Wednesday, 22 February 2017

TV56: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

The first season of American Crime Story is really a ten-part miniseries on the so-called Trial of the Century: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Unlike many people around the world, including tens of millions in the U.S., I didn’t pay much attention to the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Perhaps that’s one reason the show didn’t blow me away, the way it blew away a majority of TV critics. The People v. O.J. Simpson has received countless awards and overwhelming critical acclaim. Frankly, I can’t see it. For a TV show, and even for a TV miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson is very good. But, in my opinion, it’s far from great.

The People v. O.J. Simpson begins with the police arrival at the murder scene and goes on to show Simpson’s arrest, the preparations for his trial, and the trial itself. The story makes for fascinating television, especially when it highlights the racial implications of the trial, which are, in fact, a focal point of the show. I thought that aspect of the series was handled very well, with lots of good writing and dialogue in evidence. And there were a number of marvellous scenes in the courtroom (and outside of it). But, in the end, The People v. O.J. Simpson suffers from exactly the same major flaw as most miniseries: it’s far too long for what it offers.

In particular, I thought the second episode was abysmal and I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that millions of viewers stopped watching the show after the second episode. The entire episode is about a slow-moving interstate car chase, in which Simpson, fleeing his arrest, is sitting in the back of his white Ford Bronco with a gun to his own head, while dozens of police cars follow. Sure, this scene was watched live around the world and was major news, but the very fact that this was the case shows how warped our society’s obsession with celebrity is. This scene deserved maybe fifteen to twenty minutes. To draw it out for a whole episode was completely unnecessary and very boring. I could point to many other scenes in the eight-plus-hour show that were unnecessary. It’s a common flaw in miniseries, so it’s forgivable, but this example of poor writing alone prevents me from calling the show great.

Then there’s the acting. Leading the prosecution is Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson, who is certainly the best thing about the show and deserves all her awards for her phenomenal performance. Helping her is Chris Darden, played by Sterling K. Brown, who is well-cast and does a good job. Simpson is played by Cuba Gooding Jr., whose acting was generally quite good in its own way. But Gooding Jr. doesn’t sound at all like Simpson and his whiny voice didn’t feel credible as a representation of Simpson. So, despite Gooding, Jr.’s abilities, I can’t help but think this was a serious casting mistake. But not as big a mistake as casting John Travolta as Bob Shapiro, one of the core members of Simpson’s defence team. Regardless of how close Travolta came to emulating Shapiro, his over-the-top acting made Shapiro look like a fool and made me cringe most of the time. Other members of the defence team fared much better, especially Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, who took over the leadership of the defence. Vance was superb, second only to Paulson. Nathan Lane was also very good as F. Lee Bailey and David Schwimmer had his moments as Simpson’s lawyer and close friend, Robert Kardashian. 

Other actors of note were Bruce Greenwood as Gil Garcetti, the L.A. D.A., who did fine, and Kenneth Choi as Judge Lance Ito, who was solid enough. At the end of the series, we are shown what people looked like side-by-side with the actors who played them. Clearly it was a priority to find lookalikes, because the resemblance is amazing. But rather than impressing me, this only served to explain the mistakes in casting.

I should point out that the cinematography was of the finest Cable TV standard. In the end, The People v. O.J. Simpson gets a solid ***+. My mug is up, but I had expected something tastier and more stimulating inside. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

It's Our 10th Anniversary!

It has been exactly ten years since we (Walter and Vic) started this blog. During those years, the blog has evolved. At first, it was envisioned as a way for the two of us to dialogue about the films we were watching, with the hope that others would be interested in reading, and contributing to, this dialogue. However, it soon became clear that the dialogue element of the blog would be somewhat limited, due to varying opportunities to access and watch films. As a result, the blog became more focused on providing film reviews from our personal perspectives, which, whether or not it was overt, always included a theological component. Due to Vic’s writing of film reviews for other publications (e.g. Canadian Mennonite and Third Way CafĂ©), and his ability to watch far more films, he became the primary contributor, with Walter contributing as he was able.

In total, we have written 675 posts during the ten years, reviewing more than 750 films and cable TV shows. With less than 30 posts a year during the first four years, we have averaged 94 posts a year since 2010. Our readership has increased steadily over the past decade, with more than 132,000 pageviews to date. A big thank you to all our followers and readers, and a special thanks to those who posted comments. Please don’t be shy about joining the conversation.

To celebrate our tenth anniversary, we decided to share with you a list of our jointly-favourite films of the past decade, listed in order of how highly we agreed on our appreciation of the films. To clarify, this list does not contain all of Walter’s favourite films or Vic’s favourite films (annual lists of this kind can be found on the blog, generally in January), but a list of films that we are equally excited about (two mugs held high, as it were). So the first film on the list, Of Gods and Men, was, for both os us, our favourite film of 2011, the only time this happened. 

This does not mean that we think this list represents the best thirty films of the past decade. Rather, these are films that, for whatever reasons, we particularly enjoyed. While most of the individual years are equally-represented below, there are six films on the list from 2014 (the best year for film during past decade). Another stat of interest is that ten of these thirty films are foreign-language films and only a couple would qualify as Hollywood films.

Some readers may be wondering why we use mugs to describe our appreciation of films, something we haven’t addressed since our very earliest blog posts. Well, we happen to both be coffee lovers, so, ‘thumbs up’ being taken, we decided to lift up our mugs to the good films we were watching. The films below all got a ‘mug up’ from both of us, and the mugs were full of Colombia’s finest (fair trade, of course).
  1. Of Gods and Men (2011)
  2. The Lives of Others (2007)
  3. The Visitor (2008) 
  4. Les Miserables (2012)
  5. Calvary (2014)
  6. Short Term 12 (2013)
  7. Winter’s Bone (2010)
  8. Once (2007)
  9. Tangerines (2015) (made in 2013 but released in 2015)
  10. Monsieur Lazhar (2012)
  11. Captain Fantastic (2016)
  12. The King’s Speech (2010)
  13. Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2009)
  14. Ex Machina (2015)
  15. The Salt of the Earth (2015)
  16. A Man Called Ove (2016)
  17. Locke (2014)
  18. Ida (2014)
  19. Incendies (2011)
  20. Cloud Atlas (2012)
  21. Take Shelter (2011)
  22. The Ghost Writer (2010)
  23. Selma (2014)
  24. Pride (2014)
  25. Hellbound? (2012)
  26. The Way (2011)
  27. Her (2013)
  28. Doubt (2008)
  29. Leviathan (2014) 
  30. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Saturday, 11 February 2017

20th Century Women

Filmmaker Mike Mills’s last film, Beginners (2010), was about his father, who came out as gay at the age of 75. 20th Century Women, which is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979, is about Mills’s mother (his father is completely absent and apparently long out of the picture). 

Mills is represented by 15-year-old Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann), who lives in a large house with his mother (Dorothea, played by Annette Bening) and her two boarders: William (Billy Crudup), the handyman and former hippy, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who is recovering from cancer treatments. Jamie’s best friend is 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who climbs up the side of the house each night to sleep beside Jamie. Jamie has a crush on Julie, but their relationship is platonic (at Julie’s insistence). 

20th Century Women is an ensemble film - all of the above characters (some of whom are quite eccentric) are fully-developed and given significant airtime - but at its centre is Dorothea, who, at the age of 55, is struggling with aging and with the rapid changes happening in the life of her son. She regularly invites men to dinner, and has feelings for William, but she resists deeper relationships.

As for her son, Dorothea feels that Jamie might need more than just one parent at this point in his life, so she enlists Abbie and Julie to help her parent Jamie. Abbie, a radical feminist, tries to help Jamie by sharing with him the most intimate details of being a woman and giving him books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful. Julie, meanwhile, is sharing with Jamie the intimate details of her active sex life. When Dorothea realizes what she’s done, she tries to protect Jamie from the other two women in his life. But he keeps assuring her that everything is alright.

20th Century Women is a meandering film, moving through time and experiences in a quirky and almost haphazard way, but many of its scenes are absolutely magical - full of wisdom and astonishingly good performances, and, as the stories of each character unfold, we begin to see the larger picture of Jamie’s and Dorothea’s lives in a way that makes the film seem greater than the sum of its parts, even while many of those parts are profound and beautiful. The result is a deeply-satisfying film that feels incredibly real and honest, a depiction of everyday life that everyone can relate to in some way, full of natural and brilliant acting by all concerned (Bening stands out with one her best performances). 

At the same time, one gets the feeling that the story is a little too easy. Where are the emotional outbursts that usually accompany the pain and loneliness some of these characters are experiencing? Where are the tragic consequences of stupid choices? Or have films made us think that life is always dramatic? Because the film is autobiographical, I have to assume that this relatively calm and understated story is a reliable reflection of Mills’s life at the time. And maybe the story can connect more deeply with us as a result.

Despite the fact that Jamie is, in some way, the central figure of the film, what sets 20th Century Women apart are the strong, dynamic, fully-realized women, from three different generations, who surround Jamie. Each of these women is struggling to find her place in a life and time full of challenges for women. Though written by a man, this is, in my opinion (as a man) very much a feminist film.

20th Century Women gets ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up. While I wouldn’t recommend 20th Century Women to those who generally don’t like quirky arthouse comedy dramas, or to those who are offended by explicit sexual conversation, I think this underrated gem about relationships and community is a must-see.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

La La Land and the 2017 Academy Awards

Having just watched La La Land for the third time, this time on IMAX, I am ready to change the order of my top fifteen films of the year and declare La La Land my favourite film of 2016. La La Land is not as profound as I, Daniel Blake, it’s not as bold as Chi-raq, and it has a number of serious flaws (mostly involving some of Seb’s dubious character traits), but La La Land is pure movie magic from beginning to end. This is best symbolized for me by the fact that, in all three viewings, I cried during the opening song and dance number on the L.A. freeway. I can’t say why this happened, but my guess is that it has to do with my deep gratitude and wonder that magical films like this are still being made (I had a similar experience with Pete’s Dragon, which is why it’s my eighth-favourite film of 2016).

As for the IMAX presentation, I barely noticed any improvement in the picture (other than the size) but the sound was noticeably louder, which in this case was what I was most hoping for.

And the Academy Awards? Well, I had no sooner decided that this was one year when, after almost a decade, I would try to watch it live, when I realized that I will be on a plane to Brussels that evening (Maybe they’ll show them on the plane? No, I thought not.). So I’ve decided to note here what I would be voting for if I was a member of the Academy (major categories only).

Best Actress in a Lead Role: Emma Stone, La La Land

I was disappointed that Amy Adams and Jessica Chastain didn’t get nominated, but even if they had been nominated, I would have voted for Emma Stone. Her acting in La La Land was absolute perfection. Of course, I have long considered Stone to be one of the finest actors of our time. Just look at how I’ve describe her on this blog: “Stone was remarkable, stealing every scene she’s in” (Birdman); “Stone was the standout” (Irrational Man); “Stone does an excellent job with a poorly-developed character” (Magic in the Moonlight).

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Naomie Harris, Moonlight

This was a tough one, because Viola Davis certainly deserves an award for her performance in Fences, but Harris was, for me, the best actor in Moonlight and she gets the nod.

Best Actor in a Lead Role: Denzel Washington, Fences

Yeah, I know Casey Affleck is going to win, and his performance was certainly Oscar-worthy, but Washington was phenomenal in Fences and I have to go with that.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

This was the toughest choice of all. Jeff Bridges was may favourite thing about Hell or High Water and Michael Shannon was great in the underrated Nocturnal Animals. But Ali was my favourite actor in Moonlight (and my second-favourite thing about that film) and I would have voted for him.

Best Animated Feature Film: Moana

I’ve only seen Moana and Zootopia. Of those, I liked Moana more. 

Best Cinematography: Linus Sandgren, La La Land

This could have gone to Prieto for Silence

Best Director: Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Best Editing: La La Land

Best Foreign Language Film: A Man Called Ove

The other nominees were very good films, but only one of the nominees got four stars from me. 

Best Score: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

Easiest choice of the night.

Best Song: Audition, La La Land

City of Stars will win, but I liked Audition more.

Best Writing (adapted): Arrival

Best Writing (original): La La Land

20th Century Women came a very close second. 

Best Picture: La La Land

No contest on this list. 

If you’re counting, it’s no contest: This is the year Hollywood goes to La La Land!