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


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.

Monday, 29 January 2018

TV73: Big Little Lies

I couldn’t wait to finally watch Big Little Lies. A huge winner at the Emmy’s and the Golden Globes, four great actresses (Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern), one of my all-time favourite TV writers (David E. Kelley, who also created the show); an excellent young Canadian director (Jean-Marc Vallée): how could this show be anything less than a likely candidate for my list of all-time favourite TV serials. Sigh.

Big Little Lies starts off promisingly enough, with a unique flashback structure that tells us someone (probably a major character) died horribly under very suspicious circumstances and the police are investigating. But then we begin the long tedious story about mothers worrying about whose kids are bullying whom in the second grade. Having frequently been the victim of bullies in elementary school, I am not suggesting such topics aren’t serious or worthy of attention. But mostly this is the story of wealthy stay-at-home Moms on the California coast who gossip and argue about their kids and their husbands and then argue with their husbands (at least one of whom is abusive). I know it’s supposed to be a satire of sorts, offering some kind of social commentary, but the story and setting are just too cold and empty to be compelling (give me The O.C. already). 

The actors mentioned above all do a great job, especially Kidman (though I think their talents are wasted here). The male actors were adequate, but only Alexander Skarsgård stood out. The cinematography and music are outstanding, and the direction is hard to fault. It’s just the writing. I can’t figure out what Kelley was trying to do with Big Little Lies. Whatever it was, it sure didn’t work for me (many critics obviously felt differently). I felt I had basically wasted my time on this award-winning suspense drama, which was luckily less than seven hours long. Because of its overall high quality, I’m still going to give Big Little Lies ***, but my mug fell over.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Walter's Top Ten Films of 2017

Following Vic's Top 15 and the slightly more famous Oscar nominations, here is my modest list of ten top films of 2017:

As a prelude, though, let's get the bad out of the way - the year's biggest disappointments that I've been calling my "spilled coffee list." Leading it off, we have Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. It wasn't the worst film of the year, but I have to give it this honour in order to contrast with the insane amount of critics who seem to think it was something special. The only thing that I can think is that some critics ask themselves, "Would I have liked this when I was in middle school?"  Other top disappointments of the year were Life, Allied, and Collateral Beauty.

Films that might have stood a chance for me that I haven't seen yet include The Florida Project, Mudbound, Loving Vincent and Molly's Game. And honourable mentions include The Shape of Water, Back to Burgundy, Their Finest and 20th Century Women. 

A fumi-e offered for recanting faith10. Silence - This is a film full of contradictions - one of those contradictions is whether or not it is a great film. In some ways I think it was: it was a well-made film adaptation of an excellent but devastating novel (that I read back in the early 90s). The film succeeds in hitting the viewer with the same turmoil of thoughts and doubts and wonderings that the novel does. But is it justifiable to make this film without the slightest sign of self-awareness that while the Jesuits were being tortured by “The Inquisitor” in Japan, the Spanish Inquisition was carrying on back in Europe? I scoured many interviews with Scorcese and saw no evidence that this irony was in sight. Inexcusable. A contradiction. But so thought-provoking it had to make my list.

9. The Big Sick - This film was recommended to me by many people, and I understood why. It has the fresh intelligence of earlier Apatow comedies without being crass or stupid. Instead it is uniquely humourous and tells a heartfelt story.

Scene from A Kid (older man speaking to younger man)

8. A Kid - (en Francais: Le Fils de Jean) I suspect that not too many people have seen this modest film set in France and  Quebec, and it’s possible that this fact moved it up my list a bit. There is a quiet sense of mystery and tension in this family drama that isn't exploited but remains realistic and true. It’s occasionally funny but doesn’t pretend to be a comedy, and woven through it are themes of commitment, forgiveness and the long term consequences of character and choices.

normal people look down at very small people7. Downsizing -  For me this was a really great “almost.” The idea is wonderful and parts of it worked
really well. The themes are timely and the exploration of them fascinating. What happens when you reframe and sell “saving the world” as “live the American Dream you’ve always wanted”? But it just felt like the film as a whole couldn’t completely bring itself together. Is that just intentionally mirroring the lostness of the “everyman” hero? Maybe.

6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi - I don't think a Star Wars film has ever made my list (since I wasn't making lists back in '77). Yes, this one has its weaknesses. But for me this revived hope in the saga that lost its way and double-backed on itself in The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi had a lot of thought-provoking bits that actually make me want to watch it again soon: do we still need the Force or have the tides changed?

5. Blade Runner 2049 - Being a respecter rather than fan of the original, I did not go with grand expectations. I found this sequel superior in many ways - infinitely more watchable IMHO. I’d suggest that it was possibly more thought-provoking too, but something tells me that the fans of the original would loudly disagree with that.

Beatriz raises her glass in a toast
4. Beatriz at Dinner - This is an unusual film and may have stimulated more post-film thinking than any of the films on the list. This dark comedy brings a lot of important things to the surface - most uniquely the threat of burning out if working intensely and emotionally for a better world without a community supporting you (or maybe even with).

3. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri - Overall this is a better-made film than Lady Bird. It probably even had more of the best kind of quality than The Post. But its world is too dark for me to rank it higher than this. Yes, it has many bright spots: excellent and unpredictable characters, great acting, great soundtrack, and it is so beautifully filmed; but be sure that you can watch a tough film before you dive in.

2. Lady Bird -  It’s possible that Saoirse Ronan’s acting is enough by itself to make it to #2 on my list. But along with that strength comes a film with a perfect balance of realism and light humour, capturing the gutsy spark, naivete, and very unfinished bits that come with being a high school senior. The film leaves you wanting to be kinder to high school (university?) students even when their actions are frustrating.

All the men gather around the woman who has to make the decision

1. The Post -  I was preparing to write up my top ten list and was feeling that there simply wasn’t a film that was worthy of being #1. There were a lot of good films but none that stood out with enough heft to play this role. Then I saw The Post - the last film I would watch before I made a call on my top ten. I knew it had a chance because I am partial to investigative journalist films, but neither Spielberg nor Streep are normally as esteemed in my book as they are for many.

But this film did it for me. I understand Vic’s disappointment about its not hitting contemporary relevance harder (given the intensity of this relevance in the Trump era), but nevertheless those parallels are still clear, and I think Spielberg was right not to dilute the focus on the bravery of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), a barely experienced woman surrounded by powerful men. I found that theme highly moving and convincing. And there’s just something about the presses rolling with a hard-edged, breaking story - one of the best alternative symbols to a winning battle scene: a victory based on truth, courage and hard work instead of violence. I seriously do not understand how I didn’t get into journalism.

Late Additions - Here in St. Stephen, it's pretty standard that I am behind-the-times seeing great films. So here are some older films that I saw this past year that were top notch but too late to make it for their year: Manchester by the Sea, Le goût des merveilles, Moonlight, Trumbo, Miss Sloane, Fences and a delightful Japanese film called Sweet Bean.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Vic's Top Fifteen Films of 2017

Based on the number of four-star reviews (from me), 2017 was not as good a year for film as the last three years, but it was an exceptional year for women involved in filmmaking (and for women in general). In 2017, I watched far more films which were written and/or directed by women and/or had a female protagonist than in any previous year. This is reflected in the list below. I have never before had a top-ten or top-fifteen list that contained more than one film directed by a woman. This year, my list contains no less than four films written and directed by women and twelve films with a female protagonist. Remarkable! I just hope it’s a sign that a fundamental and permanent change is taking place.

Other observations about my list:
  1. Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has his fourth straight film on my list, just missing the number one spot this year. Jim Jarmusch has his second straight film in my top four, and Andrey Zvyagintsev has his second straight film in my top six.
  2. I have not yet been able to see Phantom Thread, which I am almost sure would have been on my list (maybe next year).
  3. I have not had the opportunity to watch Call Me By Your Name a second time. I have a hunch that I might like this extraordinary film more on a second viewing and that it would then make my list (it just misses my list now, as does A Ghost Story).
  4. Not making my list, but coming close and worthy of mention, are two sequel films that pleasantly surprised me: War for the Planet of the Apes, which had my favourite score of the year, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which was much better than The Force Awakens and is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back in 1980).
  5. It was a great year for films that are unlike anything I have seen before. About half of the films on my list are there because they are so original and imaginative.
  6. Since I watched well over 100 films in 2017 (perhaps the most ever), I have taken the liberty of allowing for a tie in the number fifteen spot, which means I actually have sixteen films on my list this year. Here’s the list, counting down from fifteen:
15. The Shape of Water - With its breathtaking cinematography, its 50’s sci-fi feel and the terrific performance by Sally Hawkins (who plays a mute janitor at a secret research facility), this magical original film about love and how we view ‘the other’ could have been much higher on my list. Unfortunately, Guillermo del Toro saw fit to throw in a couple of unimaginative graphically-violent scenes that almost kept The Shape of Water off my list altogether. 

15. Beatriz at Dinner - Miguel Arteta’s film about Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a Mexican immigrant and New Age healer who gets accidentally invited to a dinner with Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a billionaire real estate mogul, has wonderful nuanced performances from the two stars along with brilliant dialogue that asks all the right questions, keeping me engaged from start to finish. 

14. Loving Vincent - The only animated film on my list, Loving Vincent contains 65,000 paintings (one for each frame) based on130 masterworks by Vincent Van Gogh. The paintings are used as backdrops for an intriguing tale about Amand Roulin’s (voiced by Douglas Booth) investigation into Van Gogh’s life and mysterious death, told in a film noir style. This gorgeous mesmerizing masterpiece was written and directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. 

13. Their Finest - As I celebrate the role of women in filmmaking in 2017, it’s appropriate to include a film about the role of women in filmmaking (and about the role of women in WWII Britain generally). Written by Gaby Chiappe and directed by Lone Scherfig, Their Finest stars Gemma Arterton as a screenwriter for a 1940 propaganda film about the retreat from Dunkirk. It’s much more fun, and more insightful, than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

12. Novitiate - This low-budget indie film from Margaret Betts looks and feels like a major production. It follows the trials of Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a young woman training to become a nun in the early 1960’s who faces the stern discipline of the conservative Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) during the stressful days of the Second Vatican Council. Great acting, beautiful cinematography and an excellent screenplay.

11. Molly’s Game - Aaron Sorkin is, in my opinion, the best screenwriter out there. This time he also directs. Even without a subject that interests me or a particularly sympathetic protagonist, Sorkin won me over with this riveting, fast-paced and intelligent film. Based on true events, Molly’s Game stars Jessica Chastain in a terrific performance as Molly Bloom, a woman arrested by the FBI for running an illegal gambling establishment. Idris Elba, also terrific, plays Charlie Jaffey, the only lawyer willing to take her case. 

10. mother! - Despised by most viewers and called the “worst movie of the century” by one major critic, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is another totally original and mind-blowing work of art from this mad filmmaking genius. Jennifer Lawrence is great as the ‘mother’, trying to look after a gorgeous mansion in the middle of nowhere while her husband, the poet (Javier Bardem), allows all kinds of visitors to come mess it up. On the surface, this is a pure horror film, but it’s actually a profound biblical allegory about God and mother Earth. 

9. The Post - Steven Spielberg’s latest film is one of the very few he has made with a female protagonist. With Meryl Streep in the role of Kay Graham, the owner/publisher of the Washington Post who goes up against Nixon’s White House in 1971, Spielberg could hardly go wrong. Having Tom Hanks on board as Ben Bradlee, The Post’s executive editor, doesn’t hurt. The Post is another vital film about the changing role of women in the workplace (not to mention the role of the media in holding governments accountable). 

8. downsizing - Perhaps the most underrated film of the year, Alexander Payne’s downsizing stars Matt Damon as Paul Safranek, a man who decides to try downsizing (to the height of five inches) and moving to an ideal miniaturized community as a way to refresh his stagnant life. He regrets that decision until he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, who is marvellous). A profound, original and humanizing film about how to live in an unsustainable world. 

7. A Fantastic Woman - Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman stars Daniela Vega in a sublime performance as Marina Vidal, a trans woman in Chile who is treated abominably after the sudden death of her boyfriend. Gorgeously-filmed, this timely heartfelt story is told with wisdom and compassion. 

6. Loveless - Another bleak and thought-provoking film by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the director of Leviathan, Loveless offers a commentary on life in Russia today with this tale of parents hunting for their missing 12-year-old son. This haunting, beautiful, brilliantly-acted film focuses on the trials of the mother, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak).

5. Lady Bird - Greta Gerwig wrote and directed this warm, funny and insightful coming-of-age drama about ‘Lady Bird’ (Saoirse Ronan), a headstrong but insecure seventeen-year-old in her last year of high school in Sacramento who is struggling in her relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Featuring two of the year’s best performances, Lady Bird is full beautifully-drawn and sympathetic characters.

4. Paterson - A 2016 film that didn’t get to Winnipeg until the spring of 2017, thus qualifying for this list. Jim Jarmusch has done it again, making a film unlike any other, this time about an ordinary week in the life of an extraordinary poet (and bus driver) named Paterson (a perfectly-cast Adam Driver) in Paterson, New Jersey. Full of ideas and symbols and empathy and humanization and the joy and necessity of creativity in everyday life, this is inspirational filmmaking at its best.

3. The Florida Project - This gorgeously-shot slice-of-life drama concerns the precocious six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince, who is amazing) and her struggling young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who live day-to-day in a garish motel near Disney World. Willem Dafoe is superb as Bobby, the inspiring motel manager. Sean Baker’s jaw-dropping film is wonderfully humane and humanizing, finding little pieces of beauty in an ugly heartbreaking setting

2. Blade Runner 2049 - Denis Villeneuve continues to impress, making a sequel of one of my all-time-favourite films that is almost as good as the original. This slow-paced, intelligent and captivating sci-fi masterpiece stars Ryan Gosling as K, a replicant (robot) in a post-apocalyptic California whose discovery that replicants can give birth will lead him to Deckard (Harrison Ford) and to questions about what it means to be human. Too much redemptive violence, but such a wonder to watch on the big screen.

1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Described as the angriest film of the year, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards is also the most imaginative, humanizing and redemptive film of the year, with one magical and gorgeous scene after another (and some that are hard to watch). Frances McDormand is sensational as Mildred Hayes, a grieving woman who puts pressure on the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) to find her daughter’s killer; and Sam Rockwell is phenomenal as an angry officer who wants to put Mildred behind bars. Three Billboards epitomizes a sentiment found in many of the films listed above: To one degree or another, all of us are flawed, broken and in pain, and yet still worthy of love and respect.

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.