her. But Nadine isn’t interested in the nerdy Erwin; she has a crush on Nick, a mysterious senior whom she has never met. At home, meanwhile, Nadine has to suffer with a mother (Kyra Sedgwick) dealing with her own anxieties who has struggled with Nadine all her life while adoring her perfect handsome son, Darian, whom Nadine loathes as a result. 

When Krista starts dating Darian, Nadine is furious. Not for the first time, she runs to Mr. Bruner, her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) and vents to him about her problems and depression. And that’s enough about the plot.

The story of The Edge of Seventeen isn’t particularly original. Indeed, it feels all too normal, which is possibly the film’s greatest strength. There is a remarkable sense of authenticity to Kelly Fremon Craig’s intelligent screenplay (she also directed) and each of us who viewed it was able to identify with one character or another. And while the language and situations can seem very ‘out there’ at times (certainly not something you would hear a seventeen-year-old girl say in films made in the last century), the film possesses an innocence I much admired. 

I was occasionally disappointed by the predictability of certain scenes and characters, but just as often I was surprised by how some scenes and characters defied predictability. And the ending is not something I would have predicted for this kind of film. In other coming-of-age films, the ending wouldn’t have worked for me, but it did here. 

Harrelson was perfect in his role and the rest of the acting was solid. The cinematography and music were well-done. All-in-all, a great debut film for Fremon Craig. The Edge of Seventeen gets a solid ***+ (others in my family awarded it ****). My mug is up and this one is highly recommended to most readers (it’s rated R for a reason). 

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Allied



As you know, I’m a sucker for quiet intelligent European spy films. When a film in that genre stars actors like Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt at the top of their game and is written by excellent screenwriter Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis, it has an unfair advantage, even when critics haven’t been that kind and Allied has a number of obvious flaws.

It’s the middle of WWII (1942). Cotillard plays a French Resistance fighter (spy) named Marianne Beausejour while Pitt plays Wing Commander Max Vatan, a Canadian officer working out of British Air Force intelligence. Beausejour and Vatan meet in Casablanca, where their mission is to pretend to be married in order to gain an invitation to a party where they are to assassinate a German ambassador. That the location is supposed to remind us of the greatest film ever made (IMHO) is unquestionable, but I saw no reason to try to draw a deeper comparison. 

Without giving away too much (spoiler alert), the inevitable happens, with Beausejour and Vatan falling in love and getting married (after moving to London). Jump ahead to 1944 when Vatan, who now has a one-year-old daughter, is hauled into an office in the lowest dungeons of British Air Force intelligence to face a a high-ranking Special Operations officer (played by Simon McBurney), who informs him that Beausejour is really a German spy. Special Operations wants Vatan to help them prove she’s a spy and then to execute her. Defying explicit orders, Vatan sets out to prove that Special Operations have got it wrong while Vatan’s commanding officer, Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) tries to save Vatan from himself.

Allied is a gorgeous film to watch, even when the Casablanca scenes were actually filmed on the Canary Islands. The score is good. The film moves slowly, but deliciously slow, with great performances all around (though more character development would have been nice) and some excellent dialogue by Knight. The plot, which is based on a true story, is believable and moving, though one of the film’s flaws is the ongoing predictability of the twists and turns. This can sometimes ruin a film for me, but actually I found it forgivable in Allied, partly because I was never sure whether in fact the predictability wasn’t deliberate (in which case the film actually succeeded). 

Allied’s biggest flaw, however, was the unnecessarily graphic violence, especially that carried out by our protagonist (Vatan), who is generally depicted as a coldhearted killer (of Nazis, as if that makes it okay). This was an unfortunate decision and the only thing that made me enjoy the film less. 

Nevertheless, apart from this major flaw, I found Allied to be a beautiful old-fashioned (I like old-fashioned) romantic spy thriller that I enjoyed (for the most part) from start to finish. Most critics seemed to see the beauty but couldn’t find enough substance behind it. I found enough to satisfy someone who’s a sucker for these kinds of films, so I give it a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them



J.K. Rowling returns to the world of Harry Potter with a series of films based not on books she has written but on screenplays she is writing directly for the films. The first in the series is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and its blockbuster status assures that we will be seeing the rest of the series (five in total) in the years to come. 

Fantastic Beasts is directed by David Yates (who directed the final four Potter films) and stars Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, one of the best and most fascinating characters Rowling has ever created. Unfortunately, Rowling was unable to develop a plot worthy of her marvellous protagonist. Had she done so, Fantastic Beasts could have been a classic for the ages instead of merely a fun night at the movies. 

Newt is a former student at Hogwarts (he got kicked out) who comes to New York City in the 1920’s in order to save another ‘fantastic beast’ from extinction. He’s been hunting around the world for these beasts and he’s brought a bottomless suitcase full of the beasts with him. Unfortunately for Newt and his beasts, New York City doesn’t allow magic of any kind, though there’s a very large and beautiful office building (one of many great sets) full of magic in the heart of Manhattan. It’s the home of the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA), whose staff make sure that any magic that does turn up in the city is immediately shut down (lest a war break out between them and the ‘No-Majes’, which is what Americans call the Muggles - people who can’t do magic). Among the people working for MACUSA are Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), Seraphine Picquery (Carmen Ajogo), the president of MACUSA, and Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). 

Graves is one of the leaders of MACUSA, but he behaves in a suspicious and unwholesome manner, especially with the teenage Credence (Ezra Miller), who himself seems a little suspicious. Credence and his sisters have been adopted by Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), a vicious woman who despises all things magic and is intent on ridding the world of witches. 

There’s a lot going on in Fantastic Beasts (I’ve barely scratched the surface), but let’s return to the start of the film. Shortly after arriving in New York City, Newt encounters Mary Lou and Credence at the same time as he runs into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a harmless would-be baker who accidentally switches suitcases with Newt before accidentally releasing Newt’s fantastic beasts on the city. This draws the attention of Tina and Queenie, and ultimately MACUSA, which is not impressed. Can Tina and Queenie prevent disastrous consequences for Newt and the fantastic beasts? And what is the mysterious Graves up to?

While Fantastic Beasts is largely an ensemble film, with strong acting throughout (Waterston stands out), what makes it special for me is the character of Newt, who is played perfectly by one of the world’s finest young actors (Redmayne). The innocent, compassionate and sensitive Newt is a marvel in an age where adventure film heroes are strong justifiably-angry protagonists (like Potter) capable of whatever violence is needed. Instead of violence and threats, Newt defends his creatures with pleas aimed at the hearts of his antagonists. Wonderful stuff! It’s as if Rowling is continuing the journey, begun with Potter, toward understanding the kind of leaders the world truly needs.

So why, if Rowling understands this so well and provides so much great dialogue, does she then offer a plot full of all the clichés of the myth of redemptive violence, populating her screenplay with not one or two but three ‘baddies’ whom the audience is supposed to loathe before they are defeated (usually killed off in horrible ways). Inexcusable! Not only are those scenes much too dark to be watched by children, they are meant to satisfy the lowest sensibilities of the audience while Newt is supposed to appeal to the audience's highest sensibilities. Why does Rowling do this, especially in a film aimed at a young audience? 

Aside from the above complaint, the only other major flaw in Fantastic Beasts is that some scenes are just too light and silly to do justice to Newt’s character (i.e. he deserves to be taken very seriously). I also didn’t appreciate the made-for-3D cinematography, which otherwise was very good. Meanwhile, the score by James Newton Howard was excellent, if occasionally overbearing.


Fantastic Beasts is a well-made adventure film that’s lots of fun to watch and offers one of the best protagonists on film, but ultimately it had too many scenes that left a bad taste in my mouth, making it much harder to recommend (especially to families). Very sad.

So Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them gets only a solid ***. It could have been much better, but my mug is up anyway.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Arrival



Wow!

Denis Villeneuve, one of my favourite Canadian directors (one of my very favourite directors, period), has made another classic, this one very different from his previous films (all of which I also loved). Arrival is a quiet intense sci-fi film about the sudden arrival of aliens on earth. It’s impossible to write a review of Arrival without at least a few spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Arrival yet, stop reading now and go watch the film, knowing only that it will be the third Villeneuve film in seven years (Incendies and Sicario were the other two) to make my list of top ten films of the year. I will add that, unlike most of Villeneuve’s films, there is almost no violence in this one.

Okay, so now you’ve seen this wonderful film, which is based on a short story called Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang and written by Eric Heisserer, and I can share some of the reasons I loved it.

Amy Adams stars as Louise Banks, one of the top linguists in the U.S., who is called in to help the American government (military) communicate with the aliens who just landed a giant black ship in Montana. Eleven other ships have landed around the world and linguists are also trying to communicate with the aliens inside them, but only Banks will achieve major breakthroughs. Helping her with this is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an astrophysicist who works for the military. Both Banks and Donnelly are under the command of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), the man who recruited them for this unique mission.

The aliens communicate only through ‘written symbols’ (produced by ink generated by their ‘hands’) that take a lot of effort to interpret, making this mission a long slow process. But linguists around the world are working together with Banks, and progress is made, be it ever so slowly. Until, that is, one of the linguists translates an alien word as ‘weapon’ and suddenly the communication between countries is cut off, while plans are made to attack the ships before the ships attack earth. This is an example of what happens when you put first contact with aliens into the hands of the military - the military is always in defense mode, viewing everything it doesn’t understand as a threat. 

With all her efforts coming up short, will Banks find a way forward before all hell breaks loose? I’ll leave it there, but let’s just say that what happens next is a very far cry from Independence Day

From beginning to end, Arrival belongs to Adams and she is terrific (I see an Oscar nomination coming) in a role that exemplifies precisely what I was asking for in my controversial review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In that review, I asked why strong female characters in action films need to show that they can be as violent as any man, instead of offering an alternative to violence. Unlike most of the men around her, who quickly panic and reach for their guns, Banks dismisses violence out of hand and, to the last, seeks alternatives. That seeking requires a tremendous amount of courage and determination, as well as intelligence, empathy and compassion, making Banks a far better role model than most ‘action’ heroes. This is the second film in a row in which Villeneuve has featured a strong and thoughtful female protagonist who is surrounded by men who like to shoot first. It’s also Villeneuve’s second film in row that challenges the military mindset. I like this guy!

All I’ve said so far, however, just touches the surface of Arrival. This thought-provoking film goes much deeper, with questions about life that touch on many other issues of our time. For example, it takes a unique look at the power of language and what it means to communicate effectively with others without automatically reacting in fear or with militaristic actions. Another example: if you could see every moment of the rest of your life, with all its joys and sorrows, would you be able to embrace it anyway and not change anything (if given the choice), regardless of the consequences? And did I mention that Arrival is primarily the story of  a mother and her child?

Or is Arrival primarily about time? In a sense, it’s a time-travel film with scenes that, in lesser films, would have had me shaking my head incredulously at the contrived solutions to the paradoxes involved. But Arrival’s way of handling time is so unique that it’s almost impossible to challenge. 

Arrival is a simple, elegant, moving, wise and poetic sci-fi film (though not in the Tarkovsky sense). There are elements of Malick here, with a definite focus on the right side of the brain, but the narrative is strong (even if profoundly complex). The film reminds me of sci-fi classics from my younger days, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact. The cinematography and score, meanwhile, are excellent. Arrival gets an easy **** and will likely be found in my top five films of 2016. 

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Accountant



I had no intention of watching this film, if for no other reason than because it stars Ben Affleck, who is better behind the camera than in front of it, but also because it was getting very mediocre reviews. But then three people I was talking with told me how much they loved The Accountant and I noted that my favourite living major film critic (Gareth doesn’t quite qualify), Kenneth Turan, liked the film a lot, so I decided to give it a chance.

As a result, I saw a couple of very fine performances from the two women who had major roles in the film (Anna Kendrick and Cynthia Addai-Robinson; the latter, and the role she played, were the best things about the film). And, um, uh, nope, that’s it. 

I’m not going to waste my time or yours telling you about the plot of The Accountant, because the story isn’t worth telling. To be more precise, the story isn’t worth telling because the film revels in its graphic violence, especially that perpetrated by the nonstop killing machine who happens to be the protagonist. I watch lots of violent films, and I watch lots of films where violence is clearly meant to entertain, but rarely have I felt as dirty watching violence as I did in The Accountant. Why? Because the accountant (Affleck) is supposed to be a sympathetic guy and we’re supposed to applaud his brutal slaughter of one bad guy after another in a very different way than we applaud James Bond. 

There was no excuse to make this film, though the premise might have worked in better hands (and with another lead actor). ** My mug is down. Don’t waste your time on this one.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Denial



Denial, which is based on a true story, stars Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt, a history professor who specializes in arguing against Holocaust deniers. One of those deniers is David Irving (Timothy Spall), a man who has written WWII history books claiming that the Holocaust didn’t happen. When Lipstadt slams Irving in her most recent book, Irving takes her to court for libel. But since he’s British, the trial happens in London and it’s up to the defence, led by Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) and Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), to prove that Irving deliberately falsified his facts in order to make his claim.

Denial, which was directed by Mick Jackson, is written by David Hare, a writer and filmmaker I admire very much, but he seems to have missed an opportunity here. In other words, the story in Denial has the potential to make a very good film, especially given the quality of the actors (and the acting was excellent, by far the strongest feature in Denial), but it fails at a number of levels.

The biggest problem for me is that the straightforward almost made-for-TV presentation failed to captivate me. Primarily, this was because I could never understand why I should care about this story at all. Despite being a big event in the news, I don’t see why the story of a sad Holocaust denier is a story worth telling. It might have been worth telling if we got to know more about Irving and his motivations or if we were told why this event was important, but neither is the case. 

Then there’s the fact that, while it’s often repeated that the trial is not about whether the Holocaust happened or not, the film takes us to Auschwitz and reminds us again and again that it did happen and that the survivors need to be heard. This would make sense if we need to be reminded that the Holocaust really did happen, but I have never heard anyone seriously question this and have certainly never doubted it myself, so why is this necessary? 

What I’m trying to get at is that I don’t understand why we would take Holocaust deniers seriously enough to make a film about one. 

Finally, there’s the fact that Lipstadt has a slightly irritating voice and personality. I have no doubt that this was deliberate, but it makes Denial difficult to sit through, especially given my complaints above.

As with The Girl on the Train, my review sounds more negative than the end result might warrant, because I did think Denial was worth watching, so will let it slide over the line to ***. My mug is up, but low expectations are in order. 

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Girl on the Train



Directed by Tate Taylor and based on the bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train stars Emily Blunt as Rachel, the girl on the train. Rachel takes the same train to Manhattan every weekday, passing the home of her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), his wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their baby daughter. It has been a very difficult divorce (Tom was having an affair with Anna for years before the divorce) and Rachel has not been able to let go, drowning herself in alcohol and self-pity. She drinks so much that she frequently can’t remember what she did when she was drunk, (a fact which lies at the heart of this psychological thriller). 

Recently, Rachel has been obsessing about Megan (Haley Bennett), the young woman who lives two doors down from Tom and Anna and has become their nanny. Rachel looks at Megan from the train and sees a perfect marriage (with Scott, played by Luke Evans), the kind of marriage she had always wanted, until one morning she thinks she sees Megan kissing another man. This infuriates Rachel and she goes straight to the bar, where she gets drunk and then goes to the neighbourhood where Tom and Anna and Megan live. The next morning, Rachel wakes up covered in blood, with no memory of what happened to her the night before, and discovers that Megan has gone missing. The mystery begins. 

While Rachel is the central character in The Girl on the Train, we also get to see pieces of the story from the view of Megan and Anna. This is very much a film about women (and probably made for women, given that 90% of the audience of 80 people in my theatre were women). Perhaps this explains the odd choice of style, which moves from a dreamlike, poetic Terence Malick to various forms of Hitchcock (there are clear resemblance to Rear Window and Vertigo). I occasionally appreciated the style but it heightens the sense of melodrama that seems out of place in a thriller like this. This might have been forgivable if the film had had more character development, but this was lacking. 

When the film heats up near the end, it kind of falls of the rails (yeah, I had to), feeling too clever for its own good. 

This review sounds very negative, so let me say that I found The Girl on the Train very much worth watching, if for no other reason than to see Blunt’s terrific performance as Rachel. Few actors could make such a pathetic character sympathetic, but Blunt pulls it off. Ferguson and Bennett are also very good, but the male actors could have done better. 

As you know, I’m a fan of quiet, low-action psychological thrillers, so even with all of its flaws I enjoyed watching The Girl on the Train and especially Blunt’s performance. A solid ***. My mug is up. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

The Salesman (EIFF 18)



Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s breakout film, 2011’s Academy-Award-winning A Separation, was a masterpiece, so I’ve come to expect a lot from Farhadi. His next film, The Past, made in 2013, wasn’t as good as A Separation but I loved it as well. So, after awarding four stars to both of the Farhadi films I’ve seen, my expectations for Farhadi’s new film, The Salesman, were admittedly much too high. That was no doubt part of the reason that I was disappointed in the film, though it was still among my top-five films of the EIFF.

The Salesman stars Shahab Hosseini as Emad, who teaches literature and acts in a local theatre company. His current role is that of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Coincidentally (especially for the screenplay, which felt too contrived throughout precisely because of such coincidences), Loman’s wife is played by Emad’s wife, Rana, who in turn is played by Taraneh Alidoosti. Following the first performance of the play, Emad stays behind while Rana goes home (to an apartment they just moved into, which had been previously occupied by a prostitute). (Spoiler alert) When the doorbell rings, Rana assumes it’s Emad, so she opens the door and goes to take her shower. But it’s not Emad, and the man who enters in some way assaults Rana in the shower. 

When Emad finds Rana in the hospital, he is understandably furious, though he seems more concerned with hunting down the assailant than he is with his wife’s welfare, as if he, not his wife, had been attacked. This is one of a number of reasons that Emad is a less-than-sympathetic protagonist, which in turn is one of the reasons The Salesman was disappointing to me, though Emad’s character was probably quite realistic. I assume Farhadi was trying to expose and challenge the way Emad treats Rana, but by making Rana’s suffering primarily a piece of Emad’s story, the film seems to exacerbate rather than challenge this behaviour. 

The Salesman is at its strongest at the end, however, with a number of brilliant, intense and thought-provoking scenes resulting from Emad’s hunt. While there are confusing elements to that hunt, not least because of the way the characters in the play represent characters in the film, it’s riveting and original filmmaking. And despite being a lover of suspense, I was not at all disappointed with the lack of suspense in The Salesman (perhaps because the level of tension was so high). 

The acting in The Salesman is flawless throughout, aided by an unusual character depth (at least for the male characters). The writing is extraordinary at times, with so many pieces fitting perfectly together, but at other times it seems heavy-handed and, as mentioned above, too contrived. Nevertheless, I am giving The Salesman a solid ***+. My mug is up. It’s a must-see for lovers of foreign film. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Folk Hero & Funny Guy (EIFF 17)



The closing film of the Edmonton International Film Festival was a quirky buddy road film written and directed by Jeff Grace (who was there for a Q&A afterwards). It’s called Folk Hero & Funny Guy. The funny guy (Paul, played by Alex Karpovsky) is a stand-up comedian who isn’t very funny but doesn’t pick up on the signals. The folk hero is a popular singer-songwriter (folk music) named Jason (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt and Goldie), who can do no wrong. When Jason invites Paul (they’ve been friends since childhood) to join him on his solo tour, opening with a comedy act before his own performance, it seems like a good idea. But Paul continues continues to strike out with the crowds (and with the women, who all adore Jason).

One woman in particular is at the heart of the problem. Bryn (Meredith Hagner) is another folk musician whom Paul and Jason meet on the road. Paul, who’s coming off a failed relationship, is immediately attracted to Bryn and begins slowly to get to know her, only to have Jason swoop in (after Paul’s gone) and take over. When Jason invited Bryn to join the tour, all kinds of tension ensue, and the road trip continues to go downhill for Paul, though there are signs of hope.

The acting by the three leads is excellent, especially because of the chemistry between them. The cinematography and score are likewise strong.

Folk Hero & Funny Guy is Grace’s first feature film and he is to be congratulated on making a fresh and entertaining indie road flick with a number of very enjoyable scenes. Unfortunately, too many other scenes (like most of those in hotel rooms) didn’t work for me at all. And while Karpovsky’s performance was the best in the film, his character (Paul) was too hard for me to sympathize with (I kept wanting to shake some sense into him). As a result, I can’t give Folk Hero & Funny Guy more than a solid ***. My mug is up.