Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Infiltrator

Sometimes basing a film on a true story can be a major detriment to the way a film is structured and paced. I believe this is what keeps Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator from being a really good film. The problem is that, with a true story, you can’t develop tension by just questioning whether the protagonist will survive - we know he’ll survive. But will his children survive? Will his wife survive?

With Bryan Cranston in the lead role, as Bob Mazur, a federal undercover agent who becomes the heart of a huge money-laundering operation for the biggest cocaine dealers in the world (Pablo Escobar in Colombia), The Infiltrator should have been a compelling and hugely entertaining film. It wasn’t. Indeed, the first half of the film is so poorly structured and paced that I wondered whether it was worth my time to sit through the second half. I did stay, and I’m glad I did, because the second half of the film is better than the first. There are even some interesting observations about the nature of evil. And the film ended in a satisfying way, though parts of the climactic scene made me cringe because of the poor way they were handled. 

Cranston does as well as he can with what he’s given and he’s what makes The Infiltrator worth watching, giving us a believable sense of what working undercover can do to a person’s soul. And the rest of the acting is solid enough, with Diane Kruger, as Mazur’s undercover colleague, standing out. 

The cinematography and score are also more than adequate. But there are just too many inconsistencies and unexplained mysteries in the plot, like the fact that Escobar knows exactly where Mazur lives but somehow doesn’t clue in to Mazur’s true identity. These inconsistencies, together with some cringe-worthy shots, make The Infiltrator feel to me like a made-for-TV true story full of gratuitous graphic violence. Nevertheless, thanks to Cranston and Kruger, I’m going to let this film slide into ***. My mug is up, but low expectations are in order.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Hell or High Water

Perhaps the most critically-acclaimed film of the year so far, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers who decide to spend two days robbing banks to pay off a debt. Jeff Bridges also stars as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger just a few days from retirement who wants to catch these bank robbers before he hands in his badge. If it sounds like a western, that’s because it is, though it’s set in west Texas in 2016.

That’s almost all there is to the plot, though I’ll also mention that Tanner (who has spent ten years in prison for killing his father) and Toby (who is divorced, has two teenage sons, and recently took care of his bed-ridden mother for the last months of her life) have a compelling motive for their crimes. Toby, the brains behind the endeavour, had hoped the robberies would happen without violence. Unfortunately, that’s just not the way robberies go, which is why events inevitably take a nasty turn. 

The acting of the three men mentioned above, as well as that of Gil Birmingham (as Alberto Parker, Hamilton’s partner), is exceptional, with Bridges delivering one of his finest performances (and that’s saying something!). Look for an Oscar nomination. Critics seem surprised by Pine’s acting ability, but after watching him in last year’s Z for Zachariah I wasn’t surprised. The actors are helped by the well-developed characters provided in the excellent screenplay (written by Taylor Sheridan). What makes the screenplay special is the way it keeps avoiding predictability despite its oft-told story idea, the way it mixes humour, drama and suspense, and the way it somehow manages to be both simple and complex at the same time. Best of all is the way it makes us think about a variety of moral questions and about the relationship between injustice and crime (not to mention its unusual take on redemptive violence). 

The cinematography is another highlight of the film (just look at the shots above) and the score is strong. Everything I’ve written here makes it sound like a classic. And yet it didn’t feel entirely satisfying to me. I loved the acting, the strong dialogue, the tight direction and the cinematography, but there was something in the story that kept me from engaging with it the way I should have. It’s fantastic that we sympathize with every character in the film, but why wasn’t I more moved by that? It remains a mystery to me, so I’m willing to give Hell or High Water the **** it generally deserves, but I’m not sure it’ll make my top ten of the year. My mug is up!

Saturday, 27 August 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 1. The Missing

Over the past eight months, I have had the privilege (thanks partly to Netflix) of watching a number of excellent British TV serials, most of them of the suspense variety. In the past, I have included my reviews of such shows under the heading Scandinavian Noir. But I’ve decided British TV deserves to be treated with more respect, so I will begin this new series of reviews.

I’ve always loved British TV. Growing up, most of my favourite TV shows were British - shows like The Prisoner, The Avengers, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Man in a Suitcase, The Champions, Danger Man, The Persuaders, The Saint, UFO and of course all the Gerry Anderson puppet series (from Supercar on). I have watched countless British TV shows since those days and always had the sense (mentioned previously) that British TV was inherently more intelligent than American TV (or TV from any other country), at least until the advent of cable TV.

I’ve reviewed some of those shows on this blog, but now want to review at least eight recent British TV serials worth watching. Since most of these shows are worthy of having their own post, I will try reviewing them in separate posts, beginning with my favourite (of those I have watched in 2016): The Missing.

The Missing

The Missing, which aired from 2014 - 2015, stars James Nesbitt as Tony Hughes, a man whose son (Oliver) disappears while the family is on vacation in Northern France. Panic quickly sets in and Tony enlists the help of a local police inspector by the name of Julien Baptiste, played by Tchéky Karyo. Tony is convinced that his son was abducted, but there’s no ransom demand and no word from the abductors. The boy has simply vanished. 

The Missing takes place during two time periods and moves back and forth between them. The first episode actually begins in 2014, eight years after Oliver’s disappearance, after Tony uncovers what he thinks is evidence that his son was abducted and may still be alive. Again, he enlists the help of Julien, now retired, to help him follow the clues, though the small town of Chalon du Bois is tired of this case and Tony’s obsession.

Since it’s a mystery show that I highly recommend, I will reveal no more of the plot. Besides being a brilliantly written and brilliantly structured story, what makes The Missing stand out are the well-developed characters and the acting. Julien Baptiste is one of the best detective creations in the history of TV detectives, and Karyo, who is perfectly cast, is magnificent (one of my favourite performances in the history of television). Nesbitt is also the right casting choice to play Tony, a desperate volatile man trying to stay sane. Tony’s wife, Emily, who begins to lose patience with Tony, is the other major role, and is played very well by Frances O’Connor. Minor characters, like the various police officers involved in the case, also stand out as exceptionally well-developed and played. Meanwhile the cinematography is gorgeous and the music is perfect for this haunting masterpiece.

I should note that despite the involvement of Starz, The Missing has no gratuitous sex, violence or nudity whatsoever - amazing! Maybe that’s because it’s made by the BBC as well. 

The Missing is an extraordinary TV show, as good as mystery TV can get, and is now high on my list of all-time favourite TV serials. It gets an easy ****. I recommend this series highly to all suspense fans, but I must note that it is not available on Netflix. Sorry. 

Friday, 19 August 2016

Jason Bourne

Let me begin with a few reminders, which regular readers have seen here before:

  1. I like Matt Damon.
  2. I like intelligent spy thrillers.
  3. I like conspiracy thrillers.
  4. I’m a fan of The Bourne Identity and enjoyed the two sequels (though I did NOT appreciate Paul Greengrass’s style and the increasing emphasis on action versus story).
  5. I believe the single greatest threat to ‘public safety’ and to the life of every human being on the planet (not counting climate change), and possibly the greatest evil in the history of humanity (yes, more evil than Stalin or Hitler or ISIS), is the Central Intelligence Agency, so I’m a fan of any film that exposes and condemns the evil and inherent corruption of the CIA (or the NSA, etc.).
  6. I’m a HUGE admirer of whistleblowers of any kind; it’s the CIA and NSA, etc. which are guilty of treason (against the human race, the only nation state I recognize), not the whistleblowers who expose the horrific actions of these secretive agencies.

Okay, now let’s take a look at Jason Bourne, the fourth Matt Damon Bourne film and the third directed by Paul Greengrass (who also co-wrote this film). Like its predecessors, Jason Bourne is a conspiracy spy thriller about exposing and condemning the CIA, though it’s never clear whether the Bourne films are condemning the CIA as such or just certain corrupt individuals who work for (and usually lead) the CIA. 

Jason Bourne begins with Bourne’s friend and former colleague, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), hacking into the CIA’s computer system and copying all of its black-ops files, including one on Treadstone, which recruited and trained assassins (called assets) like Bourne. Parsons wants to put this information online so that everyone will know just how awful the CIA really is, and she solicits Bourne’s help, but Bourne doesn’t agree with Parsons’ goals and is more interested in what the Treadstone file reveals about the complicity of his father, Richard (Gregg Henry), in the Treadstone project. 

Meanwhile, back in Langley, the CIA has detected the hacking, thanks to the work of the brilliant and ambitious Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). The CIA’s current director, Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), is rightfully in a panic. But he’s got a second panic-inducing situation on his plate: Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), the founder of the new Deep Dream computer platform, is threatening to expose the CIA’s plans to use Deep Dream as part of a project to monitor every person on the planet (doesn’t get more Big Brother than that, and I believe the CIA and NSA are working on exactly such a project). So we’ve got two whistleblowers on the loose and Bourne caught in the middle (with a CIA asset, played by Vincent Cassel, hunting Bourne down in revenge for Bourne’s role in exposing him many years before). 

Because of the CIA-exposure elements of the plot, I was actually more engaged in the action (which still completely, and inexcusably, dominates the film) than in the previous two films, at least until the final twenty minutes or so, when double-revenge nonsense leads to a ridiculous car chase scene that all but ruins the entire film. Not that there weren’t other flaws, like the role played by the completely unnecessary new information about Bourne’s secretive background, involving his father. Of course, without that part of the story there is precious little plot to play with, which is my biggest complaint of the last three Bourne films (give me the complex plots of most British spy thrillers, like those penned by John le Carré, anytime). Then there are the unbelievable and uninformed computer and technology antics that make the CIA look much more competent than it is. And someone forgot to give the writers the memo about how the main reason Vic likes the Bourne films is because they are set almost entirely in Europe (Jason Bourne spends far too much of its time in Las Vegas). 

But there are also positive and discussable things about Jason Bourne. Damon IS Jason Bourne and he displays an ever-greater sense of the inner turmoil constantly experienced by his character, though in some ways Bourne is less sympathetic in this film. Vikander does an excellent job and Jones is always fun to watch. The question is: exactly how good or evil are the characters they play? Is Lee, like Pamela Landy in the previous two films, a woman with more of a conscience than her coldhearted male boss, wanting to help Bourne and to challenge her agency’s evil actions, or is SHE the coldhearted person trying to use Bourne to get rid of her boss and become director herself (as someone in my family suggested, though I prefer the former interpretation)? Is Dewey, meanwhile, a coldhearted killer protecting the CIA at all costs and planning ever greater evils, or is he a man put in an insanely stressful position struggling to do what’s best for his country (and for the world, in his mind)? 

And what about the Bourne series suddenly trying to be topical, with whistleblowers, computer platforms, invasive surveillance in the name of security, riots in Greece, etc. (the previous films were somewhat timeless in their focus on Bourne’s survival as he searches for the truth about his past)? Were the filmmakers simply wanting to make Jason Bourne more appealing to a new generation of filmgoers (the millennials) or were they using the film to express their views on the myriad dangers of surveillance and organizations like the CIA (I prefer the latter response)? 

Many questions and, as usual, many mixed messages. For example, there is a hint early on that Bourne is mortified by the violent actions the CIA has caused him to undertake and there is the suggestion that he just wants to be a man of peace. Except he’s making his living by fighting people and, when encouraged by Lee to “stop it now” instead of continuing on his path of violent revenge, he of course ignores her, and the filmmakers seem to support his decision (if for no other reason than because it gives them the opportunity for a mindless car chase and another fight). 

Despite being a nonstop-action film, our discussion (argument?) after viewing Jason Bourne was more animated than for most films we have seen this year, and just look at the length of this review! That’s not a bad thing. So Jason Bourne gets a solid *** (personally, I liked it better than Ultimatum, its critically-acclaimed predecessor, and, prior to that ridiculous chase at the end, was planning to award it ***+). My mug is up, but go in with low expectations.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016


Back-to-back indie flicks by first-time directors, both about an eighteen-year-old young man trying to find his place in the world, and yet Indignation bears almost no resemblance to Closet Monster. Where Closet Monster features a quirky and original style, camera work, music and content, Indignation couldn’t be more traditional. Its old-fashioned cinematography, score and style match its period setting of 1951 Ohio. For me, this is not a bad thing. Indeed, while I also liked Closet Monster, I liked Indignation much more.

Written and directed by James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth, Indignation gives us a year or so in the life of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a deep thinker and a serious and courteous young man. Marcus grew up in Newark, the only child of a butcher and his wife, both devout Jews. But Marcus has given up on religion, calling himself an atheist. So he’s not impressed when the college he chooses to attend (Winesburg College in Ohio) requires regular chapel attendance and provides him with two Jewish roommates.

The roommates, in turn, are not impressed when Marcus goes on a date with the beautiful and mysterious Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), leading to tensions that will eventually result in a very long visit to Dean Caudwell's (Tracy Letts) office, which may be my favourite scene of the year. Indignation has a number of marvellous scenes, each one featuring brilliant acting and dialogue (most of the film is dialogue) and wonderful close-up cinematography. These scenes make the film feel like it’s more about the pieces than the whole, which would be a major flaw in most films, but in this case I found it original and uniquely compelling.

Two of those terrific conversations are between Marcus and his mother (Linda Emond), who comes to visit Marcus in the hospital following an appendectomy. Those conversations will have far-reaching consequences, but I will say no more about the plot. 

Some critics find Indignation too self-serious and too slow, but I felt that the film’s carefully-structured style perfectly mirrored the personality of the protagonist, adding to my engagement with the film. Janelle didn’t like the film as much as I did. Like some critics, she wasn’t sure about the point of the film. I won’t divulge my thoughts on that here, except to say that I can see how Indignation is not a film that will appeal to everyone. But it pushed all the right buttons for me. This quiet, melancholy, funny, intelligent and thought-provoking drama gets an easy **** and will almost certainly make my top ten of 2016. My mug is up!

Monday, 15 August 2016

Closet Monster

This low-budget Canadian indie film is a coming-of age tale about Oscar, a gay teen growing up in Newfoundland. Oscar’s early years (played by Jack Fulton) seem happy enough until he witnesses an horrific attack on a gay boy, an event that will haunt him for many years. If he didn’t understand the importance of keeping his sexuality a secret before then, he does now. Shortly after that, Oscar’s parents get divorced and his relationship with both of them becomes strained. 

As an older teen, Oscar (Connor Jessup) focuses on becoming a make-up artist, using his friend, Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf) as his model. But it’s his hamster, Buffy (Isabella Rossellini), who is his closest friend and confidante. When Oscar develops a crush on a work colleague (Wilder, played Aliocha Schneider), the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur and Oscar’s life gets a little out-of-control.

Written and directed by the very young Stephen Dunn (he’s only 27), Closet Monster is a wonderful and original (and quirky) debut film (it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015), with fine performances by all concerned, great atmospheric cinematography, fascinating music and a screenplay with real heart that keeps you guessing until the end (it’s obviously autobiographical). While its low budget is sometimes evident, Closet Monster gets ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 12 August 2016

A Perfect Day

Despite its setting in a tense conflict zone in the Balkans, this is clearly not an action film. It is a day-in-the-life film with plot taking a back seat. Mini-plots are well done and keep the viewer engaged and the film manages an unusually successful mixture of comic lightness and grim reality. In fact, I would suggest that combination is its strength, depicting the kind of paradoxical blend of a sense of humour with the restrained optimism, courage and determination that enables aid workers to survive the dangers and absurdities of this kind of conflict. Most of the comic touches are managed without much exaggeration, though Tim Robbins' character (acted very well) does slip a little into caricature.

The acting is great, though  Del Toro and Robbins are probably given a little more room to demonstrate this than the lead  women, which was a missed opportunity. All in all it gives a sympathetic glimpse into the lives of aid workers that make you very appreciative of what they risk and the efforts they make in spite of the bureaucratic obstacles and the frustrating nature of human conflict that conspire to limit the effectiveness of what they can achieve. The closing scene adds just the right note to the mix, even though that may also be less than inspiring to those who work in the field.

Don't miss this relatively ignored gem if you have any interest at all in the lives of aid workers who help conflict zones slowly become livable again. ***+ and a mug up from me.

Star Trek Beyond

Thanks to Simon Pegg, who co-wrote it, the new Star Trek film feels much closer to the original television series than the two films that preceded it, especially with its greater emphasis on relationships and dialogue. Unfortunately, it's still too heavy on the action and the plot tells the same basic story as the other films and misses a perfect opportunity to do something original and imaginative at the end, namely redeem the villain. Star Trek Beyond gets *** verging on ***+. My mug is up.

My full review can be found at Third Way Cafe:

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Café Society

Woody Allen keeps making films and I keep enjoying them, finding them more entertaining than most comedy dramas out there. 

In a voice that doesn’t quite sound like him, Allen narrates the story of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man from New York City seeking to start a new life working for his uncle Phil (Steve Carrell) in 1930’s Hollywood. Bobby falls in love with his uncle’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), but Vonnie is in love with someone else. Meanwhile, Bobby’s older brother, Ben, has moved up in New York City’s gangster world and has bought a nightclub. Ben offers Bobby the opportunity to help him run the nightclub. With his heart broken, Bobby accepts Ben’s offer and returns to NYC, where both his life and personality will change dramatically. 

I’ve left a lot out to avoid too many spoilers. The description above doesn’t sound very funny, and the romance is actually quite serious and sad, but there are many funny lines in this dialogue-heavy film. Especially funny is the violent dark comedy, though the violence is also a little disturbing. 

Café Society isn’t one of Allen’s better films. It’s rather lightweight, it misses opportunities to help us truly engage with the characters, and a number of scenes fall flat, causing the film to drag at points. But the actors mentioned above do their best with what Allen’s given them (with Stewart standing out) and there are more more scenes that worked for me than those which didn’t work. The highlight for me, however, was the extraordinary cinematography - a work of art. The gorgeous cinematography did its best to contribute to the creation of a 1930’s atmosphere, though the overall success of that atmosphere was limited. 

Without the great cinematography, this would have been a standard, enjoyable three-star Allen film, as many of his more recent films have been, but it was such a joy to just look at Café Society that I’m letting the film fall somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up.