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. 

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Justice League



I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been a DC fan since the age of seven (a long time ago), with my favourite superheroes being Batman and The Flash, so, despite the mediocre reviews from critics, I needed to go watch Justice League. After all, I liked Batman vs. Superman a lot more than the critics did, despite Ben Affleck’s presence as Batman. 

I watched Justice League in 2D IMAX, the only way to watch this film. And I must note, right off, that, unlike Ragnarok, the cinematography suffers very little by being made-for-3D. Indeed, Justice League looked gorgeous on the IMAX screen and this alone was worth the price of admission. I especially enjoyed the continued dark atmosphere of the Zack Snyder DC films, helped by Danny Elfman’s score, which, while nothing special, did what was needed. 

Justice League tells the story of how Bruce Wayne (Batman), with the help of Alfred (Jeremy Irons), brings together a group of superheroes to fight the big bad Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), who wants nothing less than to make planet earth his own. To do this, Steppenwolf needs three boxes full of primal energy that have been kept hidden and protected by the three groups who had fought and defeated  Steppenwolf once before (the Amazons, the Atlantans, and regular humans). For some reason, Steppenwolf has little trouble finding and acquiring the boxes. Indeed, before Bruce Wayne manages to bring the Justice League together, Steppenwolf has already brought the three boxes together to create the mighty power that will destroy the planet. Can the Justice League possibly arrive in time to save humanity? And what about Superman? Can they do it without him? Isn’t he dead? What would happen if a way was found to bring him back to life - would that be a good idea?

The questions above should be read in a tone that lets you know how little I respect the plot of Justice League. It is every bit as inane as the plot of Ragnarok, and that is saying something. Big baddie wants to destroy the world. Superheroes fight together (after many arguments and much sarcastic repartee) to destroy big baddie. The end! What a crock! How is it that the writers of superhero films (and no less than Joss Whedan was involved in writing Justice League) have such a limited imagination when it comes to telling an original or at least entertaining story. They just tell the same old story over and over and over again, ad nauseam, hoping that all the mindless action and a few lines of entertaining dialogue will be enough to bring in the masses. Surely, one of these days, the masses will get bored (but not yet, since Justice League had one of the 25 highest-grossing opening weekends of all time, though it's viewed a failure because it didn't perform as well at the U.S. box office as it was supposed to).

As in Ragnarok, the characters in Justice League are occasionally fun to watch, especially The Flash, played well by Ezra Miller. Other Justice League members include Batman, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and, if he weren’t so very dead, Superman (Henry Cavill). The Justice League 'origin story', while by no means original, was at least at lot more entertaining than the Steppenwolf story. Amy Adams does well as Lois Lane, but how could she have so much airtime if Superman is dead? Sigh. Other than Miller, the acting certainly wasn’t outstanding, but it was passable (I’m even getting used to Affleck as Batman).

The  bottom line is that I enjoyed Justice League about as much as I enjoyed Ragnarok (though for different reasons), which means I did think it was worth a look. *** My mug is up, but one of these days the lack of an original flavour inside will make me turn these mugs down. 

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer



The Lobster, written and directed by Giorgos Lanthimos, was one of my favourite films of 2016, so, with some serious buzz at Cannes this year, I thought I’d better go see the new Lanthimos film: The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Not the wisest filmgoing decision I’ve made recently. I actually regretted having seen it, something which thankfully only happens a couple of times a year.

Reviewers who loved the film wrote things like: “Be warned: This is tough stuff,” “a brooding requiem of domestic horror,” “When absurdism feels this wrong, you know it’s being done right,” (the logic of that comment escapes me) “The experience is exquisite agony, both revelatory and painful,” “it traps us within its terrifying and bizarre situation,” “one of the most disturbing films of the year.” With the last comment, I have no argument, but I do have a problem with viewing absurd, agonizingly painful terror as exquisite, let alone as art. One could say that mother! is a similar experience, but that was pure allegory and therefore forgivable. The Killing of a Sacred Deer must be something as well. It’s based on an ancient Greek play by Euripides (Iphigenia at Aulis), but that doesn’t excuse it. Calling it absurdist humour is certainly accurate, but sometimes absurdist humour crosses a line that shouldn’t be crossed. For me, this is one of those times.

Of course, it’s not just absurdist humour or a psychological thriller (as I thought it was) but a true horror film in every way. This is a genre for which I generally have little respect - sorry, Jeremy. I’m not going to tell you what The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about; not because of possible spoilers (since I don’t expect many readers to watch the film), but because even to read an overview of the film’s plot can give you nightmares. 

I was cringing from the opening shot: a surgery being performed by Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), our protagonist. We soon learn that the teenage Martin (Barry Keoghan), is stalking Steven for some reason, something that Steven knows and seems to accept at some level. But then Martin insists on coming over for dinner to meet the family: Steven’s wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), his teenage daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and his son, Bob (Sunny Suljic). And things get pretty crazy after that (I will say no more).

All of the acting is, I believe, excellent, though in an absurd film like this, it’s sometimes hard to judge. The cinematography and score also work well for the kind of film it is, but, as I have intimated above, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not my kind of film, regardless of what it’s trying to say (one reviewer describes it as a profound meditation on karma, predestination and guilt; maybe it is, but it still doesn’t work for me). **+ for the absurdist humour and the performances. My mug is down. 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Thor: Ragnarok



REWRITTEN and UPDATED (at the end)!

In my ongoing efforts to understand why so many people (including certain youngest daughters who shall remain nameless) enjoy the Marvel films so much, I decided I’d better give Ragnarok a peak. This resulted in four very different responses at various points in the film:
  1. My first response, after about ten minutes, was to walk out and not subject myself to any more torture. Not the torture on screen, which was relatively minimal, but the torture of watching Thor be so silly while chained up in front of the super-powerful giant baddie with horns and glowing eyes (Surtur?). Wasn't working for me at all.
  2. Just in the nick of time (i.e. just as I was about to get up and leave), I did a double-take: Was that Matt Damon, ever so well disguised? It WAS! And Sam Neill is there too. Well, that was fun. Maybe I should stick around and see who else turns up. It didn’t take long after that to see that the big baddie of Ragnarok (Hela, Thor’s older sister and the Goddess of Death) was played by Cate Blanchett. Blanchett does baddie very well, so she was fun to watch. And of course there are other interesting actors in Ragnarok, like Tom Hiddleston as Loki (Thor’s brother and former baddie), Benedict Cumberbatch in a cameo as Dr. Strange, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (Hulk), Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, and the ever-quirky Jeff Goldblum as yet another baddie. The primary 'goodies' here are Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tessa Thompson as a Valkyrie. Hemsworth is okay, but Thompson is the show-stealer, along with Korg (voiced by the director, Taika Waititi), who never fails to amuse. In other words, by far the best thing about Thor: Ragnarok is the acting, which is mostly fun to watch throughout.
  3. Insofar as the above actors were given funny, often droll, lines, I frequently enjoyed the writing in the film, so much so that by mid-way through (or maybe even two-thirds), I was glad I had decided to watch Ragnarok after all.
  4. Then came the realization, which grew stronger with every one of the film’s last forty minutes, that Ragnarok had no plot worthy of the word and that it was, after all, nothing more than an excuse for more endless PG violence (evil sister comes back to take over Asgard only to be defeated by Thor and company; That’s it? Seriously???). In other words, by far the worst thing about Thor: Ragnarok is that there is no story to even begin to excuse the endless violence (see revised opinion below).
By the end of the film, I was just shaking my head. It didn’t help that the otherwise gorgeous cinematography was mostly ruined by being made for 3D (I watched the 2D). The score had its moments. Bottom line: Watching the fun the actors were having allowed Thor: Ragnarok to just cross the line into watchability: ***. My mug is up. [At this point, my original review stated that the stuff inside the mug was very weak and unimaginative, but I am taking that back, thanks to Andrew Buhr in Edmonton, who sent me the following link: http://endlessyarning.com/2017/11/12/thor-ragnarok-indigenous-film/ . While I had picked up on how the humour in Ragnarok often had a justice theme, I had missed many of the ways this film could be viewed through an Indigenous lens (read the Indigenous review). I stand corrected and humbled, though my complaints about the overall plot and the endless violence remain in effect. Given that the story does, however, possess deeper layers worthy of discussion, I am upgrading my rating to a solid ***. My mug is up without qualification.]

Monday, 13 November 2017

Victoria and Abdul



I couldn’t stop shaking my head after watching Stephen Frears' Victoria and Abdul - not because of what I had just seen but because of why so many critics condemned the film. I have frequently criticized film critics for not paying enough attention to the moral compass of a film; for acclaiming certain well-made films which I felt should have been denounced for some of their content (especially the myth of redemptive violence). The film It is a recent example. So imagine my surprise when the critics finally condemn a film for its lack of a moral compass, only to see them do so on rather flimsy grounds.

Victoria and Abdul tells the story of Queen Victoria’s relationship with an Indian Muslim named Abdul Karim near the end of her life (1900-1901). Karim (Ali Fazal) is sent to London to present a commemorative coin to the queen (Judi Dench). Victoria is impressed by Karim’s manner and handsome features and, to the consternation of her son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), and her entire household (led by Sir Henry, played by Tim Pigott-Smith), Karim becomes Victoria’s spiritual advisor and close friend, eventually bringing his wife and mother-in-law to live with him at the palace. 

Victoria and Abdul begins with what I read as a disclaimer, that it is “based on true events … mostly.” When I read those words, I assumed the film was actually taking quite a few liberties with reality and should not be viewed as anything like a reliable historical account. But the strongest criticisms of the film all refer to the way it whitewashes the queen and British colonialism. 

I know the history of Victoria’s empire and British colonial oppression in India well enough to say that if the film was trying to provide any kind of accurate historical commentary, it should indeed be condemned, because it paints Victoria with a very sympathetic brush, making her seem like a queen trying to promote anti-racism and religious tolerance in defiance of all those around her, and it paints Karim as a naive star-struck innocent who adores the queen and quickly devotes his life to her. Of course that doesn’t reflect the reality of life in India at the time or tell us what Victoria was really like (and there is a character in the film, namely Mohammed, played by Adeel Akhtar, who continuously condemns the colonialist attitudes around him and is angry with his friend Abdul). Whatever the true story of Victoria and Abdul might have been, this film is but a light-hearted take on it (almost a farce) and does not deserve to be condemned as skewing history. 

This doesn’t mean that viewers shouldn’t be made aware of the true history and realize how inaccurate the portrayals are, and that the lingering effects of British colonialism around the world continue to be responsible for much suffering. But watching Victoria and Abdul on its own terms allows us to smile at what might have been, while admiring the way the film itself is clearly condemning racist, classist and intolerant attitudes. And how many films these days give us a sympathetic Muslim protagonist (who, regardless of his flaws and apparent naiveté, is nevertheless portrayed as a kind intelligent man)?

As for Victoria and Abdul as a film: The acting is solid throughout (Dench, as usual, is magnificent), the cinematography is outstanding, with each scene carefully framed, the score is more than good enough and the writing is (given the above) often excellent. My strongest criticism is that we don’t get enough character development for Karim, either by way of a backstory or by way of his family life. The film also tells its story in too formulaic a way. Either more of an effort to make it a farce or more dramatic tension might have been helpful.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, Victoria and Abdul deserves at least a solid *** (if not ***+ for Dench’s performance alone). My mug is up.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Lucky (2017 EIFF 13)



The closing film of the 2017 EIFF was one of the most inspiring films of the festival and, given the recent passing of Harry Dean Stanton, a fitting way to end the festival. 

Lucky, directed by John Carroll Lynch, stars the 90-year-old Stanton as Lucky, a WWII veteran living by himself in a small house on the outskirts of a small town in the Arizona desert. When Lucky collapses suddenly in his home, it takes a toll on his carefully structured life and makes him realize that he will not be living forever. 

We follow Lucky as he goes to the local coffee shop and talks to Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), the owner, and Loretta (Yvonne Huff), a waitress who will visit Lucky at home later in the film (in one of the film’s many precious moments). Lucky goes on to visit his other regular haunts, including  the local bar, owned by Elaine and Paulie (Beth Grant and James Darren), who like to argue with Lucky (who is an atheist obsessed with truth and realism). At the bar, Lucky meets Howard (David Lynch), whose turtle has run off. Then there’s Ed Begley, Jr. as Lucky's doctor, Ron  Livingston as an insurance agent (Lucky detests such people) and Tom Skerritt as a fellow WWII veteran, a stranger who is just passing through.

Lucky is a slow-paced film that follows Lucky’s daily routine and his relationships/discussions with the townsfolk. There is otherwise no plot to speak of. But the discussions are often riveting (especially the one with Skerritt) or moving (e.g. the one with Livingston) or profound. And when Lucky suddenly breaks out in a Spanish song at a birthday party, you know this is something special (Stanton was a musician). 

One of the writers of Lucky attended the festival and did a Q&A after the film. He noted (no surprise) that Lucky’s personality is very similar to Stanton’s own personality. He also noted that the actors in the film were friends of Stanton who were eager to participate. This provides some excellent acting work for such a low-budget indie film, but it also gives us a few performances that were a little less than convincing. Stanton, though, makes up for all of them with a sublime performance that is the perfect end to his acting career.

The writing was very good but a little uneven, providing moments of brilliance but also moments that falter, with some missed opportunities to go deeper. Among Lucky’s more memorable quotes: “I know the truth and the truth matters”; “the only thing worse than an awkward silence: small talk”; and “there’s a difference between lonely and being alone.” The cinematography and score are excellent. Lucky is a humble humanizing film about death and loneliness that falls just a little short of being a classic. It gets a solid ***+, verging on ****. My mug is up. 

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Suburbicon




George Clooney’s new film, a dark-comedy noir starring Matt Damon and based on an old screenplay by the Coen brothers, seems like it should have been a guaranteed success. Instead, Suburbicon flopped at the box office and was panned by the critics. What happened, and is the film really as bad as the critics say?

The opening scene would suggest otherwise. By way of a TV ad that perfectly captures the time (1950’s) and place (small-town USA) in an obvious parody, the scene introduces us to the ideal all-white community of Suburbicon. Suburbicon’s 60,000 inhabitants live in nearly-identical homes and almost always have a smile on their face because they are so happy to be living there. At least until the fateful day an African-American family (the Mayers) moves into town, sending everyone reeling and soon resulting in increasingly-violent attempts to persuade the Mayers to leave. 

The music, the production design and the cinematography create a period feel in this opening scene that is just right. With regular background commentary from radio and TV throughout the film, the period feel is maintained and enhanced even when Suburbicon becomes a film noir instead of a light satire. But the story in the rest of the film doesn’t live up to the potential of that opening scene. 

Damon plays Gardner Lodge, a company vice president and one of Suburbicon’s supposedly happy citizens. Gardner is married to Rose (Julianne Moore), who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident years before, and who is helped out by her twin sister, Margaret (Moore). Gardner and Rose have a ten-year-old son named Nicky (Noah Jupe), who is actually Suburbicon’s protagonist. Other key characters are Nicky’s Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) and an insurance investigator named Bud Cooper (a delicious cameo by Oscar Isaac). 

One night, the serene family life of the Lodges is disrupted when two men break into their home and do things that result in Rose’s death. (Minor spoiler alert) Margaret quickly steps in to assume Rose’s place in the household while Gardner returns to work in a state of some agitation, agitation that seems to have more to do with money than with the loss of his wife. When Gardner and Margaret fail to identify Rose’s killers in a police line-up, Nicky is at first confused, then alarmed. Too late, he realizes that the horror of his mother’s death is only the first of many horrors that are about to befall him and the Lodge family.

Meanwhile, the Mayers, who happen to live next door to the Lodges, are finding themselves under siege by the angry townsfolk, who have placed a confederate flag on their living room window.

That the dark (and darkly humorous) story of the Lodge family seems to have little to do with the story of the Mayer family next door is one of the key criticisms of Suburbicon. It stems from the fact that the dark-comedy thriller part of the film was written by the Coen brothers decades ago while the story of the Mayer family was added by Clooney and Grant Heslov just before filming. Film critics are convinced that trying to mix these two stories was a bad idea, especially because the two stories are so unequal, with far more time devoted to the Lodge family and very little to the Mayer family, who get virtually no character development (which is why I haven’t even identified them). Critics complain that using the Mayers as a social-commentary plot element on the side is distasteful; it is also seen as ironic (because of the unequal nature of the story), given that Clooney was clearly attempting to express his views on life in the U.S. in the 21st century. 

However, I believe there are factors that mitigate the critics’ complaints. First, the story of the Mayer family is based on a real-life event in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957, so its inclusion in Suburbicon is a deliberate attempt to show how little has changed in a country rife with fears that Syrian immigrants or Mexicans may move next door (not to mention Charlottesville, which happened after the film was made). Second, the reason the Mayer family is relegated to being a plot element is that Suburbicon is neither a drama nor a social satire. If it were one of these, the criticisms about its heavy-handed racial satire would be well-deserved. But Suburbicon is a dark-comedy thriller with some social satire on the side, satire that focuses not only on how members of the innocent Mayer family are treated like criminals while the real criminals next door are ignored, but also on how Gardner hated his supposedly perfect but meaningless life, leading to his criminal acts.

I am not suggesting that Suburbicon is a great film. On the contrary, I think its dark comedy misses the mark as often as it finds it, its story of the Lodge family is uneven and has little to offer, and it needs substantially more character development all around.

Nevertheless, I found watching Suburbicon an enjoyable experience. Jupe and Damon were outstanding, with Jupe (as Nicky) providing the key emotional engagement in the film, and Suburbicon’s satire, unlike its darker comedy, worked quite well and does give viewers something to think about as we consider life in North America today.

So I am confused about why so many viewers and critics found watching Suburbicon to be such an unpleasant experience, especially when I think about the popularity and critical acclaim of an unpleasant film like It. It is a film that features seven wonderful teenage actors in roles that might have made for a profound and beautiful coming-of-age story in small-town Maine. Instead, for me, that ludicrous and violent film has absolutely nothing to offer and watching Suburbicon is a much better use of time (if you can handle the violence). 

Both of these films feature life-affirming messages buried within a violent narrative, but It subverted its potential message by focusing on scares, while Suburbicon added its message to an otherwise pointless plot in order to help make the world a better place. Clooney should be lauded and encouraged for doing this, not denigrated. So Suburbicon gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Faces Places (2017 EIFF 12)



The critics are raving about this unique documentary made by photographer/muralist J.R. and filmmaker Agnès Varda. Mostly for good reason. Varda and J.R. travel around rural France, taking photos of people, listening to their stories and then plastering huge versions of the photos onto buildings. The primary theme of Faces Places is worker solidarity. When in pursuit of that theme, the film is often riveting. 

Faces Places would be a great documentary for its humanization alone, but it also offers many humorous and profound observations from Varda and J.R. as the 89-year-old director and the young photographer get to know each other in the process of making this film together. It often feels like a quirky road movie.

Faces Places is a true work of art, but for me it wasn’t perfect and I can’t give it ****. The first half of the film is truly amazing, as engaging and moving as it is profound. But for me the second half lagged a bit, both in the stories of the people Varda and J.R. meet as well as their own interactions. For me, the focus on the filmmakers wears a little thin in the second half.

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful documentary that I recommend to all. Faces Places gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Sweet Virginia (2017 EIFF 11)



This low-budget, Coen-brothers-like, dark indie thriller was one of the more pleasant surprises at the EIFF, primarily because of the way it kept me engaged from the first minute to the last, not least because its focus is entirely on its very compelling cast of characters (and because it has a marvellous sense of atmosphere, which fuels the constant tension). 

At the centre of Sweet Virginia is Sam (Jon Bernthal), a motel owner in a small Alaskan town, a town that is suddenly rocked by an after-hours triple-murder in the local bar. We know who did the deed (Elwood, played by Christopher Abbott) and soon learn why, but it’s a mystery to the locals, including Sam, even though the eccentric Elwood checks into his motel shortly after the murder. 

The lack of mystery for the viewer might limit one’s enjoyment in watching a thriller, but didn’t bother me much because I enjoyed the focus on how the fascinating characters interacted with each other. The big mystery to me, which did limit my enjoyment of the film somewhat, was where the police were in all this. We hardly see them at all in Sweet Virginia, as if a triple-murder is no big deal to them, making for an unusual type of small-town crime thriller (which isn’t all bad, but the lack of credibility was distracting).

Other characters of note are the wives of two of the victims, women who didn't appreciate their husbands enough to do much grieving: Lila (Imogen Poots), who finds herself in way over her head, and Bernadette (Rosemary DeWitt), who is having an affair with Sam. All of the acting is very good, though it’s Bernthal’s performance which stands out. 

As I’ve said before, I’m a fan of intelligent suspense films that focus on characters and dialogue instead of action. Sweet Virgina is such a film, and Jamie M. Dagg’s directing keeps the film moving at exactly the right pace, helped by the stunning cinematography. There could have been more character development (although there was just enough to let viewers put pieces into place themselves, which I rather enjoy) less violence (too much to expect), and more police (just for credibility’s sake), but this is my kind of thriller. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Happy End (2017 EIFF 10)



One of the treats at this year’s EIFF was getting to watch Michael Haneke’s latest film, Happy End. I love European family dramas, and Happy End is a very European (in its style) drama (with a strong dash of dark comedy) about a very dysfunctional family in Calais, France. Needless to say, if a film is written and directed by Haneke and called Happy End, one should expect anything but. Unfortunately, the cold darkness that permeates so many of Haneke’s films is the only thing preventing this film from being a masterpiece.

Isabelle Huppert, who was so mesmerizing as Elle in last year’s EIFF, stars as Anne Laurent, the wife/mother/sister/daughter of the family. Anne is the cold businesswoman at the helm of a large construction business which has just suffered a major accident, thanks in no small part to the incompetence of Anne’s son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski). Anne and Pierre live with her ageing father, George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in a gorgeous mansion, where they are served by Moroccan refugees (the film’s location makes the refugee crisis a constant theme in the background). Then there’s Anne’s brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), whose somewhat scary 12-year-old daughter, Ève (Fanzine Harduin), has come to live with him because her mother is in a coma after a drug overdose (which we are led to believe may have been intentionally caused by Ève). I’ll just mention one other character in the film: Anne’s British lawyer (and fiancé), Lawrence Bradshaw (Toby Jones), who seems strangely out of place. Most of these characters are brimming with resentment and anger, which will lead to all kinds of ‘happiness’.

The acting of all concerned is exceptional, which allows Happy End to be endlessly engaging in a fascinating way even when its characters are often less than sympathetic. The cinematography, meanwhile, is stunning. And the social commentary, especially around the refugee crisis, is often spot-on. So Happy End is a very entertaining, very well-made film. Like I said, if it wasn’t so darn cold, I would have given it an easy ****. As it is, I’ll settle for ***+. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

American Made



I decided to watch American Made (which is based on a true story) because I’d heard that it exposes the role of the CIA in the central American drug trade and in the various scandals involving the Contras (including Oliver North). Had that been an accurate assessment of the film’s goals or even of its contents, Doug Liman’s American Made might have been a great film, or at least a very good one. Unfortunately, neither is true (IMHO).

Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who, in 1978, is offered the chance to take photos of Soviet-supported bases in Central America. When this proves successful (thanks to Seal’s fearless flying), Seal begins taking on jobs of his own, like smuggling drugs for a new drug cartel in Colombia. When Seal’s CIA handler, known as Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), finds out about this (after Seal is arrested in Colombia), his response is to give Seal 2,000 acres of land in Arkansas and an entire small airport which Seal can use as a base for his various smuggling operations (guns to the Contras, then guns to the drug lords in Colombia and money to the Contras, then the Contras themselves, so they can be trained by the American military). 

Seal becomes enormously wealthy, filling the local banks with his millions. His wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), knows somethings’ wrong but enjoys the high life while she can. Of course, when you get that wealthy doing very illegal things, even if it’s for the CIA, big trouble is bound to come your way, and it does, though not before Seal has a chance to work with Oliver North to pin the Central American drug-trafficking, which has been supported (if indirectly) by the CIA, on the communists.

American Made has an interesting style designed to place it in the early 80’s. This is only partially successful. I had mixed feelings about the cinematography and the music, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with any of the acting (Gleeson stood out). I also thought the story’s structure was a little too chaotic, failing to make some important connections. But my biggest disappointment was in the film’s treatment of the CIA. The blame for the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian drug trade and the various Contra scandals is pinned on one intelligent but slightly bumbling individual (Schafer), which is nonsense. There’s a great scene in which President Reagan is shown talking on TV about how the evil Sandinistas are involved in the drug trade when in fact it is his own people and the Contras who are involved, but that’s far too little too late for a film that had a chance to really say something important about the most evil organization in the history of humanity.

So American Made gets *** for an entertaining attempt. But it could have been, and should have been, much better. My mug is trying to find its way up.