Friday, 24 March 2017

The Lost City of Z

I got to watch another film in Europe that won’t be released in North America for a few weeks: The Lost City of Z. Its premise sounds a bit like Kong: Skull Island: Explorers hunting for a hidden location never seen by anyone from the so-called civilized world (i.e. white people). But the similarity ends there. The Lost City of Z is not a silly action-adventure story full of monsters who love to eat people. Instead, it’s an old-fashioned epic adventure-drama (I love old-fashioned epics) based on a true story taking place during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this film most closely resembles last year’s marvellous Embrace of the Serpent, though there are enough differences to make this a worthy companion film.

Charlie Hunnam plays Percy Fawcett, a British army major whose previous experience with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) leads to an opportunity to do some mapping in Bolivia which is vital for defining the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Fawcett, who has a wife (Nina, played by Sienna Miller) and young son (Jack), is at first reluctant, but once he gets to South America, he gets bit by the adventure bug, especially when he begins to hear tales of a lost city that may prove there were advanced civilizations in the Amazonian jungle long before Europeans or even Egyptians were building cities of their own. 

The RGS, led by Sir George (Ian Mcdiarmid), is sceptical of these tales, but James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) sees an opportunity for fame and agrees to join Fawcett and his team (which includes Henry Costin, played by Robert Pattinson) for a second expedition to Amazonia. Meanwhile, Fawcett has another son and Nina has studied the Amazon and wants to join the expedition, to which her husband naturally replies something like: “A woman in the jungle? Are you mad??” Fawcett goes off without her, Murray turns out to be a disastrous addition to the team, Jack begins to resent his father’s constant absence, and so on. Will Fawcett ever find the lost city of Z? I won’t say, but I will say that Fawcett accomplished much in terms of opening up the Amazonian jungle and treating its indigenous people like human beings instead of like savages or slaves (as the rubber barons saw them).

The Lost City of Z is gorgeously filmed, has a great score, tells an important and exciting story and features a lot of excellent acting. The drama, which focuses on Fawcett’s life in the UK, works particularly well. The adventure half of the film certainly contains many great moments, but it suffers from what was, for me, a serious flaw: A constant lack of clarity about the current state of each expedition (questions like: where are they now? what is their next goal? how much time has passed? what is the state of their team and supplies?). This lack of information created too much frustration for me to award the film ****. Too bad; this could have been a classic.

So The Lost City of Z gets a solid ***+. It’s a much better film than Kong, though action lovers will no doubt see things very differently.  

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Viceroy's House

While in the UK, I had to watch at least one film that won’t be released in North America for a while. The only qualifying film of interest was Viceroy’s House.

Directed by Gurinder Chadha (she made Bend it Like Beckham), Viceroy’s House stars Hugh Bonneville as Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, cousin to King George VI, who was sent to India in 1947 as its last viceroy in order to negotiate India’s independence. Gillian Anderson plays Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina, who is a progressive woman determined to treat the Indian people with the kind of respect not afforded them under colonial rule. Mountbatten, known for his charm, tolerates his wife’s compassion but all their good will cannot prevent the incredible tension and violence that is to come as India is split into two countries (Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan). 

Muhammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), leader of the All-India Muslim League, has long wanted a separate country for India’s Muslims, despite Gandhi’s clear warnings that such a division will wreak havoc (Gandhi is played by Neeraj Kabi). Mountbatten supports Gandhi’s position, but doesn’t realize that powers greater than he have already determined India’s fate, for reasons that are anything but thoughtful or constructive (as Mountbatten would like to be).

This part of Viceroy House’s plot is well done and tells a vital story that needs to be told. However, Viceroy House has another story to tell and gives it almost as much weight. That story is the romantic relationship between Jeet (Manish Dayal), who is one of Mountbatten’s valets and a Hindu, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a Muslim woman who works for Edwina. This relationship allows Chadha to come at the separation of religions from a different viewpoint and many viewers will no doubt be drawn to the story of the young couple. However, this story is much weaker than the other and weakens the entire film as a result by so sharply dividing its time. With a stronger focus, Viceroy’s House might have been a classic instead of an important but light entertainment.

I understand why Chadha made the film the way she did (having to do with the story of her own parents during that time), and her heart is certainly in the right place, which counts for much with me. But while much of the acting is very strong (especially that of veteran supporting actors like Simon Callow, Michael Gambon and Om Puri), too much of the dialogue and acting are not as strong as they could be and I can’t give Viceroy’s House more than somewhere between *** and ***+. Nevertheless, my mug is up and I recommend this film to everyone. 

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island

I had a couple of hours free and I needed a warm place to sit, so while travelling in the UK, I stopped in to watch Kong: Skull Island. It was one of those rare times when I watched a film before checking how it was rated b y my favourite critics. Had I checked, I may have passed on this chance to waste my time on this poor excuse of an adventure film.

Kong: Skull island has a lot of things going for it, like the interesting premise of a lost island in the Pacific, which is almost unreachable due to perpetual storm clouds. Then there’s the fascinating group of actors, like John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Tim Hiddleston. These actors almost made the film worth watching, but some of their lines were so cringe-worthy that the operative word remains ‘almost’. And Kong himself was the best thing about the film, rendered very believably and given a unique blend of characteristics and history (better than any of the human actors). And the cinematography was occasionally breathtaking. 

But all the good stuff went to waste as we watch one character after another get killed off by the various ‘monsters’ on Skull Island (sorry for the spoiler, but I’m doing you a favour here). There’s almost nothing original in how the story plays out, making that story not worth telling and not worth watching, especially with all the silly action, which often made so little sense you just want to scream at the characters for their unbelievable stupidity (like: “let’s go rescue a possible survivor even though we don’t know if he’s alive and even though we certainly know that many of us will die if we try it!”). Jackson’s character alone is worth skipping the film.

So Kong: Skull island gets **+ for all those good things, but my mug is down. Don’t waste your time unless you’re a sucker for romantic action adventure films (the way I’m a sucker for musicals).

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Young Karl Marx

I’m on the road these days, and thus my lack of reviews. Yesterday, James and I were in Heidelberg, where we watched The Young Karl Marx, which chronicles the lives of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the seven years (1841-1848) prior to the publication of their most important work, The Communist Manifesto

The Young Karl Marx is a French/German co-production directed by Raoul Peck. It takes place in four countries (Germany, France, England and Belgium) and its characters speak three languages (German, French and English). Unfortunately for us, the version we watched had all the French and English dubbed into German. This was, for me, the film’s biggest flaw, as some of the German dubbing just didn’t work (voices sounding too alike and often sounding ‘dubbed’ (understandably), which is, for me, a criminal offence in the world of filmmaking). I can’t really blame the filmmakers for this flaw, however, because presumably there will be a DVD which will allow me to hear all the words in their spoken languages (with subtitles) and that film will be much better than the one we watched.

Dubbing aside, I found The Young Karl Marx mysteriously compelling. I say ‘mysteriously’ because the way the story is written and presented would suggest that the film is lost between trying to present the ideas of Marx and Engels and trying to present an entertaining drama. In other words, it should be boring, but it’s not (at least not to me). I was riveted from start to finish, not least because the film deals with ideas that have not lost their freshness or relevancy even after 170 years (a depressing indictment, in my view, of those wasted 170 years, in which the capitalist experiment continues unabated and the world is run, more than ever, by the corporate elites, at the expense of the working classes). I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy of the history, but I found the mix of drama and ideas to be just about right.

Another reason I found The Young Karl Marx compelling was the casting of August Diehl in the lead role. I found his performance convincing and sympathetic. Stefan Kornaske was solid as Engels, and Vicky Krieps and Hannah Steele were excellent as Jenny von Westphalen and Mary Burns, the women who played key roles in the lives of Marx and Engels, not only as their spouses (Marx didn’t actually marry Jenny until 1850, but they lived together) but also in the development of their thought. As James just pointed out, one of the highlights of the film was the way the relationship between Marx and Engels was portrayed, something that works because of the performances.

The cinematography and score were also excellent. I don’t know when The Young Karl Marx will come to North America, but if you are at all interested in the lives of these profound and essential thinkers, don’t miss it. ***+ (*** for the dubbed version). My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

TV56: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

The first season of American Crime Story is really a ten-part miniseries on the so-called Trial of the Century: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Unlike many people around the world, including tens of millions in the U.S., I didn’t pay much attention to the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Perhaps that’s one reason the show didn’t blow me away, the way it blew away a majority of TV critics. The People v. O.J. Simpson has received countless awards and overwhelming critical acclaim. Frankly, I can’t see it. For a TV show, and even for a TV miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson is very good. But, in my opinion, it’s far from great.

The People v. O.J. Simpson begins with the police arrival at the murder scene and goes on to show Simpson’s arrest, the preparations for his trial, and the trial itself. The story makes for fascinating television, especially when it highlights the racial implications of the trial, which are, in fact, a focal point of the show. I thought that aspect of the series was handled very well, with lots of good writing and dialogue in evidence. And there were a number of marvellous scenes in the courtroom (and outside of it). But, in the end, The People v. O.J. Simpson suffers from exactly the same major flaw as most miniseries: it’s far too long for what it offers.

In particular, I thought the second episode was abysmal and I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that millions of viewers stopped watching the show after the second episode. The entire episode is about a slow-moving interstate car chase, in which Simpson, fleeing his arrest, is sitting in the back of his white Ford Bronco with a gun to his own head, while dozens of police cars follow. Sure, this scene was watched live around the world and was major news, but the very fact that this was the case shows how warped our society’s obsession with celebrity is. This scene deserved maybe fifteen to twenty minutes. To draw it out for a whole episode was completely unnecessary and very boring. I could point to many other scenes in the eight-plus-hour show that were unnecessary. It’s a common flaw in miniseries, so it’s forgivable, but this example of poor writing alone prevents me from calling the show great.

Then there’s the acting. Leading the prosecution is Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson, who is certainly the best thing about the show and deserves all her awards for her phenomenal performance. Helping her is Chris Darden, played by Sterling K. Brown, who is well-cast and does a good job. Simpson is played by Cuba Gooding Jr., whose acting was generally quite good in its own way. But Gooding Jr. doesn’t sound at all like Simpson and his whiny voice didn’t feel credible as a representation of Simpson. So, despite Gooding, Jr.’s abilities, I can’t help but think this was a serious casting mistake. But not as big a mistake as casting John Travolta as Bob Shapiro, one of the core members of Simpson’s defence team. Regardless of how close Travolta came to emulating Shapiro, his over-the-top acting made Shapiro look like a fool and made me cringe most of the time. Other members of the defence team fared much better, especially Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, who took over the leadership of the defence. Vance was superb, second only to Paulson. Nathan Lane was also very good as F. Lee Bailey and David Schwimmer had his moments as Simpson’s lawyer and close friend, Robert Kardashian. 

Other actors of note were Bruce Greenwood as Gil Garcetti, the L.A. D.A., who did fine, and Kenneth Choi as Judge Lance Ito, who was solid enough. At the end of the series, we are shown what people looked like side-by-side with the actors who played them. Clearly it was a priority to find lookalikes, because the resemblance is amazing. But rather than impressing me, this only served to explain the mistakes in casting.

I should point out that the cinematography was of the finest Cable TV standard. In the end, The People v. O.J. Simpson gets a solid ***+. My mug is up, but I had expected something tastier and more stimulating inside. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

It's Our 10th Anniversary!

It has been exactly ten years since we (Walter and Vic) started this blog. During those years, the blog has evolved. At first, it was envisioned as a way for the two of us to dialogue about the films we were watching, with the hope that others would be interested in reading, and contributing to, this dialogue. However, it soon became clear that the dialogue element of the blog would be somewhat limited, due to varying opportunities to access and watch films. As a result, the blog became more focused on providing film reviews from our personal perspectives, which, whether or not it was overt, always included a theological component. Due to Vic’s writing of film reviews for other publications (e.g. Canadian Mennonite and Third Way CafĂ©), and his ability to watch far more films, he became the primary contributor, with Walter contributing as he was able.

In total, we have written 675 posts during the ten years, reviewing more than 750 films and cable TV shows. With less than 30 posts a year during the first four years, we have averaged 94 posts a year since 2010. Our readership has increased steadily over the past decade, with more than 132,000 pageviews to date. A big thank you to all our followers and readers, and a special thanks to those who posted comments. Please don’t be shy about joining the conversation.

To celebrate our tenth anniversary, we decided to share with you a list of our jointly-favourite films of the past decade, listed in order of how highly we agreed on our appreciation of the films. To clarify, this list does not contain all of Walter’s favourite films or Vic’s favourite films (annual lists of this kind can be found on the blog, generally in January), but a list of films that we are equally excited about (two mugs held high, as it were). So the first film on the list, Of Gods and Men, was, for both os us, our favourite film of 2011, the only time this happened. 

This does not mean that we think this list represents the best thirty films of the past decade. Rather, these are films that, for whatever reasons, we particularly enjoyed. While most of the individual years are equally-represented below, there are six films on the list from 2014 (the best year for film during past decade). Another stat of interest is that ten of these thirty films are foreign-language films and only a couple would qualify as Hollywood films.

Some readers may be wondering why we use mugs to describe our appreciation of films, something we haven’t addressed since our very earliest blog posts. Well, we happen to both be coffee lovers, so, ‘thumbs up’ being taken, we decided to lift up our mugs to the good films we were watching. The films below all got a ‘mug up’ from both of us, and the mugs were full of Colombia’s finest (fair trade, of course).
  1. Of Gods and Men (2011)
  2. The Lives of Others (2007)
  3. The Visitor (2008) 
  4. Les Miserables (2012)
  5. Calvary (2014)
  6. Short Term 12 (2013)
  7. Winter’s Bone (2010)
  8. Once (2007)
  9. Tangerines (2015) (made in 2013 but released in 2015)
  10. Monsieur Lazhar (2012)
  11. Captain Fantastic (2016)
  12. The King’s Speech (2010)
  13. Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2009)
  14. Ex Machina (2015)
  15. The Salt of the Earth (2015)
  16. A Man Called Ove (2016)
  17. Locke (2014)
  18. Ida (2014)
  19. Incendies (2011)
  20. Cloud Atlas (2012)
  21. Take Shelter (2011)
  22. The Ghost Writer (2010)
  23. Selma (2014)
  24. Pride (2014)
  25. Hellbound? (2012)
  26. The Way (2011)
  27. Her (2013)
  28. Doubt (2008)
  29. Leviathan (2014) 
  30. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Saturday, 11 February 2017

20th Century Women

Filmmaker Mike Mills’s last film, Beginners (2010), was about his father, who came out as gay at the age of 75. 20th Century Women, which is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979, is about Mills’s mother (his father is completely absent and apparently long out of the picture). 

Mills is represented by 15-year-old Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann), who lives in a large house with his mother (Dorothea, played by Annette Bening) and her two boarders: William (Billy Crudup), the handyman and former hippy, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who is recovering from cancer treatments. Jamie’s best friend is 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who climbs up the side of the house each night to sleep beside Jamie. Jamie has a crush on Julie, but their relationship is platonic (at Julie’s insistence). 

20th Century Women is an ensemble film - all of the above characters (some of whom are quite eccentric) are fully-developed and given significant airtime - but at its centre is Dorothea, who, at the age of 55, is struggling with aging and with the rapid changes happening in the life of her son. She regularly invites men to dinner, and has feelings for William, but she resists deeper relationships.

As for her son, Dorothea feels that Jamie might need more than just one parent at this point in his life, so she enlists Abbie and Julie to help her parent Jamie. Abbie, a radical feminist, tries to help Jamie by sharing with him the most intimate details of being a woman and giving him books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful. Julie, meanwhile, is sharing with Jamie the intimate details of her active sex life. When Dorothea realizes what she’s done, she tries to protect Jamie from the other two women in his life. But he keeps assuring her that everything is alright.

20th Century Women is a meandering film, moving through time and experiences in a quirky and almost haphazard way, but many of its scenes are absolutely magical - full of wisdom and astonishingly good performances, and, as the stories of each character unfold, we begin to see the larger picture of Jamie’s and Dorothea’s lives in a way that makes the film seem greater than the sum of its parts, even while many of those parts are profound and beautiful. The result is a deeply-satisfying film that feels incredibly real and honest, a depiction of everyday life that everyone can relate to in some way, full of natural and brilliant acting by all concerned (Bening stands out with one her best performances). 

At the same time, one gets the feeling that the story is a little too easy. Where are the emotional outbursts that usually accompany the pain and loneliness some of these characters are experiencing? Where are the tragic consequences of stupid choices? Or have films made us think that life is always dramatic? Because the film is autobiographical, I have to assume that this relatively calm and understated story is a reliable reflection of Mills’s life at the time. And maybe the story can connect more deeply with us as a result.

Despite the fact that Jamie is, in some way, the central figure of the film, what sets 20th Century Women apart are the strong, dynamic, fully-realized women, from three different generations, who surround Jamie. Each of these women is struggling to find her place in a life and time full of challenges for women. Though written by a man, this is, in my opinion (as a man) very much a feminist film.

20th Century Women gets ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up. While I wouldn’t recommend 20th Century Women to those who generally don’t like quirky arthouse comedy dramas, or to those who are offended by explicit sexual conversation, I think this underrated gem about relationships and community is a must-see.