Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Other Side of Hope (2017 EIFF 14)



I’m ending the year with a film I watched at the Edmonton International Film Festival in October but have not yet reviewed. There is a reason I have not yet reviewed The Other Side of Hope, the latest film from Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, namely that this highly acclaimed film, one of the films I was most looking forward to watching at the EIFF, disappointed me.  

I’ve enjoyed all the Kaurismäki films I’ve seen (his last film, Le Havre, was one of my favourite films of 2011), not least because his heart is in the right place (his films are always humanizing), his films are profoundly European in the best sense, and he is an absolute genius at deadpan humour. But it was the humour that didn’t work for me in The Other Side of Hope, because the plot was, at times, just too incredible (and too silly) for me to enjoy.

That plot concerns a young (20-something) Syrian refugee named Khaled (Sherwan Haji), who stows away on a freighter to Helsinki, and his relationship with a dour, middle-aged salesman named Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), who uses his poker winnings to buy a questionable restaurant, where Khaled will work with three eccentric characters: a waitress (Nuppu Koivu), a chef (Janne Hyytiainen) and a maître d’ (Ikea Koivula). 

Wikström in some ways represents Finnish people in general, people who always seem world-weary but treat kindness as an obligation. With beautiful cinematography, great locations, fascinating characters and solid acting to go along with its humanizing story, The Other Side of Hope should indeed have been the great film I was expecting. But it just didn’t click for me. Nevertheless, I still award it somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 29 December 2017

War Machine



Earlier this year, Netflix released this intelligent but flawed satire of the war in Afghanistan. Brad Pitt stars as General Glen McMahon, a man who believes the war can be won and won quickly, even though he is more aware than most that you can’t win a counterinsurgency war by killing civilians or by alienating the nation’s people, which is what the Americans have been doing in Afghanistan since 2001. McMahon wants to limit civilian casualties and convince the local population that American soldiers have their best interests at heart (they just want to ensure a secure and stable environment for the Afghan people to work and live). McMahon’s confusing answer is to bring in 40,000 more troops to make swift work of the war, but Obama’s government wants to withdraw troops, not add more. In the end, McMahon is presented as a clueless general leading an army that has no business being in Afghanistan at all.

War Machine is written and directed by David Michôd, based on a nonfiction book called The Operators by Michael Hastings. The character of McMahon is based on General Stanley McChrystal, who was forced to resign in 2010 because of the Rolling Stone article which is central to the film.

By making a satire based on true events, War Machine is playing a dangerous game. It wants to be serious and to be taken seriously. It shows us how disillusioned the American soldiers are and how poorly equipped they are (despite their expertise) to fight this unwinnable counterinsurgency. The film is actually at its best when it’s being serious and exposing the stupidity and horror of the war without comedy. But War Machine also wants to be a funny satire and begins by portraying McMahon as an eccentric general who has no idea what he’s getting into. Pitt’s over-the-top performance makes this all the more obvious. 

By wanting to play it both ways (as satire and as serious exposé), War Machine lost me. If McMahon had been portrayed more seriously, and if the first half of the film had been less silly, War Machine might have worked for me. Pitt’s performance wasn’t bad, and may have been perfect for what Michôd wanted, but I found it hard to appreciate because of my dilemma. Perhaps if the satire had been funnier, and if the entire film hadn’t felt far too slow for a satire, it might have worked. It did get better as it went along, which is always good. 

And War Machine features some absolutely delightful cameos by Ben Kingsley and Tilda Swinton. Swinton, whose ability to become whomever she wants to be (in this case, a German politician with a flawless German accent) is without equal, was particularly effective. Kingsley, meanwhile, plays the Afghan president (Hamid Karzai). Meg Tilly is also very good as McMahon’s long-suffering wife. 

War Machine makes some keen observations and its heart is definitely in the right place, so I will give it *** and a mug up. I just wish this important story had been better told.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Brigsby Bear

The year is nearly over, and so far I don't think that I have a quirky indie comedy to add to my top ten list. This is disappointing, and I hoped that Brigsby Bear might be the one that I was looking for. It was popular at Sundance and seemed to have the kind of ingredients that would make it work for me.

Alas, it is not destined for my list. It was watchable and certainly quirky, but there were too many things that didn’t quite work. Kyle Mooney (who wrote, directed and played the lead role) did a fine enough job of acting a challenging part and Greg Kinnear did well as Det. Vogel. I’m not sure that any of the parental or therapy roles were handled well, but it’s hard to know whether that was the writing or the acting – neither seemed strong for these roles.

There’s a fair amount of creativity happening, but the quirky comedy didn’t hit the right notes to take off or become quotable. Perhaps those who would appreciate the parody of terrible 80s children’s TV (think Care Bears, etc.) would get the most enjoyment from this. 

The positivity is a little over the top - in the spirit of a good children's show, I guess. An overflowing teen party with all the stereotyped drugs, drinking and making out is depicted as a sweet and caring place to make some new friends. And I’ll avoid spoilers by simply saying that the attitudes late in the film toward the characters played by Mark Hamill and Jane Adams borders on the irresponsible.


If you’re hungry for light and odd comedy, you might give it a go, but I can’t quite lift my mug off the table - **+

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Molly's Game



Wow!

Among the flaws of Aaron Sorkin’s new film (Sorkin wrote and directed), three stand out for me: 1) A large part of the film involves gambling, which holds no interest for me whatsoever (because I have never understood its appeal); 2) Molly Bloom, the film’s protagonist and narrator, is the kind of flawed ambitious character who is unlikely to either elicit sympathy from me or create the kind of engagement with the film necessary for me to enjoy it; 3) Molly is constantly surrounded by men, some of whom feel it necessary to speak for her and/or analyze her and/or defend her. In a film that at some level is trying to celebrate the ways the female protagonist is smarter than the men around her and capable of beating them at their own game, flaw number three is a biggie.

And yet, despite these flaws, the world’s best screenwriter (IMHO) has created such a riveting intelligent masterpiece (based on a true story, namely Molly Bloom’s book of the same name) that Molly’s Game is assured a place in my top ten and I am dismayed and confused by some of the negative reviews (though they are relatively few).

Molly (played to perfection by Jessica Chastain, who should be nominated for an Oscar) wanted to be an olympic ski champion, but a freak accident kills that dream in its early stages. Next thing you know (long story short), Molly is running the most exclusive high-stakes poker games in the world, first in Los Angeles, then in New York City. We know this before we see her life story, because Molly’s Game begins with Molly’s arrest by the FBI for running an illegal gambling establishment. But by then, Molly has been out of the game for two years and had all her assets seized, leaving her next to penniless (though people still owe her a lot of money). Finding a good lawyer who will defend her isn’t easy under those conditions, which leads Molly to Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), a lawyer who sees something in her that others don’t.

As we then turn to flashbacks of Molly’s life prior to her arrest, we see that she has a rather overbearing and demanding father (Larry, played by Kevin Costner), with whom she has a tense relationship, and a nasty first boss (Dean Keith, played by Jeremy Strong), who introduces her to the poker games. Then there are the many poker players (all men) who become part of her life, especially Player X (Michael Cera), Douglas Downey (Chris O’Dowd), Brad (Brian d’Arcy James) and Harlan (Bill Camp). While the many men in Molly’s life are not played as well as Molly, all of that actors do well, with a special nod to Elba, who is terrific.

As one expects from a film written by Sorkin, Molly’s Game is fast-paced and full of marvellous dialogue. It’s also a long film, giving Chastain an incredible number of lines, all of which she delivers effortlessly. But who knew that Sorkin would be such a good director as well, pulling off a stylish and sure-handed first effort. 

I’ve already covered the major flaws, and I can understand why women, especially, might be uncomfortable with a couple of scenes near the end. Perhaps those scenes should be enough to lower my own appreciation for Molly’s Game. But I think Sorkin treats Molly Bloom as well as anyone would (perhaps too well?), making her a compelling and powerful character and giving viewers a lot to think about.

Given the flaws mentioned above, I can’t quite understand why I found this film so engaging, but I did. Molly’s Game gets a solid ****. My mug is up. 

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

TV72: The Keepers



The Keepers, directed by Ryan White, is a seven-part Netflix documentary about the unsolved murder of a popular (and outspoken) young nun (Sister Cathy Cesnik) at a girls’ school in Baltimore in 1969. The investigation is conducted by two of the school’s former students (Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub), making the documentary as much a story about them as about the murder. This makes the investigation much more personal and allows it to follow various paths, including the fact that the murder may have been a deliberate attempt to cover up the fact that Father Maskell (the school’s principal) had been sexually abusing girls for many years. 

The Keepers was critically-acclaimed, and for good reason: it is beautifully filmed, tells its stories in a unique and compelling way and covers a lot of ground on the subject of sexual abuse and its cover-up by the church and the Baltimore police. There are many moments of brilliance in the series and I do highly recommend it. However, I have one very large complaint about the documentary, which prevents any thought of awarding it four stars. I watch a lot of documentaries. A great many of them suffer from the same disease: Because they are often the work of thousands of hours, with a hundred hours or more of film, they are much longer than they need to be (usually twice as long). The Keepers is seven hours long and that is completely unnecessary. Some of the middle episodes are more than twice as long as they should have been. I think the full story could have been told just as effectively (if not more so) in three hours. So The Keepers gets ***+ for being a great (if anticlimactic) documentary, but it should have been even better. My mug is up.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi



Despite all the critical acclaim, my expectations for Star Wars: The Last Jedi were quite low (after all, the critics liked The Force Awakens much more than I did). Given those low expectations, The Last Jedi was a very pleasant surprise. It’s still not as good as the critics (or general viewers) seem to think it is (IMHO), but it’s a huge improvement over The Force Awakens (and Rogue One, which is best forgotten). 

Plot: The Resistance, led by General Leia, is fighting the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke and General Hux, but the Resistance is losing and about to get wiped out entirely. Their only hope seems to be Luke Skywalker, whom Rey tracked down at the end of The Force Awakens. Can Rey talk Luke into helping them, especially while she’s dealing with a mysterious long-distance connection to Kylo Ren?

My biggest complaints about The Force Awakens were the utter lack of originality, Rey needing to be a violent female lead and the horrifying destruction of the Republic without any appropriate response from Resistance members. The Last Jedi, which was written and directed by Rian Johnson (a smart move), has no such upsetting moments, is far more original (while still borrowing pieces from the original trilogy, especially The Return of the Jedi) and Rey at least never uses a gun (only a light-sabre, which makes a big difference to me). Not to say that The Last Jedi doesn’t have its  share of flaws. The worst scene in the film, which is completely unnecessary, is the fight involving Snoke’s red guards. Pathetic! And there is far too much action for a film that has been praised for having so little action (compared to Rogue One or what?).

But let’s focus on the good stuff for once, because while the magic of the first trilogy, and even parts of the second trilogy, is in short supply in this third trilogy, The Last Jedi does have its moments. Of particular interest are most of the scenes involving Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey is a fascinating character, Ridley is a fine actor, and the scenes involving Rey are (in general) much more thoughtful than the rest of the film. These scenes also generally involve Luke (Mark Hamill) or Ren (Adam Driver), making for some riveting conversations (as Rey’s conversations with Han Solo and Maz were two key highlights of The Force Awakens). In general, I enjoyed the scenes on the island (where Rey found Luke) much more than the rest of the film.

I did like the introduction of two new female characters (Kelly Marie Tren as Rose and Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo), both of whom have key roles and are involved in some of the more engaging pieces of dialogue. Then there is Benicio del Toro in a quirky role that is fun to watch. John Boyega returns as Finn, who’s a likeable well-played character. Oscar Isaac’s Poe is less likeable (though he often has the adorable BB-8 at his side). Poe is an arrogant pilot who thinks he’s always right. I appreciated how he was put in his place a couple of times (by women). Speaking of which, Carrie Fisher returns in her last role as Leia and does a fine job. Representing the dark side, we also have Domhnall Gleeson as Hux and Andy Serkis as Snoke. Everyone performed quite well. Missing, sadly, was Harrison Ford as Han Solo, who was killed by his son (Ren) in The Force Awakens, but Chewbacca has a prominent role.

Politically, it's not as easy to associate the First Order (not much depth provided for the First Order) with the evil empire of our day as some of the previous films, but there were some strong anti-wealth comments (ironic for a film that will make a billion dollars), including linking wealth and capitalism to the weapons trade. 

The best thing about The Last Jedi (for me) was the way it felt like an epic space opera with an intricate plot and engaging, flawed well-drawn characters. The last two Star Wars films, despite having strong female leads, failed to do that. Indeed, they both made me sigh with disappointment when the credits started to role. This time I was nodding with satisfaction. The original magic still isn’t there, but it certainly felt like I got my money’s worth at the cinema (needless to say, I didn’t watch the 3D version). Star Wars: The Last Jedi gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

The Shape of Water



The critically-acclaimed The Shape of Water, directed (and co-written) by Guillermo del Toro, is an extraordinary film. It could have been an easy four-star classic (sigh). 

The cinematography is the first thing that strikes the viewer. It’s absolutely breathtaking from beginning to end and should win an Academy Award. The Shape of Water is set in Baltimore in 1961 and the cinematography and set design create a unique but perfect period feel, albeit somewhat stylized to also give it a sci-fi/horror feel from the 50’s, and, with the music revolving around a famous song from 1943 (You’ll Never Know), giving the film a 40’s noir feel as well. I loved it. 

Sally Hawkins, who is terrific, stars as Elisa Esposito, a janitor at a secret research facility. Mute since she was a baby (due to an injury to her neck which left deep scars), Elisa lives alone above a movie theatre (she loves old films), but spends a lot of time with Giles (Richard Jenkins), an older neighbour who works at home doing advertising art. Elisa’s only other friend is her coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). 

One day, as Elisa is cleaning the research lab, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a captured amphibian-humanoid creature (Doug Jones). With the help of Dr. Bob Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), Strickland plans to run tests on the mysterious creature (which was found in a South American swamp) before those evil Russians find out about it. Elisa is immediately intrigued by the creature and uses her position (no one pays attention to the cleaning women) to learn more about it. And that is all you need to know. 

The Shape of Water is loosely based on the classic 1954 horror/sci-fi b-film, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a film that scared the heck out of me when I first saw it back in the mid-sixties. But The Shape of Water takes the old ideas in entirely new directions and gives us something wholly original. It’s also much more grown up, though I don’t want to elaborate at this point. 

The acting by all those named is spot-on and the writing and direction are sharp, providing characters that keep us fully engaged and insights about our current world (not so different from the paranoid early 60’s). The Shape of Water is a magical film about how we view ‘the other’ and about love and community. 

This all sounds great, and it is, but, unfortunately, del Toro saw fit to throw in a coupe of scenes that upset me so much there is no way I can give the film the four stars it otherwise deserves (yes, they are violent scenes, but it’s not just about the violence, but about the unimaginative and graphic use of the violence). So there’s your warning. The Shape of Water gets a very strong ***+, almost at ****. My mug is up.

Friday, 22 December 2017

TV71: Wanted



Speaking of down under, I am on the second season of a Netflix original called Wanted. Rebecca Gibney and Geraldine Hakewill star as Lola Buckley and Chelsea Babbage, two women (who didn’t know each other before the show starts) perpetually on the run from both criminals and police after they witness a shooting (involving police and criminals) in Sydney. Gibney and Hakewill are likeable actors playing quirky and likeable protagonists. The show hums along quite quickly, with one adventure after another, lots of interesting characters, some decent dialogue and no end of gorgeous cinematography (in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand). So Wanted makes for good lightweight escapist television, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Unfortunately, I generally need more than that and was bothered by the rather serious credibility issues throughout the show. The running also just got old for me after a while. After watching the first two episodes of the second season, I decided to give the show a rest (too much is enough), at least for a few months. For now, Wanted gets ***. My mug is up.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

TV70: The Code Revisited



In the second season of Australia’s The Code, Jesse and Ned Banks (Ashley Zuckerman and Dan Spielman) are fighting to prevent their extradition to the U.S. for the computer crimes they committed in season one. The Australian Federal Police are willing to prevent that extradition if Jesse will help them save a boy who has been kidnapped by an online sex-trafficking site. The hunt for the boy leads Jesse to Jan Roth (Anthony LaPaglia), the founder of a dark website, and to the shooting of two of Roth’s colleagues on a back road in West Papua.

What makes season two special is the focus on non-violent indigenous anti-mining protests in West Papua, protests which are being violently suppressed by the local military, with the aid of powerful people in Australia. When the lead protestor, Remsey, who is a close friend of Roth’s, is imprisoned and brutally treated, Jesse and Ned get involved in that case as well, with the help of Meg Flynn (Ella Scott Lynch), a photographer, and Jesse’s girlfriend, Hani (Adele Perovic).

The potential for another four-star season was there, but it didn’t happen. First, the writing was not as sharp, creating a season that was less credible and less compelling than the first. Second, the opportunity to focus on the protest and to educate viewers about the repression in West Papua was largely wasted in favour of focusing on the violent responses to the protest and how these were being covered up. 

Nevertheless, the characters are fascinating, the acting remains strong (LaPaglia and Lynch are excellent additions), the locations are beautiful, and the show’s heart is in the right place, with a restrained level of violence. So I’ll award ***+ to season two. My mug remains up.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Doctor Foster Revisited



I just finished watching season two of Doctor Foster on Netflix. After giving season one four stars, it never even occurred to me that I could miss season two. Don’t make the same mistake! It was pure torture for me from beginning to end (thankfully only five episodes).

The second season of Doctor Foster continues the horrific saga of Gemma (Suranne Jones) and Simon (Bertie Carvel) Foster and their son, Tom (Tom Taylor). Simon, now married to Kate Parks (Jodie Comer), has moved back into town after a two-year absence and has invited everyone except Gemma to a house-warming party. Gemma comes anyway and begins her mission to drive Simon back out of town as soon as possible. Simon, meanwhile, tells Gemma she is the one who will be out of town within a month. The war begins, with Tom and Kate caught in the middle. What a nightmare!

I have no idea what the writers of this series wanted to say with this season or this show. Did they want us to sympathize in any way with Gemma, this incredibly broken woman who states (in the last episode), with complete conviction: “I am not broken”? Did they want us to feel any sympathy for Simon, who believes he can do whatever he wants with his life and those around him as long as it gets him where he wants to go, and then hates himself for it? Whatever the writers wanted to say with this show, it certainly didn’t work for me. I found this season merciless and absurd. 

I suppose any show that makes me shake with rage for having endured five hours of torture must be doing something right. Maybe that’s proof that the acting and writing are top-notch. But I can only think of the word ‘awful’ as the show drops from **** to * in just one season. If you haven’t watched season two, do yourself a favour and stay away. If you haven’t watched Doctor Foster at all, don’t bother to start (especially not on account of my four-star review, which I would no doubt change if I watched the show again). My mug is down.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

TV69: The OA



Having a special affinity for Another Earth, Sound of My Voice and The East, Janelle and I have been wondering for quite a while what Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij have been up to. The answer is that they were making a Netflix TV serial called The OA. As one would expect of these creators/writers, The OA is very weird television. This is by no means an insult. On the contrary, Marling, who stars as the OA, is an actor who excels in conveying weird, making me a fan of all of her work. The OA is no exception, though it’s not perfect.

Prairie Johnson is a young woman who suddenly returns to her community (and family) after a seven-year disappearance. When she went missing, she was blind. Now she can see. What happened? Is it a miracle or something more suspect? Why is Prairie calling herself the OA, why are there scars on her back, and why won’t she tell the FBI or her parents where she has been? She does tell her story to a group of carefully-chosen locals (mostly high school students), whom she calls upon to help her rescue others who have experienced a similar fate. As to what that fate is, you’ll need to watch it yourself, but let’s just say it is supremely weird (for Janelle and me, the jury is still out as to whether Brit and Zal are actually aliens). 

The OA is well-made, binge-worthy, slow-paced television, with a fascinating premise, good acting and interesting characters. One or two episodes are absolutely brilliant (and mind-blowing), easily worthy of ****.  Unfortunately, The OA stumbles in the last few episodes (there are only eight), getting less and less credible as the weirdness accelerates, entering the realm of ‘silly’, which is not good. There’s a second season coming next year, and I will watch it to see where it’s going, but my expectations aren’t high. Still, The OA, which might be sci-fi or something stranger, gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Monday, 18 December 2017

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 9. Unforgotten



Because it’s not on Netflix, Unforgotten (created by Chris Lang) is a British police serial you may never have heard of. It is well worth hunting down (it’s available on iTunes), if for no other reason than because it features some of the best acting I’ve ever seen on TV.

The title of the show refers to the fact that the police are looking into a forty-year-old murder case (the body of a homeless boy found in the basement of what used to be a hostel). The police officers in question are DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker, who is always great) and DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar). When they find a list of names in the victim’s diary, four of them, now all in their sixties or seventies, become immediate suspects. Unforgotten not only follows the investigation into the murder, but also shows us what each of those four suspects is up to now and how their lives were affected by knowing the victim forty years ago. One thing is sure: all four of them are hiding something.

The veteran actors playing those four suspects are Bernard Hill as Father Robert Graves, Trevor Eve as Sir Philip Cross, Tom Courtenay as Eric Slater (his wife, Claire, is played by Gemma Jones) and Ruth Sheen as Lizzie Wilton. It is a stellar cast (including Walker and Bhaskar), but it’s Courtenay and Jones whose performances are truly unforgettable. I was not surprised to learn that Courtenay had won a BAFTA award for his performance. 

I particularly enjoyed the way Unforgotten focused on the lives of the older suspects and not just the police officers (indeed, the role of the police is somewhat understated in this show). Each of the four family stories involving the suspects is fascinating on its own.

I am pleased to see that a second series has already been made and a third has been commissioned, though I hope they find new ways of approaching the old cases. Speaking of which, this series does highlight an issue that has been bothering me for a long time: If a person commits a crime, however serious, when they are very young and immature (let’s say twenty years old), but have turned their life around since then and lived a full productive (albeit haunted) life for decades, whom does it serve to throw such a person in prison for the last decade or two of their life? Justice must be served? Doesn’t work for me. 

The first series of Unforgotten gets somewhere between ***+ and ****. My mug is up.

Friday, 15 December 2017

TV68: The Handmaid's Tale



I first read Margaret Atwood’s novel back in the 80’s, not long after it was published. Dystopian fiction was my favourite genre in those days (Nineteen Eighty-Four is my all-time favourite novel) and I guess I’m still a big fan of the genre, though I’m not always comfortable with the direction it has taken in some Young Adult fiction. I recently read The Handmaid’s Tale for the third time, in anticipation of watching the highly-acclaimed cable TV series (Hulu). 

My expectations were way too high, but this deliciously slow-moving, atmospheric television series has not disappointed me at all. Gorgeously filmed, with an excellent score, an intelligent and brilliantly-structured screenplay and acting as good as any you’ll find on TV, The Handmaid’s Tale is another example of the finest TV serials can offer. What’s most extraordinary (and scary) about the series, though, is that it remains every bit as relevant and timely in 2017 as it was in 1985.

In the not-so-distant future, humanity is suddenly faced with a dramatic decline in births as women find themselves unable to reproduce. In Gilead, a future version of the U.S., those few women still capable of giving birth are kidnapped, trained, and forced to bear children for childless government officials. Elisabeth Moss plays Offred (formerly June Osborne), one of those women, expected to produce a child for Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). As Offred faces the horrors of living in a world where every person she meets may be a spy and virtually everyone is forced to hide who they really are, we see flashbacks of her former life, which included her partner, Luke (O-T Bankole) and her young daughter, and her days in training.

Suspenseful, shocking and mesmerizing, The Handmaid’s Tale is perfectly-paced, with each episode telling its own little story in exquisite detail and forming a whole that feels way too real and possible. The cinematography and writing would be enough to make the show work, but Moss’s performance is off-the-charts, making you feel every nuance of her experiences, past and present. 

The Handmaid’s Tale, which was created by Bruce Miller, gets an easy **** and a place in or near the top ten of my all-time favourite TV serials.  My mug is up. Not to be missed.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas



Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol happens to be my all-time favourite story. The 1951 film version is also one of my all-time favourite films. So there was no way I was missing The Man Who Invented Christmas, which tells the story of both how Dickens came to write the novella and where the ideas in the novella originated. Written by Susan Coyne, based on the novel by Les Standiford, and directed by Bharat Nalluri, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a work of fiction, albeit based on the true story of Dickens’ life.

Dan Stevens plays Dickens and he is joined by Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, Jonathan Pryce as Dickens’ father, John, Morfydd Clark as his wife, Kate, Justin Edwards as his close friend and agent, Forster, and shorter appearances by actors like Simon Callow and Donald Sumpter as men involved in Dickens’ attempt to publish the novella himself (his publishers aren’t willing to trust Dickens after a couple of unsuccessful projects). 

All of the acting is wonderful to watch, though I’m not sure that Stevens was the right choice as Dickens. Either his performance or the writing produced a character I didn’t always find convincing, especially in the latter half of the film. To be specific, Dickens is portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, with an impulsive self-absorbed personality that is also kind and friendly and dark and angry. Perhaps this describes the real Dickens, but I found some of his words and actions quite inconsistent.

I mentioned Scrooge as a major character (Plummer is perfect in the role), but you may wonder how Scrooge can be a character in a film about Dickens. This is, for me, actually the film’s greatest strength, because The Man Who Invented Christmas brilliantly portrays Dickens’ writing process as an interaction with the novella’s characters. As soon as Dickens comes up with the name Scrooge, Scrooge appears and joins Dickens in his deliberations. Other characters will soon become discussion partners as Dickens struggles to plan what will happen in each new chapter of his novella. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this process, especially Dickens’ conversations with Scrooge, which were the highlight of the film.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a beautiful film to watch, and the score is solid. All in all, it’s an entertaining, if rather lightweight, film. But my biggest complaint is so big that it easily knocks off a half-star by itself. That complaint is the core idea behind the last third of the film, namely that Dickens couldn’t figure out how to end his novella. I don’t believe for an instant that this is plausible (I’m convinced Dickens knew the ending before he started writing) and this had a major effect on my ability to appreciate what was otherwise a fascinating exploration of Dickens’ childhood and its impact on his personality.

The Man Who Invented Christmas gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq.



Denzel Washington delivers yet another brilliant performance as Roman J. Israel, Esq., a former civil rights activist whose incredible memory for details and sharp legal mind has made him an exceptional behind-the-scenes lawyer in a small Los Angeles law firm (a firm that specializes in pro bono cases and doesn’t pay Israel much for his genius). Somewhere on the autistic spectrum, with the OCD and social awkwardness that accompany this, Israel lives alone in a small apartment, where he has spent years compiling a brief that he hopes will revolutionize the absurd American justice system. 

But when Israel’s boss, the lawyer who makes the court appearances for the firm, has a heart attack, Israel’s life is thrown into chaos, especially after it comes out that the firm is bankrupt, leaving Israel without a job. With every good thing he tries to do backfiring on him, Israel ends up working for George Pierce (Colin Farrell), the man put in charge of the old law firm. Israel doesn’t like or trust Pierce, but their relationship changes over time. Meanwhile, Israel is developing a different kind of relationship with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a woman running a small civil rights firm whom Israel had met in a job interview. 

With a performance from Ejogo that almost matches Washington’s, with its fascinating comments about the justice system and the desperate need for people to rise up, like they did in Israel’s younger days, to protest injustices, with excellent cinematography and a good soundtrack, Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. had the potential for true greatness. Instead, the screenplay loses its way when Israel commits the crime that frames the film, a crime that feels in many ways inconsistent with Israel’s character and distracts us from the drama of Israel’s struggles rather than supports it. The unconvincing enigmatic nature of Pierce’s character (not Farrell’s best performance) doesn’t help. Delving deeper into all three of the major characters could have made this film something really special.

The sad tale of Roman J. Israel, Esq. gets only a solid ***, perhaps edging toward ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Murder on the Orient Express



I read thirty or more Agatha Christie detective novels when I was in my twenties and that included many of the novels featuring the Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot. I’ve always enjoyed watching the film and TV adaptations of the Poirot novels, with a special appreciation for the ways Peter Ustinov and David Suchet played the role of Poirot. It is generally accepted (by me as well) that Suchet was the best Poirot, and I admit to feeling disappointed at the way Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) played Poirot during the early minutes of Murder on the Orient Express, partly because it seemed so unlike Suchet. But Branagh’s performance grew on me very quickly and, by the end of the film, I had decided that it was my second-favourite thing about this new version of the film. Whether it was any better than Suchet’s performance in the same story, I can’t say, because that was one of Suchet’s later performances as Poirot and I haven’t had the chance to see it (I did see and enjoy Alfred Molina’s take on Poirot in this story (in 2001) but I prefer Branagh). As for the Albert Finney version, well, that was a classic.

My favourite thing about the new Murder on the Orient Express was the way the cinematography and score helped to create a well-rendered dark atmosphere for the film. It’s a beautiful film to watch and the darker take on the story worked well for me, especially with its strong period feel.

I won’t say much about the plot of Murder on the Orient Express. Those who aren’t familiar with it should know as little as possible. I will just say that Poirot finds himself on the Orient Express, travelling from Istanbul to Paris, when a murder takes place on board. As he tries to use his brilliant deductive powers to find the killer, he is constantly frustrated by the inconsistent stories of a number of the passengers, more than one of whom seem to have a motive for killing the victim, but all of whom have alibis. 

The passengers, whom I won’t name, are played by the following actors (among others): Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom, Jr., Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman and Judi Dench. It’s a strong cast, always fun to watch, and the actors deliver solid performances, though most are barely more than cameos. Indeed, the film’s biggest flaw is the lack of attention paid to the various passengers and their stories. The later part of the film (until the last twenty minutes or so) drags because of the poor character development (some of which is also seen in the novel). It also makes for a confusing denouement that lacks the suspense the story calls for. 

Nevertheless, there are aspects of the ending of this adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express that I liked very much, for reasons that I won’t provide, and while this adaptation is by no means a classic, I did find it a very satisfying entertainment, deserving of at least ***, if not a little bit more. My mug is up.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Back to Burgundy

The critics are not especially impressed with this mild-mannered French comedy drama, Ce qui nous lie, and I think I understand why. A couple plot shifts are abrupt and occasionally convenient. It did, however, hit the right notes for me, and the weaknesses didn’t interfere with my appreciation. 

First it is an earthy film. The physical presence of the terroir is impressive. It could serve as a year in the life of a small French vineyard and that would have been beautiful and interesting enough. It was hard not to have a glass of wine in hand, though – it felt like a live wine tasting should be integrated with a viewing of the movie. (If you should watch this at home, I recommend picking up the best Burgundy you can afford, preferably from a small family vineyard, while watching.)

But integrated with this earthy setting are the lives of the three siblings who inherit this land together. They share one financial problem as part of this inheritance while each carrying their own life problems. One thing that impressed me was that the issues were not over-dramatized. The result might make the plot too quiet for some, but something quite realistic was gained. Patience and a mixture of false starts and baby steps were more involved than dramatic turning points.

The main themes all mean a great deal to me: family connections over time, including the bittersweet tensions between commitments and freedoms; connections with place and land; and the paradox of accepting inconsistencies. 

The writing could have used a little tweak here and there but the acting, cinematography and music all worked well. ***+  and a mug up from me.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Lady Bird



Wow!

I guess it’s that time of year.

I have noted here before that films written and directed by women, and starring a woman, are few and far between. But I have watched more of such films in the past eighteen months than ever before, suggesting that the current statistic of only 7% of films being directed by women is about to change significantly (yay!). Novitiate and Lady Bird, coincidentally both about teenage girls in Catholic settings and both made by first-time directors, are far and away the best of such films I have seen in the past few years, though only Lady Bird is assured a place in my top ten films of 2017. Like Novitiate, Lady Bird is precisely the kind of film that only a woman could make. It’s no surprise to me that Greta Gerwig, writer and star of Frances Ha and star of last year’s Maggie’s Plan, has, at the age of 34, become one of the best filmmakers out there.

Like Three Billboards, Lady Bird is called a quirky comedy drama. But it could not bear less resemblance to Three Billboards. At first glance, Lady Bird looks like a typical coming-of-age film about a headstrong but insecure seventeen-year-old’s last year of high school (in Sacramento in 2002/3). That doesn’t sound original, and the experiences of the girl in question don’t seem particularly original, but the way the story is told and acted feels remarkably fresh, eliciting a number of silent wows from me as I sat in the theatre (surrounded by women; I saw only two other men in the theatre).

‘Lady Bird’ is the name our protagonist has given herself (her parents named her ‘Christine’) and what she insists everyone calls her. And while much of the film follows Lady Bird’s adventures in school or with her classmates, the film’s opening scenes signal the fact that, at its heart, Lady Bird is a film about the relationship between a mother and daughter. This is fortunate for the viewers, because the actors playing the mother and daughter provide two of the best performances you will ever see (I expect both to be nominated for Academy Awards). Lady Bird is played by Saoirse Ronan, who, at the age of 23, has already received two Oscar nominations and is probably about to get her third (she may even win this time). Her incredibly natural portrayal of a lower-middle-class girl’s struggles at home and in the Catholic school she attends is jaw-dropping. But Laurie Metcalf’s performance as Marion, Lady Bird’s domineering mother, who just doesn’t know how to care for, or show love for, her daughter, may be even better. 

Other actors of note, all of whom are excellent, include two up-and-coming young actors (Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards as Danny, Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, and Timothée Chalamet, who was so phenomenal in Call Me By your Name, as Kyle, another boy in Lady Bird’s life), as well as Tracy Letts as Larry, Lady Bird’s understanding father, Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan, the wise and kind school principal, Beanie Feldstein as Julie, Lady Bird’s closest friend, Odeya Rush as Jenna, the popular girl Lady Bird befriends (at Julie’s expense), and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Father Leviatch, the gentle acting instructor who is clearly struggling with some deep emotional issues.

The beautifully-drawn characters are one of the things that make Lady Bird special, but even better, for me, is how sympathetic all of the characters are (Lady Bird’s teachers and principal are a prime example). There is a stark contrast between the characters and dialogue in Lady Bird and those in Novitiate, Three Billboards or The Florida Project. All four films feature sympathetic characters and well-written intelligent dialogue, but Lady Bird doesn’t feel as raw as the others, even though it feels every bit as real as The Florida Project. As a result, even with the difficult ongoing tension between Marion and Lady Bird, Lady Bird (the film) is a much warmer film than the others. This doesn’t make it a better film, but it’s one of the things that makes Lady Bird feel fresh.

The humour in Lady Bird is another. The humour is natural and endearing, not silly or forced (even when a football coach diagrams stage movements for a play, the funniest scene in the film). Lady Bird’s depiction of Christianity is yet another example. Not afraid to either criticize religion or show its strengths, the film touches gently on Lady Bird’s own changing feelings about God and the church while at the same time providing glimpses of her growth into a thoughtful young woman over the course of a year. 

Finally, a note about the cinematography and music, both of which were carefully done to provide exactly the right feel for the time, the situation and the city of Sacramento, which plays a major role in the film (there’s a wonderful scene near the end in which the principal talks to Lady Bird about Sacramento). 

Lady Bird is insightful and well-made filmmaking at its very best. **** My mug is up.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri



A smart and wise man once asked me (that would be my son-in-law, Laurens, yesterday morning): “Vic, how can you give three stars to a film when your review is so negative?” Walter understands this sentiment very well, as he has asked me the same question more than once. After watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri yesterday afternoon, I do think something about my rating system needs to change. Why? Because the number of stars deserved by Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri exceeds the number of stars I gave Justice League by much more than one, but one is all I have left to give.

Before I say more, a word to the writers of Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok: If you want to know what original, imaginative stories look like, watch Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for:

Wow!

What a thrill to watch a film that surprised me time and again, that wasn’t like anything I remember watching before. This is what good writing is all about; it’s no surprise that it was written (and directed) by Martin McDonagh, who gave us the original In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Thank goodness the trailers for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (of which I had seen at least parts) gave me no idea what was coming. The film is being called a dark comedy drama, which I suppose is accurate, though a strong emphasis needs to be placed on the drama (as opposed to the comedy), with the word ‘dark’ clearly referring to both the drama and the comedy. I would probably describe it as a quirky dark drama, with humour, similar but decidedly different from the work of the Coen brothers.

The story concerns Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered nine months before. During that nine months, Mildred has seen no evidence that the police in Ebbing have done much to find Angela’s killer, so she buys advertising on three billboards near her home (on a seldom-used highway) to ask ‘why not’, aimed specifically at the popular Ebbing chief of police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Willoughby is dying of pancreatic cancer, so the billboards create a big stir and bring a lot of hatred down on Mildred and the billboard owner, Red Whelby (Caleb Landry Jones). Even Mildred’s son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), is furious with his mother’s behaviour. Not to mention Charlie (John Hawkes), her ex-husband. But the most angry person in Ebbing is Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Willoughby’s second-in-command, who worships the ground Willoughby walks on and wants to see the foul-mouthed Mildred put behind bars. Very few people in Ebbing wouldn’t agree. One of them is James (Peter Dinklage), a lonely car dealer with a crush on her. I won’t say anymore about the plot, because this is a film I recommend to all who can handle the violence and the darkness.

Other actors of note are Clarke Peters, who plays Abercrombie, a police officer forced to step into the situation in Ebbing, and Abbie Cornish, who plays Anne (Willoughby’s wife). The acting is stellar by all concerned, but Rockwell is nothing short of phenomenal, with some sensational assistance by McDormand and Harrelson. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri also features gorgeous cinematography and a nice score.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri does have some rough edges, and a couple of scenes bothered me a lot (i.e. I would have written them differently), but, on the whole, I was blown away by the intelligence and humanization of the film. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may be a very dark film, but there is a fair bit of light in all the right places (and I will say no more). ****. My mug is up, along with a guaranteed place in my top ten films of 2017.