Sunday, 30 April 2017

Their Finest



As filmgoers await Christopher Nolan’s probable blockbuster, Dunkirk, coming in July, here is a quiet, humorous British drama that approaches the massive 1940 military evacuation from a very different angle, focusing on the role of women in Great Britain during World War II.

Their Finest also draws attention to the role of women in filmmaking. Despite all of the advances in gender equality (and far too much remains to be done), women have had a very difficult time breaking into all aspects of the filmmaking business, most noticeably in the roles of directing and screenwriting. Even today, less than 7% of all films are directed by women. That low percentage drops even further for films that are not only directed by a woman, but are also written by a woman and feature a female protagonist. Their Finest is one such film, and few, if any, such films have impressed me as much as this one.

As German planes drop bombs on London in the fall of 1940, the British Ministry of Information works on a propaganda film that it hopes will not only bolster the morale of the British people but also make the Americans more sympathetic to their plight (so they will get involved in the war). The subject of the film is to be the incredible retreat of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, which took place in late May/early June of that year. Specifically, the film is to be based on a supposedly true story of twin sisters living on the English coast who hear, on their radio, of the desperate need for boats and immediately take their uncle’s boat across the English Channel to help. 

With men in short supply, Catrin Cole (played by Gemma Arterton), a former secretary, suddenly finds herself given the opportunity of a lifetime: to work with two men (Tom Buckley and Raymond Parfitt, played by Sam Claflin and Paul Ritter) on writing the screenplay for the new film. Despite her initial fears, Catrin takes on the role with a quiet strength and determination, making a key decision early on to keep silent when she discovers the story of the twin sisters is far from accurate. Those initial fears include working with a big-name film star, Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), who treats her poorly on their first meeting, though the real challenge comes when the filmmakers are forced to work with an actual American air force pilot who has joined the British air force. The pilot (Carl Lundbeck, played by Jake Lacy) can’t act, but he’s handsome, and the Secretary of War (wonderful cameo by Jeremy Irons) demands a key role for him in the film in order to help American women warm to the idea of their husbands and sons joining the fight. 

Catrin displays a wide variety of skills in meeting the daily challenges faced by the film crew and quickly becomes the best of the three screenwriters, who rely on her time and again to make last-minute changes to the screenplay. But Ellis Cole (Jack Huston), the artist Catrin is living with, is not impressed that Catrin has become the primary earner in the household or that she is willing to go on location with the film crew instead of staying with him as he prepares for an upcoming exhibition that may be the breakthrough he’s been waiting for. Catrin, meanwhile, is struggling with her feelings for Buckley. 

The acting in Their Finest is terrific all around, with Arterton delivering an understated and very engaging performance in the lead role and Nighy perfectly cast (and often hilarious) as Hilliard. Both of their characters are well-developed and reveal hidden depths as the film progresses, pieces of a very impressive screenplay by Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel by Lissa Evans). Their Finest is her first film. Meanwhile, Lone Scherfig, who directed An Education (my favorite film of 2010), does a great job with the challenge of making a film about the making of a film. The trick, in making a film about the making of  film, is nudging the viewers away from a constant awareness that they are watching a film, something which automatically detracts from their enjoyment of the film. While there were a couple of scenes toward the end of the film which didn’t quite work for me precisely for this reason (i.e. because they reminded me that I was watching a film), I was generally impressed by the skill of the filmmaking.

I was also impressed by the great cinematography and the spot-on period feel, as well as by Rachel Portman’s score. Most impressive, however, was the subtle way Their Finest offers a look at how the role of women in the workforce changed during WWII, with Catrin’s strong intelligent character as a perfect demonstration of this development. At one point in the film, a female colleague says to Catrin: “They’re afraid they won’t be able to put us back in the box when this is over, and it makes them belligerent.” This is one of many funny lines in the film, though I would hesitate to call Their Finest a comedy, or even a comedy-drama, as it is has been labelled by some.

Their Finest is one of the year’s finest films and gets a solid ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Colossal




A rare treat today. When I woke up, I had never heard of Colossal. A few hours later, I was one of the first people in Winnipeg to watch the film. Needless to say, I knew absolutely nothing about the film when I walked into the theatre. The thing is, though, that I knew almost nothing about the film when I walked out.

Colossal, an indie flick written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, is almost impossible to describe (at least, without giving too much away). The film stars Anne Hathaway as Gloria, an online journalist who’s been struggling with life and getting drunk a little too often (then waking up with no memory of what happened the night before). Her British boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), finally has enough and throws her out. With nowhere else to go, she returns to her home town and the house of her late parents. Soon after her arrival, she bumps into Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a close friend from her childhood who has stayed in town and now owns his father’s bar, and Oscar offers her a job as a waitress. 

So what’s the problem with describing this film, you ask. It sounds like an old-fashioned romance, maybe even a quirky romantic comedy. Yeah, well, quirky would certainly be an accurate term. You see, this description is early on, before a giant monster starts walking around in Seoul, Korea, knocking down buildings and killing people (thus taking over all the world’s news media). Soon, the monster will be joined by a giant robot, who doesn’t get along with the monster and does even more damage. So what the heck, you ask, do these giant creatures in Seoul have to do with Gloria and Oscar in small-town USA? Don’t ask. Because the plot involving those creatures is so utterly ludicrous that it seems like something a couple of elementary school kids might make up after school. 

If Colossal is viewed literally (i.e. if the plot involving those creatures, which are part of the film from beginning to end, is taken seriously), then this film is a bizarre mess that should be thrown in the dumpster. (spoiler alert) But it is very obvious that Colossal actually operates at a level where the role of those creatures has little to do with what we are watching unfold in Seoul, and this film is really a remarkable metaphor, satire or exposé of life among thirty-somethings in the 21st century. And that is way too much information - sorry about that (at least I gave away very little of the plot).

Hathaway is marvellous as the lost Gloria and Sudeikis is perfectly cast (and does a great job) as Oscar, whose personality changes every few minutes (something Sudeikis seems to do effortlessly). The score is as unusual as the film, and clearly meant to play a key role, though I wasn’t always sure what it was trying to convey. The cinematography was more than adequate. 

What amazed me most of all as I sat in the empty theatre wondering what the heck was going on, was that I was so enthralled that when this 110-minute film came to end, I thought maybe 80 minutes had passed. That’s a very good sign, as is the fact that I immediately wished I had someone to talk with about what I’d just seen (and I mean a long discussion). Janelle wasn’t interested in watching Colossal because she had heard it was a very dark, intense psychological thriller, which is not her thing. I’m not saying that description is false, but I do think it’s misleading, because Colossal is not like any psychological thriller I’ve ever seen before, and it’s nowhere near as dark and intense as most psychological thrillers I watch. 

The ending could be a serious problem, but only, I think, if we watch the film in a way that we really can’t watch it. Just watch it. I’m giving Colossal a very solid ***+. If I get to discuss it with someone someday, it may even get ****. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 27 April 2017

TV58: 11.22.63



With a few exceptions (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Stand By Me), it has proven notoriously difficult to make a quality screen entertainment out of Stephen King’s novels. I think 11.22.63 is King’s best novel since The Dark Tower, so when I saw the critical acclaim and the high ratings from viewers, I had high expectations for the eight-episode miniseries. But 11.22.63 is not, in my opinion, one of the exceptions - not even close.

11.22.63 stars James Franco as Jake Epping (or Jake Amberson), an English teacher in small-town Maine whose friend, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), shows him a time portal in the closet of his diner. The portal has limited capabilities: it can only go back to the same day in October, 1960. And while a person can go back into the past and change history, that history is automatically reset if that person tries to go back in the past again. So to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy on 11.22.63 (what better use of a time portal going back to 1960?), Jake will need to live in the past for three years and get it right the first time (Al tells him he’ll probably need to kill Lee Harvey Oswald to save Kennedy’s life).

But first Jake wants to save the family of one of his students from the father who killed all but one of that family on Halloween, 1960. The catch in both projects is that the past doesn’t like to be messed with and will stop at nothing to prevent changes. Changing the past is thus going to prove a major challenge for Jake, even with the help of Bill (George MacKay), a young man whom he befriends in Kentucky. 

The first couple of episodes proved very watchable in spite of Franco’s unconvincing performance (I’ve never been a fan). But by the fourth episode, the wheels had fallen completely off the bus, with atrocious writing and directing that left me shaking my head every five minutes, wondering how anyone could turn a well-written novel into such amateur-hour crap. The production values are otherwise good, with excellent cinematography and a decent score, and Sarah Gadon is particularly good as Sadie Dunhill, Jake’s love interest in the past. But the story is so poorly told (you know you’re in trouble when time travel is one of the more credible parts of the plot) that none of that helps much. 11.22.63 is a complete waste of time. It gets ** for Gadon and the cinematography. My mug is down. 

Friday, 14 April 2017

Your Name



Your Name is the most popular (in terms of box office receipts) anime film ever made. For that reason alone, it was worth watching, even if I’m not as big a fan of anime as Janelle (for her, it was a must-see). 

Your Name is the story of a teenage girl named Mitsuha (voice by Mone Kamishiraishi), who lives in an isolated mountain village in Japan and dreams of living in the big city (Tokyo). Taki  (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) is a teenage boy in Tokyo who works part-time in a restaurant. One morning, Mitsuha and Taki wake up in the other’s body. It lasts only one day, but it’s a day of shock that will prove a huge challenge. When it randomly happens again some days or weeks later, and then again and again, Mitsuha and Taki must find a way to communicate with each other so they don’t ruin each other’s lives. They succeed in this until a comet appears in the sky and they decide to find each other, something that is far more difficult than they could ever imagine. There is much more to the story, and both teenagers have close friends in their lives who will get involved in the mystery, but I will stop there. 

Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, Your Name is a beautifully-made and intelligently-written romantic sci-fi comedy. Its convoluted plot, which includes creative philosophical and metaphysical ideas, could easily overwhelm (especially with subtitles), but instead the film remains fascinating and enjoyable from start to finish. I did have some problems with the way some of the characters act (a typical complaint I have with anime) and, while I liked the ending, I was hoping for something more logical at that point, but these are fairly minor complaints.

Overall, I was quite impressed by this profound animated film that is mostly worthy of its popularity. Your Name gets ***+. My mug is up. If you have a chance to watch it on the big screen, you should do so. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

TV57: The Leftovers, Season Two



I just finished watching one of the very best seasons of television I have ever seen. The acting, writing, directing, music and cinematography are off-the-charts for television quality, even for HBO. Most amazing is that this is the second season of a show which had only moderately impressed me in season one. Maybe that’s because I had no idea what I was looking at. But I still have no idea what I was looking at (as one of the show’s main characters says to another near the end of the season: “I don’t understand what’s happening,” to which the other replies: “Neither do I.” Amen to that). But this is television at its finest, a work of pure TV art that has shot up into my top five serial dramas of all time. 

My review of the show’s first season can be found on this blog (December 15, 2015). The second season continues the tale of the Garveys and the Jamisons after they move to the town of Jarden, Texas, which was the only major town (pop. 9261) in the world that had no departures. Was the town miraculously spared, as many believe? If so, what happened to the three teenage girls who vanish the night the Garveys arrive in Jarden? Is there a connection (other than the fact that Kevin wakes up at the bottom of a suddenly-dried-up lake tied to a cement block and is the first to come upon the vehicle in which the girls were last seen)?

Crazy stuff, you say? You bet. And it only gets crazier. I realized at some point that one of the reasons I was loving the second season was that it was pure Stephen King (yeah, I’m a fan), though filmed a lot better than 95% of King’s books. The Leftovers is often dark and twisted and occasionally violent, but mostly it’s mind-bendingly thoughtful and intelligent drama. 

The last two lines of my first-season review were: “Any television show that explores questions of faith and the meaning of life in a mysterious context is on the right path. My hope is that The Leftovers will get even better in the second season.” I don’t recall ever writing anything like that before. It’s almost like I knew it was going to happen. I don’t know why I waited so long to watch this, except for the bizarre coincidence (as befits the show in question) that the third and final season starts on Easter (in three days), which is also somehow befitting. Now I just have to figure out how to watch HBO (we have no TV reception of any kind). 

The Leftovers season two gets an easy ****. My mug is up for one of the best things TV has ever done. 


Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Get Out



I had heard that Get Out was a well-made, low-budget, dark-comedy horror film. That’s not exactly a favourite genre, but my gut told me I should take a chance on this one. Maybe I guessed that Get Out was not actually (by my definition) a horror film, though it certainly has the feel of a horror film. It’s also not a psychological thriller, as is the case for many so-called horror films. What it is (I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler), is a sci-fi film (albeit one of those sci-fi films, and there are many, which is made to resemble a horror film). As for the comedy, it certainly underlies the film throughout (as satire), and it is certainly very dark, but I hesitate to label Get Out a comedy because that takes away from the seriousness of its satirical message.

For me, identifying the genre is important because I’m a sci-fi fan who doesn’t much care for horror films. So I enjoyed Get Out more than I thought I would.

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut stars Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, a young photographer who has fallen in love with Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), who is taking Chris to meet her parents at their rural estate. Has she informed her parents that Chris is black? Nope. But Rose assures Chris that her parents are anything but racist (her father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have). So off they go. 

Rose’s parents, Dean and Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), do indeed give Chris a warm welcome, but it doesn’t take long for Chris to realize that something is a little off. Specifically, Rose’s parents have a maid (Georgina, played by Betty Gabriel) and a gardener (Walter, played by Marcus Henderson), both black, who are behaving oddly and are being treated unusually by Dean and Missy. Things get even weirder when Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), comes home. Jeremy makes comments about Chris’s body that sound distinctly racist and Chris is starting to feel a little uncomfortable.

Chris’s discomfort, and that of the viewers as the tension mounts, will continue to grow when he wakes up in the middle of the night and goes outside to smoke a cigarette. While there, he sees Georgina in an upstairs window and encounters Walter, adding to his worries (astute viewers will pick up clues here that I missed). And when Chris goes inside, Missy is there to invite him into the study, where they talk about his unfortunate smoking habit. 

At a big party (hosted by Dean and Missy) the next day, Chris is confronted with more bizarre behaviour and overt racist comments, making him wonder, much too late, if he should have come at all. Meanwhile, back in the city, Chris’s brother, Rod (LilRel Howery), also has reasons to wonder whether his brother should have gone. 

Get Out is well-acted by all concerned, has a fast-paced, suspenseful story (barely hinted at here) that kept me captivated throughout, has many insightful comments on racism, is often very funny (in a dark way) and is ultimately a great little low-budget indie sci-fi film. Unfortunately, the graphic violence at the end is completely unnecessary (though hardly out of place in a ‘horror’ sci-fi film), making it impossible for me to give Get Out more than ***+. My mug is up, but be warned that this is not for the many of you who abhor violent horror films.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Beauty and the Beast



As everyone knows, I’m a sucker for musicals. On top of that, the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast is my favourite Disney animated film. So it would have been hard for Disney to mess up this live-action remake for me. Disney tried anyway, but I still enjoyed the film.

Disney went wrong very early. The introductory pre-Belle sequence is quite good, but then Emma Watson starts to sing. I was impressed with Watson’s performance, which removed the doubts I had had about the casting choice. But apparently Watson’s singing abilities are not up to Disney’s standards, because it saw fit to autotune her voice. This was a major disappointment for us. Either cast a singer for the role or go with what you have (e.g. Les Miserables, La La Land, both of which made my top two films of the year), but don’t use autotune. We worry about a future where actors and songs will be entirely computer-generated - a very scary thought.

Then there is the question of the need to make a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast at all. Or the question of whether Beauty and the Beast really is a live-action film. Almost all of the characters in the castle are CGI, with voices provided from a sound booth, just like in the animated version. So one could argue that this new Beauty and the Beast is half-animated. The CGI is outstanding, as one would expect from Disney, but there’s rather too much of it. And some of the castle’s CGI characters grated on me (e.g. Madame Garderobe). So the underlying cynical question of whether the new film is just a guaranteed way for the wealthiest studio in the world to make another mountain of money is a very real one for us.

The new Beauty and the Beast is a full 45 minutes longer than the original. For us, this is only justifiable with the addition of a lot more singing. There were some new songs, and we enjoyed all of them, but they don’t take up anywhere near enough time to justify that 45 minutes. It’s hard to sustain the magic of this story for 129 minutes and a number of scenes fall flat, making the film feel too long.

As for the redemptive violence at the end, well, given the original, we could hardly expect Disney not to kill off the baddie, this time in a manner that employs Disney’s typical ‘hand of God’, as seen in Disney’s first animated film (Snow White). But in a film that’s all about the redemption of a ‘baddie’, it shows such an incredible lack of imagination, not to mention a flawed moral compass, to insist on such an incongruously violent ending. 

That all sounds pretty bad, but, like I said, I quite enjoyed the new Beauty and the Beast. Alan Menken’s music (songs and score) is superb throughout, with excellent lyrics written by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. The acting is generally very good, with the likes of Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor and Kevin Kline joining Watson, who injects Belle with exactly the right amount of pluck and intelligence. Dan Stevens is good as the Beast and Luke Evans and Josh Gad are well-cast as Gaston and LeFou. The cinematography is outstanding, though too much of it was CGI. And Bill Condon’s direction is solid, if not as inspired as I might like. And then of course there’s the controversial scene concerning LeFou’s sexual orientation, which is hardly controversial for me.

The best things about this remake of Beauty and the Beast are the new songs and scenes that made me momentarily forget that I had seen this film many times before. There is still some magic here, literally in the case of the presence of Agathe, the Enchantress (Hattie Morahan). If only it could have been sustained a little longer (i.e. with more singing, as I suggested earlier). 

In the end, what pushes Beauty and the Beast over the line to ***+ are the end-credits, among the best I’ve ever seen or listened to. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Paterson



An ordinary week in the ordinary life of an ordinary bus driver named Paterson in the ordinary city of Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson does basically the same thing day after day, returning home to his partner and their dog, straightening the mailbox in front of their small house, and then walking the dog to the neighbourhood bar, where he stops for a beer and a chat with the bartender.

Wow.

No, seriously, WOW! The latest film by Jim Jarmusch, which was released last year but didn’t find its way to Winnipeg until now, is so full of ideas and symbols and empathy and the joy and necessity of creativity in everyday life that it completely overwhelmed me. Fortunately, Janelle was there to explain all the symbolism to me (the yin and the yang, the opposites that need each other for wholeness, the duality that’s a necessary part of our daily life), something which few critics seemed to pick up on (though they all loved the film). 

Paterson is no ordinary film. From beginning to end, it is a beautiful poem about the life of an extraordinary poet. Yes, I lied. Paterson, played to perfection by Adam Driver, is no ordinary bus driver. He’s a poet who starts each day by writing a poem in his secret notebook. His partner, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), tells him he should get his poems published, or at least make a copy of them, but that’s not who he is. Paterson doesn’t see himself as a poet. He’s a bus driver who carefully observes everything around him and writes down reflections as poems because he loves poetry. He has no dreams of fame, unlike Laura, who has many dreams (and is obsessed with the colours back and white - the opposites that need each other).

In that ordinary week, Paterson will actually have a number of extraordinary encounters and experiences, some good and some not so good. For some people, the discouragement of the ‘not-so-good’ would be overwhelming, but Paterson somehow finds a balance between the opposites of inspiration and dispiritedness, as he finds a balance in his encounters with an incredibly diverse group of people, representing a variety of ethnic groups and personality styles. We all need each other.

Above all (for me), the film is about the need for each of us to be creative, regardless of how ordinary our lives are.

The cinematography in Paterson is gorgeous, revealing the hidden beauty around every corner of ordinary Paterson, New Jersey. The score by Jarmusch’s band, SQÜRL, as always, provides the perfect compliment to the story. The acting is solid throughout, with a special nod to Barry Shabaka Henley as Doc, the bartender. 

Paterson is yet another magical film from Jarmusch, though it's not as magical or marvellous as Jarmusch’s last film, Only Lover Left Alive, which is among my all-time favourites. Paterson gets ****. My mug is up and, since it was only released in Canada well into 2017, Paterson is assured a place in my top ten films of the year. 

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Sense of an Ending



The Sense of an Ending, directed by Ritesh Batra (written by Nick Payne, based on the novel by Julian Barnes), is a quiet British drama about a 60-something man in London (Tony Webster, played by Jim Broadbent), who sells and repairs Leica cameras, talks regularly with his ex-wife (Margaret, played by Harriet Walter) and accompanies his daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery) to her Lamaze classes. Tony isn’t a very friendly or likeable person, but he tries to behave properly and lead a good life. Then one day he receives a letter from a lawyer indicating that the diary of his best friend in college has been left to him in a will. Unfortunately, the woman who is in possession of the diary refuses to part with it. 

Suddenly confronted with memories long forgotten or repressed, Tony turns to a reluctant Margaret for support. As he recounts his college days and tries to track down the diary, Tony will learn things about himself that will change his life.

Broadbent is perfectly cast and I enjoyed every minute of his performance. The entire film follows Tony, though much of the time he is played by Bill Howle (Tony’s younger self). Veronica Ford, a major character in Tony’s college life, is played by Freya Mavor (and by Charlotte Rampling when older). The acting in the present-day part of the film is universally outstanding, but the acting of the younger folks doesn’t match up. Indeed, the film’s key flaw is that its many flashbacks are much less interesting, despite the revelations, than the story of Tony’s present life. 

Many of the scenes from that present life are filmed in Highgate, where I lived for seven and a half years, which made the film particularly fun to watch. 

The Sense of an Ending is far from perfect, with the flashbacks contributing to a sense of uneven pacing, but it’s a wonderfully humanizing story with a great actor at its core and gets a solid ***+ from me. My mug is up.