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.

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 (Chloë 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.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

TV63: Scandinavian Noir 6 (Belgian style): The Break and Hotel Beau Séjour



Two other shows on Netflix must be drawn to your attention. Both are solid European noir, of the Scandinavian variety, though shot in rural Belgium. Walter told me about the first, which is in the French language. The Break stars Yoann Blanc as Yoann Peeters, a first-class detective who will do whatever he needs to do to find the killer(s). On his last case, in Brussels, that resulted in a number of dead colleagues, including his wife. Now he and his teenage daughter, Camille (Sophie Breyer), are in Peeters’s hometown of Heiderfeld, where Peeters and Inspector Drummer (Guillaume Kerbush) are investigating the death of a young African soccer player. Peeters knows this case is not what it it first appears and immediately starts breaking rules to find the killer. Meanwhile his daughter gets to know the teenage scene in Heiderfeld and finds a lot of trouble of her own. 

The Break is full of twists and turns and is, overall, a fascinating and compelling ten-episode series. Blanc is terrific, and his character, Peeters, is unique; infuriating but ultimately sympathetic. The show is full of memorable and interesting characters, great acting and gorgeous cinematography. It had all the makings of a four-star classic until the plot collapsed near the end. It’s as if the writers changed their minds part way or only at the end decided who the killer was, because so many questions are left unanswered, there are red herrings all over the place and the story of Camille is suddenly dropped without any attempt at a resolution, which is such a wasted opportunity. 

Because I couldn’t stop watching and because Peeters is such a great character, I’m giving The Break a solid ***+ in spite of the disappointments.


It was Neil who drew my attention to Hotel Beau Séjour, which is filmed in Dutch and set in a small town in northeast Belgium, near the border of Luxembourg. Lynn Van Royen stars as Kato Hoeven, a young woman who is one of the most unique noir characters ever. She is at the centre of the search for the killer, even though she is not a detective. Indeed, what makes her unique is that she is the victim. Does that make her a ghost? If so, why can a handful of people still see her and interact with her as if she was very much alive while most people see and hear nothing at all? It may sound crazy but it works to perfection for me, because Van Royen is fantastic, her character, like Peeters, is an infuriating yet sympathetic protagonist, and the unique angle to the investigation is as haunting and compelling as any noir TV series can be. 

As in The Break, Hotel Beau Séjour has many fascinating characters (far too many to list), but the character development is better than in The Break, and the writing feels tighter, while the acting and cinematography are again excellent. With a mores satisfying denouement, Hotel Beau Séjour deserves closer to **** than ***+. 

My mug is up for both of these excellent Belgian noir TV serials from Netflix. If you’re a European noir fan, don’t miss either one. Note that both shows are fairly violent.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

TV62: Galavant



As you know, I love musicals. But watchable TV musicals are, even for me, incredibly rare. The recent Smash was one of the exceptions, but it was about the making of a musical so, even though it was a true musical, it cheated a little. The latest exception doesn’t cheat. It’s called Galavant and it ran only eighteen episodes over two seasons before being cancelled. This is a travesty because (in my opinion) it is the best musical ever made for TV and one of the funniest TV comedies I’ve seen since Frasier (Modern Family excepted of course). Thank goodness it was picked up by Netflix or I may never have seen it.

Galavant was created by Dan Fogelman, with the songs written by Alan Menken and Glen Slater. I’m a Menken fan, so I knew the music would be good. It was. The show stars Joshua Sasse as Sir Galavant, our hero, who, in the first season, rides out to rescue his love, Madalena (Mallory Jansen), from the clutches of the nefarious King Richard (Timothy Omundson). Along the way, Galavant teams up with the young Sid (Luke Youngblood) and Princess Isabella (Karen David), who needs Galavant to rescue her parents, imprisoned by the king. But the trio will face all kinds of trials, including a band of pirates led by Hugh Bonneville. The biggest trial they will face, however, is the revelation that many people are hiding secrets and things are not what they seem to be, with the plot taking a number of bizarre twists and turns.

The first season of Galavant was fun to watch but a little too silly and chaotic to make me love it. The second season, despite (or because of) its tendency to poke fun at itself, was much tighter, much funnier, much more relevant as a commentary on our time and, best of all, had much more music (i.e. more songs), making it so outstanding we watched all ten episodes in one go. Terrific stuff, reminding me most closely of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which happens to be one of my favourite films of all time. 

Did I mention that this show was filmed in the UK, so features mostly British actors? While most of the acting was excellent, it was Omundson (an American) who stole the show for me, followed closely by Vinnie Jones as his henchman, Gareth. Meanwhile, the show was gorgeously filmed and, of course, had a great score. Cancelling this marvellous show was a big mistake. In the end, I’m giving Galavant ****. My mug is up. If you are a fellow musical-lover, don’t miss it.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

My Cousin Rachel



My Cousin Rachel is my kind of film - fantastic acting, specially by Rachel Weisz, who is one of the best actors our there, wonderfully atmospheric tone, score and cinematography (which is also gorgeous), a simmering dark mystery that defies any attempts at an easy solution, and a quiet intelligent screenplay - and yet it still managed to disappoint, if only a little.

My Cousin Rachel, which is written and directed by Roger Michel (based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier), stars Sam Claflin as Philip Ashley, an orphan brought up by his cousin Ambrose. When Philip is in his early twenties, Ambrose goes off to Italy for an extended visit. While there, he falls in love with, and marries, another cousin, Rachel (Weisz). But just before his untimely death (due to a mysterious illness), Ambrose sends Philip a letter accusing Rachel of being responsible for his death. Philip rushes to Italy to save Ambrose but is too late, meeting only Ambrose’s lawyer (or is it Rachel’s lawyer), Rinaldi (Pierfancesco Favino), who confronts Philip with the sad truth about Ambrose’s last days.

Philip returns home, where his guardian, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen), informs him that Rachel has no motive for killing Ambrose, who hasn’t left her a thing in his will (leaving everything to Philip). Still, when Rachel comes for a visit, Philip has only revenge on his mind, until …  And let’s leave it there, except to note that Kendall’s daughter, Louise (Holliday Grainger), who has always assumed that she will one day marry Philip, is about to have her hopes dashed.

As I said, the acting in My Cousin Rachel is stellar all around, and the atmosphere is wonderfully dark. Watching the mystery unfold was somewhat frustrating, because I kept thinking that, given the direction of the story, there was no way the ending would ever satisfy me, but I was wrong (at least in my reasoning; there were disappointing elements to the ending). 

The real disappointment for me, however, was, I believe, the character of Philip, who makes for a particularly infuriating (and thus often unsympathetic) protagonist. This prevented me from engaging with this dark romance in a way that would truly satisfy me. I am curious to see the 1952 version of the film, starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland, to see if the same applies. In any event, I enjoyed My Cousin Rachel enough to give it a solid *** verging on ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The Lovers



The Lovers is a remarkable American indie film, remarkable because it feels much more like a quirky European film than an American film and because it’s unlike any film I’ve seen in a long time (almost always a good thing). Indeed, I’m not sure what kind of film I watched. Neither ‘drama’ nor ‘romantic comedy’ feel right (it’s labelled as a comedy). 

Tracy Letts and Debra Winger star as Michael and Mary, an older couple (pushing 60) who are struggling to keep up the pretence of marriage. They’re bored with each other and don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company at all. So both of them have found younger partners to spice up their lives. Mary has found Robert (Aiden Gillen), a writer, while Michael has found Lucy (Melora Walters), a dance instructor. Both Michael and Mary assume that the other is unaware of their affair, but, given the constant “working late” excuses, they must both be suspicious. In any event, they are about to reveal everything to their spouses because they are both planning to leave the marriage after the upcoming visit of their son, Joel (Tyler Ross) and his partner, Erin (Jessica Sula). But something happens that neither Mary nor Michael expected and which will confuse everyone around them.

So far, this story may not sound particularly original. And it could fall into either the ‘tense drama’ or ‘quirky comedy’ genres. But what makes The Lovers feel so unique (and bizarre) right from the start is the way it mixes the tense drama with a grand romantic score (by Mandy Hoffman) that consistently feels out of synch with what we’re watching on the screen (i.e. feeling light and breezy at the darkest moments). This could be a signal that we’re indeed watching a comedy, but only on infrequent occasions does the plot feel at all like a comedy. But maybe the score, which plays a major role in the film, is supposed to signal that, in spite of the way the characters and their problems feel all too real, the story is not supposed to be taken at face value. A scene near the end of the film is otherwise very difficult to understand.

There is no hint from the critics that The Lovers should be viewed as a metaphor rather than being taken literally. But Janelle’s interpretation (I won’t take credit for it) is supported by the fact that both Michael and Mary choose artistic younger partners, by the quirky behaviours of all the characters and by the smart but very quiet screenplay by writer/director Azazel Jacobs. So much is conveyed by actions and expressions.

Letts and Winger are up to the task, delivering wonderful performances in roles that are well-developed and often unpredictable. The rest of the acting isn’t as strong, but it’s adequate. 

Not too many films these days feature 60-year-olds having passionate affairs or have such flawed ordinary characters, most of whom are sympathetic in spite of all the lies. The Lovers gets ***+. My mug is up.