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.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

A Kid

I had a lovely surprise the other night and found A Kid (en Francais: Le Fils de Jean) rentable on Bell TV. Little did I expect it to be such a warmly moving film.

Out of the blue, a young Parisian man receives a call about the death of the Quebecois father he never knew. Hearing that he has two half-brothers, he impulsively jumps on a plane and flies over for the funeral only to find that it won't be easy to connect with the only family he has left (his mother having died some years previous).

This French/Quebecois film begins in a manner that was quite unassuming, but soon I realised that I was seeing a quality of writing/directing/ acting that I had not expected. There is a quiet sense of mystery and tension in this family drama that isn't exploited but remains realistic and true. There are a few moments of lightheartedness but it never pretends to be a comedy.

The film perfectly integrates the setting of a lonely cabin on a Canadian lake; in fact, the cultural relationship between Quebec and Paris is an important part of the film.

Quietly woven through are themes of commitment, forgiveness and the long term consequences of character and choices. There are some moments that felt especially tender for me as they reminded me of my own experiences of being invited into a certain family's life for a few brief times - underlined even by some physical resemblances. My mug is up high with a (probably slightly inflated) ****

Saturday, 17 June 2017

It Comes at Night

If you glance through the major critics’ comments on the new horror flick, It Comes at Night, you’ll see quotes like the following: “I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent movie that’s as uncomfortable and disturbing;” “one of the most terrifying films in years;” “it becomes nearly unbearable at times;” “an almost unwatchable cruelty;” “soul-crushingly dark;” “left a preview audience as shaken as any I’ve seen;” “a nightmare within a nightmare;” “a test of nerves;” and “about as enjoyable for the audience as it is for the people in the movie.” 

There’s only one sane response to comments like these: “Run away!” So what the heck were you thinking, Vic, when you decided to go watch this ordeal, alone in an almost empty theatre? As usual, I’m glad you asked. The thing is that I recalled being intrigued enough by the film’s trailer, which I saw a month or two ago, to say to myself: “Depending on the reviews, I might want to watch this.” And my gut told me this was not, by my definition, in any way a horror film. About the latter, I was very much correct: It Comes at Night is not a horror film, though it has scenes that intentionally feel like horror. It does qualify as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, though only because it’s set in a dystopian near future. What this film is, is a dark (in various ways) psychological thriller full of fear and paranoia. 

The premise is simple: Something out there is making people very sick. It’s highly contagious and 100% fatal. It kills so quickly that you’re better off putting a bullet in your head the instant you experience symptoms. Paul (Joel Egerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) don’t know how many people in the world are still alive, or what is killing them, but they know there’s no electricity and food is hard to come by. So they live in a large house deep in the woods, a house they have turned into a fortress to protect them from people who might want to steal their food and water or who might be carrying the deadly disease. But someone manages to break in anyway. It’s a young man (Will, played by Christopher Abbott) looking for water for his family (he has a wife, Kim, played by Riley Keough, and a young son). How does one respond to such an intrusion? Well, first you put a bag over his head, tie him to a tree and observe him for 24 hours to see if he’s sick. I won’t reveal what happens after that. 

A post-apocalyptic plague-ridden world where resources are scarce and paranoia flourishes is hardly new material for books or films of the past few decades. Stephen King, with his masterful novel, The Stand, which does qualify as horror, was writing about this in 1978. What It Comes at Night has to offer, however, is a very tight, intense character-driven (Travis is a particularly well-drawn character) story that pulls no punches as it explores the fears and feelings of the film’s five adults. The acting is terrific by all concerned and the writing and direction by Trey Edward Shults give us an all-too-believable set of circumstances and human responses. 

Ultimately, however, the ending of It Comes at Night, while it may be credible enough and is certainly not a typical or predictable ending, doesn’t quite satisfy, at least not enough for me to consider giving the film ****. It does get a solid ***+. My mug is up, but, as you saw in the first paragraph above, this film will only appeal to a very limited number of people.  

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Alien: Covenant

In my review of Prometheus, I mentioned my hope that its sequel would do a better job of getting at the bigger questions introduced in the film, questions about the origin of the human species, for example, but that I wasn’t holding my breath. Good thing, because not only did we have to wait much too long for that sequel (five years), making the holding of breath rather difficult, but as far as addressing bigger questions is concerned, Alien: Covenant could not have been more disappointing to me. How on earth were Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox unable to find writers who could do justice to such potential? What a waste!

Alien: Covenant takes place ten years after Prometheus. The Covenant is a ship full of ‘sleeping’ colonists heading for an earth-like planet still seven years away when it is damaged by a solar flare and the crew awakened prematurely. While awake, the crew pick up a signal from a nearby solar system and discover the system has an earth-like planet even more suitable than where they were headed. How had they missed seeing it? And how can the person sending the signal be singing John Denver’s “Country Roads”? Well, it’s no surprise that the singer is one of the two survivors from the Prometheus, but it’s an absolute shock to my brain that I heard no attempt to explain the coincidence of the flare and the signal. Were these the work of someone on that mysterious earth-like planet luring the Covenant to its location? Perhaps, but this isn’t explained, and neither is the fact that astronomers somehow missed this planet’s existence. To me, this is just one example of some incredibly shoddy writing.

Needless to say, once the crew of the Covenant decide to investigate the planet, all hope is lost, because our ‘alien’ friends are there and, with the exception of Ripley, humans just don’t stand a chance against those things. But wait! Are these aliens even more intelligent than the previous Alien films suggest? Is it possible humans can even learn to communicate with them? Based on the writers’ inability to answer any other questions I might have (like pursuing the question of human origins), I would say we’ll never know. All we have is hints, about everything, because this is not a film series that’s really about anything other than the same old same old alien threat and the graphic gore that inevitably follows. At least Alien gave us mystery followed by incredible suspense and Aliens gave us nonstop heart pounding action. Sigh.

Which is not to say that Alien: Covenant was a total waste. On the contrary, the presence of a single great actor was alone worth the price of admission. Michael Fassbender plays not only the lead character in the film but also the second-most important character in the film. Reminding me of Data and Lore (Star Trek), Fassbender plays Walter and David, two identical androids with very different personalities (i.e. David, who is one of the protagonists in Prometheus and has lots of personality, and the more advanced Walter, on board the Covenant, who has no emotions because his creators have decided that was a flaw). Walter and David, despite being androids, have a love/hate relationship and (spoiler alert!) will of course spend much of the film trying to kill each other, as brothers do. Still, Fassbender’s performance is an absolute joy to watch and easily the highlight of the film.

Alien: Covenant as a whole did a much better job with character development than Prometheus, and the acting matched up well - especially Katherine Waterston as Daniels, the third-most important character in the film. You may remember that I was particularly impressed with Waterston in Fantastic Beasts. Clearly, she is a young actor to watch for in the years ahead.

I was also impressed by the cinematography. I’m not sure how much was CGI, but it was gorgeous, even while made-for-3D. The score was also very good. 

In the end, I’m very glad I saw Alien: Covenant on the big screen. It has a lot going for it. But I’m so disappointed with the writing (especially the lack of answers) that I can only give the film a solid ***. My mug is up but I’m still waiting for more from Scott and this series.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Wonder Woman

Walter is in Winnipeg so it was time to go watch a film together. With little of interest to choose from, we decided to go to the opening night screening of this weekend’s big blockbuster: Wonder Woman. The critics seem to think this is a super superhero film, but we still went in with low expectations, which is always wise.

I have rarely felt such on overwhelming sense of disappointment with a film I enjoyed watching as much as Wonder Woman, so it may feel like I’m reviewing two different films. I debated at length whether to start with the positive or the negative; in the end, I’ve gone with the former so that readers who don’t want to hear my complaints about the film’s moral compass can stop reading halfway through.

In the superhero film genre, Wonder Woman is unique in two vital ways. First, the sole superhero in the film is a woman who is superior to the men around her in almost every way (in her emotional intelligence, she is also superior to most male superheroes). Second, Wonder Woman is the first Hollywood superhero film to be directed by a woman. Both of these are positive developments, all the more so when you consider the results (see below). 

Gal Gadot stars as Diana, an Amazon who has grown up on an isolated island without ever seeing a man. As the only child on the island, she is given a lifetime of special treatment along with her thorough training as a warrior (though she despises war). When a World War I plane breaks through the invisible barrier protecting the island and crashes into the sea, Diana rescues the pilot (Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine), who turns out to be an American spy who has just uncovered a German plot to extend the war by using a new deadly gas. Germans are hot on Trevor’s tail and follow him to the island, where, to their short-lived surprise, they encounter an Amazon army. 

The Amazons don’t want to get involved in the war, but Diana insists on helping Trevor get his vital information back to London, though her primary motive is to find Ares, the Greek god of war, and kill him, thus putting an end to the war to end all wars (Diana believes Ares is responsible for the war). So Diana and Trevor get in a boat and head to London, where they will meet most of the film’s other key characters: Trevor’s assistant, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), who provides a fair amount of comic relief; Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), a speaker for peace in the Imperial War Cabinet; and a small band of companions who will accompany Diana and Trevor to the front, where they hope to prevent the use of the deadly gas. The band, which will also supply some comic relief (Wonder Woman, like most superhero films, contains a fair amount of witty dialogue) includes Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). 

The boat trip and subsequent visit to London are by far my favourite parts of Wonder Woman, and they are also central to the film’s chief positive attributes. One of these attributes is the surprisingly polished performance by newcomer Gadot as Diana (Gadot turns out to be very well cast) and another is the character Gadot and screenwriter Alan Heinberg have created. The role of Diana is challenging because she is both an intelligent, strong, confident, courageous and independent woman as well as an innocent, compassionate naive woman capable of childlike wonder. The fact that Diana is also supposed to be capable of horrific violence while being driven throughout by her love of humanity is a matter that I will return to later.

The early parts of the film also highlight the excellent performances of Pine and Davis. The rest of the acting is solid, with Thewlis standing out (it’s good to see him in a major role). The cinematography is also particularly strong in the first half of the film, though it suffers from the desaturated bluish hues typical of made-for-3D films (as always, we watched it in 2D). And I’ll mention here that the score, while occasionally overbearing, is quite enjoyable.

Throughout the first half of Wonder Woman, I could see how the presence of a female director (Patty Jenkins) might have influenced my favourite scenes, because they all involved Diana’s unique perspectives on life and humanity (the conversations between Diana and Trevor are a particular highlight). 

One of the major differences between the first and second half of the film is the use of accents. Walter noted that the accents of the Amazons on the island were remarkably even, regardless of the language they were meant to represent. But Walter and I agreed that the use of German accents in the last half of the film (in place of Germans speaking German to each other) was a huge mistake. Wonder Woman is too serious a superhero film to make the cartoonish use of accents acceptable (as opposed to using subtitles, which are employed elsewhere in the film). 

The accents are a minor flaw, however, when compared to my biggest complaint about Wonder Woman, which I alluded to earlier. The film’s primary message seems to be that war is bad and love is good. This is no great revelation, but it would draw no argument from me, if it were consistent. Unfortunately, the message is represented by a woman who is both full of compassion for humanity while displaying no remorse at her killing of countless enemy soldiers. That doesn’t compute for me, though Walter points out that soldiers on all sides are frequently treated as less than human (how can you try to humanize while dehumanizing?). 

One scene exemplifies this complaint. When Diana arrives at the front (the trenches), she is immediately distracted by the suffering of the civilians she encounters, something that would be unusual in a male superhero. This scene reveals the horrors and stupidity of trench warfare only to have the message completely undone moments later when Diana shows how trench warfare can be effective and glorious if Wonder Woman is on your side. In this scene, Diana is complicit in the deaths of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of German soldiers, to whom she gives not the slightest thought. How is it possible that no one involved in the making of the film identified the huge inconsistency here?

Wonder Woman has been hailed as a victory for feminism. Much of the film might be viewed that way. However, as I have written before, showing that a woman can fight as well as any man is not, in my opinion, a victory for feminism and is at odds with all of the other strengths depicted in someone like Diana (intelligence, compassion, courage, etc.). 

And how do you reconcile an anti-war message with the use of endless violence to show that war is wrong (killing people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong)? Where is Diana’s reflection on, or even awareness of, the fact that she is trying to achieve her noble ends through horrific evil means? Redemptive violence is an almost inevitable feature of superhero films, so I rarely comment on it anymore, but when it is used in a film that tries to challenge redemptive violence (in this case, war), it must be named. Outside of the Tobey Maguire Spider-man films, superhero films seem to be almost completely unaware of this problem. The fact that Wonder Woman has scenes which display some awareness (e.g. Diana’s confrontation with one of her enemies near the end of he film) only makes the inconsistency harder to understand. 

Wonder Woman repeatedly asks the question of whether people are innately evil. Diana refuses to believe it. Good for her. But this theme is explored all too briefly and resolved in a very simplistic manner, highlighting my disappointment with a film that is often hugely entertaining and tries to say good things but is full of confusing mixed messages and has no convincing overarching story, at least from a moral point of view.

So the well-made Wonder Woman gets only a solid ***, perhaps verging on ***+. My mug is up. If only the blend inside had been tastier. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

TV61: Bloodline revisited

The third and final season of Bloodline is now available on Netflix. You may not want to spend your time on it, even if you enjoyed the first two seasons.

The first season of Bloodline (reviewed in February of 2016) had a raw emotional power which, when combined with the show’s noirish southern gothic atmosphere and fantastic acting, made for not only very compelling viewing but also for a thoroughly enjoyable TV serial-watching experience (I should have put it onto my favourite serial list at the time). The second season could not sustain the emotional energy, nor the tight plotting, of the first. Instead, it went all over the place in an attempt to offer twists and turns as the Rayburn family continued to implode. The acting was still great, but the characters were all so unhappy that it made for dreary viewing. 

Nevertheless, the second season of Bloodline was still good and compelling TV viewing, especially when compared with the third season. The writers obviously couldn’t figure out a way to offer a satisfying conclusion to the series while also offering enough intriguing and thoughtful stories to get through ten episodes. The result is a bit of a mess, with story lines that ended abruptly and too easily, with too many dream sequences that weren’t explained and with no real sense of closure. The writers seemed to be playing with all kinds of ideas that fizzled out. While the third season of Bloodline was compelling enough to finish watching, mainly because I wanted to know how the writers would end what was once excellent TV, it was ultimately a very unsatisfying season, with only a few great scenes and memorable moments to make it almost worthwhile.

I gave the first season of Bloodline somewhere between ***+ and ****. The third season didn’t come close to ****, so I give the show an overall grade of somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is still up but this is a show that could have been one of the greats and let me down. If I had placed it on my favourite serials list, today I would have removed it from the list. 

Friday, 26 May 2017

A Musician’s Look at Beauty and the Beast

[A special review from Becka deHaan, Walter's daughter]

Like Vic, my favourite Disney animated film is the original 1991 animated version of Beauty and the Beast, so a comparison of the new remake to the original is unavoidable.

Belle looks up at the Beast

My first response to the remake is that I absolutely detest all that autotune usage, particularly on Emma Watson's voice. There are other voices on which I suspect it as well, but, unlike with Belle, those cases are not distracting (there are varying degrees to which auto-tuning can be applied). I couldn't really even detect Watson’s raw talent at all, except where vibrato was employed, and such was sparse indeed. My advice to filmmakers: Either dub a singer in there (as with Anastasia, Princess Jasmine, etc.) or cast someone who can both act and sing up to par. Or, as Vic says in his review, live with the substandard vocals (I hadn't been impressed with Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, but now I am, because at least they didn't auto-tune her voice). Anyway, as a result of the auto-tuning, Belle's singing in the remake was a sadly-far cry from Paige O'Hara's warmth in the 1991 animated version. I found myself singing it like Paige, right out loud, on my way home from the theatre, to put the proper version back into my head.

As for the Beast, I found Dan Stevens' slight lack in sung vocal power surprising, given how well he pulled off the role in general.

Some songs in the remake were actually transposed altogether to different keys from the original and some were not, and that is fine. However, there was a distinct and notable increase in modulations and key-changes within songs, such that it almost made me dizzy. Whether these modulations and key-changes were added as a form of what I'll call audio-cinematography, or whether they were trying to work with the talent they had (It's hard for me to imagine Watson nailing her line as she walks into the book shop, originally peeking on high E-flats here emphasized: "There must be more than this provincial life,” so in the remake the piece modulated so that those high notes were a full perfect fifth lower for Watson.), or both, I found it over the top, and I wished they could have stayed or come back "home," if you will (finishing in the same key as starting), more often. Also not sure what they were trying to accomplish with the timing of the dinner version of the title song, the accompaniment sometimes in 3/4 time as if to construct a more-romantic waltz, with the melody remaining either in 4/4 or just plain being sung freestyle (only a single hearing has not enlightened me as to which one). Whichever it is, it didn't do it for me.

Finally, I'm really not a fan of the remake's twist on the ending, namely having the last petal fall, everyone turn into non-living castle-items, Agathe coming onto the scene to hear Belle saying right out loud, "I love you!" and having the rose re-grow and the spell broken. How could that happen? It was too late. Theologically, grace exists, yes, but not to the violation of justice. It seems like a cop-out, nothing short of a violation of the terms of the spell itself. I don't see anything wrong, or too-predictable, with "I love you," being sobbed (in my opinion, O'Hara providing much-more-convincing sobs than Watson) as a whisper mere split-seconds before the last petal falls. Not to mention that the remake doesn't time that with the score for that part. They have that score--easily my favourite portion of the incidental score--left without cry or dialogue at all. To me, that section of the original score, with its long, drawn-out, warm, suspended string chords modulating downward as the sadness increases, synchronized with O'Hara's sobs containing the words, "No! Please. PLEASE... Please don't leave me..." and the still-sobbed, weary whisper, "I love you,," is all too precious to be tampered with. They did somewhat redeem themselves in the remake by having Belle's crying meet the sudden swift thirds in the strings' mid-range that signify the beginning of the transformation. But then they have the pre-kiss meeting silent! A little hard for the blind viewer, who adores the original, to swallow. What happened to: "Belle! it's me!” "It is you!" THEN they kiss.

Overall, the remake gets my thumbs--or mug--up too, but it certainly won't replace the original; I'm glad I have the dvd - we literally wore out the vhs tape!

Monday, 22 May 2017


One of the most famous scenes in film history lasted 52 seconds and had 78 cuts; thus the title of this very enjoyable documentary from Alexander Philippe. The scene in question is the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. 78/52 focuses on that scene and its influence on the future of film while also looking more broadly at Psycho as a whole (as well as at some of Hitchcock’s other films).

Coincidentally, just a week before watching 78/52, I had read (in one sitting) David Thomson’s magnificent book, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, which focuses on precisely the same themes. Thomson is one of the many interviewees in 78/52, but he gets only two short quotes, which is one of the film’s many flaws. 

The 78/52 interviewees include film directors, Hitchcock family members and people involved in the making of Psycho. These are all logical choices. However, the interviewees also include young actors, like Elijah Wood, who comment on the shower scene as they sit on a couch and watch it. While some of the comments are entertaining, many are less than insightful and the interviews allow for too much repetition, making the film about twenty minutes longer than its content justifies.

Another problem with the interviewees is that they are almost all men. Given the subject matter, which focuses in part on how the role of women in film (especially violent films) was impacted by the shower scene, this is a glaring error in judgment (IMHO). For example, if Philippe is going to show a group of young male actors commenting on the shower scene, he should at least have had another group of young female actors doing the same.

Related to this is my biggest complaint: the lack of follow-up to the film’s observations regarding the way Psycho influenced the countless slasher films of the 70’s and 80’s, films that objectified women and linked voyeurism and female nudity with gruesome violence. Thomson’s book analyses this brilliantly, while 78/52 simply observes the phenomenon (maybe because a number of the directors being interviewed had made these slasher films). If the film is suggesting in any way (and I believe it is) that these slasher films were a positive addition to film history, that alone would prevent me from giving the film the four stars much of it deserves.

Nevertheless, remember that 78/52’s flaws did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying this documentary. Among its many highlights were the careful examination of the painting that Hitchcock used to cover Norman’s spy hole and the brief comments by director Peter Bogdanovich, who said that when he left the theatre after watching Psycho on opening day, he felt as if he had just been raped. This is an incredibly profound comment that needs some serious attention and/or elaboration, but again the film just leaves it hanging there. 

Ah well, 78/52 was so beautifully-filmed and so much fun for me (as a film buff) to watch that I must give it a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

A Quiet Passion

Terence Davies (like a certain other Terrence), has a unique style of filmmaking that usually impresses critics but isn’t always popular with the average viewers. A Quiet Passion is no exception to this. I am one of Davies’ fans, while acknowledging that while I think his films are brilliant, they are not always entirely enjoyable. A Quiet Passion is also no exception to this.

A Quiet Passion tells the story of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson through a series of carefully constructed scenes that take place at various times in her life. The reclusive Dickinson didn’t move around much, so almost all of the scenes take place in and around the large family estate in Amherst, Massachusetts (the film was, however, largely filmed in Belgium). This lends itself to Davies’ style, which focuses on carefully-set family scenes and precise dialogue. While the dialogue in this case is brilliantly-written, and may be true to its 19th-century setting, it doesn’t always feel natural. The progression of scenes also makes the story feel less natural. But in spite of this (or because of it), the film feels poetic in a way that perfectly matches its subject. 

Indeed, the intelligent thought-provoking dialogue and the extraordinary performances of the two women who deliver most of the lines are what make A Quiet Passion an almost-masterpiece. Dickinson is played by Cynthia Nixon, while Jennifer Ehle plays Emily’s sister, Lavinia. Nixon, in particular, has to be perfect to make the film work at all, because the film is so focused on her words, her moods, her poems and her inner life, all of which are conveyed wonderfully by Nixon. While Dickinson was often far from happy (and sometimes quite bitter), there is a lot of humour in her words and in the film as a whole, though it is far from a comedy.

The cinematography and score are strong, adding to a very solid period-feel. 

I found A Quiet Passion utterly fascinating from beginning to end (especially the conversations about religion), but didn't feel engaged enough in Dickinson's life to fully enjoy the film (hampered somewhat by Davies’ style). So while I think the film deserves four stars, I will need to give it somewhere between ***+ and ****. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

TV60: The Returned, Season Two

I promised to revisit this show after I’d watched the second season, which I have now done. See my review of the first season (February 7, 2016) for information about the story.

The second season of The Returned (French version) is as haunting and mysterious as the first season. This seems to be the end of the series and I still have no good idea of what happened (though some answers can be found). I can, however, say that the zombie theme (it can be described as a zombie show, though with no resemblance to The Walking Dead) was not advanced in any negative way, so the disquieting uncertainty I referred to in my previous review has been dispelled. 

Meanwhile, the quality of this gorgeous, quiet, slow-moving and thought-provoking TV serial remains at the highest level any TV show can hope for, with outstanding acting and character development throughout. The very occasional graphic violence remains a concern, but given that my previous uncertainty has been dispelled, I am now ready to give The Returned the **** it deserves, and call it superb television.

As for the American version, I do not plan to watch it and would suggest you start with the French version. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

TV59: Black Mirror

Speaking of discussable shows, it’s long past time that I reviewed one of the the best Netflix TV shows out there: Black Mirror. Created by Charles Booker, this British series is a collection of completely self-contained episodes; there is almost no continuity whatsoever (i.e. all different actors, writers, directors, etc.). In this, and in its subject matter, it resembles most closely The Twilight Zone, of which I was a big fan back in the day. 

What sets Black Mirror apart, however, is the way its individual episodes (there are 13 available at the moment) focus on are out-of-control technological advances, usually taking place in the very near future and often providing spot-on prophetic warnings of where we are headed (if we’re not there already). Each episode tackles a different subject and often in very different ways, so that some episodes feel like pure horror while others can be quite funny satires and others beautiful dramas. Most of the time, Black Mirror episodes are downright terrifying to watch and think about; personally, I loved that. 

As can only be the case in an anthology like this, some episodes are brilliant four-star classics, while others can be disappointing. However, the overall quality of writing and acting is way above the norm for TV (there are often film stars in the lead roles) and brilliance predominates. And if you don’t like where an episode is heading, you can always skip it without any worries. To review the series properly, one would have to review each individual episode, which I don’t have time to do. All I can do is briefly highlight my favourite seven episodes:

Fifteen Million Merits (photo above) superbly satirizes our celebrity cult and reality-TV world, with great acting from Daniel Kaluuya and Jessica Brown Findley.

Be Right Back stars Hayley Attwell and Domhnall Gleeson at their best in this romantic exploration of the future of AI and social media. 

White Bear is a terrifying exposé of the media’s role in criminal justice cases, the prominence of violence as entertainment, and much more. 

White Christmas is another terrifying (though often satiric) episode with a criminal justice/out-of-control technology theme. It stars Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as two men in a remote cabin who share stories of what brought them there. 

Nosedive explores similar ground to The Circle, with Bryce Dallas Howard playing a woman desperately trying to hold on to her social media popularity ratings. 

San Junipero is a beautiful romance with a twist, starring Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as two women who fall in love in the seaside resort of San Junipero.

Hated in the Nation stars the marvellous Kelly Macdonald as a detective trying to solve a number of deaths related to social media. 

All of the above episodes get an easy ****. Most of the others get ***+ (there are only one or two true disappointments), so I am giving Black Mirror as a whole **** as well. This may be the finest episodic TV show ever made. Not to be missed (if you can handle the dark intensity of most of the episodes). 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Circle

Panned by critics and viewers alike, The Circle would appear to be a complete waste of time. We went to see it anyway, partly because we enjoyed the last Tom Hanks/Dave Eggers collaboration (A Hologram for the King) much more than the critics and viewers did, and I’ve very much enjoyed James Ponsoldt’s last two films (The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour). And while The Circle is a disappointment at many levels, the fact remains that it has something very important to say and provides material for hours of fruitful discussion. That alone make The Circle worth watching. 

I knew nothing about the plot of The Circle (which is based on a novel by Eggers) before we arrived at the almost-empty theatre. But now that I know it is partly a dystopian thriller and that it stars the popular Emma Watson (not to mention Hanks), it seems strange to me that there is so little interest in the film. I can only assume that negative word-of-mouth spread at a record pace through various kinds of social media, which is, of course, ironic, given the subject of the film.

But knowing its subject is guaranteed to lessen your enjoyment of The Circle, so if I have sparked your interest at all, you should watch the film before reading on (noting that low expectations are in order - this is a seriously flawed film). 

Watson play Mae Holland, who lucks out, thanks to Annie (Karen Gillan), her best friend, and gets a job in the world’s most exciting company: The Circle. Led by Eamon Bailey (Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), The Circle is breaking new ground in global transparency (keeping governments honest) through the deployment of its mini-cameras and its promotion of full (and I do mean full) transparency among members of congress. Mae is at first disturbed by this, but when she experiences the benefits of such surveillance herself, she becomes its number one promoter and moves up in the company, becoming a favourite of Bailey. Mae is even willing to become the first person at The Circle to become completely transparent, wearing a camera all day long. Needless to say, major problems await.

As already mentioned, The Circle has way too many flaws, but some of the apparent flaws disappear if the film is watched purely as satire (i.e. not as a dystopian thriller warning us of some dark future but as a satire of what is already happening in our dystopian present). So yes, The Circle is didactic, hyperbolic and full of characters (especially Mae) whose actions are unconvincing, but these are forgivable problems in a fascinating (in a ‘where is this headed?’ sense) satire of our current obsession with cameras, drones, security and transparency. If only The Circle had focused more on being a satire. 

Because it doesn’t work as a thriller and what I said above does not excuse some extremely awkward scenes (one with Watson and Eller Coltrane, who plays Mercer, an old friend from home who has no use for this technology, stands out as particularly bad) or the fact that the plot lacks cohesion. The character of Tyler Lafitte (John Boyega) is the prime example of a character whose presence in the film won’t work without far more character development and far more consistency in his role in Mae’s life (a role which is entirely wasted here). Other characters suffer similar fates. 

This is not one Watson’s best performances, though her acting is hampered by the screenplay and she does fairly well with what she’s given. Hanks, as always, is a delight to watch and does an excellent job as the lovable villain. The other actors have their moments, but occasionally struggle, while Bill Paxton, in his last performance ,is effective as Mae’s father. The cinematography and score are solid. 

The Circle is not a classic, but it’s not as bad as some people seem to think it is and it has more discussable ideas (simplistic as they may be) than most of the other films currently playing - combined!. And those ideas desperately need to be discussed in our Facebook/smartphone society. I’m glad I watched it and I would watch it again (for more discussion), so I’m giving The Circle a solid ***. My mug is up.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Their Finest

As filmgoers await Christopher Nolan’s probable blockbuster, Dunkirk, coming in July, here is a quiet, humorous British drama that approaches the massive 1940 military evacuation from a very different angle, focusing on the role of women in Great Britain during World War II.

Their Finest also draws attention to the role of women in filmmaking. Despite all of the advances in gender equality (and far too much remains to be done), women have had a very difficult time breaking into all aspects of the filmmaking business, most noticeably in the roles of directing and screenwriting. Even today, less than 7% of all films are directed by women. That low percentage drops even further for films that are not only directed by a woman, but are also written by a woman and feature a female protagonist. Their Finest is one such film, and few, if any, such films have impressed me as much as this one.

As German planes drop bombs on London in the fall of 1940, the British Ministry of Information works on a propaganda film that it hopes will not only bolster the morale of the British people but also make the Americans more sympathetic to their plight (so they will get involved in the war). The subject of the film is to be the incredible retreat of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, which took place in late May/early June of that year. Specifically, the film is to be based on a supposedly true story of twin sisters living on the English coast who hear, on their radio, of the desperate need for boats and immediately take their uncle’s boat across the English Channel to help. 

With men in short supply, Catrin Cole (played by Gemma Arterton), a former secretary, suddenly finds herself given the opportunity of a lifetime: to work with two men (Tom Buckley and Raymond Parfitt, played by Sam Claflin and Paul Ritter) on writing the screenplay for the new film. Despite her initial fears, Catrin takes on the role with a quiet strength and determination, making a key decision early on to keep silent when she discovers the story of the twin sisters is far from accurate. Those initial fears include working with a big-name film star, Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), who treats her poorly on their first meeting, though the real challenge comes when the filmmakers are forced to work with an actual American air force pilot who has joined the British air force. The pilot (Carl Lundbeck, played by Jake Lacy) can’t act, but he’s handsome, and the Secretary of War (wonderful cameo by Jeremy Irons) demands a key role for him in the film in order to help American women warm to the idea of their husbands and sons joining the fight. 

Catrin displays a wide variety of skills in meeting the daily challenges faced by the film crew and quickly becomes the best of the three screenwriters, who rely on her time and again to make last-minute changes to the screenplay. But Ellis Cole (Jack Huston), the artist Catrin is living with, is not impressed that Catrin has become the primary earner in the household or that she is willing to go on location with the film crew instead of staying with him as he prepares for an upcoming exhibition that may be the breakthrough he’s been waiting for. Catrin, meanwhile, is struggling with her feelings for Buckley. 

The acting in Their Finest is terrific all around, with Arterton delivering an understated and very engaging performance in the lead role and Nighy perfectly cast (and often hilarious) as Hilliard. Both of their characters are well-developed and reveal hidden depths as the film progresses, pieces of a very impressive screenplay by Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel by Lissa Evans). Their Finest is her first film. Meanwhile, Lone Scherfig, who directed An Education (my favorite film of 2010), does a great job with the challenge of making a film about the making of a film. The trick, in making a film about the making of  film, is nudging the viewers away from a constant awareness that they are watching a film, something which automatically detracts from their enjoyment of the film. While there were a couple of scenes toward the end of the film which didn’t quite work for me precisely for this reason (i.e. because they reminded me that I was watching a film), I was generally impressed by the skill of the filmmaking.

I was also impressed by the great cinematography and the spot-on period feel, as well as by Rachel Portman’s score. Most impressive, however, was the subtle way Their Finest offers a look at how the role of women in the workforce changed during WWII, with Catrin’s strong intelligent character as a perfect demonstration of this development. At one point in the film, a female colleague says to Catrin: “They’re afraid they won’t be able to put us back in the box when this is over, and it makes them belligerent.” This is one of many funny lines in the film, though I would hesitate to call Their Finest a comedy, or even a comedy-drama, as it is has been labelled by some.

Their Finest is one of the year’s finest films and gets a solid ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.