Sunday, 20 August 2017

Lady Macbeth



The very young Florence Pugh, an actor to watch for in the years ahead, plays Katherine, a woman living in rural north England in 1865 who is forced to marry Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man twice her age, to pay off a debt. The marriage does not seem to involve either love or sex and it does not take long for Katherine to get understandably frustrated and lonely. Her thoughts turn to Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of her husband’s workers, and a passionate affair ensues, with predictably negative consequences (as the title of the film suggests). Two members of Katherine’s household who play major roles in the story are Anna (Naomi Ackie), the maid, and the nasty Boris (Christopher Fairbank), Alexander’s father. None of these five unique and interesting characters is particularly sympathetic, though some are definitely more sympathetic than others.

William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is a gorgeous film to watch, with a terrific haunting atmosphere and with excellent performances by a largely unknown cast. As a study of racism, classicism and sexism that continues to be relevant in our time, Lady Macbeth is brilliant. It should, perhaps, be recommended just for that. The only problem here (and it’s a huge one) is that I didn’t really like/enjoy this film.

Not that it was a chore to sit through, and I’m glad I watched it on the big screen, but it’s rare for me to enjoy a film, and be fully engaged with its story, if there aren’t any sympathetic characters. Lady Macbeth not only lacks such characters, it is so cold and dark (again, this is suggested by the title) that it often made me cringe. So, in the end, Lady Macbeth is a well-made film that deserves at least a solid ***+ but gets only *** from me, for purely subjective reasons. My mug is up, but I won’t recommend this to most readers. 

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Ghost Story



This small super-low-budget indie arthouse flick lasted only a week in Winnipeg and I doubt if it was watched by more than 100 people in total. I saw it on what is usually the busiest day in that cinema (half-price day) and there were at most fifteen people in the theatre with me. Five of those walked out after the first half hour of the film, murmuring short phrases to convey their overwhelming disappointment with the time they had just wasted. At that point in the film, the five had just spent almost five minutes watching a woman eat a pie, with no camera movement and no sound (other than that of the woman chewing). This was one of the film’s biggest action scenes, so I can’t imagine why they chose that moment to leave (sarcasm). Sadly, they just missed seeing the woman dash to the bathroom to relieve herself of the just-eaten pie.

But seriously, David Lowery's A Ghost Story is one of my favourite films of the year so far. The almost complete lack of action, dialogue and camera movement did not concern me in the least. Neither did the fact that this ‘horror’ film (yes, it does qualify) has almost no scares disappoint me. With its slow-moving poetic and (of course) haunting scenes, this simple horror film could have been made by Terrence Malick. 

A Ghost Story is, as the title suggests, the story of a ghost, only this time it’s told from the perspective of the ghost. The ghost in question is that of C (played by Casey Affleck), a young musician who was deeply in love with his wife, M (Rooney Mara) before a car accident claimed his life. Bu C doesn’t want to let M go, even after his death. Unfortunately for him, his white-sheeted figure is confined to the house in which he was living just prior to his death. Here he can only stand (or walk around) and watch. Sometimes, like the aforementioned eating scene, time seems to drag on for C. Other times, we see him zipping through days, weeks, even years. 

What’s most amazing about A Ghost Story is how this unimaginatively dressed figure manages to convey complex emotions as he watches the various scenes. On rare occasions, those emotions even lead to the taking of action. It’s profoundly moving and thought-provoking. While the theme of the film might be death, it is also very much about the meaning of life. Ideally, watching this film would be followed by a long discussion over a bottle of wine. Unfortunately, you’ll be lucky to see it at all let alone find someone who would be willing to watch it with you. 

A quick note to say that I loved the cinematography and the score (the score was minimal, but it was beautiful and well-used). The acting was solid throughout but nothing outstanding. A Ghost Story gets a solid ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets



Luc Besson’s new sci-fi adventure film is a big gorgeous mess. I say this with a lot of appreciation and frustration - for what might have been. 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on a series of French graphic novels called Valerian and Laureline. The film begins with the destruction of a beautiful planet called Mül which is inhabited by a peaceful and simple humanoid race. While a small group of survivors escapes the destruction, one of those who didn’t make it is able, before she dies, to send a part of herself (soul?) to the sleeping Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan), a young human police officer in a giant city in space called Alpha. When Valerian awakes from the dream, in which he sees the destruction of Mül, he learns that his new mission is to recover the last Mül converter from a black market dealer. The Mül converter is actually a small creature that can produces dozens more of whatever it is fed. With his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), with whom he is in love, Valerian is able to complete the mission, but this has consequences he and Laureline could never have imagined, with conspiracies to combat and  the genocide of an entire species on the line.

Along the way, we meet such characters as The President of the World State Federation (Rutger Hauer), Valerian’s commanding officer, Arün Filit (Clive Owen), a shapeshifting entertainer named Bubble (Rihanna), Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke) and the galaxy’s most wanted criminal, voiced by John Goodman. Most of these are barely more than cameos, but they’re all fun to watch. Unfortunately, they may be more fun to watch than our two protagonists, whose acting is only barely adequate (DeHaan in particular is a questionable casting choice). 

But then again, there is so much insane action in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and so little character development, that perhaps it would be impossible to do a convincing portrayal of the protagonists. The action is the film’s biggest handicap, filling so much time with pointless chases and stupid violence (which would have required an R rating if it hadn’t been for the alien blood) that the intriguing story at the film’s core is all but lost. As a result, the film’s first half hour and last half hour are actually very entertaining and even profound, while the 75 minutes in between is almost a complete waste of time (and so boring for me).

That intriguing story concerns the survivors from Mül (add another l and you have the German word for ‘garbage’, which may be something to think about). To me, this story seemed like an obvious allegory about colonialism, the genocide of Indigenous peoples and even capitalism. Unfortunately, this story is overwhelmed by all the craziness Valerian and Laureline get involved in before they meet the Mül. So sad. 

So in spite of the absolutely gorgeous CGI cinematography, the great cameos and the powerful story at its core, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets gets only ***. My mug is up, but the stuff inside could have been so much more delicious. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

Atomic Blonde



Atomic Blonde is a dark and violent indie spy film directed by David Leitch and starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy. Early on, the fact that the film is based on a graphic novel series (called The Coldest City) is obvious, but it becomes less obvious as the film goes on (for good or ill). Unlike Dunkirk, this action film has a complex cleverly-written story, full of twists and turns that I almost (but not quite) figured out (just the way I like it). Unfortunately, too much of the film was filler that had little to do with the story (but it’s an action film, so what can you expect?). 

Theron plays British super-spy Lorraine Broughton, who, like James Bond, works for MI6. Broughton is assigned to Berlin just before the wall comes down in November, 1989. Her predecessor has been killed by a KGB assassin after acquiring a list of agents from an informant named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan). The list, contained in a watch, is now in the hands of the assassin. Broughton’s mission is twofold: retrieve the list and identify (and eliminate) a double agent codenamed Satchel.

As one would expect, things start to go wrong for Broughton the moment she lands in Berlin (the same thing happened to Bond more than once). Can she handle it (rhetorical question)? But things continue to go wrong after she meets up with her partner, David Percival (McAvoy), who is based in Berlin and has made contact with Spyglass. Things go even more wrong after Broughton makes contact with a French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). And then they go wronger yet. As the threats against Broughton’s life intensify, the violence becomes more graphic and fatal. Of course, we know from the outset that Broughton will survive, because she’s narrating the story to her MI6 bosses (played by Toby Jones and James Faulkner) and a CIA agent named Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), who was also involved in the Berlin mission. We know Broughton will survive but we also know that something went very wrong with Broughton’s mission.

Theron, who has always been a favourite, is absolutely terrific as Broughton, making as good a female Bond as any actor could. McAvoy is excellent as well, and Goodman is always a joy to watch. The setting and atmosphere of Atomic Blonde, in terms of date in history, location, and the film noir feel, add a great deal to the story (I love spy stories set in Berlin) and the cinematography and score are both very good. The ending is more than satisfying despite some decisions that made me cringe.

Not all is perfect, however. I am not a fan of hand-to-hand combat, no matter how well it is done. If it gets graphic and nasty, all the worse. There is far too much of this kind of action in the film (and action in general, of course, but it is an action film, so it’s hard to complain too much). Because this is a dark R-rated spy film, I can also handle a fair amount of violence without too much complaint, but the violent action was still a bit too much for me.

What confuses me most about Atomic Blonde (and Dunkirk) is the critical response to these films. The biggest complaint about Atomic Blonde (which gets an average of only **+ from major critics) is either that the story is poorly written or that there just isn’t enough of it (personally, based on their reviews, I think a number of critics couldn’t follow the plot). The latter complaint resonates a little, but how then to justify the four stars for Dunkirk, which has little or no real story at all (other than the rescue of 330,000 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk). 

In the end, I found Atomic Blonde much more entertaining than Dunkirk and I’m giving it a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Dunkirk



Generally speaking, I’m a fan of Christopher Nolan’s work. So much so, that I have given half of his films **** (and the rest ***+). Few directors have a better record. And Nolan’s new film has been getting nothing but rave reviews, including **** from all of my favourite critics. And I love Nolan’s disdain for 3D (which of course I share). Despite all of that, my expectations were quite low going in to see Dunkirk. I just had a bad feeling about this one. These feelings are rarely mistaken.

Let’s get one thing out of the way before I begin sharing my thoughts. My opinion of Dunkirk has little to do with the fact that it is a war film and that I have little use for war films (as opposed to anti-war films, of which there are numerous examples among my favourite 150 films). It’s true that Dunkirk is a war film, but the only fighting by the Allies in this film is by way of two planes shooting at a few others. There’s little there (or in the war setting) to upset me, other than my utter disagreement with the assumption made by almost all WWII films that no matter how evil war may be, this was a war that had to be fought.

Having said that, my opinion of Dunkirk has a lot to do with the fact that it is set during WWII. Like War for the Planet of the Apes, this war story is not so much about war as it is about survival during a war. The fact that this survival adventure film takes place during WWII is critical to its story and thus does influence my opinion. The fact that Dunkirk is an essentially nonstop action film has an even greater influence.

By now, you are no doubt getting the vibe that I did not appreciate Dunkirk as much as most (if not all) major critics and the vast majority of viewers did. Unfortunately, that vibe is correct. It is, in fact, my least favourite of all of Nolan’s films and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why the critics loved it so much.

Oh, the filmmaking is in many ways superb. The flow of the action, the shooting of the action, the calibre of the acting (too many to name), the cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s overwhelming score (which too often drowned out the dialogue, little as there was of it); all of these are examples of filmmaking at its finest. And I thought the device of weaving together three stories taking place in very different time frames worked marvellously. And there was a scene on the small boat that was as profound and moving as any I have seen in years. 

And I have no disagreement at all with the first paragraph of Jeremy Clarke’s review, which I will quote here: “British filmmaker Christopher Nolan … has created a complex and multilayered film that cleverly interweaves three separate narrative strands: 1) on land over a week a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) after he arrives alone at Dunkirk beach and falls in with others … ; 2) on sea over a day a small, requisitioned, civilian boat (crew: three) go to bring home trapped combatants; and 3) in the air over an hour three Spitfires fly a sortie. Nolan is fascinated by time and runs these in parallel so that an incident partly revealed in one strand is later retold in another revealing more. There’s a constant sense of the clock ticking differently in the three time frames: mind-bending and exhilarating stuff.” (see Jeremy’s full review, which I don’t really disagree with, though he loved the film, here: http://www.dmovies.org/2017/07/18/dunkirk/).

Yes, mind-bending and exhilarating stuff, to be sure, but I need more than that. Specifically, I need more than just great action with virtually no character development or character context (thus no need for me to even identify their individual stories). There was almost no dramatic story to Dunkirk at all. It was just this breathtaking excerpt from one week/day/hour of WWII and, regardless of how amazing that week/day/hour was, it’s nowhere near enough for me. Perhaps if I believed that WWII was a war that needed to be fought and that the world is a better place as a result, my feelings would have been different. As it was, with the exception of one air force pilot, there aren’t even any real war heroes in the film (though there is a lot of heroism on display). Just hundreds of thousands of soldiers trying to retreat/survive to fight another day. How many of those soldiers subsequently died in that future fighting, I wonder.

The bottom line for me is that action bores me, and with little else besides action to keep me entertained, it wasn’t really worth the price of admission for me. I will give Dunkirk ***. My mug is up but I remain confused about what makes so many of this decade’s action films so praiseworthy. [See my next review for a violent action film that I found much more compelling and entertaining than Dunkirk.] 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

TV65: Fortitude, Season Two



My review  (December 22, 2015) of the first season of Fortitude mentions how dark, bloody, gruesome, bleak and depressing this show is. Impossible as it might seem, the second season is ‘worse’ in every respect (and is even more like a blend of X-Files and Twin Peaks) and I repeat my warning to STAY FAR AWAY!

But I found the first season oddly compelling, so I did not heed my own advice and somehow made it through the second season. This time, Dennis Quaid has been brought in to play the central character, a fisherman named Michael Lennox, whose wife (Freya, played by Michelle Fairley) is dying and whose daughter (Ingrid, played by Mia Jexen) is one of the police officers tasked with the hopeless and incredibly dangerous mission of finding out who is decapitating people in town. 

Fortitude is an ensemble show, with lots of major characters. I won’t try to list them all. I will note, however, that, as in the first season, the acting is very strong for TV and the show features one of the more diverse casts (in terms of language/nationality) in television. The cinematography remains a highlight as well (I just love all the snow and the bleak polar landscape). 

But the writing, which was somewhat problematic in the first season, has lost its way in season two. Individual scenes and much of the dialogue reveal that the writers are more than competent, but the overall story is a mess. That is, the overall story contains a lot of truth and potential but wastes these by throwing in gruesome, unnecessary and often illogical side stories that leave a nasty taste in your mouth. 

So while Fortitude, Season Two, was still compelling and fascinating television, it wasn’t worth sitting through and I must give it only **+. My mug is down for this season and I doubt if I would be willing to watch another season, if they decide to make one.