Thursday, 18 May 2017

A Quiet Passion

Terence Davies (like a certain other Terrence), has a unique style of filmmaking that usually impresses critics but isn’t always popular with the average viewers. A Quiet Passion is no exception to this. I am one of Davies’ fans, while acknowledging that while I think his films are brilliant, they are not always entirely enjoyable. A Quiet Passion is also no exception to this.

A Quiet Passion tells the story of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson through a series of carefully constructed scenes that take place at various times in her life. The reclusive Dickinson didn’t move around much, so almost all of the scenes take place in and around the large family estate in Amherst, Massachusetts (the film was, however, largely filmed in Belgium). This lends itself to Davies’ style, which focuses on carefully-set family scenes and precise dialogue. While the dialogue in this case is brilliantly-written, and may be true to its 19th-century setting, it doesn’t always feel natural. The progression of scenes also makes the story feel less natural. But in spite of this (or because of it), the film feels poetic in a way that perfectly matches its subject. 

Indeed, the intelligent thought-provoking dialogue and the extraordinary performances of the two women who deliver most of the lines are what make A Quiet Passion an almost-masterpiece. Dickinson is played by Cynthia Nixon, while Jennifer Ehle plays Emily’s sister, Lavinia. Nixon, in particular, has to be perfect to make the film work at all, because the film is so focused on her words, her moods, her poems and her inner life, all of which are conveyed wonderfully by Nixon. While Dickinson was often far from happy (and sometimes quite bitter), there is a lot of humour in her words and in the film as a whole, though it is far from a comedy.

The cinematography and score are strong, adding to a very solid period-feel. 

I found A Quiet Passion utterly fascinating from beginning to end (especially the conversations about religion), but didn't feel engaged enough in Dickinson's life to fully enjoy the film (hampered somewhat by Davies’ style). So while I think the film deserves four stars, I will need to give it somewhere between ***+ and ****. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

TV60: The Returned, Season Two

I promised to revisit this show after I’d watched the second season, which I have now done. See my review of the first season (February 7, 2016) for information about the story.

The second season of The Returned (French version) is as haunting and mysterious as the first season. This seems to be the end of the series and I still have no good idea of what happened (though some answers can be found). I can, however, say that the zombie theme (it can be described as a zombie show, though with no resemblance to The Walking Dead) was not advanced in any negative way, so the disquieting uncertainty I referred to in my previous review has been dispelled. 

Meanwhile, the quality of this gorgeous, quiet, slow-moving and thought-provoking TV serial remains at the highest level any TV show can hope for, with outstanding acting and character development throughout. The very occasional graphic violence remains a concern, but given that my previous uncertainty has been dispelled, I am now ready to give The Returned the **** it deserves, and call it superb television.

As for the American version, I do not plan to watch it and would suggest you start with the French version. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

TV59: Black Mirror

Speaking of discussable shows, it’s long past time that I reviewed one of the the best Netflix TV shows out there: Black Mirror. Created by Charles Booker, this British series is a collection of completely self-contained episodes; there is almost no continuity whatsoever (i.e. all different actors, writers, directors, etc.). In this, and in its subject matter, it resembles most closely The Twilight Zone, of which I was a big fan back in the day. 

What sets Black Mirror apart, however, is the way its individual episodes (there are 13 available at the moment) focus on are out-of-control technological advances, usually taking place in the very near future and often providing spot-on prophetic warnings of where we are headed (if we’re not there already). Each episode tackles a different subject and often in very different ways, so that some episodes feel like pure horror while others can be quite funny satires and others beautiful dramas. Most of the time, Black Mirror episodes are downright terrifying to watch and think about; personally, I loved that. 

As can only be the case in an anthology like this, some episodes are brilliant four-star classics, while others can be disappointing. However, the overall quality of writing and acting is way above the norm for TV (there are often film stars in the lead roles) and brilliance predominates. And if you don’t like where an episode is heading, you can always skip it without any worries. To review the series properly, one would have to review each individual episode, which I don’t have time to do. All I can do is briefly highlight my favourite seven episodes:

Fifteen Million Merits (photo above) superbly satirizes our celebrity cult and reality-TV world, with great acting from Daniel Kaluuya and Jessica Brown Findley.

Be Right Back stars Hayley Attwell and Domhnall Gleeson at their best in this romantic exploration of the future of AI and social media. 

White Bear is a terrifying exposé of the media’s role in criminal justice cases, the prominence of violence as entertainment, and much more. 

White Christmas is another terrifying (though often satiric) episode with a criminal justice/out-of-control technology theme. It stars Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as two men in a remote cabin who share stories of what brought them there. 

Nosedive explores similar ground to The Circle, with Bryce Dallas Howard playing a woman desperately trying to hold on to her social media popularity ratings. 

San Junipero is a beautiful romance with a twist, starring Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as two women who fall in love in the seaside resort of San Junipero.

Hated in the Nation stars the marvellous Kelly Macdonald as a detective trying to solve a number of deaths related to social media. 

All of the above episodes get an easy ****. Most of the others get ***+ (there are only one or two true disappointments), so I am giving Black Mirror as a whole **** as well. This may be the finest episodic TV show ever made. Not to be missed (if you can handle the dark intensity of most of the episodes). 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Circle

Panned by critics and viewers alike, The Circle would appear to be a complete waste of time. We went to see it anyway, partly because we enjoyed the last Tom Hanks/Dave Eggers collaboration (A Hologram for the King) much more than the critics and viewers did, and I’ve very much enjoyed James Ponsoldt’s last two films (The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour). And while The Circle is a disappointment at many levels, the fact remains that it has something very important to say and provides material for hours of fruitful discussion. That alone make The Circle worth watching. 

I knew nothing about the plot of The Circle (which is based on a novel by Eggers) before we arrived at the almost-empty theatre. But now that I know it is partly a dystopian thriller and that it stars the popular Emma Watson (not to mention Hanks), it seems strange to me that there is so little interest in the film. I can only assume that negative word-of-mouth spread at a record pace through various kinds of social media, which is, of course, ironic, given the subject of the film.

But knowing its subject is guaranteed to lessen your enjoyment of The Circle, so if I have sparked your interest at all, you should watch the film before reading on (noting that low expectations are in order - this is a seriously flawed film). 

Watson play Mae Holland, who lucks out, thanks to Annie (Karen Gillan), her best friend, and gets a job in the world’s most exciting company: The Circle. Led by Eamon Bailey (Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), The Circle is breaking new ground in global transparency (keeping governments honest) through the deployment of its mini-cameras and its promotion of full (and I do mean full) transparency among members of congress. Mae is at first disturbed by this, but when she experiences the benefits of such surveillance herself, she becomes its number one promoter and moves up in the company, becoming a favourite of Bailey. Mae is even willing to become the first person at The Circle to become completely transparent, wearing a camera all day long. Needless to say, major problems await.

As already mentioned, The Circle has way too many flaws, but some of the apparent flaws disappear if the film is watched purely as satire (i.e. not as a dystopian thriller warning us of some dark future but as a satire of what is already happening in our dystopian present). So yes, The Circle is didactic, hyperbolic and full of characters (especially Mae) whose actions are unconvincing, but these are forgivable problems in a fascinating (in a ‘where is this headed?’ sense) satire of our current obsession with cameras, drones, security and transparency. If only The Circle had focused more on being a satire. 

Because it doesn’t work as a thriller and what I said above does not excuse some extremely awkward scenes (one with Watson and Eller Coltrane, who plays Mercer, an old friend from home who has no use for this technology, stands out as particularly bad) or the fact that the plot lacks cohesion. The character of Tyler Lafitte (John Boyega) is the prime example of a character whose presence in the film won’t work without far more character development and far more consistency in his role in Mae’s life (a role which is entirely wasted here). Other characters suffer similar fates. 

This is not one Watson’s best performances, though her acting is hampered by the screenplay and she does fairly well with what she’s given. Hanks, as always, is a delight to watch and does an excellent job as the lovable villain. The other actors have their moments, but occasionally struggle, while Bill Paxton, in his last performance ,is effective as Mae’s father. The cinematography and score are solid. 

The Circle is not a classic, but it’s not as bad as some people seem to think it is and it has more discussable ideas (simplistic as they may be) than most of the other films currently playing - combined!. And those ideas desperately need to be discussed in our Facebook/smartphone society. I’m glad I watched it and I would watch it again (for more discussion), so I’m giving The Circle a solid ***. My mug is up.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Their Finest

As filmgoers await Christopher Nolan’s probable blockbuster, Dunkirk, coming in July, here is a quiet, humorous British drama that approaches the massive 1940 military evacuation from a very different angle, focusing on the role of women in Great Britain during World War II.

Their Finest also draws attention to the role of women in filmmaking. Despite all of the advances in gender equality (and far too much remains to be done), women have had a very difficult time breaking into all aspects of the filmmaking business, most noticeably in the roles of directing and screenwriting. Even today, less than 7% of all films are directed by women. That low percentage drops even further for films that are not only directed by a woman, but are also written by a woman and feature a female protagonist. Their Finest is one such film, and few, if any, such films have impressed me as much as this one.

As German planes drop bombs on London in the fall of 1940, the British Ministry of Information works on a propaganda film that it hopes will not only bolster the morale of the British people but also make the Americans more sympathetic to their plight (so they will get involved in the war). The subject of the film is to be the incredible retreat of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, which took place in late May/early June of that year. Specifically, the film is to be based on a supposedly true story of twin sisters living on the English coast who hear, on their radio, of the desperate need for boats and immediately take their uncle’s boat across the English Channel to help. 

With men in short supply, Catrin Cole (played by Gemma Arterton), a former secretary, suddenly finds herself given the opportunity of a lifetime: to work with two men (Tom Buckley and Raymond Parfitt, played by Sam Claflin and Paul Ritter) on writing the screenplay for the new film. Despite her initial fears, Catrin takes on the role with a quiet strength and determination, making a key decision early on to keep silent when she discovers the story of the twin sisters is far from accurate. Those initial fears include working with a big-name film star, Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), who treats her poorly on their first meeting, though the real challenge comes when the filmmakers are forced to work with an actual American air force pilot who has joined the British air force. The pilot (Carl Lundbeck, played by Jake Lacy) can’t act, but he’s handsome, and the Secretary of War (wonderful cameo by Jeremy Irons) demands a key role for him in the film in order to help American women warm to the idea of their husbands and sons joining the fight. 

Catrin displays a wide variety of skills in meeting the daily challenges faced by the film crew and quickly becomes the best of the three screenwriters, who rely on her time and again to make last-minute changes to the screenplay. But Ellis Cole (Jack Huston), the artist Catrin is living with, is not impressed that Catrin has become the primary earner in the household or that she is willing to go on location with the film crew instead of staying with him as he prepares for an upcoming exhibition that may be the breakthrough he’s been waiting for. Catrin, meanwhile, is struggling with her feelings for Buckley. 

The acting in Their Finest is terrific all around, with Arterton delivering an understated and very engaging performance in the lead role and Nighy perfectly cast (and often hilarious) as Hilliard. Both of their characters are well-developed and reveal hidden depths as the film progresses, pieces of a very impressive screenplay by Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel by Lissa Evans). Their Finest is her first film. Meanwhile, Lone Scherfig, who directed An Education (my favorite film of 2010), does a great job with the challenge of making a film about the making of a film. The trick, in making a film about the making of  film, is nudging the viewers away from a constant awareness that they are watching a film, something which automatically detracts from their enjoyment of the film. While there were a couple of scenes toward the end of the film which didn’t quite work for me precisely for this reason (i.e. because they reminded me that I was watching a film), I was generally impressed by the skill of the filmmaking.

I was also impressed by the great cinematography and the spot-on period feel, as well as by Rachel Portman’s score. Most impressive, however, was the subtle way Their Finest offers a look at how the role of women in the workforce changed during WWII, with Catrin’s strong intelligent character as a perfect demonstration of this development. At one point in the film, a female colleague says to Catrin: “They’re afraid they won’t be able to put us back in the box when this is over, and it makes them belligerent.” This is one of many funny lines in the film, though I would hesitate to call Their Finest a comedy, or even a comedy-drama, as it is has been labelled by some.

Their Finest is one of the year’s finest films and gets a solid ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.

Friday, 28 April 2017


A rare treat today. When I woke up, I had never heard of Colossal. A few hours later, I was one of the first people in Winnipeg to watch the film. Needless to say, I knew absolutely nothing about the film when I walked into the theatre. The thing is, though, that I knew almost nothing about the film when I walked out.

Colossal, an indie flick written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, is almost impossible to describe (at least, without giving too much away). The film stars Anne Hathaway as Gloria, an online journalist who’s been struggling with life and getting drunk a little too often (then waking up with no memory of what happened the night before). Her British boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), finally has enough and throws her out. With nowhere else to go, she returns to her home town and the house of her late parents. Soon after her arrival, she bumps into Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a close friend from her childhood who has stayed in town and now owns his father’s bar, and Oscar offers her a job as a waitress. 

So what’s the problem with describing this film, you ask. It sounds like an old-fashioned romance, maybe even a quirky romantic comedy. Yeah, well, quirky would certainly be an accurate term. You see, this description is early on, before a giant monster starts walking around in Seoul, Korea, knocking down buildings and killing people (thus taking over all the world’s news media). Soon, the monster will be joined by a giant robot, who doesn’t get along with the monster and does even more damage. So what the heck, you ask, do these giant creatures in Seoul have to do with Gloria and Oscar in small-town USA? Don’t ask. Because the plot involving those creatures is so utterly ludicrous that it seems like something a couple of elementary school kids might make up after school. 

If Colossal is viewed literally (i.e. if the plot involving those creatures, which are part of the film from beginning to end, is taken seriously), then this film is a bizarre mess that should be thrown in the dumpster. (spoiler alert) But it is very obvious that Colossal actually operates at a level where the role of those creatures has little to do with what we are watching unfold in Seoul, and this film is really a remarkable metaphor, satire or exposé of life among thirty-somethings in the 21st century. And that is way too much information - sorry about that (at least I gave away very little of the plot).

Hathaway is marvellous as the lost Gloria and Sudeikis is perfectly cast (and does a great job) as Oscar, whose personality changes every few minutes (something Sudeikis seems to do effortlessly). The score is as unusual as the film, and clearly meant to play a key role, though I wasn’t always sure what it was trying to convey. The cinematography was more than adequate. 

What amazed me most of all as I sat in the empty theatre wondering what the heck was going on, was that I was so enthralled that when this 110-minute film came to end, I thought maybe 80 minutes had passed. That’s a very good sign, as is the fact that I immediately wished I had someone to talk with about what I’d just seen (and I mean a long discussion). Janelle wasn’t interested in watching Colossal because she had heard it was a very dark, intense psychological thriller, which is not her thing. I’m not saying that description is false, but I do think it’s misleading, because Colossal is not like any psychological thriller I’ve ever seen before, and it’s nowhere near as dark and intense as most psychological thrillers I watch. 

The ending could be a serious problem, but only, I think, if we watch the film in a way that we really can’t watch it. Just watch it. I’m giving Colossal a very solid ***+. If I get to discuss it with someone someday, it may even get ****. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 27 April 2017

TV58: 11.22.63

With a few exceptions (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Stand By Me), it has proven notoriously difficult to make a quality screen entertainment out of Stephen King’s novels. I think 11.22.63 is King’s best novel since The Dark Tower, so when I saw the critical acclaim and the high ratings from viewers, I had high expectations for the eight-episode miniseries. But 11.22.63 is not, in my opinion, one of the exceptions - not even close.

11.22.63 stars James Franco as Jake Epping (or Jake Amberson), an English teacher in small-town Maine whose friend, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), shows him a time portal in the closet of his diner. The portal has limited capabilities: it can only go back to the same day in October, 1960. And while a person can go back into the past and change history, that history is automatically reset if that person tries to go back in the past again. So to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy on 11.22.63 (what better use of a time portal going back to 1960?), Jake will need to live in the past for three years and get it right the first time (Al tells him he’ll probably need to kill Lee Harvey Oswald to save Kennedy’s life).

But first Jake wants to save the family of one of his students from the father who killed all but one of that family on Halloween, 1960. The catch in both projects is that the past doesn’t like to be messed with and will stop at nothing to prevent changes. Changing the past is thus going to prove a major challenge for Jake, even with the help of Bill (George MacKay), a young man whom he befriends in Kentucky. 

The first couple of episodes proved very watchable in spite of Franco’s unconvincing performance (I’ve never been a fan). But by the fourth episode, the wheels had fallen completely off the bus, with atrocious writing and directing that left me shaking my head every five minutes, wondering how anyone could turn a well-written novel into such amateur-hour crap. The production values are otherwise good, with excellent cinematography and a decent score, and Sarah Gadon is particularly good as Sadie Dunhill, Jake’s love interest in the past. But the story is so poorly told (you know you’re in trouble when time travel is one of the more credible parts of the plot) that none of that helps much. 11.22.63 is a complete waste of time. It gets ** for Gadon and the cinematography. My mug is down.