Monday, 31 December 2018

Boy Erased



Writer-director Joel Egerton, who also plays a major role in the film, has put together a very good film, based on a true story, about an 18-year-old man whose parents send him to a Christian facility offering gay conversion therapy (i.e. he will be converted from being gay to being straight, since being gay is just a bad choice he has made in his life).

Lucas Hedges stars as Jared, and he does a great job, as do Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as his parents, Marshall and Nancy. There are a number of well-drawn characters and lots of good dialogue telling an important story. Unfortunately, I think it’s the attempt to provide a sensitive nuanced story that prevents Boy Erased from becoming a great film, one that fully engages the heart as well as the mind. The other problem is the flashbacks, which are not well-structured into the story and therefore actually hinder our understanding of Jared's journey instead of helping it.

Nevertheless, Boy Erased gets ***+. My mug is up. Highly recommended to anyone who wonders what gay conversion therapy looks like (and how evil it is). 

Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Favourite



If I have any chance of catching up on my reviews of the more than twenty films I have watched in the past three months but not yet reviewed, I will need to write shorter reviews for a while, focusing on my assessment of the films and less on their content. My apologies to those who would wish my reviews to be thorough and provide more plot details.

Despite knowing that The Favourite was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, whose eccentric films remind me a little of Peter Greenaway (some of whose films I adored but many of which I found too bizarre), or even Lars von Trier I allowed the trailers to convince me that The Favourite would be a more mainstream feature than Dogtooth (which I disliked), The Lobster (which I loved) or The Killing of a Sacred Deer (which I disliked). It was a pleasant surprise to discover that The Favourite is in fact a quirky dark comedy/drama with a uniquely stark cinematography (occasionally providing a fishbowl lens view) that bears no resemblance to mainstream films. With the terrific performances by the three lead actors (all women, which is also unique), and clever writing by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, it’s not hard to see why The Favourite is also a favourite with critics. Unfortunately for me, The Favourite is not my kind of film, which is to say that the lack of even a single sympathetic character left me cold and disengaged throughout. I loved the witty dialogue, I loved the acting, I loved the candle-lit cinematography, I loved the period detail and the setting and I loved the score, but the plot and the crass nature of the story left me disappointed.

Set in England in 1708, Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, a woman suffering from gout and depression and relying more and more on the love of her life: Sarah, known as Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). But then Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up. Abigail begins work in the palace as the lowliest of servants, but she had been a lady once (until her father lost her in a wager) and wants to be one again. And she is intelligent enough to pull it off. But it doesn’t take long for Sarah to see through Abigail’s schemes to become the queen’s favourite. The only question is whether she can stop her.

Don’t go into the cinema thinking that this is a fun comedy drama or even a brilliantly-acted period drama. There is fun, to be sure, and the acting could not be better, but The Favourite is dark in every way and I expect many readers may not appreciate that any more than I did (i.e. I appreciate many dark films, but generally need a character I can sympathize with). The Favourite gets ***+ - **** for the excellent filmmaking but will not be one of my favourites of the year. My mug is up.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me?



The other new film I caught at the cinema this week was Can You Ever Forgive Me? (directed by Marielle Heller), which the critics acclaim more highly than Green Book. Having set myself up for disappointment (due to high expectations), disappointment is precisely what I experienced, though I did enjoy the film.

In yet another film based on a true story, Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a biography writer living in Manhattan who is struggling to pay the bills. When she sees how much money she can get by selling interesting letters from famous authors to collectors, she can begins to write these letters herself as a way of making ends meet. She is eventually aided in this enterprise by a homeless friend (Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant). A key factor in their friendship is that both Lee and Jack are gay. 

Lee also befriends a local bookseller (Anna, played by Dolly Wells), though Lee struggles with her feelings for Anna, especially since Anna is one of those whom she is defrauding. In Lee’s eyes, the only true friend she has is her cat, but the cat is sick. Eventually, Lee’s crimes start to catch up to her, and she has to become ever more creative in her schemes.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a well-written and well-directed film featuring terrific performances by McCarthy and Grant as well as excellent cinematography and a good score. But its subject matter and story didn’t engage me at anywhere near the level that Green Book‘s did and it wasn’t helpful that this film is called a comedy when it is actually a solid drama with moments of dry humour. 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Roma



Wow! Two in a row, as I catch up on film-viewing back in Winnipeg (though this one is on Netflix).

I believe Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma will eventually be hailed as one of the greatest works of cinematic art ever made - a masterpiece in the grand tradition of Bergman and Tarkovsky. The black & white cinematography is as sublime as anything you will ever see (no surprise from Cuarón, who does his own cinematography), with the camera frequently panning slowly back and forth as life in Mexico City in 1970/71 unfolds in front of it in almost documentary fashion. Indeed, the period feel is beyond anything I have experienced before - it’s like Cuarón was able to travel back in time and film it live; absolutely extraordinary. 

The story, which is semi-autographical, shows us a year in the life of an upper-middle class family in Mexico City through the eyes of one of the family’s live-in maids, the young Mixteco woman, Cleo Gutierrez (played perfectly by Yalitza Aparicio). Cleo’s life takes an unexpected turn when she gets pregnant and we follow her through her pregnancy and the dramatic events that follow. 

Roma is part slice-of-life and part epic, with numerous moving and dramatic moments interspersed between the shots of daily routine. Meanwhile, outside of the family life (but occasionally touching it directly) there are violent student protests - it is a tumultuous period in Mexico’s history. 

The acting by all concerned (with a special nod to the children) is exceptional and natural. I won’t mention all the actors in what is essentially an ensemble film. 

Perhaps I’ve said enough about this stunningly beautiful film except to note why it won’t be at the top of my favourite-film list for 2018 (it will definitely be in my top five). I have no doubt that I will consider Roma to be the best film made in 2018 (one of the best of the century), but being the best film doesn’t make it my favourite film (as I have explained before). The story of Roma and its numerous characters simply didn’t engage me at a deep enough level to become my favourite film of the year. Nevertheless, a very easy ****. My mug is held high in gratitude to Cuarón for blessing us with another marvellous film.

BTW The title refers to the neighbourhood in Mexico City (Colonia Roma) where most of the film is set. 

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Green Book



Wow!

Yes, I know it’s been a long time since I wrote my last review for the blog (the longest break ever). With endless travel and buying a house in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, I finally reached a point where I barely had time to watch films, let alone write reviews. 

It’s also been a long time since I saw my last Wow film, which I was waiting for to help kickstart my review-writing. I wasn’t expecting Green Book to be that Wow film, but it surprised me in all the right ways and currently has a place in my top three films of 2018.

The biggest surprise Green Book offers is that it was directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly, whose biggest claim to fame is the two Dumb and Dumber films, which I refuse to even watch, as they belong to my least favourite genre (stupid comedies). This fact alone kept my expectations in check. But Farrelly’s direction and writing were almost flawless in Green Book.

Green Book is set in 1962 and stars Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip, a bouncer in New York City’s biggest nightclub (Copacabana). When the club closes for two months (for renovations), Tony looks for a temporary job and ends up being hired by a well-known pianist (Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali) to be his chauffeur on a two-month American concert tour that focuses on the southern states. An uneducated Italian bouncer and self-proclaimed bullshit-artist with racist tendencies (he and his friends regularly refer to black people as eggplants) seems like a strange choice to be a chauffeur for a black musician with three doctorates, but Shirley needs the muscle and intimidation of someone like Tony to protect him on a tour that includes states like Mississippi and Alabama at a time when such states had very racist attitudes (understatement).

As one would expect on such a long road trip, with only Tony and Dr. Shirley in the car, the two men have plenty of opportunity to argue and discover just how different their worlds are. But as they face the challenge of spending so much time together and of the many racist altercations they encounter along the way, something changes in both men. I will say no more about the plot, as I recommend Green Book to all readers without reservation and want to spoil as little as possible.

However, I will say that Green Book suffers from a fair amount of predictability, which would potentially knock at least half a star off its rating if it wasn’t for the fact that the film is based on a true story. This road trip really happened (if not exactly in this way). And what makes Green Book a great film is precisely the relationship/chemistry between Tony and Dr. Shirley during that road trip. Mortensen and Ali are sensational, delivering spot-on performances that, with the help of great dialogue-writing) create pure movie magic. The rest of the acting is also solid, with a special nod to Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife, Dolores.

Aiding in the magic of watching Dr. Shirley and Tony is the lush cinematography and excellent score that create the perfect period setting. I felt I was back in 1962. And the new turquoise cadillac (my first car was a 1962 light-blue Chevy) was a nice touch.

Since racism is a major theme in Green Book, some critics complain that the film doesn’t treat racism with the seriousness it deserves, but rather as a minor problem in the 1960’s. I didn’t get that sense at all. Sure, Green Book, in spite of numerous dark scenes, is a relatively light film that doesn’t explore racist structures in any depth. But that lightness was one of the many pleasant surprises of the film and, again, it’s based on a true story and is not meant to be a film that digs deep into racism in the U.S. then and now (other films made this year have done that).

One complaint I do have is that Green Book is such a male film, but even here I think efforts were made, and, under the circumstances, it would have been difficult for this story to pass the Bechdel test.

Green Book gets a solid **** and will very likely have s spot in my top five films of the year.

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.