Monday, 24 July 2017

The Big Sick



Regular readers will know that I am not a big fan of romantic comedies, or of comedies in general (certainly not of most of those coming out of Hollywood), and I certainly can’t trust the critics, whose tastes in comedies are clearly very different from my own. So when I say I’ve watched a truly hilarious (though also very serious at times) rom-com that I would recommend to almost everyone, it means something special has occurred. It’s called The Big Sick (directed by Michael Showalter). 

Based on true events in the life of the two writers (including Kumail Nanjiani, the actor who plays our protagonist), The Big Sick tells the story of Kumail, a Pakistani immigrant living in Chicago who is trying to make it as a stand-up comedian and actor/writer. A young woman in the audience one night (Emily, played by Zoe Kazan) attracts his attention and the romance part of the rom-com begins. It’s an unusual relationship, highlighted by the fact that Kumail needs to keep it secret from his family, especially his mother (Zenobia Shroff), who asks nothing from her son other than that he marry a Pakistani woman (she keeps inviting available women over when Kumail is having supper with his family, but Kumail is not interested). When Emily goes to the hospital with a serious infection, Kumail gets to meet her parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) who are equally challenging for the relationship. 

Much of The Big Sick is, as I mentioned, serious drama, and that’s not a bad thing, but what makes the film special is the humour, which is remarkable because it’s actually funny. Indeed, The Big Sick is one of the funniest comedies I’ve seen this century. Nanjiani’s acting is spot-on (it should be, since he’s playing himself), with Kazan providing excellent support. Hunter and Romano are at the top of their game as Emily’s parents, and Shroff and Anupam Kher are excellent as Kumail’s parents. 

Well-directed and sharply-written (by Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon), The Big Sick feels natural, authentic and wise in a way very unlike its often juvenile counterparts. Its only flaw is the stand-up comedy theme that sometimes carries over too much to Kumail’s life.

Good rom-coms are a rarity, so don’t miss this one (though note that this is an adult comedy). The Big Sick gets a solid ***+, verging on ****. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes



After my disappointment with the last half of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I’m not sure why I went to see the finale so soon after its release. But at least this time I didn’t allow the critical acclaim to unduly raise my expectations. As a result, I actually enjoyed War for the Planet of the Apes much more than I thought I would, more than either of the first two films. 

This appreciation is all the more surprising when you consider that this is a relentlessly dark and violent film. As the title suggests, War for the Planet of the Apes is all about war, from beginning to end, war between humans and apes, between humans and humans, and even a little between apes and apes. By now you should all know how much I love war films (that is sarcasm, unless we’re talking clear anti-war films). War isn’t glorified in any way in War for the Planet of the Apes, which at least is positive, and, despite its presence throughout, war isn’t even the primary theme of the film, at least not for me. For me, that theme would be survival. Who will survive the chaos following the pandemic caused by a human-made retrovirus? 

I won’t divulge much about the plot. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the intelligent speaking ape, and the group of apes who follow him, are looking for a home far away from the remaining human populations, so they can live in peace. Doesn’t sound like the start of a war film. But Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who is obviously supposed to remind us of a certain other colonel (Apocalypse Now) is intent on wiping apes off the planet before they take over the world. So he does something horrible (as all evil villains are required to do, so that we want to see them pay for their crimes, preferably in a gruesome death) that Caesar cannot let slide. At this point in the film, I was recalling that in my review of Dawn I had talked about Caesar encouraging forgiveness in others while he, himself, was unable to forgive, and I was shaking my head. But then Maurice, the wise orangutan at Caesar’s side, tells Caesar he is no better than Koba, the ‘bad’ ape from Dawn who was bent on revenge. Okay. Very good. Caesar doesn’t argue the point, but, unfortunately, he isn’t swayed by it either. Which of course means Caesar goes looking for trouble, and finds it. Along the way, he does meet a couple of unique and interesting characters, which add considerable depth to the film, not to mention a little levity, which is clearly needed in a dark film like this.

I won’t say much more by way of detail, but I will make some general observations about the plot. First, like its predecessors, War for the Planet of the Apes is full of mixed messages. For example, it has a number of beautiful humanizing scenes along with some blatantly dehumanizing scenes. But here’s the thing: the former outweigh the latter this time, and, unlike in the first two films, the last half of the film was better than the first (that makes a huge difference to me). Best of all, wait for it, there were hints of imagination this time around. I know, you’re thinking I must have been stoned when I watched the film, because surely Hollywood isn’t capable of imagination in the making of an action/war film like this. I couldn’t believe it either, but there were serious attempts to give us a Caesar worthy of the finale (though always with the mixed messages). I also appreciated the many subtle references to the original film from 1968.

Add in the excellent special effects, great cinematography, Micael Giacchino’s splendid if overwhelming score (his best yet), the best cast of characters in the trilogy (by far), some notably intelligent writing and some noteworthy performances by Serkis, Harrelson and Steve Zahn, and you have the only film in the series that I am awarding ***+ (in spite of the mixed messages - especially evident in the film’s last half hour, which bounced from a great scene to an awful scene to a great scene to an awful scene and so on). My mug is up for the finale.

Monday, 17 July 2017

TV64: Two Great TV Serials Come to an End: Rectify and The Leftovers


During the last few months, I have had the great pleasure of watching the final two seasons of two of the finest TV serials ever made. They are vastly different shows, but they share a number of qualities that have rarely been exceeded in the history of television. These include brilliant and profound writing (especially the deep character development), focusing on the meaning of life and death, and acting that can only be described as sublime. 

Rectify

Rectify is the more straightforward of the two shows (see my review from November 13, 2015 for a description). It is also more moving and more rewarding. The last season is not quite as compelling as the first three seasons, but the ending is more than satisfying enough for Rectify to easily retain its position as my second-favourite TV serial of all time (second only to Six Feet Under). What makes Rectify special, beyond what I have already said, is its natural dialogue and the way it encourages viewers to become better people through the changes and growth of its characters. I have described Rectify as the most humanizing TV show ever made and I can think of no higher praise to offer any entertainment. **** My mug is up and full of the most delicious flavours.


The Leftovers

Back in April (see my review from April 13), I described the second season of The Leftovers as one of the finest seasons of television I have ever watched. I couldn’t wait to watch the final season, not least because critics were raving about it (oops - high expectations). I suppose it was inevitable that the final season would disappoint me, although, as with Rectify, the ending was more than satisfying enough for The Leftovers to stay in my top five. While both shows are intense, slow-moving character studies, The Leftovers is far more raw and crazy than Rectify (which is saying something). Even so, the final season of The Leftovers began with episodes that were too chaotic and jarring for me. The choice of music, especially, was not working for me. Nevertheless, as the short season continued, it returned to the form and greatness of the second season. 

Through the first two seasons, I noted that I had absolutely no idea what was going on - I just knew I loved it. The ending provides at least a clue as to what was going on, but only enough to confirm what I knew all along - that The Leftovers is not about answers but about questions. As I watched the last few episodes, it occurred to me how much The Leftovers resembled LOST in this regard. It should have occurred to me a lot sooner, given that the two shows share a creator and key writer (Damon Lindelof).

Of particular note in the final season of The Leftovers is how Nora Durst (played by Carrie Coon) replaced Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) as the show’s central character (though Garvey is still prominent) and the key role of Kevin Garvey Sr. (Scott Glenn) . **** My mug is up and full of intriguing mysterious flavours. 

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Beguiled



The Beguiled is a remake of a 1971 film of the same name (which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page), which was based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan. This time around we have Colin Farrell in the lead role as Corporal McBurney, a Yankee soldier caught behind enemy lines in Virginia during the Civil War. The wounded soldier is found by a girl named Amy (Oona Laurence), who takes him to a girls’ school led by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), who begins the process of nursing him back to health while hiding him from the Confederate army. It doesn’t take long for the charming and handsome man to attract the attention of two other young women in the school: Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and Alicia (Elle Fanning), creating an overwhelming amount of sexual tension and not inconsiderable jealousy, with shocking results.

This remake is written and directed by Sofia Coppola, who won Best Director at Cannes this year (I repeat, it’s been a good year for women in filmmaking). She does a great job of creating a dark, haunting, sexually-charged Southern Gothic atmosphere for the story (the film itself is literally very dark) and she gets excellent performances from all of her actors. She also does a great job of telling the story from a female point of view, which is critical.

Unfortunately, Coppola goes for an understated restraint in her storytelling that keeps things moving but doesn’t allow the film to flow the way it should (it feels somewhat stilted instead). It’s almost like she is going for style over feeling, which seems somehow ironic. As a result, we struggled to sympathize with any of the characters and could not engage fully with the film.

What could have been a classic (and has received a lot of critical acclaim) didn’t quite work for us (maybe my expectations were too high). The Beguiled gets only a solid ***. My mug is up.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Baby Driver



The super-stylish Baby Driver is wowing critics (including most of my favourite critics) and viewers alike, so I thought I’d better go see what the fuss was about. Was I wowed? First clue: Did you see a ‘Wow’ at the start of my review?

Written and directed by Edgar Wright, Baby Driver is about a young getaway driver named Baby (played by Ansel Elgort) who gets in way over his head when he agrees to work for a master thief named Doc (Kevin Spacey) in order to pay off a debt (he stole something from Doc). Baby, who lives in a small apartment with his deaf foster father, Joseph (CJ Jones), longs for a normal life in which he can use his driving skills to deliver pizzas instead of eluding twenty police cars and a helicopter, and in which he can date Debora (Lily James), the new waitress at his favourite diner, without worrying about whether he’ll survive Doc’s next ‘job’. 

Baby has suffered from tinnitus since the accident that killed his parents when he was five or so, and now he listens to loud music all the time to drown out the noise. The music helps him drive, so it’s all good, and we get to listen to music almost nonstop throughout the film, which is surely not a bad thing, or …?

Among Doc’s thieves, whom Baby has to drive around, are Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Bats (Jamie Foxx), neither of whom respects Baby’s worldview. But then, neither does Doc. Baby should have run away a long time ago. So should I.

Here’s the thing:

  1. Baby Driver is full of brilliantly-conceived and brilliantly-filmed chase scenes of all kinds, but I don’t like chase scenes.
  2. Baby Driver is, as I said, full of music. I love music in films, but Edgar Wright and I clearly have very different tastes - I hardly heard a single song I liked, so for me the film was just full of loud background noise. 
  3. Baby Driver is full of stylish violence, often set to music, but I detest almost all stylish violence in films.
  4. Baby Driver is full of interesting characters (especially Joseph), some of whom get a decent smattering of development (not Joseph), and Baby is an intriguing and sympathetic protagonist, but most of the characters behave inconsistently, lack credibility or behave in ways that undermine whatever good things the film is trying to say (if it is trying to say any good things).
  5. Baby Driver’s last half hour was horrifically violent and beyond ludicrous, and the ending lacked any semblance of credibility.

Given the above five points (some of which are, admittedly, purely subjective), no amount of awesome filmmaking, stylish originality and good acting is going to make Baby Driver a film I could enjoy watching or would ever want to watch again. Like some of Tarantino’s films (to which Baby Driver no doubt owes a lot), this is not, in my ‘solitary’ opinion, the kind of film critics should be encouraging filmmakers to make or viewers to watch. 

Among the wonderful things film critics are saying about Baby Driver: “sweet and funny”, “outrageously enjoyable”, “a playful ode”, “a wildly successful romantic comedy”. When I think of films for which those words might be applicable, they could hardly be further removed from Baby Driver. Sorry, in my books, you can’t have a sweet and funny film full of brutal violence. But it’s hard to find a single critic who has a bad word to say about this film. 

At least one critic, however, is giving Baby Driver **+. My mug is down. 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Beatriz at Dinner



Director Miguel Arteta hasn’t particularly impressed me with his previous films (Cedar Rapids, The Good Girl), and Beatriz at Dinner is getting only mixed reviews, but something told me this would be my kind of film. Those instincts are almost always correct and they were again this time. Indeed, if it weren’t for the abrupt and difficult (i.e. difficult to understand) ending, Beatriz at Dinner would be a sure thing for my 2017 top-ten list. 

Beatriz at Dinner has a fairly straightforward plot: Beatriz (played by Salma Hayek) is a Mexican immigrant living in southern California who works as a New Age healer and massage therapist. Beatriz is very empathetic and has strong feelings towards all life on the planet, so she is devastated when her neighbour kills her pet goat. She shares her dismay with one of her wealthy clients (Cathy, played by Connie Britton) just before her car breaks down. Cathy invites Beatriz to stay for dinner while she waits for a friend to help her. Beatriz reluctantly accepts the invitation, though Cathy’s husband, Grant (David Warhofsky), is not happy about it, because the man responsible for his wealth, Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), is coming to dinner. Strutt is a billionaire real estate mogul who doesn’t care much whom he steps on to make his millions. Also coming to dinner are Strutt’s third wife, Jeana (Amy Landecker), and a business associate, Alex (Jay Duplass), with his wife, Shannon (ChloĆ« Sevigny). 

Even before dinner starts, sparks start flying between Beatriz and Strutt when Strutt assumes she is a servant and asks her for a refill of his drink. But the dinner itself will prove far more uncomfortable for all concerned as Beatriz condemns Strutt for his involvement in a variety of crimes against life on earth. 

Hayek and Lithgow are perfect as Beatriz and Strutt, providing carefully nuanced performances that prevent their characters from becoming stereotypes (in many reviews, Strutt is compared to Trump, but this comparison only works at a superficial level). Britton and Landecker provide top-notch support. The cinematography and score are very strong, and Mike White’s screenplay, which is very dialogue-heavy, is generally brilliant. Sometimes it is a little simplistic, and there’s that strange ambiguous ending, but I have to credit the screenplay, along with the performances, for the way Beatriz at Dinner kept me fully engaged from the first minute to the last, which, for me, is a key criterion for greatness. 

The fact that Beatriz at Dinner provides some spot-on social commentary throughout doesn’t hurt either. It’s only at the end of the film, when it seems to suggest that there is very little you can do in the face of men like Strutt (or Trump), unless you’re willing to turn to violence (though that option is not viewed favourably either), that I wish Beatriz at Dinner had been longer, asked deeper questions and explored more options. Nevertheless, It gets a solid ***+, verging on ****. My mug is up. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

Maudie



We watched this Canadian film some weeks ago now, but I neglected to write a review, partly because it didn’t leave a strong impression on me. Which is not to say that it isn’t worth watching, especially for Canadians, and especially if you like gorgeous, quiet poetic films. 

Maudie, directed by Aisling Walsh (it’s been a record year for films directed by women, at least for films I’ve seen), tells the true story of Maud Lewis, a Nova Scotia artist (painter) who lived most of her adult life (1938-1970) in a tiny house in the tiny town of Marshalltown (near Digby) with a fish peddler who initially hired her to do housework. It was an unusual relationship between two unusual people.  From childhood on, Maud suffered from serious arthritis, but she never let it stop her from living an active life and becoming one of Canada’s most famous artists.

Maudie is played by Sally Hawkins, whose performance is nothing short of phenomenal and is, alone, worth watching the film to see. Ethan Hawke plays the fish peddler and also does a great job. The other major highlight of Maudie is the cinematography (it’s filmed in Newfoundland) which is stunning from start to finish. It was a constant joy to watch those performances and the camerawork, but unfortunately, for me, the screenplay was not powerful enough to match. Perhaps the pace was exactly right for the story it was telling, but even though I generally enjoy slow quiet films, I found Maudie a little too dull. To put it another way, Maudie tells an inspiring story in an uninspiring fashion.

Those who watched the film with me don’t share my views on this. They would have given Maudie at least ***+. There is much in the film worthy of that rating, but I’m going to have to settle for somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up.