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Fair Haven (2016)
Casting Against Type
A simple and straightforward low-budget film like this one, made on location within a short time span, can excel on its own when a good script is backed up by accomplished actors whose talent shines through each and every scene. That talent is accentuated when main characters like the psychologist, the father, and the two leads in this film are effectively cast against type, managing to heighten dramatic impact over and above a modest narrative. Although there are moments that drag on a bit long, and flashbacks can be confusing, I find no fault with the overall production. Look for Harrison to be a smug reactionary, Wopat a downbeat parent, Green to be serious and deep, and Grant to show unexpected real musical ability. A big win all around.
Khozhdenie po mukam (2017)
Unesennye vetrom (or words to that effect)
I think that phrase corresponds in latinized Russian to Gone With The Wind, the book and film based on events of the American Civil War. I mention it as a way of describing The Road to Calvary with a few words more familiar to English-speaking viewers. Obviously there are very great differences between the two stories, but I like the analogy as a quick introduction to my take on the latter film. This is a very big production in every way.
Not knowing Russian, I have to assume subtitles in English are accurate and true to the original script. If so, I find no fault with it it on either technical or artistic grounds. It is a massive mini-series beautifully staged and produced with great skill.
Given a dozen main characters within the context of very real historical events in the old Russian empire after the fall of the tsar, taking place amid a hundred million inhabitants in the geographically largest country in the world, the story is however a gallimaufry of odd personal coincidences involving those characters. It makes one's head spin to see how they keep meeting, parting, meeting again, and generally stumbling over each other in what is clearly a fictional fantasy. You can predict with ease each of these overlapping events.
That is the single objection I have with the film, which is otherwise an engrossing and memorable addition to international cinema.
Sometimes longer is in fact better.
Charité at War (2019)
On first viewing the promos for this series, I was determined not to watch it, fearing that...like so many German films in recent past...it would be filled with sensationalist and graphic wartime atrocities. When at the urging of a colleague I did give it a chance, I was pleasantly rewarded by its technical brilliance and occasional emotional depth. The medical scenes are nowhere as good as those of British or American hospital soaps, but they are in any case subordinate to a riveting drama framed by actual historical data from World War 2. The main characters are in fact based on real people, and the events more or less accurately in harmony with contemporary events.
As usual, subtitles are inferior to dubbing. Simultaneous verbal and visual effects are needed to avoid losing a great deal of dramatic impact. Many subtle or ironic phrases in German go flying right past translation, especially in a rapid fire interchange like many in this story.
Another minor fault is that, as in many fictional accounts of the war, too many small gratuitous references and characters from history keep popping up to impede the main narrative. But that in no way diminishes the central theme of ordinary people, non-combatants, coping with the traumatic impact of atrocities occurring all around them.
Are there other lessons to be learned from witnessing a sympathetic and righteous population taken over by a cult leader in challenging times? I think so.
We're Not In Denver Anymore
This copycat series proves that, no matter how much money is spent trying to improve on the original, it's just a case of adding too much and too many ingredients to a proven recipe. All the new socially acceptable vulgarisms and politically correct characters overpower an already thin tale of how the rich make their money and are corrupted by it. Which means it's just like many new films or series I have seen lately that fall flat of their own extravagant weight.
In order for such a story to have dramatic effect, there must be at least a few characters or situations able to excite the passions of and suspend the disbelief of an audience made up of ordinary people, not just a few servants and hangers-on as represented here. Even the eye candy of the earlier Carringtons was superior to this mismatched bunch.
Do yourself a favor and find a copy of the one with real actors back in the 80's.
Tales of the City (2019)
Overstaying one's visit always leads to embarrassing moments. This series purports to extend the life of Maupin's clever and entertaining novels and films about San Francisco well into the 21st century after an absence of the better part of three decades. As such, it fails to deliver much of anything...with one or two exclusions. Laura Linney was one of those. She is a class act irrespective of a weak script. Another small gem is the relation of an historical fulfillment of the character called Anna Madrigal.
Beyond that I found myself wondering how Armistead Maupin could bring himself to produce and appear briefly in this desperate attempt to follow his previous successes. Whoever was responsible for writing and editing here was trying too hard to cram every possible scrap of millennial dialogue or blatant vulgarism onto a story that fit best in its own earlier time.
I was so put off by a cast that simply rambled through their lines (except for Linney) that after the first few episodes I turned off the sound and relied on subtitles for most of what remained. In summary, the series could easily be cut by half and still tell the story fully.
Vivir sin permiso (2018)
Decent acting and sets for the most part
At least half this series produced for Spanish TV is worth watching, especially if you have the time as I did to follow it in short order through its entire first season. The basic plot centers on an aging crime boss who learns he is a victim of progressive Alzheimer's disease. Efforts to wind down his business in favor of consolidating emotional links to family members before his ultimate demise turns into a complex narrative in which the worst elements of each of the main characters is displayed as they react to his failures to connect. Even the "good guys" come off as flawed in one way or another. Gratuitous slams at Mexicans and gays make it especially unpalatable, as does a cynical concluding scene in which police come off as wimpy tools of corrupt international cabals. I cannot see much virtue or moral range in this production, only evil of the most obvious kind. I rate it high in production values and acting...little else.
The Cakemaker (2017)
Well-crafted film spoiled by absurd ending
No need to reprise the plot. It has already been told to death from a number of different points of view. It deserves a high rating for the first hour and half and a big question mark for the remainder. It is somewhat reminiscent of an Italian film fro 2001 called Le Fate Ignoranti, in which an apparently straight married man falls in love with another man and is later killed in a car accident, leaving his wife emotionally bereft. The surviving wife in this film, unlike the one in the earlier situation who immediately begins to track down her husband's boyfriend, passively allows the husband's lover into her life in a series of totally implausible events that end mysteriously in a return to the status quo ante.
I disagree with those reviewers who accept the last few scenes of this film as a potential fulfillment of an actual love affair between the wife and the boyfriend. The cathartic moment using flashbacks after the critical reveal shows instead the wife laughing almost comically following a clumsy attempt at lovemaking in the kitchen, reinforced by her likely telling her brother-in-law to kick the poor German schmuck out of the country. Her own trip to Berlin in the final scenes represent her victory lap as a spurned Israeli woman who has overcome all her self-doubts. Heavy irony informs her views of ruined parts of the city and the Siegesallee. The cakemaker is left to pedal his little bicycle back home.
The earlier Italian movie has basically the same ending with the wife victorious.
Easy to find fault with visual representations of California in the 50's, but that is beside the point. Likewise an element of disbelief (that professional women with ongoing security restraints demanded by their respective governments) could operate so freely and independently as detectives. But then, this TV series is really about something else, namely, raising social consciousness in telling the larger story of women after World War 11 in both Great Britain (I prefer that title) and the United States.
Each of the female characters here is purposely superior to male counterparts, reflecting an ongoing levelling effect of the war on social structures within these two basically democratic nations. In the course of telling individual life stories that are just OK, that is the recurrent theme. Additionally, a 21st century audience is made aware of bare beginnings at that time identifying retrograde attitudes of racism, machismo, homophobia, and political corruption.
As noted, I do not mind a few anachronisms or verbal slips. The old cars are actually very like what I remember, except for some odd aftermarket colors.
Where is this going?
One hardly knows what to say at the end of viewing this eight-part series. The filming is technically superb. The soundtrack complements the action reasonably well. The acting is good, not great. But the plot is complicated by leaving too many loose ends at its conclusion. English dubbing seems OK, though the Norwegian and Swedish original must have nuances that escape the senses of an Anglophone. Is it a mini-series for TV yet to be concluded or is it intended as a stand-alone film? Or is that left to the imagination of the viewer? If no continuation is foreseen, then one must be mildly disappointed in spite of all the good things Borderliner has going for it.
Briefly stated, the main detective character as played by Tobias Santelmann is caught up in what is either a sting operation involving drug smuggling or a set of personal circumstances surrounding multiple deaths among family and other acquaintances that call into question both his professional ethics and his moral compass. The viewer is never quite sure where the center of this drama is leading. As an individual, his character is fascinating. But one's sympathies are never fully engaged because the plot keeps letting him down, either by too much diversion or too little internal resolution.
In a way, I hope there is more to come, because as I have pointed out it is a good overall production...just inconclusive.
God's Own Country (2017)
An Overlooked Comparison
At least I've not yet seen it noted here, namely, actual scenes in this film duplicating the 1983 TV movie on BBC called "Accounts." Scotland instead of Yorkshire, but otherwise many of the same panoramas of bleak hills surrounding a farm that features similar visceral birthing of lambs, substituting a dead lamb's coat to fool the mother ewe, the economic frailty of subsistence farming in modern Britain, and internal family disputes. Not to mention the overriding comparison this it, too, is an early LGBT film with at least one raucous display of full frontal male nudity. Coincidence? Hmmm...I'm not so sure.
On its own, however, God's Own Country succeeds at every level and in every way save one: Alec Secareanu. Is it prejudicial to suggest that a more accomplished actor may have lent greater depth to the character of Georghe? Josh O'Connor for all his ungainly appearance is a very subtle actor who demands equal depth in his partner's character. Language barrier aside, Secareanu through no apparent fault of his own displays little of that affinity.
Invidious comparisons to Brokeback Mountain, by the way, are irrelevant. Apart from sheep, the two films are very different in a multitude of ways. In fact, even the sheep are different.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Non mangiare la pesca!
Of course this movie is badly in need of editing. It goes on much too long. More to the point, its episodic construction begs the question as to why parts were not cut during previews. For example, the entire winter segment at the end is gratuitous excess.
Otherwise, this is Chalamet's movie, pure and simple. The rest of the cast are supporting members. Hammer is predictably flat and the parents are clichés. The scenery is the young man's only equal. Though Lombardy never looked so good in so many of its parts, from Lago di Garda to Bergamo, this story rests on a single star directed superbly by a director whose craft shows through.
Cast aside all the unnecessary hype and sentimentality, and just enjoy it.
Babylon Berlin (2017)
Wow...more than enough historical context to carry the plot in spite of some expensive technical excess. I am compelled to read the original, if only to follow more closely in fictional narrative why Germany forewent open democracy and gave in to autocracy as an antidote to social and economic chaos.
Volker Bruch resembles in looks and certain mannerisms the late Montgomery Clift. His portrayal of a flawed protagonist is classic. The rest of the cast is equally adept at making 1929 come alive. Knowing as we do what happened in Germany in the 1930's it seems poignant indeed to witness the years immediately precedent to that time within this highly accessible story of crime and politics intertwined. And of course to speculate from our own time how easy it is for an anxious public to succumb to the siren's song of an unscrupulous demagogue.
The English dubbing here is more than adequate, whether or not it contains 100% accurate content. Some oblique dialogue and jargon or figures of speech do not translate literally. But technically it is all pitch perfect. The framing and sound production are equally first rate.
I have seen only the first few episodes, and cannot wait to carry on.
O Ornitólogo (2016)
Came across this accidentally perusing new additions at Netflix. I hate to say it, because I like technical aspects of the film, but after a few minutes in when oddly misplaced Chinese girls tie the apparent Portuguese protagonist up I watched the remainder mainly as a geographical documentary.
Confused? Read some of the other comments here. I haven't the heart to reprise scene after scene that to me make absolutely no sense. An element of suspense becomes moot when the viewer realizes there is no "there" there. Sexual innuendo abounds. The whole thing is manipulation pure and simple. Apart from the geography, that is. The nearest place I have actually visited is Galicia to the north, and I had no idea there was such an amazing back country, replete with virgin forests, whitewater rapids, fantastic rock falls, and fjord-like bodies of water.
Mind you, I think it is worth watching again for some great camera takes. But ornithology it isn't. Nor is it clearly associated with St. Anthony of Padua (Padova) except for an obvious chord of someone lost and found...unless the viewer is moved to discover religious symbolism in ordinary natural phenomena.
Workmanlike, but Flawed
From the start, I hoped the plot of this TV series would develop organically from a beginning to an end. Wrong. Instead, the perpetrator is revealed close to the beginning and it descends morbidly from there into subplots that have little or nothing to do with the main plot except as props. One murder after another in a sleepy little (Canadian) town posing as a distant suburb of New York City occur almost at random. A somber and dim color tone makes the viewer drowsy, as does a slow pace in the dialogue.
Worse still is a mix of very professional acting on the part of some characters contrasted with others who can barely read their lines. The presence of a Polaroid camera in one sequence is reflective of how it takes "thirty seconds" to make clear the intent of scenes that drag on far too long. Coincidences abound, obviously contrived to create suspense to fend off a viewer's frustration with an apparent inability of the scriptwriter to deal naturally with otherwise inexplicable events in the subplots. Criminal evidence as well as eyewitness testimony moves back and forth almost at random to fit whatever is needed to extend the perpetrator's freedom until the bitter end.
In short, extremely unconvincing...especially the subplots.
El tiempo entre costuras (2013)
Engaging Piece of History
Even if you knew little or nothing about the European presence over the years in Morocco, this series...basically a languid tearjerker...will fill in the blanks nicely. Call it a period chick flick if you will; it still carries a great deal of weight on its own as a very respectable drama, beautifully filmed on site in Tetuan. Carried along by a musical score at times obnoxiously repetitive and saccharin, the narrative is more or less easy to follow. Generally good subtitles in English help someone more attuned to Mexican dialect like me appreciate rapid fire Castillian voices. There are obvious holes in the plot, but they are few and far between. Melodrama makes its own rules.
In short, this is worth the considerable time it takes to get through the whole series, which you will find easily on Netflix. History may be boring to some, but this kind of drama makes it more than palatable.
And as for Morocco, we'll always have Tetuan.
A hidden soap opera treasure
No reviews to date? Seriously? One supposes that is mainly because it speaks a language (Catalán) with which relatively few Europeans or Americans are familiar. Yet it appears regularly on YouTube with Spanish and even on occasion badly translated English subtitles. No excuses, however. A splendidly scripted, acted, and filmed TV series like this deserves better attention.
The narrative centers on a teacher and his philosophy class in a contemporary Barcelona high school. Each episode follows the teacher's life both at home and in the context of how he interacts with a specific set of acquaintances drawn from that milieu. No punches are pulled where the tone and depth of such relationships are concerned; fine and coarse language intermingle freely, as do sexual tensions involving all the characters.
But the most surprising aspect to me is how thoroughly expert and technically adept an obviously low budget film from a region lying at the northern extremity of its EU country succeeds in every way at generating a first-class production. I like everything about it: the musical track, the use of lighting, the camera work, and the direction. It is equally startling to discover in a minor TV series actors of all ages and kinds delivering top performances. Any language barrier fades away, almost as if it were a silent film with subtitles barely visible.
Now in its second season, this one should be a "must see" for the avid film fan.
For the last fifteen years I have made it a habit of taking one or two Michael Connelly novels with me on flights and cruises. Second only to the works of Raymond Chandler, they bring to life a unique urban Los Angeles underworld few others have managed to portray well. In the current TV series based piecemeal on those novels, the literary tradition marches on.
Some viewers will quibble with visual and historical anomalies in this TV production. But showing a sunrise which is really a sunset over a real place is nothing to get excited about. The main question for me is how casting of actors based on characters from the novels enhances rather than detracts from familiar mental images. I think it was wise to find a new face for Bosch...not some megastar.
Titus Welliver is not a bad choice for Harry Bosch. He gets the part at least 80% right, which is no small achievement. The physicality of Harry Bosch in scene after scene is that of a tough but reluctant warrior, relieved only by moments of sentimentality when his favorite music is played or one of the many beautiful women in his life come on screen. My sole reservation has to do with the actor's failure to engage the character in those moments as a laid back and ironically bemused human being, unlike a programmed machine bearing a fixed gaze of determined intent. That may be the scriptwriter's fault. Bosch in the novels seems far more relaxed, more able to slouch into a room rather than attacking it.
Still, this series is a welcome addition to the oeuvre of Michael Connelly.
An alcoholic skirt-chasing priest, a timid gay curate, a five-foot police inspector who wears a six-foot overcoat in all kinds of weather, and a stern housekeeper with a heart of gold. Who wouldn't love it? This is the stuff of British Soaps invading Masterpiece Theater, albeit cast in the popularly retro 1950's. Or at least what a politically correct screen writer in 2014 imagines the 1950's to have been.
Seriously, I enjoy flawed stereotypes as a rule, and this one takes the cake. No Father Brown sly jokes here. Just all very earnestly sentimental. I guess it's even been renewed for a third season. Great fun! I wonder what twisted deeds will work their way into the next few episodes, making fun of fallen icons...especially those in the Church of England. And making us feel good that those bad old days are behind us.
I have a good idea for a 45-minute plot: have the priest fall for a gorgeous woman who wants desperately to be a priest but can't wait for the 21st Century to make it a reality. He can switch her off with all the other women in town, agonizing as his raging hormones drive him to drink and despair. He is then saved by her eventually deciding to be a deaconess, whilst he takes his dog for a walk before going over to give his cop mate a big hug.
Wait a minute! I think that will sell equally well over at Hollyoaks. Update 2019: Season 4 reveals the more things change, the more they stay the same. Still unintentionally comic.
In the Shadow of WWII
Having read as a boy Steinbeck's under-appreciated novel The Moon Is Down about Norway occupied by Germans for the entire 1940-1945 period, I am always fascinated by newer incarnations of that terrible time. Make no mistake: this TV series "Occupied" strives for the same contrast between patriotism and pragmatism that characterized life in Norway under Quisling, an uneasy military occupation depending on good compromised by evil and vice versa. It is an important narrative only in that sense. The plot is otherwise a mixed bag of tantalizing suspense and odd threads that go absolutely nowhere.
In the first place, the premise is absurd. Oil and gas as sources of energy are offset in the real world by increasing natural-based modes of generation. The idea of some new factory using a process similar to nuclear fission saving the world from climate change is pointless.
I think the intended audience for the series must be solely Norwegian. It surely will not appeal to EU citizens, nor will it carry much weight in the English-speaking world in spite of having many scenes carried forward in that language. And Russians are xenophobic enough without thrusting this in their faces.
Not that its cast is lacking in looks or talent; whatever value the story has rests on their shoulders. Nor is technique or cinematic quality in question. It is a beautifully filmed rendering of a beautiful country.
My advice: trim it down to a feature-length film. Tighten up the plot and make it relate to actual political possibilities rather than hypothetical and nonsensical ones.
London Spy (2015)
Good production values and acting go to waste on this mini-series which just completed a run on BBC America. I hate to say it, but any thought of a renewal to the series involving further trials and travails of Danny would be still greater waste. The weight of a complicated and largely unbelievable plot flatten any prospect of improvement.
I was tempted to stop watching at about the halfway point in the second episode but curiosity got the better of me. As in most thrillers relying on suspense before a final reveal, a saving grace in even the most dismal of them can be superb acting by well-known performers. This series has that in abundance. But the plot is truly ridiculous, relying on some overarching conspiracy without a shred of evidence beyond the fact that Danny's lover carried with him secrets about all the major intelligence networks in the world. Coded, of course. And seemingly everyone outside Danny's circle of friends was in on it. Truly pretentious drivel.
Then Charlotte Rampling came on in a role reminiscent of that played by Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. Almost a wicked mother or stepmother as they case may be. I suppose this was intended to be a powerful redeeming force to answer all questions leftover to episode five. What nonsense! Perhaps the writer intended to leave enough on the table to ensure a renewal. Vain hope.
Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar
After having found this obscure docudrama on Netflix I decided to look in at its various reviews on IMDb. My curiosity in the first place came from watching The Imitation Game from 2015 and wondering what else was out there on the subject of Alan Turing. I had read a good deal about him over the years but was unaware that there were several other biopics based on his life story.
Only a handful of reviews on this one, despite the popularity of others? I was intrigued. Ed Stoppard's credits on IMDb fail even to mention it. Was it really that insignificant, or a bad film?
Not at all. It is a fine piece of work, combining fact and fiction in an artful and satisfying way...an excellent accompaniment to The Imitation Game for anyone who found, as I did, the more recent Cumberbatch portrayal mysterious and vague. Codebreaker for all its faults in not going far enough into the science of computing does indeed reflect the real man and those who were integral participants in his life and tragedy. It pulls no punches. Although the role of the psychoanalyst is a throwaway gimmick, I cannot fault the Stoppard performance. It informs cold documentation very well indeed.
Nine out of ten marks without any hesitation.
Please Like Me (2013)
Annoying, but Superb
So many successful sitcoms depend on likable buffoons as major characters that one's first impression of "Josh" is that he is just another self-deprecating target for stale jokes about his shortcomings. In this case, the eponymous actor/creator moves well beyond the predictable into a realm of hyper-originality rarely seen in a TV series. Nothing here is predictable. Each scene, each comedic line, each nuance bordering on serious personality issues comes across as going against the grain of laugh track one-liners.
I viewed the first two seasons in quick sequence to determine some thread justifying the title "Please Like Me." There is so much more than that at work here I came to the conclusion that "Josh" intends his imperative to apply to the entire narrative rather than just himself. None of the main characters is one-dimensional. Each one stands alone in all sorts of revealing personal aspects. Attraction of one to another is quickly reversed or brought down to earth before sentimental attachments rear up to spoil the moment.
Of course "Josh" is unerringly annoying. Surrounded by bipolar types and deliberately handsome but flawed lovers he has little choice.
This is a fascinating series, which I hope to be able to follow as it progresses.
This rather sluggish film more than makes up for its pretentious script by capturing the Luberon in all its summery glory. Every frame offers something pleasing to the eye, like a Bourdain travel piece without political commentary. Its sound is also technically sharp and appropriate, as in in one scene where characters play with watercolors as part of the plot.
Yes...the plot. More neurotic than erotic, if truth be told. It takes more than two-thirds of the film to get to the point, which is less cathartic than anticlimactic. It reminded me of a dozen or so short stories I have read over the years in which one or another love triangle drags along to its inevitable end, which can be either highly dramatic or cleverly understated. Boring.
These independent films always take too long, whether in single camera shots that linger on pointlessly or in spoken lines that the viewer can almost speak simultaneously as the character's lips move.
Pretty forgettable stuff, except for the landscape.
Here is an example of self-conscious introspection going in too many directions at once. Bad enough for the viewer trying to cope with shaky frames from hand-held cameras, even worse when the narrative slows for long, heavy pauses in either words or actions. One wonders why so many low budget films share this phenomenon. It is tempting to call out to the screen, "Get on with it, already!"
Still, there is charm in the notion that two young friends can figuratively swim their way, as ocean sounds play in the distance, through casual interruptions in a simple assignment to locate and retrieve a family document of some importance as they visit a beach house in the cold of winter. It might even be possible to salvage this film by cutting out totally irrelevant scenes that serve only to provide background for their respective characters. A filmmaker's self-indulgence in attempting to recreate a familiar story from his or her past reminds me of how quickly I run away whenever someone says, "To make a long story short..." which in fact becomes a stream of consciousness without an end.
Indeed, there is no clear end to this film. It just goes on and on.
See Here, Private Hargrove (1944)
Viewing in 2015 a topical film from 1944 is like taking a ride in a time-worn Model A Ford...fun at first but soon annoying, unless you can remember how you felt about it in 1944. For many of us belonging to that older generation, the Model A was our first cheap used car, and we loved it. The Private Hargrove movies, unlike now classic dramas and comedies of that or any other time, probably ought to be forgotten except as artifacts of ages past. Only film history students and old folks can fully understand them. The corny jokes, the earnest patriotic comments, the primer on army life, the girls of the USO...all fall nowadays into the category of trivia.
Those of us who were approaching draft age at the time watched this film and other war films with genuine trepidation that we would soon be walking in a hail of bullets on a mined beachhead. A little humor took the edge off.