Monday, 30 April 2018

TV76: Updates on Some Great TV Serials: Black Sails, Mr. Robot, Homeland



Black Sails, Seasons 3 and 4

The final two seasons of Black Sails were very much in keeping with the first two seasons: a compelling, well-written and well-conceived plot (see original review (TV45) for characters and plot) along with intelligent and nuanced dialogue, excellent acting, lots of extraordinary cinematography and a great score. If anything, the amount of gratuitous sex and graphic violence decreased in these final seasons, so in some ways I liked them better than the first two seasons.

Watching the first season, it took me two episodes to realize that one of the characters was none other than John Silver. I understood immediately that this was one character, at least, who wouldn’t be killed off, but I didn’t fully realize until the end of the fourth season that the entire purpose of Black Sails was to provide a prequel to Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I should have guessed this, but I assumed the writers were just trying to throw in any pirates associated with the Caribbean at the time. Not so. This serial is carefully researched and brings together not only the key players we know from history, but also ends in such a way that it sets up Treasure Island perfectly (I know because I reread Treasure Island immediately after finishing Black Sails).

TV critics weren’t much impressed with Black Sails (other than the cinematography), which I can’t understand at all, especially since they tended to pick on the character development. I thought the characters were endlessly fascinating and that the character development was as almost as good as the best cable shows. I was generally very satisfied with the entire serial and if anything I am now inclined to give Black Sails somewhere between ***+ and ****. My mug is up (but remember that the show is quite violent at times).


Mr. Robot, Seasons 2 and 3

Unlike Black Sails, Mr. Robot gets rave reviews from critics. These are well-deserved, as Mr. Robot continues to be an incredibly compelling, intelligent, well-acted and beautifully shot TV serial (again, see my original review (TV44) for details about the plot and characters). 

I didn’t like season 2 quite as much as season 1, but it was still great TV, and season 3 is almost as good as season 1. Unfortunately, the ending of season 3 didn’t work for me. As always, the sudden bursts of graphic violence in Mr. Robot turn me right off, but the final episode of the third season goes well beyond the pale in this regard and the entire episode left me rather unsatisfied. 

Nevertheless, this cutting-edge surreal psychological cyber-thriller remains among my favourite TV serials of all time and retains its solid ****. My mug is up.


Homeland, Seasons 5 and 6

I promised to keep you updated on Homeland, a brilliantly-acted TV serial about the CIA that experienced a dramatic decline in its storytelling after the first couple of seasons. I became so worried about the writing in seasons 3 and 4 that I contemplated no longer watching the show, but Homeland was on my list of all-time Top Ten TV serials after season 2, so I couldn’t stop watching. Good thing.

The plots of seasons 5 and 6 are too complex to deal with here, but of particular interest is the involvement of Israel and the Mossad in both seasons, and how that involvement leads to major tensions between Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) and Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin). Carrie (Claire Danes) remains the show’s heart, of course, but Saul’s role is of paramount importance because of my previous worries about Homeland’s political direction (as expressed in my earlier reviews). Regular readers know how little respect (that would be zero) I have for the CIA and Mossad, so I am wary of any show that grants them too much respect.

In my earliest review, I noted that the only thing that kept my hopes strong in this regard was the presence of Patinkin, a left-leaning Jew with strong views about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. I was convinced that Patinkin’s tremendous integrity would not allow Homeland to go too far wrong. My patience was finally rewarded in the sixth season as Saul indicates to his sister that his views coincide with those of the actor playing him. So while the critics were less impressed with season 6 than with season 5, season 6 is one of my favourite seasons of Homeland. If only the last episode hadn’t gone off the rails. The ending of season 6 felt hurried, anticlimactic and downright crazy. Not impressed at all. 

But even in that unimpressive ending, as well as in the ending of season 5, there were some wonderful moments in the midst of the chaos. As of now, Homeland retains its solid **** and remains among my favourite TV serials.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

TV75: Collateral



A four-hour British miniseries (or a four-episode season one, if you prefer), this Netflix Original is a unique police serial featuring one of the UK’s best film actors, Carey Mulligan, and two of its best TV actors, Nicola Walker and John Simm. Add to this that Collateral was written by one of my favourite British TV writers, David Hare, and there should be no way this show could go wrong.

And, indeed, the first episode blew me away with its brilliant dialogue and acting, fascinating characters, gorgeous stylistic cinematography and fast-paced intelligent plot, not to mention that its heart was most definitely in the right place, with wise words about immigration and the justice system. An easy four stars, I thought. Then came the second episode, and the third, and everything began to unravel. Sigh. So sad.

The heart of the story is the police investigation into the murder of an Arab immigrant as he was delivering a pizza. Leading the investigation is DI Kip Glaspie (Mulligan), who is six months pregnant and leading her first case. Her police partner is DI Nathan Bilk (Nathaniel Martello-White) and her boss is DSU Jack Haley (Ben Miles). But the investigation is only a small part of the plot, which also features the killer (an army captain played by Jeany Spark), a gay vicar (Walker), her immigrant partner (Kae Alexander), who witnessed the murder, the woman who ordered the pizza (Billie Piper), her ex-husband (Simm), who is now the local pro-immigrant Labour MP, the manager of the pizza place (Hayley Squires), the victim’s two sisters (Ahd and Julie Namir), an MI-5 agent (John Heffernan) and many more.

The above paragraph reveals Collateral’s biggest flaw, and it’s a major one: There are far too many characters and storylines for a four-hour miniseries. In order for Collateral to have been as great as it could have been, one of two things needed to happen: 1) Take eight hours to develop all the characters and storylines adequately; or 2) Tell the story in four hours but focus on Glaspie’s investigation and the killer’s story, with maybe one side-story. As it was, the show felt ridiculously convoluted and scattered, with the feeling that every side-story was rushed to its inadequate conclusion.

Collateral could have been one of the greats; all the ingredients were there. Instead, each episode is less compelling than the one before and by the end there is only a sigh for what might have been. Collateral deserves no more than *** as a result, but I was so appreciative of its political views that I’ll slide it over into a lightweight ***+. My mug is up, but the brew inside is nowhere near as tasty as its aroma promised.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

You Were Never Really Here



Wow!

Not too many films written and directed by a woman have gotten a ‘wow’ from me, and very few of those are dark and violent psychological thrillers. But the times are changing and I expect to find a lot more films made by women on my top ten lists in the years ahead. That is a very good thing (i.e. it’s about time). You Were Never Really Here is written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, who made one of my top ten films of the year in 2011: We Need to Talk About Kevin (also a dark psychological thriller). She is likely to get on my list again this year with what I can only describe as a masterpiece of cinematic art, albeit a brutal masterpiece that is very hard to watch (as was Kevin) and that most of you will want to stay away from.

You Were Never Really Here features one of the darkest, most well-developed and most fascinating protagonists I have ever seen. His name is Joe and he is played sublimely by Joaquin Phoenix, who surely deserves an Oscar for his performance. Joe is a troubled (understatement!) Gulf War veteran with a nightmarish childhood who specializes in finding missing teens and making sure anyone abusing those teens pays a price. He is a brutal man whose weapon of choice is a hammer. Few survive a violent encounter with him. 

But this only scratches the surface of who Joe is. Joe is also a loving son who regularly looks in on his very old mother (Judith Roberts). And he is a man whose suffering is so deep that he contemplates taking his own life every minute of every day. Joe is a lost soul living in an unimaginable internal hell. When he is called upon to retrieve a senator’s 13-year-old daughter from a gang of nasty fellows, Joe seems to be just going through the motions. But his life will change dramatically from the moment he finds the girl (Nina, played by Ekaterina Samsonov), spiralling out of control as he tries to hang on to a last vestige of sanity. 

Through it all, many people will lose their lives, often in a grisly manner. But while a few of these deaths are shown in graphic detail, the majority happen away from the camera (a very wise decision). Speaking of which, the cinematography is extraordinary, infusing this thriller with a unique breathtaking style, aided by the use of sound and the often loud score (typical of Ramsay), which overwhelms at places in just the right way to allow you to feel what Joe is feeling, to see New York City the way he sees it. The result is mesmerizing, drawing you in to Joe’s world, a place no one wants to live.

As you know, I am no fan of horrifically violent films and I especially detest violent revenge films, but You Were Never Really Here is not like any violent film I have watched. There are moments that make you think you’re watching just another revenge film, albeit a very stylistic arthouse revenge film, but to me this film is not about revenge or violence, neither of which are meant to satisfy or entertain in any way - those are only side-stories in the nightmarish tale of Joe.  

The last time I saw a critically-acclaimed, raw, brutal, stylistic thriller (Good Time), I was hugely disappointed. Not this time. This time I was blown away. You Were Never Really Here gets an easy ****. My mug is up, but this film is also not a ‘good time’, so be warned. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Beirut



As you know, I’m a big fan of old-fashioned spy films that focus on intelligent drama instead of action. For the most part, Beirut qualifies. And yet, something didn’t feel quite right.

Directed by Brad Anderson and written by Tony Gilroy (back in 1982), Beirut stars Jon Hamm as Mason Skiles, a former U.S. diplomat in Beirut who is called into service by the CIA when his old friend, Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), is kidnapped during the Lebanese Civil War in 1982. Rosamund Pike plays Sandy Crowder, the undercover CIA agent in charge of keeping Skiles safe in Beirut. The rest of the team trying to negotiate Riley’s release before he is forced to reveal all his secrets includes three state department officials: Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), Gary Ruzak (Shea Wigwam) and Frank Shalen (Larry Pine).

Skiles lost his wife in a terrorist attack in 1972 and has become a serious alcoholic. He really doesn’t want to be in Beirut and has no interest in playing by any rules. But he’s a master negotiator and poker player and the kidnappers have specifically asked for him to handle the ransom demands. Everyone thinks that this is because of his friendship with Riley but that turns out not to be the case. I won’t say more, other than that Israel’s Mossad plays a key role in the ransom negotiations.

The trailer for Beirut was viciously attacked by journalists for making the film look like another Hollywood film that stereotypes all Arabs/Muslims as uncivilized terrorists and has a white American saviour. This might have been a fair critique of the trailer, but it doesn’t do justice to the film, which is fairly nuanced, politically, and tries at least a little to humanize Arabs and terrorists while depicting the Mossad, and to some extent the CIA, as the conniving duplicitous organizations they are. Nevertheless, it is true that Beirut doesn’t do near enough to provide a context for the war or to show the plight of the Lebanese people during that war. It doesn’t help that it was filmed in Tangier, Morocco and had little if any Lebanese involvement. 

On the positive side, Beirut is well-acted (Hamm and Pike are at their best), has great atmosphere, has an intelligent complex story that is well-written and directed and it isn’t too heavy on action (though perhaps a little more than I would like).

So I am going to give Beirut a light ***+, acknowledging that spy films today should try harder to be fair to their settings. My mug is up.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Isle of Dogs



Wes Anderson’s last two films (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom) both made my top ten lists in their respective years, so I didn’t wait long to catch his latest film on the big screen. While I wouldn’t say Isle of Dogs disappointed me, because I thoroughly enjoyed it, it won’t be making my top ten list for 2018. 

Isle of Dogs features beautiful stop-motion animation, which is an art form I hugely respect, but it’s true that I prefer non-animated films. Like all Anderson films, Isle of Dogs is so quirky it can’t easily be compared to other films. That uniqueness is what’s so lovable about Anderson’s films and I enjoyed Isle of Dogs all the more for it.

Isle of Dogs is set in a dystopian future Japan, where all dogs in Megasaki City have been exiled to Trash Island due to a mysterious illness carried only by dogs. A scientist states he is close to finding a cure for the disease, but the mayor of the city is determined to carry out his decree. A foreign exchange student (Tracy Walker) suspects a conspiracy and begins to investigate.

Meanwhile, the plot follows the adventures of a young boy named Atari Kobayashi (the mayor’s nephew and ward) as he flies to Trash Island to hunt for his dog, Spots, which was the first dog to be exiled. Atari is assisted in his quest by five dogs who rescued him when his plane crashed on the island. Lots of craziness ensues. 

One of the things that makes Isle of Dogs special is the terrific cast, which includes Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel and many more, including Japanese actors Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama and Akira Ito. I won’t bother to identify who plays whom. The humans in the film (except for Walker, played by Gerwig) speak Japanese (often with no subtitles), while the dogs speak English. Like I said, It’s not like anything you’ve seen before.

Besides being well-acted, Isle of Dogs is very intelligently written, with some hilarious dry humour and lots of imagination. Most of the film is engaging and fun, but there are two key problems that keep the film from receiving ****. The first of these is the film’s lack of ‘soul’, a word used by a certain daughter of mine, who asked to remain nameless lest she be denounced by rabid Anderson fans. To elaborate, my daughter claims that the characters and dialogue in Isle of Dogs (as in all Anderson films) lack emotional depth. I understand what she means and tend to agree, though I don’t feel as strongly about this as she does.

My biggest complaint is that too many scenes in Isle of Dogs felt superfluous to me, offering opportunities to show off the aesthetics while not adding anything vital to the story. This made the film needlessly disjointed and a little too long. So Isle of Dogs gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Indian Horse



Due to a scheduling conflict, I was unable to see Indian Horse when it played at the Edmonton International Film Festival last October. Having finally seen it this week (it was just released in Winnipeg), I deeply regret having missed it - not because it was a fantastic film (though I thought it was very good), but because I would have been promoting it in advance so that every Canadian reading this review would not miss the chance to watch Indian Horse on the big screen.

The big screen is for the cinematography, which is gorgeous throughout - from the opening scenes in the Northern Ontario wilderness to the shots inside the residential school and on the hockey rinks. But the big screen is also to take advantage of watching this hugely important film as soon as you possibly can and telling all your friends to do the same. 

Indian Horse is based on the 2012 novel by Richard Wagamese, who died last year (while the film was in production). It tells the story of an Ojibwe boy named Saul Indian Horse from when he loses his family in 1959 and ends up in a residential school to some twenty years later when he is in a treatment program. 

The film begins with Saul’s grandmother trying to hide the six-year-old Saul (played by Sladen Peltier) from the authorities. She knows what will happen to him at the residential school and is determined to keep him out. But when Saul’s brother dies of an illness and his parents (Christians because of a Catholic residential school) take the body away for a proper Christian burial, Saul and his grandmother must go it alone in the middle of the wilderness. An accident on the river leaves Saul by himself until he is picked up and taken to a Catholic residential school in Northern Ontario.

At the school, Saul learns quickly that the goal of his education is to remove his Indigenous language, spirituality and cultural traditions and assimilate him into a white Christian culture. Those students who fail to comply with the nuns’ strict demands are severely punished, from the strap to being put into a small cage in the dark damp basement, leading to desperate attempts at escape, including taking one’s own life.

But a priest named Father Gaston (Michael Huisman) takes an interest in Saul and introduces him to hockey on TV. Saul immediately falls in love with the sport. Getting out of bed before anyone else is up, he practices hockey on the school's small ice rink, using frozen horse dung as pucks and skates that are far too big on him. With TV hockey as his teacher, Saul quickly becomes the best player at the school. This will change his life, as opportunities arise that will take him away from the school to a small mining town and then Toronto and even give him a few years of happiness in a loving family environment (by now, Saul is a teen and is played by Forrest Goodluck). 

Unfortunately, wherever Saul’s travels expose him to white people, he encounters racism, reminding of his days in the school. Eventually, these encounters will lead him to a rage he can’t control and his life will begin its downward spiral (by now, Saul is a young adult, played by Ajuawak Kapashesit). 

For a small Canadian film, Indian Horse is an excellent film. The acting is a little uneven but most performances are solid, with the two actors playing the younger Saul standing out. The writing and direction (Dennis Foon and Stephen Campanelli) are also uneven but generally well done. The twist at the end of the film is a questionable choice, but forgivable.

The most important thing about Indian Horse is that it tells a story, in narrative form, that every Canadian needs to hear, and it tells the story well. That makes Indian Horse essential viewing for every Canadian reader. It also means that I feel compelled to give Indian Horse ****. The quality of the film may not warrant such a rating, but it is such an important film (in some ways groundbreaking), and a moving one, that it deserves no less. My mug is up!

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Paul, Apostle of Christ



The latest film from Affirm Films (Heaven is for Real, Risen) is Paul, Apostle of Christ, written and directed by Andrew Hyatt. Here's the link for my review at thirdway: http://thirdway.com/paul-apostle-christ/

There's a good film there somewhere, and it has a lot of good things to say, but it's far too heavy-handed in its theology and its use of theological language to be taken as seriously as the story deserves. It gets only a lukewarm ***. My mug is up, but keep your expectations in check.

Friday, 13 April 2018

A Quiet Place



This week’s box office champ is another one of those so-called horror films. I say ‘so-called’ because it doesn’t meet my criteria for horror films, but, from beginning to end, A Quiet Place does indeed have the feel of a pure horror film, so I won’t complain too much about using that genre. Of course, since I am not a fan of horror films, that horror feel doesn’t appeal to me. Nevertheless, this terrifying film is uniquely captivating, beginning with its opening scene of a deserted town in which the Abbott family is silently foraging for food and supplies.

It isn’t much of a spoiler (since it’s revealed in the first minutes of the film) to tell you that the world (of the very near future) has gone quiet. Not because of a plague that has wiped out humanity (as in last year’s similar film, It Comes at Night) or because of a nuclear winter, but because there are fast-moving big-eared monsters at large that kill anything which dares to make a sound. We don’t know how many people still survive on this quiet earth, where they have learned to live very quiet lives, because we only really get to see the one family. 

John Krasinski, who also directed and co-wrote A Quiet Place, stars as Lee Abbott, the husband and father, who is an engineer skilled in working with sounds and who is trying to find a way for his wife, Evelyn (real-life partner Emily Blunt), to give birth without alerting the ever-present monsters, and for their deaf teenage daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmons, who is deaf), to ‘hear’ the monsters’ approach. Their other child is 12-year-old Marcus, who lives in constant fear (as is only proper in such an environment).

The audience also lives in constant fear. And they can’t even eat popcorn to try to calm themselves because much of the film is so utterly silent that no one in my full theatre dared to eat or drink or cough or make any sound except on the few occasions when there was music or when the loud monsters came to call. It was a freaky experience, but one I appreciated - the sense of a full theatre of viewers holding their collective breath for 90 minutes is, I suppose, one of the appeals of horror films, but it rarely works for me. This experience did.

But what makes this ‘horror’ film uniquely watchable is the family dynamic. A Quiet Place is primarily the story of a family, albeit one caught in a unique situation. The way this family is presented, with well-developed characters and convincing relationships conveyed with little dialogue is a very satisfying film-watching experience, especially when you are sitting in constant fear. Add some excellent acting (especially by Blunt) and great cinematography and A Quiet Place gets a solid ***+. My mug is up, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Party



I only needed to see ten seconds of the trailer to know this was one party I didn’t want to miss. This is my idea of good dark comedy (I knew that a B&W film called The Party just had to be dark). People dying, people cheating on each other, people screaming at each other, people pointing guns at each other. What fun!

Sally Potter has brought together the perfect cast for her film and they are uniformly excellent: Kristin Scott Thomas is Janet, the host of the party. She’s a politician (in London) who has just been appointed to an important position (it remains a mystery for a while), so she holds a party to celebrate. What could be more exciting and innocent? But then why is her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), sitting in a chair in the middle of the living room, looking like his wife has just died? And why does Tom (Cillian Murphy) come without his wife, Marianne (Janet’s colleague), and then immediately hide himself in the bathroom and pull out a gun? And why does Janet’s cynical friend, April (Patricia Clarkson), continuously belittle her partner, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), who calls himself a spiritual healer? And why are Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who are a couple, fighting about Martha’s announcement that she is pregnant with three boys? For the answers, you’ll have to watch this delightful dark film yourself.

The Party is full of intelligent witty dialogue and brilliant social satire (with some things to discuss afterwards). Filming it in B&W (the cinematography is beautiful) was a great idea because it somehow both enhances the feel that we’re watching a stage play while making it something different. The Party is very short (71 minutes), which also works perfectly for a film like this. The only thing that keeps me from giving The Party four stars is the coldness and the lack of truly profound ideas. The Party gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Death of Stalin



I’d been looking forward to watching The Death of Stalin for months now, after reading a short review in October that made it sound very much like my kind of film: great acting, great dialogue, subtle intelligent humour, brilliant political satire. I guess in my mind I was thinking of that greatest of dark comedy political satires, Dr. Strangelove (my seventh-favourite film of all time). So, given the addition of rave reviews by my favourite critics, I admit my expectations were way too high. But even if I had heard nothing about the film, I think I would have come away disappointed.

Not that watching The Death of Stalin was a waste of time, or that the review I mentioned was inaccurate. On the contrary, everything I remember about what it said was accurate. It’s just that I found the film far too dark (and violent) to work for me as a dark comedy without far more intentional and ‘funny’ (to me) comedy. What I’m saying is hard to convey, so let me try saying it in a different way: By definition, dark comedies are ‘dark’ and often quite violent. If the comedy is hilarious and ‘in-your-face’ (e.g. Dr. Strangelove), a fair amount of violence can be excused by me in a dark comedy. But if too many jokes fall flat or if the comedy or satire is too subtle or if the drama overwhelms the comedy or if the characters are treated with too much disdain, then violence can quickly make me feel uncomfortable, limiting my enjoyment of the film.

This is what happened in The Death of Stalin, which tells the story (based on true events) of the power struggles in Moscow following Stalin’s death. The film’s primary actors include Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev (Party Head), Simon Russell Beale as Beria (head of the KGB), Michael Palin as Molotov (Foreign Minister), Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov (Deputy General Secretary), Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov (head of the army), Olga Kurylenko as Maria (a pianist), Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son, Vasily. 

Beria and Khrushchev are the primary schemers after Stalin’s death, while Malenkov temporarily takes Stalin’s place. But Khrushchev soon sees Beria as a rival and begins to plot Beria’s elimination, a plot that will require the support of the other leaders. Mayhem ensues. While the opportunity for insightful political satire is there, director Armando Iannucci and his fellow writers don’t make the satire overt and powerful enough (in relation to contemporary events) to justify the darkness of the story or the so-so humour of its comedy (bottom line: I didn’t laugh anywhere near enough for this to work for me). When I discovered that Iannucci is the creator of Veep, I understood part of my problem with the film, because my appreciation of Veep is limited by similar issues (not violence but language). 

Nevertheless, as I have already indicated, there is much to praise in The Death of Stalin (I agree with everything in the first paragraph), I enjoyed many of the scenes and all of the performances, and I am still inclined to let it slide over the line to ***+. My mug is up, but for me this is not the classic I was hoping for (and that many critics saw).