Friday, 30 September 2016

Heavyweightpaint at the Edmonton International Film Festival

The Edmonton International Film Festival (EIFF) kicked off last night and I plan to watch about 20 films in ten days. Last year, I wrote mostly mini-reviews in groups of four, but that does not do justice to the calibre of films being offered at EIFF. For example, last year I watched Academy-Award-nominated films like Room, Brooklyn, Son of Saul and Mustang (not to mention many other award-winning films) weeks or months before they showed up at the cinema. These films deserve more than one brief paragraph. So I’m going to write one EIFF review each day for the next 20 days or so, beginning with the opening film at EIFF: Heavyweightpaint, a documentary by Jeff Martini which had its world premiere last night.

Heavyweightpaint is the story of four struggling artists (painters) in New York City, three of whom grew up in Canada. Their names are Tim Okamura (from Edmonton), Taha Clayton (from Toronto), Joseph Adolphe (from Calgary) and Jerome LaGarrigue (from Paris). They are all extraordinarily talented painters but the film makes clear that it’s very hard to make a living painting, even if you are an excellent artist. 

Having connected to each other through Okamura, the four artists meet regularly to support each other and share their struggles. The film begins in 2011, when all four artists are finding it hard to display and sell their quality paintings. They eventually decide to do a show together, around the theme of boxing, though Hurricane Sandy delays the show for five months. It eventually takes place in May of 2013, though not with the results which they had hoped for.

From 2011 to May of 2013, Martini, who already had a relationship with the artists, shot over 120 hours of film, which he then edited to make Heavyweightpaint. The result is a very fine directing debut, though I think the film would have benefited from a little more editing (taking out another fifteen less-important minutes and focusing a little more on what happened after 2012, which only gets about 15 minutes). I understand that most of Martini’s footage was from 2011 and early 2012, but it still dominates the story too much.

On the positive side, the film’s organic, raw and informal nature allows us to get a very intimate glimpse into the life and personalities of the four men. All four artists and the director were at the premiere last night and we got to see even more of their personalities, including Okamura’s apology to his mother for his frequent use of foul language in the film (this was the first time the four artists saw the film). Of particular interest with regard to Okamura is that he is of Japanese-Canadian descent but paints primarily African-Americans, something which has drawn a lot of criticism in New York (which makes no sense, because, as Okamura says, he started painting African-Americans because they are under-represented in art).

It was a great start to the festival and Heavyweightpaint gets a solid *** verging on ***+. My mug is up, but it’s not likely that you’ll find this documentary showing at a theatre near you.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

People Places Things

So I haven't been doing too many of these reviews lately and as a result there have been few romantic comedies reviewed (Vic not being a big fan and all). So here's a refreshing change...

Flight of the Conchord's Jemaine Clement stars as a somewhat lost, recently separated, graphic novelist who is trying to make sense of his life (or as you can see in the picture above, asking "why does life suck so hard?"). He may not have a lot of energy or vision but he has a good heart, a natural honesty, and a quiet eye for eventually seeing what is going on - especially when he sketches out his comics.

Of course, he also has a unique sense of humour that allows the film to have a light touch without following typical rom com cliches (or at least not too many of them). The relationship that begins (and the way it begins) is also refreshingly different, making some subtle statements by not drawing attention to them.

The writing is clever and the outcome is not obvious. Definitely recommended if you like quirky indie comedies - ***+

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans is a beautifully-made, slow-paced, old-fashioned epic romance, a film that immerses you so completely in another place and time, with such well-developed and believable characters, that 132 minutes feels like many hours and yet doesn’t feel a minute too long. It’s the kind of film they don’t make enough of anymore. And maybe that’s why the critics weren’t that impressed, using words like ‘plodding’, ‘melodramatic’ and ‘manipulative weeper’ to describe a thoroughly humanizing film about forgiveness, compassion and love.

The Light Between Oceans is written and directed by Derek Cianofrance, based on the bestselling debut novel by M.L. Stedman. Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a young man who returns to Australia in 1918, after four years of war, broken and in need of peace and healing. The opportunity to work as a lighthouse keeper on an island (Janus) a hundred miles from the nearest person strikes him as an ideal way to get away. But it gets lonely in a hurry and he can’t stop thinking about Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the young woman he met just before heading out on his first three-month tour.

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without some spoilers, so if you are not deterred by the words ‘slow-paced’, you may want to watch the film before reading further (this one is highly recommended for watching on the big screen). 

Isabel and Tom get married and live together on the island for years. But after two miscarriages, Isabel despairs of starting a family - until a rowboat washes up on the shore carrying a dead young man and a screaming baby. Convinced that the baby would end up in an orphanage, and that the timing is too coincidental (Isabel has just lost the second child), Isabel convinces Tom not to report the boat and keep the baby as if it were their own. They name the baby Lucy (which means ‘light’).

Higher level of spoilers: Two years later, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and Tom discovers that the mother of the baby (Hannah, played by Rachel Weisz) is still alive and grieving the loss of her family. Tom’s conscience tears at him, precipitating a number of crises. And that’s enough to know to introduce the primary characters.

Fassbender and Vikander, two of the finest young actors out there, are outstanding in The Light Between Oceans, and Weisz isn’t far behind. The film is gorgeously shot on location in New Zealand and Tasmania. The good score is always present but not overwhelming. The screenplay is intelligent and moving and the directing is assured throughout.

Names in the film hint at deeper meanings, making for profound observations about life, about brokenness and, of course, about light in the midst of darkness. The Light Between Oceans may be a little too melodramatic, but only a little, and its flaws can be forgiven because it’s the kind of film that helps us to be better people, which Gareth and I agree is one of the criteria of greatness. So I think the critics got this one wrong as well (that’s three in a row). I award The Light Between Oceans ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2016


How dare Oliver Stone make a film that calls into question the integrity of the most important institution in human history, an organization without which the world would surely be lying in ruins by now? I am referring, of course, to that bulwark of democracy and all things good, that most treasured of human institutions (at least by ME): the Central Intelligence Agency. How dare he???

Retroactive sarcasm alert for those who are not regular readers.

Of course, this is not the first time Stone has made a film that exposes the nefarious activities of that most evil of human institutions (along with its brother, the NSA, which also gets bad press in Snowden), most recently in his twelve-part documentary, The Untold History of the United States. Stone couldn’t find a single Hollywood studio to finance Snowden and ended up being financed from Germany, where he also filmed Snowden to avoid interference from the NSA and CIA. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who, in June of 2013, gave up a promising career in intelligence to expose the way the CIA and NSA were using the internet to spy on literally everybody on the planet, including Americans and world leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel (who was not at all amused). And not just spy on people, but, after spying on them, blow them up with drones without a second’s pause. 

Having watched and loved the great documentary, Citizenfour, in 2014, which films Snowden immediately before, during, and after his triumphant exposé in the global media (and which features as a framing device for Stone’s Snowden), I didn’t understand why Stone needed to make a dramatized version of the story. The mediocre reviews from critics also didn’t provide me with any encouragement to watch Stone’s film. But I’m very glad I ignored those deterrents and watched Snowden anyway, because it’s a marvellous and vital film, especially relevant at this time, as we come to the end of one of the most depressing American election seasons in history (the Sanders story notwithstanding).

It didn’t take me long to appreciate why Stone made the film. Watching Snowden live in Citizenfour was astonishing and mesmerizing, but that documentary did relatively little to provide a context for Snowden’s actions, at least compared to Snowden. Only in this film do we see the influence of his partner, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), in his life and his politics, and understand his growing concern for the way the CIA and NSA spy on people and lie about what they are doing. 

Along the way, we meet Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), the CIA recruiter who hires and mentors Snowden despite Snowden’s lack of formal education. The scene in which O’Brian confronts Snowden about lying on one of his regular exams/interrogations is beautifully done, revealing how the CIA and Orwell’s Big Brother are one and the same. And then there’s a delicious cameo by Nicolas Cage as a CIA computer expert who briefly befriends Snowden. Other actors of note include Melissa Leo (as filmmaker Laura Poitras), Zachary Quinto (as Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald) and Tom Wilkinson (as Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill), the three people who joined Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room and made his exposé possible. All of the acting in Snowden is solid if not extraordinary (Ifans stood out for me). 

The score and cinematography are likewise solid and the style of the film worked well for me, providing just enough creative elements to keep it from being too straightforward a true-story film. Unlike Sully, in which I felt no suspense because, as in Snowden, I knew the outcome of the story, I did feel the suspense in Snowden. And I loved the way Stone ended the film. 

As for the accusation by many film critics that Snowden is too one-sided, not presenting the dangers (security breaches) produced by whistleblowers like Snowden and making him too much of a hero, I can only offer my opinion that, whatever Snowden’s faults, his bravery as a whistleblower makes him one of the great American heroes of our time. There is no ‘other side’ that questions whether Snowden is a traitor deserving of capital punishment. All of us who know hidden inside information about organizations need to ask when it is appropriate, and in the best interests of all, to be a whistleblower, but in the case of the CIA and NSA, it’s a no-brainer (and I hope Snowden inspires an entire generation of whistleblowers). Indeed, my only major complaint about Snowden is that it might not have been bold enough in its condemnation of American intelligence agencies.

While Citizenfour is a better film than Snowden, I am also giving Snowden **** (and a likely spot in my top ten films of 2016). My mug is up.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 8. Quirke

My final entry in this British TV serials review series (for now) is not available on Netflix. It’s a three-episode (90 minutes each) semi-serial called Quirke. Written by Andrew Davies and Conor McPherson, based on novels by John Banville, Quirke stars Gabriel Byrne as Quirke, the chief pathologist in 1950’s Dublin whose investigations lead him to some very strange and dark places. Michael Gambon plays Quirke’s adopted father, Nick Dunning stars as Quirke’s brother and Aisling Franciosi plays Quirke’s niece. 

Quirke is a largely forgotten show which drew little attention when it was broadcast in late 2013 and doesn’t get much acclaim. However, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Among its many positive attributes are the wonderfully atmospheric cinematography and locations, the noir feel, the fantastic acting (especially by Byrne, who is perfectly cast), the intelligent screenplays which are much more about character development than they are about the mysteries being solved, and the way the show touches on a variety of issues  in 1950’s Dublin, especially the power of the church.

Quirke is a dark show with a dark protagonist (Quirke is a melancholic alcoholic). Its plots are slow and reward patience that isn’t overly concerned with the crime-solving side of the stories. It isn’t for everyone and it isn’t easy to get hold of, but I had to include it in this review series, because I found it very much worth watching. ***+. My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

TV55: The Code

I’m interrupting my series of reviews on British TV serials with a review of an Australian TV serial I just finished watching on Netflix: The Code

I haven’t seen many Australian TV shows, so this is first and foremost an exotic adventure for me, especially since parts of The Code are filmed in rural New South Wales. Unfortunately, the style of cinematography is my least favourite kind (e.g. lots of handheld movement), which lessens the potential for enjoying the wonderful locations. 

The Code, created by Shelley Birse, stars Dan Spielman and Ashley Zuckerman as brothers Ned and Jesse Banks, who live in Canberra (Australia’s capital). Ned is a journalist and Jesse is an autistic convicted computer hacker who is being carefully watched by the authorities. Other major characters include Hani (Adele Perovic), another young hacker who befriends Jesse, Sophie (Chelsea Preston Crayford) director of Communications for the Prime Minister and friend of Ned’s, Alex Wisham (Lucy Lawless), a schoolteacher in the small town of Lindara, who will also become Ned’s friend, Randall Keats (Aden Young), the PM’s Chief of Staff, Lyndon Joyce (Dan Wyllie), a police detective, and Ian Bradley (David Wenham), the Deputy PM. 

The plot of the first six-episode season is amazingly complex and the scattered nature of the storytelling doesn’t help with comprehension. It starts with a car accident in the middle of the desert. But it’s a suspicious accident and Ned Banks gets a tip from Sophie (or was it Sophie?) that leads him to Alex, who teaches one of the two young people involved in the accident (the other didn’t make it). Alex doesn’t like the way the local police are handling the investigation of the accident and sneaks the cellphone of one of the victims out of the car. Eventually, she asks Ned if he can help her find out what the phone has videotaped, which is something Jesse can do in his sleep. The video reveals that there was a murder, and Jesse breaks the rules of his probation to hack into the computers of a company he suspects was involved in the murder (because of clues in the video). He ends up getting a secret file that is so well encrypted even he can’t see what’s on it. But in the meantime, the powers-that-be (both good and bad) have caught on to what Jesse and Ned are doing and try to stop them from exposing government secrets, an exposure which could have disastrous consequences.

That’s just a barebones outline of the plot. There’s much more going on, which makes the show endlessly fascinating, especially when the story constantly defies predictability. The Code is one of the most raw, original and unconventional TV shows I have ever seen. It uses its unique style to address issues like surveillance and hacking while also not afraid to tackle weapons, torture and government corruption (including the inherently evil way intelligence agencies operate, always a sure way into my heart). Great stuff! And there are consistent efforts at humanization as well, with some excellent character development. The acting is stellar throughout.

The Code isn’t perfect, with issues of credibility surfacing regularly, and some inexplicable plot holes, not to mention that it’s a dark show with a fair bit of violence (to be expected in Australian noir I guess). But this show got to me and I have to give it ****. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016


The wonderful Tom Hanks stars as ‘Sully’ Sullenberger in Clint Eastwood’s new film, Sully. Sully tells the true story of a U.S. Airlines flight forced to land in the Hudson River in New York in 2009 after the plane hit a flock of birds that knocked out both engines. All 155 people on board survived the forced landing thanks to the skill of the pilot (Sully), but the powers-that-be think Sully should have flown the plane back to LaGuardia Airport, and they have computer simulations that prove it would have been possible.

Sully and his copilot (Jeff Sikes, played by Aaron Eckhardt) are convinced that they couldn’t have made it back to the airport with no thrust and find themselves ‘on trial’ for making a dangerous decision. The hearing is the focus of the film, which has numerous flashbacks, including the details of the scary flight itself. Meanwhile, Laura Linney plays Sully’s concerned wife, waiting at home while Sully tries to defend his decision.

Sully is a well-made film telling an interesting story, but it seems to be so intent on being low-key and unsensational, with such understated performances by Hanks and Eckhardt, that I found it difficult to get fully engaged. It’s okay to have the focus on Sully and the anxious self-doubt that grabs him after the landing, and I’m generally a fan of low-key unsensational films. And Hanks, as always, is great (though playing the very stoic Sully doesn’t give him a wide range to play with), with the other actors fine in support. The cinematography is also strong. But something was missing for me. Despite its unique structure and top-notch production values, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a ‘by-the-numbers’ made-for-TV true story. Or maybe it was just too Hollywood for me.

So I think the critics were too kind on this one, especially when they talk about the suspense they found in Sully's plane landing despite the viewers knowing the outcome. I felt none of that suspense myself; the only suspense I felt concerned the results of the hearing.

Nevertheless, Sully is worth watching and gets a solid ***, which is three stars more than Eastwood’s last film (the awful American Sniper). My mug is up. 

Friday, 16 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 7. Happy Valley

As good as Anna Friel is in Marcella, Sarah Lancashire is her equal as another British police officer in Happy Valley. Set in northern England (West Yorkshire), Happy Valley is anything but a happy show. I’ve watched two six-episode seasons on Netflix, both of which are bleak and raw. 

Lancashire plays Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant still recovering from her daughter’s suicide eight years before. With the help of her sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran), a recovering alcoholic, Cawood is bringing up her daughter’s son, Ryan (Rhys Connah), who was the product of a rape by Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton). When Cawood learns that Royce has been released from prison (where he served eight years on drug charges), she becomes obsessed with finding him, never dreaming how dark that search would become.

In Season Two, which is built on the first season and therefore won’t be described in any detail here, Cawood finds herself under suspicion for murder. While trying to clear herself, she works on a human trafficking case and, of course, we soon run into the ubiquitous serial killer (sigh sigh sigh). 

I loved the originality of the first season as well as the rawness of the characters and the unpredictable plot-lines. Combined with the marvellous performances from all concerned and the sharp writing by the show’s creator, Susan Wainwright, not to mention the excellent cinematography, and I was hooked. Only the darkness of the graphic violence and a slight lack of polish kept me from giving that first season four stars. 

The plot of the second season, unfortunately, went into all kinds of places that didn’t work as well for me, and was less original. But the acting and dialogue remained very strong and Lancashire was so good, and her character so complex and well-developed that I stayed with it, and I’m giving Happy Valley a solid ***+. My mug is up for another British serial worth watching, but be warned that this unhappy show is, like Marcella, a very dark thriller. 

Thursday, 15 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 6. Marcella

Now we come to two more Netflix shows featuring women in the lead roles. Both of these actors play top-notch detectives who are struggling with a variety of issues in their personal lives and both deliver such wonderful performances that the shows are worth watching for those performances alone.

I’ll start with Marcella and move on to the second show (Happy Valley) on Saturday. 

Anna Friel plays Detective Sergeant Marcella Backland, a woman who left the police force many years ago to take care of her family but is brought back in when a colleague reveals new evidence about an 11-year-old case Marcella had been working on before she left. The timing isn’t great, however, because Marcella’s husband, Jason (Nicholas Pinnock), has just walked out on her and Marcella is about to discover he’s been having an affair for some time. The trauma of this will have a huge impact on Marcella’s ability to focus on the case, especially when strange goings-on at her husband’s company (a huge construction firm led by Sylvie Gibson (Sinéad Cusack)) begin to touch on the case.

The case in question is about a serial killer (sigh - I’m so tired of this theme) and Marcella has her own ideas about where the investigation should go, frustrating many of her colleagues, including her boss, DCI Laura Potter (Nina Sosanya), who tries hard to be supportive. That’s not easy when Marcella begins having mysterious blackouts which will force her to distance herself even further from her colleagues (and even do some illegal things). 

Created by Hans Rosenfeldt and Nicola Larder, and written by Rosenfeldt (who also created The Bridge), the eight-episode first season of Marcella is a dark, twisted and generally gripping series, with great acting by everyone involved (especially Friel), gorgeous cinematography, great music and an original, sympathetic and strong protagonist (whose struggle with mental health issues adds a lot, even if it’s not always credible). That’s all great, but unfortunately Marcella is just a little too cold for my taste (like The Bridge), wastes too many opportunities to be relevant and has a few too many clichés (not to mention a sometimes questionable structure).

Nevertheless, Marcella is an entertaining, well-made British thriller that is worth watching (if you like such shows), not least because it contains so many strong female characters. Marcella gets ***+. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 11 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 5. Doctor Foster

Another Netflix show, Doctor Foster (season one, five episodes) stars Suranne Jones as Dr. Gemma Foster, a doctor at a small medical centre who finds a hair and suddenly suspects that her husband, Simon (Bertie Carvel), is having an affair. Gemma doesn't want to confront Simon without more evidence so she decides to play detective to try and find the truth. What she discovers will send her down a dark path and create an obsession that quickly spirals out of control. 

Doctor Foster is such a dark intense drama, and has such a strong soundtrack, that it is easily dismissed as an absurd melodrama (absurd because Gemma’s actions don’t always feel credible for an intelligent character). But the show, which takes many twists and turns, can be viewed at some level as a vary dark comedy, which would negate that dismissal. I, for one, found Doctor Foster incredibly compelling, mostly because of Jones’s wonderful performance as a woman losing control (the rest of the acting is also very strong for TV), but also because, while Mike Bartlett’s screenplay might verge on the melodramatic, it is well-paced and unpredictable and contains a number of spellbinding scenes full of raw dialogue.

The ending defies expectations and will be hated by some as it will be appreciated by others. In general, I fall into the latter category. Doctor Foster is an original and compelling serial that I thoroughly enjoyed, so much so that I’m giving it ****. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Pete's Dragon

Vic a: Wow!

Vic b: What’s that? You’re giving one of your few ‘wow’s of the year to some mediocre Disney film about a boy and a CGI dragon? Are you kidding me?

Vic a: Hey, I’m as surprised as you are. I didn’t even have any interest in seeing Pete’s Dragon. I mean, the animated version was a dud, so why bother making a live action version, right? But Janelle wanted to see it, so…

Vic b: Yeah, okay, I understand why you went, but that doesn’t explain the ‘wow’. Come on, a super-sweet kids’ film about a lost boy who spends six years in the forest with a dragon before he gets noticed and then of course there’s a baddie who wants to capture and exploit the dragon. What we have here is a simple unoriginal story with an overbearing score and a furry dragon. A ‘wow’? Seriously?

Vic a: I hear you. Even with the excellent child acting (by Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence), I was sitting there thinking, ‘Why did I waste my time and money on this? It doesn’t even resemble any Disney film that I have seen in forever (not even the animated film with the same name): this is a very slow, poetic film with hardly any action and no redemptive violence at all and … wait a minute.’ 

Vic b: So what happened?

Vic a: It dawned on me that Pete’s Dragon was unlike any Disney film I had seen in forever, a slow poetic film with hardly any action and no redemptive violence! Not only that, it had a scene in the middle (with Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard playing father and daughter) that just pulled the ground from under my feet and is now my favourite scene of the year. After that scene I couldn’t stop crying, and neither could Janelle. I can’t even remember the last time I watched a film with an emotional punch like this. Unfathomable.

Vic b: Hmmm. Sounds like you were the victim of some serious sentimental manipulation. Remember this is Disney. Think of all the damage Disney has done to impressionable young minds.

Vic a: I know very well the kind of influence Disney can exert on impressionable young minds. And I agree that something smells fishy when Disney makes a film that doesn’t appear to be fuelled by corporate greed, a film that feels even older than its 1980’s setting and almost seems to dare viewers to come to the cinema to watch somethings completely different. But maybe it’s a sign of hope; I mean, Disney is still making some great films (remember Inside Out?).

Vic b: Yeah, but look at the megabucks they’re raking in; it’s all about the money, as it always has been. Disney just gives people what they want.

Vic a: And yet, even though Pete’s Dragon is doing surprisingly well at the box office, it’s not going to come within light years of The Jungle Book, which was a decent film but nowhere near as good as Pete’ Dragon. Disney must have known this would never be a huge hit, but they took a chance anyway; they should be applauded for that.

Vic b: Somebody must have been sleeping. Who is this David Lowery fellow anyway, the guy who directed and co-wrote Pete’s Dragon?

Vic a: Never heard of him, but I see he did direct an episode of the wonderful Rectify, and Gareth says good things about him, so maybe he slipped through some crack in the Disney machine. Or maybe Disney is able to think beyond the almighty dollar once in a while. 

Vic b: I’ll need more evidence before admitting that. And you still haven’t explained the ‘wow’.

Vic a: Bottom line: Pete’s Dragon is pure magic. It’s about seeing the world through eyes of innocent wonder instead of through eyes of resource extraction; indeed, it's about discovering that there's much more out there than we can see with our eyes. It’s about love, friendship, family and the environment, and did I mention there’s hardly any action and that the film’s baddie (played by Karl Urban) is … wait for it … redeemed at the end?

Vic b: No way! Not in a Disney film. You must have missed something.

Vic a. I couldn’t believe it either. I’m telling you, this is the kind of family film Hollywood hasn’t made in decades and the relief is a little overwhelming. I’m almost in shock, and thus the ‘wow’ and the unexpected ****. My mug is up. Take your kids and take yourselves to the surprise film of the decade (I recommend, as you know, the 2D version). 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 4. Humans

And now for some sci-fi, which remains my favourite genre (though relatively few sci-fi films and TV shows achieve greatness).

In the wake of films like Ex Machina, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, WALL-E and Her (among others) and TV shows like Battlestar Galactica and Extant, we can compile a long list of questions about the dangers and advantages of artificial intelligence, questions like:

  1. Will A.I. ‘machines’ replace humans in the work force (and if so, how will that impact human life and meaning?)?
  2. How will A.I. ‘machines’ relate to humans and each other (can they love?) and how will that impact human relationships with other humans?
  3. How will A.I. ‘machines’ be used as sex objects and how will that impact the sex life of humans?
  4. Will A.I. ‘machines’ inevitably see humans as inferior and take over (think Terminator or The Matrix)?
  5. Will A.I. ‘machines’ learn to reproduce themselves?
  6. Will A.I. ‘machines’ be constrained by the Asimov blocks (laws governing A.I. robots)?

Lots of fascinating questions, many of which relate to bigger questions of social justice (e.g. the exploitation of labour) and the meaning of life.

And I have recently watched the first season (eight episodes) of a British TV series that brilliantly engages with all of these issues. It’s called Humans and is based on the Swedish TV series Real Humans. I am naturally skeptical of English-language remakes of quality TV shows in other languages,  and my expectations were not high. Humans, while not perfect (and I look forward to watching the Swedish series someday), had no trouble exceeding those expectations and had me awed and captivated throughout the first season. This was not because of the outstanding science or special effects or acting or other production values, but because of how ‘human’ this show is. By this I refer to its engagement with those questions above and with the underlying question of what it means to be human. Humans is one of the most thought-provoking TV shows I have ever watched, and few criteria, if any, are higher on my list of what I look for in TV entertainment than ‘making me think’. 

Besides being thought-provoking, Humans is also a well-structured drama and suspenseful sci-fi mystery/thriller. Its plot revolves around the near-future creation of ‘synths’ (A.I. robots) and what happens as they evolve (with the often-used plot element of introducing the person who created the synths). Humans is an ensemble show, with far too many key characters to name them all here, focusing on the Hawkins family and how one particular group of synths changes the family's life. The acting is strong throughout, though not outstanding. Created (and generally written by) Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, Humans is not original (I’ve seen most of this before), but it does such a great job of asking vital questions in an entertaining and emotionally-compelling way (i.e. the writing is often superb) that I give it a solid ****. My mug is up. Not to be missed if you’re a sci-fi fan, though I’m sorry to say it’s not on Netflix (at least not yet). 

Sunday, 4 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 3. River

Created and written by Abi Morgan, the six-episode River stars Stellan Skarsgård as Detective Inspector (DI) John River of London’s Metropolitan Police Service and Nicola Walker as Detective Sergeant (DS) Jackie “Stevie” Stevenson, River’s deceased partner. If she’s deceased, you ask, then how can she be the co-star? The answer is what makes River such a uniquely compelling police drama.

You see, River, who had very strong feelings for his partner, witnessed Stevie’s murder. Horrified and devastated, River replays the scene in his mind over and over again (and we get to watch the grisly murder over and over again, which for me is the show’s only major flaw). Despite being excluded from the case, River becomes understandably obsessed with finding the killer and uncovering the circumstances behind Stevie’s death. In the course of that hunt, River is frequently accompanied (haunted) by Stevie herself, who talks to River about many things, including his handling of the investigation. In the meantime, River has to work with his new partner, Ira (Adeel Akhtar), who is understandably concerned about River’s obsession and psychological health but shows a remarkable level of patience.

In the wrong hands, such a plot could easily fail, but the superb writing and acting in this series make it one of the best TV serials ever made. Featuring an extraordinary level of character development, this show is much more about the people involved than about the investigation of the murder. Some viewers will no doubt be very frustrated by this, but I loved it. The melancholic River is a wonderfully original TV detective creation and Skarsgård’s performance is nothing short of sublime, though Walker and Akhtar are also marvellous in support. 

River is also notable in its deft commentary on social issues related to racism, sexism and classism. Add to all of this the stylish direction and beautiful cinematography and you have a piece of classic television (and it’s available on Netflix). My second-favourite (The Missing was number one) in this ten-part series. Not to be missed (if you can handle the graphic murder scene), River gets an easy ****. My mug is up. 

Friday, 2 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 2. The Night Manager

“Nothing quite as pretty as napalm at night,” says the villain Richard Roper (played by Hugh Laurie) in a particularly uncomfortable scene of the six-hour British miniseries, The Night Manager, which is based on the John le Carré novel of the same name. It’s an obvious reference to the classic line delivered by Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” It’s also the kind of nasty line that comes naturally to Roper, a man described as “the worst man in the world”. But it feels just a bit too much like Laurie delivering one of his many tongue-in-cheek lines in the TV series House. Which is not to say that Laurie doesn’t give a great performance as the coldhearted arms dealer; it’s just that there’s something a little off in Roper’s House-like one-liners, as there’s something a little off in many parts of The Night Manager.

And yet I absolutely loved watching this thoroughly entertaining series. I mean, as a lover of quiet intelligent conspiracy spy thrillers, gorgeously filmed in exotic locales, how could I not love this show? Especially if you throw in the fine acting of great actors and overall production values that are as good as anything you’ll see at the cinema. I can even forgive the James Bond-like score, because The Night Manager has the feel of Bond films at their best. 

The Night Manager stars Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, who, at the start of the first episode, is working as the night manager in Cairo’s finest hotel during the Arab Spring uprising that ousted Mubarak. The girlfriend of a local crime boss is staying at the hotel and lets Pine know that her boyfriend is purchasing arms from Roper to be used against the protestors. Pine shares this info with a friend in the British Embassy and soon after that the woman Pine has been trying to protect is murdered. Pine is furious with London intelligence (whom he blames for the leak) but hangs onto the phone number of Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), the director of a small intelligence agency in London, because Burr had tried to warn him. Jump ahead four years and Pine is now the night manager at a hotel in Zermatt when Roper and his entourage fly in one night. Pine is suspicious of Roper’s activities and calls Burr, who recruits Pine as her secret undercover spy (secret even from the other British intelligence agencies, whom she suspects of colluding with Roper). Burr wants nothing more than to put an end to Roper’s horrific arms-dealing (which includes not only napalm, but also nerve gas), which Roper carries out under the guise of humanitarian work - supposedly delivering agricultural equipment to war-torn countries. Unfortunately, while putting an end to arms dealing is a lofty goal, there’s a sense that both Burr and Pine are basically in this for revenge.

And so the real suspense begins. And there’s a lot of suspense in The Night Manager, as well as a lot of excellent dialogue. But, as I mentioned, time and again I felt something was off. One of those things was Roper’s willingness to trust a man he should have been too smart to trust. Another was Pine’s bizarre romantic entanglements when the chemistry just wasn’t there. This might have been the result of Hiddleston’s acting or because we never really get into Pine’s head in a satisfactory way (six hours leaves a lot of time for character development). The same can be said of Roper, Roper’s girlfriend, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), who plays a major role, and Roper’s righthand man, Corky (Tom Hollander), whose sexual orientation was used in the worst possible off-putting way. And while the plot has the necessary twists and turns, too many of them were predictable. Added to these more subtle frustrations is the awful awful ending, which bears no resemblance to the infinitely better ending of le Carrés novel and, in my opinion, flies in the face of whatever good character development has preceded it (i.e. it’s inconsistent).  

This all sounds very negative, and should be more than enough to tank the series, so you may be surprised to hear that I’m still considering awarding The Night Manager ****. How can that be, you ask? Well, I’m so glad you asked; here are my reasons:
  1. Despite the fact that The Night Manager is ostensibly about the psychological battle of wits between Pine and Roper, the series is completely stolen by another character and by an actor who outperforms both Hiddleston and Laurie. That character is Burr (and the actor is Colman). Burr is by far the most sympathetic and well-developed character in the show and Colman’s performance is spot-on; I loved every minute she was on the screen. In the novel, Burr is a man. If Burr had been a man in the series, it would have made The Night Manager another typically male-dominated show. Instead, Burr's presence alone makes it almost a draw. The fact that Burr is a woman in this series may (or may not) have something to do with the fact that the series was directed by one of the world’ s few well-known female directors: Susanne Bier. 
  2. Bier’s direction, which focused, at least visually, on characters, was the only thing that kept Pine and Roper in the game, because she kept the camera on their faces (in countless close-ups). So even though we have far too little background on their characters, we at least can see every nuance of their expressions as they try to decide their next moves (though, as I said, this sometimes felt off).
  3. While The Night Manager doesn’t focus enough on the horrors of the global arms trade, at least it makes it clear that the sale of arms is a great evil and that it’s all about money rather than about considering the moral issues involved (reminding me of Canada’s recent appalling sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia). Of course, I wish that it was clearer that all arms are evil regardless of who is using them, but it’s a start.
  4. The Night Manager shows that the CIA and MI6 have no trouble with illegally supporting arms dealers like Roper so that they can control where the weapons are going. You know by now what I think of such agencies, so exposing their inherent corruption works for me.
  5. Heh, it’s my kind of show and I can’t really expect them to always make it my way. But that ending - seriously??? Why???
Sigh. The Night Manager. It’s worth a look and I’m giving it ***+ - ****. My mug is up.