Friday, 31 March 2017

Flying Home: Passengers, Jackie, Christine and Certain Women

On the flight back to Winnipeg, I caught up on four films I missed at the cinema. Three of them are about women, the fourth has been labelled misogynist. Here are my mini-reviews of the four films, from worst to best (though I consider all four films worth a look):


Passengers

Panned by the critics, this sci-fi film from Morten Tyldum stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as Jim and Aurora, two passengers on a space ship taking 120 years to get to its destination (a new home for the 5,000 passengers on board). Trying to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that Jim and Aurora wake up early and face some serious challenges. Michael Sheen and Lawrence Fishburne also star. Given the reviews, I was pleasantly surprised by this one, even watching on the wee screen. It’s not a great film by any means, but it’s an entertaining space yarn and the key moral dilemma is fascinating to think about (and not unrealistically portrayed, though whether its resolution is a positive thing is an important question for discussion). The acting was quite passable as well. Passengers gets ***. My mug is up.


Jackie

Natalie Portman deserves all the acclaim she received for her portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in a film that focuses on the week after JFK’s assassination. I also loved watching John Hurt in one of his last roles, playing an Irish priest who has some great conversations with Jackie (one of the highlights of the film). And then there were the many references to Camelot (the musical) in the last minutes of the film, which is guaranteed to impress me. There were many other moments in Jackie that impressed me, but not enough to make this a classic. My biggest complaint about Jackie is that Jackie spends rather too much time wandering the halls and planning the funeral. I know that this is a unique kind of film that’s trying to get into Jackie’s headspace during this traumatic time, but it just didn’t quite work for me. I thought the film should have tried to be a little more controversial to grab the audience. Nevertheless, a solid *** verging on ***+. My mug is up.


Christine

Christine, directed by Antonio Campus, is a very dark drama which relates the true story of a TV news reporter who shoots herself while reporting live on TV in 1974. Rebecca Hall is absolutely terrific as Christine Chubbuck, a smart young reporter who struggles with relationships and her career. She knows there is something fundamentally wrong with her boss’s emphasis on leading the news with stories of violence but can’t seem to get through to anyone (she would be horrified that, 43 years later, there’s still no one listening). Michael C. Hall is good as the news anchor Christine has a crush on. Christine is a difficult film to watch but I found it surprisingly compelling. ***+. My mug is up. 


Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is pure arthouse cinema and will appeal mainly to lovers of quiet European-style arthouse dramas. Of course, I am one of those people, so the film did captivate me, though it also fell short (for me) of the greatness I was hoping for. In its slow, thoughtful poetic way, with no score, Certain Women tells the stories of four frustrated lonely women (two are in one story, the others in two different stories) in Montana. Laura Dern plays a lawyer whose client (played by Jared Harris) is making her life very difficult, not least because she is a woman. Michelle Williams plays a business woman who is frustrated by both her husband and an elderly neighbour when she tries to purchase a pile of sandstone blocks. Lily Gladstone plays a ranch hand who tries to befriend a new teacher in town (Kristen Stewart), who is also a lawyer but finds herself driving eight hours every week to a remote town to teach. The acting is very strong and many scenes are quite powerful. The challenges facing strong women in this remote part of the U.S. are well-portrayed. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Lost City of Z



I got to watch another film in Europe that won’t be released in North America for a few weeks: The Lost City of Z. Its premise sounds a bit like Kong: Skull Island: Explorers hunting for a hidden location never seen by anyone from the so-called civilized world (i.e. white people). But the similarity ends there. The Lost City of Z is not a silly action-adventure story full of monsters who love to eat people. Instead, it’s an old-fashioned epic adventure-drama (I love old-fashioned epics) based on a true story taking place during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this film most closely resembles last year’s marvellous Embrace of the Serpent, though there are enough differences to make this a worthy companion film.

Charlie Hunnam plays Percy Fawcett, a British army major whose previous experience with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) leads to an opportunity to do some mapping in Bolivia which is vital for defining the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Fawcett, who has a wife (Nina, played by Sienna Miller) and young son (Jack), is at first reluctant, but once he gets to South America, he gets bit by the adventure bug, especially when he begins to hear tales of a lost city that may prove there were advanced civilizations in the Amazonian jungle long before Europeans or even Egyptians were building cities of their own. 

The RGS, led by Sir George (Ian Mcdiarmid), is sceptical of these tales, but James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) sees an opportunity for fame and agrees to join Fawcett and his team (which includes Henry Costin, played by Robert Pattinson) for a second expedition to Amazonia. Meanwhile, Fawcett has another son and Nina has studied the Amazon and wants to join the expedition, to which her husband naturally replies something like: “A woman in the jungle? Are you mad??” Fawcett goes off without her, Murray turns out to be a disastrous addition to the team, Jack begins to resent his father’s constant absence, and so on. Will Fawcett ever find the lost city of Z? I won’t say, but I will say that Fawcett accomplished much in terms of opening up the Amazonian jungle and treating its indigenous people like human beings instead of like savages or slaves (as the rubber barons saw them).

The Lost City of Z is gorgeously filmed, has a great score, tells an important and exciting story and features a lot of excellent acting. The drama, which focuses on Fawcett’s life in the UK, works particularly well. The adventure half of the film certainly contains many great moments, but it suffers from what was, for me, a serious flaw: A constant lack of clarity about the current state of each expedition (questions like: where are they now? what is their next goal? how much time has passed? what is the state of their team and supplies?). This lack of information created too much frustration for me to award the film ****. Too bad; this could have been a classic.

So The Lost City of Z gets a solid ***+. It’s a much better film than Kong, though action lovers will no doubt see things very differently.  

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Viceroy's House




While in the UK, I had to watch at least one film that won’t be released in North America for a while. The only qualifying film of interest was Viceroy’s House.

Directed by Gurinder Chadha (she made Bend it Like Beckham), Viceroy’s House stars Hugh Bonneville as Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, cousin to King George VI, who was sent to India in 1947 as its last viceroy in order to negotiate India’s independence. Gillian Anderson plays Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina, who is a progressive woman determined to treat the Indian people with the kind of respect not afforded them under colonial rule. Mountbatten, known for his charm, tolerates his wife’s compassion but all their good will cannot prevent the incredible tension and violence that is to come as India is split into two countries (Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan). 

Muhammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), leader of the All-India Muslim League, has long wanted a separate country for India’s Muslims, despite Gandhi’s clear warnings that such a division will wreak havoc (Gandhi is played by Neeraj Kabi). Mountbatten supports Gandhi’s position, but doesn’t realize that powers greater than he have already determined India’s fate, for reasons that are anything but thoughtful or constructive (as Mountbatten would like to be).

This part of Viceroy House’s plot is well done and tells a vital story that needs to be told. However, Viceroy House has another story to tell and gives it almost as much weight. That story is the romantic relationship between Jeet (Manish Dayal), who is one of Mountbatten’s valets and a Hindu, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a Muslim woman who works for Edwina. This relationship allows Chadha to come at the separation of religions from a different viewpoint and many viewers will no doubt be drawn to the story of the young couple. However, this story is much weaker than the other and weakens the entire film as a result by so sharply dividing its time. With a stronger focus, Viceroy’s House might have been a classic instead of an important but light entertainment.

I understand why Chadha made the film the way she did (having to do with the story of her own parents during that time), and her heart is certainly in the right place, which counts for much with me. But while much of the acting is very strong (especially that of veteran supporting actors like Simon Callow, Michael Gambon and Om Puri), too much of the dialogue and acting are not as strong as they could be and I can’t give Viceroy’s House more than somewhere between *** and ***+. Nevertheless, my mug is up and I recommend this film to everyone. 

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island



I had a couple of hours free and I needed a warm place to sit, so while travelling in the UK, I stopped in to watch Kong: Skull Island. It was one of those rare times when I watched a film before checking how it was rated b y my favourite critics. Had I checked, I may have passed on this chance to waste my time on this poor excuse of an adventure film.

Kong: Skull island has a lot of things going for it, like the interesting premise of a lost island in the Pacific, which is almost unreachable due to perpetual storm clouds. Then there’s the fascinating group of actors, like John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Tim Hiddleston. These actors almost made the film worth watching, but some of their lines were so cringe-worthy that the operative word remains ‘almost’. And Kong himself was the best thing about the film, rendered very believably and given a unique blend of characteristics and history (better than any of the human actors). And the cinematography was occasionally breathtaking. 

But all the good stuff went to waste as we watch one character after another get killed off by the various ‘monsters’ on Skull Island (sorry for the spoiler, but I’m doing you a favour here). There’s almost nothing original in how the story plays out, making that story not worth telling and not worth watching, especially with all the silly action, which often made so little sense you just want to scream at the characters for their unbelievable stupidity (like: “let’s go rescue a possible survivor even though we don’t know if he’s alive and even though we certainly know that many of us will die if we try it!”). Jackson’s character alone is worth skipping the film.

So Kong: Skull island gets **+ for all those good things, but my mug is down. Don’t waste your time unless you’re a sucker for romantic action adventure films (the way I’m a sucker for musicals).

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Young Karl Marx



I’m on the road these days, and thus my lack of reviews. Yesterday, James and I were in Heidelberg, where we watched The Young Karl Marx, which chronicles the lives of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the seven years (1841-1848) prior to the publication of their most important work, The Communist Manifesto

The Young Karl Marx is a French/German co-production directed by Raoul Peck. It takes place in four countries (Germany, France, England and Belgium) and its characters speak three languages (German, French and English). Unfortunately for us, the version we watched had all the French and English dubbed into German. This was, for me, the film’s biggest flaw, as some of the German dubbing just didn’t work (voices sounding too alike and often sounding ‘dubbed’ (understandably), which is, for me, a criminal offence in the world of filmmaking). I can’t really blame the filmmakers for this flaw, however, because presumably there will be a DVD which will allow me to hear all the words in their spoken languages (with subtitles) and that film will be much better than the one we watched.

Dubbing aside, I found The Young Karl Marx mysteriously compelling. I say ‘mysteriously’ because the way the story is written and presented would suggest that the film is lost between trying to present the ideas of Marx and Engels and trying to present an entertaining drama. In other words, it should be boring, but it’s not (at least not to me). I was riveted from start to finish, not least because the film deals with ideas that have not lost their freshness or relevancy even after 170 years (a depressing indictment, in my view, of those wasted 170 years, in which the capitalist experiment continues unabated and the world is run, more than ever, by the corporate elites, at the expense of the working classes). I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy of the history, but I found the mix of drama and ideas to be just about right.

Another reason I found The Young Karl Marx compelling was the casting of August Diehl in the lead role. I found his performance convincing and sympathetic. Stefan Kornaske was solid as Engels, and Vicky Krieps and Hannah Steele were excellent as Jenny von Westphalen and Mary Burns, the women who played key roles in the lives of Marx and Engels, not only as their spouses (Marx didn’t actually marry Jenny until 1850, but they lived together) but also in the development of their thought. As James just pointed out, one of the highlights of the film was the way the relationship between Marx and Engels was portrayed, something that works because of the performances.

The cinematography and score were also excellent. I don’t know when The Young Karl Marx will come to North America, but if you are at all interested in the lives of these profound and essential thinkers, don’t miss it. ***+ (*** for the dubbed version). My mug is up.