Thursday, 16 November 2017

Thor: Ragnarok



REWRITTEN and UPDATED (at the end)!

In my ongoing efforts to understand why so many people (including certain youngest daughters who shall remain nameless) enjoy the Marvel films so much, I decided I’d better give Ragnarok a peak. This resulted in four very different responses at various points in the film:
  1. My first response, after about ten minutes, was to walk out and not subject myself to any more torture. Not the torture on screen, which was relatively minimal, but the torture of watching Thor be so silly while chained up in front of the super-powerful giant baddie with horns and glowing eyes (Surtur?). Wasn't working for me at all.
  2. Just in the nick of time (i.e. just as I was about to get up and leave), I did a double-take: Was that Matt Damon, ever so well disguised? It WAS! And Sam Neill is there too. Well, that was fun. Maybe I should stick around and see who else turns up. It didn’t take long after that to see that the big baddie of Ragnarok (Hela, Thor’s older sister and the Goddess of Death) was played by Cate Blanchett. Blanchett does baddie very well, so she was fun to watch. And of course there are other interesting actors in Ragnarok, like Tom Hiddleston as Loki (Thor’s brother and former baddie), Benedict Cumberbatch in a cameo as Dr. Strange, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (Hulk), Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, and the ever-quirky Jeff Goldblum as yet another baddie. The primary 'goodies' here are Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tessa Thompson as a Valkyrie. Hemsworth is okay, but Thompson is the show-stealer, along with Korg (voiced by the director, Taika Waititi), who never fails to amuse. In other words, by far the best thing about Thor: Ragnarok is the acting, which is mostly fun to watch throughout.
  3. Insofar as the above actors were given funny, often droll, lines, I frequently enjoyed the writing in the film, so much so that by mid-way through (or maybe even two-thirds), I was glad I had decided to watch Ragnarok after all.
  4. Then came the realization, which grew stronger with every one of the film’s last forty minutes, that Ragnarok had no plot worthy of the word and that it was, after all, nothing more than an excuse for more endless PG violence (evil sister comes back to take over Asgard only to be defeated by Thor and company; That’s it? Seriously???). In other words, by far the worst thing about Thor: Ragnarok is that there is no story to even begin to excuse the endless violence (see revised opinion below).
By the end of the film, I was just shaking my head. It didn’t help that the otherwise gorgeous cinematography was mostly ruined by being made for 3D (I watched the 2D). The score had its moments. Bottom line: Watching the fun the actors were having allowed Thor: Ragnarok to just cross the line into watchability: ***. My mug is up. [At this point, my original review stated that the stuff inside the mug was very weak and unimaginative, but I am taking that back, thanks to Andrew Buhr in Edmonton, who sent me the following link: http://endlessyarning.com/2017/11/12/thor-ragnarok-indigenous-film/ . While I had picked up on how the humour in Ragnarok often had a justice theme, I had missed many of the ways this film could be viewed through an Indigenous lens (read the Indigenous review). I stand corrected and humbled, though my complaints about the overall plot and the endless violence remain in effect. Given that the story does, however, possess deeper layers worthy of discussion, I am upgrading my rating to a solid ***. My mug is up without qualification.]

Monday, 13 November 2017

Victoria and Abdul



I couldn’t stop shaking my head after watching Stephen Frears' Victoria and Abdul - not because of what I had just seen but because of why so many critics condemned the film. I have frequently criticized film critics for not paying enough attention to the moral compass of a film; for acclaiming certain well-made films which I felt should have been denounced for some of their content (especially the myth of redemptive violence). The film It is a recent example. So imagine my surprise when the critics finally condemn a film for its lack of a moral compass, only to see them do so on rather flimsy grounds.

Victoria and Abdul tells the story of Queen Victoria’s relationship with an Indian Muslim named Abdul Karim near the end of her life (1900-1901). Karim (Ali Fazal) is sent to London to present a commemorative coin to the queen (Judi Dench). Victoria is impressed by Karim’s manner and handsome features and, to the consternation of her son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), and her entire household (led by Sir Henry, played by Tim Pigott-Smith), Karim becomes Victoria’s spiritual advisor and close friend, eventually bringing his wife and mother-in-law to live with him at the palace. 

Victoria and Abdul begins with what I read as a disclaimer, that it is “based on true events … mostly.” When I read those words, I assumed the film was actually taking quite a few liberties with reality and should not be viewed as anything like a reliable historical account. But the strongest criticisms of the film all refer to the way it whitewashes the queen and British colonialism. 

I know the history of Victoria’s empire and British colonial oppression in India well enough to say that if the film was trying to provide any kind of accurate historical commentary, it should indeed be condemned, because it paints Victoria with a very sympathetic brush, making her seem like a queen trying to promote anti-racism and religious tolerance in defiance of all those around her, and it paints Karim as a naive star-struck innocent who adores the queen and quickly devotes his life to her. Of course that doesn’t reflect the reality of life in India at the time or tell us what Victoria was really like (and there is a character in the film, namely Mohammed, played by Adeel Akhtar, who continuously condemns the colonialist attitudes around him and is angry with his friend Abdul). Whatever the true story of Victoria and Abdul might have been, this film is but a light-hearted take on it (almost a farce) and does not deserve to be condemned as skewing history. 

This doesn’t mean that viewers shouldn’t be made aware of the true history and realize how inaccurate the portrayals are, and that the lingering effects of British colonialism around the world continue to be responsible for much suffering. But watching Victoria and Abdul on its own terms allows us to smile at what might have been, while admiring the way the film itself is clearly condemning racist, classist and intolerant attitudes. And how many films these days give us a sympathetic Muslim protagonist (who, regardless of his flaws and apparent naiveté, is nevertheless portrayed as a kind intelligent man)?

As for Victoria and Abdul as a film: The acting is solid throughout (Dench, as usual, is magnificent), the cinematography is outstanding, with each scene carefully framed, the score is more than good enough and the writing is (given the above) often excellent. My strongest criticism is that we don’t get enough character development for Karim, either by way of a backstory or by way of his family life. The film also tells its story in too formulaic a way. Either more of an effort to make it a farce or more dramatic tension might have been helpful.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, Victoria and Abdul deserves at least a solid *** (if not ***+ for Dench’s performance alone). My mug is up.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Lucky (2017 EIFF 13)



The closing film of the 2017 EIFF was one of the most inspiring films of the festival and, given the recent passing of Harry Dean Stanton, a fitting way to end the festival. 

Lucky, directed by John Carroll Lynch, stars the 90-year-old Stanton as Lucky, a WWII veteran living by himself in a small house on the outskirts of a small town in the Arizona desert. When Lucky collapses suddenly in his home, it takes a toll on his carefully structured life and makes him realize that he will not be living forever. 

We follow Lucky as he goes to the local coffee shop and talks to Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), the owner, and Loretta (Yvonne Huff), a waitress who will visit Lucky at home later in the film (in one of the film’s many precious moments). Lucky goes on to visit his other regular haunts, including  the local bar, owned by Elaine and Paulie (Beth Grant and James Darren), who like to argue with Lucky (who is an atheist obsessed with truth and realism). At the bar, Lucky meets Howard (David Lynch), whose turtle has run off. Then there’s Ed Begley, Jr. as Lucky's doctor, Ron  Livingston as an insurance agent (Lucky detests such people) and Tom Skerritt as a fellow WWII veteran, a stranger who is just passing through.

Lucky is a slow-paced film that follows Lucky’s daily routine and his relationships/discussions with the townsfolk. There is otherwise no plot to speak of. But the discussions are often riveting (especially the one with Skerritt) or moving (e.g. the one with Livingston) or profound. And when Lucky suddenly breaks out in a Spanish song at a birthday party, you know this is something special (Stanton was a musician). 

One of the writers of Lucky attended the festival and did a Q&A after the film. He noted (no surprise) that Lucky’s personality is very similar to Stanton’s own personality. He also noted that the actors in the film were friends of Stanton who were eager to participate. This provides some excellent acting work for such a low-budget indie film, but it also gives us a few performances that were a little less than convincing. Stanton, though, makes up for all of them with a sublime performance that is the perfect end to his acting career.

The writing was very good but a little uneven, providing moments of brilliance but also moments that falter, with some missed opportunities to go deeper. Among Lucky’s more memorable quotes: “I know the truth and the truth matters”; “the only thing worse than an awkward silence: small talk”; and “there’s a difference between lonely and being alone.” The cinematography and score are excellent. Lucky is a humble humanizing film about death and loneliness that falls just a little short of being a classic. It gets a solid ***+, verging on ****. My mug is up. 

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Suburbicon




George Clooney’s new film, a dark-comedy noir starring Matt Damon and based on an old screenplay by the Coen brothers, seems like it should have been a guaranteed success. Instead, Suburbicon flopped at the box office and was panned by the critics. What happened, and is the film really as bad as the critics say?

The opening scene would suggest otherwise. By way of a TV ad that perfectly captures the time (1950’s) and place (small-town USA) in an obvious parody, the scene introduces us to the ideal all-white community of Suburbicon. Suburbicon’s 60,000 inhabitants live in nearly-identical homes and almost always have a smile on their face because they are so happy to be living there. At least until the fateful day an African-American family (the Mayers) moves into town, sending everyone reeling and soon resulting in increasingly-violent attempts to persuade the Mayers to leave. 

The music, the production design and the cinematography create a period feel in this opening scene that is just right. With regular background commentary from radio and TV throughout the film, the period feel is maintained and enhanced even when Suburbicon becomes a film noir instead of a light satire. But the story in the rest of the film doesn’t live up to the potential of that opening scene. 

Damon plays Gardner Lodge, a company vice president and one of Suburbicon’s supposedly happy citizens. Gardner is married to Rose (Julianne Moore), who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident years before, and who is helped out by her twin sister, Margaret (Moore). Gardner and Rose have a ten-year-old son named Nicky (Noah Jupe), who is actually Suburbicon’s protagonist. Other key characters are Nicky’s Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) and an insurance investigator named Bud Cooper (a delicious cameo by Oscar Isaac). 

One night, the serene family life of the Lodges is disrupted when two men break into their home and do things that result in Rose’s death. (Minor spoiler alert) Margaret quickly steps in to assume Rose’s place in the household while Gardner returns to work in a state of some agitation, agitation that seems to have more to do with money than with the loss of his wife. When Gardner and Margaret fail to identify Rose’s killers in a police line-up, Nicky is at first confused, then alarmed. Too late, he realizes that the horror of his mother’s death is only the first of many horrors that are about to befall him and the Lodge family.

Meanwhile, the Mayers, who happen to live next door to the Lodges, are finding themselves under siege by the angry townsfolk, who have placed a confederate flag on their living room window.

That the dark (and darkly humorous) story of the Lodge family seems to have little to do with the story of the Mayer family next door is one of the key criticisms of Suburbicon. It stems from the fact that the dark-comedy thriller part of the film was written by the Coen brothers decades ago while the story of the Mayer family was added by Clooney and Grant Heslov just before filming. Film critics are convinced that trying to mix these two stories was a bad idea, especially because the two stories are so unequal, with far more time devoted to the Lodge family and very little to the Mayer family, who get virtually no character development (which is why I haven’t even identified them). Critics complain that using the Mayers as a social-commentary plot element on the side is distasteful; it is also seen as ironic (because of the unequal nature of the story), given that Clooney was clearly attempting to express his views on life in the U.S. in the 21st century. 

However, I believe there are factors that mitigate the critics’ complaints. First, the story of the Mayer family is based on a real-life event in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957, so its inclusion in Suburbicon is a deliberate attempt to show how little has changed in a country rife with fears that Syrian immigrants or Mexicans may move next door (not to mention Charlottesville, which happened after the film was made). Second, the reason the Mayer family is relegated to being a plot element is that Suburbicon is neither a drama nor a social satire. If it were one of these, the criticisms about its heavy-handed racial satire would be well-deserved. But Suburbicon is a dark-comedy thriller with some social satire on the side, satire that focuses not only on how members of the innocent Mayer family are treated like criminals while the real criminals next door are ignored, but also on how Gardner hated his supposedly perfect but meaningless life, leading to his criminal acts.

I am not suggesting that Suburbicon is a great film. On the contrary, I think its dark comedy misses the mark as often as it finds it, its story of the Lodge family is uneven and has little to offer, and it needs substantially more character development all around.

Nevertheless, I found watching Suburbicon an enjoyable experience. Jupe and Damon were outstanding, with Jupe (as Nicky) providing the key emotional engagement in the film, and Suburbicon’s satire, unlike its darker comedy, worked quite well and does give viewers something to think about as we consider life in North America today.

So I am confused about why so many viewers and critics found watching Suburbicon to be such an unpleasant experience, especially when I think about the popularity and critical acclaim of an unpleasant film like It. It is a film that features seven wonderful teenage actors in roles that might have made for a profound and beautiful coming-of-age story in small-town Maine. Instead, for me, that ludicrous and violent film has absolutely nothing to offer and watching Suburbicon is a much better use of time (if you can handle the violence). 

Both of these films feature life-affirming messages buried within a violent narrative, but It subverted its potential message by focusing on scares, while Suburbicon added its message to an otherwise pointless plot in order to help make the world a better place. Clooney should be lauded and encouraged for doing this, not denigrated. So Suburbicon gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Faces Places (2017 EIFF 12)



The critics are raving about this unique documentary made by photographer/muralist J.R. and filmmaker Agnès Varda. Mostly for good reason. Varda and J.R. travel around rural France, taking photos of people, listening to their stories and then plastering huge versions of the photos onto buildings. The primary theme of Faces Places is worker solidarity. When in pursuit of that theme, the film is often riveting. 

Faces Places would be a great documentary for its humanization alone, but it also offers many humorous and profound observations from Varda and J.R. as the 89-year-old director and the young photographer get to know each other in the process of making this film together. It often feels like a quirky road movie.

Faces Places is a true work of art, but for me it wasn’t perfect and I can’t give it ****. The first half of the film is truly amazing, as engaging and moving as it is profound. But for me the second half lagged a bit, both in the stories of the people Varda and J.R. meet as well as their own interactions. For me, the focus on the filmmakers wears a little thin in the second half.

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful documentary that I recommend to all. Faces Places gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Sweet Virginia (2017 EIFF 11)



This low-budget, Coen-brothers-like, dark indie thriller was one of the more pleasant surprises at the EIFF, primarily because of the way it kept me engaged from the first minute to the last, not least because its focus is entirely on its very compelling cast of characters (and because it has a marvellous sense of atmosphere, which fuels the constant tension). 

At the centre of Sweet Virginia is Sam (Jon Bernthal), a motel owner in a small Alaskan town, a town that is suddenly rocked by an after-hours triple-murder in the local bar. We know who did the deed (Elwood, played by Christopher Abbott) and soon learn why, but it’s a mystery to the locals, including Sam, even though the eccentric Elwood checks into his motel shortly after the murder. 

The lack of mystery for the viewer might limit one’s enjoyment in watching a thriller, but didn’t bother me much because I enjoyed the focus on how the fascinating characters interacted with each other. The big mystery to me, which did limit my enjoyment of the film somewhat, was where the police were in all this. We hardly see them at all in Sweet Virginia, as if a triple-murder is no big deal to them, making for an unusual type of small-town crime thriller (which isn’t all bad, but the lack of credibility was distracting).

Other characters of note are the wives of two of the victims, women who didn't appreciate their husbands enough to do much grieving: Lila (Imogen Poots), who finds herself in way over her head, and Bernadette (Rosemary DeWitt), who is having an affair with Sam. All of the acting is very good, though it’s Bernthal’s performance which stands out. 

As I’ve said before, I’m a fan of intelligent suspense films that focus on characters and dialogue instead of action. Sweet Virgina is such a film, and Jamie M. Dagg’s directing keeps the film moving at exactly the right pace, helped by the stunning cinematography. There could have been more character development (although there was just enough to let viewers put pieces into place themselves, which I rather enjoy) less violence (too much to expect), and more police (just for credibility’s sake), but this is my kind of thriller. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Happy End (2017 EIFF 10)



One of the treats at this year’s EIFF was getting to watch Michael Haneke’s latest film, Happy End. I love European family dramas, and Happy End is a very European (in its style) drama (with a strong dash of dark comedy) about a very dysfunctional family in Calais, France. Needless to say, if a film is written and directed by Haneke and called Happy End, one should expect anything but. Unfortunately, the cold darkness that permeates so many of Haneke’s films is the only thing preventing this film from being a masterpiece.

Isabelle Huppert, who was so mesmerizing as Elle in last year’s EIFF, stars as Anne Laurent, the wife/mother/sister/daughter of the family. Anne is the cold businesswoman at the helm of a large construction business which has just suffered a major accident, thanks in no small part to the incompetence of Anne’s son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski). Anne and Pierre live with her ageing father, George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in a gorgeous mansion, where they are served by Moroccan refugees (the film’s location makes the refugee crisis a constant theme in the background). Then there’s Anne’s brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), whose somewhat scary 12-year-old daughter, Ève (Fanzine Harduin), has come to live with him because her mother is in a coma after a drug overdose (which we are led to believe may have been intentionally caused by Ève). I’ll just mention one other character in the film: Anne’s British lawyer (and fiancé), Lawrence Bradshaw (Toby Jones), who seems strangely out of place. Most of these characters are brimming with resentment and anger, which will lead to all kinds of ‘happiness’.

The acting of all concerned is exceptional, which allows Happy End to be endlessly engaging in a fascinating way even when its characters are often less than sympathetic. The cinematography, meanwhile, is stunning. And the social commentary, especially around the refugee crisis, is often spot-on. So Happy End is a very entertaining, very well-made film. Like I said, if it wasn’t so darn cold, I would have given it an easy ****. As it is, I’ll settle for ***+. My mug is up.