Tuesday, 27 June 2017

TV63: Scandinavian Noir 6 (Belgian style): The Break and Hotel Beau Séjour

Two other shows on Netflix must be drawn to your attention. Both are solid European noir, of the Scandinavian variety, though shot in rural Belgium. Walter told me about the first, which is in the French language. The Break stars Yoann Blanc as Yoann Peeters, a first-class detective who will do whatever he needs to do to find the killer(s). On his last case, in Brussels, that resulted in a number of dead colleagues, including his wife. Now he and his teenage daughter, Camille (Sophie Breyer), are in Peeters’s hometown of Heiderfeld, where Peeters and Inspector Drummer (Guillaume Kerbush) are investigating the death of a young African soccer player. Peeters knows this case is not what it it first appears and immediately starts breaking rules to find the killer. Meanwhile his daughter gets to know the teenage scene in Heiderfeld and finds a lot of trouble of her own. 

The Break is full of twists and turns and is, overall, a fascinating and compelling ten-episode series. Blanc is terrific, and his character, Peeters, is unique; infuriating but ultimately sympathetic. The show is full of memorable and interesting characters, great acting and gorgeous cinematography. It had all the makings of a four-star classic until the plot collapsed near the end. It’s as if the writers changed their minds part way or only at the end decided who the killer was, because so many questions are left unanswered, there are red herrings all over the place and the story of Camille is suddenly dropped without any attempt at a resolution, which is such a wasted opportunity. 

Because I couldn’t stop watching and because Peeters is such a great character, I’m giving The Break a solid ***+ in spite of the disappointments.

It was Neil who drew my attention to Hotel Beau Séjour, which is filmed in Dutch and set in a small town in northeast Belgium, near the border of Luxembourg. Lynn Van Royen stars as Kato Hoeven, a young woman who is one of the most unique noir characters ever. She is at the centre of the search for the killer, even though she is not a detective. Indeed, what makes her unique is that she is the victim. Does that make her a ghost? If so, why can a handful of people still see her and interact with her as if she was very much alive while most people see and hear nothing at all? It may sound crazy but it works to perfection for me, because Van Royen is fantastic, her character, like Peeters, is an infuriating yet sympathetic protagonist, and the unique angle to the investigation is as haunting and compelling as any noir TV series can be. 

As in The Break, Hotel Beau Séjour has many fascinating characters (far too many to list), but the character development is better than in The Break, and the writing feels tighter, while the acting and cinematography are again excellent. With a mores satisfying denouement, Hotel Beau Séjour deserves closer to **** than ***+. 

My mug is up for both of these excellent Belgian noir TV serials from Netflix. If you’re a European noir fan, don’t miss either one. Note that both shows are fairly violent.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

TV62: Galavant

As you know, I love musicals. But watchable TV musicals are, even for me, incredibly rare. The recent Smash was one of the exceptions, but it was about the making of a musical so, even though it was a true musical, it cheated a little. The latest exception doesn’t cheat. It’s called Galavant and it ran only eighteen episodes over two seasons before being cancelled. This is a travesty because (in my opinion) it is the best musical ever made for TV and one of the funniest TV comedies I’ve seen since Frasier (Modern Family excepted of course). Thank goodness it was picked up by Netflix or I may never have seen it.

Galavant was created by Dan Fogelman, with the songs written by Alan Menken and Glen Slater. I’m a Menken fan, so I knew the music would be good. It was. The show stars Joshua Sasse as Sir Galavant, our hero, who, in the first season, rides out to rescue his love, Madalena (Mallory Jansen), from the clutches of the nefarious King Richard (Timothy Omundson). Along the way, Galavant teams up with the young Sid (Luke Youngblood) and Princess Isabella (Karen David), who needs Galavant to rescue her parents, imprisoned by the king. But the trio will face all kinds of trials, including a band of pirates led by Hugh Bonneville. The biggest trial they will face, however, is the revelation that many people are hiding secrets and things are not what they seem to be, with the plot taking a number of bizarre twists and turns.

The first season of Galavant was fun to watch but a little too silly and chaotic to make me love it. The second season, despite (or because of) its tendency to poke fun at itself, was much tighter, much funnier, much more relevant as a commentary on our time and, best of all, had much more music (i.e. more songs), making it so outstanding we watched all ten episodes in one go. Terrific stuff, reminding me most closely of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which happens to be one of my favourite films of all time. 

Did I mention that this show was filmed in the UK, so features mostly British actors? While most of the acting was excellent, it was Omundson (an American) who stole the show for me, followed closely by Vinnie Jones as his henchman, Gareth. Meanwhile, the show was gorgeously filmed and, of course, had a great score. Cancelling this marvellous show was a big mistake. In the end, I’m giving Galavant ****. My mug is up. If you are a fellow musical-lover, don’t miss it.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel is my kind of film - fantastic acting, specially by Rachel Weisz, who is one of the best actors our there, wonderfully atmospheric tone, score and cinematography (which is also gorgeous), a simmering dark mystery that defies any attempts at an easy solution, and a quiet intelligent screenplay - and yet it still managed to disappoint, if only a little.

My Cousin Rachel, which is written and directed by Roger Michel (based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier), stars Sam Claflin as Philip Ashley, an orphan brought up by his cousin Ambrose. When Philip is in his early twenties, Ambrose goes off to Italy for an extended visit. While there, he falls in love with, and marries, another cousin, Rachel (Weisz). But just before his untimely death (due to a mysterious illness), Ambrose sends Philip a letter accusing Rachel of being responsible for his death. Philip rushes to Italy to save Ambrose but is too late, meeting only Ambrose’s lawyer (or is it Rachel’s lawyer), Rinaldi (Pierfancesco Favino), who confronts Philip with the sad truth about Ambrose’s last days.

Philip returns home, where his guardian, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen), informs him that Rachel has no motive for killing Ambrose, who hasn’t left her a thing in his will (leaving everything to Philip). Still, when Rachel comes for a visit, Philip has only revenge on his mind, until …  And let’s leave it there, except to note that Kendall’s daughter, Louise (Holliday Grainger), who has always assumed that she will one day marry Philip, is about to have her hopes dashed.

As I said, the acting in My Cousin Rachel is stellar all around, and the atmosphere is wonderfully dark. Watching the mystery unfold was somewhat frustrating, because I kept thinking that, given the direction of the story, there was no way the ending would ever satisfy me, but I was wrong (at least in my reasoning; there were disappointing elements to the ending). 

The real disappointment for me, however, was, I believe, the character of Philip, who makes for a particularly infuriating (and thus often unsympathetic) protagonist. This prevented me from engaging with this dark romance in a way that would truly satisfy me. I am curious to see the 1952 version of the film, starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland, to see if the same applies. In any event, I enjoyed My Cousin Rachel enough to give it a solid *** verging on ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The Lovers

The Lovers is a remarkable American indie film, remarkable because it feels much more like a quirky European film than an American film and because it’s unlike any film I’ve seen in a long time (almost always a good thing). Indeed, I’m not sure what kind of film I watched. Neither ‘drama’ nor ‘romantic comedy’ feel right (it’s labelled as a comedy). 

Tracy Letts and Debra Winger star as Michael and Mary, an older couple (pushing 60) who are struggling to keep up the pretence of marriage. They’re bored with each other and don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company at all. So both of them have found younger partners to spice up their lives. Mary has found Robert (Aiden Gillen), a writer, while Michael has found Lucy (Melora Walters), a dance instructor. Both Michael and Mary assume that the other is unaware of their affair, but, given the constant “working late” excuses, they must both be suspicious. In any event, they are about to reveal everything to their spouses because they are both planning to leave the marriage after the upcoming visit of their son, Joel (Tyler Ross) and his partner, Erin (Jessica Sula). But something happens that neither Mary nor Michael expected and which will confuse everyone around them.

So far, this story may not sound particularly original. And it could fall into either the ‘tense drama’ or ‘quirky comedy’ genres. But what makes The Lovers feel so unique (and bizarre) right from the start is the way it mixes the tense drama with a grand romantic score (by Mandy Hoffman) that consistently feels out of synch with what we’re watching on the screen (i.e. feeling light and breezy at the darkest moments). This could be a signal that we’re indeed watching a comedy, but only on infrequent occasions does the plot feel at all like a comedy. But maybe the score, which plays a major role in the film, is supposed to signal that, in spite of the way the characters and their problems feel all too real, the story is not supposed to be taken at face value. A scene near the end of the film is otherwise very difficult to understand.

There is no hint from the critics that The Lovers should be viewed as a metaphor rather than being taken literally. But Janelle’s interpretation (I won’t take credit for it) is supported by the fact that both Michael and Mary choose artistic younger partners, by the quirky behaviours of all the characters and by the smart but very quiet screenplay by writer/director Azazel Jacobs. So much is conveyed by actions and expressions.

Letts and Winger are up to the task, delivering wonderful performances in roles that are well-developed and often unpredictable. The rest of the acting isn’t as strong, but it’s adequate. 

Not too many films these days feature 60-year-olds having passionate affairs or have such flawed ordinary characters, most of whom are sympathetic in spite of all the lies. The Lovers gets ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

A Kid

I had a lovely surprise the other night and found A Kid (en Francais: Le Fils de Jean) rentable on Bell TV. Little did I expect it to be such a warmly moving film.

Out of the blue, a young Parisian man receives a call about the death of the Quebecois father he never knew. Hearing that he has two half-brothers, he impulsively jumps on a plane and flies over for the funeral only to find that it won't be easy to connect with the only family he has left (his mother having died some years previous).

This French/Quebecois film begins in a manner that was quite unassuming, but soon I realised that I was seeing a quality of writing/directing/ acting that I had not expected. There is a quiet sense of mystery and tension in this family drama that isn't exploited but remains realistic and true. There are a few moments of lightheartedness but it never pretends to be a comedy.

The film perfectly integrates the setting of a lonely cabin on a Canadian lake; in fact, the cultural relationship between Quebec and Paris is an important part of the film.

Quietly woven through are themes of commitment, forgiveness and the long term consequences of character and choices. There are some moments that felt especially tender for me as they reminded me of my own experiences of being invited into a certain family's life for a few brief times - underlined even by some physical resemblances. My mug is up high with a (probably slightly inflated) ****

Saturday, 17 June 2017

It Comes at Night

If you glance through the major critics’ comments on the new horror flick, It Comes at Night, you’ll see quotes like the following: “I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent movie that’s as uncomfortable and disturbing;” “one of the most terrifying films in years;” “it becomes nearly unbearable at times;” “an almost unwatchable cruelty;” “soul-crushingly dark;” “left a preview audience as shaken as any I’ve seen;” “a nightmare within a nightmare;” “a test of nerves;” and “about as enjoyable for the audience as it is for the people in the movie.” 

There’s only one sane response to comments like these: “Run away!” So what the heck were you thinking, Vic, when you decided to go watch this ordeal, alone in an almost empty theatre? As usual, I’m glad you asked. The thing is that I recalled being intrigued enough by the film’s trailer, which I saw a month or two ago, to say to myself: “Depending on the reviews, I might want to watch this.” And my gut told me this was not, by my definition, in any way a horror film. About the latter, I was very much correct: It Comes at Night is not a horror film, though it has scenes that intentionally feel like horror. It does qualify as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, though only because it’s set in a dystopian near future. What this film is, is a dark (in various ways) psychological thriller full of fear and paranoia. 

The premise is simple: Something out there is making people very sick. It’s highly contagious and 100% fatal. It kills so quickly that you’re better off putting a bullet in your head the instant you experience symptoms. Paul (Joel Egerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) don’t know how many people in the world are still alive, or what is killing them, but they know there’s no electricity and food is hard to come by. So they live in a large house deep in the woods, a house they have turned into a fortress to protect them from people who might want to steal their food and water or who might be carrying the deadly disease. But someone manages to break in anyway. It’s a young man (Will, played by Christopher Abbott) looking for water for his family (he has a wife, Kim, played by Riley Keough, and a young son). How does one respond to such an intrusion? Well, first you put a bag over his head, tie him to a tree and observe him for 24 hours to see if he’s sick. I won’t reveal what happens after that. 

A post-apocalyptic plague-ridden world where resources are scarce and paranoia flourishes is hardly new material for books or films of the past few decades. Stephen King, with his masterful novel, The Stand, which does qualify as horror, was writing about this in 1978. What It Comes at Night has to offer, however, is a very tight, intense character-driven (Travis is a particularly well-drawn character) story that pulls no punches as it explores the fears and feelings of the film’s five adults. The acting is terrific by all concerned and the writing and direction by Trey Edward Shults give us an all-too-believable set of circumstances and human responses. 

Ultimately, however, the ending of It Comes at Night, while it may be credible enough and is certainly not a typical or predictable ending, doesn’t quite satisfy, at least not enough for me to consider giving the film ****. It does get a solid ***+. My mug is up, but, as you saw in the first paragraph above, this film will only appeal to a very limited number of people.  

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Alien: Covenant

In my review of Prometheus, I mentioned my hope that its sequel would do a better job of getting at the bigger questions introduced in the film, questions about the origin of the human species, for example, but that I wasn’t holding my breath. Good thing, because not only did we have to wait much too long for that sequel (five years), making the holding of breath rather difficult, but as far as addressing bigger questions is concerned, Alien: Covenant could not have been more disappointing to me. How on earth were Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox unable to find writers who could do justice to such potential? What a waste!

Alien: Covenant takes place ten years after Prometheus. The Covenant is a ship full of ‘sleeping’ colonists heading for an earth-like planet still seven years away when it is damaged by a solar flare and the crew awakened prematurely. While awake, the crew pick up a signal from a nearby solar system and discover the system has an earth-like planet even more suitable than where they were headed. How had they missed seeing it? And how can the person sending the signal be singing John Denver’s “Country Roads”? Well, it’s no surprise that the singer is one of the two survivors from the Prometheus, but it’s an absolute shock to my brain that I heard no attempt to explain the coincidence of the flare and the signal. Were these the work of someone on that mysterious earth-like planet luring the Covenant to its location? Perhaps, but this isn’t explained, and neither is the fact that astronomers somehow missed this planet’s existence. To me, this is just one example of some incredibly shoddy writing.

Needless to say, once the crew of the Covenant decide to investigate the planet, all hope is lost, because our ‘alien’ friends are there and, with the exception of Ripley, humans just don’t stand a chance against those things. But wait! Are these aliens even more intelligent than the previous Alien films suggest? Is it possible humans can even learn to communicate with them? Based on the writers’ inability to answer any other questions I might have (like pursuing the question of human origins), I would say we’ll never know. All we have is hints, about everything, because this is not a film series that’s really about anything other than the same old same old alien threat and the graphic gore that inevitably follows. At least Alien gave us mystery followed by incredible suspense and Aliens gave us nonstop heart pounding action. Sigh.

Which is not to say that Alien: Covenant was a total waste. On the contrary, the presence of a single great actor was alone worth the price of admission. Michael Fassbender plays not only the lead character in the film but also the second-most important character in the film. Reminding me of Data and Lore (Star Trek), Fassbender plays Walter and David, two identical androids with very different personalities (i.e. David, who is one of the protagonists in Prometheus and has lots of personality, and the more advanced Walter, on board the Covenant, who has no emotions because his creators have decided that was a flaw). Walter and David, despite being androids, have a love/hate relationship and (spoiler alert!) will of course spend much of the film trying to kill each other, as brothers do. Still, Fassbender’s performance is an absolute joy to watch and easily the highlight of the film.

Alien: Covenant as a whole did a much better job with character development than Prometheus, and the acting matched up well - especially Katherine Waterston as Daniels, the third-most important character in the film. You may remember that I was particularly impressed with Waterston in Fantastic Beasts. Clearly, she is a young actor to watch for in the years ahead.

I was also impressed by the cinematography. I’m not sure how much was CGI, but it was gorgeous, even while made-for-3D. The score was also very good. 

In the end, I’m very glad I saw Alien: Covenant on the big screen. It has a lot going for it. But I’m so disappointed with the writing (especially the lack of answers) that I can only give the film a solid ***. My mug is up but I’m still waiting for more from Scott and this series.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Wonder Woman

Walter is in Winnipeg so it was time to go watch a film together. With little of interest to choose from, we decided to go to the opening night screening of this weekend’s big blockbuster: Wonder Woman. The critics seem to think this is a super superhero film, but we still went in with low expectations, which is always wise.

I have rarely felt such on overwhelming sense of disappointment with a film I enjoyed watching as much as Wonder Woman, so it may feel like I’m reviewing two different films. I debated at length whether to start with the positive or the negative; in the end, I’ve gone with the former so that readers who don’t want to hear my complaints about the film’s moral compass can stop reading halfway through.

In the superhero film genre, Wonder Woman is unique in two vital ways. First, the sole superhero in the film is a woman who is superior to the men around her in almost every way (in her emotional intelligence, she is also superior to most male superheroes). Second, Wonder Woman is the first Hollywood superhero film to be directed by a woman. Both of these are positive developments, all the more so when you consider the results (see below). 

Gal Gadot stars as Diana, an Amazon who has grown up on an isolated island without ever seeing a man. As the only child on the island, she is given a lifetime of special treatment along with her thorough training as a warrior (though she despises war). When a World War I plane breaks through the invisible barrier protecting the island and crashes into the sea, Diana rescues the pilot (Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine), who turns out to be an American spy who has just uncovered a German plot to extend the war by using a new deadly gas. Germans are hot on Trevor’s tail and follow him to the island, where, to their short-lived surprise, they encounter an Amazon army. 

The Amazons don’t want to get involved in the war, but Diana insists on helping Trevor get his vital information back to London, though her primary motive is to find Ares, the Greek god of war, and kill him, thus putting an end to the war to end all wars (Diana believes Ares is responsible for the war). So Diana and Trevor get in a boat and head to London, where they will meet most of the film’s other key characters: Trevor’s assistant, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), who provides a fair amount of comic relief; Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), a speaker for peace in the Imperial War Cabinet; and a small band of companions who will accompany Diana and Trevor to the front, where they hope to prevent the use of the deadly gas. The band, which will also supply some comic relief (Wonder Woman, like most superhero films, contains a fair amount of witty dialogue) includes Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). 

The boat trip and subsequent visit to London are by far my favourite parts of Wonder Woman, and they are also central to the film’s chief positive attributes. One of these attributes is the surprisingly polished performance by newcomer Gadot as Diana (Gadot turns out to be very well cast) and another is the character Gadot and screenwriter Alan Heinberg have created. The role of Diana is challenging because she is both an intelligent, strong, confident, courageous and independent woman as well as an innocent, compassionate naive woman capable of childlike wonder. The fact that Diana is also supposed to be capable of horrific violence while being driven throughout by her love of humanity is a matter that I will return to later.

The early parts of the film also highlight the excellent performances of Pine and Davis. The rest of the acting is solid, with Thewlis standing out (it’s good to see him in a major role). The cinematography is also particularly strong in the first half of the film, though it suffers from the desaturated bluish hues typical of made-for-3D films (as always, we watched it in 2D). And I’ll mention here that the score, while occasionally overbearing, is quite enjoyable.

Throughout the first half of Wonder Woman, I could see how the presence of a female director (Patty Jenkins) might have influenced my favourite scenes, because they all involved Diana’s unique perspectives on life and humanity (the conversations between Diana and Trevor are a particular highlight). 

One of the major differences between the first and second half of the film is the use of accents. Walter noted that the accents of the Amazons on the island were remarkably even, regardless of the language they were meant to represent. But Walter and I agreed that the use of German accents in the last half of the film (in place of Germans speaking German to each other) was a huge mistake. Wonder Woman is too serious a superhero film to make the cartoonish use of accents acceptable (as opposed to using subtitles, which are employed elsewhere in the film). 

The accents are a minor flaw, however, when compared to my biggest complaint about Wonder Woman, which I alluded to earlier. The film’s primary message seems to be that war is bad and love is good. This is no great revelation, but it would draw no argument from me, if it were consistent. Unfortunately, the message is represented by a woman who is both full of compassion for humanity while displaying no remorse at her killing of countless enemy soldiers. That doesn’t compute for me, though Walter points out that soldiers on all sides are frequently treated as less than human (how can you try to humanize while dehumanizing?). 

One scene exemplifies this complaint. When Diana arrives at the front (the trenches), she is immediately distracted by the suffering of the civilians she encounters, something that would be unusual in a male superhero. This scene reveals the horrors and stupidity of trench warfare only to have the message completely undone moments later when Diana shows how trench warfare can be effective and glorious if Wonder Woman is on your side. In this scene, Diana is complicit in the deaths of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of German soldiers, to whom she gives not the slightest thought. How is it possible that no one involved in the making of the film identified the huge inconsistency here?

Wonder Woman has been hailed as a victory for feminism. Much of the film might be viewed that way. However, as I have written before, showing that a woman can fight as well as any man is not, in my opinion, a victory for feminism and is at odds with all of the other strengths depicted in someone like Diana (intelligence, compassion, courage, etc.). 

And how do you reconcile an anti-war message with the use of endless violence to show that war is wrong (killing people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong)? Where is Diana’s reflection on, or even awareness of, the fact that she is trying to achieve her noble ends through horrific evil means? Redemptive violence is an almost inevitable feature of superhero films, so I rarely comment on it anymore, but when it is used in a film that tries to challenge redemptive violence (in this case, war), it must be named. Outside of the Tobey Maguire Spider-man films, superhero films seem to be almost completely unaware of this problem. The fact that Wonder Woman has scenes which display some awareness (e.g. Diana’s confrontation with one of her enemies near the end of he film) only makes the inconsistency harder to understand. 

Wonder Woman repeatedly asks the question of whether people are innately evil. Diana refuses to believe it. Good for her. But this theme is explored all too briefly and resolved in a very simplistic manner, highlighting my disappointment with a film that is often hugely entertaining and tries to say good things but is full of confusing mixed messages and has no convincing overarching story, at least from a moral point of view.

So the well-made Wonder Woman gets only a solid ***, perhaps verging on ***+. My mug is up. If only the blend inside had been tastier.