Thursday, 1 December 2016

Allied



As you know, I’m a sucker for quiet intelligent European spy films. When a film in that genre stars actors like Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt at the top of their game and is written by excellent screenwriter Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis, it has an unfair advantage, even when critics haven’t been that kind and Allied has a number of obvious flaws.

It’s the middle of WWII (1942). Cotillard plays a French Resistance fighter (spy) named Marianne Beausejour while Pitt plays Wing Commander Max Vatan, a Canadian officer working out of British Air Force intelligence. Beausejour and Vatan meet in Casablanca, where their mission is to pretend to be married in order to gain an invitation to a party where they are to assassinate a German ambassador. That the location is supposed to remind us of the greatest film ever made (IMHO) is unquestionable, but I saw no reason to try to draw a deeper comparison. 

Without giving away too much (spoiler alert), the inevitable happens, with Beausejour and Vatan falling in love and getting married (after moving to London). Jump ahead to 1944 when Vatan, who now has a one-year-old daughter, is hauled into an office in the lowest dungeons of British Air Force intelligence to face a a high-ranking Special Operations officer (played by Simon McBurney), who informs him that Beausejour is really a German spy. Special Operations wants Vatan to help them prove she’s a spy and then to execute her. Defying explicit orders, Vatan sets out to prove that Special Operations have got it wrong while Vatan’s commanding officer, Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) tries to save Vatan from himself.

Allied is a gorgeous film to watch, even when the Casablanca scenes were actually filmed on the Canary Islands. The score is good. The film moves slowly, but deliciously slow, with great performances all around (though more character development would have been nice) and some excellent dialogue by Knight. The plot, which is based on a true story, is believable and moving, though one of the film’s flaws is the ongoing predictability of the twists and turns. This can sometimes ruin a film for me, but actually I found it forgivable in Allied, partly because I was never sure whether in fact the predictability wasn’t deliberate (in which case the film actually succeeded). 

Allied’s biggest flaw, however, was the unnecessarily graphic violence, especially that carried out by our protagonist (Vatan), who is generally depicted as a coldhearted killer (of Nazis, as if that makes it okay). This was an unfortunate decision and the only thing that made me enjoy the film less. 

Nevertheless, apart from this major flaw, I found Allied to be a beautiful old-fashioned (I like old-fashioned) romantic spy thriller that I enjoyed (for the most part) from start to finish. Most critics seemed to see the beauty but couldn’t find enough substance behind it. I found enough to satisfy someone who’s a sucker for these kinds of films, so I give it a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them



The latest film from the magical land of Harry Potter is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (directed by David Yates), which we saw in a theatre offering bigger sound and a bigger screen (but no 3D; indeed, at our favourite theatre, a solid majority of viewers prefer 2D). Given that there was a lot to look at and a lot to listen to, this was not a bad choice. Too bad the film’s writing (by J.K. Rowling, no less) had two very serious problems, leaving a bad taste in our mouths even while much of the film was thoroughly enjoyable.

Fantastic Beasts stars Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, a former student at Hogwarts (he eventually got kicked out) who comes to New York City in the 1920’s in order to save a fantastic beast. He hunts around the world for these beasts in order to save the beasts from extinction and he’s brought a suitcase full of the beasts with him. However, New York City does not allow magic of any kind, though there’s a very large and beautiful office building (one of many great sets) full of magic in the heart of Manhattan. It’s the home of the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA), whose staff make sure that any magic that does turn up is immediately shut down (lest a war break out). Among the people working for MACUSA are Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the latter being one of the leaders, but a man who behaves in a suspicious and unwholesome manner, especially with the teenage Credence (Ezra Miller), who himself seems a little suspicious.

Credence and his sisters have been adopted by Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), a vicious woman who hates all things magic and is intent on ridding the world of witches. But getting back to the beginning, we have Newt, who accidentally switches suitcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who in turn accidentally looses the fantastic beasts, which draws the attention of Tina and Queen and, well, there’s a lot going on in this film.

The acting was quite strong throughout. I was particularly impressed by Waterston. Redmayne, of course, is one of the best young actors out there. The cinematography occasionally looked like it was made-for-3D (it was), which was sad but not surprising, but on the whole remained solid (especially given all the CGI). The score by James Newton Howard was excellent though often overbearing. And the dialogue and story had many strong moments. Unfortunately, there were those two serious problems I mentioned, which can be summarized by saying that Fantastic Beasts was sometimes far too light and silly and at other times far too dark and violent. The latter was the worst, because of the way the film (Rowling) seemed to create villains simply for the sake (spoiler alert) of getting rid of them (one of my biggest complaints about the use of redemptive violence, especially in films aimed at a young audience). 

So Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them gets only a solid ***. It could have been much better, but my mug is up anyway.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Arrival



Wow!

Denis Villeneuve, one of my favourite Canadian directors (one of my very favourite directors, period), has made another classic, this one very different from his previous films (all of which I also loved). Arrival is a quiet intense sci-fi film about the sudden arrival of aliens on earth. It’s impossible to write a review of Arrival without at least a few spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Arrival yet, stop reading now and go watch the film, knowing only that it will be the third Villeneuve film in seven years (Incendies and Sicario were the other two) to make my list of top ten films of the year. I will add that, unlike most of Villeneuve’s films, there is almost no violence in this one.

Okay, so now you’ve seen this wonderful film, which is based on a short story called Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang and written by Eric Heisserer, and I can share some of the reasons I loved it.

Amy Adams stars as Louise Banks, one of the top linguists in the U.S., who is called in to help the American government (military) communicate with the aliens who just landed a giant black ship in Montana. Eleven other ships have landed around the world and linguists are also trying to communicate with the aliens inside them, but only Banks will achieve major breakthroughs. Helping her with this is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an astrophysicist who works for the military. Both Banks and Donnelly are under the command of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), the man who recruited them for this unique mission.

The aliens communicate only through ‘written symbols’ (produced by ink generated by their ‘hands’) that take a lot of effort to interpret, making this mission a long slow process. But linguists around the world are working together with Banks, and progress is made, be it ever so slowly. Until, that is, one of the linguists translates an alien word as ‘weapon’ and suddenly the communication between countries is cut off, while plans are made to attack the ships before the ships attack earth. This is an example of what happens when you put first contact with aliens into the hands of the military - the military is always in defense mode, viewing everything it doesn’t understand as a threat. 

With all her efforts coming up short, will Banks find a way forward before all hell breaks loose? I’ll leave it there, but let’s just say that what happens next is a very far cry from Independence Day

From beginning to end, Arrival belongs to Adams and she is terrific (I see an Oscar nomination coming) in a role that exemplifies precisely what I was asking for in my controversial review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In that review, I asked why strong female characters in action films need to show that they can be as violent as any man, instead of offering an alternative to violence. Unlike most of the men around her, who quickly panic and reach for their guns, Banks dismisses violence out of hand and, to the last, seeks alternatives. That seeking requires a tremendous amount of courage and determination, as well as intelligence, empathy and compassion, making Banks a far better role model than most ‘action’ heroes. This is the second film in a row in which Villeneuve has featured a strong and thoughtful female protagonist who is surrounded by men who like to shoot first. It’s also Villeneuve’s second film in row that challenges the military mindset. I like this guy!

All I’ve said so far, however, just touches the surface of Arrival. This thought-provoking film goes much deeper, with questions about life that touch on many other issues of our time. For example, it takes a unique look at the power of language and what it means to communicate effectively with others without automatically reacting in fear or with militaristic actions. Another example: if you could see every moment of the rest of your life, with all its joys and sorrows, would you be able to embrace it anyway and not change anything (if given the choice), regardless of the consequences? And did I mention that Arrival is primarily the story of  a mother and her child?

Or is Arrival primarily about time? In a sense, it’s a time-travel film with scenes that, in lesser films, would have had me shaking my head incredulously at the contrived solutions to the paradoxes involved. But Arrival’s way of handling time is so unique that it’s almost impossible to challenge. 

Arrival is a simple, elegant, moving, wise and poetic sci-fi film (though not in the Tarkovsky sense). There are elements of Malick here, with a definite focus on the right side of the brain, but the narrative is strong (even if profoundly complex). The film reminds me of sci-fi classics from my younger days, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact. The cinematography and score, meanwhile, are excellent. Arrival gets an easy **** and will likely be found in my top five films of 2016. 

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Accountant



I had no intention of watching this film, if for no other reason than because it stars Ben Affleck, who is better behind the camera than in front of it, but also because it was getting very mediocre reviews. But then three people I was talking with told me how much they loved The Accountant and I noted that my favourite living major film critic (Gareth doesn’t quite qualify), Kenneth Turan, liked the film a lot, so I decided to give it a chance.

As a result, I saw a couple of very fine performances from the two women who had major roles in the film (Anna Kendrick and Cynthia Addai-Robinson; the latter, and the role she played, were the best things about the film). And, um, uh, nope, that’s it. 

I’m not going to waste my time or yours telling you about the plot of The Accountant, because the story isn’t worth telling. To be more precise, the story isn’t worth telling because the film revels in its graphic violence, especially that perpetrated by the nonstop killing machine who happens to be the protagonist. I watch lots of violent films, and I watch lots of films where violence is clearly meant to entertain, but rarely have I felt as dirty watching violence as I did in The Accountant. Why? Because the accountant (Affleck) is supposed to be a sympathetic guy and we’re supposed to applaud his brutal slaughter of one bad guy after another in a very different way than we applaud James Bond. 

There was no excuse to make this film, though the premise might have worked in better hands (and with another lead actor). ** My mug is down. Don’t waste your time on this one.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Denial



Denial, which is based on a true story, stars Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt, a history professor who specializes in arguing against Holocaust deniers. One of those deniers is David Irving (Timothy Spall), a man who has written WWII history books claiming that the Holocaust didn’t happen. When Lipstadt slams Irving in her most recent book, Irving takes her to court for libel. But since he’s British, the trial happens in London and it’s up to the defence, led by Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) and Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), to prove that Irving deliberately falsified his facts in order to make his claim.

Denial, which was directed by Mick Jackson, is written by David Hare, a writer and filmmaker I admire very much, but he seems to have missed an opportunity here. In other words, the story in Denial has the potential to make a very good film, especially given the quality of the actors (and the acting was excellent, by far the strongest feature in Denial), but it fails at a number of levels.

The biggest problem for me is that the straightforward almost made-for-TV presentation failed to captivate me. Primarily, this was because I could never understand why I should care about this story at all. Despite being a big event in the news, I don’t see why the story of a sad Holocaust denier is a story worth telling. It might have been worth telling if we got to know more about Irving and his motivations or if we were told why this event was important, but neither is the case. 

Then there’s the fact that, while it’s often repeated that the trial is not about whether the Holocaust happened or not, the film takes us to Auschwitz and reminds us again and again that it did happen and that the survivors need to be heard. This would make sense if we need to be reminded that the Holocaust really did happen, but I have never heard anyone seriously question this and have certainly never doubted it myself, so why is this necessary? 

What I’m trying to get at is that I don’t understand why we would take Holocaust deniers seriously enough to make a film about one. 

Finally, there’s the fact that Lipstadt has a slightly irritating voice and personality. I have no doubt that this was deliberate, but it makes Denial difficult to sit through, especially given my complaints above.

As with The Girl on the Train, my review sounds more negative than the end result might warrant, because I did think Denial was worth watching, so will let it slide over the line to ***. My mug is up, but low expectations are in order. 

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Girl on the Train



Directed by Tate Taylor and based on the bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train stars Emily Blunt as Rachel, the girl on the train. Rachel takes the same train to Manhattan every weekday, passing the home of her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), his wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their baby daughter. It has been a very difficult divorce (Tom was having an affair with Anna for years before the divorce) and Rachel has not been able to let go, drowning herself in alcohol and self-pity. She drinks so much that she frequently can’t remember what she did when she was drunk, (a fact which lies at the heart of this psychological thriller). 

Recently, Rachel has been obsessing about Megan (Haley Bennett), the young woman who lives two doors down from Tom and Anna and has become their nanny. Rachel looks at Megan from the train and sees a perfect marriage (with Scott, played by Luke Evans), the kind of marriage she had always wanted, until one morning she thinks she sees Megan kissing another man. This infuriates Rachel and she goes straight to the bar, where she gets drunk and then goes to the neighbourhood where Tom and Anna and Megan live. The next morning, Rachel wakes up covered in blood, with no memory of what happened to her the night before, and discovers that Megan has gone missing. The mystery begins. 

While Rachel is the central character in The Girl on the Train, we also get to see pieces of the story from the view of Megan and Anna. This is very much a film about women (and probably made for women, given that 90% of the audience of 80 people in my theatre were women). Perhaps this explains the odd choice of style, which moves from a dreamlike, poetic Terence Malick to various forms of Hitchcock (there are clear resemblance to Rear Window and Vertigo). I occasionally appreciated the style but it heightens the sense of melodrama that seems out of place in a thriller like this. This might have been forgivable if the film had had more character development, but this was lacking. 

When the film heats up near the end, it kind of falls of the rails (yeah, I had to), feeling too clever for its own good. 

This review sounds very negative, so let me say that I found The Girl on the Train very much worth watching, if for no other reason than to see Blunt’s terrific performance as Rachel. Few actors could make such a pathetic character sympathetic, but Blunt pulls it off. Ferguson and Bennett are also very good, but the male actors could have done better. 

As you know, I’m a fan of quiet, low-action psychological thrillers, so even with all of its flaws I enjoyed watching The Girl on the Train and especially Blunt’s performance. A solid ***. My mug is up. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

The Salesman (EIFF 18)



Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s breakout film, 2011’s Academy-Award-winning A Separation, was a masterpiece, so I’ve come to expect a lot from Farhadi. His next film, The Past, made in 2013, wasn’t as good as A Separation but I loved it as well. So, after awarding four stars to both of the Farhadi films I’ve seen, my expectations for Farhadi’s new film, The Salesman, were admittedly much too high. That was no doubt part of the reason that I was disappointed in the film, though it was still among my top-five films of the EIFF.

The Salesman stars Shahab Hosseini as Emad, who teaches literature and acts in a local theatre company. His current role is that of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Coincidentally (especially for the screenplay, which felt too contrived throughout precisely because of such coincidences), Loman’s wife is played by Emad’s wife, Rana, who in turn is played by Taraneh Alidoosti. Following the first performance of the play, Emad stays behind while Rana goes home (to an apartment they just moved into, which had been previously occupied by a prostitute). (Spoiler alert) When the doorbell rings, Rana assumes it’s Emad, so she opens the door and goes to take her shower. But it’s not Emad, and the man who enters in some way assaults Rana in the shower. 

When Emad finds Rana in the hospital, he is understandably furious, though he seems more concerned with hunting down the assailant than he is with his wife’s welfare, as if he, not his wife, had been attacked. This is one of a number of reasons that Emad is a less-than-sympathetic protagonist, which in turn is one of the reasons The Salesman was disappointing to me, though Emad’s character was probably quite realistic. I assume Farhadi was trying to expose and challenge the way Emad treats Rana, but by making Rana’s suffering primarily a piece of Emad’s story, the film seems to exacerbate rather than challenge this behaviour. 

The Salesman is at its strongest at the end, however, with a number of brilliant, intense and thought-provoking scenes resulting from Emad’s hunt. While there are confusing elements to that hunt, not least because of the way the characters in the play represent characters in the film, it’s riveting and original filmmaking. And despite being a lover of suspense, I was not at all disappointed with the lack of suspense in The Salesman (perhaps because the level of tension was so high). 

The acting in The Salesman is flawless throughout, aided by an unusual character depth (at least for the male characters). The writing is extraordinary at times, with so many pieces fitting perfectly together, but at other times it seems heavy-handed and, as mentioned above, too contrived. Nevertheless, I am giving The Salesman a solid ***+. My mug is up. It’s a must-see for lovers of foreign film.