Friday, 20 October 2017

Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is a very unusual film. That’s often a compliment, but in this case it’s more of a mistake. 

The story is well known, at least to those of us who were old enough in 1973 to remember watching the “Battle of the Sexes”; to remember listening to Howard Cosell’s cringe-worthy commentary. Those were the days, my friend! Men were men! Women were pregnant or in the kitchen! Guys like Bobby Riggs proudly identified as a male chauvinist. However far we may still have to go in the battle for gender equality, Battle of the Sexes at least shows us how amazingly far we have come since 1973, when men could get away with saying the most absurd things about women (e.g. “women just can’t handle pressure as well as men”).

In 1973, the 55-year-old Riggs (played by Steve Carell), who was a tennis champion is his younger days and is now a gambler, challenges the world’s best women tennis players to a match to show just how inferior women’s tennis is to men’s tennis. After Riggs beats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) in two sets, world champion Billy Jean King (Emma Stone), who’s been fighting for gender equality, can’t resist taking up the challenge to put Riggs in his place. 

So much for the sports and spectacle side of the plot. If Battle of the Sexes was really just about this story, it would have been a dud. Thankfully, that story is secondary to the real story. The real story is about Billy Jean King’s fight for gender equality and her affair with her hairdresser (Marilyn, played by Andrea Riseborough) at a time when going public with such an affair would have been a huge scandal that might have ended King’s career (and she was only 29 in 1973). 

The drama focusing on King is excellent filmmaking. Stone, who is perhaps the greatest actor of her generation (and yes, I include men) is terrific as King, and Riseborough is excellent as well. The story flows well, the dialogue is sharp, and there’s even some appropriate comic relief by way of Ted, the fashion designer (Alan Cumming, who is wonderful), who is also gay. The first half of Battle of the Sexes is almost entirely about King and it’s a solid ***+ film at this point. 

Unfortunately, the instant the film turns to Riggs, his gambling addiction, and his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who throws Riggs out of the house, it loses its credibility as well as its class. The acting of Carell and Shue is only mediocre, their characters aren’t interesting and the story is barely average. If the film and been split between the stories of Riggs and King, it would have only been good for ***.  But fortunately that is not the case. Most of the film is about King and even the big event is secondary (as mentioned above). 

Because of this, I’m going to let the mostly-entertaining Battle of the Sexes slide across to ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Hunting Emma (Jagveld) (2017 EIFF 7)

Let’s get back to the EIFF.

My least favourite film at the EIFF was Hunting Emma, a violent South African thriller with a hint of dark comedy; in other words, it’s a dark Tarantino-esque film from filmmaker Byron Davis. 

The plot is straightforward, predictable, boring and, well, you’ll get the picture: Emma Le Roux (played by Leandie du Randt) is a beautiful young pacifist woman who has been trained in all things military by her ex-special-forces father (Tertius Meintjes). When the unarmed Emma accidentally witnesses the murder of a police officer in the middle of the desert, she goes on the run in a desperate attempt to survive against half a dozen armed men. In the end, she finds that her pacifism doesn’t cut it in the fight against real evil - it’s a good thing her dad taught her how to fight. Her final words in the film are: “I finally learned to shoot!” You get only one guess as to what I might find problematic with this film.

You got it: Hunting Emma is a film that intentionally defends the myth of redemptive violence, basically arguing that pacifism is utterly useless (and just plain stupid). Great stuff!

For what it is (a low-budget chase film), Hunting Emma is a well-made little film with decent acting and good production values. But it’s also a complete waste of time. Regardless of how tongue-in-cheek the story is supposed to be, it’s just plain wrong. * My mug is down.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

TV67: Game of Thrones, Season Seven

Back in July, after the first two episodes of the seventh season of Game of Thrones had been aired on HBO, I heard so many bad things about this season from friends and a few trusted critics that I almost thought I should avoid watching it. That would have been a huge mistake, because the short seventh season is among my favourites, not least because it has almost no gratuitous violence, sex and nudity (the first season that can make such a claim). I guess the producers/creators finally got the message that a TV show as well-made and compelling as Game of Thrones does not need such garbage in order to sustain viewership.

I won’t say anything about the plot, since by now you’re either a regular viewer or this isn’t your kind of show. I’ll just say that if you are a regular viewer, you won’t want to miss this season. But chances are you watched this season long before I did. I was sitting around the dinner table a few nights ago with friends from Colombia and Iraqi Kurdistan (as well as fellow Winnipeggers) and most of them were huge fans of Game of Thrones and had long finished watching season seven. It is definitely an international phenomenon. Insofar as this promotes a lively discussion among people with such diverse backgrounds, this is a good thing. But, as I have noted in previous reviews, Game of Thrones has had its dangerous moments, promoting attitudes (consciously or not) that are not healthy in the world we live in (e.g. revenge). 

Nevertheless, this seventh season highlights the positive attributes of some of my favourite characters (e.g. Tyrion and Jon Snow) in a way that does seem to want to help us all become better people, which is a very good thing indeed. Female viewers may prefer the many strong female characters in Game of Thrones, (e.g. Deanerys, Arya), who are also among the show’s more discussion-worthy characters. All of these characters go a long way toward offsetting the show’s negative qualities, which include role models I would not want to see emulated.

I almost gave up watching Games of Thrones after the fourth season and again after the fifth season. But I couldn’t stay away, and the last two seasons have made me glad I didn’t. In particular, the growth of my favourite character (Tyrion, one of my favourite characters ever) in these seasons has been a thrill to watch. My mug is back up again for one of the best and most important shows in the history of television.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Update: I watched Blade Runner 2049 again, this time in IMAX 2D instead of medium-screen 3D. I can only ask WHY?. Why are 3D films still being made? Why are people watching them? The IMAX 2D was a revelation - like watching a different film altogether - so much more beautiful and so much more "a film".



The second ‘wow’ is for Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who has amazingly succeeded in having a film in my top five of the year for the third straight year. 

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, released in 1982, is among my thirty favourite films of all time. It wasn’t a big hit in its day, but I was blown away in 1982 and watched it again and again over the years (in different cuts) trying, with friends, to explain all the theological images and figure out whether Deckard was himself a replicant (human-like robot). The lack of such enigmatic images and questions in Blade Runner 2049 is why this film is not as good as the original sci-fi noir classic, but in its own way it’s still a masterpiece (and repeated viewings may yet uncover images I missed the first time).

While the sequel retains some of the feel of the original, with a similar sound and cinematography, and brings back some of the actors, there are major differences in style and atmosphere between the two films. For example, 2049 has less of a noir feel and more of a post-apocalyptic feel and there’s a sense that Villeneuve is trying to make a spectacle that will appeal to the masses in a way that Scott wasn't trying to do. Nevertheless, 2049 retains the slow pace and minimal action, combined with an intelligent sci-fi story and mind-blowing vistas, that made the original so great.

This time out, our blade runner protagonist (K, played by Ryan Gosling) knows he’s a replicant. He’s one of the latest models of replicants, supposedly incapable of rebellion (guaranteed to obey). The person responsible for these new replicants is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who has taken over the Tyrell Corporation. Wallace is keen on taking replicants to a new level of mass production (of slaves), so he and his assistant (a replicant named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks) get very excited when K uncovers a box in the desert containing the bones of a female replicant who gave birth before she died. 

K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), is not as much excited as horrified by what the news of a replicant giving birth could do to her ordered world (such as it is). So she wants K to find the child (if it still exists) and kill it, destroying any trace that the child ever existed. Luv also wants K to find the child, but with very different motives.

K’s search will lead him to the eerie ruins of Las Vegas, where he meets none other than Deckard himself (Harrison Ford), the original blade runner (I wish I hadn’t known he was in the film, but the trailers made no secret of it). With Deckard in the picture, the long slow-moving 2049 quickly picks up its pace and we’re in for a more standard wild ride after that. But along the way, K’s search for answers will bring him (and us) into contact with a number of fascinating characters and some even more fascinating questions about what it means to be human, eventually overturning K’s understanding of replicants (including himself).

I can reveal no more. The acting in Blade Runner 2049 is very good, and a lot of the credit goes to excellent casting choices. As hinted above, the score and cinematography are terrific, making this a must-see on the big screen (I was forced to watch it in 3D; as soon as possible I will watch to again in 2D and report on whether, and how much, 3D negatively impacted the film).

Blade Runner 2049 does have a few flaws, most especially the way it adheres to the typical aspects of the myth of redemptive violence, but the film is such a wonder to watch on the big screen and does such a great job of engaging the viewer and making us part of the sad world of its sad characters that the flaws are overshadowed. As a result, 2049 is going to be one of the candidates for my favourite film of the year. An easy ****. My mug is up!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

A Fantastic Woman (2017 EIFF 6)


Yeah, I know, I’m writing about the ‘wow’ films at EIFF first rather than pacing myself. But these great films are the ones I want to write about while they are fresh in my mind. There are other excellent films still coming, as well as a couple of duds.

The most sublime performance of the 2017 EIFF (so far - I have three films to go) is that of Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal, a young waitress and aspiring singer in Chile whose life is turned upside down after the sudden death of her much older boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). 

At the heart of Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman lies the fact that Marina is a trans woman. Because of that, she is treated abominably by most of Orlando’s family, who view her as a perversion, and by the various authorities she has to face because of the circumstances of Orlando’s death. It is devastating to watch, but Marina’s strength in the midst of grief never wavers and this well-written film tells her story with great compassion. 

A Fantastic Woman is a timely heartfelt film that features stunning cinematography, great music and solid performances, all of which are overshadowed by Vega’s performance, which is so nuanced and electric that the film’s acting and writing flaws are difficult to see. Expect an Academy Award nomination for Vega. A Fantastic Woman gets a solid ****. My mug is up - don’t miss it if it comes to a theatre near you. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Florida Project (2017 EIFF 5)


Oh my!

Looking to become my favourite film, not only of the EIFF but of the year, is Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which is set somewhere near Disney World. It’s a world of  elaborately decorated box stores, restaurants shaped like giant oranges and garish motels. The motels were initially built for tourists but are now also home to people living day-to-day, unable to afford monthly rents and damage deposits. Many of those people are single mothers with young children. Among those, living in the bright purple Magic Castle Motel, are Halley (played by Bria Vinaite) and her six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). 

The exceptionally precocious and poorly-parented Moonee is the central character in The Florida Project. She is so mature (in a sense) and worldly that she sometimes seems older and wiser than her young mother. Through the summer, we follow Moonee and her two closest friends, Jancey and Scooty (Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera) as they torment (in a cute way) all the adults they encounter. One of those adults is Bobby (Willem Defoe), the motel manager, who is constantly frustrated with the behaviour of the kids (and with Halley) but does what he can to support them in their difficult lives, lives that will grow ever more difficult as the summer progresses.

The Florida Project is an incredibly humane and humanizing film that perfectly captures the lives of people living on the edge, people who will do almost anything to keep a roof over their heads. The acting of Prince is so perfect and so utterly amazing that one must assume she isn’t acting at all. The rest of the acting is also superb, with Defoe giving one of his best performances in a role that is engaging and inspiring. 

This gorgeously-shot slice-of-life drama finds little pieces of beauty in an otherwise ugly setting in a way that mirrors the heartbreaking lives of those who live there. This is profound independent filmmaking at its very best. The Florida Project gets an easy ****. My mug is way up. 

Tuesday, 3 October 2017


Before I get too focused on the EIFF, let’s come back to the clown in the room. We need to talk about it. It, that is. It is a massive blockbuster, one of the biggest horror films ever, singlehandedly making September the biggest September in box office history. It made me scream alright. But not the kind of screaming one associates with watching horror films. It was a scream of despair.

Let me go back to the beginning. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that I’m a Stephen King fan. I think he’s a marvellous storyteller and an excellent writer and I’ve read almost every book he has written (and that’s a lot). Contrary to the views of many, I consider It one of King’s lesser works. There were moments of brilliance, especially those that didn’t involve the clown, but the horror part of the story never resonated with me. Nevertheless, I watched the the TV miniseries in 1990. It wasn’t great but at least it was trying to be true to the novel.

Now comes this blockbuster, directed Andy Muschietti and written, in part, by Cary Fukunaga, whom I admire a lot as a writer and director. When the critics weighed in with generally favourable reviews and It became such a sensation at the box office, I felt I had no choice but to see it. I have rarely in my life been more disappointed with a film.

For one thing, It isn’t even It. Nowhere on the posters and ads did I see It advertised as It: Chapter One, which is what the end credits correctly call this film. It: Chapter One tells only half of the story. This half (of the film, not the book) happens to be almost exclusively the story of seven thirteen-year-olds who are haunted by, and then deliberately try to hunt down, the incredibly evil (and incredibly ludicrous) monster called Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård). The seven actors in question were awesome, especially Sophia Lillis as the only girl in the group; for me, they were the only good thing in the entire film. 

It is otherwise an awful film, with almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever, just a lot of horror clichés, senseless violence and pointless scares that didn’t scare me at all. Somewhere behind the ridiculous and meaningless story of the clown (whose actions are as illogically ludicrous as the actions of the protagonists), there lurks a dark but beautiful story about these seven young teenagers coming of age in a small town in Maine (the fictitious Derry). But even that story is overburdened with violence and revenge. 

Frankly, I can no longer remember most of the details in King’s novel, but I know that the way this film is structured and quite a few details bear no resemblance to the novel. Yet another mistake. 

When I reviewed mother! recently, I made it clear that I wasn’t recommending it to too many readers. But I gave that film **** because I think it’s a work of genius that is simply not going to appeal to too many viewers. I can now reveal that mother! is, from start to finish, a biblical allegory about God and Mother Earth, which is part of why I ‘enjoyed’ it so much. Some people think there’s more to It than just a monster film. Maybe the orange-haired clown represents actual characters in our world, they say, or maybe it is meant to be a metaphor for the monsters all young teenagers face. To the latter theory, I say: “Okay, but then why throw in all those real-life monsters (the parents of the teenagers)? And why convey the message that the only way to confront monsters is to kill them (as gruesomely as possible)? The positive message that these kids need to move beyond fear and work together to overcome their demons instead of fighting alone is lost in the midst of all that violence.

Unlike mother!, It apparently appeals to a great many viewers. I can't understand why. I can understand Harry Potter, dystopian films and superheroes, but I can't understand this, a film I recommend to no one, because it's an almost complete waste of time. I'm giving It only *+, all of that for the performance by the seven protagonists. My mug is down.