Wednesday, 14 February 2018

TV74: Dark



Those looking to exercise their grey cells while watching Netflix can try out this incredibly complex sci-fi (I think) series from Germany (a Netflix Original). Reminding me of both Twin Peaks and LOST, Dark is a stylish and gorgeous show that bounces around from one time period to another (including 1953, 1986 and 2019), providing tiny snippets of information that are almost impossible to piece together. This is made all the more challenging because there are so many important characters and these characters appear in different time periods, portrayed by different actors. To keep them all straight, and to keep the pieces of the story straight, is so difficult that I recommend watching the entire series as quickly as possible.

The plot concerns the inexplicable disappearance of two boys in a small German town and the fallout from that on the various families involved. The disappearance has something to do with a maze of caves near the town as well as the nearby nuclear power station. I won’t say more. As I said, there are many characters in the series so I won’t bother introducing them (or the actors) here, except for Ulrich Nielsen (played well by Oliver Masucci), a volatile police officer whose presence feels central to much of what’s going on. All of the acting is quite strong for TV. The soundtrack of the series deserves mention because it can be overwhelming at times, but it is no doubt critical to the genre.

Many of the pieces do fall into place eventually and I found each episode more compelling than the last. But for all its shocking and haunting scenes, Dark moves at a snail’s pace (not a bad thing) and lots of patience is required. I’m not entirely sure what I was watching or where it’s going, but I’m intrigued enough to award Dark ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Phantom Thread



After watching a film the critics didn’t like much (i.e. Hostiles), and loving it, I watched a film the critics are raving about (with a number of Oscar nominations) and I didn’t much like it at all, even with the presence of one of the world’s greatest actors (Daniel Day-Lewis, who is phenomenal) and even being the work of a filmmaking genius (Paul Thomas Anderson). So much for predicting the film would surely have made my top fifteen films of 2017.

Phantom Thread is, without question, a brilliantly-made film in almost every way. The flawless acting and directing, the intelligent screenplay and the gorgeous cinematography and score make it easy to see why critics would adore the film. But Phantom Thread (like Lady Macbeth, which is also a brilliant film) just isn’t likeable: Its major characters are not sympathetic at all and the story is cold and twisted, with a subject matter that I find rather boring.

That subject matter concerns Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a famous eccentric dressmaker in 1950s London. Woodcock, in his late sixties, lives in a large house with his unmarried sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville, who is terrific). He has never married because he knows he would not be able to remain faithful and because he’s a super control-freak who just can’t tolerate anyone for long except Cyril. But then he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress whose body is perfect for modelling his dresses, and she soon moves into the house. Alma is in love with Woodcock but it doesn’t take long for him to grow tired of her presence, until she figures out a way to rekindle his affections.

Like I said, the subject of high-society fashion/dressmaking is of no interest to me whatsoever, and while I loved watching Day-Lewis perform, his character (and the others) also failed to engage my interest. So there we are. Phantom Thread is a film that no doubt deserves the **** the critics are giving it, but for me there is something missing and I can only manage somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up, but the brew inside is not particularly tasty.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Hostiles





An old-fashioned, melodramatic, glacially-paced epic western, full of predictable violence, that tries to be politically correct by having Native Americans teach things to the stupid white man (it’s always about the white man) - no wonder most film critics had little use for Hostiles. Having glanced at some reviews, you couldn’t have dragged me to the theatre (westerns are very far from my favourite genre), except that I heard an interview with Winnipeg Indigenous actor Adam Beach, who has a significant role in the film, and he believed in it wholeheartedly. So I went. And …

I loved it!

Seriously, everything I wrote above is true, but Scott Cooper’s Hostiles blew me away and made me think that most critics didn’t understand the film at all. 

Christian Bale is (no surprise) magnificent (and perfectly cast) as Captain Joseph Blocker, a soldier stationed in New Mexico in 1892 who has made a career of slaughtering Native Americans (including innocent families) who in turn are slaughtering white soldiers and innocent white families. It is a time and place where violence and death (in various forms) can hide behind every rock and tree. It’s a hard time to be alive and the stoic Blocker is a man who seems perfectly-suited to this mad world, except that beneath the surface this intelligent man is consumed with hatred and pain, caused primarily by watching so many friends die horrifically at the hands of Native Americans, but also by his own acts of violence.

One of Blocker’s most hated adversaries is Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Cheyenne chief who has killed some of his friends and has been imprisoned at his base for the past seven years. But now Yellow Hawk is dying and no less than the president of the United States has ordered that the chief and his family be released and escorted back to his home in Montana. Because of Blocker’s knowledge of the trails to Montana and of the Cheyenne language, he is ordered to lead that escort. Blocker is furious about the assignment, but is forced to carry it out.

Four soldiers (including one played by the young Timothee Chalamet, who is everywhere) comprise the escort for Yellow Hawk and his children and grandchild (including his son, Black Hawk, played by Beach). They begin the long and treacherous journey north to Montana. On their first day out they meet Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a young mother whose entire family (including three young children) have just been slaughtered by a small band of Comanches (the film's horrific opening scene). Blocker knows he can’t leave her alone in the remains of her home, so she joins the group, providing the opportunity for a number of beautiful scenes and conversations as well as fascinating confrontations between Rosalee and Yellow Hawk’s family. 

But the journey has barely begun. As mentioned above, Hostiles is a very slow-paced film and there is time for many thoughtful conversations (those with the Native Americans are all in Cheyenne), punctuated by bursts of violence. More lives will be lost than were even part of the escort at the beginning, as the party encounters that band of Comanches, a nasty group of fur traders, an American soldier (Ben Foster) on his way to be hanged for war crimes (he tells Blocker that he was doing no more than Blocker did), and some ranchers.

But at its heart, Hostiles is about the journey of one man: Joseph Blocker; not so much the physical journey from New Mexico to Montana, but a spiritual, psychological and emotional journey that will force him to deal with all that pain and hatred in a shattering but profound way.

So yes, Hostiles is about a white man whose journey with Native Americans will open his eyes. But Bale’s performance is so extraordinary (he deserved an Oscar nomination) and the film is so intelligent that this questionable premise is allowed to become part of a much larger and richer story: The story of a strong woman facing her own demons of pain and hatred; the story of a strong Indigenous leader (Studi’s performance is equal to Bale’s, though his role is much smaller) doing the same; the story of a Native American family which has suffered so much and continues to suffer, yet have room for kind acts; the story of racism in its various forms; the story of forgiveness in unforeseen places; and the story of violence and whether there is any way for human beings to avoid killing each other.

Hostiles isn’t perfect. There is dialogue that feels anachronistic, there are scenes of violence that infuriated me (though the film doesn’t, with one exception, glorify violence in any way), and there is a sense that the film is trying too hard to be revisionist in a way that will please everyone. But the acting is superb (Pike is also brilliant), the cinematography is gorgeous, the score is a classic, the writing is intelligent and the slow pace is sublime. Yes, far from being a cause for criticism, the slow pace turns Hostiles into a poetic work of art, aided by the constant tension facing everyone on the journey. It is only when the film is interrupted by violent action that it faces the danger of losing its way.

In 1892, soldiers called the Native Americans hostiles, but Hostiles makes clear that the term applies to all sides in the conflicts. It was a dark hostile time, and we still live in its wake. But Hostiles is full of glimpses of light shining in that darkness. Hostiles gets somewhere between ***+ and ****. It would have made my top fifteen of 2017 if I had seen it in time. My mug is up.