Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Good Time



Good Time has made quite a number of critics’ top-ten lists (for 2017), so I thought I’d better give it a look. That was a mistake, because this fast-paced stylistic thriller is not worth watching except for its technical merits. 

The one thing Good Time is not is a good time. It is a raw, brutal ice-cold film full of mostly unsympathetic characters. Robert Pattinson stars as Connie Nikas, who hauls his mentally challenged brother, Nick (Ben Safdie), out of a therapy session to rob a bank. It’s not clear why Connie needs Nick, but the heist goes badly and Nick gets caught. Connie tries to post bail for his brother and finds out Nick is in a hospital after a fight in prison. So Connie breaks Nick out of the hospital, which again goes badly, leading to further crimes that also go badly, this time with a parolee named Ray (Buddy Duress) in tow. 

Pattinson’s acting, as the intense overwhelmed Connie, is very good, with solid support from the other actors involved. The cinematography is (appropriately, I suppose) constantly moving, which only rarely impresses me, and the loud overwhelming music, which got my blood pumping in the early going, and which was one of the best things about the film early on, eventually turned me off. But the biggest problem for me was that the promising start, focusing on Connie’s poorly-displayed love for his brother, faded farther and farther from a story that could engage me, making me feel like cringing during much of the film’s last half hour.

Good Time is the kind of indie thriller that impresses critics because of its style and intensity. If the characters and/or story were more compelling (i.e. if the writing was better), I might have agreed. But Good Time didn’t work for me. **+. My mug is down.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Paddington 2



Having much enjoyed the first Paddington film, we were eager to see Paddington 2. We were not disappointed. Ben Whishaw is back, and excellent, as the voice of our hero, Paddington Brown (a bear), and Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are back as Mary and Henry Brown, the parents in the family that is providing a home for Paddington in London. Jim Broadbent is also back as Mr. Gruber, the likeable antique dealer. 

We get to see more of the Browns’ neighbours this time. With Paddington’s determination to always be kind and see the good in all people (one of his, and the film’s, greatest strengths), most of his neighbours love Paddington and are positively affected by his goodhearted if somewhat accident-prone nature. There are, however, two exceptions: Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the grumpy self-appointed neighbourhood watch person, who sees Paddington as an outsider and a danger to the community, and Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), the popular actor who is a little too interested in Paddington’s talk about the pop-up book in the antique shop that Paddington wants to give his Aunt Lucy for her birthday.

Next thing you know there is a break-in at the antique shop and the pop-up book goes missing. Paddington is seen running away from the shop and is arrested and sent to prison. Even in prison, Paddington is able to see the good in all the men around him and soon has a number of friends. But can his fellow inmates help him clear his name (as his family is trying to do)? Knuckles (Brendan Gleeson), the cook, says he can and he will, but only if Paddington breaks out of prison with him, which is against Paddington’s nature.

The scenes in the prison are absolutely delightful, helped by some excellent acting, especially on the part of Gleeson. The rest of the film is almost as good. Paddington 2 is a very funny, intelligent, innocent and inspiring family comedy-adventure, something that’s far too rare. That makes it all the more sad that, in spite of rave reviews from critics, North Americans are not much interested (as was the case with Paddington). Part of this is the British setting and style of humour.

The acting, cinematography and score are all outstanding. Paul King, the director and co-writer, has done it again, making a sequel that is actually better than the original (not least because of the way it handles the ‘baddie’, something that is again all-too-rare in films made for children, not that Paddington 2 isn’t as much fun for adults as for children). Highly recommended for everyone, Paddington 2 gets ***+ and is even on its way to ****. My mug is up.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

The Post



Wow?

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks starring in a Steven Spielberg film about investigative journalism and the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the way American presidents and politicians had been lying about the Vietnam War for many years? Should have been an easy Wow! film, and yet …

The Post begins well, with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) coming back from his observations on the front lines of the war in 1971 to steal the papers from his offices at the Rand Corporation. But then we skip past the way Ellsberg released those papers to the New York Times, which then carried the great exposé on its front pages before being shut down by Nixon’s legal system. Instead, we jump to the Washington Post, where Katharine “Kay” Graham (Streep), the Post’s publisher, is trying to keep the newspaper alive by selling shares. Kay talks to her executive editor, Ben Bradlee (Hanks), and hears that there’s a story brewing at the New York Times and Bradlee is trying to find out what it is. 

Too late. The Times prints its story, though the government soon shuts it down. But Bradlee is not to be stopped. He knows there’s a lot more to the story and thinks The Post now has a shot at getting its own headlines. This is where Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) steps in: a writer at The Post, Bagdikian knows Ellsberg personally and suspects he is the source of the Papers. He wants a chance to find out. And so begins what will become a fight between the government and the newspapers and between those willing to risk all for the sake of a free press that holds governments accountable and those who are worried about keeping The Post financially viable. 

The Post is not only set in the early 70’s, it has a distinct 70’s feel, reminding me of the 70’s classics, Network and All the President’s Men. The cinematography, which favours a dark faded look, is key to that comparison, with John Williams’ score helping out. And The Post is clearly trying to be a political thriller, though the thriller content is minimal. But the tension is there, and The Post is always engaging, even when its predictability makes it less compelling. Indeed, I would argue that if The Post was primarily about what I have described thus far, it would fall well short of greatness, not even making it into my top fifteen films of 2017. 

Fortunately, The Post has another key theme, namely Kay Graham’s struggle as a woman in a man’s world. Graham was the first female publisher of a major newspaper, taking over after her husband’s suicide (her husband had been given the position from her father). It’s clear that the men don’t take her seriously, as depicted in one of my favourite scenes, where she is the lone woman at a Post board meeting and the men ignore her even when she knows more about what’s going on than any of them. It’s not just the men’s ignorance that makes the scene work - it’s the way Graham accepts her ‘innate inferiority’ as a woman. But this will change as the film goes on, and that change is, for me, the central theme of The Post and the theme that pushes the film into four-star territory. 

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Graham is played by one of the world’s all-time great actors. I wouldn’t say this is one of Streep’s best performances, but it’s worthy of some major nominations. I would actually say the same things about Hanks, who does a very convincing job as Bradlee. The rest of the acting was also excellent. Major roles not yet mentioned were played by Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson and Tracy Letts.

There have been articles comparing The Post’s depiction of the Nixon White House with the current administration, highlighting the need for today’s newspapers to keep Trump accountable. But the low-key way The Post handles the scandal of the Pentagon Papers makes me think this film could have done much more in talking about the role of the media in relation to government scandals (e.g. All the President’s Men). An interesting point to consider is how Bagdikian became one of the major critics of the media, one of the first to write about the way media ownership has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy men. 

As an advocate for the role of the media today, The Post needed to be much more hard-hitting, and much more aware of how the mass media continue to be restrained by wealth and power. But as a classic drama about the changing role of women in the workplace, and at home, the film works well. So I’m giving The Post **** and a place in my top fifteen films of the year, though not as high a place as I had hoped. My mug is up.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Coco



The most popular animated film of 2017 is a gorgeous film, full of great voices, lots of music and powerful positive messages about the importance of family and memory. Unfortunately, Coco isn’t particularly original or compelling (though it has its moments!).

The young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzales) is an aspiring musician. He wants to be the new Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous singer in history, now long dead. But Miguel’s family has a ban on music of any kind, thanks to his great-great-grandfather, who left his young family to pursue a music career and was never seen again (despite promises that he would return). Even the photo of Miguel’s great-great-grandparents’ family is missing the head of his great-great-grandfather. It does, however, show a photo of the man’s guitar. When, on the Day of the Dead, Miguel finds the guitar of Ernesto de la Cruz in his crypt, he realizes that the famous singer must be his great-great-grandfather. When he tries to steal the guitar, Miguel ends up entering the Land of the Dead.

Desperate to find his great-great-grandfather, whom he hopes will support his dream of becoming a musician, Miguel explores this colourful, eye-popping new world. Along the way, he will meet his ancestors and the sketchy Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who offers to help Miguel if he will take a photo of Hector back to the land of the living. 

There are many wonderful and funny scenes in Coco, especially near the beginning and the end of the film. The overall story, with its focus on family, is a good one, if a little superficial. I particularly appreciated the Mexican setting, the positive depiction of Mexican culture and all the Latin American voices, especially coming at a time when the Trump presidency is in a state of tension with its southern neighbour. I was not surprised to learn that Coco has become the most popular film of all time in Mexico.

What I did not appreciate was the incredibly stupid scene of violence near the end of the film, though what followed was so well done that I am tempted to overlook the stupidity.

Coco is a very entertaining if lightweight Disney film that gets somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

I, Tonya



My memory of the Tonya Harding affair (back in 1994) is so vague that I was able to watch I, Tonya with almost no idea what was going to happen next. But I knew from the start that whatever was going to happen, it wouldn’t be good. That’s because the film begins with brief interviews with all of the major players (years after the events) which make it clear that not one of them is to be believed. Indeed, the only sympathetic characters in the film are Tonya’s two skating coaches, whose patience must have been extraordinary.

Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is a very sad, almost horrific, story of abuse and lies told as a dark comedy by the many unsympathetic characters involved, not one of whom can be trusted. Besides not knowing whether the film is telling anything resembling a true story, the fact that this story is based on actual events involving one of the greatest American figure skaters of the time makes it hard to view as a dark comedy. Imagine watching the O.J. Simpson story as a dark comedy. Wouldn’t work. The Tonya Harding story is much less horrific than that, and the comedy was often hilarious, but I’m still not sure it worked. It was, however, endlessly fascinating, with some of the best performances of the year.

Tonya, played by Margot Robbie, is a young woman with an incredible skating talent. She was on her way to becoming perhaps the greatest figure skater in the world. But to get to that point she had to overcome two abusive relationships: one with her overbearing mother (LaVona, played by Allison Janney), who forced Tonya to practice from the age of three; and one with her partner, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who hit Tonya regularly (something she was used to). Then there’s Jeff’s close friend, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), a man who believes he’s actually a spy and is capable of doing and saying the most ludicrous things imaginable. Only Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), Tonya’s long-suffering coach, seems to live a normal life. 

Would Tonya have gone as far as she did without LaVona and Jeff? We’ll never know. But I, Tonya makes it clear that her relationship with Jeff was a pretty bad idea from day one, as was Jeff’s relationship with Shawn. Through it all, no matter how unsympathetic Tonya can be, one can’t help wanting her to get away from these people and succeed with her life. That’s because Robbie’s performance is spot on.

As good as Robbie is, it was Janney and Hauser whose performances were jaw-dropping. [Janney deserved her Golden Globe, though Laurie Metcalfe was at least as good in Lady Bird.] The music was loud and effective (though why the songs were mostly from the 70’s is a mystery), the cinematography was well done, and the style was both original and captivating. All in all, a very entertaining film with some good things to say about media frenzy. Too bad I couldn’t help feeling that the film was also, at times, part of the problem. But what puts I, Tonya into the ***+ range is the way it reflects on the lies we all tell ourselves to create our own versions of the truth. My mug is up.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

downsizing



Wow!

And now for something completely different. It’s always such a joy to say that, assuming the film it refers to has been a satisfying viewing experience. In the case of downsizing, directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, my experience was more than satisfying, perhaps all the more so because most film critics thought it was a mediocre film. I can only guess that downsizing was such a different kind of film that critics, and average viewers, who gave the film a “C” score and a 5.8 score on IMDB, had no idea what to do with it (this wasn’t helped by trailers which I can only guess intentionally misled viewers to expect a silly comedy instead of a profound sci-fi drama). At least ten people (out of about 75) walked out of our theatre once they realized their mistake.

Ironically, people walked out during some of the best moments of the film (for me, at least), leaving me once again wondering why so few people want more than just escapist fare when they go to the cinema. Of course, I almost walked out  myself (not seriously) early in the film when the protagonist (Paul Safranek, played by Matt Damon), a forty-something man married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig), questioned my self-worth by saying, to indicate his own failures in life, “I’m still living in the house I grew up in.” Sigh.

One day, Paul, an occupational therapist whose life feels stagnant, sees that his high school friend is much happier as a man who is only five inches tall. That’s right, scientists in Norway have discovered a way to make people 0.0346% of their original size, thus providing an answer to the many ways the earth’s growing population is destroying the planet. By consuming only a tiny fraction of the earth’s resources and creating only a tiny amount of waste, downsizing everyone may be the answer to a sustainable life on earth for millennia to come. Paul is convinced, though Audrey is more hesitant until she sees the size of the mansion they can afford to live in in Leisureland, the home of the downsized, not to mention hearing that they’ll never have to work again.

Unfortunately, things don’t work out too well for Paul (a common theme in the film) and he ends up in a miniature world where he is even less happy than he was before, living in a small apartment and doing a job he hates (telephone salesperson) because he allowed his license to expire. It doesn’t help that his new neighbour, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), keeps having noisy parties. But when Dusan invites Paul to join one of the parties, Paul’s life will change forever, not least because of his encounter with Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese protest leader who was imprisoned and downsized against her will, then almost died in an illegal journey in a TV box, and is now a cleaning woman (working for Dusan, among others).

Perhaps that’s enough of an introduction. I’ll just mention that Rolf Lassgård (last year’s Ove) has an important role as Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen, the man who discovered downsizing. The acting of all those mentioned above was excellent, with a special nod to Waltz and Chau. Chau’s character, Ngoc Lan Tran, is one of the most original, refreshing and endearing characters I’ve seen in a long time, and Chau makes it work.

Then again, downsizing as a film is one of the most original, refreshing and endearing films I’ve watched in a  long time. Nothing is predictable, the relationships/friendships are fascinating but credible, there’s a strong humanizing message throughout, there are numerous profound conversations about climate change and the future of our planet, not to mention scenes dealing with issues like gender, class, wealth and power, and, above all, it provides clues to what it means to live our daily lives in a world that is becoming unsustainable. Marvellous stuff!

I should mention that there is a fair bit of comedy (including lots of social satire), but to call downsizing a comedy (as many do) is, I think, missing the seriousness of this imaginative and profound story. A final note to say that downsizing also features gorgeous cinematography and lots of appropriate music. So, like Gareth, I’m giving downsizing **** and a place in my top ten films of the year. My mug is up for perhaps the most underrated film of the year.

Friday, 5 January 2018

The Greatest Showman



Back-to-back Michelle Williams, this time in a very different role, with some singing and dancing thrown in. Williams shows herself to be quite capable of doing both very well, and her performance may be the best in The Greatest Showman, where she plays Charity Barnum, the wife of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman).

Of course, Jackman is the big star here and he also performs very well (that he sings and dances is no surprise; we’ve seen him do these before). Jackman, a natural charmer, is a perfect fit for the role of Barnum. The Greatest Showman chronicles Barnum’s rise as a showman in the mid-19th century, moving from the purchase of a museum of oddities to creating a show featuring living oddities like dwarfs, giants and bearded women, to launching a tour by Swedish singer Jenny Lind, who was a huge hit. While The Greatest Showman focuses on Barnum’s successes and how he uses dangerous investments to make his dreams come true, it also shows the toll that his self-centred ambition made on his family.

Lind is played well by Rebecca Ferguson, but Loren Allred sings for her, something that never impresses me. The other primary characters in the film are Barnum’s partner, Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), the woman Carlyle falls in love with (allowing for the opportunity to show how difficult a mixed-race relationship was in the mid-19th century).

The Greatest Showman, which is directed by Michael Gracey, certainly has its share of flaws. Even for a musical, the story is superficial, even hollow at times, giving us far too little story to make the film truly engaging. Outside of Williams and Jackman (and the small role for Ferguson), none of the acting or singing is worth noting. The songs themselves vary from excellent to way-too-poppy for my liking (especially near the end of the film; earlier songs were much better). All-in-all, The Greatest Showman is a far cry from the somewhat similar musical, Moulin Rouge

Nevertheless, The Greatest Showman is beautiful and fun to watch (i.e. it’s entertaining), offering gorgeous cinematography, some excellent songs, a good score, some good performances and a heart that’s in the right place, with, for example, a focus on humanizing the circus performers (though with minimal character development and no historical credibility, given that the real Barnum was more interested in exploiting the marginalized than in helping them). The bottom line is that The Greatest Showman is a musical and musicals don’t need to follow the same rules as other film genres in order to provide a solid entertainment. And I’m a sucker for musicals. That’s why I’m giving The Greatest Showman ***+ in spite of all of its flaws. My mug is up.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

All the Money in the World



It seems almost uncanny that, thanks to the controversy surrounding Kevin Spacey, Christopher Plummer gets to play a role way too similar to the role he played in a film I watched just a month ago: The Man Who Invented Christmas. In that film, Plummer was excellent as Ebenezer Scrooge. Now he plays J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World. The title of that film refers to the fact that Getty was (back in 1973, when most of the film’s events took place) not only the richest man in the world but the wealthiest man who had ever lived. But all the money in the world wasn’t enough for Getty, nor was it sufficient to pay a ransom for the release of his kidnapped grandson, John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer - no apparent relation), known as Paul.

At the age of seventeen, Paul is vacationing in Rome in the spring of 1973 when he’s kidnapped and held for ransom ($17 million at first). His grandfather refuses to pay a penny of it (supposedly on the grounds that this will lead to further kidnappings), which understandably makes his mother Gail (Michelle Williams) very angry. Gail, who is divorced from John Paul Getty II, has almost no money of her own, so she is left with little recourse until she meets Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), the man hired by Getty to find and recover his grandson (without paying a ransom). Chace and Gail fly to Rome, where they meet with the police and spend months negotiating with the kidnappers and trying to locate Paul. I shouldn’t say much more than that about the plot.

All the Money in the World is directed by Ridley Scott, which alone should make the film worth watching, but I was disappointed in Scott’s direction as well as in the writing by David Scarpa. There are many good things about All the Money in the World, such as some gorgeous cinematography (especially in Italy), some excellent acting (more below) and some wonderful scenes, but the final result was lacking in spite of this. I think I was particularly bothered by the fact that the story of Getty (Plummer was perfect and almost certainly better than Spacey would have been) fails to become a meaningful part of the narrative thread of the film. Indeed, the film suffers from a variety of structural problems which make it difficult to focus on the story and the characters and hinder any chance at making the film truly compelling.

As I mentioned, some of the performances were outstanding. Williams is as good as Plummer, giving us a very credible Gail Getty, but my favourite performance was that of Romain Duris as Cinquanta, one of the kidnappers and the most sympathetic character in the film. He is the primary reason I felt All the Money in the World was a film worth watching. As for Wahlberg, well, all I can say is I think he’s probably a really nice guy, but I have just never enjoyed his acting. 

All the Money in the World could have been a great film, but to do so, it needed to focus on Getty in a different way, have a clearer ending and have a little more to do say about the horrors of having great wealth. ***. My mug is up.