Sunday, 31 July 2016

Captain Fantastic

Walter and I had an unexpected opportunity to watch a film together two days ago and we made good use of it, finding a film we both enjoyed very much.

Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross, stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, a man raising his six children (ranging in age from approximately six to seventeen) in the woods of Washington (up until three months before the film starts, Ben’s wife, Leslie, a former lawyer, helped Ben raise the kids, but she was hospitalized with bipolar disorder). Ben and Leslie have taught their children to hunt, to climb and to survive alone in the woods with only a knife. At the same time, the kids were taught to speak a variety of languages, understand university-level physics, politics, history, math and anatomy, and to read and analyze the best works of literature. The children can also play various musical instruments and sing. This awesome achievement is more than a little farfetched, but it’s a fascinating and original premise and we get sucked into it because we see the world through the eyes of this unorthodox family, providing a commentary on various aspects of life in 21st-century USA. 

It helps that we cringe when we see the lengths Ben takes to prepare his children for life in the wilderness, and it also helps that when circumstances force the family to leave their isolated paradise and head for the ‘real’ world, we see that their superb education has neglected socialization, leaving them ill-prepared to interact with people. There are dangers to idealism and the desire to challenge the system. Even Ben has been living his dream so long that he struggles to behave in acceptable ways in the society he left.

There are many things that make Captain Fantastic a special film, most notably Mortensen’s outstanding performance (and the brilliant writing that produced the unique character he plays). Indeed, the creation and development of all of the film’s characters is extraordinary. Few films, even quirky indie films like this one, manage to find a perfect balance of strengths and weaknesses for each of the characters, making them believable in the midst of their eccentricity, but Captain Fantastic succeeds in doing just that. For example, Ben can be arrogant, defiant and somewhat irrational, but also loving and open to change and seeing sense when his inner struggle permits it. Then there’s Leslie’s father, Jack, played perfectly by Frank Langella. Jack is furious with the way his grandchildren are being raised but that furor remains sympathetic and believable rather than going overboard as many comedy dramas would have done. Each of the children is also beautifully created, with Bodevan (the oldest, played very well by George MacKay) getting the most airtime.

The  writing is strong throughout the film, with an intelligent screenplay that doesn’t talk down to the audience. Meanwhile, the cinematography is gorgeous but restrained and the music is just right.

Which is not to say that Captain Fantastic is flawless. In particular, the lack of credibility which creeps in throughout gets carried away near the end of the film. But given that this is Ross’s first major attempt at filmmaking (he is known as a character actor), his achievement is quite remarkable. This sad, funny and thoughtful film about life in 2016 is one of the best films of the year so far and comes very close to earning ****. Two mugs up!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Finding Dory

The sequel to Pixar’s delightful Finding Nemo (2003) is not as good as the original (not surprising) but still worth watching. This time the focus is on the blue fish named Dory (Ellen Degeneres) who helped Marlin (Albert Brooks) find Nemo in the first film. Dory suffers from short-term memory loss and disappears from her home while still young. Now, many years later, she wants to find her parents, who are likely very far away. With her lack of memory, this will be a serious challenge, but with the help of an octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill) and a whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), not to mention Marlin, there might be a chance.

There are many good aspects to Finding Dory: The voices are well-done, Hank is a wonderful new character (worth the price of admission), there’s a great message about community and family and, best of all, there’s no villain, so need for redemptive violence. Like the first film, it’s good fun for the whole family.

However, there are some problems. The made-for-3D cinematography is actually a step down from the 13-year-old Finding Nemo and there’s far too much silly action (like the way-too-long and ludicrous truck scene), at the expense of imaginative story and dialogue, probably also because it was made for 3D. In a nutshell, Finding Dory is missing the magic of Finding Nemo because it sacrifices the mysterious depths for surface splash. Somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up!

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Our Kind of Traitor

Regular readers will know that quiet intelligent spy thrillers are a favourite of mine and that I’m an avid reader of John Le Carré novels, so Our Kind of Traitor looked promising in spite of mediocre reviews. For quiet spy thrillers to work for me, they usually need to feature a unique, often heavily stylized, kind of atmosphere. When I saw where the cinematography was headed in Our Kind of Traitor, with lots of handheld work and dreamy soft-focus scenes with slightly desaturated colours, I was initially quite disappointed and my expectations dropped a notch. But the cinematography changed constantly and often provided rich colours and sharp, if gritty, photography. By the end, I was convinced that the cinematography provided exactly the right kind of atmosphere for this story and was, in fact, a primary highlight of the film.

Our Kind of Traitor stars Ewan McGregor as Perry, a university professor vacationing in Marrakesh with his lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris). When, during a romantic evening meal, Gail is called away on business, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), an accountant for the Russian mafia, invites Perry to join his table and then a party. Perry is somewhat reluctant to leap into a friendship with Dima, but does so anyway and is rewarded by having Dima share his work woes with him and being asked by Dima to help him get out of the mafia before he and his family are killed the way his predecessor and his family were killed.

The first requested favour seems minor and safe enough, so Perry plays along. But once Hector (Damien Lewis) from MI6 gets involved, things start to get scary and soon Perry and Gail are in way over their heads, as can happen in a le Carré thriller. 

While McGregor and Harris provide the perfect level of innocence for their roles, and while their acting was solid throughout, something was missing in terms of eliciting the kind of empathetic engagement I most enjoy. Skarsgård, on the other hand, was not only perfectly cast but delivered a great performance. Lewis was also well-cast and solid enough. 

The score was traditional and provided the right flavour for an old-fashioned spy thriller. The only real negative of Our Kind of Traitor was, surprisingly enough, the story itself. I say surprising because le Carré is one of the best spy novelists out there. Unfortunately, this is not one of his stronger novels and, ultimately, the story doesn’t have enough depth or originality to satisfy. Nevertheless, the film’s other strengths made up for some of that and I found Our Kind of Traitor to be solid entertainment for a lover of this genre. ***+ My mug is up. 

Friday, 15 July 2016


Steven Spielberg's new CGI film is being called a flop, which is rare for Spielberg, but I thought it was one of the better children's films I have seen this century. I'm giving it ***+. My mug is up.

My full review can be found at Third Way Cafe:

Thursday, 14 July 2016


Genius, directed by Michael Grandage, has been a critical and box office flop, so it was no surprise that it had a very short stay in Winnipeg. If it hadn’t been for a computer glitch, we would have missed our chance to see it, which would have been a shame, because it was well worth watching on the big screen (the beautiful, stylized period cinematography was one of the best things about the film, though many critics found it too drab).

Genius, based on the A. Scott Berg biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, recounts the story of New York book editor Max Perkins (played by Colin Firth) during an incredibly busy time in his life (late 1920’s - early 1930’s) as he worked with the eccentric writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Wolfe was a prolific writer whose massive volumes needed some very serious editing work. To the indignation of Perkins’s wife, Louise (Laura Linney) and Wolfe’s partner and patron, Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), Perkins and Wolfe became almost inseparable for years at a time as the process of this editing took place.

Cameo-style appearances occur with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West), whose novels were also edited by Perkins. Those appearances (clichéd as they might be) are examples of a number of standout scenes and magical moments in Genius. Unfortunately, the film is not as good as the sum of its parts. For me, the film’s mistake was spending too much time on Wolfe and on the cumbersome editing project rather than on Perkins and his relationships. Firth’s performance was wonderful (as usual) and the story about the brilliant, kind and generous editor was much more interesting and inspiring than the story of the self-absorbed Wolfe. This wasn’t helped by a performance from Law that was rather over-the-top (though he was generally a good casting choice; it’s interesting that this American story about American people was made in the UK with mostly British and Australian actors). 

Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching Genius much more than most critics and give it a very solid ***, verging on ***+. My mug is up. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Maggie's Plan

Maggie’s Plan is an indie romantic comedy starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore and Bill Hader. It’s written and directed by Rebecca Miller, which is notable because there are still so few films written and directed by women. 

Gerwig plays Maggie Hardin, a thirty-something college lecturer who has never had a sustained relationship and has decided to give up trying and have a child on her own. But then she meets John Harding (Hawke), an anthropology professor and aspiring novelist who is married to Georgette (Moore), an ambitious academic. Maggie quickly develops a crush on Harding, whose marriage is unhappy, and her life soon turns into a roller coaster ride as her various plans (including her complicated big plan - the one in the title) run into serious problems. 

Maggie’s Plan is certainly entertaining, with a number of memorable scenes, great cinematography, and appropriately quirky acting by a fine cast. The first half hour in particular was a lot of fun. But ultimately I was disappointed (my expectations were too high). Some of that quirky acting, especially by Moore, didn’t really work for me, and the story as a whole wasn’t as engaging as it could have been. In a romantic comedy, you can expect a contrived plot, but too many scenes felt false to me. But then romantic comedies are generally not my thing, even if they’re indie films.

Maggie’s Plan gets somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up.