Friday, 5 October 2018

What They Had (2018 EIFF 5)



Family dramas set at Christmas rarely excel, but Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had is an exception, coming in among my top five films at the 2018 EIFF. It will be released later this month.

Hilary Swank stars as Bridget, who flies back home to Chicago (from California) to help her brother, Nicky (Michael Shannon), after her mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), wanders out into the snow late on Christmas Eve, wearing only her nightgown. Ruth has Alzheimer’s and Nicky is convinced she should be in a nursing home, but his father, Burt (Robert Forster), is in denial about the severity of Ruth’s condition and isn’t ready to have his wife move out. Nicky wants Bridget to help him convince Burt that it’s necessary, but Bridget isn’t sure it’s the only way forward.

At the core of What They Had is a sense that all of the characters are as lost as Ruth when it comes to understanding their relationships with each other (and, in the case of Bridget and Nicky, with the people in their own lives). Bridget is the focus of our attention and we learn that part of her reluctance to push her father is a history of doing whatever her father tells her (including getting married to a man she may not have loved). Nicky, on the other hand, is as stubborn as his father and has had a very different kind of relationship with Burt, which doesn’t help him in this situation. Bridget is also distracted by misgivings about her marriage and about her daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who has lied about her college registration. This short Christmas visit is so full of conflict and mixed emotions for the whole family that Christmas itself is almost forgotten.

What They Had is a quiet unsentimental drama, with moments of wry humour, that feels real and gives us characters with lots of depth, all of whom have our sympathy. It’s a great screenplay and solid direction - hard to believe this is Chomko’s first film. The acting is outstanding by all concerned and the cinematography and score are exactly right. If the film has a flaw it’s that it feels a little too neat in its resolutions, though there are surprises.

I am giving What They Had somewhere between ***+ and ****. My mug is up.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Giant Little Ones (2018 EIFF 4)



One of the best surprises of the 2018 EIFF is this Canadian indie gem, written and directed by Keith Behrman. Set in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (though it could be anywhere in North America), Giant Little Ones is a marvellous unsensationalized study of teenage sexuality. I’m not a huge fan of films about teenagers, but this film’s unique characters won me over. In my opinion, Giant Little Ones is just as good, or better, as last year’s critical indie hit, Call Me By Your Name

Franky (Josh Wiggins) is your average likeable 16-year-old. He’s very angry at his father, Ray (Kyle MacLachlan) for leaving his mother, Carly (Maria Bello) for a man, but otherwise Franky is doing just fine. He’s part of the swim team, along with his lifelong best friend, Ballas (Darren Mann), he has a trans friend called Mouse (Niamh Wilson) and he has a girlfriend, Cil (Hailey Little), who wants both of them to lose their virginity on his 17th birthday. Life is good. 

But Franky’s 17th birthday party doesn’t go as planned. Something happens between Franky and Ballas that will cause Ballas to end their friendship and destroy Franky’s reputation in school. Only Mouse and Ballas’s sister, Natasha (Taylor Hickson), stand by Franky as his life takes a dark turn (though it’s not as dark a turn as the one other characters are facing, or have faced).

Giant Little Ones presents a fascinating glimpse into how teenagers today struggle with their sexual and gender identities. Without ever being didactic, the film explores all the issues from many different angles in an honest and refreshing way, though the overall situation seems a little improbable. The acting is outstanding by all concerned (Canadian actor Peter Outerbridge is also on hand, as Ballas’s father), but especially by the teenagers, with Wiggins being entirely convincing and always sympathetic. The writing is natural and nuanced, and the cinematography and score are more than good enough. 

Giant Little Ones doesn’t feel like a small Canadian indie film made by an unknown filmmaker. That is meant to be a compliment, but it also highlight’s the film’s most noticeable flaw: everyone looks a little too nice and there’s a bit of a Hollywood feel to the story’s ending. My only other complaint is the lack of character development for some of the lesser characters, but that’s a lot to ask for and Franky’s character development is terrific. So Giant Little Ones gets somewhere between ***+ and **** and will almost certainly be among my five favourite films at the 2018 EIFF. My mug is up. Write down the title for future reference.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Silent Revolution (2018 EIFF 3)



My favourite film of the 2018 EIFF (so far - I still have four films to watch) is The Silent Revolution (German: Das Schweigende Klassenzimmer), a German film written and directed by Lars Kraume, based on the book by Dietrich Garstka, which is based on true events.

Set near East Berlin in 1956, The Silent Revolution shows what happens when a twelfth-grade classroom learns, through unofficial channels, about the Hungarian Uprising (against the Soviet occupation). Kurt (Tom Gramenz) and Theo (Leonard Scheicher) are best friends who use the visit of a grandfather’s grave in West Berlin to sneak into a theatre. There they see a news report of events in Hungary, which they share with their classmates. Kurt suggests a two-minute silence in memory of those who were killed in the Uprising and the majority of the class agrees. But their teacher is not impressed. Neither is the principal (Forian Lukas), but he wisely decides to keep the matter quiet. Unfortunately, word spreads and soon the school board (represented by Frau Kessler, played by Jördis Triebel) and the Minister of Education (Burghart Klaußner) are involved, threatening to expel the students if they don’t say who started this ‘counter-revolution’.

In the meantime, we catch a glimpse into the home life of three of the students: Kurt, Theo and Erik (Jonas Dassler). Erik didn’t want to participate in the silence and is the one who initially tells the teacher what it’s about, precipitating the madness that follows. In all three stories, we will discover that family secrets have been kept from the boys. 

The Silent Revolution is a brilliantly-structured and incredibly intense examination of life in an authoritarian state that demands 100% loyalty and obedience from its citizens (i.e. where no one is allowed to voice an opinion that counters the official position). Unfortunately, such stories remain all-too-relevant in our time of fake news, kneeling football players and the labelling of those who question the “official” version of events as conspiracy theorists. The film also provides a nuanced look into how socialism, communism, capitalism and fascism were viewed by people in the early days of the Cold War. 

I have mentioned only a few key actors in a large ensemble cast that is universally excellent. The writing and direction are intelligent and tight, creating just the right notes of dramatic tension (some critics will no doubt see too much melodrama, but I found it entirely acceptable). The cinematography and score are outstanding, with a beautiful period feel. 

The Silent Revolution is a riveting tale of a minor but critical event. Having experienced something at least marginally similar when I was in grade seven, I was holding my breath from the opening minutes. An easy **** and a guaranteed place in my top fifteen films of the year. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Shoplifters (2018 EIFF 2)



I’ve already watched fourteen films at the 2018 EIFF, with six more to go. Almost half of those I’ve watched were directed by women, including three of my four favourite films (impressive!). It’s an excellent sign. 

Probably the most prestigious film at this year’s EIFF is Shoplifters, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. My expectations were understandably a little high and that may be why I didn’t give this generally brilliant Japanese film the four stars most critics think it deserves.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Shoplifters tells the story of a poor family living in a small bungalow somewhere in Tokyo, a bungalow surrounded by apartment buildings and somehow providing a perfect hiding place for a family with things to hide. Among the things the family has to hide are their regular shoplifting trips, but the film focuses on their attempts to hide the newest addition to the family: Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl who was found, cold and hungry on the street, by Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son, Shota (Kairi Jō) after one of their shoplifting excursions. Osaka’s partner, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) isn’t too thrilled to have another mouth to feed but eventually grows close to Yuri. Both parents work part time, while the grandmother (Kirin Kiki) adds supports through her late husband’s pension and the teenage Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) makes money at a kind of strip shop. Somehow the family gets by, eating what look like tasty meals and enjoying regular happy times. Until the family’s secrets start to unravel.

Shoplifters is a wonderful understated film, full of top-notch natural acting that makes the story feel real and writing that feels authentic and has a strong humanist message. That all sounds like the masterpiece critics are claiming the film to be, and maybe a second viewing would make it a favourite of mine as well, but the bottom line for me is that I didn’t find it engaging enough to award it four stars. So Shoplifters gets only a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Monday, 1 October 2018

The Grizzlies (2018 EIFF 1)



You can tell my life is way too busy when an entire month goes by without a film review. October will probably be just as busy, but look for one review every day for most of the month because I’m back at the Edmonton International Film Festival (EIFF).

The EIFF gets off to its best start ever (for me) in 2018, with an opening film that received a standing ovation (very rare at the EIFF). The Grizzlies, directed by Miranda de Pencier (who is Canadian) and written by Moira Walley-Beckett and Graham Yost, was filmed in Canada’s far far north: Kugluktuk, on the Arctic coast of Nunavut. Based on a true story, The Grizzlies shows what happened some 15-20 years ago when a naive young high school teacher came into this small community, which is suffering from teenage suicides and far too much drugs and alcohol. 

Russ Sheppard (played by Ben Schnetzer) has no idea what he’s getting into, and when one of his students slugs him during his first class, and almost all the rest walk out, he could be forgiven for hopping on the next plane. But instead he endures and finds a way to get some of his students excited about life again by introducing them to lacrosse and offering them a chance to maybe fly to Toronto to play in a national tournament. But this turns out to be an incredibly challenging dream, with Shepparrd facing opposition not only from parents but from the town council (led by Janace, who is played by Tantoo Cardinal). Fortunately, Sheppard gets support from some enterprising students (like Miranda, played by Emerald MacDonald) and a colleague friend (Mike, played by Will Sasso).

The Grizzlies was originally supposed to focus more on Sheppard’s experiences in Kugluktuk, but de Pencier wisely chose to focus her attention on the students and townspeople of Kugluktuk instead. Even as it was, my biggest complaint about The Grizzlies was the way it shows how a white man came into this Inuit community and gave them hope through sports. This would have been much worse if the film didn’t try so hard to say it was really the students who made the difference and not their teacher, who was often feeling very hopeless. 

The Grizzlies is a beautiful film, featuring lots of good acting and generally top-notch writing (there was one scene that made me cringe because it felt so unnaturally contrived). Most important, The Grizzlies provides us with an honest glimpse into the lives and struggles of the Inuit people of northern Canada, with a very strong comment on the role of residential schools in the difficulties facing young people in Kugluktuk today. I know it was an honest glimpse because the Q&A after the film featured members of the community who were represented in the film (along with the director, one of the actors and the real Russ Sheppard) and they told us the film was spot-on in its depiction of life in Kugluktuk.

The Grizzlies is an outstanding opening film and gets a solid ***+ heading toward ****. My mug is up and I encourage all readers to write the name of the film down so you don’t miss it when it gets released in the spring of 2019.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

TV83: Fargo, Season 3




Like the first two seasons of Fargo, Season 3 is brilliant television. Clearly, Noah Hawley is a genius. And the acting: David Thewlis is phenomenal, Ewan McGregor is as good as I’ve ever seen him, Carrie Coon and Michael Stuhlbarg are terrific as always and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whom I haven’t seen before, immediately impressed me. The writing is clever and creative, with one powerful scene after another. The direction is solid throughout, and the cinematography and score are exactly right. Classy stuff. Except. Except here’s the thing: I’m never going to recommend that anyone ever watch Fargo, Season 3.

In this third season of darkly funny ‘true stories’ in Minnesota, we have two brothers (both played by McGregor) feuding (at first mildly) about how one of them (Emmit) got wealthy after receiving an inheritance from his father, while the other (Ray) ended up with the nice car but has struggled ever since and works as a probation officer, which is how he met his partner, Nikki (Winstead), who has plans to help Ray even things up a little. The feuding gets out of hand, due to some unfortunate accidents, and murder and mayhem ensue. 

Meanwhile, Emmit and his associate, Sy (Stuhlbarg), who own a lot of parking lots, find themselves in big trouble because they borrowed a million dollars from the wrong man, the mysterious and shady V.M. Varga (Thewlis), who suddenly becomes their business partner. Murder and mayhem ensue. 

The person at the heart of investigating all this murder and mayhem is Gloria Burgle (Coon), the Chief of Police in Eden Valley, where the first murder takes place. She is the only clear-headed person in the show (with the possible exception of fellow police officer, Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval)), but is up against a restructuring process that has left her with a boss (played by Shea Whigham) who has no use for Gloria’s abilities. 

Oh, and did I mention there is a supernatural component to this season, as represented by Ray Wise, appropriately known best for his work on Twin Peaks (which this season occasionally feels like)? 

Compelling brilliantly-structured serial TV. So why can’t I recommend it? Well, I am in the process of launching a new blog in which I will focus my reviews/recommendations entirely on a film’s or TV show’s moral compass. Fargo, Season 3 lacks such a moral compass. It uses violence (restrained as it may be) and slightly absurd characters purely to entertain. In no way does it help viewers become better people or help the world become a better place. It has no heart. It is cold. It scores near the bottom on my moral compass index. So while Fargo, Season 3, viewed objectively without a moral compass, deserves a solid ****, it gets no more than *** from me. Along with the two previous seasons of Fargo, which suffer from a similar lack of a moral compass (I refused to even write a review of Season 2), I refuse to recommend Fargo, Season 3.

I should note that the Coen brothers, who are executive producers on Fargo, have a history of making great films (including Fargo) that score low on my moral compass index. Too bad.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Blindspotting



Wow!

The third African-American-themed indie film in this series is the only one to get four stars. Unlike the other two, it has the feel of a film-festival classic. Among the features that separate it from the previous two films: Blindspotting is raw, it’s in-your-face, it’s unpredictable and it’s unnerving in all the right ways in order to bring its profound messages home (Sorry to Bother You, by way of contrast, is often unnerving in the wrong ways). Like the other two films, Blindspotting is labelled a comedy because it has a few humorous scenes and a humorous edge. In my opinion, being funny does not make a film a comedy, at least not when it is clearly a dark and sometimes violent drama (although an argument could be made that it’s a musical: there’s a lot of rapping going on, no doubt because the lead actor is a well-known rapper, playing on stage in Hamilton). 

Blindspotting was directed by Carlos López Estrada (his first feature film) and written by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal (over a period of nine years), the actors playing the two protagonists, Colin and Miles. The film takes place in Oakland, over a period of three-plus days, and focuses on the fact that these are the final three days of Colin’s year-long probation. As we see in the opening scene, which involves a lot of guns (in a funny but scary way), Colin has not had an easy time sticking to the rules of his probation and it will obviously be a major challenge for him to survive these last three days without being nabbed for a parole violation and sent back to prison.

Colin and Miles work together for a small moving company, which is managed by Val (Janina Vanankar), Colin’s ex-girlfriend. Miles is a loose cannon, so Colin is the driver and takes charge of the moves. One late evening, driving the truck back to the office alone, Colin witnesses an unarmed black man being shot in the back by a police officer (played by Ethan Embry), an event which will haunt him every moment of these three days. Then he witnesses two more events involving Miles (one in the home of Miles and Miles’s partner, Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones)) that will haunt him even more, sending him into stress-overload and a very dark place.

Blindspotting addresses many themes, including guns, police and racism (just like BlacKkKlansman), but it uses the friendship between Colin and Miles (one black, the other white) to tackle unique themes like gentrification, cultural appropriation and the trials of growing up in a poor urban neighbourhood (not to mention our blind spots), and never delivers any of its messages in a heavy-handed way (as the previous two films often do). But what really makes the film special is the way it treats every character with empathy and compassion. This is aided by the fact that the lead actors are lifelong friends who grew up in Oakland, just like the protagonists. 

Blindspotting features wonderful natural acting, excellent cinematography, a good score and spot-on writing. Despite all the rapping (I’m not a fan), this original and insightful film gets a solid ****. My mug is up for another top-fifteen entry. 

Friday, 24 August 2018

BlacKkKlansman



Spike Lee’s last film, Chi-raq, was my third-favourite film of 2016, so I had high expectations for his critically-acclaimed BlacKkKlansman. While the acclaim is well-deserved, I am disappointed that Lee’s new film won’t make my top fifteen list.

Based on a true story, BlacKkKlansman tells the story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), the first African-American detective on the Colorado Springs Police Force, which he joined in 1972. Stallworth’s desire to do undercover work will lead to him joining the KKK, rising to a position of some influence within that organization. Stallworth is able to accomplish this because he initiated contact over the phone and then convinced his superiors to allow another undercover officer (Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver) to pretend to be Stallworth when meeting with the KKK members. Having the two Stallworths in BlacKkKlansman creates the central tension in the film and allows for some fascinating things to happen, especially when the National Director of the KKK, David Duke, comes to town, but it also feels awkward and is one of the reasons I couldn’t give the film four stars.

The 70’s setting of BlacKkKlansman is brilliantly handled (it even felt like a 70’s film), and one of the highlights of the film, making it all the scarier to see how little has changed in the U.S. since then. Of course, this is why Lee made the film in the first place, as a response to Trump, white supremacists and the ongoing police violence against African-Americans. Lee’s commentary is spot-on and well done. Police mistreatment of African-Americans is featured ion the film, but I was impressed by the generally positive way the Colorado Springs police department reacts to Stallworth’s presence among them and to his desire to infiltrate the KKK. It’s a wise balance by Lee, allowing him to get in a particularly strong blow against American tolerance for the KKK near the end of the film. 

However, coincidentally, Boots Riley, the writer/director of my last-reviewed film, was very angry with Lee for depicting the police in such a positive manner when ‘African-Americans face structural racism “from the police on a day-to-day basis”’(quoted from Wikipedia). 

One of my favourite scenes in BlacKkKlansman is a KKK meeting where the members watch The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 film considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. BlacKkKlansman makes it all too clear that, regardless of its technical merits, The Birth of a Nation is one of the worst films ever made and should not, IMHO, be allowed to even be considered for acclaim.

There was a great deal about BlacKkKlansman that I enjoyed very much. Washington and Driver were terrific, though I couldn’t help hearing Washington’s father’s (Denzel’s) voice every time he spoke. This was also a problem (but a fun problem) when I heard Michael Buscemi speak (he played a fellow police officer). Other notable actors were Laura Harrier as Patrice (leader of the local Black Student Union, and Stallowrth’s girlfriend), Topher Grace as Duke and Harry Belafonte as James Turner (another terrific scene). The cinematography that gave the film its 70’s feel was excellent, as was the score/music which added to the period feel. 

So why can’t I give BlacKkKlansman four stars? Well, for me, the story was told in too straight forward a way. The scenes involving Driver, in  particular, were handled in a weird less-than-credible way. Maybe Lee was trying too hard to make the film as true as possible, which resulted in making it feel less true. Or maybe my problem relates to the fact that this film has been labelled a comedy, which it most certainly is not. Lee’s sometimes over-the-top way of injecting humour does not make the film a comedy, but this incongruity may have been part of my problem. In any event, BlacKkKlansman gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Sorry to Bother You



What are the odds that the last three films I watched at the cinema would have an African-American protagonist (and an African-American writer), would all be mislabelled “comedies” (they are all much too dark for that label, though one of them could be fairly described as a dark comedy), would have many similar themes (racism being the most obvious) and would have two films set in the same city of Oakland, California? Probably rather low, but that’s what happened (entirely unplanned). All three of these indie films are critically acclaimed, and I liked all of them, but the one I liked best is the least acclaimed of the three (I actually liked every film better than the last).

I will review these three films (one a day) in the order that I watched them, beginning with Boots Riley’s very quirky ‘comedy drama’ (I prefer: ‘dark sci-fi/horror satire’), Sorry to Bother You. Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, a young man who is so desperate to find work that he applies to be a telemarketer for a sketchy company called RegalView (in an alternate-reality Oakland). Cash doesn’t do well (his attempts are one of the film’s highlights) until Langston (Danny Glover), an older co-worker, tells him to use his ‘white’ voice. Cash is so successful with his white voice that he is quickly promoted to become what is known as a ‘Power Caller’, a far more lucrative position (to say the least), but one which basically requires Cash to sell his soul. Things go downhill (and very dark) from there, though in an over-the-top satirical way that allows for the possibility of the film being described as a ‘dark comedy’.

I won’t say any more about the bizarre plot, other than that it involves a company called WorryFree (the CEO of which is Steve Lift (Armie Hammer)), that offers people the chance to live without worrying about bills, food and shelter if they sign a contract to work for the rest of their lives (legalized slavery), and there’s an anti-WorryFree protest movement led by a group called “The Left Eye”.

While Sorry to Bother You takes a satirical look at racism, classism and sexism, with some very cutting spot-on observations, it is primarily an often-brilliant satire of our capitalist society. As a staunch (and life-long) anti-capitalist, I was thrilled to see it. This could easily have been one of my favourite films of the year (I enjoy absurd satires). Unfortunately,  just as in The Death of Stalin, the satire was a little too dark, silly and scattered for me, with a number of wasted opportunities for Sorry to Bother You to be the classic it could have been.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed some scenes immensely, I thought the acting was generally strong (Stanfield and Tessa Thompson stood out as Cash and Detroit, Cash’s activist girlfriend), as was the cinematography and score, and Riley’s writing is original and intelligent. So Sorry to Bother You gets a lightweight ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again



If anything, the sequel to Mamma Mia! is even more of a mess than the original, with generally poor writing, poor chemistry and mediocre acting (Lily James did well). This time around, the story, such as it is, focuses on the young Donna (James) as she meets (and spends the night with) the three gentlemen who might be Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) father. Sophie, meanwhile, is pregnant (it’s five years since the events of the first film) and trying to keep her mother’s dreams alive. All the actors, except Streep, are back for the sequel (not entirely a good thing), with a younger set of actors to play the same characters some forty years earlier. 

It’s all good fun, but Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again would be a complete waste of time were it not for the lush cinematography (in Greece) and Abba’s marvellous music. It’s so great to look at and listen to that I must again give the film ***. My mug is up, if just barely.

Friday, 17 August 2018

TV82: Scandinavian Noir 7: Bordertown



Like Occupied, Miiko Oikkonen's Bordertown is a Scandinavian thriller (this time in Finland) on Netflix with a fascinating premise that sometimes gets lost because the show bounces around too much and has convoluted story lines that hinder ongoing engagement.

Ville Virtanen plays Kari Sorjonen, an eccentric but brilliant police detective who moves from Helsinki to the town of Lappeenranta, near the Russian border, to hopefully live a quieter life with his wife and daughter. But horrific crimes seem to follow him around and his daughter is constantly getting involved in his cases (which is too contrived). The concept is great, Virtanen’s performance is terrific, I love the Finnish setting, and the cinematography and score are top-notch, but the writing is too uneven to make Bordertown the classic noir serial it could be. Still, it gets ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

TV81: Occupied



I was initially fascinated by Occupied’s timely and courageous premise of a near-future Norway deciding to end all oil production in the country for environmental reasons, resulting in the EU allowing Russia to invade Norway (and occupy it) to keep oil production going. This was a show with lots of promise. Unfortunately, the first two seasons of Occupied (on Netflix) have not lived up to that promise.

Henrik Mestad plays Norwegian Prime Minister Jesper Berg, the man who thinks the future of the planet is more important than trying to protect the status quo. He sounds like a pretty classy guy to me, but to say that some of his later decisions are morally questionable is an understatement. I won’t say what happens to Berg when the Russians take over, but I will note that Janne Heltberg also plays the Norwegian Prime Minister (Anita Rygh). 

There’s all kinds of intrigue involving resistance movements and spies and so on. Some of it is entertaining. Much of it is too convoluted. In the end, my biggest problem with Occupied is that there is too much going on and the show bounces around between the stories in a way that makes it hard to follow and stay invested, losing the big picture in the process. It doesn’t help that sometimes the story moves much too quickly and sometimes it moves too slowly.

The acting is generally good, though not outstanding. Occupied is a well-made and sometimes thoughtful TV serial that could have been much better, given the setting and the premise. It gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

TV80: The Missing, Season 2



The first season of The Missing is one of my favourite TV detective dramas of all time, so Season 2 (2016) never had a chance to live up to my expectations. Still, Season 2 remains well above the average TV fare, even ‘cable’ TV fare.

Tchéky Karyo returns as Julien Baptiste, one of my all-time favourite TV characters. This time he is called about a case in Eckhausen, Germany, where Alice Webster, a girl who went missing eleven years before, suddenly walks back into town and mentions the name of another missing girl, Sophie Giroux, whose disappearance Baptiste had investigated in 2003 (with unfortunate results).

Alice’s parents, Sam (David Morrissey) and Gemma (Keeley Hawes), and brother Matthew (Jake Davies), are ecstatic, if overwhelmed. Sam is a British army officer stationed in Eckhausen, so the British military is immediately involved in the investigation into Alice’s whereabouts during the past eleven years. Father-daughter army officers Adrian and Eve Stone (Roger Allam and Laura Fraser) are the key players there.

After being called by Eve (who just wanted information on the Giroux case), Baptiste drops everything and drives to Eckhausen, where he upsets everyone with his seemingly obsessive theories, including one in which he believes the returned girl may not be Alice at all. Baptiste is driven by his failures in the Giroux case and by the fact that his genius for interrogation and deduction is stymied at every turn in his investigation. But there may be more going on in Baptiste’s head than just frustration and anger. 

As in the first season, The Missing dances around between different time periods, mostly 2014, when Alice returns, and 2016, when Baptiste continues his investigation (which will take him to Iraqi Kurdistan) after various kinds of therapies for his recently-diagnosed brain tumour. The writing and structure of Season 2 may not be up to the level of brilliance of the first season, but it’s still superb work for television. As in the first season, the strength of the series is the character development and the acting. Everyone is excellent, with Karyo’s performance again standing out, and with a special mention for the two women in lead roles (Hawes and Fraser).

Unfortunately, the second season has a number of plot holes and contrivances that make it inferior to the first season, not to mention some inconsistent behaviour. The story involving the British military and Iraqi Kurdistan is fascinating and trying to make a vital point, but that story has a number of flaws which undermine this effort. The ingredients for greatness are all there, but they don’t come together the way they should.

Nevertheless, The Missing, Season 2 is top-notch TV, deserving of the **** I gave the first season, even if it is a step down. My mug is up.

Monday, 13 August 2018

TV79: Marcella, Season 2



While Marcella remains a gorgeous TV serial highlighted by Anna Friel’s terrific performance, the second season is so bad that I regret having watched it. This season is not just cold but far too dark and far too contrived (thus lacking in credibility). It also has nothing good to say. 

If you enjoyed the first season of this Netflix show, as I did, I highly recommend that you protect your psychological wellbeing and avoid wasting your time on the second season. My mug is down.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Eighth Grade



My review (click on link below; it's on Thirdway.com) of a surprisingly good film from Bo Burnham about life in the eighth grade, which I am tentatively giving ***+ to ****. My mug is up.

http://thirdway.com/eighth-grade/

Sunday, 5 August 2018

TV78: Homeland, Season 7



The main premise of Homeland’s season seven is that the Russians are using social media (among other things) to covertly influence U.S. politics. Really. I mean, how ludicrous is that?

Seriously, though, this intriguing premise, while illuminating the many ways Russians could indeed influence (and have already influenced) American politics, is neither well-developed nor well-executed. Carrie (Clare Daines) and Saul (Mandy Patinkin) are once again tasked with saving the world (or at least U.S. democracy - how to you save something that hasn’t existed in a long time?). Meanwhile, the Russians are finding it quite easy to undermine the presidency of Elizabeth Keane. Can she hold on long enough for Carrie and Saul to save the world?

Sigh. By the end, I didn't much care, because the story wasn’t well told, with serious credibility issues and a rather absurd reliance on Carrie, whose family life is being sacrificed. This is by far the weakest season of Homeland and I really wish they had ended season six very differently and then called it a day.

Oh well. It was fun, as always, to watch Patinkin and Daines. The acting is the biggest strength of Homeland and I have no complaints on that score. Season seven continues to be well-made serial television, but when the writing starts to feel desperate (despite that intriguing and realistic premise), it’s time to move on. Still, there were clearly some wise things that this season wanted to communicate to its viewers and to American politicians and I’ll give it high marks for effort.

Homeland season 7 would only be worthy of three stars on its own, but whether that’s enough to bring down the four stars I have awarded (on average) the first six seasons remains to be seen (it depends what happens in the final season, which I probably won’t get to see for another year).

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout



The sixth Mission: Impossible film, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, is a mega-blockbuster getting rave reviews. Since I very much appreciated two of the previous M:I films (the original, directed by Brian De Palma, and the fourth  - Ghost Protocol, directed by Brad Bird), I had to rush to the cinema to see what all the excitement was about (despite the fact that the previous M:I film - Rogue Nation, also written and directed by McQuarrie, was my least favourite in the series).

And I suppose Mission: Impossible - Fallout was indeed an exciting enough film. But my review warrants only another episode of the good, the bad and the ugly (as for the plot, I’ll just say that the IMF team needs to prevent the simultaneous use of three nuclear bombs which will send the world into chaos):

The Good:

1) Location, location, location. Any film that sets its action in and around my favourite British landmark is going to get extra marks from me. Besides London (St. Paul’s Cathedral), there’s also Paris and Kashmir (the latter filmed in New Zealand and Norway). Gorgeous cinematography throughout!

2) Tom Cruise is a good actor and a good action hero. The support from the actors (Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) playing his IMF colleagues is also very strong, as is the acting of Rebecca Ferguson, Michelle Monaghan and Vanessa Kirby as three women playing key roles in the plot.

3) The overwhelming score is appropriate for a spy action thriller like this and I enjoyed it.

4) The pacing, and the tension it creates, is impressive.

5) Ethan Hunt’s concern for the lives of innocent people, and his inability to kill them regardless of the consequences, is laudable. 

The Bad

1) Henry Cavill has a major role in Mission: Impossible - Fallout as a CIA assassin. Why? I really hate saying this, because I like to be generous to actors, but Cavill is not a good actor. Every scene with Cavill in it (and there are many) suffers from his presence. Didn’t work for me at all. I also wasn’t impressed by the acting of Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett (both good actors) in this film.

2) The writing certainly showed an ability to create the kind of tension/excitement that action-lovers crave. But as regular readers know, I am bored by action, so this kind of writing doesn’t particularly impress me. Besides that, to me, many of the action scenes felt unoriginal (the car and helicopter chases are straight out of Bond) and I predicted far too many of the plot twists. Add to that the fact that a couple of the dialogue scenes (like one involving Cavill and Bassett) were so badly written they made me cringe in my seat. The critics seem to think McQuarrie’s writing was stellar. I don’t get it.

3) Ethan Hunt’s ability to kill the bad guys without a thought puts a damper on the attempts to give him some kind of moral integrity. 

The Ugly:

1) So much violent action aimed at a PG audience. Endless violent action. Did I mention the overwhelming action?

I’m a huge fan of quiet intelligent spy thrillers. I’m generally not a huge fan of spy action films (like those featuring James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan and Ethan Hunt), though I do appreciate a few of them (including the first Mission Impossible film, the first Bourne film and at least six Bond films). A good indicator of how much I appreciate a spy action film is the amount of action in the film: the more action in the film, the less I will like it. Since Mission: Impossible - Fallout is almost entirely action, it does not rank very high, regardless of how exciting that action might be. 

There is just enough location magic and that original M:I feel for Mission: Impossible - Fallout to sneak across into *** country, like Rogue Nation. But for me these last two Ethan Hunt films have been largely a waste of my time and my mug refuses to stand straight. I think the critics were wrong on this one, lost in the excitement of the action to the extent that they missed (or ignored) most of the flaws described above. I will, however, acknowledge that the vast majority of film viewers are looking for well-made action-heavy escapist entertainment. I don’t quite understand it, but I recognize that, for this majority, Fallout is a great film. And as far as action films go, viewers could do far worse (e.g. Avengers), so enjoy.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?



Fred Rogers was an amazing man. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers decided to go into children’s television in the early 1950’s because he hated the programming that was aimed at young children in those early days of television. Eventually, this would lead to the incredibly popular children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which was broadcast nationally (in the U.S.) from 1968 to 2001. But the show actually started in Canada, on CBC, from 1963 - 66, something that isn’t mentioned in Morgan Neville’s documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

As Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes clear, Rogers’ slow-paced quiet show broke all the rules for supposedly good TV, but somehow he was able to make an almost magical connection with his viewers that not only made his show popular but resulted in it having a major impact on generations of pre-school children. Rogers’ down-to-earth style and way of talking with and to children about the ups and downs of real life (including divorce and assassinations), without talking down to the kids, was behind that magical connection. The documentary also hints that children were able to pick up on the fact that Rogers was utterly sincere and honest about everything he said to them - this was not a man who was in TV for the wealth or the fame but simply because he wanted to make the world a better place. 

I am too old and too Canadian to have had the opportunity to watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, which is too bad, but I heard a lot of good things about it over the years, which makes me particularly appreciative of the documentary. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does a great job of telling the vital story of Rogers’ life and the impact of his show. The highlights for me were hearing Rogers speak in various settings over the years, passing along his profound insights into life. A couple of wise quotes that stood out for me:

About TV, he said: “Love is at the root of everything - all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.” About his show, he said: “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they're loved and capable of loving.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tries to present an honest account of Rogers’ life, including showing his flaws. But these are so minor that they only serve to make Rogers more impressive. He was a man who genuinely lived what he presented to the public (among other things, Rogers was a pacifist, a vegetarian, a feminist and an environmentalist). The biggest criticism of Rogers and his show was that he was so effective in making children feel special that he was partly responsible for entire generations of young adults having a sense of entitlement. That would be an impressive achievement, but the charge is somewhat laughable when you consider the way Rogers’ telling the kids that they are special (unique) and worthy of love was part of a consistent message about caring for and loving others. Indeed, Rogers’ show was often about making goodness attractive. 

I did find that the documentary occasionally dragged by getting into too much unnecessary detail about characters in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and this is why I can’t give the film a clear four stars. But Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a moving tribute to a great man and I recommend it to everyone. ***+ - ****. My mug is up.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Leave No Trace



Wow!

That’s back-to-back wows in what has, so far, been a fairly unimpressive year at the cinema.

Unlike this year’s previous wow films, however, Leave No Trace is a film I can recommend to almost everyone (I say ‘almost’ because, for some people, the slow pace will be a problem). Leave No Trace is described as a family drama, which is certainly accurate, but Debra Granik’s films are so unique in their structure and atmosphere that it’s misleading to use such descriptions. I would simply describe it as a Granik drama.

Granik made my favourite film of 2010 (Winter’s Bone), which launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. Leave No Trace, which will make my top ten but not get to number one, may launch another career, that of Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, whose performance as 14-year-old Tom is nothing short of perfection. It needs to be for this film to work, because so much of this quiet film rides on her expressions and tones of voice.

Leave No Trace tells the story of Tom and her father, Will (Ben Foster), who live in the woods just outside Portland, Oregon. Why they live in the woods is never really explained, which is part of the magic of this incredibly subtle and understated story. We are given just enough information to know that Will has PTSD from his experience in the military (Iraq? Afghanistan?) and in a sense he is one of many homeless veterans found all over the U.S. (others in the Portland area also feature in the film). But Will is unique in that he is parenting a teenage girl while living a life of hiding from the authorities (changing camp regularly) in an urban forest. And somehow Will is doing a terrific job of being a loving and attentive parent. When Will and Tom are caught, very early in the film, and taken into custody, Jean (Dana Millican), a social worker, is amazed that Tom is so well-educated and so content with her life.

That contentment will fade as Tom and Will are taken to their new home on a tree farm/ranch. It’s a living situation Will cannot tolerate for long, but Tom is intrigued by the people around her and she begins to make friends. The growing separation between Tom and Will, based on very different needs, lies at the heart of this sad and bleak, but also heartwarming and hopeful, drama.

Like McKenzie, Foster’s understated performance is spot-on. It doesn’t hurt that the screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini makes Tom and Will such fully-developed characters. The cinematography, score and direction are all outstanding, creating a film that feels so real it could almost be a documentary, which somehow only makes the story more haunting, though also deeply moving because of the way we can empathize with the experiences of the protagonists.

But whats sets Leave No Trace apart and puts it into my top ten has not yet been mentioned. I’m taking about the way all the characters who come into contact with Tom and Will are treated by the writers. I don’t want to spoil the film, in even a minimal way, by elaborating on this, so for now I will only say that the way Leave No Trace constantly defies predictable interactions blew me away. I'll write an entire article about this one day.

Leave No Trace is a profound film about relationships, community, growing up and life in the 21st century. And while it’s a slow quiet film, I couldn’t believe it was over already when it ended, which is always a very good sign. ****. My mug is up. Not to be missed!