Friday, 9 March 2018

Game Night

While Game Night has not been receiving four-star reviews, critics have generally appreciated it, at least enough for me, with an interest in games and a love of the film The Game, to take a chance and watch it. That was a mistake.

There are some similarities, but Game Night is nothing at all like The Game. The similarities involve a premise in which someone has orchestrated a ‘game’ with players caught up in criminal events that seem all to real. The action revolves around Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), a game-loving couple who host a weekly game night. Before his divorce, the game night included their neighbour, Gary (Jesse Plemons), but now they intentionally keep him out. Game night regulars include Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury) and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who brings a different woman along each week. This week it’s a British colleague named Sarah (Sharon Horgan), and this week there’s twist. Max’s brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), the successful one in the family (though Max and Annie hardly seem to be suffering), is not a game night regular, but he’s hosting this game night in his rented mansion. He’s the one who has orchestrated this thriller game, so no one is concerned when he gets kidnapped right in front of them, even when a considerable amount of violence is involved. It’s just part of the game, they think.

At this point, I was still having fun. The acting was good (especially Bateman, McAdams and Plemons), the dialogue was often sharp, and the jokes were somewhat funny. But when Max and Annie follow the kidnappers and try to free Brooks, he tells them that this is not part of the game. The next thing you know, Annie drops a loaded gun and Max is shot in the arm. Every single scene involving that wound (and there are far too many) is ludicrous in the extreme and from that point on Game Night is just stupid instead of funny and entertaining, with twists along the way that were neither surprising nor credible.

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, Game Night gets **+. My mug is down for this disappointing comedy thriller.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Black Panther

What to do about a mega-blockbuster film that is beloved by critics and viewers alike but also represents Hollywood, Disney and Marvel in far too obvious ways? I could, like my favourite critics, just assume that superhero films will be full of pointless violent action and just get off my moral high horse, ignoring that ‘given’ and focusing on all the things Black Panther does right.

And Black Panther does do a lot of things right. Among those things:
  1. Black Panther is full of black actors, with just two white actors thrown in (Martin Freeman as a CIA agent and Andy Serkis as a villain). It’s great to see so many black actors get a chance to show what they can do (the acting is excellent) in a setting where they represent the most advanced and powerful country in the world (in the heart of Africa!). 
  2. Related to the above, Black Panther satirizes a world in which so many people in so many countries are poor and oppressed while the rich and powerful countries, instead of trying to help, hide behind walls to protect their wealth and privilege from those who might in some way endanger their comfortable way of life. Great stuff!
  3. Related to number 2, the idea of using your country’s wealth and technology to violently impose your will on others is also satirized.
  4. Also great are the references to slavery and colonialism, especially as it relates to Africa.
  5. Character development is not a strength of superhero films, but Black Panther does a first-rate job.  
  6. The primary villain (also black) is treated with an unusual amount of respect, with a well-developed back-story and a resolution that is, at the least, not typical of Marvel or superhero films.
  7. Women who are not themselves superheroes play an important role in the film, in various ways showing themselves to be the equal of, or even superior to, the men around them.
  8. The cinematography is amazing, even though the film is made for 3D (I watched the 2D version).
Before I list what Black Panther failed to get right, let’s quickly review the plot: There’s a small country in the middle of Africa called Wakanda. Thanks to a meteorite made of vibranium that crashed into the country centuries before, Wakanda has become the most technologically-advanced country in the world. But in order to keep their country safe from those who would destroy or exploit it, Wakanda is hidden from the world. 

T’Challa (Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman) has recently returned to Wakanda to take the throne. But he has no chance to relax before it’s discovered that vibranium has made its way into the hands of a white criminal arms dealer named Klaue (Serkis). Klaue’s plans for world domination are cut short by one of his own men, called Killmonger (seriously?), played by Michael B. Jordan, who is actually a Wakandan by the name of N’Jadaka who takes this opportunity to challenge T’Challa for the crown of Wakanda. Can T’Challa stop his relative from taking over and declaring war on the rest of the world? With the help of the women in his life, including his former lover, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa may have a chance, but W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), his best friend and advisor, wonders whether N’Jadaka may be right about a war. 

As superhero film plots go, Black Panther’s is relatively imaginative. Indeed, I would argue that Black Panther isn’t a superhero film at all, but rather an adventure film about the hidden country of Wakanda. That is by no means a criticism - I’ve had my fill of superhero films. But here are the things Black Panther failed to do:
  1. By far my biggest complaint is the endless and pointless violent action sequences in a film aimed at young people. With all of the imagination on display, the utterly pointless action scenes seem only to be filling some kind of requirement to please the action-loving masses who can make Black Panther into the mega-blockbuster it is. As I said above, most viewers (and critics) would be advising me to accept this fact, get off my high horse and appreciate Black Panther for what it does right rather than blasting it for doing what almost all superhero films have been doing since day one. Unfortunately, when I live in a world where school children are getting shot because guns and violence are so much a part of our culture and history, I constantly need to ask whether the world needs more violent action films aimed at the young, most especially if those films are otherwise trying to be progressive and say some very important things. 
  2. Speaking of those important things, much of the dialogue involving the social justice issues of our time is, while spot-on and very welcome, relatively superficial. The opportunity to make nuanced developed arguments about how our world fails the poor and oppressed, in so many ways, is largely wasted (but this is probably way too much to expect).
  3. This applies also to the often-positive way the villain is handled. With this start at an imaginative take on the villain, why sacrifice that imagination to make so much of his character, and the violent scenes he is involved in, so typical of all the other Marvel films? There was an opportunity here for really intelligent dialogue between the villain and his enemies, dialogue that could easily have led to some form of reconciliation instead of violence. That opportunity too was wasted.
  4. Why does a country as advanced as Wakanda still allow its choice of leader to be challenged through mortal combat? Given that fact, and the ever-present weapons, how can N’Jadaka claim that Wakanda has lost its warrior status and its will to fight and how can the film, with all its unnecessary violence, be somehow championing nonviolence?
I’m not saying that Black Panther is a bad film. On the contrary, I think Ryan Coogler has made an amazing superhero film, one of the best ever, and I hope it’s a sign of more good things to come. What I’m saying, though, is that, given its premise and its obvious attempts to say something constructive and life-affirming to the world, Black Panther could have been so much better, even going so far as to challenge/satirize the very way superheroes fight their enemies instead of relying on the pointless required violent action. ***+ My mug is up, but I’m not as unequivocal about the brew inside as many are. 

Friday, 2 March 2018



For me, there are few pleasures greater than going to the cinema to see a sci-fi flick I know nothing about and being transported so completely to a different world that it takes me hours to find my way back to earth. In the case of Annihilation, the different world is our own, but the atmosphere of the film, hugely aided by the luscious cinematography and the necessarily overwhelming, mind-blowing score, made it feel like I was visiting another planet. 

I wasn’t entirely surprised by how much I loved this film. After all, I had had similar feelings about Alex Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina. But I had watched enough of the trailer to make me think Annihilation was not going to be my kind of sci-fi film. Vicious mutated animals? Really? Doesn’t sound original or exciting. And, indeed, that gory aspect of the film did not appeal to me at all. But fortunately that was only a tiny piece of the story, a tease to get the violent-action-loving masses to come out and watch. The ‘fun’ is solving the mystery of why the animals are mutated, a mystery that could have come out of a Star Trek episode if Star Trek had allowed itself to get really serious (made-for-HBO kind of serious).

The tension and fear are almost worthy of Alien, and the intelligence, pacing and atmosphere are comparable to Tarkovsky (Solaris and Stalker), as is the story, which requires a lengthy discussion afterwards of the “what really happened here” variety. Annihilation also reminded me of recent favourites like Arrival and Midnight Special

I just read that there were actually fewer films with female protagonists in 2017 than in some previous years. That wasn’t my experience, and certainly Annihilation is starting things off well in 2018. Almost all of the characters in the film are women. The one exception (Kane, played by Oscar Isaac) is mostly seen in flashbacks. Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biology professor whose husband (Kane) went missing in action and is presumed dead. Until a year later, when he suddenly walks into Lena’s house. But something is wrong with him, and soon they are rushing to the hospital, only to be intercepted by people in mysterious vehicles who kidnap both Kane and Lena. 

When Lena wakes up, she is greeted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who will introduce Lena to the mystery I spoke about, a mystery I will not describe here, other than to say that, with the exception of Kane, no one who had ever tried to solve that mystery was ever seen again. But they were all men. What might happen if you send five women instead, scientists like Lena, Ventress, Gina (Anya Thorensen), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson)?

Brilliantly structured, well-acted, intelligently written and endlessly thought-provoking, this haunting, intense and scary work of pure science fiction is my idea of fun. Annihilation gets ****. My mug is up for this guaranteed entry into my top-fifteen films of 2018. 

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Vic Votes for the 2018 Academy Awards

As I did last year, I offer my votes if I was a member of the Academy (major categories only). Note that these are NOT my predictions of who/what will win. Unlike last year, I decided not to force myself to make tough choices but to allow for ties. In two music categories, I also add my own winners where they were not nominated.

Best Actress in a Lead Role: Tie between Frances McDormand (Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird). 

Both of these performances had to be absolutely perfect for their films to work at all, let alone for their films to become the classics they are.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird). 

Allison Janney is terrific in I, Tonya, but Metcalf’s performance is even better and more critical to the film’s greatness.

Best Actor in a Lead Role: Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.).

Second year in a row for Washington, whose performance made Roman J. Israel, Esq. a film worth watching. Kaluuya is just starting on what will no doubt be a brilliant career. 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Tie between Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) and Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

Rockwell’s performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen and key to why Three Billboards is such a terrific film, but without Dafoe’s perfect low-key performance, The Florida Project would have barely registered on any critic’s radar. 

Best Animated Feature Film: Loving Vincent.

Coco is a very enjoyable and important film, but Loving Vincent is something entirely new,  and I loved it, making it worthy of this honour.

Best Cinematography: Tie between Blade Runner 2049 and The Shape of Water.

The cinematography is my favourite thing about The Shape of Water, so I’d have to choose it if I was forced to choose only one winner. But Blade Runner 2049’s cinematography is equally impressive.  

Best Director: Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird).

We need more women making films. Gerwig is a perfect example of why, making the magnificent Lady Bird in a way that I don’t believe a man would have been able to do. I do think it’s a travesty, though, that Martin McDonagh wasn’t nominated. 

Best Editing: I, Tonya.

Of all the films I watched this year, it was the editing of I, Tonya that stood out. 

Best Foreign Language Film: A Fantastic Woman (Chile).

This is an odd choice for me, given that Loveless is one higher in my top ten, but this is the film I would vote for. 

Best Score (among nominees only): Carter Burwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

The score was one of the critical pieces of this amazing film; the other nominees were good but not as critical to the films.

Best Score: Michael Giacchino, War for the Planet of the Apes.

One of the best scores I’ve heard in a long time, and one of the reasons this film surprised me.

Best Song (among nominees only): Mystery of Love (Call Me By Your Name).

This is Me is my least favourite song in The Greatest Showman, so I have no idea how it got on the list instead of my favourite song of the year.

Best Song: A Million Dreams (The Greatest Showman).

Best Writing (adapted): Molly’s Game.

Best Writing (original): Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Best Picture: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Of the nominees (which should have included The Florida Project), only Lady Bird comes close.

That’s five wins for Three Billboards. Lady Bird is second with three. 

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

TV74: Dark

Those looking to exercise their grey cells while watching Netflix can try out this incredibly complex sci-fi (I think) series from Germany (a Netflix Original). Reminding me of both Twin Peaks and LOST, Dark is a stylish and gorgeous show that bounces around from one time period to another (including 1953, 1986 and 2019), providing tiny snippets of information that are almost impossible to piece together. This is made all the more challenging because there are so many important characters and these characters appear in different time periods, portrayed by different actors. To keep them all straight, and to keep the pieces of the story straight, is so difficult that I recommend watching the entire series as quickly as possible.

The plot concerns the inexplicable disappearance of two boys in a small German town and the fallout from that on the various families involved. The disappearance has something to do with a maze of caves near the town as well as the nearby nuclear power station. I won’t say more. As I said, there are many characters in the series so I won’t bother introducing them (or the actors) here, except for Ulrich Nielsen (played well by Oliver Masucci), a volatile police officer whose presence feels central to much of what’s going on. All of the acting is quite strong for TV. The soundtrack of the series deserves mention because it can be overwhelming at times, but it is no doubt critical to the genre.

Many of the pieces do fall into place eventually and I found each episode more compelling than the last. But for all its shocking and haunting scenes, Dark moves at a snail’s pace (not a bad thing) and lots of patience is required. I’m not entirely sure what I was watching or where it’s going, but I’m intrigued enough to award Dark ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Phantom Thread

After watching a film the critics didn’t like much (i.e. Hostiles), and loving it, I watched a film the critics are raving about (with a number of Oscar nominations) and I didn’t much like it at all, even with the presence of one of the world’s greatest actors (Daniel Day-Lewis, who is phenomenal) and even being the work of a filmmaking genius (Paul Thomas Anderson). So much for predicting the film would surely have made my top fifteen films of 2017.

Phantom Thread is, without question, a brilliantly-made film in almost every way. The flawless acting and directing, the intelligent screenplay and the gorgeous cinematography and score make it easy to see why critics would adore the film. But Phantom Thread (like Lady Macbeth, which is also a brilliant film) just isn’t likeable: Its major characters are not sympathetic at all and the story is cold and twisted, with a subject matter that I find rather boring.

That subject matter concerns Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a famous eccentric dressmaker in 1950s London. Woodcock, in his late sixties, lives in a large house with his unmarried sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville, who is terrific). He has never married because he knows he would not be able to remain faithful and because he’s a super control-freak who just can’t tolerate anyone for long except Cyril. But then he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress whose body is perfect for modelling his dresses, and she soon moves into the house. Alma is in love with Woodcock but it doesn’t take long for him to grow tired of her presence, until she figures out a way to rekindle his affections.

Like I said, the subject of high-society fashion/dressmaking is of no interest to me whatsoever, and while I loved watching Day-Lewis perform, his character (and the others) also failed to engage my interest. So there we are. Phantom Thread is a film that no doubt deserves the **** the critics are giving it, but for me there is something missing and I can only manage somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up, but the brew inside is not particularly tasty.

Thursday, 1 February 2018


An old-fashioned, melodramatic, glacially-paced epic western, full of predictable violence, that tries to be politically correct by having Native Americans teach things to the stupid white man (it’s always about the white man) - no wonder most film critics had little use for Hostiles. Having glanced at some reviews, you couldn’t have dragged me to the theatre (westerns are very far from my favourite genre), except that I heard an interview with Winnipeg Indigenous actor Adam Beach, who has a significant role in the film, and he believed in it wholeheartedly. So I went. And …

I loved it!

Seriously, everything I wrote above is true, but Scott Cooper’s Hostiles blew me away and made me think that most critics didn’t understand the film at all. 

Christian Bale is (no surprise) magnificent (and perfectly cast) as Captain Joseph Blocker, a soldier stationed in New Mexico in 1892 who has made a career of slaughtering Native Americans (including innocent families) who in turn are slaughtering white soldiers and innocent white families. It is a time and place where violence and death (in various forms) can hide behind every rock and tree. It’s a hard time to be alive and the stoic Blocker is a man who seems perfectly-suited to this mad world, except that beneath the surface this intelligent man is consumed with hatred and pain, caused primarily by watching so many friends die horrifically at the hands of Native Americans, but also by his own acts of violence.

One of Blocker’s most hated adversaries is Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Cheyenne chief who has killed some of his friends and has been imprisoned at his base for the past seven years. But now Yellow Hawk is dying and no less than the president of the United States has ordered that the chief and his family be released and escorted back to his home in Montana. Because of Blocker’s knowledge of the trails to Montana and of the Cheyenne language, he is ordered to lead that escort. Blocker is furious about the assignment, but is forced to carry it out.

Four soldiers (including one played by the young Timothee Chalamet, who is everywhere) comprise the escort for Yellow Hawk and his children and grandchild (including his son, Black Hawk, played by Beach). They begin the long and treacherous journey north to Montana. On their first day out they meet Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a young mother whose entire family (including three young children) have just been slaughtered by a small band of Comanches (the film's horrific opening scene). Blocker knows he can’t leave her alone in the remains of her home, so she joins the group, providing the opportunity for a number of beautiful scenes and conversations as well as fascinating confrontations between Rosalee and Yellow Hawk’s family. 

But the journey has barely begun. As mentioned above, Hostiles is a very slow-paced film and there is time for many thoughtful conversations (those with the Native Americans are all in Cheyenne), punctuated by bursts of violence. More lives will be lost than were even part of the escort at the beginning, as the party encounters that band of Comanches, a nasty group of fur traders, an American soldier (Ben Foster) on his way to be hanged for war crimes (he tells Blocker that he was doing no more than Blocker did), and some ranchers.

But at its heart, Hostiles is about the journey of one man: Joseph Blocker; not so much the physical journey from New Mexico to Montana, but a spiritual, psychological and emotional journey that will force him to deal with all that pain and hatred in a shattering but profound way.

So yes, Hostiles is about a white man whose journey with Native Americans will open his eyes. But Bale’s performance is so extraordinary (he deserved an Oscar nomination) and the film is so intelligent that this questionable premise is allowed to become part of a much larger and richer story: The story of a strong woman facing her own demons of pain and hatred; the story of a strong Indigenous leader (Studi’s performance is equal to Bale’s, though his role is much smaller) doing the same; the story of a Native American family which has suffered so much and continues to suffer, yet have room for kind acts; the story of racism in its various forms; the story of forgiveness in unforeseen places; and the story of violence and whether there is any way for human beings to avoid killing each other.

Hostiles isn’t perfect. There is dialogue that feels anachronistic, there are scenes of violence that infuriated me (though the film doesn’t, with one exception, glorify violence in any way), and there is a sense that the film is trying too hard to be revisionist in a way that will please everyone. But the acting is superb (Pike is also brilliant), the cinematography is gorgeous, the score is a classic, the writing is intelligent and the slow pace is sublime. Yes, far from being a cause for criticism, the slow pace turns Hostiles into a poetic work of art, aided by the constant tension facing everyone on the journey. It is only when the film is interrupted by violent action that it faces the danger of losing its way.

In 1892, soldiers called the Native Americans hostiles, but Hostiles makes clear that the term applies to all sides in the conflicts. It was a dark hostile time, and we still live in its wake. But Hostiles is full of glimpses of light shining in that darkness. Hostiles gets somewhere between ***+ and ****. It would have made my top fifteen of 2017 if I had seen it in time. My mug is up.